HC Deb 13 February 1975 vol 886 cc598-605
Mr. McCrindle

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a further statement on the disruption to the services of British Rail as a result of the signalmen's dispute.

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

Rail services in some parts of the country are again being seriously disrupted by a 24-hour unofficial strike by some signalmen. The areas mainly affected are the lines into Liverpool Street, Fenchurch Street and Waterloo Stations, the south-east section of Southern Region, the Cambridge and Swindon areas, and the West Midlands. I understand that about 130 signal boxes out of some 2,500 on the railway system are affected.

The signalmen involved are reported to be seeking a 15 per cent. increase in pay through a "responsibility allowance" in addition to the improvements they obtained under the major restructuring agreement last year for all railway workers. Following the report of a joint working party between British Rail and the National Union of Railwaymen, the NUR executive agreed earlier this week to the reclassification of some 1,800 signal boxes. This will result in pay increases of between £2.95 and £5.35 for about 1,350 signalmen. In addition, some 850 signalmen will benefit from a doubling in "isolation allowances'.

I understand, moreover, that negotiations are to begin tomorrow between British Rail and all three railway unions on a new annual settlement to be implemented on 1st May when the present arrangement expires.

The strike is wholly unofficial. The National Union of Railwaymen has deplored the action being taken and has urged the men to work normally. In all these circumstances I hope that the House will once again join with me in urging the men involved to resume normal working and bring to an end the disruption, hardship and inconvenience they are causing.

Mr. McCrindle

Is it not clear, however, that this action, long experienced by the commuters on Eastern Region, is now escalating in total disregard of the convenience of the travelling public? Is the Secretary of State wholly satisfied that British Rail and the NUR have taken as decisive action as was possible, remembering that this dispute relates back to the beginning of October? Finally, if he is not satisfied that British Rail and the NUR can, together or separately, bring this dispute to an end, does he not have a clear duty to the House and the country to appoint an independent inquiry, perhaps under the auspices of his conciliation machinery, so that the men can put their case and, hopefully, an end can be brought to the inconvenience being suffered?

Mr. Foot

Certainly I agree with anything that the hon. Gentleman says about the distress, hardship and inconvenience caused by this action to people travelling. That is why I urge most strongly that it should be called off. I certainly believe that British Rail and the NUR have done their best to deal with the whole situation. I do not think that it would be advisable to set up an independent inquiry, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. So far from such an inquiry leading to a settlement of the matter, it could only intensify the difficulties on the railways. I believe that the only course open to the House is to appeal to the signalmen to call off this action. It is the only way in which it can be settled.

Mr. Moonman

One appreciates my right hon. Friend's statement and, indeed, all the work that he has put in over the last few months on the dispute, which has been of critical concern to those of us who have constituencies in the area affected. Perhaps my right hon. Friend might like to think in terms of the suggestion of an independent inquiry, but not necessarily on a round-table basis with all the parties concerned. Will he not give some thought to the possibility of individual meetings taking place with the parties and possibly, if it were not possible for Jim Mortimer to do it, certainly someone acting as an honest broker? We want to see this matter brought to an end at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. Foot

I certainly want to see this matter brought to an end at the earliest possible moment. But I say to my hon. Friend, as I have said to others, that I do not believe that this is a case in which the Conciliation and Arbitration Service could successfully or properly intervene. I do not believe that this is the way in which we should go about it, precisely because we would thereby run the danger of reopening the whole of the restructuring arrangements that we have made which were agreed by all the three unions involved in the industry. That could lead to much greater difficulties. I do urge the House to recognise that the course that some people recommend—not my hon. Friend, but others—has great dangers. I urge the House most strongly to support what I am saying in urging the signalmen to call off their action. This is the only way that this can be dealt with.

Mr. Lane

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the hundreds of commuters from my constituency have long since lost patience owing to the troubles on the Liverpool Street line? We all appreciate the delicacy of this matter, but can he assure the House that if these talks do not bring a promise of settlement shortly, he himself will stop doing virtually nothing and take some constructive initiative in the interests of the travelling public? [Interruption.]

Mr. Foot

It may be easy to raise a few occasional cheers by putting a question of that character. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that we have examined the matter with the utmost care and that we believe that in a situation such as this, if the Government were to intervene, as the hon. Gentleman and others have suggested, we would run the risk of reopening much greater difficulties. The House must recognise that this is a dispute which cannot be settled by the means that some hon. Members recommend.

Mr. Evelyn King

Will the right hon. Gentleman and the Government as a whole pay special regard to the hardships endured by rural dwellers? First their buses are cut, then their petrol prices are doubled, and now they cannot travel by train either. Does not this add additional force to the very reasonable case for differential petrol pricing?

Mr. Foot

The question of differential petrol pricing is a separate matter altogether. But, of course, I understand and appreciate, as I am sure do all hon. Members, the distress which is caused by this action. What I am seeking to do is to find the best method of settling the matter. I do not believe that intervention in the way proposed could have the desired effect. I think it would have the opposite effect and would cause much greater disruption on the railways.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although this is a very complicated situation, nevertheless the signalmen are doing grave damage not only to themselves but to the established procedures clearly laid down and, therefore, doing grave harm to my constituents and others nearby? Does he agree that the only answer to the dispute is for the signalmen to come back into the procedure and back to normal working?

