HC Deb 02 February 1962 vol 652 cc1435-40
Mr. G. R. Strauss (by Private Notice)

asked the Minister of Transport if he will make a statement about the action he proposes to take to deal with the threatened transport dislocation in London on Monday, 5th February.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Ernest Marples)

The Government have reviewed, in the light of last Monday's experience, the arrangements to be made if there is another unofficial transport strike in London on Monday, 5th February.

The Government's general aim is business as usual. But it will be essential to reduce the volume of traffic on the roads. The Government have therefore asked the public not to travel in London unless they must.

Those who must travel are asked to stagger their travelling times so as to spread the peak load. Employers have been asked to help arrange this. All who use cars are asked to see that the seats are filled as far as possible.

To help people use available public transport, I have asked British Railways and London Transport, with the help of Press and radio, if they will give particular attention to keeping the public supplied with up-to-the-minute information about the services actually running.

Responsibility for control of traffic and parking lies, of course, with the police, who are making their own announcements.

Mr. Strauss

I am grateful to the Minister for that information. I should have thought that his request to the public not to travel in London on Monday unless they have to was really unnecessary. But is it not now obvious that neither of these Monday strikes would have taken place if it had not been for the unnecessary and irresponsible interference of the Minister—

Mr. Speaker

Order. How on earth can that be related to, or elucidate something about, action to deal with the threatened transport dislocation on Monday?

Mr. Strauss

May I put it this way, Mr. Speaker? Does the Minister appreciate that his actions are responsible for the strike which is likely to take place on Monday? Further, will he state what the present position is? It is reported that Dr. Beeching is now negotiating with the railway unions. Is this in defiance of the Minister's request to Dr. Beeching, or has the Minister withdrawn that request, or modified it in some way? Can he tell us what is the exact position, which is very unclear to us at the moment?

Mr. Marples

These supplementary questions seem to be a little away from the original Question, but on the subject of negotiations, a meeting has been arranged for Monday between the unions and the Commission, and with negotiations at this delicate stage I would personally prefer not to comment on them at all. As for the responsibility for the strike, I will not enter into that question. All I would say is that I hope that the men will obey the advice of their own union leaders, whom they have elected. The union leaders are trying to stop this strike, and so are the Opposition—except on this occasion. Normally, the Opposition, too, have deplored this unofficial strike. I hope that the men will listen to their leaders.

Mr. Strauss

Although nobody wants to interfere in any way with discussions which are likely to take place, we are entitled to ask what the Minister's position is in this matter. We are entitled to ask him whether his request to Dr. Beeching not to negotiate but to arbitrate is being defied by Dr. Beeching, or whether the Minister has withdrawn that request. If the latter is the case, it is a great pity that he ever made it.

Mr. Marples

I refuse to be drawn by the right hon. Gentleman. With negotiations going on on Monday, I prefer to say nothing.

Mr. Callaghan

Does not the Minister realise that it was his interference in the normal negotiating machinery which precipitated the unofficial action in defiance of the advice of the unions last week-end? Therefore, if we want to avoid chaos next Monday, will not the Minister tell the country whether he has withdrawn the request to Dr. Beeching to proceed to arbitration, so that Dr. Beeching is now free to resume negotiations unfettered by the Minister's ill-timed and injudicious interference?

Mr. Marples

Who is responsible is a matter of opinion. My opinion often varies from that of the hon. Gentleman. It varies on this occasion, too. It would be wrong and very unwise to continue with these sorts of questions. These negotiations are taking place between the official elected union leaders and the Commission and they should be allowed to negotiate without anybody trying to exacerbate the situation.

Mr. Callaghan

No one is trying to do so. But does not the Minister recognise the significance of what is being said? Whatever his opinion may be, does he not realise that it is the opinion of many of the negotiators and of the men concerned that it was his request which precipitated this action? It is surely in the public interest to ask the Minister quite clearly whether he has withdrawn this request to Dr. Beeching so that everyone concerned in the transport industry and those occupied with travelling on Monday may know that it is no action of the Minister's which has precipitated further irritation in the industry?

Mr. Marples

I will not be drawn by the hon. Gentleman. As I have said, they are having this meeting on Monday. Who is responsible for the unofficial strike is one thing, but the union leaders themselves have suggested that the men should go to work and my advice is that they should obey that suggestion.

Mr. Fletcher

In order to minimise the inconvenience that must result to the public on Monday if the threatened strike takes place, although we all hope it may still be avoided, will the Minister be a little more specific? Will he tell us whether, as reported in some parts of the Press, it is proposed to close entirely some streets in Central London? Will he arrange for the fullest possible information to be given regularly over the radio, both throughout the weekend and early on Monday morning, so that the public may know exactly what services are running and what are not, and what roads can be used? Will he also make arrangements now for motorists who are driving into London to have far more one-way streets available to them in this emergency that was arranged last week?

Mr. Marples

In reply to the last part of that supplementary question, we are certainly considering that suggestion now. As to what streets should be closed, that will be a matter for the police. They are issuing a comprehensive statement later today giving those details. In reply to the suggestion that I should give the fullest information through the Press and radio, the answer is, "Yes, Sir". I shall watch the position myself, but I have also asked British Railways and London Transport to get out on the radio as soon as possible what is happening to their services, which services are running and so on.

Mr. H. Hynd

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether arrangements will be made for season tickets to be interchangeable between various forms of public transport? That would greatly help.

Mr. Marples

I do not think it has been arranged at the moment, but during last Monday's strike British Railways did say that anybody with a season ticket could go to the station and have it extended by a day.

Mr. A. Evans

Does the Minister think this statement is adequate for the situation in the light of what happened last Monday? We all know that next Monday may be a rather horrible experience for tens of thousands of people. Could he not suggest to the road haulage firms that they might divert their heavy traffic away from the centre of the Metropolis? Has he nothing to say to the coach firms to the effect that they might, as far as possible, keep their big vehicles off the London roads? Is the Minister satisfied that the short statement he has made is adequate for the horrible and complicated situation which this great city will face on Monday next.

Mr. Marples

Yes, I think it is. I have asked that anyone who has no real need to come into the centre of London should not come in. That was in my original statement, and the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) said that it was unnecessary. I think it was necessary. Now the hon. Gentleman says that I should have extended my statement somewhat; so I am in rather a dilemma—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—because if two hon. Members opposite give me different advice, which advice should I take? Londoners are pretty resourceful and resilient people. They managed to get to work last time and I think they will next Monday.

Mr. Lipton

I wish to raise a point to which I have referred before, and I do not apologise for raising it again. Much of the trouble last Monday was due to the large number of private cars coming into Central London with only one person in each car. Will the Minister also bear in mind that as a result of this congestion caused by private cars London buses were compelled to do something like 70,000 fewer miles than their scheduled mileage, which added to the inconvenience suffered by the travelling public?

Mr. Marples

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. One of the disturbing features of last Monday was the small number of people in most of the private cars. If those private cars had been full it would have made a great difference. I hope that on this occasion motorists who have to come into the centre of London will stagger their times, starting very early or very late in the morning. I also hope they will offer lifts to their fellow citizens.

Mr. Mendelson

Whatever the Minister may think about past responsibilities, does he not regard it as his duty in this delicate negotiating situation to do something encouraging to help negotiations along? Does he not regard it further as his duty to say plainly to the House and to the country that he will allow free negotiations to proceed in the traditional manner with the hope of succeeding? Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those of us who represent railwaymen have been told in the last few days that his refusal to do so is the main reason for the crisis of confidence that exists in the industry?

Mr. Marples

I have made my position quite clear on that point.

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