HC Deb 12 December 1978 vol 960 cc473-98

2.57 a.m.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

I am very grateful to the House for the opportunity to raise what I consider to be a very important subject. I hope that it will be to the relief of hon. Members when I say that I shall be able to introduce the subject of commuter service disruption on the Southern Region somewhat more succinctly than some of the contributions that we have already had tonight.

I welcome the Under-Secretary's presence. He is here, as ever, alert and ready to deal with every query and demand from the Opposition Benches. I also welcome the presence of many of my hon. Friends. I hope very soon to pass over the increasingly nocturnal mantle to them, because they have severe constituency problems arising out of the situation. It would be even more useful to hear from them, so I shall confine myself to an introduction

I say straight away that the situation is very serious. What I have to say in particular about the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen is not something that at this stage needs in any way to be ASLEF bashing. At the same time, it needs to be practical and some things need to be said, because we are leading up to a serious situation in the new year. The Minister knows as well as my hon. Friends and myself that we could well have a quite unreasonable and utterly unjustified national rail strike on our hands. That is the possibility. Clearly, it is the duty of us all to do everything possible to avoid that. That is why my hon. Friends and I think it right that this matter should be raised on the Floor of the House of Commons tonight.

We have to deal with the situation on the Southern Region this very day, when, according to the newspapers—which, because of the hour, we have already read—we are threatened with continued disruption. It is worth remarking—I believe that the Secretary of State put it in these words—that this unofficial action is condemned by both sides in the House and by anyone else who has anything to do with British Rail, including, incidentally, Mr Ray Buckton, who is opposed to this action.

It is perhaps somewhat pathetic that when this striking started it was against a non-binding arbitration which, at the start of the disruption, had not even begun to be discussed. That is the situation that we have reached in British Rail in general. I do not put the blame for that situation any more on ASLEF in general than on ASLEF in particular in the Southern Region, because those two matters are linked, however much Mr Ray Buckton may decide to condemn the situation.

We are dealing with the important issue of trade union power, or its abuse. The very future of ASLEF is at stake, as well as the eventual railway union structure, because, if it continues to behave in this way, it will lose the sympathy of its customers. Its future as a declining union, as many of my hon. Friends know, is in part responsible for the situation that we now face.

The future of British Rail and its productivity is also at stake. I hope that the situation will not become as serious as is at present threatened.

Last, but not least, we have the wellbeing of the long-suffering travelling public to consider, and that is what the debate principally must be about.

By way of background I should like to comment on British Rail, its customers, and ASLEF. First, the tragedy is that this situation has arisen at a time when. by common consent, British Rail is doing well. There has been increasing accord between both sides in Committee and on the Floor of the House about the future of British Rail. We have our differences, not least over accounting procedures, and so on—indeed, British Rail is in that respect trying to meet the opposition—but there is now a reasonable relationship between British Rail, the Government and the Opposition.

British Rail, by the consent of all concerned, is now under the most promising management that it has had for some time. The volume of passenger services is up by 5 per cent. this year and it was up by 5 per cent. last year. Freight services are likely to balance. There has been considerable demanning in recent years—and all credit to British Rail for that, because wages account for 70 per cent. of costs. Having got all that, we are suddenly threatened, at the very moment of breakthrough, with this disruption by ASLEF.

Here I turn from the Southern Region in particular to ASLEF in general. I can say without fear of contradiction that for future demanning of British Rail ASLEF is the prime target to be aimed it. ASLEF knows that as well as anyone else.

In this context, I should like to quote one figure which graphically brings the point home. The 26,000 members of ASLEF—the drivers and former firemen —drive 246 million loaded train miles per year. That equals 41 miles per man-shift, on average. That must be a world low. Here we come to all the progress that has been made by British Rail generally. Its future prosperity depends on something being done about ASLEF in general as well as the Southern Region in particular.

I turn now to commuters and fares. There is tremendous feeling about fares, which have gone up by 145 per cent. since February 1974. That feeling has been recognised officially in the Price Commission's 1977 report. Indeed, we have had this argument out on the Floor of the House at Question Time. The Price Commission, in its 1977 report, stated that British Rail discriminated against South-Eastern commuters on fares.

There is to be a further increase of 10 per cent. in January, on top of the 145 per cent. That will come at the very time of the threatened disruption. The whole matter is combining to make the commuting public angry and fed up and likely to look for alternative means of transport. If such alternatives are to be usedin extremis, the roads leading to this capital city will become more clogged than they are now.

There is an increasing demand from the commuting public for a refund of fares. At his Department's last Question Time the Secretary of State said that for a whole day's cancellation there would be refunds whatever type of ticket was held, but the position is far from clear. It seems that British Rail is prepared to make a refund if a whole day's services are cancelled, or perhaps those for such part of a day that no journey can be made, for practical purposes. But there seems to be a great grey area in terms of cancellations and running late. A refund is perhaps justified just as much for people going in for their day's work—people who have appointments, and so on, who must use an alternative means of transport if their morning train is not available.

