HC Deb 08 February 1951 vol 483 cc2069-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Popplewell.]

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)

I take the opportunity of raising tonight the question of the health and welfare service of the staff of British Railways. The great bulk of the staff employed on British Railways—well over 500,000—are not covered by legislation for the enforcement of health and welfare in their employment. The provisions of the Factory Acts do not apply to them. It is estimated that over 500,000 employees are thus outside the scope of the Acts, and these employees include clerical workers, running, operational and permanent way staffs and employees at passenger stations, goods depôts, sidings, signal boxes and locomotive sheds.

Under the Transport Act, 1947, provision has been made by the Transport Commission for the Railway Executive to set up, in conjunction with the trade unions, a joint welfare advisory council to consider standards of health, welfare and safety to be recommended to the Transport Commission. The London Transport Executive considers the machinery for this purpose that existed before nationalisation as adequate.

The Committee of Inquiry on Health, Welfare and Safety in Non-industrial Employments was set up on 1st January, 1946, by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland. It made its Report in March, 1949. In dealing with the need for statutory minimum standards for the railways, it stated that it would be the Committee's duty, if the railways had not been nationalised, to recommend a statutory court of welfare and safety for those employed on the railways.

The Committee could not accept the argument that this had become unnecessary because the railways were now nationalised and special machinery had been set up for consultation between management and workers on such matters. The National Coal Board, for instance, was not exempted from protective legislation such as the Factory Acts, and the Committee saw no reason for treating the British Transport Commission differently from the National Coal Board.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

As the proposal of the hon. Member would seem to require legislation, is it in order for hint to proceed?

Mr. Speaker

If it involves legislation, it is a matter that cannot be raised on the Adjournment.

Mr. Thomas

It may or may not involve legislation.

Mr. Speaker

If it may involve legislation, then it is out of order.

Mr. Harrison (Nottingham, East)

Is it not a fact that many of the recommendations could be put into operation by regulation?

Mr. Speaker

If that is so, it is in order, but anything that involves legislation is out of order.

Sir W. Darling

The hon. Member said that it "may" require legislation.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that it may require regulations, in which case it is in order.

Mr. Thomas

I will correct what I said. The question I am raising should not necessitate any legislation. The National Coal Board is not exempted from protective legislation such as the Factory Acts, and the Committee saw no reason for treating the British Transport Commission differently. The Committee made recommendations to meet the needs of staff employed in railway offices. At stations, goods depôts, and at sidings, and at other places where some six people are employed, the desired facilities are set out in the report. They summarise the main items as being the provision of sanitary conveniences suitably lighted, cleansed and maintained on the basis of one for every 25 employees or less for each sex; for washbasins adequately supplied with soap, hot and cold water and clean towels; for suitable and sufficient lighting; for readily accessible and properly maintained first-aid boxes; for adequate and suitable accommodation for clothing not worn in working hours and, where practicable, for arrangements for drying it, and, finally, for the provision and maintenance of suitable and sufficient facilities for the taking of meals. These things all refer to what steps should he taken in connection with the enforcement of these recommendations. Representations in regard to all these matters were made on behalf of the organised railwaymen and railway staffs of this country through the Trades Union Congress, assisted by the National Union of Railwaymen, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, and the Railway Clerks Association.

Major Hicks - Beach (Cheltenham)

Could we have the date when they met?

Mr. Thomas

During the time this Committee sat. It issued a report, and it is dated March, 1949.

Major Hicks-Beach

It is rather important that hon. Members should know when the representations were made. Does the hon. Member know the exact date when those representations were made?

Mr. Thomas

I could not give the exact date when they were made or when the representatives of the Trades Union Congress were heard by the Committee, All that I can say is that that took place within the time the Committee was functioning. There are records which can be referred to on the question of the exact date.

