HC Deb 19 December 1969 vol 793 cc1768-85

12.31 p.m.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

I am most grateful for the opportunity of initiating this debate on the inter-union dispute at London Transport's Acton works. The debate was prompted by the strike of mechanical craftsmen at that works and I am delighted, as I am sure is the whole House, to have read reports in the Press that the men will be back at work on Monday. If the knowledge that this debate was to take place has done anything to encourage a sense of urgency amongst those who were trying to obtain a return to work, the debate will have achieved its main purpose before it has even started.

I hope, as I am sure the whole House hopes, that a satisfactory solution will come from the talks which are now to take place. I assure the Minister that, as the talks have yet to take place, I shall not be discussing details of the inter-union dispute. I do not wish to say anything today which might in any way prejudice a satisfactory outcome of the talks and an agreement. However, I wish to say something about the effect of the strike and the handling of it by those responsible—the hon. Gentleman's Department, the T.U.C. and London Transport.

Although the dispute was running for more than a year, London Transport took that length of time to refer the matter to the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, and I question whether the dispute should have been allowed to run for so long before this was done. It was referred to the Department on 15th August, and that was more than a month before the strike took place. I understand that the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity passed the problem to the Trades Union Congress. Following that, there started in September three months of mounting chaos on the Underground, particularly on the Northern Line, a line used by many of my constituents who come into St. Pancras to get to the City.

I had received complaints from constituents about this, but only when they had been driven to distraction by four weeks of mounting chaos. The normal interval of two and a half minutes between trains during peak hours had lengthened on occasions to 10 minutes, and later even to 20 minutes. One constituent told me that it took him longer on one occasion to get from St. Pancras to Old Street, two stations down the Northern Line, than to get from St. Albans to St. Pancras on a diesel train. London Transport failed to ensure an adequate spread of trains during the peak hours, with the result that chaotic conditions were produced as mounting numbers of rolling stock units were going out of service. I think finally that a quarter of the trains were out of use, 10 lifts and 40 escalators, and some stations had no escalators at all in use.

Overcrowding on platforms is extremely dangerous. I do not know whether any Ministers have ever been down to see what happens when a strike takes place. It must be a horrifying experience for anybody to find himself on the front edge of the platform when the platform is jammed with people and more people are pushing from behind to try to get into a train. The state inside the trains is extremely dangerous when they are packed to more than capacity. When I spent two hours on the line, I saw people who were left behind pushing the behinds of those who were aboard the train to enable the doors to be closed behind them. It would be exceedingly dangerous if a crash were to occur in a train that was so crowded.

The behaviour of those who were landed with the sticky end was admirable. I saw an inspector, a Commonwealth immigrant, at London Bridge who, after a 25-minute interval between trains, behaved with great dignity and calm in face of the angry protests of passengers, who had every right to be irate. I pay tribute to that man for his exemplary conduct, but there was nothing which he could do about it.

There have been three months of misery on this line. It has been dubbed the "Misery Line" by the Evening Standard, which has done a good job in fixing public attention on the conditions on the line. After three months a decision has been taken which could have been taken at the beginning. The parties have agreed to talk, and I cannot see why this could not have been done at the outset.

