HC Deb 17 June 1968 vol 766 cc707-13
Mr. Rankin (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 dispute between B.O.A.C. and its pilots.

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

As the House will be aware, members of the British Air Line Pilots' Association employed by B.O.A.C. have been on strike since midnight on Saturday. During the preceding four weeks B.A.L.P.A. had instructed its members to impose restrictions of increasing severity on their cooperation in the running of the airline. This action has been taken by B.A.L.P.A. because of the dissatisfaction which it feels at the progress made in the negotiations on B.O.A.C. pilots' pay and conditions on which it has been engaged since it rejoined the National Joint Council for Civil Air Transport in March.

In an effort to avert the strike, intensive discussions with the parties were held last week under the auspices of my Department. At a meeting under my chairmanship on 14th June the parties agreed on proposals for immediate direct talks within the National Joint Council for Civil Air Transport on the principles of a new pay structure for B.O.A.C. pilots and on all other outstanding matters, with the aim of reaching agreement by 31st July.

They also agreed that the results of the negotiations should be referred to the N.B.P.I., which already has a general reference on B.O.A.C. pilots' pay and productivity, with a view to an assessment being made of the productivity content of the proposed new agréement and the extent to which consequential improvements in pay and conditions were in accordance with the Government's policy for prices and incomes. The B.A.L.P.A. representatives undertook to recommend this formula to their executive council the following day.

At its meeting on 15th June, however, the executive council decided to reject the peace formula and submit counter proposals which differed in several important respects. Two changes proposed by B.A.L.P.A. were immediately accepted by B.O.A.C.—the appointment of an independent chairman to assist the parties in their negotiations and an assurance that there would be no victimisation. B.A.L.P.A.'s counter proposals would, however, also have involved a requirement that substantial agréement must be reached by 31st July not only on the principles of a new system, but also on its detailed form and content.

While expressing its willingness to go into immediate negotiations on the principles of a new pay structure, B.O.A.C. maintained that it was wholly impractical for it to commit itself to reaching agréement on the whole matter of pilot scheduling and pay within the time limit imposed by B.A.L.P.A. I informed B.A.L.P.A. of this and advised it that the formula agreed on 14th June with the two additional points accepted by B.O.A.C. could provide a practical basis on which progress could be made towards a satisfactory settlement. After protracted discussions, however, B.A.L.P.A. was not prepared to depart in any way from its counter proposals.

I think that the proposals agreed on 14th June and the two additional points accepted by B.O.A.C. on 15th June provide a basis for a solution of the present dispute. I regret that B.A.L.P.A. has gone ahead with its strike. I very much hope that it will reconsider the position.

Mr. Rankin

I thank my right hon. Friend for her very lengthy statement. I also thank her for what she has done herself to prevent this dispute from materialising. Is she aware that this morning B.A.L.P.A. has somewhat moderated its attitude and that much of what my right hon. Friend has said on salary structures and scheduling is in agreement w;th what the Association is thinking? In view of that, would she make another attempt to get both parties to come together under an independent chairman to try to resolve this dispute?

Mrs. Castle

I am very grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. It is true that we made considerable progress during the discussions and I very much regretted the eventual breakdown which we did everything possible to avoid. I repeat that I hope that B.A.L.P.A. will reconsider the situation, because I think that the position which we had reached was very hopeful from its point of view. Of course, I shall be watching the situation, and if at any time I think that the services of my Department will be of help to the two sides I shall immediately offer them.

Mr. R. Carr

May I ask the right hon. Lady two questions? First, is it a fact that it is almost nine months since the pilots' last contract of service expired? If so, while it may not justify it, does it not at least make the impatience of the pilots very understandable?

Secondly, I wish to ask a rather precise question about the method of conciliation adopted? Is it a fact that at a meeting at her Department the chair was taken not, as in the old Ministry of Labour tradition, by the conciliation side of her Department, but by the incomes policy side? If that is right, does it not underline the dichotomy to which we have drawn attention?

Mrs. Castle

I expressed to the pilots my full sympathy with their desire to get a new service contract settled at the earliest possible moment, and there were possibilities of doing this in the formula which we agreed. What the right hon. Gentleman calls the traditional conciliation side of the Ministry was in full play during the whole of the discussions in my Department. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who was in the chair?"] The only person in the chair at any formal meeting between the two sides was myself. But there have been detailed comings and goings and discussions with the different sides at which a dominant rôlewas played by the Under-Secretary for Industrial Relations at my Ministry, formerly of the Ministry of Labour, who has years of experience in conciliation disputes. He was one of those who was most in play.

