§ Mr. George Gardiner (Reigate)
I beg to move,That this House salutes British Rail travellers for their determination to overcome the effects of industrial action; condemns those union leaders who refuse to accept modern working methods; and believes that until these are adopted there can be no hope of achieving an efficient railway system that actually serves the travelling public.Over recent days and weeks we have heard and read frequent statements on television and in the press from Mr. Sidney Weighell and various leaders of the National Union of Railwaymen, we have heard accusations from Mr. Ray Buckton on behalf of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen and we have had statements and warnings from Sir Peter Parker and Mr. Clifford Rose representing the British Railways Board. My purpose is to raise a voice for the hard-pressed and long-suffering members of the travelling public who, alas, need to use the railway system to get to and from their work. What better day to do so, it being the first of what we are told will be an indefinite strike called by the train drivers' union against the introduction of modern working methods, for the acceptance of which they have already been paid?
The hardship inflicted on the travelling public by this year's recurring strikes on British Rail is by no means the whole story, but it forms a substantial part of it. If ever a campaign medal were deserved by civilians in time of peace, it must surely be by the thousands upon thousands of daily rail commuters who, in the vicious weather of January and February, did everything in their power to get to work regardless rather than resign themselves to defeat. Car-sharing rotas were devised, flexible hours were accepted, special coaches arranged, and often long distances walked by passengers to the nearest picking up points. Some were put up at hotels but far more made temporary arrangements to stay with relatives or friends, or even to use a sleeping bag in the office. All our talents for improvisation and survival were utilised. They were again in the two days of the NUR strike, and they are again now as ASLEF seeks to assert yet again its brute industrial might.
When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State contributes to the debate I hope that he will pay full tribute to the resourcefulness and determination of so many regular commuters. When the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), comes to pick a tortuous path between giving support to, and witholding if from, ASLEF, I hope that he will pay the same tribute to the travelling public.
The debate is not confined to the effects of the strike. When I decided to introduce a debate on this subject I did not know even whether the threatened NUR strike would still be in operation. I am equally concerned about the hardships endured by the daily travelling public at times when working on British Rail is "normal"—I put the word in quotes advisedly.
In my constituency many people commute to London from Redhill, Reigate and smaller stations in the Banstead area. A week never passes without my receiving letters complaining of cancelled trains, misconnections, grossly overcrowded carriages and dirty carriages, and all for fares that on no reckoning can be called cheap. I have lost count of the number of occasions that I have attended functions 25 in my constituency when several participants have arrived long after the starting time, saying something like "Sorry we are late, but the trains from Waterloo are up the creek again. It took us two and a half hours to make a journey that should have taken 40 or 50 minutes". Those who travel regularly by British Rail from these stations into London to work know that whatever fatigue is incurred and suffered in the course of their work will be trebled in the battle to get home afterwards.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
If this problem has prevailed for the hon. Gentleman's constituents for so long, why has he been so noticeable by his absence at Transport Question Time and on other occasions when investment in British Rail has been debated by the House?
§ Mr. Gardiner
I shall deal with investment, which is rather a different issue, later in my speech. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have not been lax in taking up with the management of British Rail the regular complaints that I have received, although I have felt on occasions that I should give up the task as hopeless.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) said that the hon. Gentleman was absent from duty. That was my hon. Friend's point.
§ Mr. Gardiner
I shall return to my theme. I invite those at every level in British Rail to reflect on the fact that the travelling public are determined not to be beaten by the strike. That determination is fuelled not only by a gut rejection to ASLEF's bloody-mindedness but also by an awareness that our "normal" railway system should and could be far more efficient, reliable and comfortable and provide better value for money, and that the time has come to break the backs of those forces that stand in the way of such improvements and which defend to the bitter end their own restrictive practices.
The daily traveller on British Rail now feels that he has put up with enough. Unless we can break through the barrier that has been erected against modern working methods, the so-called "service" provided to commuters by British Rail will continue to be the disgrace that it is.
At the root of the problem are restrictive practices operated by unions which for years have believed that they enjoy monopoly bargaining power, but I do not criticise the unions solely. Over the years there has been within British Rail a pattern of weak management that goes back long before the days of Sir Peter Parker and his control of British Rail's affairs.
We frequently hear about investment as if increased investment programmes offered the solution to all the problems. In my experience, a great deal of investment is taking place in British Rail. I represent a constituency on the Southern region and I am aware of the ambitious and modern signalling system that is being installed at all the southern approaches to the London termini. I note that the external borrowing limit now stands at a record £950 million. There are other examples of investment that are hardly encouraging. We know that £150 million of public money was invested in electrifying the Bedford-St. Pancras line. The modern electrified trains are still not working. There is no agreement yet with the unions concerned to enable British Rail to utilise and exploit that investment.
§ Mr. Gardiner
It is not surprising that many taxpayers, even regular commuters, say that there should be no more investment unless it is preceded by agreement with the parties involved that it should be properly worked.
Occasionally we hear of comparisons with the investment programmes of some of our EEC partners. I know that we are often not comparing like with like, but when I am invited to make comparisons with Continental patterns of investment, I immediately make comparisons with Continental working practices.
§ Mr. Gardiner
When I have completed this point I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. I note that every other EEC country has flexible rostering for train drivers and other rail workers. I note that West German drivers are about 12 per cent. more productive than their British counterparts and Dutch drivers are as much as 50 per cent. more productive. The figures in other countries are not dissimilar. I also note that train drivers in West Germany do not have the right to strike. Until we have the Continental acceptance of modern working practices on our railways, to call for further investment is to invite us to pour money down an open drain.
§ Mr. Howells
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should do a little research into railway lines in Wales. Is he aware that travellers cannot reach the south from the north without crossing the English border? Does he not agree that there should be more investment in Wales than on the Continent?
§ Mr. Gardiner
I am speaking principally on behalf of those who commute regularly into our major cities by British Rail. I do not have the detailed information with which to answer the hon. Gentleman's point. I do not know how much demand there is to travel from north to south Wales. If there is a substantial demand, I hope that it will be included in the investment options put before British Rail's management.
If we talk of working practices we must discuss the abuses of working arrangements that were brought to light during the troubles of last winter, some of which crossed the boundary into downright fraud. The examples were highlighted when one man was literally caught napping when the train on which he should have been working crashed. Allegations were made of the practice on joint shifts, where one employee would sign on and then, on a nod from his colleague, go home to bed. Some railwaymen asserted that they had been happily spending their time drinking while on overtime pay and that others happily slept it off on the cab. I do not claim that those practices are general. I am convinced that they are not. However, the tip of a nasty iceberg came to light, and just as it is an indictment of the men indulging in those practices, so too it is an indictment of slack management that they were allowed to build up during the years and that a blind eye was turned to them.
§ Mr Skinner
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can complete a little more of the story and tell us, in his capacity as a supposed full-time Member of Parliament, picking up £14,000 a year, how many clients he has as a non-executive director of Cutbill Advertising Ltd. How much money does he make there and how much does he make from his moonlighting at all the newspapers? Perhaps he will lay it all on the line instead of just attacking train drivers.
§ Mr. Gardiner
That point does not merit serious consideration or reply. However, I will not concede, to the hon. Gentleman or to anyone else, that I am anything other than a full-time Member of Parliament. I am under contract to one newspaper, not many as he suggests. If he is used to the concept of time and a half, I am sure that he will understand that I consider my work for the Sunday Express not as part of my full-time job but rather as the half that is added to it.
§ Mr. Gardiner
All that is in the Register of Members' Interests.
When we consider what is happening in British Rail today, it is hard to avoid the impression that the industry is slowly killing itself. I have been critical of management and past management as well as trade unions. The management has woken up late in the day to the need to break restrictive practices rather than to come to fudged compromises whereby those practices continue. The management also recognises that we have reached the limit of what the taxpayer is willing to tip in to the operations of British Rail.
However, there has been a blindness on the part of rail union leaders to the choices that face the potential traveller on British Rail. My motion does not cover freight services or inter-city passenger travel, but in both areas more and more customers are opting for the alternatives that are opening up. The same pattern is now emerging in short-distance commuter travel.
§ Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that British Rail recently lost a freight order to carry British steel because it did not have sufficient wagons? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I assure the House that that is true information, which I discovered only on Friday. British Rail does not have those wagons, not because they are not needed, as the Secretary of State and other Ministers have told me many times, but because it cannot afford to buy them. The tight financial limits operated by the Secretary of State and his friends in the Treasury prevent British Rail from buying the wagons to carry the freight. Now the freight is being carried by road.
