§ Mr. Robens
(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he has any statement to make about the threatened railway stoppage.
§ The Minister of Labour (Mr. Edward Heath)
The House will be aware that on 29th January the National Union of Railwaymen gave notice to the British Transport Commission of a national strike of its members to take effect on 15th February. The N.U.R. had previously asked the Commission for an immediate interim wage increase in advance of the report of the Guillebaud Committee, which has been studying railway wages in relation to those obtaining in other comparable employments; but the other two railway unions, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen and the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association, wished to await the report in accordance with the understanding reached when the Committee was appointed. In these circumstances, the Commission made no offer. It had already undertaken to back-date to 11th January any interim action which might be taken on receipt of the report.
During the past week, the Trades Union Congress has been trying to resolve these differences between the N.U.R. and the other unions, but yesterday evening it decided that it could not render any further assistance. I therefore invited the representatives of the three unions to talks at the Ministry of Labour this morning. Arrangements have been made for representatives of the British Transport Commission to come to the Ministry later today.
468 I know that the House will appreciate that this is a very difficult situation. As these talks are still continuing, I hope that I will not be pressed to say more in detail today. I will, of course, keep the House fully informed of any future developments.
§ Mr. Robens
I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his statement. We all recognise the delicacy of the situation and do not want to press him too closely on these matters. I should, however, like to put three short questions to the right hon. Gentleman.
The first, which relates to the reply that he has just given, is whether he will make a further statement to the House tomorrow?
Secondly, will he not agree that there is widespread sympathy in the House with the Transport Commission and among the general public in relation to the wages of railway workers everywhere and that it would be a great pity if this good will, which is freely expressed on all sides, were to be dissipated by catastrophic action such as is contemplated on 15th February?
Thirdly, I come to what is, perhaps, the most important question. In view of the blow to the nation generally of such an action, will the right hon. Gentleman himself now be prepared to have a top-level conference, together with the Minister of Transport, who must speak for the Government in relation to the financial aspects of the matter, with the leaders of the railwaymen's unions and the Transport Commission in a last-minute effort to avert what all of us wish to avert—that is, a national railway stoppage on 15th February?
§ Mr. Heath
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his first remarks. Of course, I will make a statement to the House tomorrow afternoon if it proves possible to give the House the information which it would like to have. I am certain that no one, either here or in the country, wants what the right hon. Gentleman describes as catastrophic action to take place on Monday next. We would all greatly regret the loss of any good will by the railway industry and the railway unions.
Concerning the third point, I have myself seen this morning, in addition to the Chief Industrial Commissioner, the leaders of the three unions and I hope 469 to see the chairman of the Transport Commission tonight. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is, of course, beside me on the Front Bench and, obviously, we are in constant contact.