HC Deb 13 June 1972 vol 838 cc1258-63
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

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

Last night the British Railways Board and representatives of the three railway unions reached agreement on the basis of a settlement to their dispute. This provided for the implementation of the board's offer to pay from 5th June the rates of pay recommended by Mr. Jarratt and, in addition, lump sum payments to each employee, proportionate to their basic rates and totally approximately £2 million.

The executives of the unions are meeting this afternoon to consider the agreement reached last night.

Mr. Prentice

The extreme brevity of that statement is eloquent testimony to the Government's embarrassment at this stage. The right hon. Gentleman might at any rate have made a brief reference to the constructive rôle played by Mr. Vic Feather at the end of last week in bridging the gap between the two sides and suggesting the basis of the settlement.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that it is eight weeks ago today that Mr. Feather asked for 24 hours in which to produce a settlement of the dispute? If that offer had been accepted, does he not agree that the terms of the settlement would have been very similar to those which have now been agreed? In those circumstances, does not he owe the House an explanation why throughout that eight-week period the Government have consistently blocked attempts at a settlement and have instead gone through their disastrous manoeuvres with the Industrial Relations Court? I ask him to acknowledge frankly that in their manoeuvres in front of the court they have not only shown their own incompetence in dealing with industrial relations but have also called in question the good faith of Ministers.

Why was the Solicitor-General paraded in front of the court to claim that a cooling-off period would be conducive to a settlement of the dispute when, clearly, it was nothing of the sort, and, clearly, the Government had no intention themselves of making use of the cooling-off period to produce a compromise settlement? Why was he again paraded some weeks later in front of the court to say that the Government had reason to doubt whether the railwaymen were behind their union leaders, when they had no reasons, as the result of the ballot clearly proved?

In this situation, are not the House and the country entitled to a clear explanation of the Government's motives in this period? Does not the period up to the settlement show not merely that the Industrial Relations Act has been proved useless and irrelevant to the solution of problems of this kind but that the Government's credibility, in so far as they had any left, has been further reduced by the episodes of the past few weeks?

Mr. Macmillan

I gladly acknowledge the rôle that Mr. Victor Feather played in coming to see me and indicating for the first time that there was a possibility of compromise on the part of the unions. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is not true."]

I do not agree with anything the right hon. Gentleman said about the Industrial Relations Act. The Act was properly used for the purposes for which it was passed; namely, to ensure through the cooling-off period that in matters of such importance the country was not inflicted with industrial action until it was clear that there was no alternative.

I repeat what I said to the House on Tuesday, that I had good reasons, from contacts during the negotiations, for believing that at varying stages a number of railwaymen would have been happy to see a settlement at a reasonable and moderate figure. There were more general considerations. It was entirely legitimate to doubt how far the unions had carried out any comprehensive or systematic consultation with their members about the acceptability of successive offers. There had been no opportunity for these to be fully considered and understood by all railway employees.

During the process of negotiations under the chairmanship of Mr. Jarratt, the Railways Board's offer was rejected out of hand, and Mr. Jarratt's improved award was also immediately rejected. It was for those reasons that I urged the unions to ballot their membership. All that happened was industrial action and the cooling-off period which followed. The unions maintained the position that they would not be satisfied with anything but an award totalling 14 per cent, of the wages and salaries bill. The board's offer, which was back to 11 per cent., was not regarded even as a basis for negotiation. On 4th May the board's offer to modify the Jarratt award to bring forward the higher rates from 1st January to 5th June was rejected by the executives virtually on the spot, and with no consultation with their membership.

