HC Deb 25 June 1968 vol 767 cc244-52
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Richard Marsh)

With permission, I should like to make a statement.

My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary undertook yesterday that we would keep the House informed of any developments taking place in the railways dispute. There has been a change in the situation in that, as the House will know, the locomotive men's union— A.S.L.E.F.—has now joined in the industrial action a week earlier than they had originally proposed. The A.S.L.E.F. action has not so far had a significant additional effect on the operation of the railways.

The action which started yesterday is, however, still causing considerable disruption, principally from the closure of signal boxes and level crossings. These impose serious limitations on railway working. Nevertheless, the commuter services into London on the Southern Region, where passengers faced most delay and discomfort yesterday, worked rather more easily this morning. But there were fewer passengers.

To help those who came in by car the fullest use is being made of tidal flow traffic regulations; there are extra car parks in central areas and charges at meters in central London are suspended. Insurance companies have given their usual assistance to those requiring immediate extra cover in present circumstances, but free lifts have, as usual, been at passengers own risk.

Looking at the freight side, the picture is of reduced operations—and certainly not chaos. Special arangements for the transport of milk from the West Country and Wales, meat, fresh vegetables and fruit have all worked well while there has been no difficulty so far with freight-liners—which are running normally—or the mail. Bulk transport of coal has been slowed, but we have very large stocks at power stations and the position gives no rise to anxiety.

But we must remember that of the 200 million tons or so of goods moved by rail a year some 120 million is in small units: the more urgent elements of this, at least, can switch to road—and are doing so. We must remember that this traffic is slight by road standards: some 1½ thousand million tons or so move by road a year.

There is discomfort and inconvenience for many innocent people in getting to work, but the economy of the country is certainly not being throttled. Priority is being given to exports and the Government will continue to keep essential services going. It is the passengers who suffer now, but it is the railways and railwaymen who will suffer in the longer term if this unnecessary dispute continues.

Let me make the position clear. We cannot continue with ever-increasing railway deficits. Under the financial restructuring proposed in the Transport Bill, from 1st January the Board will no longer have the safety net of a general deficit grant. It will be standing on its own feet financially and I want to make it clear that it is quite out of the question for any settlement of this dispute to be reached on any basis other than one which the Board is satisfied it can afford.

I can only repeat what my hon. Friend said yesterday: the Government hope that the two unions will accept the unanimous award of the Railway Staff National Tribunal and get down as quickly as possible to substantive negotiations with the Board on the pay and efficiency agreements. These can yield quick and substantial pay increases for railway workers—ranging up to 30s. per week. Yesterday, the Board sent over to the unions proposals for the train-men so there are now before the two unions proposals which would cover virtually all their staff and bring great benefits to them and to the Railways Board.

The Board has asked them to come and talk. I have heard, within the last hour, that the Transport Salaried Staffs Association has accepted the pay and efficiency proposals for its members. It is my hope, and, I am sure, that of the House, that the other unions will respond to the offers made to them.

Mr. Peter Walker

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House welcome the news that the Transport Salaried Staffs Association has accepted the pay and efficiency proposals and hope that in the near future the other two unions will follow that example?

We welcome the Government's decision to recognise that it is vital that this dispute should be settled on a basis which the Board can afford. We also welcome the adherence to the view that the two unions concerned should adhere to the unanimous decision of the Tribunal, upon which there is a very distinguished trade union member.

May I ask two questions, which were asked yesterday, about the provisions being made? One is on the position of season ticket-holders who have to use alternative forms of transport. Is there any possibility of their season tickets being valid for this purpose?

Secondly, on the parking restrictions, very few people know the exact boundaries of Tower Hamlets and other such London boroughs. Would it not be possible to make these facilities available in all London boroughs?

Mr. Marsh

I am grateful to the hon. Member. As he said, both questions were asked of my hon. Friend yesterday. He gave an undertaking that we would look into the possibility of both of them. This is being done and I shall let the hon. Member know as soon as we have the answer.

Dr. John Dunwoody

In view of the almost complete stoppage of main line traffic to such peripheral parts of the country as Devon and Cornwall, will my right hon. Friend make special arrangements for industrial and agricultural produce to be brought out of those areas?

