HC Deb 30 April 1958 vol 587 cc379-86
Mr. Robens

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he has any statement to make on the dispute in connection with the London buses.

The Minister of Labour and National Service (Mr. Iain Macleod)

The Transport and General Workers' Union made a claim last October for an increase of 25s. a week for all the bus workers covered by the agreements between the London Transport Executive and the Union. The claim was eventually referred for arbitration by the Industrial Court. The award of the Court was that the weekly rates of pay for drivers and conductors employed on buses and trolley buses in the Central road services of the London Transport Executive should be increased by 8s. 6d. a week. As to the other sections of the staff, the Court found against the claim.

As regards my position as Minister of Labour in this dispute, the House will recall that in reply to a Question on 16th April I used these words, which I might now repeat: Voluntary arbitration by the Industrial Court has always rightly been regarded as the final stage in the settlement of a dispute and I regret that the award has not been so regarded in this case by one of the parties. I cannot take any action which would have as its object a variation of the Industrial Court award".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th April, 1958; Val. 586, c. 18.] The London Transport Executive is not prepared to depart from the terms of the award but has offered to review in the autumn the rates of pay of the grades covered by the claim who were excluded from the award.

Yesterday, I received a letter from the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union asking me to intervene in support of the suggestion which the union had put to the Executive that the 8s. 6d. a week awarded to certain grades of workers should be spread over all the workers covered by the claim so as to give them an increase of 6s. 6d. a week, with a further review of the general wages position in the autumn. I have today told the union that I regret that I cannot accede to its request, as to do so would be to depart from the principle of adherence to arbitration awards on which I based my reply in the House which I have just quoted.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in the hope that even at this late stage the threatened strike may be averted by a settlement on the basis of the arbitration award of the Industrial Court.

Mr. Robens

I am sure that the whole House will join with the right hon. Gentleman in his hope that even at this late stage the threatened strike may be averted by a settlement. I doubt very much, however, whether the whole House will be unanimous in feeling that the right hon. Gentleman, in taking up this rigid line, is rendering the best service towards the settlement of this dispute.

The right hon. Gentleman will probably recollect that while it was not an award, his attitude, and that of the Minister of Health, concerning the clerks in the Health Service was entirely different. But I do not want to raise the temperature in the House at this stage; we all want to see a settlement.

Does the Minister appreciate that neither the trade union leaders nor the busmen nor anybody else, want this strike to take place and that what the Transport and General Workers' Union has proposed is not to add to the total given by the Industrial Court but that, by sacrifices among some sections, the staff would prefer to share the total sum without adding to the increase among the whole of the workers?

If there is fear of leapfrogging in wage advances, to which expression has been given on many occasions, would this not have been a suitable opportunity to bring the sides together to discuss the proposal of the Transport and General Workers' Union and even to extend it to see whether, in view of the impending wage negotiations in the provinces, there could not have been a national agreement on passenger transport services, with differentials clearly marked out, and, at this stage, obviate many of the troubles in the transport industry for years ahead?

Mr. Macleod

The right hon. Gentleman has raised many points. I, too, do not wish to raise the temperature. I would only say, of the National Health Service case, that that was neither an arbitration nor an award. In the present case, it is perfectly proper for the parties to seek to vary an arbitration award and that is what the union has sought to do—I have no complaint whatever about that; but it is a different matter to ask me to intervene in support of one of the parties to vary that arbitration award.

On the suggestion of what I may call the share-out of the 6s. 6d., I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has recently seen the tape, but only a few moments ago it was announced that a meeting of delegates of the Central London bus drivers had voted against this share-out plan, which was put to me yesterday.

The main point about it is that it was perfectly open to the Industrial Court, whose verdict was unanimous, to have made a general award of 6s. 6d. or of any other amount, either on a cost of living basis or on any other basis that the Court thought proper, but it deliberately did not do that. The Court did not say, "We think that the amount paid should be £1 million and it is for the parties to divide it." I know of no case in which an Industrial Court has done anything like that. Therefore, to invite me to support that plan is precisely what Ministers of Labour have always refused to do: that is, to vary an arbitration award in circumstances of that nature.

