HC Deb 16 March 1970 vol 798 cc34-9

Mr. R. Carr (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity if she will make a statement about the labour situation at Heathrow Airport.

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

I welcome this opportunity of reporting to the House on two disputes which are at present seriously affecting services at London Airport (Heathrow).

The First concerns the pay of firemen employed by the British Airports Authority, on whose behalf the T.G.W.U. has been seeking an improvement in shift pay, in support of which the firemen were on strike at Heathrow from 2nd to 9th March. In negotiations, which were resumed on 9th March concurrently with a return to work, the Authority offered an improvement, subject to the union's agreement to recommend a settlement, of 12s. 6d. a week on top of increases, amounting to some 11 per cent. which firemen have received from 1st October last and 1st January this year. This offer was rejected and from 11th March the men imposed restrictions on the duties they were prepared to undertake. On 12th March, following the imposition of additional restrictions which in the Authority's view were such that the firemen were no longer providing in adequate service, the Authority suspended the men. Since 12th March, cover has been provided from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. by the Authority's fire officers as it was during the earlier strike period My Department, which had previously had joint discussions with the Authority and the unions representing the firemen and the fire officers, held a further joint meeting on 13th March but was unable to find a basis for a resumption of normal working. We are remaining in close touch with the parties and will be ready to intervene again whenever this seems helpful.

The second dispute concerns the implementation of an agreement between the British Airports Authority and General Aviation Services Ltd., which would enable the latter to offer ground handling services to airlines using Heathrow Airport in competition with other organisations, including the two Air Corporations. Intensive discussions on this matter have taken place since the autumn of last year between the British Airports Authority, G.A.S., both sides of the National Joint Council for Civil Air Transport, the Air Corporations and my Department. These discussions have covered whether employment prospects at the airport would be prejudiced by G.A.S.'s operations, and the protection of established terms and conditions of employment. In separate discussions with the unions, G.A.S. have indicated their willingness to consult with the unions before seeking work from airlines operating at Heathrow. In addition, agreement has recently been reached between G.A.S. and the T.G.W.U. covering terms and conditions of employment.

In the meantime, resolutions calling for blacking action against G.A.S. and airlines using their services have been adopted at meetings of airport employees convened by shop stewards, and B.A.A. and G.A.S. have initiated legal action against one of the shop stewards. A further meeting of employees which has caused some disruption of air services has been held today.

On 12th March, the N.J.C. for Civil Air Transport unanimously decided to urge the British Airports Authority and G.A.S. to withdraw voluntarily from their contract and from the legal action which they have initiated.

The following day, my Department, together with the Board of Trade, discussed the situation with B.A.A., G.A.S. and representatives of the two sides of the N.J.C. for Civil Air Transport and these discussions are being continued today.

The Government are seriously concerned about the effect which these disputes are having on operations at Heathrow, and at the inconvenience which is being suffered by the travelling public. The Government are seeking through the present discussions to find a means of dealing with current unrest at the airport and of securing the maintenance of normal operations.

Mr. Carr

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement. In view of the grave damage to British trade as well as the grave inconvenience to vast numbers of passengers caused by these rather too frequent signs that all is not well with industrial relations at the airport, will she set up a basic inquiry to look into the whole situation of labour relations at London Airport? Secondly, will she, in the meantime, consider asking the unions to give the maximum support and to use their best endeavours, in accordance, I believe, with their undertaking last summer, to ensuring that they do not in any way connive at small groups of workers bringing this airport to a standstill? Thirdly, does she feel it proper for pressure to be brought on the B.A.A. over the placing of contracts at the airport which are within its constitutional power to place?

Mrs. Castle

My Department and the Board of Trade have been exploring with those concerned the possibility of an inquiry into the problem arising from the G.A.S. contract and we will be having further discussions with all concerned on certain prior issues which would need to be resolved before an inquiry could be affected. Discussions are continuing today.