§ Mr. Gardiner
The hon. Gentleman may be satisfied with his information and its source, but I cannot accept it on his say-so. To judge from the remarks of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends during his intervention, it is fairly obvious that the so-called facts that he recited are strongly disputed. It is far more likely that, if a contract has been lost, it is because a cheaper and more reliable means to deliver the goods has been found.
Consumer choices are now opening up that did not exist some years ago. But there is still a blind insistence by many union leaders that the old, cosy restrictive practices must be retained at all costs. We saw the blind stupidity of last winter's strike that cost British Rail at least £80 million, and the suicidal stupidity of last week's strike which mercifully lasted only two days until the members of the union managed to make their views felt. That strike cost British Rail £12 million.
Both those strikes were nails in the coffin of what appears to be an industry dying from self-inflicted wounds. Each one is further encouragement to customers to look elsewhere. It need not be so. We need not be trapped into this self-defeating pattern. I am not an enemy 28 of the railway system. I do not believe that we can wind it up as good alternatives are available. I want to see a healthy, efficient railway system that will serve our cities and the people who live and work in them.
In the face of yet another strike by ASLEF, we should ask, "How many ASLEF members actually want to strike today?" I do not know. Mr. Ray Buckton does not know, nor does the executive of that union, because the members have never been asked in a secret ballot. Acceptance of an obedience to that strike call has fallen short of 100 per cent. Many more drivers have not turned up to work today who would like to but who are frightened by the prospect of facing a hostile picket line of men from other depots.
A week ago we saw how a delegate conference managed to exert some influence on the position during the strike called by the executive of the NUR. The delegates reflected the views of rank and file members and the strike called by the executive, without any ballot of those involved was brought to a speedy conclusion. It is the clear duty of ASLEF now to ballot its members to discover whether they want to embark upon a prolonged strike rather than accept more flexible working hours that many believe are bound to come. Let Ray Buckton and ASLEF ballot their members to find out what they really want.
I was interested to read over the weekend that Mr. Buckton said that it was to be a fight to the death. The death of who or what? Was it the death of thousands of jobs on the railways, both for his own union members and those of other unions? Was it the death of jobs elsewhere—like seasonal jobs in resorts that depend for their customers on the railways bringing holiday-makers at this time of the year—or was it the death of the railway system itself? We see the attitude, "If the railways cannot be run by the rules of 1919, they should not be run at all." Or, if it is to be a fight to the death, will it by any chance be the death of ASLEF? What a welcome event that would be.
The leadership of ASLEF epitomises all that holds back British Rail and indeed British industry elsewhere. Antediluvian, obstinate and autocratic, it fights to defend old privileges for which all justification has gone. It is a union that even its own members could well do without. There is no place for a trade union governed by such attitudes in a modern railway system any more than there is in a modern industrial society.
British Rail has already suspended the provisions of the closed shop agreement with ASLEF that would oblige it to sack any workers who were expelled from the union as a consequence of defying orders and turning up to work during the strike. After the strike is over, more ASLEF members are likely to walk out of the union than will be thrown out. I believe that British Rail should scrap that closed shop agreement altogether. Furthermore, unless ASLEF accepts, unconditionally, flexible rostering and other modern practices, British Rail management should refuse to negotiate with it.
I have concentrated my remarks on ASLEF, for obvious reasons. Let us not forget, however, that productivity issues also involve the NUR. The NUR members who exerted their influence to ensure that that pointless and stupid strike last week was brought to a speedy end are to be congratulated and commended. Although the NUR leadership has shown itself more responsive to the introduction of modern work methods, such as flexible rostering, let us not close our eyes to the fact that it is obstructing the introduction of other modern working 29 methods. Of six productivity items for which payment was made last year, so far two only have been fully honoured. I have mentioned the scandal of the modernised, electrified Bedford-St Pancras service. That lies at the door of the NUR. Nor can one ignore the fact that its two-day strike cost the industry £12 million to no purpose.
Commuter travellers now face the crunch with ASLEF. Those commuters demand that this strike be broken. They do not want another fudge, another payment or settlement on the basis of promises to talk, to consider and to experiment. Commuters are in a mood to resist, to accept sacrifice and hardship, just as they did last winter—not only because they are tired of being the victims of regular strikes but because they know that the so-called "normal" railway system just cannot go on as it is. This time they expect the British Railways Board to stand firm and to play its hand just as hard as ASLEF has always played its hand in the past.
Once the ordinary members of ASLEF realise that there will be no fudge at the end of the dispute, and that the public are prepared to see the strike out for just as long as those members are prepared to continue without wages or strike pay, they will start to come back. As they do, each one must be required to sign an acceptance of flexible hours and other modern working methods; and unless, when ASLEF eventually admits defeat, that admission is accompanied by an unconditional acceptance of flexible hours, let the British Rail management do all in its power to put this trade union dinosaur out of its misery.
§ Mr. Gardiner
No. I am concluding. The hon. Gentleman must make his own speech.
Rail commuters know now, as they knew last winter, that in beating this strike they are helping to move to a more efficient railway system. Woe betide any chairman of British Rail or any Minister who sells the pass on them this time.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
For fear of being accused of covering anything up, I proclaim that I am sponsored by the National Union of Railwaymen. I make no apology for that.
I was in Plymouth last Monday when the NUR debated what to do about the strike then in progress. It did not vote to accept British Rail's abysmal offer of 3.2 per cent. Even those who advocated terminating the strike for the time being did so specifically because they were confident that the case that the union had submitted in the negotiations with British Rail was so convincing that the independent arbitrator, the Railway Staff National Tribunal, could not but agree. If it failed to do so, or if it endorsed the claim and the British Rail management, backed by the Government, failed to meet it, the NUR would call another general meeting to decide what to do. Not even those most strongly in favour of adjourning the strike were prepared to countenance acceptance of the abysmal 3.2 per cent. No one on the Conservative Benches should be under a misapprehension from reading of the decision in the national newspapers.
I hope that the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) will not feel that I am being too personally critical, but I believe that, since I have been a Member of the House 30 from the last general election, he has never before raised any issue concerning the railways. I attend Transport Question Time regularly. I do not recall him appearing often to advocate the interests of the travelling public in his area or the necessary investment in the railway system which is trying to serve his constituents.
It would be wise for the hon. Gentleman and his Friends to remember that the time perspective is much greater than the past two weeks or even six months. The railway management and the Government face the culmination of a long period of disillusionment among all railway workers about the benefits that they should have got from an unending series of productivity concessions. They were told that the productivity concessions would improve the service, make the railways more efficient, save money and give the workers a decent income. They certainly have not produced a decent income for railway workers.
Members of Parliament now receive about £15,000 a year, and Conservative Members may supplement that by moonlighting. They should be aware when they talk of keeping down pay and breaking the railway unions that some of the people involved take home less than £50 a week. There is no point in talking of percentages. They should contemplate trying to bring up a family on less than £50 a week.
The hon. Member for Reigate did not know, or perhaps he knew that it was no benefit to his cause, that even before the Competition Act 1980 received Royal Assent, his hon. Friends referred to the revamped Monopolies and Mergers Commission the efficiency a railways in London and the South-East.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
It is the engine drivers who are on strike. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that they do not earn more than £50 a week?
§ Mr. Dobson
No, I am certainly not. Other hon. Members will talk about the engine drivers and others who may be better paid. The hon. Member for Reigate was saying that the NUR must be prevented from getting a better pay increase than what is offered. Hon. Gentlemen should remember that many of those people are badly paid.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)
We can bandy statistics, but can the hon. Gentleman tell us what categories earn only £50 a week? What jobs do they do? How does British Rail's productivity compare with that of other railway systems?
§ Mr. Dobson
A substantial number of people working on the railways—in carriage and wagon, maintaining the permanent way and cleaning the filth and stink that the general public leaves in the railway carriages—are badly paid. Large numbers of the staff working on the stations are not paid much better. They work long hours for little return.
§ Mr. Harry Cowans (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)
Sometimes, to make up wages' o £50 a week the minimum earnings level, agreed between the management and the trade union, has to be applied. The grades involved are rural porters, carriage and wagon, some grades on the permanent way and many other grades throughout the railway, particularly in the workshops. To give the list would take longer than my hon. Friend's speech.
§ Mr. Dobson
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for trying to add to the knowledge of Conservative Members, although I am confident that they will ignore what he says.
