HC Deb 10 May 1972 vol 836 cc1317-24
Mr. Prentice (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the railways pay dispute.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

As the House is aware, the three railway unions yesterday decided to re-impose industrial action from midnight tomorrow. If this takes effect, widespread dislocation of passenger and freight services of the kind the country recently experienced will again occur.

Since I informed the House on 25th April that I hoped that day to certify to the Industrial Court that there had been a resumption of normal rail services, the British Railways Board and the unions have again met during the period stipulated by the court to explore whether a settlement to their dispute could be found. The House will share my regret that this has not proved possible.

These further negotiations broke down on 4th May, and that same night I invited both the board and the unions to meet me so that I could learn at first hand what remaining differences there might be between them.

The board told me that in the course of these discussions it had first improved its offer from 11 per cent. of the wages and salaries bill to 12½ per cent., representing the award made by Mr. Jarratt on 16th April which had not then been accepted by any of the parties. The implementation of this award would have increased the minimum rate from £17.20 to £19.65 from 1st May with a minimum earnings guarantee of £20.50 also from 1st May and would have further increased the minimum rate to £20 from 1st January. At each stage there would have been consequential increases in rates throughout the grading structure to preserve all differentials.

When this offer was rejected by the unions, the board, in a further attempt to reach a settlement, offered to bring forward the full implementation of Mr. Jarratt's award from 1st January to 5th June. This would have provided the minimum rate of £20 and consequential increases to preserve all differentials seven months earlier and brought them into payment in just over three weeks' time. For their part, the unions told me that this offer was also not acceptable to them and their joint claim was for the £20 minimum rate and preserved differentials from 1st May. This, in effect, was an insistence that there should be an increase on the wages and salaries bill of 14 per cent.

Last night the board made it clear that it was still prepared to conclude a settlement on the basis of its offers and was ready to meet the unions again if at any time they had agreed a constructive approach. There have also been public statements earlier today by some union representatives that all they are seeking is an offer equivalent to 12½ per cent. of the wages and salaries bill. It is clearly important that once again I should seek to clarify any confusions which remain in view of the grave threat which has again arisen to the travelling public and the economy. Accordingly, I have invited both the board and the unions to meet me later today.

Mr. Prentice

The Government's first major intervention in an industrial dispute under the Industrial Relations Act clearly has been an abysmal failure.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to confirm the following points for the record? First, will he confirm that when the Solicitor-General appeared before the court three weeks ago he had to convince it that the Government believed that a cooling-off period would be conducive to a settlement by negotiation, conciliation or arbitration? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm, secondly, that during the cooling-off period there has been no conciliation, no arbitration and nothing which could seriously be called negotiation?

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that during the cooling-off period for which the Government asked, the Government themselves have taken no initiative to bring the two sides together with a view to seeing whether the comparatively narrow difference between them could be bridged?

Fourthly, and worse, is it not clear from the extraordinary behaviour of the British Rail authorities and their refusal to have even normal discussions with the unions on their counterproposals that the Government have been leaning on British Rail all along to dissuade the board from taking any steps which could lead to a bridging of the gap? Would it not have been better three weeks ago to have held the meeting that the right hon. Gentleman proposes to hold today? Will he now take the opportunity that he neglected three weeks ago of trying to bridge the gap between the two sides, thus avoiding damage to the national economy and hardship to the travelling public?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not agree that the Government's intervention in an industrial dispute for the first time since the Industrial Relations Act has been a failure—

Mr. Orme

But what a failure you are!

Mr. Macmillan

If it has done nothing else, it has demonstrated a number of matters. First, the court was convinced that it was possible—and I believed that it was possible—that some settlement would be reached by negotiation, conciliation or arbitration.

I dispute that there was no negotiation. But I remind the House that the position reached by one side, the unions, is precisely the same at the moment as it was when I first intervened and saw them some weeks ago. The position of the other side, the employers, is different. The one side has moved; the other has not. I accept that the recent statements of some union representatives have led to the possibility of doubt about whether the unions are now willing to move. I have called them together with a view to trying to resolve that doubt.

The right hon. Gentleman's third point was to ask why I had not done more to bring both sides together. Both sides were negotiating and, as I have said, it is extremely difficult to do more when it is indicated plainly at regular intervals, publicly and privately, that negotiation consists in this case of one party to the dispute making a further advance from the point that it had already reached.

The right hon. Gentleman's last point was to suggest that the Government had been leaning on the British Railways Board during the discussions. They were most certainly not. The British Railways Board made it perfectly plain that an increase of 11 per cent. on its wages and salaries bill was almost beyond the limit of prudence and was taking a grave commercial risk. In the course of my intervention I persuaded the board and the unions to accept a modified form of arbitration. The board has now moved to an offer of l2½ per cent. on its total wages and salaries bill which from its point of view must present an even graver commercial risk. The board has moved. But again I point out that any statement that Mr. Jarratt's award should be accepted from 1st May is not an acceptance of Mr. Jarratt's award. It is a re-phasing to make it plain that a 14 per cent. increase on the wages bill is what the unions are asking at present.

I hope that my intervention later today will have some effect. But I am bound to say that it means a modification in the present attitude of the union negotiators in the sense that some statements earlier today indicated might occur.