With regard to the longer term—this would take some time—I do not rule out the possibility of such a wide-ranging inquiry when the immediate disputes have been resolved. Finally, it is just because of the confusion of the issues involved and some disagreement about what the issues are that I am urgently exploring the possibility of an inquiry.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of those working at the airport take a great deal of pride in the fact that it is the world's busiest airport for international scheduled services? Is it not also rather unusual that the major contract for the ground handling services should go to a foreign-based firm? What advice has her Department given to the B.A.A. on this?

Mrs. Castle

I do not think that it would be for us to give advice to the B.A.A. as to the exact personnel or firms with which it might wish to negotiate subcontracts of this kind. We have been concerned with the industrial issues which have arisen from the situation. We have had detailed discussions and these are still going on.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is the right hon. Lady aware that her Answer today is anything but convincing? This bad situation has been floundering for a fortnight and yet it has taken her all that time to come to the House to give an explanation. Has an emergency plan been worked out for Britain in case the situation worsens, as there are indications that it might? Will she face up to the situation, bearing in mind, as my right hon. Friend said, that it is causing infinite harm not only to British trade but is causing inconvenience to foreign and British travellers?

Mrs. Castle

Of course, I had not expected that anything I said -would succeed in convincing the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey). He has a rather closed mind as far as that is concerned. I can only assure him that my Department has been in full and continuing touch, as it is our duty to be, right through these disputes. I myself have seen Mr. Peter Masefield, Chairman of the B.A.A., on this matter. Complex issues are involved and both sides will be the first to admit that these need to be examined fully before a decision is taken on the possibility of setting up an inquiry.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have just returned from Brentford Football Stadium, where 15,000 workers met this morning to discuss these matters? Is she further aware that a resolution was passed, by 14,999 to one, in which, among other things, the workers called for an inquiry into the management of the B.A.A. and into the whole question of how it came about that an American finance company of this sort was allowed into this profitable sector of British aviation?

Mrs. Castle

I have, of course, been dealing with that very point in the answers that I have been giving. As for the meeting which took place this afternoon, I shall, of course, be obtaining a full report.

Mr. Lubbock

Did I understand the right hon. Lady to say that since last autumn the fullest information had been given by the B.A.A. to the N.J.C. about the intention to enter into this contract, and that at that time it did not make any objection? If so, would she explain why the N.J.C. suddenly reversed its attitude on 12th March?

Does not the history of the second dispute indicate to her that the N.J.C. must be out of touch with the rank and file workers at the airport? What steps does she intend to take to improve the machinery of information so that, when any contracts of this kind are in contemplation, full information is given not only to the N.J.C. but to the workers affected by it?

Mrs. Castle

It is true that in the earlier discussions the trade unions sought certain assurances and undertook, in the light of those assurances, to try to reach an understanding with General Air Services. This was always subject to endorsement by their shop stewards, and that endorsement has not been forthcoming.

Mr. Rankin

Is my right hon. Friend telling the House that she does not propose, in the inquiry which we understand is to come about, to inquire into the matter of the G.A.S. contract? If that is, in fact, what she is saying, will she think again on this issue, bearing in mind that this is one of the secondary points that is causing the present trouble at London Airport? Will she please look into this matter very closely to see if some solution can be found?

Mrs. Castle

My hon. Friend misunderstood my earlier reply. I was saying that there was, in fact, a possibility of an inquiry into the General Air Services contract and into the problems arising from it. I said that that was under discussion by my Department with all those concerned at the present time. It was, rather, the longer-term inquiry, to which the right hon. Member for Mitcham (Mr. R. Carr) referred, that I said we would have to consider later, when the immediate issues in dispute have been settled.

Mr. Peyton

Would the right hon. Lady agree that whatever may be the views of those who work at London Airport about the airport, it nevertheless remains to the travelling public a continuing torture and to the country a gross humiliation?

Dame Irene Ward


Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Would my right hon. Friend agree that just as some motorists are accident-prone, so some managers appear to be dispute-prone? Is it desirable that a manager who is clearly dispute-prone should continue to be in charge at London Airport?

Mrs. Castle

I would not accept that there is any exceptional proneness to disputes in this situation. [Interruption.] There are worrying factors, and that is exactly why we are discussing urgently with all those concerned the possibiliy of an inquiry.

Forward to