My main point in continuing to have the debate is to point out to the Minister that it is this sort of occurrence which the Government were supposed to protect us from—indeed they had promised that such a thing would not happen. It will be remembered that when the Government decided to abandon the provisions in the White Paper "In Place of Strife", which suggested penal provisions in certain circumstances, the Prime Minister exactly six months ago said: … while the Government accepted the proposals adopted by the T.U.C. Special Congress on 5th June as satisfactory in relation to inter-union disputes, they had doubts about certain aspects of the proposals for dealing with unconstitutional strikes. In the course of yesterday's discussions the General Council unanimously agreed to a solemn and binding undertaking which set out the lines on which the General Council will intervene in serious unconstitutional stoppages. In the light of this undertaking, the Government now regard the T.U.C.'s proposals as satisfactory … In these circumstances, the Government have decided not to proceed with proposals for legislation involving financial penalties for those involved in inter-union and unconstitutional disputes."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th June, 1969; Vol. 798, c. 700.] I will not go into whether this dispute comes within the category of an inter-union or an unconstitutional dispute, but it certainly comes into one of those categories. It has been allowed to run on for three months, to the great discomfort and misery of hundreds of thousands of passengers who have to travel on the Northern Line. Does the Prime Minister still regard the T.U.C.'s proposals as satisfactory, as he did on 19th June? Does the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity still regard them as satisfactory? I think it is absolutely monstrous that the public should have to endure such misery after those undertakings have been given by the Government and the T.U.C.

I should like to know who was really responsible. I know the Minister cannot reply to this today, but I hope that the Government will hold an inquiry to see exactly why the buck was passed round and round between London Transport, the Department of Employment and Productivity and the T.U.C. while, in the meantime, there was mounting chaos, and passengers had to endure conditions which I described at Question Time as unsuitable for cattle, let alone human beings. Having spent two hours travelling on the line after I put that Question, I can only say that I consider I was fully justified, as were my constituents who complained about it. It is vital for the Government to satisfy the public that this type of thing will never be allowed to happen again. If they cannot give that undertaking, the public will say that the undertakings given in the past about the Government's intentions in these matters were worthless, and that they have thoroughly misled the nation.

12.40 p.m.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

It is essential to put the record right. The first thing that needs to be said is that A.E.F. members are very conscious of the problems that have been created for passengers using the Northern Line in particular and certain stations on the south side of the river. They are conscious of the many elderly people who have had to struggle up many staircases for enormous distances. It has been a tremendous hardship, of which the A.E.F. members are conscious. They recognise all the problems that have been involved, and have a great deal of sympathy for the suffering that has been created.

But the dispute was not of A.E.F. making. I want to put the record right with regard to the points raised by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew). He said that the dispute is either unconstitutional or unofficial, but it is neither. It is an official dispute recognised by the A.E.F. Executive, and strike pay has been paid to those involved. There is also a levy on all the members in the district to make strike benefit payments to those in the dispute.

Second, the dispute did not arise from an inter-union quarrel, though I have listened to hon. Member after hon. Member opposite saying that it is. It is not a dispute between trade unions.

Mr. Goodhew

I went out of my way to avoid becoming involved in the argument as to whether it was an inter-union dispute. I merely said that that came under the Prime Minister's undertaking. Since the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, he should know that on 4th December his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for employment and Productivity said in answer to a Question There are inter-union difficulties here which it is important the T.U.C. should take action about, and this it is doing."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th December, 1969; Vol. 792, c. 1679.] So the Secretary certainly took the view that there were inter-union difficulties. I would say that that is another way of saying that there is a dispute.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Long interventions cut into a very short debate.

Mr. Atkinson

The point is that, despite what has been said, it is not an inter-union dispute. Craftsmen are organised by both the N.U.R. and A.E.F. There are N.U.R. craftsmen employed by the L.T.B. This is not an inter-union dispute in that sense. The dispute was created because when the L.T.B. took unilateral action, without prior consultation with the men concerned, it broke agreements that it had had with the A.E.F. for 11 years.

The L.T.B. is now arguing that it is an inter-union dispute because it is trying to excuse itself for its lethargy and the mischief-making it has pursued over the past 13 months. It says that it is an inter-union dispute as though that would absolve it from any responsibility in the matter. Responsibility for the dispute is the L.T.B.'s. It took the unilateral action and broke the agreement, and therefore the union has no alternative.

The dispute is about changed working conditions. The change was made without any consultation. It is the L.T.B. that is trying to change the conditions, and it tried to accelerate the whole process before it becomes a G.L.C.'s responsibility from 1st January. The board—particularly the mechanical inspectors concerned—was anxious to have a change in working practice before the L.T.B. came under the G.L.C.

