HC Deb 24 June 1968 vol 767 cc35-43
Mr. Peter Walker

(by Private Notice)asked the Minister of Transport what steps he is taking to minimise inconvenience to public and industry as a result of the rail dispute, and whether he will make a statement.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Neil Carmichael) rose

Hon. Members: Where is the Minister of Transport?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Carmichael.

Mr. Carmichael

The expected reduction—

Mr. Biggs-Davison

On a point of order. In a matter so grave, should we not expect the Minister himself to reply?

Mr. Speaker

I am not responsible for deciding what the House has a right to expect.

Mr. Carmichael

Perhaps I should say that my right hon. Friend had to leave for Carlisle early this morning to fulfil an important long-standing engagement. He will be back about 6 o'clock tonight. I have spoken to him within the last hour, and he is in constant touch with the situation. I have been asked to reply in his absence.

The expected reduction in passenger and freight services on the railways this morning affected mainly night passenger services and the commuter services into London and other large cities. I regret that many thousands of people travelling to work were subjected to delay and discomfort. The London Transport underground railway was, however, running not far below normal and of course buses were running, though fuller than usual. The arrangements for special traffic regulations, extra car parks and the giving of lifts have given relief. There has so far been little effect on freight traffic: in particular, there has been no special difficulty in accommodating urgent freight which normally goes by rail.

The Government hope that the two unions will yet agree to accept the unanimous award of the Railway Staff National Tribunal, the industry's own official arbitration body: this would give their lowest-paid workers an immediate increase in pay. The Railways Board is ready to make rapid progress in the talks on pay and efficiency agreements which offer railway workers substantial increases in earnings. In the Transport Bill, the Government are giving the railways the chance of a progressive and secure future. But this will be jeopardised unless the pay and efficiency talks succeed.

The future of the railway system is in the hands of those who work in the industry. My right hon. Friend and I appeal to everyone in the railways to act responsibly and make that future a hopeful one.

Mr. Peter Walker

Is the Minister aware that we fully support his view? It is a great tragedy that the railway unions have not accepted the unanimous decision as a result of the arbitration machinery. We hope, in the interests of the public, the economy, and, indeed, the railwaymen themselves, that they will swiftly accept this arbitration decision.

May I also ask the Minister whether he considers that there will be considerable deterioration in the situation as a result of the decision of A.S.L.E.F. to join the dispute from midnight tonight?

Can the hon. Gentleman do anything to increase the inter-city air services operated as a substitute for the railways?

Will the hon. Gentleman see that the parking facilities in London are not confined to a number of boroughs, because there is great difficulty on the part of motorists in deciding whether to cross the boundary from one borough to another where extra parking facilities are provided?

Will the hon. Gentleman also look into the question of passengers switching perhaps from the Southern Region to the Underground, where their season tickets are not usable, and where, therefore, they are having to pay the additional fare?

Finally, will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the House will be kept informed as the situation develops?

Mr. Carmichael

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the hope for a quick and speedy solution to the problem. I take note of the points that he has raised and I will convey them to my right hon. Friend.

There has already been evidence that more inter-city air services will be put on, particularly on the Glasgow-London route, and perhaps others.

The other points on parking and the use of Southern Region season tickets on the Underground will be looked into. I also undertake to keep the House informed of all new developments.

Mr. Orme

Does my hon. Friend feel that there is some basic justification in the railwaymen's claim at present for an all-round increase and that this is the basis of the problem? Will my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend recommend the Railways Board, after years of procrastination, to negotiate on a basic all-round increase, which would lay the basis for the acceptance of the other terms which the Railways Board wants accepted?

Mr. Carmichael

My hon. Friend should realise that this was the recommendation of the Railway Staff National Tribunal, the body set up by the unions and the Board to consider questions such as those which have arisen. There is no doubt that from January next year the railways, because of the beneficial effects of the Transport Bill, will be working on a strictly commercial basis. I feel, and my right hon. Friend certainly feels, that the award recommended by the Tribunal is one which, if operated properly, can put the railways in the right position to act commercially, as well as allowing the lower-paid workers in the industry to get an immediate substantial increase.

