HC Deb 31 March 1969 vol 781 cc32-6

Mr. Corfield (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity if she will make a statement in regard to the strike of B.O.A.C. pilots.

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

As hon. Members will recall, following the dispute last year between B.A.L.P.A. and B.O.A.C., I appointed Professor Wood as independent chairman to assist the parties in their negotiations over pay and related matters. Agreement was reached in August on the principle of an hourly rated system to replace the existing annual salary structure, thus relating pay directly to work-load. Discussions on the details of pay and conditions have continued under Professor Wood's chairmanship since then, but last Friday Professor Wood reported to me that the parties had failed to reach agreement on the detailed application of the principles agreed.

Further discussions between the parties took place on Saturday but no solution was reached. I therefore asked both the Corporation and B.A.L.P.A. to meet me yesterday to discuss the position. In view of the parties' inability to agree on the salaries which the new structure would produce and the productivity which could flow from it, I urged on the parties the need for an independent assessment. The constitution of the National Joint Council for Civil Air Transport provides for arbitration, and in my talks yesterday the possibility of arbitration was considered by both sides. The Corporation was prepared to agree to arbitration but B.A.L.P.A. insisted on interim increases in pay, rising on 1st April, 1969, to £7,000 per annum for senior captains from the present rate of £5,880 as a prior condition of arbitration. This condition was not acceptable to the Corporation. I regret to say therefore that it was not possible to find a basis for calling off the strike, which began at midnight last night.

The National Joint Council is meeting today to consider the matter, and I understand that its deliberations were still proceeding a short time ago. I am, of course, ready to give whatever further help I can. As discussions on the N.J.C. are still continuing, it would, however, be inappropriate for me to say anything further at this stage.

Mr. Corfield

In view of the fact that this very damaging strike follows such a long period of very strained relations between B.O.A.C. and the pilots, will the right hon. Lady consider publishing Professor Wood's report, or at any rate making it available for this House? There is, as I am sure she realises, a feeling of grave public concern at this long period of inability of these two sides to get together.

Mrs. Castle

I will certainly consider that suggestion, but I do not know whether there might be any difficulties over getting the agreement of the parties concerned.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. Lady aware that in the past the pilots have had some sympathy from the general public because of the poor communications, from board level downwards, but that by insisting on this very large interim increase, which would break all the criteria of the prices and incomes policy, they have totally forfeited public sympathy, and will do so until they return to work and accept arbitration?

Mrs. Castle

I was very disappointed that it was not possible to reach agreement last night on arbitration and thus avoid another damaging strike in an important industry which earns us a good deal of foreign exchange. As I say, the discussions are still going on in the N.J.C. and I would not wish to say anything to prejudice what might still be a hopeful outcome.

Mr. Robert Howarth

Would my right hon. Friend not consider setting up a court of inquiry or some other body to look into the dispute, even without the agreement of one of the parties?

Mrs. Castle

No, I do not think that that would be useful at this stage. We have had a number of inquiries, a reference to the P.I.B. and the independent chairmanship of Professor Wood, under whom a great deal of progress was made towards agreement on the principles of a new salary structure—which makes it all the more tragic that the talks should have fallen down on the arithmetic, on which arbitration would seem to be the best answer.

Mr. Onslow

Would the right hon. Lady not agree, in view of what she just said about the breakdown of Professor Wood's chairmanship, it is very important that people in the country should know why this is so, whether the objectives of the two sides are irreconcilable or whether the communications between them are extremely poor? Would she seriously consider publishing a statement from Professor Wood for the information of the House?

Mrs. Castle

I have said that I will consider this idea and see whether there are any insuperable obstacles to it.

Mr. Edelman

Is it not the case that this dispute has been simmering for the last ten months? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the chain of communication between top management and the pilots? Is it satisfactory that the chairman of this great corporation should be a part-timer with many other distracting commercial interests?

Mrs. Castle

I am sure that my hon. Friend realises that the last part of that question is not appropriate for me to answer, but of course I am always concerned to improve consultations inside any industry, particularly one which has a record of continuing dispute. Therefore, it would be my desire to do whatever I could, with my right hon. Friend, to improve the channel of communication.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Is it not disappointing that a well-paid, highly respected, middle-class body of men such as the airline pilots should give such a bad example to the nation and also that B.A.L.P.A. should fall victim to the present English disease?

Mrs. Castle

I must repeat that it really is a national tragedy that this strike has broken out: I cannot pretend that it is anything else. But that is why, until the very last moment, we worked hard in my Department to try to get an agreement on arbitration. I still believe that this is the commonsense solution for all concerned, and the more faith B.A.L.P.A. has in its case the more reason I would have thought for it to go to arbitration.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side who have had some sympathy with the pilots' complaint about lack of internal democracy in the Corporation now feel that, by their current action, they have forfeited sympathy generally?

Mrs. Castle

I hope that all concerned noted that.

Sir G. Nabarro

Why is the right hon. Lady straining at a gnat and swallowing an elephant? Is it not a fact that an increase of £1,200 a year from £5,800 to £7,000 represents a 20 per cent.-plus increase, whereas the Chairman of the National Coal Board is to have, evidently, a 60 per cent. increase—from £12,500 to £20,000?

Mrs. Castle

I can only say that, as always, the hon. Gentleman has failed to get his facts right and that he had better read the P.I.B. Report before he gives us any more of his suppositions or his propaganda.

Mr. Shinwell

Has my right hon. Friend taken note that when the Ford workers were on strike there were clamant demands from the Opposition Front Bench that they should return to work, whereas the Opposition Front Bench are silent on this matter and do not suggest that the pilots should go back to work?

Mrs. Castle

I am very glad to say that I am not answerable in the House for the behaviour of the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. R. Carr

In case there is any misunderstanding—which one would have thought hardly possible—will the right hon. Lady understand and, if necessary, make it clear to the pilots that we believe that arbitration is something that they should accept in these circumstances?

Mrs. Castle

Yes, Sir.