HC Deb 12 December 1974 vol 883 cc765-72
Sir Bernard Braine

asked the Secretary of State for Employment (by Private Notice) if he will make a statement about the continuing disruption to rail services in the South-East.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

Commuter and other rail services in the South-East have again been disrupted today by a 24-hour strike by some signalmen. The travelling public have again been subjected to inconvenience and hardship.

The strike is wholly unofficial. The National Union of Railwaymen, which negotiates on behalf of all signalmen, has urged the men concerned to work normally and deplored the action being taken.

The signalmen concerned are variously reported to be seeking a 5 per cent. increase in pay and a further 10 per cent. responsibility allowance or a 30 per cent. increase over and above the improvements provided by the major restructuring agreement of earlier this year which was accepted by all three railway unions on behalf of all railwaymen. The National Union of Railwaymen and British Rail have made clear that they are not prepared to contemplate changes in this agreement, although I understand that they are discussing possible changes in the classification of signalmen's jobs.

In these circumstances, I would hope that the House would support the National Union of Railwaymen in urging the men concerned to return to normal working and bring to an end action which so disrupts services on which so many people, including fellow trade unionists, depend.

Sir Bernard Braine

Is the Secretary of State aware that his hope is not enough? Surely he must be aware of the misery and frustration endured by commuters, principally in Essex, over the last seven weeks and now by hundreds of thousands of travellers who have been affected today. How does he square that with the social contract? Is it not a fact that he has powers to intervene or that he could ask the Conciliation and Arbitration Service to do so? Why has he not exerted himself in this regard? Finally, does not this anarchic situation underline the urgent and compelling necessity for the Government to devise methods of resolving relative pay disputes, particularly those that injure large numbers of innocent people, such as the travelling public?

Mr. Foot

I certainly deplore, as I am sure does the whole House, the great inconvenience which has been caused for many weeks to the travelling public. As strongly as I can, I urge the signalmen to return to work and to cease this action. But since this is an unofficial dispute which has been condemned by the union concerned, it would not be right for me to intervene, or indeed for the Conciliation and Arbitration Service to do so, in these circumstances. I do not believe that that would help in bringing about an end to the dispute. Indeed, it might cause larger difficulties still.

Mr. Moonman

I welcome the Minister's statement, because the excessive indignation which has recently been expressed by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) does not help. My constituency is equally involved, and inconvenience has been caused to many of my constituents. Does not my right hon. Friend accept that here we have a delicate problem of industrial relations which shows up the whole problem of differential systems? Will my right hon. Friend give attention to this aspect?

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman) was the first in this House to bring this matter to my attention, although we were concerned about the action which was being taken. As soon as we received reports about it some weeks ago, we looked at the whole position to see what action we could take which might have some reasonable chance of a better result. But it is a fact that the differentials which the signalmen claim are disturbed were determined in the Railway Staff National Tribunal after lengthy study, and were accepted by the three railway unions. Therefore, I do not believe that any actions should be taken which would disrupt that agreement.

Mr. Channon

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that excessive indignation is not surprising when people have had to put up with inconvenience time and again in the past few weeks? Is he further aware that there is likely to be more action before Christmas? If he is not prepared to intervene, what are the Government prepared to do about the situation?

Mr. Foot

I understand the indignation and feelings on the part of the travelling public, feelings which have been expressed on their behalf in this House. But because there is indignation, it does not mean that intervention by the Govern- ment would assist in ending the dispute. Indeed, what we should do if we followed the advice of the hon. Member for Essex, South-East would be to override the position of the NUR, a union which has within it every facility for signalmen to raise these questions if they wish to do so. The best course for signalmen is to raise these matters within the democratic union structure. That is the best way to bring the dispute to an end.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Everybody regrets it when trade unionists come out on strike for whatever reason, but is my right hon. Friend aware that trade unionists rather resent the fact that certain people, particularly the highly-paid people in nationalised industries, the judges and all the rest, regularly receive increases of 30 per cent. without any question of having to strike to achieve them? Indeed, those trade unionists rather resent it when Ministers of the Crown are given 50 per cent. increases when trade unionists are confined to increases of 10 or 20 per cent. Will he give an assurance that he will not give to the judges or to the chairmen of nationalised boards 20, 30 or 40 per cent. increases, plus the perks which they receive, when they already enjoy salaries of £20,000 or £30,000 a year?

Mr. Foot

That is a very interesting comment, but it has nothing to do with the signalmen's strike. Indeed, the signalmen's strike has nothing to do with those questions.

Mr. Lewis

Yes it has.

Mr. Foot

I do not believe the solution which my hon. Friend seeks to provide would assist in securing an end to this action—and an end to this action is what I wish to see.

Mr. Speed

Will the Secretary of State accept that many thousands of people in Kent and Essex are fed up to the back teeth with the situation on the railways and see no prospect of an end to the trouble? If the signalmen's demands are met, will it be within or without the social contract?