Special recommendations are also set out for necessary improvements for locomotive running sheds. The Committee said in their report: We consider them separately, because we heard many complaints about them and because they more nearly resemble factories than any other premises we have reviewed. In addition to coaling, washing, and greasing, servicing may involve the cleaning of boiler tubes with jets of high pressure steam, the removal and replacement of wheels, springs and other heavy equipment, and much minor repair work. In most sheds there are coal or ash hoists, inspection pits and workshops equipped with an extensive range of tools, many of them power operated. Attention was called to the dangerous and dirty nature of, and the general discomfort involved in the duties in many of these sheds. The report says: These dangers, we were told, were often aggravated by accumulations of hot boiler ash, scrap metal, etc., on the ground in or near the buildings. First-aid arrangements, which are usually in the hands of one of the employees, who has voluntarily undergone training, were also criticised and compared unfavourably with those required in factories of comparable size. Another point I wish to raise is in regard to the protection of the permanent way signal and telegraph staff who work on or near running lines. The present position is that the appointment of a lookoutman is left entirely to the discre- tion of the man in charge of a particular gang in the particular circumstances in which the gang may be working. It is the contention of those who represent the men that the responsibility for the appointment of this lookoutman for these gangs should be on the railway authorities themselves; in other words, that it should be taken as a standing arrangement that in every permanent way and signal and telegraph gang working on the running lines there should be a man whose sole duty it is to function as a lookoutman for the gang.

Sir W. Darling

Is the hon. Gentleman not dealing in some detail with the day-to-day management of the Railway Executive?

Mr. Thomas

I am dealing with matters which, in the opinion of those who are most immediately affected, require attention from the Government and the authorities concerned in order that their safety, health and welfare during the time that they are on duty will be safeguarded. I appeal to the Minister to give an assurance that the recommendations of the Committee with reference to railway staffs shall be given early attention, and that steps will be taken to bring into full operation without delay all the recommendations about improving the general health, welfare and safety of railway staffs.

10.26 p.m.

Major Hicks-Beach (Cheltenham)

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. I. O. Thomas) for raising this very important matter tonight. I did not intend to intervene, but I was a little shocked by the dates which the hon. Gentleman gave. As I understand the position, the committee to which he referred reported in 1946.

Mr. Thomas

In 1949. It was appointed in 1946.

Major Hicks-Beach

And it did not report until 1949. I would join the hon. Member in hoping that some action can be taken on behalf of the railwaymen to cure the evils which he mentioned. I am not seeking to make any political party point. If the report was received in 1949 and we are now in 1951, I should have thought that action could have been taken by now. I hope that action will be taken at a very early date.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I would like to take up a few minutes of the time of the House in order to underline and emphasise what has been said by my hon. Friend, and to draw attention to the fact that welfare conditions on the railways, and particularly those referred to by my hon. Friend, have been a public scandal for many years. They are more suited to the last century than they are to this. The railways have probably suffered from being pioneers and so we have to bear with out-of-date railway stations and termini, and out-of-date conditions throughout the whole system.

The question of the health and welfare of the men is of primary importance. That is one of the reasons why I am glad that the railways have been brought under national ownership and control. It is clear that since they were taken over by the nation, things have been very considerably improved. Those improvements are going on, but nevertheless a tremendous amount remains to be done. I appreciate that, and I have had many representations from my colleagues on the railways to that effect, and that is why I am taking this opportunity of supporting my hon. Friend.

I want to refer to the fact that the report has now been published for almost two years—at any rate for well over 12 months. While, presumably, the Government are giving it very close attention, I would point out that there are important provisions that should be very carefully examined. My hon. Friend mentioned one item which the railway unions have been pressing upon the authorities for a considerable time, the provision of lookouts for permanent way gangs. I know that many arguments are used in regard to the question, primarily that of cost. It may be a very substantial item, particularly in the circumstances of the railways today.

I do not want to divert the argument from its main theme, or to refer to the fact that the railways have been made the Cinderella of the nationalised industries. I do not want to go into that. But the fact remains that expense is one of the main arguments used by the authorities against what is, in fact, the very important question of the lives and safety of many thousands of railway employees. For that one aspect alone—and it is only one of many—I hope that the Minister tonight will be able to give the House an assurance that the railway authorities are giving consideration to the recommendations in the Gowers Report, which have been the subject of long discussions between the railways and the unions, and will be able to say that in future some step will be taken to see that this matter of safety and welfare on the railways wilt be brought more into line with modern industrial conditions.