The terms of reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission were specific and peculiar. Among other things it was asked to decidethe extent to which any deficiency in the quality of service provided is the result of inefficiency".That was pointed deliberately towards identifying inefficiencies on the London and South-East service. It was also asked to look atthe scope for improvements in efficiency and manpower productivity having regard to the extent and effect of the manpower savings already made".I doubt whether many Conservative Members have ploughed through the report, but I defy them to find where the Monopolies and Mergers Commission has identified restrictive practices as an important source of difficulty, despite the fact that the terms of reference steered it in that direction. The report refers frequently to the trade union's willingness to co-operate in changes in working practices. Far more attention is given in the report to the difficulties of finding staff to operate the services as a result of the low basic pay and unsocial hours of work.
According to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission—not to me, an NUR-sponsored Member of Parliament—there was an overall staff shortfall of 15 per cent. in London and the South-East. In February 1980, when the figures were drawn up, guards were 12 per cent. below the establishment required, signals and telecom staff were 15 per cent. short, and there was a 25 per cent. shortfall of people needed to maintain the permanent way. We have just heard one of the reasons for that shortfall—because some of those people take home less than £50 a week, even with overtime.
§ Sir Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)
The hon. Gentleman seems to be skating round the point that he started on. He said that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report did not make much of restrictive practices. Would he care to come to St. Albans some time and see what the people there think about the brand-new rolling stock—the investment that he said was not forthcoming—lying in sidings waiting to be used, which cannot be used because it is designed to be driven by one driver? The taxpayers provided the money for those modern trains to be built, and we have waited for many years for them on our local line between Bedford and St. Pancras. So is it right that they are prevented from being used by members who have nothing to do with what he is talking about and who are being adequately paid?
§ Mr. Dobson
I shall come to the Bedford-St. Pancras line. Even the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir V. Goodhew) is surely not so ignorant as to believe that the Bedford-St. Pancras line is in the London and South-East part of the railways which was subject to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report. Perhaps he will restrain himself for a moment, until we reach that topic. For the moment, I shall concentrate on what was said in the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
Order. This debate is about the travelling public and British Rail, not about knighthoods or beautiful voices.
§ Mr. Dobson
We shall all know where to go in future for station announcers.
The Monopolies and Mergers Commission cites a management survey, which was done either by or for British Rail, which gave as the reasons for the chronic staff shortages and high turnover of staffgenerally low basic rates of payandlong, irregular and unsocial hours".However, British Rail is now trying to smash the railway workers into the ground and make them accept a pay increase of 3.2 per cent. Moreover, it does not lie in the mouth of anyone in this Chamber, who has just got a pay increase of 4 per cent., to impose a 3.2 per cent. increase on people who may be earning less than £50 a week.
There was one thoroughly objectionable aspect of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report. It suggested that British Rail might tackle its staff shortages by recruiting more women as full and part-time staff—presumably on the basis that women would accept lower pay. British Rail cannot persuade men to work these unsocial hours on the lousy existing rates of pay, so presumably the commission felt that it should try to persuade women to do so instead. No doubt, as Thatcherism takes off, it will suggest children, if it cannot get women to do the job. The long, degrading and despicable attempt by the Conservative Party would thus continue, to drive down railway wages whatever the consequences.
The problems confronting the board will not be solved simply by improving labour productivity.That was said, not by me, but by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I remind Conservative Members that the commission was not allowed to consider the significance of financial contributions by the Government. It was specifically prevented from considering the impact of low investment on London and the South-East.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
The hon. Member for East Grinstead (Sir G. Johnson Smith) mentioned productivity, compared with other European countries and systems. British Rail commissioned a report last year on European railway systems. It showed, first, that the productivity of the British railway worker was much higher than that of any other system in Europe; secondly, that the investment of British Rail was the lowest in Europe; thirdly, that Government support for British Rail was lower than similar support by any other country in Europe. It is time that Sir Peter Parker, instead of being the broker for the Prime Minister, fought for his system, and not against the men.
§ Mr. Dobson
I thank my hon. Friend. Some Conservative Members wanted to tempt me into that area, but frankly I do not have the details with me, and I should not wish to mislead the House. My hon. Friend has dealt with the matter most adequately.
It is therefore clear from the MMC report that the problems of the London and South-East railways—of efficiency, breakdowns, signalling problems, track problems and failure of trains to run—do not spring to any significant extent from inefficiency or low productivity by the existing staff. Conservative Members should accept that. It was their Government who asked the Monopolies 33 and Mergers Commission to look at the matter. It was their Government who laid down the terms of reference, and it was their sort of people on the commission who came up with the conclusions that I have mentioned.
The railway unions and Labour Members are not the only people who believe that there is merit in much more public investment. By coincidence, I received in the post this morning a parliamentary brief from the Confederation of British Industry which says that there isan urgent need for investment to improve the national infrastructure",as it calls it. Part of that infrastructure is a massive increased investment in the railways. Without that investment, there will be no improved services. Conservative Members should realise that not only will we not have improved services unless investment is increased, but we shall have declining services. The rolling stock, signalling and permanent way are declining faster than the amount of money put in by way of investment each year can put them right. An investment of £500 million a year is needed to stand still, and we are getting nothing like that amount from the Government.
§ Mr. Dobson
The hon. Member for St. Albans raised the matter of the Bedford-St. Pancras line. For a start, he obviously does not know the terms of the agreement between the NUR and British Rail about the Bedford-St. Pancras line. Basically, the undertaking was to enter into meaningful talks with British Rail about manning. People may not like the terms, but those were the terms agreed. If people jib at that, they should jib at those who accepted them.
The NUR has made many proposals to maximise the benefit to the travelling public on the Bedford-St. Pancras line.
§ Mr. Dobson
The hon. Gentleman should ponder the points made by the NUR. There might be a smidgen of truth in the union's concern that the driver of the new rolling stock—which is considerably quicker than the old and carries a lot more people—locked in his cab at the front, would be incapable of dealing with an emergency. British Rail's lost income as a result of its new manning proposals on the Bedford-St. Pancras line should also be considered.
When the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel) spoke on this topic in an Adjournment debate recently he gave much thought, and, as I understand it, some support, to the point of view of the NUR and cast some doubts on the point of view of British Rail. There is no unanimity even on Conservative Benches about the present state of affairs on the Bedford-St. Pancras line. I should like to see the line operating as soon and as efficiently as possible.
Just because the British Rail management decides that something is good does not necessarily make it good for the travelling public. Some of the concessions that have been obtained from the railway unions over the past few years may be to the disadvantage of the travelling public. I am doubtful about the demanning of stations, certainly of those within London, and—to shift for a moment—the demanning of London Transport stations. The removal of the human element leads almost automatically to an increase in violence and vandalism; to the smashing up of 34 railway stock for which the taxpayer has paid. Just because it is to the short-term benefit of the British Rail management does not necessarily mean that it is to the advantage of the travelling public. The railway unions have frequently shown a greater concern for the long-term interests of the travelling public than has British Rail management.
§ Mr. Foster
Has my hon. Friend any experience of the Japanese railway system? It has so many employees—this applies to their hotels too—that one wonders how on earth it can afford so many people for menial and sometimes seemingly pointless tasks. However, the Japanese give tremendous service to the public and their stations are not vandalised. That might have some bearing on the point that my hon. Friend is trying to make.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Although the Japanese railway system may have some relevance, may I remind the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that many hon. Members are waiting to take part in the debate?
§ Mr. Dobson
I shall be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
It is worth returning, albeit briefly, to an earlier point. The majority of railway employees see little return for a period of constant concessions. To return to what were the halcyon days of Beeching for Conservatives Members, the 1964 British Rail annual report said:In this connection it is of interest that, over the three years from the beginning of 1962, the total railway manpower has been reduced by 103,000 … Thus, in a period of severe wage inflation, the railways have been able to stabilise their wages bill, while making real improvements in staff pay by wage increases greater than the national average,"—and then follows a really queer bit in the context of today—and at the same time release a labour force capable of adding at least £100 million to national output.That was a period of substantial concessions.
As I pointed out to the House about a week ago, if the productivity and staffing of the House had proceeded at the same rate as that of the railways since 1950 there would now be about 200 hon. Members. We must bear that comparison in mind. The travelling public would rather have railwaymen providing them with a railway service than hon. Members standing here talking about them.