When Mr. Victor Feather came to see me he could give me no indication whether the unions would be willing to move below the 14 per cent, demand. In our final meeting of the board and the unions it was made quite clear to me that the unions would insist on the full amount of a 14 per cent, award. I still felt then that a compromise would be acceptable to the membership. Indeed, in the event it turned out to be acceptable.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the circumstances of the past week a settlement on these terms or something like it was almost inevitable? It is said that the things that will flow from it may mean higher unemployment and higher prices. In the circumstances, have we not come to the time when arbitration should be compulsory? Is it not a slander on this nation for it to be suggested by hon. Members opposite that we have no one capable of being impartial and knowledgeable enough to act in the rôle of referee? The right hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) and my right hon. Friend have referred to Mr. Feather. Can we have circulated Mr. Feather's statement that a 10 per cent, increase in wages and a 10 per cent, increase in prices was not as good as a 6 per cent, increase in wages and a 5 per cent, increase in prices?

Mr. Macmillan

This increase in wages is at a rate of about twice the level of the price increases over the last year. As my hon. Friend has made plain—and perhaps I can make it even plainer—arbitration was rejected in this dispute. The agreement between the board and the unions provides for arbitration, but in the dispute this was rejected by the unions. The union representatives accepted Mr. Jarratt to chair the negotiations and to make an award. That award was also rejected by the unions, and, indeed, it is that which has led to this unfortunate situation.

Mr. C. Pannell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this exercise will be completely wasted unless it has taught him as Secretary of State and the Goverenment in general that the classic qualities of the trade union movement are cohesion and loyalty, and that in the circumstances with which the membership of the unions was faced in the ballot it was bound to give an overwhelming vote of confidence to its leaders? The right hon. Gentleman should really understand the nature of the animal he is dealing with. Does he understand that the series of pranks and platitudes we have had from the Government in the last few weeks has not contributed anything towards a settlement at all, and that much bitterness might have been avoided, and even the credibility of the National Industrial Relations Court might have held a bit firmer, if the right hon. Gentleman had left the whole thing alone?

Mr. Macmillan

The credibility of the Act is not at issue unless it is regarded as being a method of preventing the unions from taking industrial action if they insist, and it does not do that. I am fully aware of and admire the loyalty of trade union members to their leadership and the trade union movement as a whole. I wish that in some areas other than the railways there was a little more cohesion, lack of which is causing a good deal of damage elsewhere.

Sir J. Rodgers

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that, however silly and stupid the question addressed to the membership in the ballot, the result has shown, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) has said, the loyalty of trade unionists to their leaders? But does not this fact in itself put an end to the nonsense talked by right hon. and hon. Members opposite to the effect that the Industrial Relations Act is one of union bashing?

Mr. Macmillan

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course it makes it plain that the Act never has been and never was intended to be a case of union bashing.

Mr. David Steel

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Government's policy of attempting to resist inflation by means of confrontation lies in ruins? Would he give an estimate of the cost of the dispute, both in terms of the loss of revenue to the board and in terms of the cost of the machinery of the National Industrial Relations Court? Will the Government now determine to work out a positive incomes policy and a positive industrial relations policy?

Mr. Macmillan

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman figures without notice. He has asked about future policy. Whatever policies are adopted, that of trying to contain inflationary wage settlements must continue to be the key for any Government responsible enough to want to contain inflation.

Mr. David Mitchell

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that this is a highly inflationary settlement and that it will lead to loss of jobs as well as to an increase in fares? Will he condemn the irresponsible attitude of right hon. and hon. Members opposite who support every inflationary wage demand and then quibble at the consequences?

Mr. Macmillan

I would agree it would be better if right hon. and hon. Members opposite would go as far at least as to accept the words of the Daily Mirror, which said that the settlement is not a famous victory for either the three railway unions or the Rail Board. It is certainly a defeat for the public, who have to foot the bill. This is inflation. This is what right hon. and hon. Members opposite are supporting.

Mr. Bidwell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the statement suggests that he has learnt nothing, or very little, from this dispute? It is one thing for the unions themselves to put a proposed settlement to their membership and it is entirely another for the State to order a ballot to be taken, which immediately raises the question of solidarity in the trade union movement. Does he not realise now that the compulsory ballot exacerbated the situation and fortifies the whole weight of the argument which we on this side of the House have put?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not agree—but I have learnt a great deal from this dispute.