HC Deb 29 April 1955 vol 540 cc1250-6
The Minister of Labour and National Service (Sir Walter Monckton)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission, I should like to make a statement on the railway dispute.

When I last reported to the House on Wednesday, talks between the British Transport Commission and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, which I had called at the request of the Trades Union Congress, were about to take place. The House will recall that the Society had issued strike notices to take effect from midnight, 1st May, in protest against a recent award, Award 17, of the Railway Staff National Tribunal, which had the effect of narrowing the differentials of the footplate grades arising from the previous award, Award 16, of the Tribunal.

The discussions began on Wednesday afternoon and, after an adjournment, continued until late last night. At the outset I saw both parties separately myself. I reiterated to the Society the appeal which I had previously made to them to reconsider their decision to strike, in view of the inconvenience and hardship to the public, the dislocation of the national economy and the widespread unemployment which would result from a railway stoppage. Subsequently, the most strenuous efforts were made by my Department, in the course of the two days' negotiations, to get agreement on a basis for calling off the strike. I kept in close touch with the progress of negotiations throughout and held myself available to the parties. I regret to have to inform the House that these efforts have proved unsuccessful.

In the course of the discussions the following formula was evolved by my officers:

  1. 1. The British Transport Commission confirm their acceptance of Award No. 17 of the Railway Staff National Tribunal of April, 1955, and will implement it forthwith as the final resolution of the negotiations arising from the agreement of December, 1953. In the light of the following, this position is accepted by the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers & Firemen, who will instruct their members not to withdraw their labour as from midnight, 1st May, as previously advised. Following this the Society will place before the British Transport Commission their views and proposals on the question of differentials.
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  3. 2. The Commission will discuss these proposals immediately with the Society. Whilst they cannot enter into any prior commitments on the proposals, and must include in the discussions all parties concerned in the agreements covering the footplate staffs, it is their intention that discussions should be concluded at the earliest practicable date.
  4. 3. In order to facilitate future discussions, the Commission state that they do not regard Award No. 17 as having laid down principles for determining the wages of footplate staffs, any more than they regard Award No. 16 as having laid down principles for dealing with differentials.
This formula was acceptable to the British Transport Commission. It was not acceptable to the Society. They raised the objection that under the formula no advantage was offered which was not already available to them before their decision to impose strike notices. They also demanded that the Commission should undertake to bring the discussions on their proposals regarding differentials to a conclusion by a specified and early date. Finally, they insisted that the discussions should take place between the Commission and the Society alone, without the participation of any other union.

The Commission found it impossible to meet these demands. Firstly, acceptance of a time limit would have been tantamount to conducting negotiations under the threat of a suspended strike; secondly, negotiations on differentials could not properly be conducted without the participation of the other union concerned; finally, it was not within the Commission's power to guarantee the conclusion of negotiation by a specified date because of its inability to commit the other union involved.

The Government are giving anxious and continuing attention to the situation and, as both parties know, my services and those of my officers are available at all time if it is at all within our power to help. Close contact is being maintained with the T.U.C. in this matter, and I am inviting them to discuss the situation with me later in the day. In the meantime, the Government have in hand the preparation of those measures which, in the event of the stoppage, would be necessary to maintain supplies and services essential to the community.

Mr. Robens

We have listened to what is perhaps the gravest statement that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has had to make from the Dispatch Box during his period of office. If this strike takes place and is protracted, it will mean that the mines will slowly come to a stop, power stations will find it difficult to maintain power supplies, and there is no doubt that there will be widespread unemployment and severe and serious damage to the economy. It is, therefore, my view—and I am sure that it is the view of all of us—that even at this late hour we should still not abandon hope or give up any attempts to bring this dispute to a peaceful settlement.

I should like to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he will consider some suggestions which I wish to make to him. In the first place, while the A.S.L.E.F., according to the Minister's statement, raise an objection that under the formula he proposed no advantage was offered which was not already available to them before their decision to impose strike notices, they go on to say that another objection is that there was no time limit to the discussions. That rather presupposes that they might waive the first objection that they were given no immediate advantage if they could be met on the question of the time limit.

I would suggest to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the question of a time limit is an important one in the trade union movement. The men obviously will not want to withdraw strike notices without some indication that negotiations will not be protracted. In these circumstances, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman really feel that the British Transport Commission would feel that it was negotiating under duress if it undertook to commence these negotiations and discussions on differentials and gave a time limit of, say, 14 days during which the negotiations would go on ceaselessly until arrangements had been made?

As to the next point, that the Commission would find it difficult to conduct negotiations with one union and exclude the other, that is very important. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will have had the experience on more than one occasion when a similar case has arisen. It has not been unknown for negotiations to go on simultaneously with the parties in separate rooms. This is a matter of doing all we can to conduct negotiations; it is not a new thing to have parties in separate rooms. I know that this means a good deal of work for somebody who has to keep meeting parties in separate rooms. Nevertheless, the original agreement was discussed and decided, I think, with one union, the N.U.R., and therefore it seems to me that some effort could be made along those lines.