Times have changed and although concessions were obtained under Beeching they will be more difficult to obtain in future. The report talks about releasing 100,000 people for other jobs. At that time they could get other jobs, but they cannot any more. There is the thick end of 4 million people unemployed. If Conservative Members and the British Railways Board wonder why it is more difficult to get concessions, one of the predominant reasons is that people will not be able to find other jobs if they lose their jobs on the railways.
The hon. Member for Reigate talked in almost Prime Ministerial terms of a fight to the death with the railway unions. The Prime Minister, as was revealed during the invasion of the Falkland Islands, believes in a fight to the finish and total surrender by the other side. Many hon. Members believed that that was an appropriate attitude for the Prime Minister towards the Fascist regime in Argentina. However, it is not an appropriate attitude to take towards her fellow citizens.
We must find an approach which accommodates the Government, British Rail and those of the Prime Minister's fellow citizens who work on the railways. That 35 will no doubt involve the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. If I had to think of three words which would stick in the Prime Minister's throat more than "advisory", "conciliation", and "arbitration", I would be at a loss.
The Prime Minister does not take advice on this sort of issue, she does not conciliate and arbitration is the last thing she is looking for. It may be that the Government can win what they see as this battle with ASLEF. However, industrial relations should not take the form of a battle. Battles may be temporarily popular with Conservative Members but that should not be the attitude of a Prime Minister of her country. The sooner she learns that the better.
§ Mr. Eric Cockeram (Ludlow)
I am pleased to have the opportunity of supporting the motion so ably proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner). The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) declared an interest as a sponsored member of the National Union of Railwaymen. I also declare an interest as a member of the travelling public on behalf of the travelling public. My interest is wider than that. It is on behalf of many people, including many in my constituency, who do not have a railway within miles of their homes. Those people are concerned at the practices of some of those who "work" for British Rail.
One point has been frequently raised. We hear from Mr. Buckton, Mr. Len Murray and others, including Opposition Members, that the problem is that we do not have enough investment in British Rail. They say that we need more investment in British Rail. It is a distortion of the English language to use the word "investment" in connection with British Rail. There is no such thing.
If one asks people in the street where they invest their savings, they say that they put their money somewhere where they can obtain a little interest—perhaps in a building society—or where they hope to make a profit and get more out at the end than they put in at the beginning, such as National Savings certificates. They may put their money somewhere where they hope to get a dividend, on the stock exchange for example, and perhaps make a profit as well, although often they make a loss. That cannot be compared with what happens in the so-called "investment" in British Rail.
The British taxpayer pours over £900 million per annum into British Rail, which is over £2 million per day. That is not an investment. Not a penny is repaid. No interest is paid on it. Previous Labour Governments have written off capital. An Act passed by a former Labour Administration wrote off £1.2 billion at the stroke of a pen. That is not investment. It is subsidy.
§ Mr. Foster
Does the hon. Gentleman deny the findings of the joint study by the Department of Transport and British Rail, which proved to everyone's satisfaction, except the Prime Minister's personal economist Professor Walters, that there would be an 11 per cent. return on the electrification of British Rail? When the hon. Gentleman is talking about losing money, will he take into account that the public service obligation grant is about £850 million? That is not a loss but an investment by the British 36 public in a social service to provide transport in many rural and commuter areas where we as a community have decided that it is necessary.
§ Mr. Cockeram
There is not a railway line in this country that yields 11 per cent. to anyone. Not one penny is yielded. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) will know well the position on Tyneside. It is the same on Merseyside and on Clydeside. Years ago people were saying that we must invest more in the railways. More money has been "invested" in railways in those three areas. There has been not one penny of return. Not 1 per cent., never mind 11 per cent., has been earned on those railways. Each line is running at a loss. Not one pays the interest on the borrowed capital. It is a total distortion of the English language to refer to that as an investment. It is a subsidy. It is money that is paid out, not one penny of which comes back. Furthermore, at the end of year one, one starts year two with a demand for still more money. It is the same with special grants, which are supposed to be repayable. Many have been cancelled. Over 60 per cent. of British Rail's income from the sale of tickets and from freight goes in labour costs—wages. The taxpayer meets the difference.
Fortunately, the Government passed the Transport Act 1980, encouraging competition with railways. We see competition on the motorways every time we use them.
§ Mr. Cockeram
I shall come to that point.
The National Bus Company and other companies are running coaches and are catering for an increased number of passengers. The National Bus Company published its annual report last week. Profits for the previous year were under £10 million and for the year just ended were £26 million. That shows the way in which the public prefers to spend its money and it shows that moving people by public transport can be profitable if it is properly organised.
§ Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)
Does my hon. Friend agree that not only were the Government wise to encourage competitive coach services, but, recognising the interests of the commuters and the travelling public, they were right to encourage car sharing? At this difficult time for people who are trying to get to work, we should all encourage them to take advantage of both those options.
§ Mr. Cockeram
That is a valid point. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making it.
Where else does the money on British Rail go? Among other things, it goes towards its prestige project, its Concorde—the tilting train. Over £40 million has been lost already. No one else in the world wants a tilting train, yet we in Britain are using taxpayers' money to experiment with such a project.
§ Mr. Cowans
I was listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's argument on investment. I would hate him to go on to talk about the tilting train without doing justice to the investment argument. The hon. Gentleman used the National Bus Company as an idol above everything else. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this year the National Bus Company has withdrawn from 14 million service miles, some of which were picked up by British Rail by virtue of the PSO grant, which is for a social service? It 37 is easy to make a profit on the milk runs rather than the rural areas, many of which are in the constituencies of Conservative Members.
§ Mr. Cockeram
I am aware that the National Bus Company, like so many other transport organisations, is bending its practices to the demands of the customer. It is apparent that the customers' demands are increasing on some routes and decreasing on others. It is right and proper that those companies are catering for their customers. They are not being held up in so doing by awkward-minded drivers who will not adjust to the needs of the travelling public.
I am worried about one of the two railways lines in my constituency, which I fear that ASLEF is in the process of closing down. We have managed to keep the line open in the past but the patience of the British taxpayer will not allow that to go on indefinitely if the cost continues to rise. I refer to the single track line from Craven Arms to South Wales, which probably passes through the constituencies of some Opposition Members as well as some of my hon. Friends. There are only five trains per day in each direction and none on Sunday.
The total cost of running the line is about £2 million. The revenue from the line is only £350,000, which means that there is a loss of about £1.6 million on that one line. In other words, the cost of running that line is six times as great as the passenger revenue from it. The loss per passenger journey is £7.50. Not many people travel the full length of the line. They treat it as they would a bus service. A child travelling to school and back each day on that line would make 10 journeys a week. The loss on that one passenger is £75 per week.
The Government have rightly continued to subsidise—I deliberately use the word "subsidise" rather than "invest"—the railway line for the past three years because of the public service social obligation that others have referred to. Nevertheless, there must be a cost beyond which no Government can afford to continue with the subsidy. By crippling British Rail as it is doing at the moment, ASLEF will force British Rail once again to review its marginal lines. There are plenty of them—the Craven Arms to South Wales line is just one. It is possible that that line must be closed because British Rail can no longer afford to subsidise it as a result of losses that have been sustained on he otherwise profitable inter-city lines.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with interest. Is he suggesting to the Government that the central Wales line between Shrewsbury and South Wales should be closed?
§ Mr. Cockeram
No. I thought that I had made myself clear. There must be a limit to the subsidy that the taxpayer is prepared to pay to British Rail. The subsidy at the moment is about £900 million. If, as a result of the ASLEF action, the otherwise profitable inter-city routes are so financially weakened that British Rail must consider closing some marginal lines, we must be clear about where the responsibility lies. It does not lie with the Front Bench of any Government; it lies with Mr. Buckton and ASLEF.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
I begin with the time-honoured tradition of congratulating the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) on his good fortune 38 in the ballot. I concur with him only in so far as his motion allows us to discuss a problem that faces the railway system and the travelling public.
There, I am afraid, my congratulations must end. The hon. Gentleman displayed and rehearsed all his well-known prejudices against the trade unions. He did not make one constructive suggestion. He spoke of breaking the back of those forces that are causing destruction. He spoke in approbation of the West German system of no right to strike among railwy drivers, of antediluvian trade unions, of there being no place for trade unions of that type in the rail industry, and of British Rail scrapping its negotiating position with ASLEF. If he believes for one moment that speeches of that type help the constituents for whom he expressed such concern, he should return to journalism and begin all over again.
The hon. Gentleman's speech was in marked contrast to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) who set out constructively an approach to the problems that face the industry and how they might be resolved.
