HC Deb 17 April 1972 vol 835 cc37-45
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

I have to confirm to the House that the industrial action threatened by the three railway unions began at midnight. There is already an extensive and serious dislocation of rail services, and this is bound to get worse.

On learning of the unions' decision last Wednesday evening to reject the pay offer of the British Railways Board and to ban overtime, rest-day and Sunday working and to work to rule, I thought it right to invite them to meet me immediately so that I could hear at first hand of the issues which had led to deadlock. In the succession of meetings that followed, the three unions constantly reiterated their demand that their claim for an immediate increase in pay amounting to 14 per cent. of the wages bill would have to be met if the threat of industrial action were to be withdrawn. They also rejected my suggestion, to which I had secured the board's agreement, that use should be made of the industry's agreed arbitration procedures.

On Saturday, in the light of this rejection, the board suggested that a chairman should be jointly appointed for further discussions between the board and the unions to consider the representations of the parties with a view to determining the remaining issues between them and to award. The unions agreed to this suggestion and, together with the board, invited Mr. Alex Jarratt to accept this rôle.

Meetings under his chairmanship took place throughout yesterday. In the course of the discussions the board proposed that its present offer should be accepted from 1st May and offered to meet the unions' claims from 1st January, 1973. This was not acceptable to the unions.

Under the agreement which had provided for his appointment, it then became necessary for Mr. Jarratt to make an award.

Recognising the board's preparedness to increase the total offer with effect from 1st January; bearing in mind the expressed concern of the unions at the period which would elapse before this extra money became available; and recognising the board's concern for the need to limit the increase in the wages bill in the current financial year, the award proposed an immediate increase in the board's current offer from 11 per cent. of the wages and salaries bill to 12 per cent. and a further increase on 1st January which would have met the unions' joint claim in full.

The unions subsequently informed the board that the award was unacceptable.

I met the three unions again in the early hours of this morning. They made it clear to me that they were only ready to accept an offer which met their claim in full immediately. I felt bound to tell them that I, and I was sure the public, would find it difficult to understand why the award—the form and author of which they had freely agreed—had not provided a settlement.

In these circumstances I have thought it right to ask the General Council of the Trades Union Congress to meet me at 5 p.m. this evening.

Mr. Prentice

The whole House will want to share in the regret that a settlement has not been reached in the dispute, particularly in view of the widespread hardship this will cause to large numbers of people, including—and this point is often forgotten—the railwaymen themselves and their families. [Interruption.] That point is often forgotten.

We must get the record straight on what the Secretary of State said. At the end of his statement he referred to the fact that a lot of people would find it difficult to understand why the award had not been agreed. I hope he will accept two facts which I hope are not controversial in themselves. Mr. Jarratt, who did such a magnificent job in such a short time, was accepted in advance not as an arbitrator by either side but as a chairman who might produce an acceptable award. He was not accepted as an arbitrator whose award should be binding. Also, the proposed settlement would have meant the railwaymen would have to wait eight months for a basic £20 minimum wage for the lowest paid, a figure which is already regarded by the TUC as the minimum wage.

We are mainly concerned with the rôle of the Government in all this. On this side we would find no complaint with the Secretary of State personally for the way in which he has tried since Thursday morning to bring the two sides together. But was not his whole effort, which was in the best tradition of Ministers of Labour and Secretaries of State for Employment, sabotaged by the arrogant and partisan speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—[Interruption.]—on Thursday evening, which has been echoed by other Ministers in speeches since then?

Does it not become absolutely clear that the task of the moderates on the executives of the three unions was made infinitely more difficult by that speech and that there might have been, without that speech, an acceptance either of arbitration or of Mr. Jarratt's award? Were not the prospects of that made virtually impossible by the Chancellor's intervention, which seemed to be playing politics with the hardship of the travelling public?

Will the Secretary of State say where he goes from here? We would want him still to make every effort to find a settlement, and in particular at five o'clock this afternoon to ask the TUC for its good offices in attempting to reach a settlement. Does he intend to do that? Will he above all avoid using the powers of the Industrial Relations Act, because if he uses those powers it will only confirm the impression that the Government are more interested in playing politics than in reaching a settlement?