We appreciate the genuine complaints of ASLEF, particularly on the Southern Region. The tragedy is that it spoils its case by the way in which it behaves over the McCarthy report and the present dispute. We know of the mileage bonuses on the Southern Region, the monotony of a shuttle compared with driving or sitting in an elegant high-speed train, roaring across the country and receiving bonuses here and bonuses there, and we can appreciate the frustrations. There is the question of job rostering. One can go so far as to say that the McCarthy recommendations are wrong and to sympathise with ASLEF, but the more it goes on with the present type of action the more it destroys the sympathy not only of the House but particularly of the public, whom in the end it needs on its side.

I said that there is nothing yet to strike about. The cost to British Rail was £250,000 for the first Wednesday of the current series of stoppages. The cost is now approaching or has reached the £1 million mark. I base those figures on what the Secretary of State told the House the last time we dealt with the subject.

British Rail has gone out of its way, ahead of the working party recommendations and decisions in January, to try to show good faith by giving, under the business performance scheme, £2 a week, backdated to April this year and stretching only to April 1979. That means that the options are open for a January settlement if ASLEF will behave reasonably.

We should urge British Rail to head in the direction of overall productivity discussions. We hope that the business performance scheme contains the seeds of a solution in January, a way forward for the whole of British Rail. Bonuses here and there to different sorts of people invite enmity and dispute.

The McCarthy solution asks for enmity and dispute, although to a certain extent this is poetic. If my memory serves me right, ASLEF had for some time been demanding extra money for men driving or being companions on high-speed trains. That is perhaps one of the reasons why this wrong solution of McCarthy has been arrived at.

For the future there is a need for overall productivity discussions plus an improvement in ASLEF's attitude. It they do not come, British Rail will lose its improved performance at a time when it needs it, and the long-term question of ASLEF as a trade union will come increasingly to the fore in British politics and will be discussed in the House.

The union has its future at stake. This goes well beyond the Southern Region. My only regret is that when there are all the battles between ASLEF and British Rail about its future the main person to suffer is the long-neglected British travelling consumer, and especially the commuter.

3.10 a.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton)

The Government statement on the review of the strategic plan for the South-East was published yesterday. In paragraph 72 it has this to say about rail services in the South-East: Rail services have an important and continuing part to play in the South-East, especially in conveying people to and from their work. The London commuter services carry about 40 per cent. of those travelling daily to work in central London. These services do not meet their full costs and the Government expect the Railways Board, with the unions, to intensify their efforts to reduce the cost of operating these services and to adjust them to demand. But, even so, running costs are bound to rise because of the need to renew track and rolling stock. The Government accept that there will have to be continuing financial support for these services but increased fares may also, over the years, have to make a contribution to meeting the increased costs. Forty per cent. of all of the people working in the nation's capital rely totally on the railway system for getting them to work. Whenever anything happens that disrupts this flow it has a damaging effect on the economic output of the region, as well as being intensely aggravating and inconvenient to those who suffer.

Disruption of the railway services can take many forms. Before I speak of the most recent manifestations, I wish to make brief reference to the introduction of the new timetable on Southern Region in May of last year. The aim of these revised timetables was to change the emphasis of the service in favour of the designated growth areas beyond Woking. This was to be accomplished at the expense of my constituents who begin their journeys at Chertsey, Addlestone, Weybridge and Walton and Hersham stations. Some trains were cancelled altogether. Others, more subtly, had their length reduced from 12 coaches to eight. For a time there was appalling overcrowding and quite unacceptable congestion.

I am glad to be able to tell the House that, following representations by Surrey county council, by representations from residents' associations in Weybridge and Walton and Hersham, and also by myself, the situation has been significantly improved. I thank the officials of Southern Region for their courtesy and understanding. I have no reason to doubt that they, and the vast majority of those working on Southern Region, wish to provide an efficient and prompt railway service for the public. The introduction of the May 1977 timetable proved to be a disruptive factor in itself. This situation has now stabilised and my constituents have settled down as well as they can in overcrowded trains to await the periodic disruption that afflicts them all too often and is the subject of this debate.

Disruption is caused by official, or usually unofficial, union action, by staff shortages causing train cancellations without notice, and by the weather. I shall not dwell on this most favourite of British topics, the weather, except to say that the existence of winter usually seems to come as a complete surprise to British Rail every year. Before the Minister slides further down on his comfortable Bench in the belief that the various forms of disruption are all matters for British Rail and not the Government, I wish to make it clear that in my opinion the responsibility for the present disruptive activity flows from Government policies and not from the policies of British Rail.

Although I concede that there are keen inter-union rivalries on the railways—and there are many complexities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), who initiated the debate, has pointed out—the present unofficial action is undoubtedly exacerbated by the non-statutory rigidities of the Government's so-called incomes policy. There are further indications that the Government have failed in their duty to the travelling and tax-paying public by not providing for any procedures to ensure that this unofficial action is the will of the majority of the work force. I have received several indications that this majority will has been conspicuously lacking in certain depots, particularly those away from London. It has often taken a visit by the union "heavy mobs" in Waterloo to get the show off the rails.