The strike is a tragedy for all concerned. It is a tragedy for the travelling public, for those who move their goods by rail and for everyone connected with the railway industry, whether they be members of the board, management or workers. Moreover, it is a tragedy for the railway community, as Sir Peter Parker likes to describe it. There is never a good time for a strike, especially when the public are so directly affected.
I think of many of my constituents and others who begin their annual holiday; this week or in the near future. For them, the strike could not have come at a worse time. It seems that there is a complete impasse. Each side believes that the other has been driven into the present circumstance. But the dispute could and should have been avoided. When one examines recent events in some detail the difference between the British Railways Board and ASLEF has narrowed considerably, although there are still some substantial points at issue. Nevertheless, the opportunity for peace was missed. I shall return to that point in some detail.
During the past 12 months there has been an almost complete collapse of industrial relations. They have descended to their present abysmally low level and to a complete lack of trust on both sides. If only the trust which is now lacking could be restored, even fractionally, the dispute could be resolved speedily and British Rail could run normally again. That is what we must work for. Judging from the speech of the hon. Member for Reigate, the debate so far has not helped in that direction. The week-end speeches of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport did nothing to help.
In speeches both here and elsewhere, the blame has been laid entirely at the door of the rail unions and ASLEF in particular. Although the attitude of the British Railways Board has hardened in the past few days, even it does not lay all the blame with ASLEF. I cannot blame ASLEF if it believes, as a result of speeches both in the House and elsewhere, that an attempt completely to destroy its position and possibly the union itself is being made.
In any industrial conflict, beliefs and attitudes are influenced by a climate of opinion that exists long before the collision course is reached. That opinion has been governed by the almost complete lack of encouragement from the Government for the rail industry and those who work in it. Considerable changes that have taken place in 39 the rail community have not been given due recognition. It would be foolish for anyone to refuse to accept that in some respects progress has been slow. But there has been change. I do not doubt that.
I can give just one example in Aberdeen. The weekend before last I went to the station there. The open station concept is now being tried there. When I went to catch a train there were no ticket collectors at the barrier. There was almost no staff present. I know that the same scheme is being tried in other stations, but it is only when one sees it in reality that one begins to appreciate what is happening. The problem is that we cannot see what the Government are doing in response.
It is no use the Secretary of State coming to the House from time to time exorting and cajoling—even threatening—a course of action to achieve productivity changes when he cannot show positively what the Government are doing in return. I shall give two examples of how the Government should demonstrate their commitment to the modern railway system that everyone wants.
I shall take electrification first. The joint study by British Rail and the Department of Transport was initiated in May 1978. Its final report was published in December 1980. Several options were canvassed, yet not one has been taken up by the Government. What are the Government doing? They are simply stalling and calling for more and more financial studies. Every time British Rail re-does its sums, different and more difficult financial hurdles are set up. There is always an excuse—the economic climate has become more difficult, the ASLEF strike earlier in the year means that more studies must be done. The hurdles become more numerous and higher. The course is constantly being changed. If only the Government had responded earlier and more quickly, the industry would believe that it had a future rather than beingthe crumbling edge of qualityas Sir Peter Parker described it in "Rail Policy".
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying but we are now in the early 1980s. In the early 1970s when I was a Minister I obtained substantial sums from the House for new investment in British Rail. Over and again that money was used not to procure the new capital goods that the railway system needed, but to pay for unearned increases that were spread out among the staff.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Gentleman tells a different story from the Government, who are always boasting about how much money is being used to provide better stock and better signalling services, but his argument is not wholly true. Some of the money sanctioned may have gone to finance pay increases, but there has been at least some change during the past decade.
Let us return to the present, however. The Select Committee on Transport, an all-party Committee of the House with a Conservative majority, recently considered main line electrification. Once again, we owe the Select Committee a great debt of gratitude for the report that it produced. I take one or two of its recommendations as examples.
Paragraph 140 states: 40Although the case has been somewhat weakened by economic and industrial factors over the past two years, we believe that the Review's basic finding remains valid, namely, that further main line electrification can be financially justified.In other words, that conclusion remains valid after the review has been carried out and all the other matters have been considered. The report continues that, notwithstanding the difficulties which arise,Electrification could therefore be financially justifiable even if the commercial businesses remain in deficit for somewhat longer than the Government is currently hoping.The report then states in paragraph 147:We therefore recommend that, subject to a satisfactory submission by the British Railways Board, the Government should give early authorisation to the electrification of the East Coast Main Line. In view of the financial constraints under which the Board is currently operating, the Government should review their external financing limit and investment ceiling so that additional resources are specifically made available for this project.In other words, the report says that the Government should make the necessary finance available to British Rail. If the Government had only responded in like fashion, that would have been a great boost for everyone in the rail industry.
I make one further reference to the Select Committee report. Paragraph 149 states:Finally, we recommend that the Government's review of British Rail's finances should be pursued with the utmost urgency.This links with my second example of how the Government could have demonstrated their commitment to the railways, to those served by them and to those who work on them.
Over the past couple of years, there have been several attempts to obtain a review of railway finances. The latest was about the middle of last year. Yet at the end of the year, when members of the Standing Committee on the Transport (Finance) Bill asked the Government about the review, the Government replied that it was still under consideration. Yet the Serpell committee, as it is now known, was not set up until the middle of May this year—six months later, and almost 12 months after the latest attempt to obtain a review of railway finances. Again, the Government come out with the same old story. It is always somebody else's fault that the setting up of the committee has been delayed. Urgent action was required from the Government as the Serpell committee was intended to review railway finances, taking the matter up to the end of the century. That being so, it will always have to consider and postulate various factors which might change in the next couple of decades and to some extent to speculate on what British Rail finances might be.
Why could not the review proceed before now? Why wait? Perhaps it is because the Government well know that investment is one of the keys to the problem and they are still to some extent hidebound by monetarist policies. Perhaps they are still suffering from tunnel vision and the view that they must at all times reduce public expenditure, despite all the evidence of the study by British Rail and the Department of Transport and indeed by all the other studies that benefit would accrue to the railways from investment and electrification. Indeed, it is argued, and I believe this strongly, that proceeding with electrification would provide employment for those who produce railway equipment not only in the British Rail workshops but in the private sector. It would also provide greater opportunities for export orders. Yet the Government do 41 not respond, so we should not be surprised if there is disquiet about the future on the part of those who work in the industry.
In the context of current circumstances, too, the Government's inability—whether by accident or design, and I must admit that it looks more like design—is not at all helpful. I listened to the statement by the Secretary of State for Transport last Friday with growing incredulity. There was not even a passing reference to the events of last Wednesday and Thursday. There was no mention of Len Murray's initiative or of the efforts of ACAS. It is probably too much to expect any word of commendation or thanks to Len Murray, ASLEF or ACAS, but all those events were completely ignored by the Secretary of State.
In the light of the significant moves made by ASLEF on Wednesday and Thursday, the least that it could have expected was some encouragement for the conciliation process to proceed and, if possible, thereby to avert the strike. If Noah had been as myopic as the Secretary of State, he would have shot the dove when it returned with the olive leaf. I have no doubt that the ASLEF position of 30 June represented a significant move in the direction of achieving peace on the railways. But for the lack of trust, there is no reason why it should not have been accepted by British Rail as a basis for negotiation.
I wish to consider in some detail two documents setting out the position of British Rail and of ASLEF. It is extremely important to quote those documents, and I regret that I shall have to do so at some length.
I refer first to two letters, dated 23 and 25 June, from Mr. R. H. Wilcox, British Rail's director of industrial relations, and ASLEF's response dated 30 June. The first letter from Mr. Wilcox, referring to the Railway Staff National Council meeting, states:As promised at the RSNC meeting yesterday, enclosed is a paper which sets out the Board's requirements on the progression of those three outstanding productivity initiatives which have become major obstacles to progress.The experiments proposed would be on a similar basis to those already existing for 'Open Station Concept' pilot schemes in that there would be no permanent displacement of staff and earnings would be protected during the trial periods. Any temporarily displaced staff would be used to best advantage.I have to remind you that this still leaves us with the 'Trainmans Concept' and 'Manning Conditions' to be progressed before 30 July in the terms of our pay offer.I must stress that this still remains our position.The co-operation and support of the Trade Union leadership would be an essential requirement and the Board would also similarly undertake to give maximum support and effort, to ensure that the experiments, whether on the basis of the Board's or the Unions' proposals, are given a fair and reasonable trial.That letter was addressed to the three union general secretaries. The next letter, dated 25 June and again addressed to the three unions, states:At the meeting of the RSNC today the ASLE&F representatives sought clarification of some aspects of the paper which accompanied the Board's letter dated 23 June and which described the Board's requirements in three of the six productivity items outstanding from the 1981 agreement.It was agreed by the Board's representatives at the RSNC meeting that the ASLE&F proposal under the heading of `Flexible Rosters' should have the words 'within existing national agreements' added. This has been done and an amended paper is attached to this letter.The Board also confirm what was said at the meeting that should agreement be reached with the Trade Unions to test both the ASLE&F and the Board's proposals concerning flexible rosters then the Board would withdraw the existing instructions to Managers that flexible rosters would be implemented at Depots in the near future in accordance with the principles of RSNT Decision 77.42 It is worth pointing out that the appendices attached contain the proposition that there should be experimental manning and running of the Bedford-St. Pancras line on proposals put forward by the NUR. Therefore, if we have discovered nothing else today, that offer remains on the table. At least there is still to be experimental running on that line according to a proposition put forward not by the board but by the NUR. That is significant progress.
