HC Deb 14 June 1979 vol 968 cc629-36
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Norman Fowler)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on contingency plans for the London Under-ground strike which has been threatened from next Monday.

There is as yet no sign of any settlement of the dispute, although I understand that further talks are planned for this evening.

The offer which has been made matches that recently agreed with the London busmen. I am advised by the leader of the GLC that if the unions' much larger claim were agreed, this would entail a very significant increase in fares in addition to those already planned, or cuts in services.

I very much hope that the strike will not take place and that those who live and work in London will not be subjected to the widespread inconvenience that such a strike would cause. But I am sure the House would wish to have an early indication of the action the Government propose to take to ensure that people can continue to go about their daily business if the strike does go ahead.

London Transport estimates that half a million people use the Underground daily on their way to work in central London. Clearly the strike will impose great pressure on bus services, and if too many people try to bring their cars into the centre there will be serious congestion and delay.

We therefore propose to take the following steps. For central London, 8,000 extra car parking spaces will be made available in the Royal and other London parks. On the advice of the Metropolitan Commissioner of Police we shall not at this stage be lifting waiting restrictions or suspending meter charges. This is to reduce the risk of congestion bringing traffic to a standstill.

For outer London, where there is additional demand for extra parking spaces near suburban British Rail stations, the Commissioner has told me that enforcement of waiting restrictions will be relaxed in certain roads where this will not impede traffic movement.

In addition, the police are taking steps to operate clearways on key routes between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. They will be issuing detailed advice on this over the weekend.

The motoring and freight industry organisations are urging all their members to keep out of central London if they possibly can. Congestion will be minimised if employers adopt the maximum flexibility in hours of work to enable people to travel outside the rush hours and if people who have to use their cars take other people with them.

I am advised that fuel supplies for public transport in London are unlikely to present a special problem, but the Government will watch this aspect closely.

I shall be keeping in close contact with the police on the effectiveness of these arrangements and will consider, as the situation develops, whether any changes are needed.

Mr. Rodgers

The whole House will share the right hon. Gentleman's hope that the strike will not take place and that those who live and work in London will not be subject to widespread inconvenience, but the settlement of the dispute has hardly been made easier by the prospect of inflation running at 17½ per cent. later this year. It is not a climate in which it is easy to get a tolerable solution to industrial disputes.

Will the Minister confirm that he has not seen the trade union leaders about the dispute or discussed matters with London Transport, because that would be in keeping with the Government's noninterventionist approach? May I assume that if this is not the case, or that if at a later stage the right hon. Gentleman discusses these matters with the trade unions and London Transport, he will report fully to the House on the matter?

For the most part I think that the right hon. Gentleman's proposals are well tried and I am sure that it is his intention to keep the House informed of developments. Will he confirm that although he is not a member of the Cabinet he is co-ordinating the Government's approach to the whole matter?

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on one aspect of his statement? He says that he is advised that fuel supplies for public transport in London are unlikely to present a special problem. We all welcome that, but, quite plainly, on Monday large numbers of people will seek to travel into the centre of London by car, while, if previous experience is repeated, others will hire coaches for the day. Is the Secretary of State for Energy securing priority supplies for those who will be using their cars and using coaches on Monday?

The right hon. Gentleman referred to London Transport fares. We must all regret any increase in them. In those circumstances, and given the rises that are already in the pipeline, will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an undertaking that there will be no question of cutting the transport supplementary grant to the Greater London Council, which would then not be justified in taking any steps to reduce its present support for public transport in London?

Mr. Fowler

On the right hon. Gentle-man's first point, I put it to him that the only effect that this dispute will have is to put fares up even further. As he will be aware, an increase in fares was announced only yesterday. The Opposition must make their position clear on this issue. The right hon. Gentleman did not do in his introductory remarks.

With regard to the Government's status in the matter, let me repeat that this is not the Government's dispute. It is a matter between the London Transport Executive and the rail unions with whom it negotiates. I am sure that none of the parties directly concerned would want the Government to interfere with the well-established machinery for settling pay. Nor do I have any intention of doing so.

On the right hon. Gentleman's third point, I give the assurance that I shall report to the House.

As to consideration of the matter by the Cabinet, I imagine that the right hon. Gentleman understands that I attend all Cabinet meetings and that I am co-ordinating this exercise with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Our information on fuel supplies—and I have made thorough checks on this—is that there is no problem for either public transport or private cars, so there does not seem to be any point in going any further into the matter.

On the question of support for London Transport, the right hon. Gentleman, more than most, will be aware that he approved plans which will cut back the fares support over the TPP period. We have no plans to change that.

Mr. McCrindle

Accepting that one of the best ways to cut back on the inevitable congestion which will flow from people bringing their cars into central London is to encourage the staggering of working hours, can the Minister say whether there has been, or is to be, any direct approach to bodies such as the CBI, and whether the Government are likely to give a lead in this matter by encouraging Civil Service hours to be staggered?

Mr. Fowler

Discussions have taken place with the business organisations and with those organisations representing industry. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, has circulated Government Departments on this matter and they are encouraging staff to travel outside rush hours and to use alternative forms of public transport rather than their own cars as far as possible. Those staff who find it essential to use their cars are being asked to give lifts to their colleagues. Pooling arrangements have been made to facilitate that.

