HC Deb 06 April 1950 vol 473 cc1405-15

1.47 p.m.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

Passing from the matter of paramount Imperial importance that we have just been discussing, I propose to raise now a matter which has its own Imperial significance, since it deals with that link of Empire—the British Overseas Airways Corporation. It arises out of the announcement made in the House on 15th March last year, by the predecessor of the Parliamentary Secretary, of the intention of the Government to combine the British Overseas Airways Corporation with the British South American Airways Corporation. I would remind the House of what was said on that occasion: Any staff redundancies resulting from the merger will be shared fairly between the two Corporations and in accordance with National Joint Council procedure. On the other hand, redundancies arising from the internal reorganisation of British Overseas Airways Corporation which is now in progress will be restricted in effect to British Overseas Airways Corporation personnel."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th March, 1949; Vol. 462, c. 1923.] As was explained at that time, the final reason for the amalgamation was the withdrawal of the Tudors from service. That meant that there were no aircraft left to carry on the British South American Airways service on the Northern route. It also meant that British South American Airways employees were left with no planes to operate and maintain except obsolescent planes. At the time I ventured to draw the attention of the House, in the Second Reading Debate, to the difficulty that this meant for British South American Airways personnel. I said: … there may be a time when it will be much easier to get rid of them rather than of others who have already been fully trained in the maintenance of the new aircraft now being purchased. The view of the Minister then expressed was that the probability was that there would be very little redundancy resulting and the reason given was that there would be extensions in other directions. For example, the hon. Gentleman's predecessor said: As a result of general development capacity, there will be very little redundancy. He also said: In short, the emphasis is on producing more with the existing number of staff in both Corporations, rather than dismissals from either the one or the other. He went on to say: This will be a period of expanding activity, during which, as in the first phase, economies will tend to be reflected by avoiding increases of staff rather than actual reductions of staff."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th June, 1949; Vol. 466, c. 1308, 1309, 1368, 1390.] To some extent that happened. So far the reductions in staff, certainly from British South American Airways personnel, have not been very considerable. In the first phase, after the amalgamation the South American Division was formed last summer and it meant Yorks operating from London on the South Atlantic route to the east coast of South America. Tudors were at that time also operating, I understand, on the Berlin Airlift from London, whereas on the line services Yorks were operating from Nassau. At that time, I gather, the staff of British South American Airways amounted to 800 in England and 100 on the line stations.

The difficulty at that point, to which I drew attention in the House, was that not much was being done to train British South American Airways personnel on other aircraft. A certain number of pilots were trained in the use of Canadairs and a certain number of maintenance personnel were taken from the line stations to be trained on that aircraft. During that phase, virtually none of the British South American Airways personnel was transferred to other lines. In the second phase, when the Canadairs had begun to operate on the service to the east coast, the South American Division was closed and a freighter service was started, called No. 5 Line.

At that moment a good deal of redundancy was declared. According to my information there were no dismissals and not many transfers, but the redundancy was declared which, quite naturally, was alarming for South American Airways personnel. The third phase was even more alarming, because it was found that not sufficient freight was flying to enable the No. 5 Line to be maintained and the freighter service was closed. I understand that the present position is that the Yorks which were being used are now being transferred to Hurn for modification for freighter purposes and that the few aircraft left—I believe only about three— for modification by British South American Airways personnel, and with No. 5 Line, are due to be completed during this month, I understand.

It is very appropriate that in this Debate we should try to ascertain what is to happen in the future. What is to be the future of what has been the No. 5 Line? I would remind the House of the undertaking given that redundancies arising from the amalgamation of British Overseas Airways and B.S.A.A. would be dealt with separately from the re-organisation of B.O.A.C., which had been started sooner. We all know of the interest of the hon. Gentleman in this matter from his previous speeches in the Second Reading Debate, in which he deplored the need for amalgamation. He has shown sympathy throughout consideration of this problem.

The first question I ask the hon. Gentleman is: Does that undertaking stand? The second question is: Is it being honoured at the moment and, if so, in what way? I hope he will be able to give an answer to these questions and also to extend it to the wider plane and say how the whole question of redundancy is being affected by, for example, the withdrawal of the Solents, which presumably means the closing down of No. 4 Line, and by consideration of the future of Hurn, which may, in turn, mean the closing of No. 2 Line. Is there to be a complete reorganisation of the airlines within British Overseas Airways Corporation in the near future? Are we still to understand that the position is, as stated by his predecessor, that there will be very little redundancy because of general development?