Mr. Foot

It is not a question of its being within or without the social contract. The signalmen's claim about differentials arose out of a restructuring arrangement made by the railways. It was a thorough restructuring which in my opinion involved considerable and justified increases for the whole range of railwaymen, including signalmen. It was one of the best settlements the railway-men as a whole have received over the years. It was accepted by the three unions in the railway industry, and the right course is that the signalmen who are on strike should accept that restructuring settlement.

Mr. Bagier

Will the Secretary of State use whatever influence he has with the Press to encourage it not to publicise and glamorise an organisation known as the Union of Railway Signalmen, whose head office apparently is in a council house and whose executive committee meets in a fish and chip shop? Will he use what influence he has to encourage the signalmen concerned to appreciate that within the last year they have had increases of nearly 30 per cent. and that their best interest is served by supporting the NUR, of which most are members?

Mr. Foot

If my hon. Friend is asking me to use my influence with the Press, I would remind him that perhaps my influence with them at this moment might not be at its peak. I should not like to raise any matter that might cause some difficulty, but it is a fact that the organisation concerned is not recognised by British Rail or by the NUR, nor is it affiliated to the TUC. As I understand it, it is not a regular trade union in any sense at all. I believe that occasionally the Press can assist in these disputes by reporting matters accurately.

Mr. Cyril Smith

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the larger difficulties are to which he referred in answer to an earlier supplementary question on this matter? The right hon. Gentleman stated that there would be larger difficulties if he were to engage in this dispute. What are those larger difficulties? Does he agree that he ought to come clean with the House and say that this dispute is concerned with the right of a man to belong to the union of his choice and, further, that it is an inter-union dispute?

Finally, as the right hon. Gentleman appears to be unwilling to meet trade unions when it is the view of many of us that he ought to do so, will he on this issue, as on the mineworkers issue, arrange a party political broadcast to speak to the men concerned?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman has misrepresented the situation in the union. If I were to follow the advice implied in his question, I believe that the disruption of British Rail could be greatly intensified. It would not be wise for hon. Members in any section of this House to advise the Government to usurp the authority of the National Union of Railwaymen in this matter. We should not scorn a restructuring arrangement which has been accepted by all the unions and has been greatly beneficial to all workers, including the signalmen, on British Rail. I think that for this House and the Department of Employment to seek to overturn all those arrangements would certainly not be a contribution to the convenience of the travelling public.

Mr. Tebbit

Is the silence that is hanging over the railway lines from my constituency to London part of the little bit of peace and quiet that the Prime Minister offered the country?

Mr. Foot

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's question was worth asking. Certainly I am doubtful whether it is worth answering. I think that I am giving the House the best possible advice for trying to secure the end of the dispute. My advice is that the signalmen should recognise that they will not succeed by this action. The best way to end the dispute is for the House to support what I have said.

Mr. Stoddart

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he has the support of hon. Members on this side of the House? We recognise that the recipe put forward by hon. Gentlemen opposite is a recipe for disaster and further chaos not only on the railway system but within the trade union system. Will my right hon. Friend continue on his present path, which I believe will be the quickest route to a solution?

Mr. Foot

I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks in this House for many more railwaymen than do all hon. Gentlemen opposite who have intervened put together.

Mr. Crouch

I am speaking not for railwaymen but for several thousands of my constituents who are and have been inconvenienced for quite some time now. The right hon. Gentleman is a very different person these days, sitting in his present place, from when he used to sit below the Gangway and speak for the rights of individuals with some vigour and determination. This afternoon the right hon. Gentleman told the House that he fully understood both sides of the dispute. Will he reconsider the whole question of putting into action his conciliation and arbitration officers? The right hon. Gentleman knows the situation. I think that those officers could help.

Mr. Foot

It would be a very dangerous precedent if in a dispute of this character either the Secretary of State for Employment or the Conciliation and Arbitration Service were to intervene along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman. As I have already emphasised, it would usurp the authority of all the unions in the industry. I believe that that could cause great difficulties. So far from easing the position of the travelling public, I think that it could make for much greater difficulties.

The House might recall that a few months ago we had many disputes on the railways between two of the major unions concerned. Some of those disputes have been eased, partly because of the whole restructuring that took place. Therefore, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House, who are naturally concerned to try to ensure that they do everything possible to assist their constituents in getting to and from work in London, will not press us to take action which could throw us into far worse industrial trouble than we have to deal with here and now.

Sir Bernard Braine

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are in the unusual situation that hundreds of thousands of people are threatened with a repetition of this industrial action next week. May I, through you, ask the Minister whether he will at least undertake to keep the House informed and will make a statement before the public are asked to endure this misery again?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman has no monopoly about desiring to see the end of the trouble caused to people travelling to and from work. I imagine that we all wish to see that trouble brought to an end. However, I should be deceiving the House and prolonging the dispute if I were to say that it was possible for me to come here tomorrow or on Monday with some solution for dealing with it by some form of intervention. If I were to say that, it might encourage the signalmen to continue this action over a further period. As I have said, I believe that the only way that this dispute can be brought to an end is for the signalmen to recognise and understand what was done in the restructuring agreement and to recognise that, if they wish changes to be made in it, they should make representations through the democratic structure of their union to secure those changes.