I shall now quote the ASLEF response. Again, so that it will not be felt that I am quoting selectively, I shall read it in full. It states:The BRB and ASLEF agree as follows:In the light of tie agreement reached below BRB will not implement its intended flexible rosters on 4 July and ASLEF will not proceed with its intended withdrawal of labour on 4 July.The ASLEF Executive will recall its Conference as speedily as possible and will seek from the Conference authority to co-operate with experiments on productivity improvements and flexible rostering, to be carried out in accordance with paragraphs … and … below. An experiment will be carried out in a substantial geographical area of a proposal from ASLEF that, by a careful review of the work allocation, and the concentration of more work into programmes, links and rosters, there could be savings to cover the introduction of the 39 hour week at minimal cost and to produce productivity improvements to match the Board's flexible rostering proposals but in accordance with existing national agreement.Concurrently an experiment will be carried out on BR's proposal, also covering a substantial geographical area, of its flexible rostering proposals in accordance with the principles of RSNT decision 77.Both parties agree that these experiments will be given a fair and reasonable trial and will be carried out without prejudice to existing agreements. There will be no permanent displacement of staff, and earnings will be protected during the experimental period. Any temporary displaced staff will be used to the best advantage within their own grade and depot. These experiments will commence not later than"—the date is left blank—and will be completed not later than"—again, that is to be decided—When these experiments have been concluded they will be jointly reviewed with the object of reaching agreement on future arrangements.Can anyone tell me the difference between those two sets of proposals? They seem to be exactly the same. The only difference that I can see is that of time.
§ Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)
Now that he has read both those documents and made his assessment, can the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether it is the official Opposition's view that the present ASLEF strike is justified?
§ Mr. Hughes
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will hear me through.
The only difference between the two sides in those proposals, which were not referred to by either the hon. Member for Reigate or by the Secretary of State on Friday, is the five days' difference in time. Why was British Rail not prepared to pick up ASLEF's proposal? Why did British Rail say on Thursday and Friday, and is now saying, that it is not prepared to talk directly to ASLEF? I discussed this question this morning with Clifford Rose, the industrial relations director of British Rail. The answer is that in the intervening five days ASLEF issued a strike notice. Frankly, that answer is not good enough. ASLEF called a strike because it believed that the proposals put forward initially in the two letters dated 23 and 25 June had been withdrawn. I do not know how that reasoning came about or why there has been this fog about it. However, the existence of a notice to strike being used as an excuse 43 not to have discussions does not stand examination. When the NUR strike notice was still in operation, the board was having discussions with all the railway unions in the Railway Staff National Council about the pay dispute. Why is British Rail not prepared to do that now?
I put it to Clifford Rose that the essence of good industrial relations practice is that, when one detects some movement on the other side, it is fastened upon, probed, encouraged and built upon. I regret that that has not been done on this occasion. My conclusion is that the blunt, unpalatable truth is that British Rail does not regard the ASLEF offer of 30 June as genuine. I have discussed the issue with Ray Buckton, general secretary of ASLEF, and I am satisfied that the offer is genuine. However, accepting that British Rail is genuine in its belief that it has been given the run-around, it should have tested the ASLEF response. Indeed, it should do so even now.
Time is short. As each hour passes—never mind each day—and the dispute proceeds, attitudes on both sides of the industry will harden. Press comment that the time may arrive when drivers are sacked and allowed to return only on the basis of individual acceptance of flexible rostering can do nothing but harm. Tragedy is becoming an overworked word, but it is a word that we cannot avoid using. The tragedy is that if flexible rostering is all that the board claims—that it can be done without major disruption to the social life of drivers—if the experiment had taken place we could have proved whether flexible rostering was workable. I believe, and most people do, that once flexible rostering was brought in there would probably have been no going back from it. At the same time, if the ASLEF counter-proposals had been examined in this genuine and free experiment to prove which was the better solution, there would have been no going back from that either.
British Rail is currently saying—I do not seek to misrepresent it in any way—that the rail network will be reopened only on the complete acceptance of flexible rostering, that there will be no more experiment and that its offer will never be retabled. I emphasise that the experiment from Bedford to St. Pancras may still be carried forward.
It is possible that British Rail will get its way. However, even the board must recognise that if flexible rostering is ultimately achieved by imposition and a refusal to discuss it, it will simply have achieved a pyrrhic victory. Even if every productivity proposal is imposed, there will be no lasting value to British Rail if they are to be implemented by a disgruntled and resentful work force.
I have never shrunk from acknowledging that ASLEF has a responsibility to seek an end to the confrontation. I believe that ASLEF accepts that. There is an equal responsibility on the British Rail Board, even at this stage, to achieve a settlement that is acceptable to both sides. However, there is a third party to the dispute that has a grave responsibility. On Friday the Government called upon the Labour movement to exercise its responsibility. I believe that Len Murray fulfilled that responsibility in the best tradition of general secretaries of the Trades Union Congress. The time has now come for the Secretary of State to exercise his responsibility to the travelling public.
I appeal to the Secretary of State to set aside the hard words that have been said, to call together representatives of British Rail and ASLEF and to point out to them the minimal differences that, but for the lack of trust, would 44 have allowed those differences to be bridged. If the Secretary of State exercises his responsibility in a statesmanlike fashion, the railway system will soon be back to normal. That will set a more optimistic future for all concerned. I ask the Secretary of State to do that in the interests of everyone concerned.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Reginald Eyre)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) on his speech and upon the motion. I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to the magnificant efforts of rail users to overcome the disruption imposed upon them by these irresponsible strikes. In that praise I include commuters, to whom many of my hon. Friends referred, and inter-city travellers. I also include all those businesses that generally rely on the railways to transport their goods. I know that many of them have been extremely resourceful in coming to grips with the unnecessary hardship inflicted on them by these strikes.
I welcome the opportunity which my hon. Friend's motion presents to state yet again to the House the facts about the situation now facing British Rail, and about the Government's policies towards the industry. It is astonishing that in spite of the efforts of the British Railways Board, and of my right hon. Friend and myself in this House, so much misinformation is still circulated about the position. With industrial action once again paralysing the railways—this is the third strike this year—I make no apologies for repeating the facts today. Those of us who wish to see the railways survive and provide a modern, efficient service will continue to strive to put these facts—on investment, on public support, and on the true position with regard to modern working practices—over to the work force in British Rail and to the public at large.
I am glad to say, however, that more and more people are coming to recognise the reality of the situation. Last week, at the thirteenth hour, wiser counsels prevailed among the rank and file membership of the National Union of Railwaymen and the union's strike action was suspended. It is my fervent hope that wiser counsels will now also prevail among the rank and file ASLEF membership. Indeed, there are already some encouraging signs that it is beginning to do so.
I wish to quote from a telegram that it is reported Mr. Charles Swift sent to Mr. Buckton, the ASLEF general secretary. Mr. Swift, an engine driver and an ASLEF member for 35 years, demanded that the rail strike should be called off immediately. He said in the telegram:The majority of the 24,000 members are totally opposed to the strike and deeply disturbed by your actions. The men are being misled and their loyalty tested beyond endurance".Mr. Swift, who is the leader of Peterborough council, is reported as saying yesterday:No one will win this strike but ordinary workers and their families will be the losers.It is still not too late for ASLEF men to draw back from the precipice. I hope sincerely that they will do so in large numbers.
The ASLEF action hinges on flexible rostering. I start by addressing that issue. As hon. Members will need no telling, it is a complex subject.
