HC Deb 25 July 1968 vol 769 cc986-90

Mr. Lomas (by Private Notice) asked the First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity whether she will make a statement on the breakdown of talks in the present dispute concerning municipal busmen.

The First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

As the House will know, the Minister of Transport and I have been in close touch with both sides in this dispute and have made strenuous efforts to help them reach a solution in accordance with the Government's productivity prices and incomes policy.

Yesterday, the two sides put further proposals to the Minister of Transport and myself, one feature of which was that the 10s. bonus payable for acceptance of one-man operation should be back-dated to 14th December last year. Since the resolution accepting the principle of one-man operation was not passed by the National Joint Industrial Council for the industry until 13th June this year the proposal to back-date it would clearly be inconsistent with the recommendations of the Prices and Incomes Board.

Both sides were accordingly informed that the Government could not approve the implementation of an agreement including this provision. However, we made clear that the Government were prepared to accept the other features of the proposals and to approve a settlement which would give the municipal busmen covered by the agreement an immediate increase of £1 in return for agreement to accept one-man operation and to draw up productivity guidelines at national level as recommended by the Prices and Incomes Board. Ten shillings of the £ would be on the basic rate payable from last December and the second 10s. would be in the form of a bonus payable from 13th June this year, to be consolidated by the end of the year. In addition, the settlement would provide for increases in the premia paid to drivers of one-man buses to the levels recommended by the National Board for Prices and Incomes.

The Government believe that an agreement on these lines would be fair to the busmen and their employers, while protecting the interests of the travelling public by paving the way to more efficient use of manpower in the industry. I deeply regret that the unions have not yet seen their way to accept it.

Mr. Lomas

May I assure my right hon. Friend that her statement will be received in many quarters of the House with a great deal of satisfaction? I hope that as much publicity as possible will be given to it.

I wish to ask my right hon. Friend two questions. Do I understand from the statement that the £1 a week increase can be paid at once to all municipal busmen covered by the agreement as soon as a settlement is reached? Secondly, will she give a very firm assurance that if an agreement is reached on the lines which have been mentioned the standstill will lapse?

Mrs. Castle

It is true, as I explained in my statement, that it is possible for the municipal busmen covered by the agreement to have the £1 a week increase immediately on the lines I have outlined. And it is certainly true that if we were still able to reach agreement on these lines the standstill would lapse.

Mr. Holland

Is the right hon. Lady aware that, certainly in Nottingham, the constant delays in payment of the award are causing a serious staff shortage necessitating very considerable overtime, which is not good for the busmen? Has this factor been taken into account in all the efforts made to reach a solution?

Mrs. Castle

The agreement of last December reached between the two sides was condemned by the Prices and Incomes Board in Report No. 63 because it had no productivity offset and did not conform to the criteria. But the Report pointed out that increases in pay could be linked to productivity. These are the lines which we have been pursuing in our recent discussions. A settlement is open to the busmen, and I still hope that the unions will see their way to accepting it.

Mr. Park

Would my right hon. Friend bear in mind that this is the third time in two years that a standstill order has been applied against the municipal busmen? Is she aware that the agreement last December with the employers was for an increase of £1 on the basic rate and was a quite separate question from single manning and other productivity criteria? Does she not think that it is time that the Government ceased to make the major victims of their policy people whose basic rates are less than £13 a week and who, only by working long hours and overtime, are able to secure decent take-home pay?

Mrs. Castle

The settlement which was reached last December contained no association with productivity whatsoever. We must have regard to the interests of the travelling public. There must be a limit to the spiral between wage increases and fares increases and ways were open to break the spiral by linking this increase with productivity. It is just because the Government did not and do not wish to victimise them that my right hon. Friend and I have spent so much time in working out a basis of settlement which will be fair to the busmen, will give them their £1 and yet safeguard the travelling public. We found that basis, and I still plead with the unions to accept it in the interests of their own members and the public.

Mr. R. Carr

Would the right hon. Lady distinguish between the settlements allowed to go through for the London and, particularly, for the Liverpool busmen and her refusal to allow these settlements to go through? Is she aware of the need to maintain the belief in fairness in these matters and the general impression that her attitude and that of her right hon. Friend is more flexible in some cases, notably concerning railwaymen and Ford workers, than in this case?

Mrs. Castle

I totally reject the right hon. Gentleman's last statement. It is just because we have had to bear in mind the inter-relationship between one settlement and another that we have had to engage in these protracted discussions. The £1 increase paid to the London busmen, for example, was aquid pro quo for productivity, and it is very much with the London increase in mind that we have been discussing the possibility of getting links with productivity. In the London agreement, for instance, there is a 10s. bonus for one-man operation which was not in the 14th December settlement that the busmen reached. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the increase for the Liverpool busmen was authorised by my Department only in the light of the Prices and Incomes Board's Report.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

My right hon. Friend talked of fares chasing wages and vice versa. Has her attention been drawn to the fact that in North Wales municipal busmen have been refused an increase but that the fares have been allowed to go up, so to help her in her policy they will refuse to collect the extra fares? Does my right hon. Friend support this?

Mrs. Castle

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that fares increases are subject to the scrutiny of the statutory authorises, the traffic commissioners, who must take all factors into account and who are very thorough in examining the basis for the demand for fare increases before they allow any of them. But there is no doubt that unless we can move towards a better productivity base for the increase in busmen's pay we shall have an ever-accelerating fares spiral.

Mr. Bessell

Is the Secretary of State aware that within the restrictions imposed upon her by the Government's prices and incomes policy she has made a phenomenal effort to reach a settlement? In view of the hardship which might be caused to the travelling public, does she agree that the unions will forfeit a great deal of sympathy if they do not accept her offer?

Mrs. Castle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his understanding remarks. It is very nice to have a bit of appreciation. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and I have worker extremely hard over a number of weeks to try to find an acceptable basis. The executive council of the Transport and General Workers' Union is meeting this afternoon. We can only hope and pray that out of its meeting will come an understanding of what there is in this for busmen and for the public.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members on this side of the House feel that she and her colleagues have become hypnotised with the term "productivity"? Is she further aware that it is not possible to relate all workers' wages to increased productivity at all times? As a result of the Liverpool bus strike, we now have a diminished bus service in Liverpool which is basically the responsibility of the Government for holding up the settlement for so long.

Mrs. Castle

I make no apology to the House for attaching very great importance to the development of productivity settlements. Of course, they are not appropriate in the same form in every industry, but it is perfectly clear that there is a basis for agreement—one-man operation. The union accepts that there is this basis. We have been trying to integrate this into the settlement in terms which, I repeat, will be fair to the public as well as to the busmen.

Mr. Raymond Fletcher

Has my right hon. Friend been made aware during her discussions with trade union leaders that, if the Government are excessively obstinate on this matter, the introduction of single-manning on buses may be delayed and also made considerably more expensive when it comes?

Mrs. Castle

that kind of argument can always be used in any discussion of a wage settlement. We have to look at the overall picture of the long-term developments in the country. I think that there is no doubt that, as a result of the reports of the Incomes and Prices Board, not only the transport unions but unions generally are now aware that in putting forward wage claims they must look for a productivity return so that the Government can approve those increases within the policy. I repeat, I make no apology to the House, or to the country, for the emphasis which we are putting on this.