HC Deb 11 May 1972 vol 836 cc1569-76
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

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

Last night I brought both the British Railways Board and the three railway unions together under my chairmanship to discuss yet again the remaining issues which divided them, to clarify any uncertainties in their positions and to explore whether there was any acceptable way in which a settlement might still be reached.

The unions made it very clear to me that they were insisting on their joint claim for a £20 minimum basic rate with consequential increases for all other grades and salaried staff from 1st May. They were not prepared to accept the board's offer to pay these rates from 5th June or from any intermediate date. Nor were they able to accept any alternative restructuring of the board's offer amounting to about 12½ per cent. of the wages and salaries bill. The unions' claim would have cost close to 14 per cent.

In the course of these discussions I made a number of suggestions. One possibility I put forward was to introduce the agreed minimum earnings guarantee of £20.50 a week from 1st May and to implement the new rates as proposed by the board and accepted by the unions from 5th June. Another suggestion I made was that, in addition to the minimum earnings guarantee, all basic rates at present below £20 a week should be increased to that figure from 1st May until the full rates came into payment on 5th June. The unions' position remained that the full amounts must be paid throughout the whole grade structure and to salaried staff from 1st May.

I have discussed the position further with the board today. As a result it is writing to the unions expressing its willingness to implement the minimum earnings guarantee as from 1st May as I suggested and formally setting out the resulting offer.

I hope that the unions will accept it.

Mr. Prentice

The House has just listened to a non-statement in which it is clear that the Government have absolutely no proposals to put forward to deal with the grave crisis that faces the nation from midnight tonight.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman three questions, the first being in relation to the talks last night. He made a great deal of play of his own suggestion that the minimum earnings guarantee should date from 1st May. Will he not acknowledge that the numbers involved in that proposal would be so small and the amount would be so small—I believe that about £50,000 would be the cost of meeting it—that what he was doing was suggesting just one more restructuring of the Jarratt award and nothing more? Was it not clear from the very beginning that in the light of the London Transport decision to meet its obligations and pay the new rates from 1st May any suggestion of that sort would be unacceptable?

Secondly, why have we heard nothing from the right hon. Gentleman about the possibilities of a ballot under the Industrial Relations Act? Has the Cabinet run away from that because it realises that its use of the cooling-off period has made the railwaymen more determined to pursue their claim?

Thirdly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his failure last night to make any progress will come as no suprise to those of us who heard his answers to questions yesterday? Is it not unprecedented for a Minister about to undertake discussions on a complex industrial dispute, with a delicate position between the two sides, to make comments as prejudiced and one-sided as those which the right hon. Gentleman made to the House in his replies yesterday afternoon?

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that in the light of those events the Government will be charged not merely with failing to conciliate in the dispute but with not trying to conciliate, because they appear to be concerned only with getting the maximum political capital out of the hardships of the travelling public?

Mr. Macmillan

I cannot agree with or accept any of the statements made by the right hon. Gentleman. I made it very plain to the unions that in putting forward proposals I was trying to meet a difficulty which had clearly arisen of matching and trying to help the lowest-paid people without unduly upsetting the differentials. The minimum earnings guarantee does just that, and it was in that spirit that I put it forward and that the board has, I understand, put it to the unions concerned.

The London Transport question is different. The rates paid are different, and, therefore, the effect on the wages and salary bill is totally different as between the two organisations.

I cannot say categorically that the Government will apply to the court until I see the board's letter and know the unions' reaction. In any case, I have a statutory obligation to consult the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, and the board, and I would naturally wish to consult the other unions concerned.

As to the statement that what happened last night should come as no surprise, I must remind the House that when I first started to try to help in these negotiations the unions' position was a demand for a £20.05 minimum wage with consequentials going through the differentials. When I left yesterday the unions' position was a demand for £20–5p lower—with the consequentials going through the differentials. I have had no effect in trying to get the unions to agree to restructure Jarratt, although the board made it clear that it was willing to accept any restructuring within the 12½per cent. total addition to the wages and salaries bill.

Mr. Gardner

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the present attitude of the unions displays an extraordinary stubbornness which flies in the face of reason, is contrary to the interests of the unions, and is in conflict with the overriding needs and interests of the nation?

Mr. Macmillan

I still hope that there will be a response to the board and that further consultations will take place with the unions.

Mr. Bradley

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that he is still being unfair to the trade unions' case in this matter? They have made three major modifications to their original claim. Further, does he not understand that what was suggested last night, and what he has repeated here today, added to the British Railways Board compromise offer of last Thursday, still represents less money than the original Jarratt award, which the unions rejected? How can the Minister realistically expect them to accept the new position? Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand the distinction between the minimum earnings guarantee and a minimum basic wage? The former involves working extra hours for no extra payment.

When will the right hon. Gentleman initiate meaningful negotiations as a conciliator? When will he accept that his position ought to be the least party-political position in the Government, and when will he act as a genuine conciliator?

Finally, will the Minister take it that many of us have now regretfully reached the conclusion that what was a genuine industrial dispute is now dominated by party-political considerations?

Mr. Macmillan

The hon. Gentleman says that, and his right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) said much the same, but the party-political considerations do not come from this side of the House.

I made plain that the British Railways Board was unable to offer more than 12½per cent. of its wages and salaries bill. The board accepted the award made by Mr. Jarratt, which would have cost £35 million in the 12 months beginning 1st May, 1972. The board was prepared to consider any proposal which the unions put forward which would, within the same total cost to the board, restructure the offer beginning 1st May, 1972. The board went to 5th June in an attempt to restructure the wage offer to suit the unions' needs. The board has offered, in addition to the alternative Jarratt award, a £20.50 minimum earnings guarantee as from 1st May, 1972.