Mr. Lubbock

Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear to both unions that there is no question whatever of a general increase being paid unless it is fully justified by an increase in productivity under the prices and incomes policy and that such an increase could not be justified because of the effect it would have on other sectors of the economy?

Further, could we be told what further measures are being taken to ease the flow of traffic in central London? Will the hon. Gentleman appeal to the operators of heavy freight lorries not to come into London during the rush-hours in the morning and evening?

Mr. Carmichael

The dispute is largely about productivity. There is a productivity agreement being negotiated. This is being discussed between the Railways Board and the unions.

The police and traffic authorities are taking all possible steps to move tidal flow traffic into London. The point raised by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) on parking will also be taken into account and kept under review and everything done so that commuters coming in by car will be able to find parking places.

The question of heavy commercial vehicles is a matter for the police. It will have to be watched carefully as the days progress.

Mr. Murray

Can my hon. Friend say whether, in view of not only the damage to the economy of the country by this go-slow, but also the frustration to thousands of commuters in and around London, his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity are making early plans to call the two unions and the Railways Board together?

Mr. Carmichael

My right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport are keeping the matter under close review and they are keeping watch on the reaction between the unions and the Railways Board. They are in constant touch and when they think it appropriate I am sure that they will call the two bodies together.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Will the hon. Gentleman make it crystal clear that the Government are backing the Railways Board with their present plans, and therefore that there will be no question of a thirteenth-hour sell-out in Downing Street? Will he help to get across to the railway staff that the interim offer is for an increase of up to 12 per cent. for 130,000 men? Will he get that across to the N.U.R. before its delegate conference next week?

Mr. Carmichael

There never was a thirteenth-hour sell-out. What happened on the previous occasion was that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister called the two bodies together and started what has now become a productivity agreement. The only thing that my right hon. Friend did was to get established the idea that in future railway pay would be tied to productivity, which I think was a great service to the industry.

Mr. Bidwell

Does my hon. Friend agree that the rejection by the railway staff of the Tribunal's award to railway workers is in itself an indication, since it is not obligatory, of the deep-seated feeling which prevails among railway workers? Would he not also agree that the basic wage rates of railway workers are appallingly low, and that there is, therefore, a need for a short-term settlement in that regard pending longer negotiations on productivity?

Mr. Carmichael

Yes, Sir. We agree that productivity is the key to any increase in wages on the railways. We also agree that there are strong underlying difficulties in the railway industry. This is why the Transport Bill was introduced, and why it is the first gleam of hope that the industry has had for many years.

Mr. J. H. Osborn

Can the hon. Gentleman say what steps he is taking to ensure that our goods go from the factories to the ports, and food from the ports to shops and housewives? Will he now take steps to ensure that we have an adequate alternative system to the railways, namely, a healthy road haulage industry, and to this end will he introduce appropriate Amendments to the Transport Bill when it is discussed in the other place?

Mr. Carmichael

We are, naturally, concerned that there should be a healthy road haulage industry. Despite the objections of hon. Gentlemen opposite, this, again, is what we believe will be the result of the Transport Bill. Arrangements have already been made for the transfer of certain urgent commodities from rail to road, and we see no difficulty in increasing these transfers as time goes on.

Mr. Spriggs

If my hon. Friend is correct in saying that this dispute is about productivity, may I ask whether he is aware that the railway trade unions have in the past agreed to some of the best productivity agreements in industry? On that basis alone, are not the railway-men entitled to a fair deal?

Mr. Carmichael

I agree that workers in the industry have co-operated and participated in some outstanding productivity agreements. This is a new productivity agreement. It goes much wider than most of the previous ones, and it is believed by the Tribunal to be one which will bring railway workers better wages. We believe that if railway workers accept the benefits of this productivity agreement it will be for the good of the industry, and for themselves, too.

Mr. Hunt

While condemning the irresponsibility of the railwaymen who are currently causing chaos and inconvenience to the travelling public, may I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he does not consider that there has not been some degree of complacency and wishful thinking on the part of the Government since the Prime Minister's instant intervention in March, 1966? Will he say, for example, what positive steps the Government have taken in more than two years since then to assist and speed up the pay and productivity talks?

