HC Deb 23 April 1968 vol 763 cc37-40
Mr. Eric S. Heffer

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour what action she is taking to intervene in the bus strike in Liverpool, and whether she will set up an immediate independent inquiry or, alternatively, convene a meeting of all bodies concerned so that an early settlement can be reached.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

The pay of Liverpool busmen is being examined by the National Board for Prices and Incomes and it would not be appropriate for my right hon. Friend to intervene or to appoint an independent inquiry; nor do we con- sider that there is scope for conciliation at the present time. The corporation has indicated to the unions that as soon as work is resumed it would be prepared to negotiate a productivity bonus for all platform staff in return for a firm agreement on one-man operation.

I hope that the men will return to work on this basis.

Mr. Heffer

Is my hon. Friend aware that that is a most disappointing and complacent reply? The people of Liverpool have now been walking the streets without transport for the last six weeks. The strike is now entering its seventh week. Is it not time that my hon. Friend reconsidered the possibility of an intervention, or at least put the maximum pressure on the local transport committee to reach a settlement satisfactory, both to the employees and the transport committee?

Mr. Hattersley

I am very conscious of the hardship and inconvenience caused to the people of Liverpool. My right hon. Friend, like me, regrets this state of affairs, but we are also conscious of our obligations and the corporation's obligations to the ratepayers of Liverpool. Clearly, it is not in the city's interests, or in the interests of our economy, that an agreement should go forward which cannot be justified according to the criteria of our prices and incomes policy.

Mr. Tilney

Is the Minister aware that the Conservative local administration of Liverpool would welcome an inquiry because it believes that this is a quarrel between Her Majesty's Government and the union concerned, a quarrel which is causing great hurt to the people of Liverpool, especially to the sick and old? Why did the Ministry, which had this problem before it for about three months, take that time before referring the matter to the Prices and Incomes Board?

Mr. Hattersley

If the council simply wants an inquiry, an inquiry it is getting in the form of an examination of the Committee's specific agreement with the National Board for Prices and Incomes. I am also aware, as I hope the hon. Member is, that the corporation is prepared to make an award for certain productivity agreements for one-man operation of buses. This is an award on which the Minister would look with some sympathy. I hope that the men take that view as well.

Mr. Alldritt

Is my hon. Friend aware that it was not possible to reach an agreement on one-man operation until the law was changed by the Minister of Transport and that there is a basic agreement in existence which cannot be implemented? Is my hon. Friend not concerned with the fact that many of our primary public services in Liverpool may break down if this dispute is allowed to continue?

Mr. Hattersley

Yes, I am concerned about that, and so is my right hon. Friend, but her task is to decide a series of priorities. The first priority which she and her predecessor saw was to make sure that the pay of Liverpool busmen, and consequently of busmen throughout the country, was based on some realistic economic criteria.

Mr. Maudling

The hon. Gentleman did not answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) about the reasons for delays by the Government in this matter. Has not the delay largely contributed to the present unfortunate situation and is not that delay by the Government alone holding this up and causing the trouble?

Mr. Hattersley

One of the contributory factors to delay, if delay there be, is that my right hon. Friend and her predecessor thought it right to try to obtain a voluntary agreement whereby this demand was not made rather than to use compulsory powers. As I understand that that is the prices and incomes policy of the right hon. Gentleman, he should be applauding rather than criticising it.

Mr. Simon Mahon

Is my hon. Friend aware of the great degree of hardship in the Port of Liverpool today? Most people in Liverpool are of the opinion that the set of circumstances I speak about would not be tolerated in the great Port of London? Therefore, we are asking the Government to display a greater sense of urgency in bringing this very difficult and trying dispute to an end. I am speaking personally to the Government when I say that I am very disap- pointed. I expected better results and immediate intervention by the Government.

Mr. Hattersley

I am happy to say again that we are most conscious of the inconvenience and regretful for it, but there is no point in comparing one agreement which might have been accepted with another which by the standards of my right hon. Friend is unacceptable. One must look at these proposals on their merits, and on their merits they are not and cannot be acceptable.

Mr. Fortescue

In view of the conditions in Liverpool during the strike and after, when a great number of platform men will have found other jobs, will the hon. Gentleman recommend to his right hon. Friend that the decision she took to close a suburban railway line in Liverpool should now be reversed?

Mr. Hattersley

That is not a question for me.