Mr. Macmillan

First I must entirely reject the remarks of the right hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) about the speech of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the effect that he alleges it to have had on the negotiations. One of the difficulties was to persuade the unions that the Government were in earnest in asking them to use the procedures which they have agreed; namely, arbitration. My right hon. Friend made it clear that the Government were in earnest in this.

The right hon. Gentleman's second point concerned the rôle of Mr. Alex Jarratt, the chairman. He was appointed by the Railways Board and the unions together, and they agreed that his rôle would be to consider representations to the parties to the dispute with a view to determining the remaining issues between them, and to award. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor was proved right when it turned out that in this last session there was no move from the unions, although the board made a further concession.

As to the £20 a week minimum, the unions have always demanded that any increase in the lowest basic rate must be fully reflected in all the other rates and that the differentials must be preserved throughout the wages structure. They have not proved willing simply to put up the bottom end of the wage scale alone. The board on the other hand has expressed its willingness to increase the minimum rate to £20 but was not willing to see such an increase escalated throughout the whole structure immediately. Its present offer would have established a minimum rate of £20 and would have preserved the differentials from 1st January, 1973. The board's offer has always included a minimum earnings guarantee which would ensure that no railwayman would ever receive less than £20.50 a week.

Mr. Bradley

As one of the trade union representatives who met the right hon. Gentleman in the early hours of this morning, as he put it, I consider that he has been unfair in describing the situation of the trade unions in this matter. Would he agree that the claim on which they are vesting is considerably modified from that which was originally submitted and that a number of concessions have been made and a reasonable compromise could now be reached?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the British Railways Board reached the point with the trade unions three weeks ago when it asked them to put in a claim for what they would actually settle for. That was done, and to that extent we are, therefore, asking for the minimum and not the maximum, as the right hon. Gentleman has suggested. It is not true to say—I hope the right hon. Gentleman will now correct what he said—that the unions have proved immovable in this matter. Cannot the right hon. Gentleman agree that the current claim for a basic rate of £20 a week is modest, and one which the British Railways Board recognised the justice of yesterday? Therefore, is it not unrealistic to suggest, with the Rent Act coming along, that it should be deferred until January, 1973?

Mr. Macmillan

I was not asked by the unions to agree that the claim for a minimum rate of £20 a week was a modest one. I was asked to agree that the claim reflected fully in all the other rates, with the differentials preserved throughout, was a modest one, which is a very different matter. Initially the board was presented with a claim for an un-quantified substantial increase in wages. In the course of the negotiations each union at different times mentioned different figures at which it would be prepared to settle. The present claim, on which I said the unions were being adamant, was the first jointly agreed by the three unions and was presented to the board some weeks ago. The hon. Gentleman said it was wrong to say they were immovable. Well, they were. Their agreement to the appointment of Mr. Jarratt, in the terms I have already described to the House, carried an implication that this figure was negotiable, but they flatly refused to negotiate.

Mr. John E. B. Hill

Does my right hon. Friend accept that those of us who have among our constituents many agricultural workers find it difficult to regard a minimum wage of £20 a week as too little, and believe that the refusal of this compromise will lose the railway workers the respect and good will of the public?

Mr. Macmillan

I am not sure whether the circumstances of different classes of wage-earners are so comparable as to justify the kind of comparison my hon. Friend has made, but I repeat that, regardless of the figures, the negotiators' attitude was that once having put their claim into negotiation they refused to negotiate.

Mr. Bagier

Does the Secretary of State agree that the railwaymen's productivity record stands second to none, and that the minimum requirement of £20 a week is reasonable, bearing in mind that before the miners' settlement the minimum wage of a railwayman was only 70p behind that of a miner's minimum? If the railwaymen are granted what they are asking for they will be £3 a week behind that rate, so does not that show that they are agreed that the miners were a special case? If the right hon. Gentleman will not say that the Chancellor's speech was harmful, will he say whether it was helpful?

