HC Deb 25 April 1972 vol 835 cc1277-82
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

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

I can confirm to the House that so far today there has been a virtual resumption of normal rail services. If, as I hope, this situation continues during the evening rush hour, I expect so to certify to the Industrial Court later today.

Immediately thereafter I shall be in touch with the parties to urge them to reopen their discussions as quickly as possible.

I am sure the whole House will hope that now industrial action has been discontinued a settlement will be reached.

Mr. Prentice

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the resumption of services owes a great deal to the tremendous efforts of Mr. Ray Buckton, General Secretary of ASLEF, who worked right through Saturday night and all through yesterday with many of his colleagues urging his members in the Southern Region to resume normal working, instead of indulging in the sort of provocative action taken by the General Manager of the Southern Region?

The right hon. Gentleman in his statement said that he urged the parties to reopen their discussions. What rôle does he see for himself and his Department during the cooling-off period? Will he bear in mind that the court made the order on an application from the Government in which the Government had to show why they thought a cooling-off period would be conducive to a settlement. Does that not imply some active rôle in seeking a settlement during this critical stage?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the prospects of a settlement will not be improved if senior Ministers make one-sided speeches attacking the unions while delicate negotiations are going on? Will he urge a cooling-off period on some of his colleagues at the same time?

Mr. Macmillan

I hope that we can all allow time and the right atmosphere for these negotiations and talks to be conducted. I gratefully acknowledge the work of all the union leaders concerned, including Mr. Buckton, to achieve this result. I hope that in turn they will acknowledge that in dealing with this unofficial action the court appears at least to have been of some assistance to them. It went on for some 10 days before the order was sought, but was brought to an end by the efforts of the union leaders five days after the order was applied. The function of my Department was to apply to the court, and the court ruled that it would grant this period of cooling-off in order to get the parties to resume their discussions. I regard it as part of my function to see that they do so as rapidly as possible.

Sir G. Nabarro

Reverting to the function of my right hon. Friend's Department, will he seek to define for clarification purposes among Members of Parliament and members of the general public whether working to rule is industrial action? If railwaymen obey the order not to work to rule, are not they ipso facto breaking their own individual contracts of employment?

Mr. Macmillan

I think that at this stage it might be better if this remained a matter for discussion. However, I am clear about one matter. If, as my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has remarked, industrial action is suggested by union officials for the purpose of furthering an industrial dispute, it has very little object unless it causes some form of dislocation.

Mr. Bagier

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the application made by him to the court was one under Section 138(1)(c) which had to show that it was conducive to creating an atmosphere whereby arbitration, conciliation or negotiation could take place? Is he now saying that, because the order has been granted, the statements by the Government and by Mr. Richard Marsh to the effect that not a penny more can be paid are no longer valid and there is really a basis for negotiations to take place between the parties?

Mr. Macmillan

The form which the discussions will take is a matter for the board and the unions. All that the court order has done is to create a situation where discussions can take place without any pressure on the public and, therefore, on the board as a result of industrial action.

Mr. Goodhart

Will my right hon. Friend realise that season ticket holders have had to bear the brunt of this dispute so far in that they have had to pay for services which have not be rendered? Will he now have consultations with his ministerial colleagues to see whether the lives of season tickets can be extended to take account of the period when services were not provided?

Mr. Macmillan

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries, but I have no doubt that he has noted my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Bidwell

When the right hon. Gentleman decides to play the old rôle of conciliator in the dispute in the coming days and, if I may use a famous phrase, to "jaw, jaw, not war, war", will he bear in mind that very often in the United States' experience cooling-off periods have led to long hotting-up periods afterwards? Is he aware that railwaymen are sick to death of working 60 and more hours a week to get a living wage? Is he aware, further, that the parties are very close together but that the situation might easily be reached where we got exactly what I have described?

Mr. Macmillan

Without accepting the hon. Gentleman's premise, certainly I accept that there could be a rôle for my Department at some stage. I would not prejudge that issue. This is a matter which at this stage should be left to the board and the unions concerned.