Therefore, I hope that hon. Members will account that it is not an inter-union dispute. The L.T.B. has never been under pressure by the N.U.R. to change working conditions, although the N.U.R. would support certain changed practices. But the same position exists in London as in any other railway workshop through the country where we have joint working agreements between the two unions. It is important to recognise that the same conditions exist in Swindon, Doncaster, Crewe or wherever else railway workshops exist. So I hope that we shall not continue to think that it is an inter-union dispute. It has arisen from unilateral action taken by the L.T.B., and it has gone on for so long because the L.T.B. has refused over the whole period since 24th September to accept its own agreements that it has had for 11 years with the A.E.F.

12.45 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)

No doubt what the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) has said will be fascinating to connoisseurs of trade union dialectics, but it will not be of the smallest interest to my constituents. All they know is that they have been thoroughly and outrageously inconvenienced for 13 weeks.

Mr. Atkinson

Blame the L.T.B.

Mr. Grant

I am grateful to have the opportunity to intervene briefly in the debate. I entirely support what my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) has said, and intervene only to emphasise that the dispute has caused trouble not only on the Northern Line, which has received most of the publicity, but also on the Bakerloo Line, which is used most by my constituents. The vast majority of them travel on the Bakerloo Line from Kenton, or join it from the Metropolitan Line. Most of them are commuters and have to travel to work to earn their living. They do not do this for fun; it is not like a charabanc outing, but is the only means effectively to get to their place of work.

The dispute has caused them great hardship and I believe injury to their health. I use the line frequently, and at peak hours cutting trains on the Bakerloo Line from seven cars to six makes a dramatic difference. The conditions are intolerable. I have noticed on my travels to and from the constituency a number of elderly people who still have to go to work in London and the City who have been overcome and become faint because of the crowded and intolerable conditions.

We are all very glad that the strike is coming to an end after these 13 weeks and we hope that the services on the Bakerloo and Northern Line will return to normal. But I do not want the Minister to be under any illusion that only the Northern Line was affected. The Bakerloo Line was also affected, and vast numbers of my constituents have to use this method of transport to get to work. They are thoroughly sick and fed up with the dispute. They are glad it is over. They are not interested in subtle distinctions as to who is right and who is wrong.

They would like to hear from the Minister more than anything else what will be done, in the new climate of industrial relations that we hear so much about, to ensure that this does not happen again.

12.49 p.m.

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)

In introducing this subject, the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) had about him all the disappointment of the hunter who finds that someone has shot his fox. My right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity is to be congratulated on having brought to a conclusion this rather distressing industrial dispute.

The hon. Member for St. Albans and his hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) sought to give the impression that it is only recently that there have been these difficulties on the Northern Line and the Bakerloo Line.

That is not so. I well recall in my maiden speech in May 1966 drawing attention to the deplorable industrial relations in London Transport. I then said that the management of London Transport must clearly bear a considerable responsibility for that situation, which I think I described as civil war.

Unfortunately, the management has not done a great deal to make the wheels run smoothly, to oil the machinery of industrial relations, as was cogently pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson), who also made it absolutely clear that it was not a question of an inter-union dispute disrupting the passenger services of London. Even if that were not so, and even if it had been a question of an inter-union dispute—for example, a demarcation problem—it hardly lies in the mouth of the hon. Member for Harrow, Central and the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who are members of the solicitors' profession, to throw that at the trade unionists who work for London Transport. The hon. Members belong to an organisation which has far too many restrictive practices and, indeed, would take great umbrage if anybody tried to take any of their work from them.

Mr. Grant

Could the hon. Member tell us of any occasion on which as part of a collective responsibility the legal profession or any similar profession has curtailed services in this way.