Mr. Hastings

Would my right hon. Friend be prepared to make a general comment on the motive behind the unions' action at this stage? Is this simply an attempt by the three unions concerned to extract the maximum on behalf of their membership, or is it part of a carefully concerted policy by an element within the trade union leadership to force up the general level of settlements to a totally unacceptable degree in order to wreck the Government's attempt to control inflation?

Mr. Macmillan

I understand my hon. Friend's deductions, and I see why he and others might make them, but I should not like to express a firm conclusion, as he has done, until I have seen the unions later this afternoon and heard what they have to say. If my hon. Friend is right and the motive is what he says it is, it would be not only an attempt to call into question the Government's attempt to contain inflation but a severe blow to the economy of the country and the interests of the people.

Mr. Bagier

Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that for him to say that Mr. Jarratt's proposals have been accepted by British Railways as something which amounts to negotiation is an abortion of the facts? Not one penny more has been offered during the 14 days, or whatever the period is, of negotiations.

Would not the right hon. Gentleman also agree that the fact that the London Transport Executive has agreed to implement as from 1st May whatever wage increase is agreed for British Railways has driven a coach and horses through any possibility of a different date being negotiated for British Railways? Will he realise that there is a wages board arbitration decision of 1947 which provides for parity between London Transport Executive employees and those on British Railways?

Mr. Macmillan

The question of the London Transport Executive Board's negotiations is entirely separate. The hon. Gentleman referred to the agreement of 1947. ASLEF tried to establish a new agreement as long ago as June last year. There is no common basis for this. The point that I was making was that both sides appear to have accepted the 12½per cent. Jarratt award. What I am trying to clarify is the terms on which that acceptance by both sides is possible.

Mr. Holland

May I ask my right hon. ' Friend to keep an open mind over the next few days on the possibility of taking a view on the extent to which the executives of the unions are supported by their members?

Mr. Macmillan

I am prepared to keep a very open mind. Indeed, I have from time to time in the course of these negotiations and discussions urged the unions concerned to test the position by holding a ballot themselves, or by asking the CIR to undertake a ballot for them if their organisations are not capable of so doing. So far I have had no response to the suggestion for a ballot. I should not like to be more specific about what the Government might decide to do as a result of the outcome of these talks.

Mr. Walter Johnson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the cooling-off period has been an abject failure, and that no meaningful negotiations at all have taken place during the last 14 days? Is he further aware that the stupid and provocative statements of the Chairman of the British Railways Board, who ought to know better, and those of the labour 'relations chief have caused bitterness and 'resentment amongst railwaymen? There have been precisely four hours of negotiations in 14 days, and British Railways broke off the negotiations. The Government should have called the two sides together before now. I am pleased that the Minister is doing so, but for goodness' sake keep an open mind on this matter.

Mr. Macmillan

I think that the hon. Gentleman is taking a slightly biased view. He has referred to provocative statements by the Chairman of British Railways. I have heard some extremely provocative statements by members of the unions. When watching television, I have repeatedly heard union leaders make the point that it is cheaper for British Railways, for the Government and for the people to pay the money on demand than it is to suffer the inconveniences imposed by not so doing. That is a very partial remark, characteristic of bullies in all places, and if the Chairman of the British Railways chooses to defend himself he should not be attacked too much.

As to whether the board should have made a recent approach to the unions, in no case have the unions made an approach to the board, put a constructive idea or, indeed, a suggestion or position at all. They have insisted on the board's putting a position to which they could react, and it is this technique which has enabled the settling position put forward by the board to be upped by the unions into a negotiating position.

I shall approach the discussions this evening in the earnest hope that I can get some agreement on the 12½per cent. which has apparently been accepted by both sides.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

In view of the discussions which the Minister is to have later today, I think that we should move on to other business.

Mr. Harold Wilson

In view of the Minister's comment that he is to meet both sides tonight, which is welcomed by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice), can we expect the Minister to make a statement in the House tomorrow?

Mr. Macmillan

I hope to be in a position to make a statement to the House as soon as possible. This must depend on the outcome of my talks and how long they take.

Mr. Wilson

I am sorry, but I should like to press the right hon. Gentleman a little further on this. If he deems that the talks have gone as far as they can helpfully go—and the House hopes that they will lead to a successful conclusion —will he agree not to rule out the possibility of making a statement in the House later tonight?

Mr. Macmillan

I should not like to put such pressure on the unions. They may wish to retire to consider their position.


Mr. Atkinson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Assuming that things do not work out too well in the railways dispute, is the right hon. Gentleman saying that he will come to the House first before he again approaches the Industrial Court? [Interruption.] If the right hon. and hon. animals below the gangway would be quiet for a moment, I could continue with my point of order.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It would help the proper conduct of proceedings if I could hear what the hon. Member is saying on a point of order.

Mr. Atkinson

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.

My purpose is to ask whether, in view of the ruling that you have given and the semi-assurance that we shall have an opportunity to discuss some of these matters before they are again submitted to the Industrial Court by the Government, we may be assured by the Minister that before he makes a fresh approach to the court he will give the House an opportunity of questioning him on the matter.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order.