The result of this has been a series of one-day strikes, causing severe disruption, with no prospect of any improvement in the situation in the coming weeks. Another form of disruption, which grabs fewer headlines, is the almost daily cancellations of trains due to staff shortage. These cancellations are particularly common on Mondays.

In so far as staff shortages are due to abstenteeism, it is obvious that, thanks to the Government's Employment Protection Act, British Rail has no protective sanctions against its work force, and it would seem that something approaching a great train robbery is necessary to invite dismissal.

In so far as staff shortages are due to illness, British Rail obviously has insufficient staff in key grades. It may well be overmanned in some grades but it is deficient in others. The inability to recruit skilled staff is now a chronic national epidemic, which is ludicrous at a time when we have record unemployment. Again, the Government are entirely responsible for creating a situation in which workers are just about as well off not working as they are when at work.

" Closed due to staff shortages "is the common notice, which will be the epitaph for this Government.

I end as I began, with the "Strategic Plan for the South-East." In the section on industry and employment mention is made of regenerating the inner urban areas and creating job opportunities, but there is no word about assisting people to travel to those opportunities, and no imaginative discretionary travel schemes for teenagers, for example. In short, there is nothing to indicate any improvement from a totally unsatisfactory situation in which commuters facing fare increases in January have to live with the consequences of this Government's absurd policies.

3.16 a.m.

Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)

I shall be brief, since the hour is late and much of the ground has already been adequately covered by my hon. Friends the Members for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) and for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie).

My constituents in Esher are absolutely fed up with the constant disruption of rail services, the mounting cost of fares, and the withdrawal of such things as cheap rate fares for school leavers. They are fed up with waiting in the cold on draughty station platforms and not knowing whether they will get to work. They are fed up with half-hearted service and the attitude of the railway unions which apparently, from the passengers' point of view, consider that internal warfare is far more important than service to the public.

On 15th November my constituents travelling to Waterloo were virtually cut off by the cancellation of 1,094 trains out of 1,560. On 22nd November severe disruptions were caused after the cancellation of 248 trains, and on 6th December cancellation of 1,560 trains made the journey impossible. Now we hear that the unofficial strike may become official and action will be intensified. So we have a bleak prospect for the new year.

Many people now find that the obstacles to getting to work on a Wednesday are so great that they would rather stay at home. In fact, in the Southern Region area—a very large area—we are rapidly coming to the point at which there is a four-day working week, to the detriment of commerce and industry.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster said, all this is doing exactly the opposite of what everyone wants. It is taking people away from rail and putting them on the roads again.

The inside life of British Rail is completely "Alice in Wonderland"—it would amaze a visitor from Mars—with firemen stoking non-existent fires and drivers driving non-existent trains, with high-speed trains parked for a year in the engine sheds, and strikes about non-existent issues

If British Rail followed EEC drivers' hours for road freight—incidentally, the Government have already said that these are far too restrictive—we could get away with about 12,000 drivers and no firemen instead of 20,000 drivers and 6,000 firemen.

The Minister may think that that is a gross over-simplification of the case. Of course, there are intractable problems—I recognise that—but the Government, in spite of their protestations, have not backed up British Rail management as they should have done. On the contrary, they have undermined management's hard-won negotiating position. The result has been the collapse of the whole pack of cards, and with it the 1974 agreement has come to naught.

Let us face it: at one time the railways were clean, trains were reliable, service was punctilious and stations were immaculate. It is amazing to think that those days existed, but they did. The staff were justly proud that they provided the best railway service in Europe. That is not the case today, and the Minister must take the onus of explaining why.

3.20 a.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I am grateful, as I am sure the whole House is, to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) for giving us this opportunity to discuss the situation of our commuters even at this late hour. Indeed, we are grateful to him for the general background that he gave. I am surprised that no Labour Members, apart from the Minister himself, are here when commuters and their problems are being discussed. The Minister looks very lonely. I hope that he will be able to give us a reasonable response to the debate.

I was impressed by my hon. Friend's reference to ASLEF. I am afraid that the ASLEF branch in my constituency is often in the forefront of unofficial strikes. Indeed, very recently, the Secretary of State for Transport named the branch in one of his comments in the House, and I then said that I hoped that British Rail would be encouraged to try to ascertain what it is that motivates men in the worst branches of ASLEF to take the unofficial action that causes so much distress to so many commuters. There must surely be a particular answer. Either there are one or two agitators who are determined to cause as much trouble as possible, or there are real problems that could be sorted out if they were looked into.

The last occasion on which I had an opportunity to speak at any length about commuters from my constituency was on 17th March 1976. Then there were 6,000 people travelling daily between London and Gillingham carrying out their jobs. I have no doubt that about the same number still come to London every day to work, and I should think that a comparable number travel from Chatham to London daily.

I think that it is right to say that very few of the people in that area are in the top bracket of salary earners. They went there because they could find good housing at reasonable prices; they committed themselves to the full at the time, in the late 1960s particularly, in buying their homes, when they had no idea that there would be the inflation from which we have since suffered; and they certainly had no idea of the devastating increases in rail fares that were facing them.