Mr. Roebuck

If a solicitor's clerk sought to take on work allocated to a solicitor, not only would there be a great deal of disturbance in the solicitor's office, but criminal proceedings could follow.

As I was saying, as long ago as May 1966, I drew attention to the deplorable state of affairs, which goes back much further than that. The hon. Member for St. Albans referred to recent newspaper articles which spoke of a "Misery Line". I remember in 1959 a London evening newspaper sending a reporter not only to the Northern Line but to other lines who wrote vivid despatches about the great inconvenience suffered by London Transport passengers.

I am left with the impression that hon. Gentlemen opposite are trying to use this deplorable dispute as another stick with which to beat the Government and are trying to batten on to the legitimate complaints of Londoners in order to bring the Government into disrepute. I think the Government ought to be praised, because it is as a result of the agreement which was reached between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the First Secretary and the T.U.C. that this business has at last been settled.

The Government, over the last few years, have done a great deal to ease the problems of those who use London Transport. The troubles which have afflicted Londoners are, one hopes, about to be ended by the Act the Government recently piloted through the House, which ought to ensure a greater sensitivity to passengers' feelings. No Government have given more money to London Transport to secure a better running of the passenger services. The Government have given more than £1 million.

The criticism of hon. Gentlemen opposite is unwarranted and not genuine. That is not to say that one does not deplore this dispute, but blame should not be laid at the door of the servants of London Transport, who work hard, often for inadequate remuneration, but on a rather irresponsible and an insensitive management.

12.54 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

It would have been a sad commentary if this House had entered into the season of goodwill with a debate on a sordid story of men of badwill causing trouble and hardship to thousands of their fellow citizens in pursuing their own selfish aims. Happily, goodwill has prevailed and we do not have to approach the matter in that way, although some hon. Gentlemen opposite have chosen to do so.

If more time were available I could have gone into the detail of this lamentable dispute between the unions. The Northern Line runs through my constituency and I have used it frequently for 30 years. Two of my children use it daily to go to and from school, and hundreds of my constituents have had to struggle to and from work in the most appalling and disgraceful conditions. There is no need for me to develop this aspect in detail. There have been enough details published. I am sure hon. Members and the public are grateful to the Evening Standard for highlighting these conditions over the past weeks.

In fairness, it must be said that the rolling stock of the Northern Line is more than 30 years old and that capital which should have gone into its replacement has gone on the building of the Victoria Line. Staff have also been taken off the Northern Line to service the Victoria Line. If breakdowns are not to take place, there must be a continual and efficient maintenance service.

It is this which has been sabotaged at Acton by some 250 men. The dispute there is simply about who will be promoted to mechanical craftsmen. In the past these promotions have gone to A.E.F. men. But the N.U.R. men said that they had been working side by side with the craftsmen, were equally competent to do the work and asked why they should not be so promoted.

The L.T.B. would have been faced with a strike by the N.U.R. which could have caused greater chaos than an A.E.F. strike. The L.T.B.'s attitude was that it did not matter who did the work as long as the men were efficient. It suggested that there should be a proficiency test and whoever passed it could do the mechanical work. One would have thought that that was sensible. But the A.E.F. would not meet the N.U.R. and the N.U.R. would not meet the A.E.F. The T.U.C. was impotent in this and the Minister and his hon. Friend had not been able to deal with it up to the present time.

This is a clear illustration of the situation into which this Government have precipitated us by running away, as they did last summer, from trade union legislation.

Mr. Roebuck rose

Mr. Rossi

There could not have been a more classic case than this for compulsory arbitration when two unions are in dispute about promotion. One would welcome legislation which would refer such matters to arbitration.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot ask for legislation on the Adjournment debate.