The position as I have explained it covers the situation as it now is. If, however, there is any change in the attitude of the parties, I will, of course, be very glad to meet them.

Mr. Robens

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that the original decision of the London Transport Executive not to grant an increase was accompanied by the reason that the Executive could not afford it. Then, the Industrial Court thought that the Executive should afford the amount indicated by the Court. Therefore, in agreeing to accept the award, the Executive indicated that it was prepared to accept the additional cost. The question of the busmen's decision must be related to the rules of the union and the powers of the Executive.

If the men are now prepared to share the award, was this not an opportunity for the Minister not to say that he was rejecting the Industrial Court award, but at this late hour, within a few days of the strike, to call the parties together to discuss this proposal, from which there might have emerged other ways in which the strike could have been averted? I do not want to preach to the right hon. Gentleman, but does he not feel that his function as Minister should be as peacemaker and to hold the ring where there is the slightest chance of bringing together parties who appear to be amenable to reason? Would that not be worth while at this stage?

Mr. Macleod

In view of the meeting which has just been held, the position concerning whether the award is still acceptable seems at least fluid. We had better leave it at that until we have more information. The right hon. Gentleman's comment does not get over the difficulty that the award was not one of £1 million, which is what it would cost, but for good reasons, or reasons which seemed good to the Industrial Court, was specifically an increase for certain grades covered by the claim and specifically not for the other grades.

The London Transport Executive has said that it is not prepared to depart from the terms of the award and has offered to make a review in the autumn. I do not think that it would be holding the ring, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, for me to intervene on behalf of a suggestion which, however one looks at it, is an intention to vary the award. If that variation is acceptable to the London Transport Executive and to the parties, that is their affair, but in my view it is not right for me to intervene to accept an arbitration award.

Mr. Robens

Surely, if the London Transport Executive has indicated that it is prepared in the autumn to review the wages of those who are not affected, is this not an opportunity for neither side to accept the award but to begin again under the guidance of the right hon. Gentleman on the basis of a possible review in the autumn and of the present position? Surely, there is something between the two points that the right hon. Gentleman should exploit?

Mr. Macleod

I am always willing to look at a position. I have said that if the two sides wish to come to see me, of course I will see them. I shall be very glad to do so. My statement today covers the position as I know it at the moment. As I say, it seems to have been altering in the last few minutes, and we had better study it so that we may know where we are on this question of the share-out. However, if there is any change in the attitude of the parties, I shall be very glad to see them.

Mr. Isaacs

The Minister has said that if the two sides ask him to meet them he will do so. I wonder whether he can go so far as to say that if one side asks him to invite the other side to meet him he will consider doing that? After all, we know the problems and troubles, and if, by sacrificing a little red tape, we can save the community a lot of trouble it might be worth while. Will the right hon. Gentleman go that far, if one side asks him that, in order to get a settlement?

Mr. Macleod

I will not give a closed answer to that sort of situation now, but I promise I will look at it in the light of the circumstances if it arises.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Gough

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) has been standing up for the last five minutes to ask a question, without being called. I do not think that you heard him try to ask a question just now.

Mr. Speaker

I neither heard nor saw the hon. Member.

Mr. Gaitskell

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is a very important matter. I think that there is a reasonable temper on both sides of the House, and that it would be helpful if we could pursue this matter by question a little further. I have no intention of asking any myself, but I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House might have a little further opportunity to ask questions.

Mr. Speaker

It is always rather difficult to know what one's proper duty is in these cases. If I ought to place a strict limit to questions, I am prepared to do so, because I do not think that it would be in the interests of either side of the House to get into a wrangle on this matter, which would do more harm than good; and that is what I am afraid of. However, perhaps we may have a few reasonable questions. Who was the hon. Member on the Government side who rose just now? Mr. Mawby.

