HC Deb 12 February 1960 vol 617 cc917-26

4.1 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

With the permission of the House, I should like to make a short statement about the threatened rail stoppage.

Discussions between the parties concerned are still continuing at the Ministry of Labour and I am sure, therefore, that hon. Members will not wish to press me to say any more.

Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)

The fact that discussions between all the main parties to this dispute are continuing is a very satisfactory statement for the Leader of the House to be able to make. While discussions are continuing, there is hope for a settlement. If I may express an opinion, it is that a debate in the House at this time, while discussions are taking place, would not help towards a settlement.

Mr. Frank Bowles (Nuneaton)

I understand that—

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

On a point of order. I understand that the Motion for the Adjournment has been moved. I am due to raise on the Adjournment the question of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic School, at Wellington. I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker. Is not my Adjournment my prerogative?

Mr. Speaker

What has happened is that the Government, in the person of the Leader of the House, have moved the Motion for the Adjournment and we are on the Motion as proposed by the Leader of the House. I am aware of the hon. Member's difficulty. In so far as it is in my power to help him, I will, but I cannot at the moment.

Mr. Bowles

I will be very brief, Sir. I understand that a private Member cannot move, "That the House do meet Tomorrow", but that it is the power of any right hon. Gentleman on the Government Front Bench to do so. Will the Leader of the House now move, "That the House do meet Tomorrow"?

Mr. R. A. Butler

No, Sir. I have given consideration to this matter and I have been in touch with the Opposition, through the usual channels. I do not think that it is in the national interest that the House should meet tomorrow and it is not my intention to take any steps to that end. I am not saying that there is certainty about the situation, but I can only say that on the best judgment I can make I would not be justified in rescinding our Standing Orders, or in moving any Motion to enable us to sit tomorrow. That is the result of deliberation and consultation with Her Majesty's Official Opposition. That is the best I can do for the House.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked me to convey to the House his regret at not being able to stay here. He has a very important appointment. However, my right hon. Friends and I have had the opportunity to discuss this matter with him. In the full knowledge of the situation, and with every desire to see a settlement, as we hope will emerge from these discussions, it is our view that no good purpose would be served if the House met tomorrow. My right hon. Friend asked me to express that view, with which I and my right hon. Friends concur.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)

Everyone in this House will welcome a settlement of this dispute. That is obvious, but I must make my protest as strongly as I can, with due regard to all the circumstances and with every desire to exercise restraint, against this House being deprived of the opportunity of expressing an opinion on this unhappy affair.

It appears now that the situation amounts to this. If there is a settlement within the next 24 or 48 hours, so much the better; we shall be overjoyed, as I am sure will the general public. If there is no settlement, the strike will begin at midnight on Sunday, and on Monday we shall be in the throes of a most deplorable dispute with grave consequences to the travelling public and industry.

Questions can be asked on Monday when the House meets, but the strike will then be in progress. With respect to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, some of us on the back benches have long experience of industrial disputes.

Mr. J. Griffiths

So have we.

Mr. Shinwell

Anyone who has experience of these matters knows only too well that once a dispute of this character begins it is very difficult indeed to bring it to a speedy conclusion.

I may be wrong, but that is how I view the situation. I envisage a serious state of affairs in the coming week, or perhaps weeks. What will the right hon. Gentleman do? He is not prepared to meet to-morrow, and we are therefore to have no statement about this affair. The conduct of the Government is disgraceful.

Mr. W. Yates

On a point of order. May I ask whether a debate of this nature is in order?

Mr. Speaker

If it is not in order, it is my duty to intervene. I have not yet heard anything out of order.

Mr. Yates

When I raised the matter with you yesterday, I understood you to say that on the Adjournment of the House, if an hon. Member wants to change the subject of debate, he has to give 48 hours' notice of any Motion which is to be discussed. How can the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) make a speech on the Adjournment on this subject?

Mr. Speaker

Because the right hon. Gentleman is speaking to the Motion to adjourn the House as moved by the Government of the day in the form of the Leader of the House. Do let us get on.

Mr. Shinwell

If I have used strong language about the Government, I have done so because the statements that I have made can be substantiated by the facts.