Even when we are discussing the disruption that is taking place on the railways, it is desirable to point out that it is not only the question of lateness of trains, of being unable to get to work because of strikes, that is causing distress; acute distress is caused by the enormous increases in rail fares that have taken place.

In 1972, a season ticket from Rainham to London cost £117. In the debate on 17th March 1976 on the. British Rail commuter services, I pointed out that this cost had risen to £372. That was an increase of £255, and two further increases have taken place more recently. The average increases were 12½ per cent. in January 1977 and 14½ per cent. in January 1978, and we are told that there is to be another 10 per cent. increase next January.

My somewhat rough calculations disclose that the Rainham to London season ticket, costing £372 in March 1976, will cost £527 next January—an increase of £155 in three years, and an increase of £410 since 1972, when the figure was £117. There has been an average yearly increase of £55 in the space of seven years. It is not to be wondered at that commuters are up in arms at the fare increases. It is not surprising that when they are faced with strikes that make it impossible for them to get to work they become disgruntled and, indeed, that in my constituency they are becoming most vociferous in their complaints.

One has to relate those increases to the general increases in the standard of living, and the result has been great financial hardship. People have also, to my certain knowledge, had to put up with gross overcrowding on the trains. Furthermore, on many occasions when I have been present, the trains, both inside and outside, have been what I can only describe as disgustingly dirty. Quite often, too, there is a lack of punctuality and, as my hon. Friends have said, on some occasions there are no trains at all because of unofficial strikes and lack of manning, particularly after weekends.

I have had many calls for help from my constituents, and I was perhaps fortunate in that on 7th September I and some other local people had an opportunity to meet the chairman of British Rail. Sir Peter Parker was very hospitable. We had a pleasant dinner, but the important part of the evening came after that, and discussions went on until nearly midnight.

Sir Peter accepted many of the criticisms that are made by commuters about prices and the conditions of the trains. I got the impression that, certainly with regard to fare increases, he was suffering under Government mandate. I got the impression that he had been told by the Government that there was to be a fares increase of 10 per cent. in real terms over the next three years. If the Government are imposing that mandatory instruction on British Rail they should come out into the open and make clear that British Rail management is acting under their instructions and is not plucking fares increases out of the air.

During the evening, the problems facing commuters were discussed at considerable length and there was a feeling, if not of despair, certainly that it may be difficult to get the unions to co-operate to the full in bringing about what I am sure Sir Peter wants—a really efficient railway network. I get the impression that the top management of British Rail is better than for a considerable time and shows great promise of strong action.

The conditions of trains were discussed and Sir Peter spelt out the problems clearly. There is great difficulty in recruiting cleaners. People do not want to do that sort of work. It was suggested to him that there have been great advances in automatic cleaning machines which could make the work more acceptable and that such equipment should be used by British Rail. Sir Peter said that he would consider that.

I was impressed by the fact that Sir Peter made no excuses. He admitted that timekeeping was bad and that there was a great deal to do, but said that his aim was to create a fast, safe, punctual railway network which would operate as cheaply as possible. I believe that he is sincere. The commuters in my constituency and I wish him well, but if that aim is to be attained, British Rail will need much help from the Government. Above all, the Government should enable British Rail to be managed by its board. The Government should not act as the nigger in the woodpile by imposing instructions that will frustrate British Rail's management and cause the commuter's lot to be as bad as it is now for many years to come.

3.35 a.m.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

I welcome the debate both on behalf of my constituents and personally. Only when the House is sitting at the odd hour that it is tonight do I come here by car Normally I use my season ticket and commute. Commuter services are the lifeblood of my constituents. Each day hundreds of my constituents use one of nine stations to travel to town to work.

During the General Election campaign many hon. Members met their constituents outside the factory gates. I meet my constituents outside the railway stations. For us, the 8.10 train service to town and the 5.54 back in the evening —in my case it is usually the 10.44—are rather like the daily paper. We take it for granted, but we miss it when it is not there.

I do not wish to become involved British Rail business. Southern Region deserves credit for many matters. Anybody visiting the new signal box at London Bridge station is bound to be impressed at its complexity, its built-in safety factors and the skill of its operators. One is bound to sympathise with the difficulties experienced by Southern Region in trying to build London Bridge station when it is in daily use.

Fare prices are to be increased again shortly and passengers are entitled to expect a service that is regular and punctual. They are entitled to travel in decent conditions. But often carriages are filthy, rubbish is on the floor, graffiti is on the walls—usually badly spelt—and the seats are slashed. We cannot hold British Rail responsible for that. Sometimes British Rail has to take coaches out of service because of such conditions. That is one of the causes of the shortage of stock, which leads to the cancellation of services. The passengers are responsible for the vandalism. It is a sad commentary on the state of our community.

However, the passengers cannot be held responsible for the delays and cancellations. It is said that well over 90 per cent. of the trains on the Southern Region are on time, or no more than a few minutes late. But there are far too many cancellations without warning, to no set pattern during the rush hour and at off-peak times. We are given various explanations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) said, one of them is the shortage of staff, despite the level of unemployment. Apparently the shortage is caused by a combination of wage levels and unsocial hours.