Mr. Les Huckfield

I acknowledge that the right hon. Gentleman is right to make preparations for Monday, but is he aware that ACAS is calling together the parties involved at 5 p.m. this evening? Is he also aware that a number of proposals are still under active consideration, including the possible setting up of an ad hoc inquiry? Will he give his encouragement to, and express his hopes that, some of these proposals will come to fruition?

Mr. Fowler

I am aware of the meeting which will take place with ACAS later today. Clearly, we hope that the strike will not take place. I do not believe that a strike will be in the interests either of the public or of those who work on London Transport.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

Can the Minister give advice on insurance aspects to my constituents who would like to take up the suggestion of giving lifts, before they do so?

Mr. Fowler

Those who want to give lifts should know that there are now no insurance obstacles to doing that. As my hon. Friend knows, the position was regulated by the Transport Act 1978. There is no insurance problem and lifts can be given. However, if people have doubts they should get in touch either with their own insurance companies or with my Department, which is prepared to give advice. The situation is that there are no problems and that no one need fear any consequences in this context.

Mr. Snape

Is the Minister aware that Mr. Maurice Cutler, with his customary inaccuracy, has got it wrong? The offer made to the National Union of Railwaymen is not the same as that made to London's busmen. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the claim by the NUR, currently in dispute, is for 11 per cent. on a railman's basic wage of £47.25 a week? Will he accept from me that most railwaymen would accept similarly generous terms as those afforded by his Government to air vice-marshals, consultants and heads of nationalised industries?

Mr. Fowler

On the last point, I advise the hon. Gentleman to study the terms of that award. I repeat to the hon. Gentleman—I know of his interest in these matters—that the only consequence of the kind of claim now being considered would be a further increase in fares in London over and above the increase announced yesterday. I think that the people responsible should weigh that consideration.

Mr. Moate

I hope that the strike will not materialise, but will my right hon. Friend take an early opportunity of stressing to the trade union leaders in the transport industry the utter futility of strikes of this kind—particularly one-day strikes designed to cause the maximum of discomfort and suffering to commuters—which cause longterm damage to the industry and which cannot possibly contribute to sensible negotiations?

Mr. Fowler

I think that it is common ground—or certainly was between the two Front Benches—that there is no question but that industrial disputes such as this do harm in the long term to the true interests of public transport.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that he cuts a very different figure from the one to which we so often listened when we were going through what was known as the "winter of discontent". As that time we had minor disputes, such as those with the oil tanker drivers and the lorry drivers. A picket—and no one else—was killed. We had a few train drivers' disputes, when the right hon. Gentleman indicated to the Government of the day that it was easy to resolve those matters. Does he recall urging his colleagues to put down questions under Standing Order No. 9 every day? Why does he not resolve this matter? Why does he not lean on Horace Cutler and his friends on the GLC to get this matter resolved and reach a decent settlement along the lines that have been proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape)?

Mr. Fowler

In the first part of his question what the hon. Gentleman is saying is absolute rubbish. I think that the right hon. Gentleman would confirm that. As for the second part of the question, I repeat that this is not the Government's dispute. It is a matter between the London Transport Executive and the rail unions. That, I believe, is the sensible way of proceeding.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call the four hon. Members who have been rising.

Mr. Alexander

Will the Minister give an indication whether he expects the strike to go on beyond one day? On the relaxation of parking restrictions, can he give an assurance to those motorists who are going to use parking facilities that it will be clear to them at the time that the restrictions have been relaxed?

Mr. Fowler

Our hope is that the strike will not take place at all, but the risk is that it will go on for longer than a day if it does take place. Parking restrictions are a matter for the police, who are aware of the situation. I am sure that they will be making the proper preparations so that they are carefully indicated.

Mr. Durant

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on giving early warning of his plans, which I think is helpful to everybody, but can he say whether these restrictions on parking will be lifted over the weekend as well as during the week, bearing in mind that the heavy holiday season has started in London?

Mr. Fowler

I shall consider the suggestion of my hon. Friend, but at the moment it is intended that the restriction should be lifted only from Monday.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Will my right hon. Friend do two things? First, will he, and those concerned in his Department, set an example, especially to the media, by referring to this particular incident as industrial disruption and by asking everybody to eschew the words "industrial action", which it is not. Second, and perhaps more importantly, since the capacity of the country to avoid winters of discontent, whether in summer or otherwise, will depend very largely on its own capacity for educating itself in economic matters, can my right hon. Friend indicate to all concerned—because this is a matter of wide public interest—whether wages in London Transport have equalled or exceeded the general level of wage increases? Can he also indicate whether fares on the London Underground have equalled or exceeded the general level of cost increases and price increases over the past five years? Some of us have the impression that both have exceeded both.

Mr. Fowler

On the question of terminology, I will certainly consider what my hon. Friend's advice is, though I do not want to go further into the dispute itself. I repeat what I have already said, which is that travellers on London Under- ground have already faced steep increases in fares. The result of the strike can only mean additional fare increases, which many of them will find hard to bear.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not want to be unfair to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer), who was one of those on their feet to whom I referred when I said that I would call certain other hon. Members to ask questions, but neither do I want to provoke him—

Mr. Cryer

indicated dissent.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I take it that he does not now wish to intervene. He has put his question in the bank.