Present working practices for train drivers are based on the agreement reached in 1919 that there should be a 45 guaranteed payment for an eight hour day, however long each driver works. Any time worked over eight hours in a day counts as overtime. But in each normal eight hour day a driver is actually productively engaged for British Rail on average for less than four hours. Its competitors, the coach operators and road hauliers, can employ their men productively for a greater portion of the working time. So the balance of competition moves in their favour and rail customers are lost.
British Rail could improve their efficiency by the process of flexible rostering, whereby on some days drivers would work seven hours and on other days up to nine hours. The total number of hours in a normal working week would become 39 instead of 40 as at present.
However, because of the increased flexibility in the use of drivers' time, the number of hours they spend in each day actually driving trains would be increased. Apart from more efficiency, there would be benefits for the individuals because the sheer inflexibility of the eight-hour day means more turns involving unsocial hours than the new system would require. That explains why the NUR, after most careful consideration, decided to accept the flexible rosters for guards. Eighty per cent. of the guards are already working flexible rosters and they are receiving the benefits. These have been described in a recent National Union of Railwaymen's journal, which stated:The flexible roster agreement meant a 39-hour week, more socially acceptable working, reduced unsocial booking-on-and-off times, additional rest days and grouping of time off.It is also meant an extra £2.50 to £3 a week in pay. If that is what one major group of railwaymen have found, it would surely have made very good sense for another group to look carefully at the facts before making up their minds. Instead, and without giving their members a chance to consider the detailed facts—that is a heavy point of criticism of ASLEF that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) did not mention—the ASLEF leadership maintained a wholly intransigent stance.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
How can the Under-Secretary say that it has maintained a wholly intransigent stance when the effect of the proposals of 30 June is to recall the conference and to conduct an experiment so that all the misconceptions that the hon. Gentleman talks about, if they exist, might be disposed of? Will he encourage that process?
§ Mr. Eyre
I have noted the point made by the hon. Gentleman in his speech. I shall be coming to it. I shall say why it is not a proper account of the negotiations.
Of course, it is not just a matter of whether the men would be immediately better off. The main point is that the railways, by making better use of expensive machinery, would offer a better service to customers, and so the long-term future of their staff would be more assured. The good sense of flexible rostering is recognised in many train systems in Europe. It is only in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland that a system of flexible rostering is not already in use on the railways.
ASLEF has still not delivered on flexible rostering after nearly a year of negotiations, arbitration and inquiry. It has ignored pressure from other unions, pressure from the TUC, the good offices of ACAS and the recommendations of Lord McCarthy. In January this year, at the time of the previous ASLEF industrial action, Mr. Ray Buckton said:Our established procedures in the railway industry are designed to make industrial action unnecessary. What the public 46 should be asking is this: Why doesn't Sir Peter Parker and his board make full use of these procedures to resolve the present conflict".The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield)—I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman in his place—wrote in the ASLEF journal at the time thata way must be found to put the dispute back to the Railway Staff National Council, and then probably back to the tribunal so Lord McCarthy and his Learn can examine matters in their tried and tested fashion".That was the view of the hon. Gentleman at that time. The tribunal did indeed undertake such as examination and reported in May. Its decision was that the parties should agree to a system of flexible rostering but it noted the concerns of ASLEF and concluded that those fears could be met by a number of safeguards and criteria covering such matters as hours of work, overtime earning levels and existing agreements and practices.
The tribunal said:These safeguards are designed to meet all the significant fears and concerns of the ASLEF. They provide an effective alternative to the 8 hour guarantee agreement".Lord McCarthy rounded off his view of this issue by saying:Unless progress is made on this question the future outlook for the railway system and railwaymen is bleak and unpromising".British Rail agreed to all the safeguards proposed by the tribunal. There can be no possible grounds in reason for ASLEF's rejecting the findings out of hand. There can be no possible excuse for the irresponsibility of the ASLEF executive in issuing this strike notice and for imposing yet again suffering and hardship on the railway customers.
§ Mr. Foster
I agree that ASLEF imposed the strike, but is the Minister denying that British Rail unilaterally decided that it would impose flexible rostering, whatever the trade union did? Does he agree that since that time there has been considerable movement in the ASLEF position? Has it not agreed to carry out an experiment with flexible rostering provided that British Rail will carry out an experiment with its alternative? Has British Rail now not withdrawn the agreement to do that?
§ Mr. Eyre
I am coming to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I am reciting the long-drawn-out, protracted negotiations and process of arbitration that led up to the question that he poses. I am trying to emphasise how ASLEF's views were considered at every stage and taken account of in Lord McCarthy's recommendations and the acceptance of the British Railways Board. It must be a source of bafflement to the many responsible railwaymen who were saddened by the consequences of the strikes earlier this year.
The British Railways Board has bent over backwards in its efforts to negotiate a settlement on this issue. Only 10 days ago it proposed to allow an experiment—referred to by the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) and Aberdeen, North—of an alternative ASLEF proposal in a significant part of the railways, in parallel with a similar demonstration of the board's proposals for flexible rostering.
This olive branch was offered in an effort to help the ASLEF executive accept flexible rostering, without loss of dignity. The board asked for a response by 30 June. The ASLEF executive's only reaction was on 29 June, when it called an all-out strike and, in the face of that threat, later 47 suggested further talks. Quite rightly, the board refused to consider yet more talks under this threat, and took the only course open to it by preparing to introduce flexible rosters.
§ Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)
The hon. Gentleman is implying that things have been said from this side of the House that were not factual. Will the Minister be factual in his statement of the actions that have taken place, and acknowledge that what he has said about the board's decision to implement those rosters on that date is highly misleading? The board took the decision and issued its instructions to regional managers on 28 May. It then said that it would introduce the new rosters and told them to prepare to do so. The subsequent decision was merely confirming one that had already been taken.
§ Mr. Eyre
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand the difficulties of British Rail in managing the railways. Following these protracted negotiations, the arbitration and Lord McCarthy's judgment, plus the fact that the British Railways Board accepted all the implications, the board was surely entitled to move towards flexible rostering. In my view, it took the only course open to it by preparing to introduce flexible rosters.
§ Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)
There has been some confusion abut this, because people talk about the alternative ASLEF proposals. Will my hon. Friend confirm to the House that no detailed alternative proposals from ASLEF exist, even as of today? They have not yet been put on the table.
§ Mr. Eyre
As I understand it, there is a general proposal by ASLEF, the precise nature of which has not been defined.
I wish to emphasise that the ASLEF executive would not accept and recommend the principle of flexible rostering. That was the real difficulty for the board, because after all the protracted negotiation and arbitration it was clear that the ASLEF proposal was only to be talks about talks. That was the prospect before it because the ASLEF executive would not accept and recommend the principle of flexible rostering, after all the protracted negotiations and arbitrations.
§ Mr. Les Huckfield (Nuneaton)
I was tempted to intervene at so many points that in the interests of brevity I was saving them until my speech. However, the hon. Gentleman is now so misleading the House that he has to be corrected. Will he not stand corrected by the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), who has quoted directly from the documents concerned, and be personally assured by me, because I have the documents as well, that the alternative proposals put forward by ASLEF, with the endorsement of the general secretary of the TUC and under the auspices of ACAS, were almost word for word identical with the requirements of British Rail? There is no difference.
§ Mr. Eyre
I wish to emphasise how patient the management of British Rail has been in all these negotiations, in the system of arbitration and in the way that it has reacted to Lord McCarthy's report. It cannot be criticised in any way for what it has done, and on that basis it is entitled to proceed to introduce flexible rostering.
48 Lord McCarthy emphasised how important it is to the future of railwaymen and of the railway system that this should be done.
Sir Peter Parker, the chairman, has appealed to ASLEF members to convince their union leaders to see sense before the strike wrecks a great industry. We in the House must support the board in that appeal. I urge right hon. and hon. Gentleman in the Labour Party to use their influence to urge the ASLEF executive to call off this strike.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
Why will the Under-Secretary not recognise what happened on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, when almost identical words were used—I have the words here if the hon. Gentleman wishes to see them—about concurrently calling off the strike and lifting the imposition of 4 July, which was already offered in the letter of 25 June? Why cannot that be the way to proceed?
Whatever has gone before, surely people must recognise that there is a time for movement. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is no possibility of any movement or reconciliation in the railway system? If he looks out on our roads he will see living proof that, however bad relations are, admittedly international relations, people can be reconciled. He will see the Datsuns and the Volkswagens which will show him that we have become reconciled with people who fought a war against us. Surely he must recognise the prospect of peace and bring the sides together to end the strike.