We are up against two aspects of Government policy. First, there is a restriction on the wage increases that British Rail can grant. This takes no account of the obvious recruiting difficulties and the fact that this is a vital service, which the public must have.

Secondly, the benefit that an unemployed man receives is such that he considers the little extra that he will receive by working to be not worth the inconvenience of early starts and late nights. I shall not dwell on those aspects of Government policy, but the Minister cannot ignore them. He must accept a degree of Government responsibility.

Another explanation that we are given for the cancellations is what is sometimes euphemistically described as "staff difficulties" or "industrial action ". That is action that you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would normally describe as strikes. Strikes are an inappropriate industrial weapon nowadays. That is especially so when dealing with public services such as the rail service. When industrial action causes a diminution of service it irritates users and disrupts business and domestic arrangements. A complete close-down of a service such as we suffered about three weeks ago causes havoc. The damage done to the nation's economy by so many being unable to get to their jobs in the City and West End must be incalculable, not to mention the hundreds of personal arrangements that are completely wrecked.

Such action has little direct impression on the top brass of British Rail, most of whom probably travel to their offices by car. It does not unduly worry, for example, the managing director of a City company who travels in a chauffeur-driven car. It does not especially upset the local Member of Parliament, who is able on such a day to go to Westminster by car. Of course, he enjoys free parking at his place of work, which is more than most of his constituents enjoy.

The trouble is that those most inconvenienced by disruptions or close-downs are ordinary working people—people with a job to do, like drivers and the guards. It is they who have to suffer the frustration and misery.

On such occasions the staff may have a case. Labour relations in British Rail are not all that they could be. However, far from attracting support, the action in which the staff gets involved merely alienates passengers' sympathy. Commuters rely upon the trains. They use them daily. They pass through two stations at least twice daily. The staff of British Rail has virtually a captive audience.

If the staff has a case to make, it needs no great imagination to think of ways in which it may influence that audience, but disrupting services is not one of them. That helps no one. I urge drivers and guards as powerfully as I can to consider the effect of their action. I urge the Minister to use his good offices to prevent a recurrence of the action that we have seen in recent weeks. Although I refer to "recent weeks ", my correspondence on the topic goes back well over 12 months. We were in exactly the same situation 12 months ago. We were having similar discussions in the House about disruptions of suburban services.

I suggest two small ways in which the Southern Region could alleviate the disruption that we have to tolerate. When trains have to be cancelled, I suggest that Southern Region should adjust some of the other services to help cope with the problem. The other evening at Cannon Street the slow train on my line was cancelled and a fast train on the same line 10 minutes later ran as usual. Why could not the fast train have been cancelled rather than the slow one, so that those using the intervening stations could be served? Alternatively, why could not the fast train have stopped at some of the intermediate stations? That would not have been an especially difficult matter to arrange.

Lastly, if passengers have had to wait a long time on the platform for a train and it finally arrives only to proceed at the pace of a snail, it is the last straw when they reach the London terminus to have to spend many more long minutes shuffling along in a large crowd through a narrow exit. Surely the station manager could use his discretion on such occasions and throw up the ticket barrier.

On paper, the South-East London suburbs have a very good train service. A great deal of work and investment have gone into it. This service provides a vital role in the life of suburbia. When run properly, it is very efficient. All we ask is that it should be allowed to do just that.

3.46 a.m.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

At the best of times the commuter's lot is not a happy one. From my constituency a commuter spends £50 a month on fares —and that figure will soon go up by 10 per cent. He spends between two and three hours on the train each day, and his working day is more often than not 11 or 12 hours. That is at the best of times, and these are definitely not the best of times for the commuter.

We are now faced with more disruption on the railways. This nearly always happens when the weather is at its worst and people are tired and frustrated. This is a matter for regret, because most of us had welcomed a considerable and evident improvement in the operations and industrial relations of British Rail.

We should emphasise just how serious the disruption of our rail system is. Newspaper reports of this disruption show just how many people are inconvenienced by the industrial action of a small number of drivers. The rest of the country just does not understand the scale of the disruption. A newspaper report of one of the Wednesday strikes was headlined Southern strike strands 350,000 people. That is a lot of people. It went on: The strike by 733 ASLEF drivers on Southern Region South-east division, and 96 drivers based at the South-west division's Wimbledon depot hit more than 350,000 commuters. Just a handful of people can cause massive disruption to the capital, massive economic loss and enormous inconvenience, anger, and frustration to a large number of lives. I quote further: Said a Southern Region spokesman: ' It would be wrong to say there was chaos. You can only have chaos when you have people and trains, and today we had neither'. The chaos is on the roads. When we talk about the disruption caused by actions of this kind, we must understand the effect that it has on the roads. On that same Wednesday a newspaper reported that A three-mile jam stretched from the Elephant and Castle to Lewisham and that At New Cross there was a four-mile tail back to Catford. At the Blackwall Tunnel the queue from the south was three-miles long. Another three mile queue was at the Wandsworth one-way system. All over the south of London there were tremendous congestion and massive delays. People took hours to get to work, and those who did finally manage it did not know whether they could get back at night.