Mr. Foot

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend has said. The last restructuring agreement, which was accepted by all three trade unions in- volved, was a great advance for the overwhelming majority of railwaymen, including the signalmen, and for us to talk of reopening that settlement would have the very opposite effect. In any case, the best course for the signalmen is to use the democratic machinery of their union in order to raise their case. Already fresh arrangements have been made by the NUR, agreed this week, in the interests of signalmen and others. I believe that when that fact becomes properly known, perhaps that will also help to lead fewer signalmen to engage in this activity.

Mr. Burden

Will the Secretary of State get his figures up to date? Is he not aware that it is now anticipated that no trains will leave London this evening? Will he not roundly condemn the attitude of the signalmen in view of the extreme hardship which will be caused to many people who have come up to London today but will be unable to get home tonight?

Mr. Foot

I do not think there has been any hesitation on my part to condemn the action of the signalmen. I should have thought that everyone would have understood what I said about their action on this and on previous occasions. I condemn it as strongly as I can. The signalmen are doing an injury to themselves as well as to others.

My figures indicate that about 500 signalmen out of a total of 9,000 are involved. I accept that the up-to-date figures might be slightly different, but I do not think the overall proportion is much changed. The figures illustrate that the overwhelming majority of signalmen are opposed to this action.

Sir Bernard Braine

Does the Secretary of State realise that hundreds of thousands of commuters have been denied their right to get to work over a three-month period, and that condemnation of the signalmen's action is not enough? Does he realise that the assurances that he has given about action by British Rail management and the NUR are precisely the assurances that he was giving in December and January? Will he now stir himself and give the House a definite assurance that if these new negotiations break down he will intervene with the Conciliation and Arbitration Service with which Parliament has equipped him?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Member is mistaken about what I said on the previous occasion. I did not give assurances. I made the same appeal then as I am making now, that the men should call off their action. I said on the previous occasion that British Rail and the NUR were engaged in reclassification of some of the signal boxes and that I expected they would soon be able to make an announcement. In my answer I said that British Rail and the NUR had carried out that reclassification and had made an announcement about it.

It is no good the hon. Member suggesting that British Rail and the NUR have not taken any action since the last discussion on this matter in the House. I repeat to the hon. Member that the House is greatly mistaken if it thinks that this dispute can be settled by an independent inquiry or by Government intervention. That course of action would disrupt procedures in the railway industry. Hon. Members may recall that there have been occasions on the railways when, for other reasons, the unions have been officially engaged in strike action. If we were to take the action recommended by some Conservative Members we should be courting those difficulties. I therefore urge the House, whatever criticisms it may wish to make of me, to accept that the dispute can be settled only if the signalmen go back to work.

Mr. Snape

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he has the support of management and the unions in the railway industry for his sensible attitude? Will he join me in condemning the hypocrisy of some Conservatives who enjoyed dismembering the railway system under Dr. Beeching with total disregard for the needs of the travelling public? Will my right hon. Friend do his utmost to ensure that the benefits for all signalmen under the recent agreement concluded between the NUR and British Rail are as widely publicised as possible? That would be far better than the Press being full of nonsense from a 75-year-old pensioner who has not worked on the railways in the last decade?

Mr. Foot

I will not yield to the temptation held out to me by my hon. Friend to comment on Conservative Members. I always seek to keep the temperature as low as possible, but I am strongly in favour of the reclassification agreement receiving the greatest publicity. I hope also that in deciding whether to call off their action, which is causing deep distress to large numbers of people, the small number of signalmen engaged in this action will take into account that fresh wage negotiations are now being initiated.

Mr. Prior

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition are glad that he is trying to keep the temperature low, because it seemed from his previous answer that he was trying to zip things up a bit? Many of my hon. Friends who have raised this matter feel very strongly about what is happening to their constituents and are, therefore, quite right to raise the issue and get angry about it. On the other hand, as the right hon. Gentleman has also said, there are very strong reasons why the House is not the best place to settle issues of this nature. I therefore agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that score, but I take very strongly the view expressed by my hon. and right hon. Friends that this matter must be raised in the interests of their constituents, and their condemnation of the signalmen is absolutely right.

Mr. Foot

I have not complained in any sense about hon. Members raising this matter in the House of Commons. I would have no right to complain on that score, and that is why I have not done so.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on to the Business Statement.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I make it clear for the record that the lack of intervention on the question of the rail dispute on behalf of those many commuters resident in Hertfordshire has not been due to any lack of desire to intervene on the part of the hon. Members concerned but was because you, in the undoubted exercise of your discretion, have seen fit not to call any hon. Member representing the area?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's point could equally well be made by many hon. Members from other areas who are just as concerned about this issue. If I were to call every hon. Member whose constituency is affected by the dispute my job would be made impossible. I have to do the best I can for the various areas.