Mr. Mawby

The last thing that I want to do is to make this problem any worse, Mr. Speaker, but would my right hon. Friend either confirm or deny, so that we may have the record straight, that it is a long time ago since he offered an inquiry on the whole bus question throughout the country, and that it was turned down? It is rather interesting to note that we seem to be coming back to the suggestion which my right hon. Friend made in the very beginning, that an inquiry throughout the whole lot of the bus services should be made. Should we close our minds completely to this possibility, which was offered by my right hon. Friend so long ago?

Mr. Macleod

It is true that the idea of a general inquiry has always been attractive to me. The House will remember that I suggested it before this case was referred to the Industrial Court. However, the position now is that it was so referred—I make no complaint about that; I was content with that—and we have had an award which at present is the question in dispute. It may be that at some time in the future such an inquiry will take place, but it is hard to see at the moment how it could have much relevance to this immediate situation.

Mr. McLeavy

May I join my right hon. Friend in asking the Minister to reconsider the request made to him to call the two parties together? I am not satisfied at all with the statement of the Minister to the effect that he would be taking sides. It is the duty of the Minister of Labour to be impartial in all these matters, and I think—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question."] Does the Minister not agree that he would be exercising that impartiality if he called the two sides together in an endeavour to try to solve this rather difficult question? Is he further aware that the offer to share the amount available between a larger number of bus workers throughout the London area is a suggestion which will receive very considerable support in trade union circles?

Mr. Macleod

Whether it will receive support or not, as I said in response to an earlier question, I think that we had better wait and see. It is by no means clear at the moment. What I have said today refers to the situation to date, including my reply an hour or two ago to Mr. Cousins, and in response to questions by hon. Members, and I repeat that if there is any change in the attitude of the parties I shall be very glad to see them.

Mr. Mellish

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, first, that if the strike starts on Monday it will obviously be a very protracted affair and will probably develop and will not be confined to the buses, with the result that the Minister, whether he likes it or not, will be involved, and that the two sides will have to be brought together? Therefore, what we have been asking the Minister to do is only what he will have to do later.

Secondly, on the financial position, I would put this point to back up what my right hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) said. The original claim was turned down by the London Transport Executive because it said that it could not afford this claim. Unfortunately, the matter went to arbitration and the award was made, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, which would cost about £1 million. London Transport was concerned mainly with costs and not principles. It was felt that the trade unionists concerned could help by sharing this amount of money, and I put it to the Minister that this is a hopeful indication of the good will of the trade unionists concerned, and that they are desperately anxious to avoid this conflict by going through all available machinery. I am sorry that this may appear to be a party political point, but may I put it to the Minister that one thing which—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."] Many people will be in trouble next week and they will want to know whether we have thought about and discussed this matter.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask the hon. Member to put his question. I think that it is the general desire of both sides of the House that we should say nothing which would exacerbate the matter.

Mr. Mellish

It must be stated at this stage, because, after all—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question."] I ask the Minister whether he is aware that there is considerable feeling, which is certainly shared by myself, that the economic situation of the country, outlined by the Chancellor last September, has had a bearing on awards by arbitration committees, and that the Government just cannot absolve themselves from responsibility for this dispute, if there is one.

Mr. Macleod

On the hon. Member's last point, I have nothing to add to or to subtract from what I and the present Chancellor and the previous Chancellor have said from this Box. We thought it right to say it and say it openly to the country at all times.

With respect to the hon. Member, I do not think that he is really facing the issue on this share-out plan, because a matter of principle was involved from the point of view of Sir John Forster and the members of the Industrial Count. They thought it right to give this award to certain grades and to specify those grades, and not to give it to others. If we are to turn that into an overall cost of living award, or whatever it might be, that certainly would be to vary their intention and, therefore, to vary the arbitration award. If the parties themselves, in agreement, choose to do that, that is for them, and that is a principle of voluntary negotiation. It is equally a principle of voluntary negotiation that the Minister does not intervene in support of one party against another after an Industrial Court award has been made.

Mr. Monslow

While we are all hoping for a settlement, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether Sir John Elliot would have authority to settle without consultation with the Government?

Mr. Macleod

As far as I know, yes. I do not come in any way, I assure the House, into these negotiations. I have not discussed this matter at any time with Sir John.