For several weeks the Government have been aware of the possibility of this dispute. They are also only too well aware of the financial position of the British Transport Commission. Nothing has been done to avert this stoppage beyond the intervention of the Minister of Labour during the last few days.

Earlier this week an announcement was made from the benches opposite applicable to officers and other ranks of the Services. I do not object to that. I merely want to remind the House that the sum of money involved is £15 million a year—a substantial sum. We have here a situation in which the Government could very well render financial assistance, perhaps of a temporary nature, to avoid a stoppage. I do not know whether it is possible to do that, but it appears to me that it might be. I do not want to say any more than I have said. I can understand that my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench are not very pleased with me, but it will not be for the first time, nor am I concerned about that at all.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Then why mention it?

Mr. Shinwell

They ought to recognise that every one of us has constituents who are railwaymen, and they will ask us what we have done to try to avert this stoppage. What is our answer to be? That we waited until the last minute of the eleventh hour before asking the Government what they proposed to do. I do not think that that is a satisfactory position for the Opposition to take. It certainly cannot be maintained. But apparently there is no redress. All I can do is to make my protest, which I hope is supported at any rate by a number of my hon. Friends.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I am sure everyone hopes that there will be no strike, but how can it be maintained, when these are nationalised industries over which the House of Commons has deliberately taken some control, and placed that control in the hands of the Government, that the House of Commons should not discuss this matter at all? It is freely discussed on the air and in the newspapers, and yet in the House, where we are responsible for these industries, apparently we cannot discuss it.

Why is it thought that any discussion here will necessarily make the situation worse? It is only a few days since we embarked on a discussion about Cyprus while negotiations, presumably of a delicate nature, were going on about the future of Cyprus. As far as I know, no harm was done by that. I think it will be difficult for the public to understand why we can debate that issue but cannot debate the strike which, if it comes about, will have a devastating effect on the country.

May I ask the Leader of the House, if there is not a settlement this weekend, whether time will be found for a debate next week?

4 13 p.m.

Mr. R. A. Butler

May I say to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), in view of his standing and position in the House, that neither I nor the Government have received any representation from him and his hon. Friends about a discussion on the strike, up to this time of this day. While I attach the right importance that should be attached to his words, I do not think that he should have left it to the last minute to make this application, if he wished to have a discussion on the strike.

We have maintained contact with the Opposition. To the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), who sometimes seems even to apologise for his independent rôle, I would say that we respect his independent rôle but that, in assessing as far as we can the majority opinion of the House, we have come to the conclusion that a debate tomorrow would not be justified and that an alteration in our Standing Orders is not called for. That does not mean that I underestimate the words used by the right hon. Member or by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, because the House of Commons is deeply involved in these affairs. I would tell the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that if there is occasion for it, his request for an opportunity for a debate next week will be given proper consideration.

I think that the right hon. Member for Easington has done the Government far less than justice. This dispute started by a disagreement between the unions concerned. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] We very much hope that if a solution be found, it will be because the unions concerned are showing a great sense of responsibility—which they are showing in the course of the negotiations which are proceeding at present. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour has come into this dispute. He has been supported by members of the Trades Union Congress and he has been helped by a great many figures in the country. I sincerely believe that the best help we can give him now is to exercise that restraint which has been shown by so many hon. Members.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

I would endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for LIanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) said. Although it is not often the case, I am in complete agreement with the Leader of the House on this occasion. The present dispute is in a very delicate state, to say the least. I am hopeful, and I think that the whole House is hopeful, that a settlement will take place in the very near future. We in this country have developed freedom of negotiation and bargaining between employers and employees, and it is only when the negotiations have finally broken down that the House can make various suggestions as to how the dispute should be settled.

It may be that Members on both sides of the House have their own opinion as to the reasons why this dispute might develop, but I suggest that when an industrial dispute of this magnitude is in progress this is not the time to air that opinion. As one who is intimately associated with, and, indeed, very proud to be associated with, the railway industry. I urge the House, and particularly my colleagues, not to take any steps at this juncture that might jeopardise the very delicate poise of the whole situation. I do not think that we could do any good.