12.58 p.m.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing (Hendon, North)

Like many hon. Members, I have constituents who have suffered as a result of this dispute. I will speak for only one minute because the final speech has yet to be made from the Front Bench.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman speaks for two minutes because both Front Benches wish to address the House.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

I feel that this is symptomatic of the spread of what one could almost call anarchy. In 1964 strikes were occurring at the rate of 10 a week, and now the rate is 55 a week. This is occurring not just in industry but in the public service as well. What we want to hear from the Minister is whether this business has been settled. Our constituents are having to travel like cattle and the R.S.P.C.A. would have conducted a campaign if animals had been treated like my constituents.

Since 15th August, when the matter was referred to the Department, there has been only very slow progress. What will be done to prevent this from happening again, with the travelling public suffering so greatly as a result?

12.59 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Whether or not this strike was official—and some doubt has been cast by the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson)—

Mr. Atkinson

There is no doubt.

Mr. Smith

It is absolutely fantastic that it has taken 13 weeks to bring about a solution and to end the bitterness, misery and frustration which has been suffered by the public. If it was an official strike, it is deplorable that nothing could be done in 13 weeks to end it.

I know and understand the Department's reductance to intervene, but this was not a strike affecting the production of luxury goods or even motor cars. Whatever its merits or demerits—it would not be right to go into that now, or to decide who was to blame—this dispute made life hell for thousands of Londoners as they struggled to go to and from their work in conditions which it would be an understatement to describe as intolerable.

Travel on London's underground is expensive and unpleasant, particularly at rush hour times. The various Government Departments involved should make sure that it does not become so intolerable for people who work in the centre of the capital to make their way to and from their work.

We learn that now that a solution to the dispute has been found it will be at least a month before there is a significant improvement in the situation. This delay is of course one of the legacies of allowing a dispute of this kind to deteriorate for so long. I hope that the chaos which has existed will not be allowed to occur on New Year's Day in London Transport services generally.

It is worth recalling that paragraph 31 of the Government's White Paper "In Place of Strife" said: It is essential to provide rules and procedures for the rapid and effective settlement of grievances and other issues. When procedures are agreed which meet these criteria, and thus avoid the danger of lengthy delays, provision should be made for previous conditions to be maintained while any matter is being considered in accordance with the procedure. … Consideration should be given to the inclusion of provision for a quick recourse to arbitration in grievance procedures if agreement is not reached at the early stages of the procedure. There should be provision for important matters to be raised with the highest levels of management. I want to say just this to the Parliamentary Secretary. We are entering a period of considerable industrial unrest and I am, alas, afraid that there will be far too many stoppages both official and unofficial. The Government have a duty to do something about this, but their policies—or rather their lack of them—have been a direct contributory cause of what has occurred, and my hon. Friends have made this clear.

It is time for the Government to go into this whole question carefully and to see that in future, where the public interest is directly and seriously affected, as it has been in this case, that they take positive action at the earliest possible stage to get the parties together. Surely that is the common sense thing to do. It seems that common sense has been peculiarly lacking in this most unfortunate affair.

Mr. Atkinson

I urge the hon. Gentleman to accept that this dispute was created by the unilateral action of the employers—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Hon. Gentlemen opposite may say "No" but what I say is evident from all that has been said.

As for the Evening Standard's peace plan, its basis has been the declared policy of the A.E.F. from the beginning of the dispute. It is the employers who have refused to accept it.

Mr. Smith

Even if the hon. Gentleman were partially right, that is a further indication of the need for prompt action on the part of the Department of Employment and Productivity.

1.4 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mr. Harold Walker)

The Government very much regret the inconvenience that the strike by maintenance staff has been causing, whether through the withdrawal of rolling stock on certain underground lines or through the taking of some lifts and escalators out of service owing to lack of maintenance. This is deeply regretted.

We are all very conscious that these conditions have been adding considerable discomfort and strain to the daily lot of many people who use the underground service. The London Transport Board is now anxious to press ahead with getting the service back to normal, but this cannot, of course, be achieved overnight.