Mr. Adley

Following the remarks by the right hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) about Mr. Ray Buckton, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Industrial Relations Act looks as though it will fortify the hands of the officially elected union representatives?

Mr. Macmillan

I hope sincerely that that will be the case. I am grateful for the decision that the union should now be represented at the court.

Mr. Callaghan

May I press the right hon. Gentleman further on the rôle that he thinks his Department might have? Has he indicated to Mr. Marsh that he is free to return to the Government if he finds that, for example, by advancing the date for the increase from the next financial year to this financial year at a cost of £4 million he can satisfy the claim? Has he told Mr. Marsh that in such circumstances the Government will be willing to reconsider the matter?

Mr. Macmillan

Throughout these negotiations the board has been entirely free to act according to its judgment. That is still the position.

Mr. Callaghan

That is not what I am asking. The Minister has said that he can conceive of circumstances in which his Department will have a rôle to play. Does that rôle extend to some financial assistance for this year, since I believe that to be the main sticking point, the increase having been offered from a date in the next financial year?

Mr. Macmillan

I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would have been one of the first to realise that my Department does not provide financial aid to anyone. [Interruption.] My rôle is entirely that of bringing the parties together. The rôle of my Department is exactly that which it has in any form of wage negotiation of this kind.

Mr. Callaghan

That is a very unsatisfactory reply. Does the Prime Minister conceive—[Interruption.] Anyone is entitled to answer on behalf of the Government since apparently the Secretary of State for Employment cannot. This is a serious question which will affect the course of negotiations. Is not one of the major difficulties here that the award given by Mr. Jarratt has been post-dated? Has not Sir Sidney Greene gone on record as saying that if the award were brought forward by a few months there would be at least the prospect of a settlement? Therefore, I put this to the Prime Minister, since the Secretary of State for Employment cannot answer. Do the Government consider it within their responsibility to accept some financial obligation if it means a settlement, or is Mr. Marsh still out on his own without a penny more to offer?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not think that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) is helping towards a satisfactory solution of this problem by seeking to force the hand of the chairman of the board at this stage of the negotiations.

Mr. J. H. Osborn

Is it not a fact that the 16 per cent.—let alone the 12½ per cent.—agreed by Mr. Jarratt must be considered highly inflationary by the whole House? We held this view last week. Is that not still the fact? In addition, is it not the fact that if a 60-hour week is being worked there is a good case for reducing it and providing employment for those elsewhere in the country who need that employment?

Mr. Macmillan

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that I think it is wise for me not to anticipate any phase of these negotiations at this stage.

Mr. John Mendelson

Is the Secretary of State aware that when he refers to his own position, which is that of chief conciliator, he must take into account the very strong feeling in areas where there are considerable concentrations of railwaymen working in the industry that they expect there to be real negotiations when the two sides meet again? In view of the serious implications of the timing of the award, which has to do with the long-term relations between the two sides, is there not an obligation on the Government that the Minister should give an encouraging reply to my right hon. Friend?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. It will not help the progress of the negotiations if we seek to conduct them in this House today.

Mr. David Mitchell

Will my right hon. Friend clarify the difference between the parties? Reference has been made to £4 million, or something of that nature. Are we to understand that the unions' rejection of the Jarratt award means that it is still accepted by the board, or is the difference not £4 million but substantially more?

Mr. Macmillan

I must ask my hon. Friend to accept that it is for the chairman of the board and the three unions concerned to conduct the negotiations. Let us at least wait until they get together before taking any further part.

Mr. Ron Lewis

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that British Railways are at the moment inflaming the position as they have issued instructions to their divisional managers to compile a dossier of all employed by British Rail so that a ballot can be held in future? Has this got the Government's backing?

Mr. Macmillan

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the management of British Railways is collecting the names and addresses of members for their records, I must point out that that is a matter for the management, not for the Government.