This is a tragic picture, because it comes when we had hoped that relations were improving between the unions on the railways and between the unions and management.

The blame for the deterioration must lie to a certain extent with the Government. We are witnessing a whole series of spiteful, petty strikes—the consequences of several years of incomes policy. There have been a compression of differentials and a build-up of problems. We now have a manifestation of all the irritations of all the years of incomes restraint. I do not think that the Minister can stand aside from this and say that it is up to British Rail and its negotiations and that it is not the fault or the responsibility of Government. It is very much the responsibility of Government.

I have some suggestions to make eventually, because what we do not want to contemplate is the probability of unofficial disputes of this kind being constantly presented as the prospect for commuters for the future. We want to get away from this.

It is ironic in some ways that one of the best phrases ever produced in the debate on industrial relations was the phrase "In Place of Strife ". I am sure that it is a phrase that registers with the Minister and is one of which he would have fond memories. It is a very fine phrase because it says exactly what the commuter wants. He wants to replace strife. He wants industrial peace.

It is interesting to look back at the 1969 proposals. I suggest that the Government should look again at the proposals that they then put forward but abandoned so sadly. Those proposals make very interesting reading. They included such things as pre-strike ballots. They included such proposals as ministerial power to impose cooling-off periods, a 28-day pause, in the case of unconstitutional strikes. Ministers would have had the power to go before the industrial board to ask for financial penalties to be imposed upon those who disobeyed orders.

These were not Conservative proposals. They were Labour Government proposals. The then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) at the time said that the passage of the Bill then was essential for the continuance of that Government in office. But, like the Prime Minister of today, he then had trouble with the national executive com- mittee of the Labour Party. The then treasurer of the Labour Party helped to destroy In Place of Strike "on the NEC. The then treasurer of the Labour Party is the present Prime Minister, who now has trouble with his NEC.

Mr. Mather

Can my hon. Friend explain how it was, in the event, that these proposals never came into effect?

Mr. Moate

I think that the secret lies in the point that I was just making, that essentially the present Prime Minister vetoed them. That the the said truth. Were it not for that, perhaps we could have had some hope that today even this Government might be introducing proposals on the lines of those produced in 1969. We might have been thinking now of proposals such as secret ballots, cooling-off periods and other similar proposals which could prevent many of these very foolish and unnecessary strikes.

Mr. Burden

Does my hon. Friend agree that the present Prime Minister has strife in place of peace on his own Benches?

Mr. Moate

He certainly has. It is a fair point that the sort of strife that we are talking about, very sadly, on the railways is being repeated on an increasing scale in other areas of our national life. We see it in the hospitals, we see it with the bread strikes, and we see it with the newspapers. The Government have a heavy responsibility for the very dramatic deterioration in industrial relations at the present time.

This brings us very much to the question of what the Minister and the Government should now be doing about these disputes on the railways. One recognises, of course, that British Rail management must be allowed to manage. One recognises that Ministers will always be reluctant to get involved in disputes of this kind. But these disputes arise directly from the Government's pay policy, and Ministers cannot stand idly by while the commuters suffer on the scale that they are suffering at the present time. Week after week after week, hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from this type of disruption.

The Secretary of State for Transport has a direct responsibility to take steps to try to improve industrial relations on British Rail. It is not enough for him to be neutral. We want some positive leadership. We are all of us—I am sure that the Under-Secretary appreciates this —very much committed to trying to secure a modern, efficient, peaceful and successful British Rail. At present that prospect is being undermined by disruption of this kind. A more successful railway system will be secured only by positive leadership from the Minister. It cannot simply be left and brushed aside as it is at the present time.

The commuter feels frustrated. He feels that no one is speaking on his behalf. I am glad that my hon. Friend initiated this debate so that tonight, at least on the Conservative Benches, there are those who are speaking up for the commuter. For the record, I think that we should emphasise that not one Labour Member from the South has stayed to take part in the debate. That is a matter of regret.

At least we are speaking up for the commuter. The Government must do so as well. Commuting up to London is a frustrating, long, tiring, tedious, expensive business. The commuter is entitled to a better service, and I hope that the Minister will give some hope of a better railway service in the future.

3.56 a.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

This has been a short but important debate. First, I should like to congratulate my hon Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) on raising the subject and for the way in which he did it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) mentioned, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate), that it is quite extraordinary that six speeches have been made by Conservative Members on the plight of the commuter, but no speeches at all have come from the Labour Back Benches. This is a sad omission, because I believe that this is an important subject.

No aspect of railway policy should give this House more concern than a failure of service which affects the passengers. Yet this is exactly what has happened in this case. Over the past weeks, strike action, which no hon. Member has even attempted to justify, has affected the lives of tens of thousands of commuters on the Southern Region.