In this situation a return to normalcy and what we hope will be a continuous improvement will not be helped by the sort of recriminations that we have had this morning—[Interruption.]—because recriminations of this kind are the last helpful contribution that can be made in this situation. Condemnations which are, perhaps, understandable from the travelling public who have suffered are not so understandable from hon. Members who, one would expect, would at least try to understand the facts and certainly wait until all the facts are known to them. Such condemnations do nothing to sweeten what has obviously been a very sour industrial relations atmosphere.

A basis for a resumption of work in this unfortunate dispute was reached yesterday. The maintenance staff at Acton will be resuming work on Monday and the men who service the lifts and escalators will be resuming work tomorrow, Saturday, evening. In these circumstances I do not think that hon. Members will expect me to comment in detail on the issues in dispute or on the views of the parties involved.

There are, however, three points to which I must refer because they have emerged in the debate. The first is about how quickly conditions can be restored to normal; the second is a matter to which I must inevitably refer, if only briefly, and that is the issues involved; and the third is the question of the rôle of the D.E.P. and the T.U.C. in this situation. I must comment on the latter, particularly in view of the severe strictures which have been levelled against both.

The issue in dispute has been about the method of recruitment of mechanical craftsmen who overhaul the rolling stock at London Transport's railway workshops at Acton. I do not think it would be helpful for me to rake over the full details of the course of the dispute, but perhaps I should point out that the strike by members of the A.E.F. has been mainly in protest against the London Transport Board's departure from what were the traditional methods of recruiting mechanical craftsmen which have been operating for a considerable time; a departure which the Board says it resorted to only after abortive attempts on its part to have the issues discussed jointly with the two unions concerned.

The basis for a resumption of work agreed yesterday between the Board and the A.E.F. provides that the recruitment practices which operated prior to September, 1968, will be re-established on the understanding that, on a resumption of normal working, immediate and meaningful discussions will take place between the A.E.F. and the Board of all problems giving rise to, and resulting from, the present dispute.

The Board and the A.E.F. have further agreed that the discussions cannot proceed indefinitely and that they shall he brought to an acceptable conclusion within a reasonable period. The other union concerned with the issues in dispute, the National Union of Railwaymen, has been kept fully informed of the course of the discussions, and has noted the terms of the basis for a resumption of work.

While the question of the services themselves and a return to normalcy is clearly not within the responsibility of my Department—this is the direct responsibility of the L.T.B.—I have, in anticipation of the anxieties of hon. Members, sought some information from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport about the current position on the Northern Line; and it may be helpful if I give an indication of how soon the services can be restored to normal, and improved.

We must, in discussing this aspect, consider the question of staff shortages and shortages of maintenence staff generally. Staff shortages on the Northern Line earlier in the year led to some services having to be cut. There has, however, been an improvement and the position is now no worse than on the other underground lines. The rolling stock on the Northern and Bakerloo lines is some of the oldest on the underground system and is scheduled for replacement or renovation by the mid-1970s.

This does mean, that it is more susceptible to breakdown than the new equipment on other lines, and under normal conditions the maintenance programme is geared to reflect this state of affairs. Almost the whole of the Northern Line has now been covered by a centralised system of signalling control, and this should improve the reliability and regularity of services.

After the return to work, priority will be given, as far as is practicable, to repair work which will enable trains now out of service to be brought back into operation. I understand that it should be possible to repair a reasonable number of the lifts and escalators now out of operation within a week of a return to work, and priority will be given to those stations which are at present hardest hit. As I said, this is the direct responsibility of the London Transport Board. However, I thought that I should seek the information so that hon. Members might have a clearer idea about how quickly we can expect a return to normal operations.

The most severe strictures have been directed to the point concerning the rôle of my Department in this dispute. Hon. Members have referred to the length of the strike and to the fact that, apparently, little effort has been made to resolve it. It began on 25th September. My Department was notified on 15th August. It is important to make it clear that the issue was not referred to the Department. It was notified. The Department has been involved almost continuously since then.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

The Chairman of the London Transport Board says that he requested the assistance of the hon. Gentleman's Department on that date.