Mr. Marsh

I recognise the special problem of the West Country at present. I repeat what I said: there is no evidence so far that freight traffic is, in fact, suffering particularly unduly. Freightliners are running full out. For the transport of goods there are alternative means and a large proportion of these goods are still being transported.

Mr. G. Campbell

Do not the last words spoken by the right hon. Gentleman about the transfer of freight from rail to road illustrate the folly of imposing on industry the restrictions in the Transport Bill on alternative road transport, with complicated and time-wasting procedures?

Mr. Marsh

The hon. Gentleman is returning to a well-tried theme. I can only say that no restrictions are placed on the transport industry in the Transport Bill in terms of road haulage except in so far as British Railways can provide a service as good or better in terms of cost, reliability and speed. The present situation is one of the things which will be argued against the industry.

Mr. Winnick

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in view of the chaos so far caused, certainly on the Southern Region, everyone will hope that negotiations can be started again at the highest level? Will he accept that unless the railwaymen felt that they had a deep, long-standing and justified grievance they would not have begun the action they took in the last few days?

Mr. Marsh

I think that the position is very much more complex than that. We have a situation in which negotiations were referred to arbitration and the arbitration board unanimously came down as being opposed to the agreement. The Railways Board is perfectly willing to meet the unions at any time and has put forward proposals in the very recent past. I can only hope that the two sides will get together to reach an agreement, because it cannot be to anyone's interest —least of all the interests of railwaymen and the industry—to prolong this dispute. All, on both sides, should recognise that.

Captain Orr

In view of the vulnerability of the Northern Ireland economy to any failure in sea or rail transport, will the right hon. Gentleman keep a special eye on this situation?

Mr. Marsh

There is, I understand, at the moment no evidence of dislocation of sea services, but the whole situation has to be watched very carefully.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this dispute has at least shown that the operation of systematic overtime working is a very poor way to run a railways system?

Mr. Marsh

Of course, the answer to this is to pay rates of pay which encourage men into the industry. There are, I repeat, available increases of up to 10½ per cent. and more for the asking for the men in this industry.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that everyone welcomes the statesmanlike attitude of the T.S.S.A., which set such a good example to the N.U.R. and A.S.L.E.F.? Does he feel that if the solution were put to the membership of these two unions they would be disposed to accept it, whereas the leadership have declined to do so?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman what additional measures he will take to ensure the free flow of traffic in Greater London, and whether he can make available additional parking spaces and extend the restrictions on waiting during the rush hours in the morning and evening?

Mr. Marsh

Most of this has already been done. We are examining the position with the police and local authorities to see what more can be done. On the question of the general dispute, I think that it would be a mistake for the House either to over-simplify the problem in relation to the unions, or, if I may say so, to get too deeply involved in inter-union differences. It is a very complex set-up. Having put the case, it is better that the unions together should come to an agreement with the Railways Board, as I am sure they are able to do.

Mr. Robert Howarth

Would my right hon. Friend please note that it is not just in the Southern Region where there are special problems? Many Lancashire towns, including my own constituency, start their holiday fortnight this weekend, and are already faced with severe difficulties caused by the dispute. Is it possible to give instructions to the Railways Board to have a look at this problem?

Mr. Marsh

I am sure that the Board will have taken note of the problem raised by my hon. Friend, but, obviously, a dispute of this sort is bound to cause inconvenience to large numbers of people. This cannot be avoided. The only answer is to reach a settlement as soon as possible.

Sir J. Rodgers

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that certain sections of the community suffer much more than others, particularly my own constituency, where about 30 per cent. commute to London? Will he therefore take urgent steps to try to start negotiations?

Mr. Marsh

It must be clear that the dispute is now in its second day, and that there has been no stoppage of negotiations. The two sides consist of very rational people. They have not as yet been able to reach agreement, but they are in contact and offers are being made. This is the only answer to the problem.

Mr. Spriggs

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while prices continue to rise the workers in the industry are bound to try to maintain the real value of wages?

