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`No end in sight' for Mersey Docks dispute

Mersey Docks, the UK's second largest ports group, warned yesterday that there was no end in sight to its dispute with 329 Liverpool dockers, which started almost two years ago and has become one of the longest running industrial actions in the world.

Talks between the group and its former employees are likely to remain deadlocked. Mersey Docks has offered to pay the dockers more than pounds 9m, equivalent to pounds 28,000 a man, on the condition they have a secret ballot to vote on the offer. But the dockers have refused to accept the pay-off and Mersey threatened yesterday to take the deal off the table.

Alastair Findlay, Mersey's finance director, said: "At the moment we don't see an end to the dispute and there is no sign the dockers will agree to a secret ballot. We will not increase our offer. At some stage we will have to withdraw our offer if it is not accepted." Mr Findlay claims the dispute, which cost the group pounds 800,000 last year, has had "little effect" on its profits in the last six months.

The dockers were sacked in September 1995 after refusing to cross a picket line in sympathy for striking stevedores. Since then Mersey has taken on new workers and is unlikely to ever employ any of the 329 dissidents again at is container terminal. City accountants KPMG have drawn up plans which could lead to 40 workers getting new jobs at the port. However, the dockers are demanding that all their jobs are restored.

The news comes as Mersey announced a near 60 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to pounds 22m in the six months to June, thanks to the closure of its loss-making passenger ferry service, Eurolink, and record cargo volumes at its Liverpool and Medway ports. Strong expansion of shipments across the Irish Sea due to the collapse of a competitor and a growth in the number of cars imported at its terminal in Sheerness have fuelled the increase volumes.