We should remind ourselves what this kind of action is all about and what the effect of it is. Here I underline the points which have been made by my hon. Friends the Members for Esher (Mr. Mather) and Chislehurst (Mr. Sims). On the day on which the Opposition asked a Private Notice Question on this dispute, the Evening News carried a report of the dispute that day. As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham mentioned, the chief effects of the dispute on that day were the cancellation of 200 trains, and on the roads 45,000 more vehicles than usual were estimated to be coming into London. Buses were delayed by the congestion, and hundreds of thousands of people were late for work. Scotland Yard said: It is complete chaos. The whole of South London is one huge traffic jam, and it is getting worse all the time", Southern Region said: It is impossible to say how many trains will run yet. There is no guarantee that we will get people home tonight ". That is the reality of the dispute about which we are talking. I pay tribute to the Evening News and, indeed, to the Evening Standard for the way in which they have championed the cause of the commuter. In this and their other reports, they have performed a valuable public service. Of course, the fact is that that happened two weeks ago and the disputes have continued. Today we read in the morning newspapers: Thousands of Southern Region travellers face disruption today as militant drivers operating the Inter-City Bournemouth-Basingstoke-Southampton link to Waterloo stage an unofficial 24-hour strike. So the action still continues.

Therefore, I approach this question first and foremost from the point of view of the commuter, because it seems to me that in this debate the interests of the commuter are paramount. Over the last four years commuters' fares have more than doubled. In some cases they have gone up by almost 150 per cent. Another increase is due in the new year. Fares have never risen as fast as they have in the past four years. London commuters now pay £500, £600 or more to travel to work. Other prices have risen, but the commuter has been hit twice—by inflation generally, and by unprecedented fare increases. The result is hardship for thousands of families in the Home Counties.

Now unofficial action is making it impossible for them to travel at all on the services for which they pay as passengers and taxpayers. The most deplorable thing is that commuters have been made the target of the dispute. Mr. Neil Milligan, ASLEF's London and Southern Region organiser, was quoted in the Daily Mail earlier this month as saying: We have chosen a prime commuter target for this action. There is no word of apology for the chaos and the extra pressure on other services, especially the police: just an uncompromising attack on the passenger. In the face of this unthinking and uncaring attitude, it is no wonder commuters become angry as well as frustrated.

This kind of action affects the reputation of British Rail; a minority undoes the good work of the majority. I do not believe that the majority of railwaymen like this action any more than the rest of us, but they probably feel the consequences more directly. The strike is probably not the will of the majority. Industrial relations reform, such as the secret ballot, might help. The Government surely cannot contemplate this and similar problems continuing until the next General Election.

The dispute is doubly tragic since it comes at a time when Sir Peter Parker is making great efforts to improve the services and financial record of British Rail, for which he has been rightly praised on both sides of the House. The two sides of the House are closer on railway policy now than they have been for some time. Such unofficial action affects services and loses the railways money. Its consequences are beyond question. So what can the Government do? This is primarily a matter for the British Railways Board. A working party comprising the board and the unions has been set up. Its report should be ready early in the new year. We hope that it will succeed, but we deplore the taking of industrial action while the working party is trying to bring some sense to the problem.

We face the risk that the action will continue, however, and that it will become worse after Christmas. Whether that happens or whether the one-day strikes con- tinue, the Government should consider their contingency plans. I would welcome a Government assurance that all possible action will be taken to enable the public to get to work in London if the action continues. That would include lifting regulations on coach services and the cancellation of parking restrictions. We want to hear that the Government have all that in mind.

We hope that this unofficial action will cease quickly. It is not in the interests of the travelling public, British Rail or, ultimately, those taking the action. Its only consequence can be to force passengers off the railways and to force firms to look for locations which are not so dependent upon rail travel. Surely that is not what ASLEF members want. Above all, we hope that the men involved will recognise the interests of the passengers and their right to good, reliable services. That right has been challenged and denied. The commuters deserve better. They are not, and should not be treated as, a target for industrial action.

4.8 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) has raised a matter of great concern to those who use the Southern Region services of British Railways and, I am sure, to those who hope for a stable and prosperous future for the railways. I reiterate that the Government deplore the disruption caused to Southern Region services on two occasions in November and, so far, once this month by certain ASLEF members who have taken unofficial action unsupported by the executive committee of their union.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House on 22nd November, the action is wholly unjustified, unfair to other railwaymen, damaging to the long term prospects of the railways and inexcusable in the inconvenience caused to the travelling public. I accept that a large number of people are affected. The inconvenience extends not only to those who are unable to travel by rail but to those who face the resulting chaos on the roads.

I think that it would be helpful to the House, particularly in view of the wild allegations that have been made, if I were to try to place this dispute in its context without going too far back into the history of railways disputes or ASLEF's particular issues.

In February of this year there was a dispute over payment of bonuses to certain guards employed on pay-trains, and ASLEF claimed that a bonus should be paid to all footplatemen. That claim was eventually referred to the railway staff national tribunal. This is the sole origin of this industrial action. The hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) made a connection between Government pay policy and this dispute, but there is no connection whatsoever. On any objective analysis, it is absurd to say that this dispute was caused other than by the reason which I have just outlined—the payment of bonuses to certain guards. That was the immediate origin of this dispute.