10.31 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I welcome this opportunity, even if it is for only a relatively short time, to concentrate attention upon the importance of welfare on the railways, because, after all, it affects a large number of persons. The Gowers Committee, itself, refers to half a million. I want to assure the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. I. O. Thomas) that I approach this problem with a large degree of agreement with the views which he and other hon. Members have advanced. I do not think anyone can travel about on the railways of this country without realising that in many respects they fall a long way behind, in welfare facilities, compared with the facilities which have been established generally throughout industry.

I do not think that anyone at present really wishes, or needs, to evade that fact. I should like immediately to deal with the point of time which, I rather infer, the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks-Beach) was suggesting was the result of an undue delay on the part of the Ministry. I want to correct that impression. I would remind the hon. and gallant Member that it was not the Ministry of Transport which established or set up the Gowers Committee. It was a Home Office Committee, and it has dealt with far larger and wider problems of welfare and safety than those covered by this debate.

If one examines the Gowers Report one will see that a relatively small part of it is devoted to the railways. Despite that, the references which are made are important, and I do not wish in any way to under-estimate them. Rather would I frankly acknowledge that I am keenly desirous that this process of welfare improvement should proceed as rapidly as possible. But hon. Members must not assume that nothing is being done. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has established a Departmental Committee, because many departments are affected by this Report, and this is receiving examination. A representative of my Department is a member of this committee. But that aspect of the problem does involve legislation, and I am not permitted to deal with it this evening.

I have to direct my attention to the case put forward particularly by my two hon. Friends who have a lifelong experience of the railways. I think now it is legitimate for me to state, and I think that my hon. Friends would be the first to admit this, that they cannot level an indictment for this situation against the British Transport Commission or the present Railway Executive. These conditions date back to the time of the four main line railway companies, and they have been taken over as they are by the British Transport Commission and the Railway Executive.

Mr. I. O. Thomas

I did not raise that as a criticism of the Transport Commission, but as a statement of fact.

Major Hicks-Beach

Might I just say a word to the Minister? Is it not a fact that his Ministry has taken two years to take action on this Report?

Mr. Barnes

My Ministry, as such, cannot take any action on this Report, separately. That is a point I am trying to convey because it is primarily the responsibility of the Home Secretary to decide what action should be taken on the Gowers Report. But, certainly, we are assisting in every way possible, and the hon. Gentleman should appreciate that, when one has a number of recommendations, they have all to be considered.

What I want to emphasise is that, if we keep our attention confined to the railways for a moment and do not concern ourselves with future legislation, it is quite wrong to admit that nothing has been done during, or since, the war. During the war, when the railways were under the control of the Government for wartime purposes, some millions of pounds were spent through the agency of the wartime Railways Executive in providing very considerable welfare facilities by way of canteens, and hostels and so on. Since I have been Minister, one very important welfare centre at Old Oak Common, costing about a quarter of a million pounds has been built and opened; that is during the time of the nationalised industry. During the war some hundreds of canteens were opened about our railways system. I agree that that was a process going on throughout industry, but it is, I suggest, legitimate for me to say that, so far as the present railway administration is concerned, a considerable amount has been done, despite the financially difficult conditions under which the railways labour.

Under the Transport Act—and this part of that Act received general support from all parts of the House—there were provisions which laid responsibility on the Transport Commission to set up welfare arrangements and consultative machinery between themselves and their staff. One of the first things done by the Commission was to give effect to that part of the Act—Section 95—and a joint committee was established between themselves and the trade unions of the railways. That committee, I admit, because of financial circumstances has not perhaps provided the drive, or produced the results, which one would have wished in this matter, but a considerable amount has been done.

The committee has established a number of standard requirements which will be followed and, more or less, it is following the lines which the Gowers Committee recommends. I feel that, while I cannot indicate that, say, during the current financial year certain expenditure will take place, nevertheless it is a considerable advance in the railway industry that the representatives of the men are sitting side by side with the British Transport Commission as the new executives are created, and are laying the foundations, and preparing plans, and establishing standards over the whole field of railway administration.

I conclude by assuring my hon. Friend that I am confident that it is the desire of the British Transport Commission and the Railway Executive to get on with this process of improving welfare facilities on the railways as rapidly as they can. When we do come to the question of legislation, whatever the Home Office may determine, we shall approach it with a good deal of sympathy and understanding.

Adjourned accordingly at Nineteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.