Mr. Marsh

I am very much in favour of them maintaining the real value of wages and increasing them, but I repeat that this is an industry where increases are available at present of 10½ per cent. and more. I would like to see these men paid more. It is a question of reaching an agreement; but the amount paid out has to be paid for by somebody, and under the Transport Bill there is no longer a method by which the Government can make money available.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Would the right hon. Gentleman look into the particular complaint of my constituents, who are struggling hard to get to the City via Waterloo? It is that while the parking concessions in central London may be good, those in the City are inadequate. The City should do more by way of parking concessions to enable people to motor into the City.

Mr. Marsh

The hon. Gentleman is clearly the chairman of the "National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Civic Commuters". I will look into the matter he raises to see what can be done.

Mr. Bagier

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would not like to oversimplify the situation by saying that there is 10½ per cent. for the taking. Would he not agree that one of the basic problems is that productivity deals have in the past meant, and probably will in future always mean, a sharp cut-back in the number of staff employed, leading to redundancies?

Mr. Marsh

I certainly would not want to over-simplify this matter. It is a very complex issue, on all sides. What will endanger the security of these men more than anything is a falling off in the performance of British Railways, just at the time when they have a golden future. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it is a very complex issue.

Sir C. Osborne

Would my hon. Friend agree that the longer the dispute lasts the greater is the danger that the traffic being lost from the railways to the roads will never go back to the railways, thereby making the position of the railway workers worse? Cannot he get that over to the unions?

Mr. Marsh

As my hon. Friend said previously, the position is more complex than that. Now that the railways have had their deficit removed, they are starting with a clean sheet. They have an enormous opportunity in the future, and the extent to which their finances and their economies are endangered at the present time cannot be of any benefit to the railwaymen.

Mr. James Hamilton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if a signalman goes off sick he receives more for being off sick, if he has a family of two, than for working? With that in mind, does he agree that now is an opportune time to introduce a minimum wage which, at present, is about £16 a week?

Mr. Marsh

The question of a minimum wage is not for me. I repeat, these negotiations are between the Board and the unions. I am sorry to be tedious in terms of repetition, but there are sizeable increases available which cannot be made available under the present system unless either there is an increase in productivity which has to be negotiated in order to pay for it, or, alternatively, a further increase in fares. There is now no method of deficit financing.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Can the right hon. Gentleman say how many specific productivity proposals have been put to the unions during the course of negotiations and how many have so far been accepted? Could the Minister also say what is the situation in regard to rail movement in Scotland?

Mr. Marsh

The position of commuters in Scotland was this morning somewhat better than it was yesterday. Speaking from memory, in Glasgow yesterday the commuter stoppage was about 75 per cent. and today, I think, it is about 50 per cent.

In reply to the hon. Gentleman's first point, many proposals have been made backwards and forwards, on both sides. If I may say so with respect, the House would help no one if it started taking sides in the middle of negotiations. Both sides have made many proposals, and so far neither side has been able to agree with t'other. I can only hope that situation will not last for long.

Mr. Manuel

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the railway industry is low-paid and that the basic proposal affects only the lowest of the low-paid workers? This raises big problems with the trade union leadership which I hope he appreciates.

Mr. Marsh

I appreciate the problem very much; it is a serious one. As I said, yesterday the Board sent to the unions proposals for the train-men, so there are now proposals before the two unions which would cover virtually all their members. The difficulty is the major point which has to be faced: where does the money come from? It cannot now come from deficit financing and, if this is so, it can only come from increased productivity. The Board's proposals are designed to meet this problem. I am certainly in favour of seeing the railwaymen get more money.

Mr. Bidwell

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the sympathy which was shown to the railwaymen's immediate case in the House yesterday and ask him, in the event of stalemate remaining and keeping the two sides apart, whether he personally will intervene to try to bring the two sides together so that negotiations can continue?

Mr. Marsh

There is no reason why these two groups of very experienced negotiators cannot settle this themselves. They know more about the industry and the problems than any outside bodies, and have had a lot of experience of negotiations together. I am in no doubt at all that, given good will on both sides, which has always been there in the past, they can find their way out of this difficulty.

In the end, of course, it is British Railways who have the job of finding the money and managing the industry. I have complete confidence in the ability of the negotiators on both sides to get themselves out of what is an incredibly difficult situation for both of them.