Mr. Lubbock

Is it not apparent from the statements made by Sir Giles Guthrie and Captain Merrifield on television that they are not on the same wavelength? Would the right hon. Lady say on how many occasions during the progress of this dispute these two men have met under her chairmanship? If the answer is none, will she invite them both to talk with her on an informal basis?

Mrs. Castle

The two parties met under my chairmanship on Friday night, as I have explained in my statement, and it was a successful meeting, because a formula was agreed for reference with a recommendation by B.A.L.P.A. to the executive council. If it had then been possible to follow that up, we could have had a solution to the dispute.

Mr. Robert Howarth

What has been the attitude and rôle of the other trade unions organising B.O.A.C. employees in this dispute? Is their employment now in some jeopardy?

Mrs. Castle

During the many-sided and protracted discussions over the past few days, we have had the very useful help of members of the National Joint Council. As I have explained, Mr. Mark Young, secretary of the employees' side, and Mr. Clive Jenkins, were engaged. They did their utmost to try to find a way to a settlement.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the first paragraph of the peace formula which led to the breakdown on Saturday night was the basis of the interim agréement reached way back on 11th April? Would she bear in mind in the negotiations that the aircrews of B.O.A.C. want to work harder? They are flying only 40 or 50 hours a month. They want to put forward a productivity scheme instead of sitting on beaches and slipways for days on end. Will she request the Chairman of B.A.O.C., who has been abroad recently, not to make facetious remarks on television trying to ridicule the aircrews? That is not helpful.

Mrs. Castle

It would be totally unhelpful for me to be drawn into discussing the comments of either side in the dispute, because we are still anxious to achieve an early settlement. We recognise, and so does B.O.A.C, that it is a productivity deal, involving perhaps longer flying hours, which is under discussion and the peace formula provided for immediate talks to proceed on that new basis.

Mr. Spriggs

Would my right hon. Friend give further consideration to bringing the two parties together under an independent chairman?

Mrs. Castle

I do not think that bringing the parties together under an independent chairman is likely to help at this stage. As I explained in my statement, a provision was agreed by both sides for the purpose of meeting under an independent chairman for the purpose of supervising and helping them with negotiations. I think that this suggestion of B.A.L.P.A.'s, accepted by B.O.A.C, would have enabled them to make very rapid progress.

Mr. Doughty

Is it not a fact that for a long time now B.O.A.C. pilots have been flying the same planes over the same routes as their rivals at a salary approximately half what the other ones are paid? If she is to have a conciliation meeting of the two sides, would it not be unhelpful that there should be published the statement in The Times by the Chairman of B.O.A.C. today?

Mrs. Castle

I think that the hon. and learned Member is merely covering ground which has already been covered. I repeat, the whole matter which has been under discussion is the progress we can make towards a new system of pay and pilot scheduling. No one would dispute the need for us to examine that, and examine it urgently, but it really is unhelpful for hon. Members to try to draw me into adverse comments on the behaviour of either side to the dispute.

Mr. George Brown

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether she will bear in mind that the idea of longer hours of flying by pilots would fill some of us with a certain amount of regret and worry, because it is not so long since the pilots themselves were saying they were being asked to fly longer hours than would be safe?

Secondly, may I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind that a very great part of the argument for the prices and incomes policy was that those better off would stay still while those who were less well off could come forward? Since, as I understand, an increase has been offered to these men which is much more than the majority of ordinary people earn in a whole year, is there not very great cause for asking these men to consider very seriously before they press any further?

Mrs. Castle

The question of hours, of course, is one of the implications of the new system on which it was necessary for the two sides to talk.

B.A.L.P.A. has never objected to a provision in the formula that the outcome of the discussion on principles of a new system could be referred to the Prices and Incomes Board so that the cost implications could be examined objectively.

Sir G. Nabarro

In view of the right hon. Lady's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Mr. R. Carr), will she deal with the allegation, printed this morning, of Captain Merrifield that there has been a lack of expertise: on her behalf in dealing with this dispute, and that, to quote the words of Captain Merrifield, "things would have been very different under the old Ministry of Labour"?

In this atmosphere is it not evident that only an independent tribunal, entirely separate from the right hon. Lady, autonomous of her, would deal adequately with the solution of this problem?

Mrs. Castle

I could not accept that or the implication behind it. The fact that the two parties, under the auspices of my Department and with the help of the National Joint Council, reached agréement on the peace formula on Friday night, shows there was no lack of expertise. Indeed, this allegation has been rejected by both Sir Giles Guthrie and Mr. Mark Young, secretary of the employees' side of the N.J.C., who pointed out in a Press statement this weekend that the efforts of my Department, particularly throughout Saturday, to reconcile the differences were "inventive and ingenious".