Thirdly, there is no reference in the statement to the National Union of Railwaymen. I think that we all know the problem that arises when there are two unions in the one industry. May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether he has considered meeting the leaders of the N.U.R., and whether it would not be worth while to get the leaders of the N.U.R. and the leaders of the A.S.L.E.F. together to try to iron out this point about discussion of differentials.

I make these suggestions to the right hon. and learned Gentleman in the hope that we can go on and prevent this unhappy strike before irreparable damage is done to the country.

Sir W. Monckton

Of course, I share to the full what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the extreme desirability of preventing a stoppage, if it can be done; but I must point out that, as to the suggestions he has made about the time limit and so on, the time limit is of great difficulty for the British Transport Commission because the other union to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, the National Union of Railway-men, also has people in the grades concerned. It is very hard for the Commission to say more than that it will begin immediately, which is what it said and is prepared to say, and that it is the intention to proceed without any unnecessary delay.

I do not think there is any thought in the mind of the Society that, when the Chairman of the Commission says that, he does not mean it. It is extremely difficult for him to say what he can do within a limited period of time when the other union is so much and so directly concerned.

As to the other union, the right hon. Gentleman will know that one of the advantages of keeping close contact with the Trades Union Congress is precisely that in a case of this sort there are unions which may have different interests at stake. I have throughout been ready, if I had been so advised, to get into touch with the National Union of Railwaymen on the whole of the matter, but at present I have not been advised that it would be of any advantage. I think that much the best course for me to pursue is to have the meeting which I propose to have as early as possible after I am released from the service of the House with the Trades Union Congress representatives to see if they have any suggestions to make.

On the date, I do not think anyone who has been a party to the negotiations—I include the Society—would doubt that it is my earnest intention, and that of everybody inside my Ministry, not to abandon hope but still to find a way out if it can be found.

Mr. Robens

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman really appreciate the psychological advantage of a date for the conclusion of negotiations? Those of us who have been in the trade union movement and had this sort of problem to deal with have recognised the importance of saying to the members of the union, "Yes; we are going into discussion and we have suspended this notice until a date by which we hope the thing will be concluded."

Could not the right hon. and learned Gentleman get the Commission to express the hope that it would conclude these negotiations by, say, 1st June, or some other date, allowing whatever period is felt necessary in order to get the negotiations under way? I strongly urge upon the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it would be worth while, I think, to have direct consultation with the leaders of the National Union of Railwaymen. I think that their influence might be useful. It is necessary, in my view, that somebody should bring the leaders of both these unions together. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman could discuss that suggestion with the T.U.C. this afternoon.

Sir W. Monckton

I think that what the right hon. Gentleman said in his concluding remark is the answer to all this. I shall of course discuss with the T.U.C. when I meet them the suggestion that the unions should meet. As to the date, I gave the reasons in my original answer why it is extraordinarily difficult for the Commission to give a date without falling into one of two difficulties—first, of appearing to be negotiating still under duress; and second, that it is trying to commit itself to a date when the date is not wholly within its power, because the other union is concerned.

Mr. Robens

All we can do at this stage is to wish the right hon. and learned Gentleman success in the efforts which he is about to make.

Mr. Monslow

As a member of the organisation involved, may I pay my tribute to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his tact, his patience and consideration in what is a difficult situation? I have been in close consultation with my colleagues. I am an officer of the organisation and I am bound to indicate to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that in their view no tangible effort was made by the B.T.C. at yesterday's meeting.

In supplementation of what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens), I express the hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will make a further effort at this late hour to bring the parties together. I am confident that this problem is not insoluble, given good will on both sides. I wish the Minister every success and sincerely hope that a meeting can be arranged. My Executive Committee is in session and would be ready if at any time it should be called for the purpose we all have in mind—an end of what would be a very unhappy chapter in our industrial relationships.

Sir W. Monckton

I am very much obliged to the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) for the attitude he has shown in making his observations. It is a comfort to those of us trying to bring peace to realise that among those who are parties to the dispute our attitude is honestly appreciated. If any chance does come I assure the House that I shall take it.

Mr. Collick

Is it not the case that throughout these talks the actual facts of the dispute have never been adequately discussed? Unless the Minister and his advisers can get down to the job of actually talking about the things about which every loco man in this country feels incensed, there can be no approach.

There ought to be a settlement, and ways and means of finding it. I feel quite convinced that if the Minister and his advisers would deal with the real subject of the dispute there are possibilities of preventing a stoppage.

Sir W. Monckton

All I can say about that is that all I was requested to do was to bring the parties together and to see whether there was a way of preventing a stoppage. It is not possible for me or my officers to sit as a court of appeal over the tribunal. What we had to do was to see if a procedure could be devised out of which peace might come. That is what I am trying to do, and will continue to do.