HC Deb 16 May 1958 vol 588 cc779-84
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)

I have, of course, kept a close watch on the situation, but no developments have so far occurred which would indicate that any initiative on my part would help to bring about a settlement of this strike. If there should be a change in the attitude of either, or both, of the parties, I would certainly be willing to meet them.

Mr. Robens

On 1st May, the right hon. Gentleman said that he would intervene if he felt such an intervention would be of advantage. Do I take it from his reply that his view is that any intervention on his part is not regarded by him as advantageous at this moment?

Secondly, does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that the flexible approach of the Government and the parties in connection with the recent railway discussions, which has produced so admirable a result, was the sort of flexible approach that, if used now, could settle the bus strike, which, I would remind the right hon. Gentleman, is causing considerable inconvenience to disabled and elderly persons, and hardship, in the London area?

Thirdly, when the right hon. Gentleman speaks about the possibility of there being a change in the attitude of either party, how does he expect such a change to come about? Does he expect either the unions, on the one hand, or the London Transport Executive, on the other, or both together, to give rise to such a change? Would it not be useful, if he is expecting a change before he intervenes, to invite the parties to meet him, to ascertain whether there is any change?

Mr. Macleod

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has put his questions. At the moment, I do not think—if the right hon. Gentleman were in my position I believe that he would come to the same conclusion, after discussion with his expert advisers—that intervention by me would be helpful. But the position may well change, and if I see a chink of light I am very ready to step in. I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said at the end of his remarks. I do not necessarily intend to wait for the parties to ask me to meet them. If I thought it more suitable to do so, I would certainly ask them to meet me.

With regard to the railway settlement—I join the right hon. Gentleman in his remarks; I am sure the House is delighted that there has been a settlement of that dispute—there is a very great difference between that and the bus dispute. I do not think it is a question of being rigid or of being flexible; I am often accused of being both. The railway settlement and my intervention came about because there was a very distinct change in the financial position of the British Transport Commission as the result of the modernisation proposals which were worked out. I do not see such a change in the other situation at the moment, but if one comes I will take advantage of it.

Mr. Robens

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain a little more fully what he means by saying that if he sees a change, or a chink of light, he will step in? For what kind of change is he looking? That part of his answer puzzles me very much indeed.

Mr. Macleod

I should like to see an alteration—this is the way all strikes end—in the rigid attitude that the parties have taken up. What that change will be, frankly, I cannot prophesy at present. I wish I could; I would tell the right hon. Gentleman if I knew what it would be. However, if I saw an alteration in the present situation, however small, and if my intervention would be helpful, I would step in at once.

Mr. McAdden

My right hon. Friend referred to there being a change in the railway situation as a result of economies, and so on, whereby it was possible to alter the position. Is he aware that there are many on both sides of the House who consider that there are great opportunities for change in the financial situation in relation to the bus dispute, that there is a growing body of opinion which takes the view that the multiplicity of services within the London transport area is not necessary, and that with proper economy and administration it might be possible to arrive at a more satisfactory financial situation in that dispute, with consequent benefit to the reduced number of men who might thereby be employed?

Mr. Macleod

My hon. Friend will appreciate that that carries the question a little outside my immediate responsibility, but I know that important questions are being asked about the situation. There is also the difference that in the case of the bus dispute an award was made unanimously—there was no dissent, as I understand, from the trade union representative—in relation to the grades which represent a majority of those engaged in the dispute.

Mr. Mellish

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the rigid attitude adopted by both employers and trade unions. Does he not agree that the rigid attitude of the employers, at any rate, is largely dictated by Government decree, and that, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman has a special responsibility? Does he not agree that this dispute is not to be confused with that between an outside employer and the trade unions concerned having an argument about salaries and conditions? Is not this a matter over which the Government have direct responsibility? Does he not realise that there is a great burden of responsibility on his shoulders to solve it?

The Government made every effort about the railway dispute and, by making certain concessions, were able to solve it. If they can do that with that dispute, should they not try to do it with the bus dispute, irrespective of the political points of view? Surely the Government owe a duty to Londoners.

Mr. Macleod

I very much agree, and I think that the House does, with the hon. Member's point. After all these matters are settled, perhaps we should try to define more closely the position of the nationalised industries and the Government in relation to industrial disputes. It is a position of great flexibility and it causes great difficulty and embarrassment to the Government and, I dare say, to the corporations as well. I entirely agree about that, but I assure the hon. Member that although we throw them about in debate, political matters do not come into my judgment as to the right time to intervene. I think that, as an ordinary matter of industrial relations, the moment has not yet come, although it may well come soon, for me to intervene.