I also ask what is to become of that general development. Is it in process at the time being and, if so, why is it that so few of British South American personnel are being re-trained for the needs of the new jobs? It is very natural that the employees should be anxious about the situation, and that at times there have been signs that they have been rather despondent about it. The reason for that was a notice which was at one time put up at London Airport by a member of the National Joint Council, to the effect that the No. 5 Line was to be closed and the whole outfit made redundant. This contrasts very oddly with the Wilcock Report, which indicated that the num- ber of new entries into the career of maintenance engineer, for example, would be between 650 to 700 from civil life in each year from the year 1949 to 1957 inclusive.

On the other hand, I am told that, so far, rather less than one quarter of the original 800 in the South American Division, which includes all trades and labourers, have been transferred for training or employment and most of that quarter have been transferred to No. 1 line. A special difficulty arises to which I would refer. In my hen run I have a number of Rhode Island Reds. There is no particular significance in the colour, nor, as far as I know, has Senator McCarthy been after them yet. There was one hen which was chased about by all the other hens. It was pecked and its feathers spoiled and my young daughter referred to it as "the poor hen." All that happened because it was a little smaller and, possibly, not up to standard. However, it made its own way and, in due course, it became the pride of the hen run, laying the largest eggs.

Unfortunately, the same situation appears in the Airways Corporations. For example, not very long ago, in dealing with this problem—and I am certain B.O.A.C. have been trying to deal with it fairly—they transferred two men from London Airport to Croydon. I understand that the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo) has special knowledge of this case. As soon as those men arrived all those already at Croydon decided to stop work unless they were suspended. They were suspended for a fortnight.

Finally, the problem of their employment came before the National Joint Council and, as a result, the one who was most diligent and outspoken in his own defence was found to be temperamentally unsuitable for employment at that particular shop and was transferred back where he came from. The other was left and my information is that he has been "the poor hen" in that shop. He was given a job and no assistance whatever to carry on with it. No one spoke to him and that seems to be not in the very best traditions of British good neighbourliness. That is one of the difficulties which, I realise, the hon. Gentleman is up against.

I hope that he will have something to say about it because in the "Croydon Times" of 25th March, a claim was made by Mr. Anderson, said to be chairman of the shop stewards committee, that an undertaking was given by B.O.A.C. in August, 1948, that no non-union labour would be introduced into any department that was already 100 per cent. trade union. There seem to be different opinions at different times about trade unions. These men were told that they could report to the secretary of their own trade union. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to deal sympathetically with that issue as well.

To sum up, the questions which I ask about redundancy, are first, what is the position now and what are the prospects? Second, how is the redundancy being shared out as between B.O.A.C. and B.S.A.A.C.—how has it been shared out and how will it be shared out in the future? Will the hon. Gentleman reassure the House that neither airways corporation either permits or connives at the closed shop in any branch of its activities? Next, was any assurance given, as alleged by the chairman of the shop stewards committee at Croydon, by B.O.A.C. in 1948, or at any other time to the effect that he claimed? If so, what did B.O.A.C. mean by non-union labour?

The last question I wish to ask is whether the National Joint Council procedure is working satisfactorily, because there has been visible evidence recently very close to here that it has not been working too well? It is rather likely that it will not work too well in circumstances in which trade unions dealing with many other activities, as well as aviation, nominate the representatives who are to deal with matters arising in the National Joint Council in regard to personnel of the airways corporations and the personnel of charter companies. Is that the best procedure?

In passing, I should like the hon. Gentleman to say, on what is the most important long-term problem, whether he is now expecting that there will be redundancy, and, if so, whether that means that we shall be cutting down and sacrificing trained personnel with the result that expansion in two or three years' time may entail simply having to recruit untrained personnel all over again? That would be a wasteful procedure, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to show how his Department propose to deal with the whole situation.

2.4 p.m.

Mr. Mikardo (Reading, South)

Since the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. M. Macpherson) was good enough to make a reference to me, and since I am the only Member of this House who happens to be a member of the National Joint Council for Civil Aviation, to which the hon. Member referred on a number of occasions, I may perhaps be forgiven if I take up a few minutes, even in this very short Debate, to comment briefly on only three points which the hon. Member made. In the first place, in regard to the incident which took place at Croydon, the picture which he drew of the "hen-roost" there was by no means an accurate one. The gentleman he describes as having been found to be temperamentally unsuitable the moment he got there, was, in fact, only found to be unsuitable some time after he arrived, and that was only when and as the result of the fact that he began to try to cause trouble in the establishment.

