HC Deb 16 January 1979 vol 960 cc1506-12
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. William Rodgers)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the current rail dispute, which has today halted trains throughout the country.

I reported to the House on 22nd November about unofficial industrial action in the Southern Region. I explained that this resulted from a recent recommendation of the Railway Staff National Tribunal rejecting a claim by ASLEF for new bonus payments for all footplatemen.

Yesterday evening, the Board and the leaders of the three rail unions explained to me how matters now stand. The Board has put forward proposals for specific productivity improvements, and significant progress has been made in discussion. There are substantial benefits to be gained for railwaymen as a whole, for British Railways and for the travelling public if satisfactory agreements can be reached. There is every reason why constructive negotiations should continue.

In these circumstances, I regret that ASLEF has called its members out in a national rail stoppage today and on Thursday.

In my previous statement I made it clear that industrial action was wholly unjustified, unfair to other railwaymen, damaging to the long-term prospect of the railways and inexcusable in the inconvenience that it causes to the travelling public.

I have no reason to change that view, On the contrary, I have said to the general secretary of ASLEF that it is quite senseless to embark on a course that can only damage the interests of those whom it is intended to serve. I have asked all the parties to meet me again this evening to see how best negotiations can be carried forward. I know that the whole House will feel that industrial action should be brought to an end without further delay.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Is the Secretary of State aware that we share the view that this is a damaging, unnecessary and irresponsible strike, which has today caused chaos for the travelling public? Is he also aware that we strongly endorse the last part of his statement, particularly as for tens of thousands of commuters on the Southern Region the strike comes on top of long weeks of unofficial action? Against that background I have three short questions.

The strike will cost British Rail over £2 million a day. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that these losses will not simply be passed on to the public? On freight, what effect will the strike have on goods transported by rail—for example, from the ports? Will this not simply deepen what the Government must surely now recognise is a national transport crisis? Will the right hon. Gentleman emphasise again to the union leaders that strikes of this kind can only destroy good will for the railways and undo the valuable work carried out by the British Railways Board over the last two years? Above all, may we add our appeal to the unions involved to think again and to call off the strike, which can only do serious harm to the public and to the whole railway industry?

Mr. Rodgers

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) for his support, which will command general agreement in the House as a whole. On his first question, I have made clear to all those involved that there can be no question of the Government in some way bailing out the railways from the consequences of this industrial action. They fully understand that. Whether in terms of the loss of passengers or of freight, or in any other way, the prospect is that industrial action of this kind makes it less likely that the railways will have the stable and viable future that we hope they will achieve.

The hon. Member asked me about freight. It is plainly the case, but particularly so in view of other difficulties, that there will be consequences for the railways and for our ports. I have said that freight must pay its way. This action is very damaging to that part of the railway business in which we had hoped to see improvements. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. This sort of industrial action destroys good will, which has a very important part to play in the future of the railways.

Mr. Walter Johnson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his intervention in this dispute last night was very helpful to the parties concerned? When he meets them again this evening, will he make it quite clear that this totally unnecessary strike is very damaging to the railways? I am sorry to correct the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler); the chairman of British Rail said that it would cost £5 million a day in lost revenue. But, more important, it would mean the permanent loss of customers. This is grossly unfair to the travelling public and to those whose freight is carried on the railways. Is my right hon. Friend aware that my advice to him this evening is to tell the parties to get back into negotiations as soon as possible?

Mr. Rodgers

I appreciate my hon. Friend's wise words, which stem from his extensive trade union and industrial experience. I am sure that he is absolutely right. The important thing is for all the parties to get back into negotiations. There is no reason why that should not occur.

Mr. Tebbit

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that yesterday the Home Secretary was unable to say whether the Government were on the side of the strikers or the employers in the road haulage strike?

Mr. Russell Kerr

Whose side is the hon. Gentleman on?

Mr. Tebbit

May we interpret what the right hon. Gentleman said today as meaning that he thinks that the Government ought to be on the side of the management in the railway dispute?

Mr. Rodgers

The Government's job is to be on the side of the community, and it is the community which is the victim of this industrial action. I think that I made that absolutely clear in my statement.

Mr. Pardoe

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the immediate cause of this dispute has more to do with a dispute between two trade unions than one between a trade union and British Rail? What estimate has the management of British Rail given the right hon. Gentleman in the recent past of the number of railway employees who could be made redundant without that in any way affecting the efficient running of the railways? Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the average British Rail engine driver drives less than the average family weekend motorist? Is it not time that British Rail stopped being an expensive job creation programme?