Mr. Grimond

While appreciating that the right hon. Gentleman himself is not responsible for the transport industry, may I ask, bearing on the question asked by his hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. McAdden), whether he will make sure that a statement is made to the House about the economies which are intended for both the railways and the buses, and, in particular, whether the Transport Commission intends to introduce new schemes of economies which it found before to be neither desirable nor feasible?

Mr. Macleod

The Leader of the Liberal Party will excuse me from answering that off the cuff. I will put that to my colleagues in the Government.

Sir R. Grimston

Would it not help if it could be made quite clear that there was no element of political action in the dispute? The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens), in a speech in the country, made it quite clear that that was very much to be condemned, but the resolution which was passed by the Trades Union Congress seemed to indicate that there was at least an element of political action in the dispute. Would it not help my right hon. Friend if that could be denied and cleared up?

Mr. Macleod

I do not want to go back over old ground. I deliberately refrained from making any acrimonious comment on the T.U.C. resolution of a week ago, although I very much regretted that the T.U.C. thought it right to pass it. I would rather leave it at that.

Mr. H. Hynd

When the Minister talks about the rigid attitude of the two sides, does he not realise that he himself is giving the impression that he is adopting a much too rigid and negative attitude? Would he not attempt to get the two sides together for an exploratory meeting? It could not do any harm. In these days of international strife a special effort is called for to try to settle our domestic disputes.

Mr. Macleod

I have considered that matter with my advisers every morning for the last two or three weeks. When I think it right to move, I will move the same day.

Mr. Gibson

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that although the award was made by the Industrial Court, neither side gave any pledge that it would, accept it? During the discussions, was there not a compromise suggestion by the union, which was rejected by the London Transport Executive? In view of the growing difficulties to the public of London, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that that provides an opportunity, at any rate, to begin discussions to try to find some means of settling the dispute, as the railway trouble was so successfully settled—for which I give him full credit?

Mr. Macleod

The London Transport Executive accepted the award and was ready to implement it and, moreover, added a promise to review in the autumn the pay of the grades left out and to accelerate the review of the Green Line drivers at an earlier date. The union did not accept the Industrial Court award, and the strike took place. As the hon. Member knows, the compromise solution that was put up was rejected by a meeting of the men particularly concerned. Frankly, I do not think that that seems to provide a very satisfactory basis for a solution.

Mr. Robens

I have myself tried to keep down the temperature in this matter and I have not argued the merits or demerits of the appropriate claims. However, I ask the right hon. Gentleman, quite specifically, whether he does not realise that unless he himself takes the initiative, this strike, which has already lasted two weeks, can easily go on for a further two weeks, and that during that time it is inevitable that the strike will broaden, or tend to broaden? In my view, that would raise very serious issues.

In the last analysis, will not the parties to the dispute have to meet round the table and discuss a settlement? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, indeed, plead with him, to take an opportunity, before this weekend, to call the parties together and ascertain for himself whether there is a change or a likelihood of a change? If he did that, he would do a great service to the community.

Mr. Macleod

We must just differ on this. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman would not have acted in any way differently from the way I have acted. Nor do I believe that if I had acted earlier it would have done any good at all. In the debate last week I gave a string of examples—and I could multiply them easily—showing intervention at different stages, from hours to months, in disputes, and I also gave examples of how intervention at the wrong moment had prolonged a strike. That can easily happen. I go this far with the right hon. Gentleman: I am genuinely anxious to see an end of the dispute, and when I can help to end it I will help to end it, but it must remain a matter of judgment when that moment comes.

Mr. G. Jeger

Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that during the last two weeks he has demonstrated his strength sufficiently now to be able to lead from strength in calling each of the two parties to see him separately to discover for himself, and not from their public utterances, what their position is, and to have discussions with them to see whether there is a chink of light in either of their cases which would enable him to bring them together to settle the dispute before it spreads further? The travelling public of London looks to the Government for a solution of this strike—[HON. MEMBERS: "It looks to the busmen."]—and the right hon. Gentleman must have some responsibility as a member of the Government, who bear a heavy responsibility for the strike, to do what he can to settle it.

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