Mr. Carmichael

First, no increase was given following the talks between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the railway industry. An agreement such as this involves more than 300,000 employees, and two years is not excessive. I am sure that many private industries would not consider two years unduly long if it was necessary to work out as complicated a scheme as this, involving this number of employees.

Mr. Henig

May I press my hon. Friend a little further about the provision of parking facilities in the Metropolitan area? In particular, is it correct that in the Metropolitan area the operation of parking meters has been suspended from today? If that is so, does not my hon. Friend agree that it is much more difficult for the short-term user to find a parking meter? Also, does he think that traffic wardens should continue to issue tickets like confetti, as they have been doing this morning?

Mr. Carmichael

That is one of the questions which the police must take into consideration on a daily basis and find out exactly how the public are reacting. It appears that traffic today has been much lighter than most people expected, but the police and the traffic and parking authorities will no doubt keep in close touch with what is happening in their boroughs and in central London.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

In view of the hon. Gentleman's extraordinary introduction of the Transport Bill into his reply, may I ask him to bear in mind that many people regard the switch of further traffic from the roads on to the railways as plain ruddy mad?

Mr. Carmichael

I brought in the Transport Bill because it is vital if we are to have a railway industry which will not be beset by problems such as those facing us today. We strongly believe that the Bill, in addition to being an integrated Measure for all transport, will give the railways hope and perhaps remove some of the problems raised by one of my hon. Friends about morale on the railways.

Mr. Mendelson

Will the Government bear in mind the deep feeling among those employed on the railways, as can be testified to by anyone who represents railwaymen, and there are a number of us in this House who do? Railwaymen feel that they have been left behind, and are always left behind. As my hon. Friend knows, they were among the first to suffer under the standstill agreement after the legislation of July, 1966.

It is, therefore, most urgent to get the two parties together, under two or three senior Government Ministers, to consider all the problems involved, instead of listening to the traditional voices of the anti-trade union party on the benches opposite.

Finally, did my hon. Friend hear Mr. Jackson, the Assistant Secretary of A.S.L.E.F., on the one o'clock news, when he pointed the way to an agreement by saying that there should be an overall increase now, and that in the subsequent negotiations the productivity factor should be taken into consideration?

Mr. Carmichael

I agree with the first part of my hon. Friend's statement, that railway workers have always been the worst off. This is because the railway industry has never been properly reorganised, and again I come back to the Transport Bill. This Measure gives the railway industry a chance to be properly reorganised, and I am glad that my hon. Friends support it. I heard the statement by the Assistant Secretary of A.S.L.E.F. We shall be giving it serious consideration.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Will the hon. Gentleman represent to his right hon. Friend that he should take an immediate initiative to avert the threatened strike of B.E.A.? Nothing has been done about the air strike, and if this one takes place it can only worsen the present situation.

Mr. Carmichael

I think that that is another question.

Mr. Heffer

Will my hon. Friend repudiate the stupid and silly remarks coming from both the Tory and Liberal benches? Will he give us an assurance that the Government will do everything possible to get further conciliation in order to arrive at a settlement of this matter? Will he not take advice from the newspapers or from hon. Gentlemen opposite who, obviously, seem delighted that this strike is taking place?

Mr. Carmichael

I think that my hon. Friend is being unfair. There have been one or two very good suggestions from the benches opposite, although undoubtedly many hon. Gentlemen opposite seem almost to be revelling in the idea that the strike is going on. I assure my hon. Friend that every effort is being made within the Ministry of Transport and the Department of my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State to try to find a solution to the problem.

Mr. Peter Walker

Is the Minister aware that we strongly object to his remarks about my hon. Friends, all of whom have supported the Government's position that the unions should accept the unanimous award of the Railway Staff National Tribunal? In view of the Minister's remarks that he will give careful consideration to the request made by the Assistant Secretary of A.S.L.E.F., will he make it clear that the Government back the Board in sticking by the arbitration award?

Mr. Carmichael

I certainly will give that undertaking, but what I said—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman heard me—was that many of the suggestions from the other side were very helpful—and I paid tribute to the fact that he had been very helpful in his remarks. Nevertheless, there were some statements from the other side which would not help the situation.