Mr. Walker

I understand that the Department was notified for the first time of the apprehended dispute on 15th August. The strike began on 25th September. Officers of my Department had discussions with the parties in September and October but were unable to resolve the issue or to persuade the parties to discuss the matter together. As the interests of two unions were involved, my Department asked the T.U.C. whether it could help. The General Secretary of the T.U.C. held a number of discussions with the unions separately in October and November. Representatives of the Board met the A.E.F. again in late November and early this month, putting forward various formulae for the resumption of work. My officers had discussions with the three parties during the last ten days before the formula for a resumption of work was agreed yesterday. Discussions of one kind or another have been going on almost continuously since the strike began.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

The Chairman of the Board says that London Transport requested the help of the Department on 15th August and that it referred the matter to Mr. Feather. Can we be told when it was referred to Mr. Feather and why it was necessary to wait until October before discussions started?

Mr. Walker

I cannot give the precise date.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Surely the hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that.

Mr. Walker

I cannot give the precise date on which the Department referred the matter to the T.U.C. I have said that the Department asked the T.U.C. when it was notified of the apprehended dispute, and the T.U.C.'s General Secretary held a number of discussions with the unions in October and November. I think that it would be absurd to expect the T.U.C. to succeed every time that it takes action in a dispute.

Mr. Smith

Any time.

Mr. Grant

We would be pleased if it succeeded any time.

Mr. Walker

Those two comments are indicative of the approach of hon. Gentlemen opposite. It is contrary to what one would expect of this House in such a situation. Hon. Gentlemen opposite repeatedly—

Hon. Members

Get on with it.

Mr. Walker

Now I am told to get on with it by hon. Members who devoted 45 minutes to carping criticisms.

It would be absurd to expect the T.U.C. to succeed in every issue where it has responsibility under its solemn and binding pledge. Anyone who thinks otherwise has no grasp of the complexities of this sort of situation. In this, as in many other disputes, the General Secretary of the T.U.C. has spared no effort to try and resolve the difficulties, and every credit is due to him for his efforts. On many occasions they have met with a considerable degree of success.

A number of hon. Gentlemen opposite, though I exclude the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew), show an increasing proneness, irrespective of the consequences of their intervention, to try to take advantage of industrial disputes to grind an ounce of political capital out of them. I find that more regrettable than almost anything else, and it should be condemned. I refer especially to the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) who, according to the Financial Times, has said that the Minister responsible for labour relations—I presume he means my right hon. Friend the First Secretary—stands condemned for having failed to do anything and that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour stands condemned for having taken no interest in the comfort of thousands of Londoners. I make no apology for not having notified the hon. Gentleman of my intention to refer to him. Obviously he did not hesitate to make his criticisms without notifying either of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Atkinson

I must make this point because it is crucial to the whole debate. Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that it is the employers who are trying to change the working conditions, and not the trade unions? It is important to establish that.

Mr. Walker

I implied at the outset that I thought that it was incumbent upon us all to do nothing which might prejudice the peace which we hope will now be established. I cannot believe that an answer to my hon. Friend's question will contribute to the kind of solution that we want.

My officers have toiled unceasingly. On Monday of this week, my Chief Conciliation Officer and his colleagues worked from ten in the morning to seven at night on this issue without a break, trying to bring about a peaceful solution to what has been a most injurious dispute. Far from levelling carping criticisms at my officers, hon. Gentlemen opposite should pay tribute to them.

I hope that an atmosphere has been created by the talks led by officers of my Department—though it has not been by this debate—in which fruitful and constructive discussions can take place. Let us hope that they take place. We look forward not only to a return to normalcy but an improvement of conditions facing the travelling public on the Bakerloo, Northern and other lines.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Order. This debate has overrun its allotted time. The next debate should terminate at 2 p.m., if not before.