Mr. Macmillan

I think that as a result of my right hon. Friend's speech the union negotiators concerned began to see that the Government felt quite strongly that the process of arbitration which was part of their agreements should be accepted. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's other point, as I told my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill), comparisons are a little invidious. Agricultural workers have shown an extremely high increase in productivity. If the hon. Gentleman is going back to the question of the £20 a week minimum rate, I must reply that there is no question of that being the claim. The claim was for the £20 a week minimum with that increase fully reflected throughout all the other rates—with the differentials maintained throughout, which is a great deal more than a mere £20 a week for the minimum wage-earners.

Mr. Hunt

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the message I am getting from my constituents is that they warmly welcome the plain speaking of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, which has meant that for the first time the voice of the silent but long-suffering majority is being heard in an industrial dispute in this country? Will he also bear in mind now that the go-slow has started that, while there are many who are prepared to put up with a great deal of hardship and inconvenience, what they will not tolerate is, having put up with that hardship, then to see a surrender to unreasonable demands.

Mr. Macmillan

The whole country must view the hardship, the difficulty, the dislocation of industry and effects on the jobs of people in other unions with great sadness and apprehension. I take my hon. Friend's other points.

Mr. Walter Johnson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the emotive language and the speeches made not only by the Chancellor but by many other senior Ministers completely hardened the unions' attitude? I happen to be an honorary national officer of one of the unions concerned, and I know that that was so. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the figures being bandied in the national Press and by British Rail about the earnings of railwaymen include rest day working, working in their normal day off, overtime payments and Sunday duty? If the Government want to be really fair, they should publish the facts.

Mr. Macmillan

The union representatives made it clear to me that they did not quarrel with the figures in the British Rail advertisement. As to the negotiators' attitude hardening, I must say that I could not detect that it got any harder after my right hon. Friend's speech than it was before. I repeat, on the question of the minimum rate, that it was not a mere basic £20 a week that was being talked about. The consequences of that were to be reflected throughout the differentials.

Mr. John Page

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the people of this country fully understand the serious consequences of the dispute and that they are looking to him to protect them from groups and individuals who are selfishly seeking their own self-interest?

Mr. Macmillan

I hope that the attitude of the public and the House can be confined to the dispute. It is the right and duty of the Government to protect the people against the consequences of the dislocation to which it will give rise, but I hope this will not lead us into too hasty judgments of other groups of individuals.

Mr. Mikardo

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that an employee of British Rail who occupies a house owned by British Rail for which he pays a rent of £2.85 a week was recently informed by the Southern Region that it has fixed a fair rent for his house of £10.75 a week? How will he pay that nearly £8 a week increase in rent, or anything like it, out of the pay increase which British Rail has offered?

Mr. Macmillan

He will have the rebates under the Act—[Laughter.] I do not find it anything to laugh at that the Government have introduced legislation to give a rebate to people who cannot afford to pay their rents. The level of rent that British Rail charges its employees is a matter for the management.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

In answering a request to publish the facts, will my right hon. Friend make sure that everybody is fully acquainted with the distinction between basic rate, minimum earnings and possible earnings—[An HON. MEMBER: "And hours of work."]? Secondly, will he do something to try to clarify the somewhat paradoxical situation which seems to have arisen whereby when people work to rule total chaos follows? Should we not change the rule book?

Mr. Macmillan

The Government have a great deal of sympathy with the sentiments expressed in the last part of my hon. Friend's question. It is extremely important that the facts are put before the House and the country.

Mr. Orme

Could not the amount that has divided the unions and British Rail be bridged if the Government were to show some genuine inclination to bridge it? Will not the British people judge the inconvenience against the political attitude of the Government? What is the Minister doing to restart the negotiations? The unions are prepared at any time to sit around a table and negotiate.

Mr. Macmillan

The hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is a little self-contradictory. He has said on the one hand that I should restart negotiations and on the other that there is no possible outcome to them except to admit the union's claim in full.

Mr. Orme

I did not say that at all.

Several hon. Members rose


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate the matter now.