Mr. Rodgers

I think that the hon. Gentleman is falling below a constructive level of approach to what is a highly complex dispute. Anyone who knows the railway industry will be very wary of generalising about the precise causes and the responsibility over a period of time. This dispute has something to do with productivity, but it also stems from a decision of an independent tribunal which on this occasion has not been acceptable. I think that we should look at the railways not in terms of manpower reductions but in terms of greater efficiency, and the Board is seeking to achieve with the three unions precise agreements on efficiency from which the railways themselves and individual railway workers will benefit.

Mr. Ronald Atkins

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what the railways need is a sound and just wages structure that takes account of the great increases in productivity and the reductions in manpower that have taken place, and that offers differentials commensurate with skill, thus providing incentives, which Opposition Members are always talking about? After all, these negotiations have been going on for over a year.

Mr. Rodgers

I would not dispute what my hon. Friend has said about a sound and just wages structure, but such a structure is very difficult to achieve, because many interests are involved and, as he himself said, the problem of differentials is highly complex.

Mr. Henderson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that travellers from Scotland are being particularly inconvenienced by the absence of sleeping cars from Monday night to Friday night this week, and that this represents a substantial loss of revenue for British Rail? Would he feel it appropriate to point out that the alternative is, of course, air travel, and that that is a very serious competitor for British Rail on long-distance routes?

Mr. Rodgers

It is not only the travellers from Scotland and those who travel in sleeping cars who are being inconvenienced by the total absence of trains today. I have pointed out to all those involved that there is genuine danger that if the strike continues people will find other means of travelling, and that would be a very great pity.

Mr. Forman

Many thousands of commuters in my constituency will welcome the firmness of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, but will he look again at the so-called independent procedures, which did so much to give rise to the problem, and see whether they can be improved?

Mr. Rodgers

This point was raised when we last discussed the matter on 22nd November. I am sure that British Rail is very anxious to try to find procedures that will enable negotiations to continue and industrial action not to take place, but I am afraid that in this situation those procedures have not been followed, which I very much regret.

Mr. Bagier

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of railwaymen deplore the action taken today and that most of them understand that the rolling programme, together with the investment that has been put into British Railways in recent times, will benefit them all? Will he further point out to all the parties concerned that railway work is team work and that no sectional interest can take individual action of this nature without damaging the industry as a whole?

Mr. Rodgers

Again, I can only endorse what my hon. Friend said. I am sure that the vast majority of railwaymen greatly regret this industrial action and know that there are real benefits for them if the railways can be given a stable future, with the prospect of some additional investment.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I was going to propose to call two more hon. Members from each side, but if there is no one standing on the Government side I shall call two more from the Opposition Benches.

Mr. Sainsbury

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's condemnation of this unnecessary strike and his interest in improving productivity, but can he assure us that the long-suffering railway traveller will receive at least a fair share of the benefit of improved productivity on the railways?

Mr. Rodgers

Yes, Sir. It would not be a valid productivity agreement if there were not benefits for the travelling public as well as for those involved in the industry.

Mr. Heller

Can my right hon. Friend explain to the House what the dispute is about? We have issue after issue in front of us, and no one ever tells us at any time why thousands of workers go on strike. After all, these workers are also part of the community, and if thousands of workers—lorry drivers, tanker drivers, railwaymen, Ford workers or any others—go on strike they must feel that they have a genuine grievance, and before people rush in making statements deploring the actions of workers it would not be a bad idea if we knew what the issues were about.

Mr. Rodgers

I would be delighted to tell my hon. Friend and the House, but I am afraid that it would take a very long time and I think that this is not the occasion. The question is not whether people have grievances—almost all of us do—but whether we are willing to negotiate or whether we take action that is wholly unjustified.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

When the right hon. Gentleman surveys the chaos in nearly every sector of his transport empire —the railways, the roads, the docks—does he not just occasionally ask himself where he may have gone wrong? Does he not see that there are two common threads in these problems, namely, too much trade union power and too much readiness to use it to hammer the ordinary public? What is he doing about these two fundamental problems, which are afflicting every sector for which he is responsible?

Mr. Rodgers

I hope that we all—I include the hon. Gentleman—reflect on our failures and shortcomings, because we all have them. But these problems are immensely complex, and we should examine them very seriously and not seek to draw conclusions about responsibilities over the years.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

When my right hon. Friend meets my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) to explain to him the reasons for the dispute, will he make it plain that all parties accept that no new money can be paid until the end of April and that the reason why the current dispute is rejected by the great majority of the work force is that there is ample time to reach a negotiated settlement for everyone, and not just a small proportion of the work force?

Mr. Rodgers

My hon. Friend is right. This is not a dispute arising from the present pay round. There is plenty of time between now and 23rd April and beyond to find a solution that is acceptable to all railwaymen and from which all railwaymen can benefit.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.