If it be that negotiations finally break down, and we are faced with a national stoppage, then the House must take serious cognisance of that situation. But until such time as that situation arises I think it much better to leave the matter in the hands of those who have been in close contact with it the whole time and who know the various trends that have been developing.

The present dispute is not a clear-cut issue, as many industrial stoppages have been from time to time. Here there is a complexity of problems. I believe that the House would be doing a great disservice to the men engaged in the dispute and to the country if it impetuously jumped into something before the negotiations had finalised.

I urge my colleagues not to press the matter at this moment, although I fully understand how concerned every one of us is, in the interest of our constituents, in what is taking place. I sincerely hope that hon. Members on this side of the House will follow the advice given. I am sure that it is in the best interest of everyone concerned.

Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)

Without saying anything about the outcome of the present conflict, is my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House aware that there are people in the country who feel that the railways and the railwaymen have not had a fair deal since the end of the war? Will he, therefore, do his best to impress upon the Government the desirability, whatever the outcome of the dispute may be, of the Government bringing forward plans for a new deal for the railways?

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Walter Monslow (Barrow-in-Furness)

I want to supplement what my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell) has said, that we ought not to discuss the situation now. I think that it would be disastrous to discuss it. I have a great respect for those who have constituency interests. We all have railwaymen in our constituencies, but at this hour it is somewhat belated to be putting forward problems that ought to have been put forward some time ago.

When the Government seek to excuse themselves from responsibility, I am bound to say that to the many Questions which I have submitted on the subject the reply which I have received in relation to this basic industry is that as far as the Government are concerned any increase in wages or any improvement of conditions within the industry must be effected through the policy of economania. That, I suggest, is an absolute misunderstanding of the whole transport situation. I leave the matter there.

At this juncture, at any rate, none of us ought to do anything at all, or express what we feel, until we see what the outcome will be. [Interruption.] I am talking about saying anything at this stage which might prejudice the discussions now going on.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

I heartily endorse what the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) has just said. This is an industry over which the nation has some control and somebody should at some time have taken the responsibility to lift the problem of the railways—it is a world problem—out of the field of politics. Tomorrow, I am going to a local inquiry which is being held because a branch line is to be closed because it is not paying. Pressure is being brought on me to have it kept open.

We have now reached a juncture in the history of transport when the problem must be looked upon from the point of view of the welfare of the men engaged in the industry and also of the interests of the nation, of our strategy and our economy.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

My only concern about what has been said on this matter is that the general public, or quite a considerable section, will regard us as not having faced our responsibility. We, as Members of the House of Commons, have a duty to our constituents and to the public generally. We may be put into a very false position if—as we all hope will not occur—a strike breaks out before the House has had an opportunity of expressing some view on the situation which, unhappily, will prevail if the negotiations break down. We shall to some extent be rightly accused of having run away from our duties if we go away this afternoon and leave the situation as it is.

Mr. W. T. Proctor (Eccles)

I think that we all know that the differences in this dispute are very narrow. There is only one thing I say to the Leader of the House. The House will never forgive him if he allows narrow differences to involve us in a terrible dispute.

4.22 p.m.

Mr. W. Yates

Out of courtesy to the House, and in view of what has occurred, perhaps I might ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you will consider allowing me to have my Adjournment debate on another occasion.

Mr. Speaker

Before the hon. Member makes use of this Adjournment, perhaps I had better tell him in public what I was going to tell him privately. I shall use my powers, as far as I can, to ensure that he has another opportunity of speaking on the Adjournment, but it will not necessarily be until after some delay. In those circumstances, he might not wish to use this occasion, as time is limited.

Mr. Yates

May I say, Sir, that I consider that the Adjournment debate which has now taken place now far transcends any subject that I was trying to raise? I am sure that it would be the wish of my constituents that hon. Members should have had those few minutes to discuss what, quite obviously, is a most serious state of affairs. As I, also, happen to represent a constituency which has railwaymen in it, I add to what some right hon. and hon. Members have said, that I think that it would be most unfortunate if the debate on this subject proceeded any further while the present negotiations are in progress. In view of that, I should not like to say anything further today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Four o'clock.