Also, in the spring, British Rail offered a general productivity scheme to the railway unions which ASLEF rejected. That issue, too, was referred to the national tribunal. The tribunal produced two reports at the end of October. One dealt with the drivers' claim and the other dealt with the general question of the productivity scheme. It is with the first report, dealing with the drivers' claim, that we are concerned tonight. The tribunal recommended that a responsibility bonus should be paid to those drivers involved in driving trains at speeds above 100 m.p.h. It rejected the claim for any bonus for any other drivers.

The tribunal is the top adjudicating body in the machinery of railway negotiation. Its report was made to the British Railways Board and to the three unions, and its findings provide the basis for further discussion between them. The Board and the unions have already met and agreed that further work needs to be done in relation to the tribunal report. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) referred to that. They have, therefore, formed a footplate joint working party to examine the agreements and working practices relating to footplate staff to see whether their productivity and effectiveness can be increased and consequently rewarded.

The working party will report back to the railway staff national council, and the aim of all parties is to use their best endeavours—a traditional diplomatic phrase which I hope has some real meaning in this context—to produce a report by 7th January.

I know that I shall have the sympathy of the House in expressing the hope that a satisfactory solution will be found in that time and that while this important and urgent work is going on there will be no further disruption caused by unofficial action. Certainly one would particularly deplore any worsening in the scale of industrial action, to which the hon. Member referred as being a possibility. I am not able to comment on that. I am not privy to any plans of unofficial action. None the less, one would deplore that.

It is, therefore, a particular pity that there is to be further disruption, I understand, today, although I again understand that this is principally centred on the Bournemouth depot and will therefore affect trains in the area of Bournemouth, Weymouth and so on, and not those in other areas. I hope that it can be confined to that.

It has been implied in some quarters that the disruptions on Southern Region show that the procedures for dealing with disputes are no longer adequate. I do not accept that criticism. The railways have long-established and clearly defined machinery. That machinery is being properly used. The top negotiating body of the railway unions, the railway staff national council, is actively involved in seeking a solution to the present difficulties.

Obviously my right hon. Friend and I are watching closely how matters develop. However, I must make it clear that in the first instance the responsibility for finding a solution rests with the Railways Board. I think that this is conceded by hon. Members. We are faced with a difficult industrial relations problem where unofficial action is being taken by a very small group of drivers against the advice of their union. My right hon. Friend has already told the House that he will intervene if he judges that that would improve the situation or settle the dispute. We must hope that the discussions now taking place, which are scheduled to finish by 7th January, will bring about a solution to the problem.

The hon. Member for Leominster fairly dealt with the point that regular users of the railway are, in effect, being deprived of some of the value of their season tickets if there are no trains on particular services on particular days. The hon. Gentleman quoted what my right hon. Friend said in answer to the Private Notice Question put down by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield on 22nd November, namely, that British Rail would make pro rata refunds on weekly season tickets and would extend the validity of longer-term season tickets.

I accept that it is not entirely clear from that in what circumstances that rule would apply. I should imagine that it applies simply to those who would face a total shutdown for one or more particular days—that is, when there are no trains on a particular service during the morning or evening peaks. I should like to check that matter to see whether I can clarify the details any further and will write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

The hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) told us about the dinner that he had with Sir Peter Parker and their general conversation relating to his and Sir Peter's feelings about the adequacy or otherwise of services. The hon. Gentleman said that he got the impression that there were specific Government instructions to the British Railways Board to increase fares. I can disabuse the hon. Gentleman of that idea. There have been and are no specific instructions to that effect. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who regularly attend transport debates will be aware that our policy has been to try to spread out inevitable rail fare increases at reasonable intervals and to keep them as moderate as possible. The 9 per cent. or thereabouts increase next January will be the lowest for many years, and it is not too far out of line with the general rate of inflation.

Mr. Burden

Can the hon. Gentleman give me a specific undertaking that no pressure has been exerted upon the chairman of British Rail or on the British Railways Board to increase fares by 10 per cent. in real terms over the next two or three years?

Mr. Horam

I can give the hon. Gentleman that specific undertaking. No such pressure has been applied.

The hon. Members for Esher (Mr. Mather) and Gillingham and others painted a fairly black picture of British Rail's recent performance. They said that the 1974 agreement had come to nothing, that the service was pretty rotten compared with previous years—I do not know what previous period hon. Gentlemen were comparing—and that, as the Government had not backed British Rail's management, they should therefore accept some of the blame for the situation.

I do not know what the problems are on the services referred to by those hon. Gentlemen, but I should contrast them with what was said by the hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield, Leominster and Faversham (Mr. Moate). Those hon. Gentlemen said that British Rail was doing well. Indeed, the hon. Member for Faversham said that there had been an improvement in British Rail's operations. Given the acknowledged problems in London and the South-East, I think that that is generally true. The present situation is all the more sad because, in the eyes of commuters, it is clearly a setback to the real progress which has been made in the past few years. I very much hope that we can find a rapid solution in the context of the talks which are now going on so that that progress can be resumed.