Mr. N. Macpherson

Will the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Mikardo

Perhaps the hon. Member will let me finish first. He cannot correct me as to facts. I went to Croydon and spent some time there. I interviewed everyone concerned with the matter, an opportunity of which the hon. Member has not had the advantage. I checked all these facts in situ. There can be no doubt, to revert to his hen-roost picture, that the picture is not that of a poor little hen being bullied by all the other and bigger fowls but that of a large fat hen telling the others that they should not be Rhode Island Reds but White Wyandottes and causing trouble.

Since the hon. Member has quoted a Croydon newspaper, I would say that the accounts in that newspaper of what took place in this matter were grossly inaccurate, and I had to send them, since they referred to my part in the matter on two occasions, a correction as to facts. I do not know whether they published that correction or not, and I do not care.

Mr. Macpherson

Is the hon. Member aware that these two men were in employment for only one day and were then put on paid leave? I suggest to him that if he is misinformed on that, he is probably misinformed in the rest of what he has said.

Mr. Mikardo

No, it is the hon. Member who is misinformed. They were not put on paid leave after one day. The secretary of the local joint panel committee was not there the day they came, so no complaint could have been made then. The hon. Member is misinformed, and if he cares to do so he can in the near future read the papers dealing with the matter, which I shall be glad to show him.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedfordshire)

How many days were they allowed to work?

Mr. Mikardo

I think it was on the third day that this matter came up. [Laughter.] I wish hon. Gentlemen would not laugh. They should realise what can be done in two or three hours, let alone two or three days, by a man causing trouble in a shop. In the case of one of these persons it was his own militant attitude which caused the trouble.

I can offer some sort of answer on the point which the hon. Member made in asking whether the machinery of the National Joint Council is working well. As a member of it I can say that here and there it has its rough spots, but I also say, as one who has sat on many joint consultation committees, both in private and public industry, that this is, with all its rough spots, easily the best and most effective piece of joint consultation I have ever seen in this or any other country, either in a publicly or privately owned company. It has some way to go, but it is doing a good job.

One of the things it has done is to deal with redundancy and its effects on the personnel of B.S.A.A.C. A series of meetings were held yesterday under the auspices of the National Joint Council, following a very long one last week. I am happy to tell the hon. Member that it is now established that there will be no redundancy as a result of the closing of No. 5 line, and that the Corporation hope to transfer to other places all those who are willing to go. There will be no redundancy among engineering personnel, in any event.

I should also like to tell the hon. Member that the trade union side of the National Joint Council has always been very careful to see that any redundancy is dealt with in accordance with the Minister's pledge, which the hon. Member has quoted. In seeing that this pledge is applied, we are, I assure the hon. Member, as zealous to look after the rights of those employees who are not members of trade unions affiliated to the National Joint Council as of those employees who are. There is absolutely no discrimination at all. It is the action of the trade union side and its participation with the management in the last few days in examining the problems caused by the various changes that are going on that has, as I am sure the Corporation will be happy to testify, made it possible for this re-organisation to be carried out without redundancy and unemployment falling upon the workers, including those whose interests the hon. Member has represented.

If the hon. Member and everyone else who, like him, has an interest in seeing civil aviation become efficient and prosperous would devote every effort to ensuring that all those who work in the Corporation support the National Joint Council machinery instead of engaging in disparate and fissiparous activities to break down that machinery, he need have no fears. The difficulties which face the Corporation will be solved with the absolute minimum of embarrassment and discomfort to the personnel involved.

2.10 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation (Mr. Beswick)

I seem to have very little time to go into all the matters raised by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson). He was, of course, quite entitled to raise them, he did it with great courtesy, and I would like to help as much as is in my power. But I would stress that all the information for which he asked could have been obtained through the machinery which has been set up for the specific purpose of allaying anxiety among employees of the Corporation and for keeping them in touch with the administrative difficulties which the Corporation have to face.