That is the position as I set it out to the unions, and the unions left me in no doubt that there was no solution which did not involve a substantial increase to the wages and salaries bill of the board.

Mr. Hornby

If—to quote the words of the right hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice)—there has been prejudice and one-sidedness in this issue, has it not come from the leaders of the unions concerned, who have consistently ignored the effects on the public before the full processes of consultation in the industry have been exhausted, and who are now threatening at pistol point to subject the public to the same sort of inconvenience which the public have already shown they regard as neither justifiable nor tolerable? Will my right hon. Friend agree that this is no way to solve matters in this important industry?

Mr. Macmillan

The unions concerned made plain to me from the very beginning when I came into this negotiation that there was no possibility of their accepting anything which was not virtually the same as the original demand which they made involving about a 14 per cent. increase of the wages and salaries bill of the board.

Mr. Pardoe

Will the right hon. Gentleman take it that most reasonable men will consider that his two suggestions made last night were eminently reasonable and should have been accepted? That being said, however, will he accept that this whole dispute has now shown that the Industrial Relations Act was an entirely unsuitable instrument for dealing with the problems which bedevil British industrial relations, and that what is needed is tough anti-monopoly legislation to deal with monopoly power, whether exercised by big business or by trade unions? Further, will the Minister accept that until the Government legislate for a statutory minimum wage the problem of the low paid will be continually bedevilled by the sacred cow of differentials?

Mr. Macmillan

I cannot accept all that the hon. Gentleman says. I agree, however, that the Industrial Relations Act is not in itself a solution to the human and other problems involved in industrial relations; but it is a method for bringing a basis of law into these matters, just as it applies in every other form of human relations which create difficulty. It would be a great deal easier to build up a more satisfactory system of industrial relations when unions, employers, politicians and the Government—all of us—fully accept that the Industrial Relations Court has a part to play as a court of final arbiter in these matters.

Mr. Edward Taylor

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he has not closed his mind to the possibility of a ballot? Also, will he agree that the attitude taken by the Labour Party is utter hypocrisy, coming as it does from a party which, when in Government, introduced a wage freeze and a norm of 21½ per cent.?

Mr. Macmillan

I have not closed my mind to the possibility of a ballot. As I said, I could not say that one would apply to the court until I see the board's letters and know the unions' reactions. I hope even at this late date that there may be an agreement. Neither do I wish to put the unions under any pressure, or even to seem to do so. But I must say that, should there be no further movement. the possibility of a ballot could certainly not be ignored.

Mr. Orme

Does the right hon. Gentleman now recognise that what many of us forecast has happened, that, for example, the cooling-off period has hardened the whole complex of these negotiations, and if there had been a 60-day cooling-off period it would have been five times worse than it is after 12 days, because the members, the trade unionists, who were put on the cooling-off period come back more bitter and more determined to try to extract what they believe are their just demands?

Has not the Minister elevated this dispute into a political issue, removing it from the area of industrial dispute, and does he realise that commuters and people travelling by train will come to realise, when the go-slow starts again, that the narrow differences between the offer and what the unions are prepared to accept could be resolved but the Government are preventing this?

Mr. Macmillan

If it has become a political issue, I can only say that it was one before I came into it; in fact, it was so from the beginning. [Interruption] It was made one by the unions concerned. However, I am not saying that. I think that the hon. Gentleman may be right to the extent that the attitude of the negotiating committees and executive committees has become tougher as it seemed that they had a chance to extract more money from the board—the board has now made clear that this is not possible—but I very much doubt that it is true of the membership of the unions.

Mr. Hastings

Would my right hon. Friend care to tell the House who, in his opinion, take the decisions in these unions? Is it Sir Sidney Greene and Mr. Buckton, or are there others behind them, less well known, whose motives may be wholly political?

Mr. Macmillan

I think it possible that it would have been easier to obtain a settlement if the negotiating committees had not been so concerned to keep the unity of the three unions, which to some extent seemed to me to depend upon accepting the more demanding claims of parts of the ASLEF membership.

Mr. Atkinson

The Minister says that he has not yet ruled out the possibility of applying to the court for a ballot. When he reconsiders this matter, will he bear in mind that the policy of the TUC, decided at Croydon, was to advise all workers to boycott such ballots and to pursue a policy of non-co-operation'? Will he further recognise that it cannot be contempt of court for a person not to take part in a ballot so organised?

Mr. Macmillan

These are matters for the court, not for me. I notice that the TUC is pursuing a policy of non-cooperation and inaction in this matter.

Mr. Callaghan

In view of the questions that we are getting, the Minister's modified views about the operation of the Industrial Relations Act, and his uncertainty whether he should now pursue a ballot, may I ask whether we as a country are not going through a very expensive time to teach Conservative back benchers the facts of industrial life?

Mr. Macmillan

Conservative back benchers are well aware of the facts of industrial life. In this instance they involve the fact that there is no settlement possible to this dispute in the eyes of the union which does not involve an increase in the wages and salaries bill of the British Railways Board above the 12½ per cent. award by Mr. Jarratt.


Mr. John D. Grant

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the utter chaos which now faces the travelling public over the weekend as a result of the railway dispute, may we know when the Secretary of State will come to the House again to make a statement?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter of order.

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