I was asked whether I was sure that the machinery in joint consultation was working well. I can only echo what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo). At times, there is evidence of a certain amount of roughness, but the machinery has not been in operation very long. What I am certain about is that if it is to work with perfect smoothness we have to use it. If the hon. Gentleman can come to this House on the occasions when we discuss Civil Aviation and show me that there is any reluctance on the part of anyone we have appointed to the Corporation to use this machinery properly, then naturally that would be a matter for my noble Friend and for the Ministry. In the meantime there is this National Joint Council and I want to see it, in effect, the "Parliament" for that industry, because that is the purpose of it.

Mr. N. Macpherson

Would not the Parliamentary Secretary agree that there is nothing "fissiparous"—which, I think, was the word used—about suggesting that anybody should be represented on that National Joint Council?

Mr. Beswick

That is a point with which I shall deal later. I was asked for some information about figures, which I have obtained, since the hon. Gentleman was good enough to give me some advanced notice of what he required. The total staff of B.S.A.A.C. and B.O.A.C. at the time of the merger was approximately for B.S.A.A.C. 2,000; and for B.O.A.C., 18,000. Up to the beginning of this year, since the announcement of the amalgamation, B.O.A.C. have declared redundant 586 of their staff and B.S.A.A.C. 30. It is therefore obvious that so far as the re-organisation of B.O.A.C. is concerned the brunt of that redundancy has been borne by the B.O.A.C. personnel, and that is in accordance, I think, with the undertaking given by my predecessor that any redundancy arising from the re-organisation of the one Corporation should be borne by members of that Corporation.

I was asked what numbers are redundant at present so far as the Corporation as a whole is concerned, and I now mean the two bodies merged into the one Corporation. It is, of course, impossible for me to say what redundancy there may be. At the behest of the Minister, the Chairman of the Corporation has been carrying out a very careful economy campaign; and so long as there is any suspicion of an unnecessary person on the staff of the one Corporation then there is the possibility of redundancy. But I hope that we are now reaching the end of that economy campaign.

I was asked a question about this alleged statement made by a member of the shop stewards' committee at Croydon. I have made careful inquiries about this, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that no authority was given by B.O.A.C. for the statement which he reports. Indeed, so far as I can make out, there seems to be some doubt as to whether any member of the shop stewards' committee did, in fact, say that no non-union person would be posted to Croydon; and the fact that the Corporation posted the two men at the beginning of this year does suggest that they have no intention of retaining Croydon as a closed shop as was described. I can further state that so far as the Corporation and my Ministry are concerned, there is no question of having a so-called closed shop in that industry.

There was a specific question about No. 5 Line, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, is to be closed. That gives rise to the prospect of redundancy, but again, as my hon. Friend for Reading, South said—and he was a member of the N.J.C.—after consideration it was decided that there would be no redundancy or practically none, as a result of the closing of No. 5 Line. It is hoped to absorb the whole of the personnel previously employed on that Line into one or other of the B.O.A.C. bases. I hope that will go some way towards allaying the anxiety to which the hon. Member referred.

There is one point I would like to make about the "hen-roost." I began by saying that, in my view, all the information for which the hon. Member asked could have been obtained through the machinery of the National Joint Council. But he did suggest that there are certain people who are deprived of their rights; who cannot go to the N.J.C., and who have no representative on the N.J.C. That seems to me to be a mis-reading of the situation. They have a representative there if they choose to use that representative. It would be against my nature and instinct to compel anyone to join any organisation against which they have any conscientious scruples; although, at the same time, I can see the argument that if a person's conscience is so refined that he cannot join a particular organisation then he ought to be equally reluctant to accept wages and conditions of service obtained by the efforts of that organisation.

However, we do not compel them to join any particular organisation. It is open for them to join and I would hope that they would play in with the team. It seems to me wrong—not on any political grounds, but on the grounds of sheer common sense—to expect to have two different bodies representing one body of workers. What is to be the position if we have two different agreements with the two different bodies, or if we have agreements reached separately with them? Either those agreements are the same, in which case one body is surely unnecessary, or if there are two different agreements one will be undemocratic. No; we have to try to so arrange things that these men, who were employed by B.S.A.A.C. are re-absorbed into the rest of the Corporation's activities. The method by which they will be re-absorbed is being decided by the National Joint Council through its local panels, and I hope that those people to whom the hon. Gentleman referred will work with those joint panels so that we can be assured that the process of re-organisation is carried through as quickly as possible.