§ Mr. Eyre
The hon. Gentleman must understand that after these protracted negotiations and the system of arbitration that I have described the ASLEF executive would not accept and recommend the principle of flexible rostering. Therefore, British Rail was obliged to go on to introduce flexible rosters.
In every debate Labour Members—we have heard it again today—suggest that Government support for the railways has not been maintained, or has been cut. Numerous figures have been adduced to try to prove that false proposition. Let me give the House the true figures again in the hope that I shall be able to nail this once and for all. All the following figures are at 1982 prices, so we are talking about the level of support in real terms. In the last full year of the Labour Government, 1978, total central and local government support for British Rail stood at £716 million. In 1979, the first year of the Conservative Government, the total support was £792 million—a real increase of £76 million.
The next year, 1980, we increased the grant to £795 million. In 1981—a year of special factors—there was a further increase of £109 million to £904 million—I remind the House that these figures are all in real terms. This year the total support stands at £902 million. In other words, in real terms, the total support under this Government is now £186 million more than it was in the last full year of the Labour Government. The taxpayer has been paying more than £2.3 million a day towards keeping the railways running. Surely the Government and the taxpayer have done enough in that respect. They cannot be expected to go further when they see the services disrupted by wholly unnecessary strikes, and the work force still refusing to live up to the productivity promises made in last year's pay bargain, which are being paid for.
I shall deal with the false allegation that has been repeatedly made, that the railways have been starved of investment. The point is relevant to the speech made by 49 my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Cockeram). Nearly £2 billion at present-day prices has been invested in the railways since 1976. Last year alone, some £340 million was invested in the system. It is true that last year the investment ceiling was considerably higher than that figure and the board was unable to spend the last £100 million or so because the money was needed to meet current expenditure. Nevertheless, £340 million was spent on investment, as well as large amounts on track. The year before that, 1980, over £400 million was spent on investment. The year before that, the first year of this Government, £435 million was spent. Those prices are all at 1982 levels. So there has been a great deal of investment in the railways under this Government and under the previous Government. It does not help to mislead railwaymen on such an important subject.
But what has the taxpayer—who has been funding so much of this investment—seen for his money? Surely he might have expected the investment to produce a return—to make the railways more attractive to customers, and lighter in their demands on his purse. Instead he has seen a railway which has lost traffic to its competitors. He has seen a railway which has been increasing the amount it takes in fares and grants from the people of this country. He has seen a railway in which productivity has stagnated while other companies in the economy, such as British Leyland and British Steel, have increased their productivity. He has seen the £150 million investment in the Bedford to St. Pancras rolling stock standing idle because the unions want to operate it on the same basis as steam engines in 1919.
Above all, the taxpayer has seen the trade unions taking irresponsible and hasty industrial action, which is draining the industry's lifeblood. What is more, it is the taxpayer, as consumer, who is suffering from the industrial action. There may be a war between ASLEF and the British Railways Board, but, as with so many wars, the people who get hurt most are those who are caught in the middle—the commuters, struggling through traffic jams to get to work.
The ASLEF strikes earlier this year cost the railway over £80 million. It is money that is gone and will not be recovered. But that £80 million would have been sufficient to electrify the line from London to Leeds. The NUR strike last week cost £12 million—enough to buy, say, 70 of the proposed new diesel multiple units. Today, the railway is again at a standstill. Investment is being limited in the railway not by the Government's ceilings, but by a bleeding of resources through outright strikes, or, more slowly—but just as surely—through inefficient working practices.
§ Mr. Foster
The hon. Gentleman is making a very strong case—[Interruption.] I am not saying that he is making a good case, but he is making a strong case for saying that the wicked trade unions are behind all the frustration and inefficiency. However, will he bear in mind that, although the recent ASLEF dispute cost £80 million, there has been peace on the railways for the past 25 years? Will he take that into consideration and ask himself why the railways have been disrupted only since the Conservative Party came to power?
§ Mr. Eyre
I understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings and know that he is a great supporter of the railways. However, I ask him to look fairly at the case that I have 50 presented. I share the hon. Gentleman's views. I should like to see a modern, efficient railway system. However, I ask him to consider seriously that resources are bleeding away. We need those resources to create a future for a modern railway.
We have heard in this debate—for example, from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson)—about the reductions in rail staff in recent years. That was given as evidence of productivity gains in British Rail. However, unfortunately, those reductions were largely achieved by British Rail's total withdrawal from loss-making businesses or by adjustments to bring services into line with reductions in demand. The reductions have not meant more output per man—more tonnes of freight, or passengers per employee. As the British Railways Board's 1981 report shows, although the number of employees fell by 12,000 between 1979 and 1981, output per member of staff was slightly lower at the end of that period than at the beginning.
The simple fact is that railwaymen cannot be cushioned from the economic facts of life any more than employees of other industries can be.
§ Mr. Dobson
By how many did the number of senior civil servants in the hon. Gentleman's Department who prepared briefs for him during the equivalent period decline?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. May I remind the Minister that many other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate?
§ Mr. Eyre
The hon. Gentleman missed the part of my speech in which I explained the essential factor about productivity. In that respect, British Rail has been marking time. The British Railways Board has realised that and has been striving to bring work practices up to modern standards. I hope that it will receive some support. The Government wish to see a modern railway and have provided funds for substantial investment in recent years and record levels of current support. The trade unions must accept responsibility for the slow progress that has been made.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that as a Minister he has some responsibility to the travelling public and should try to stop the strike? Since the NUR is to experiment on the Bedford to St. Pancras line, will the Minister—despite all that he has said about the history of the matter and his feelings about ASLEF—at least consider getting together with Sir Peter Parker, Ray Buckton and the ASLEF executive to see whether the small gap between the proposals on 25 and 30 June can be bridged in the interests of the railway community and of everyone else?
§ Mr. Eyre
The hon. Gentleman is confusing two issues. One concerns the Bedford—St. Pancras line and the NUR. British Rail offered the NUR the opportunity to work from Bedford to St. Albans on one system, and from St. Albans to St. Pancras on another system. That was not accepted. The hon. Gentleman referred to ASLEF, but I have summarised the protracted negotiations that took place and the arbitration that has been carried out Quite properly, the board has told ASLEF that it must now get on with flexible rostering. It is right and reasonable to require progress to be made in flexible rostering after such protracted negotiations and after arbitration.
51 I urge every member of ASLEF who is dedicated to the railways' future to think most carefully about the course on which his union has now embarked. Let him ask himself where his real interest lies. Every day that the strike continues irreparable damage is being done to the railway industry. Coach traffic is booming as a result of the strike, adding further to the already massive switch from rail. In 1981, passenger carryings on National Express increased by more than 60 per cent. in just one year. In freight we have heard in the last few days of major customers deciding to leave the uncertainties of the railways. The parcels traffic is undoubtedly at risk.
§ Mr. Skinner
At a time when 4 million are on the scrap-heap, mainly as a result of the Tory Government's economic policy, I do not see why ASLEF members or any other wealth creators in the economy—they are the real workers—should sacrifice thousands and thousands of additional jobs. That is what the Tory Government are asking them to do. They are using Sir Peter Parker and others to bludgeon ASLEF. They want to smash ASLEF and to throw more railway workers on the scrap-heap. I stand behind ASLEF and the NUR in trying to save jobs and not destroy them, which is what the Government have been doing ever since they came into power.
§ Mr. Eyre
—for a modern and efficient railway service that will provide better occupations for the railwaymen themselves. The McCarphy report should not be ignored so grossly by the hon. Gentleman.
The Government entirely support my hon. Friend's motion. We join him in saluting the travelling public for their fortitude in overcoming the present hardships. The Government are doing everything they can to minimise those hardships, but great sacrifices are being made. We must support Sir Peter Parker and the British Railways Board in seeking modern working practices which will enable the industry to become the modern, efficient system that the public, the BRB, and most railwaymen want. We support the chairman of British Rail in urging ASLEF members to abandon their present damaging course.
§ Mr. Les Huckfield (Nuneaton)
I speak as a Member sponsored by the Transport and General Workers Union and, with its consent, as the parliamentary spokesman for ASLEF. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) on being fortunate enough to win a place in the ballot. We are grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. The Government have not been generous in providing time for debates on railway matters.
52 I do not intend to trespass on the generosity of the Chair in calling me to participate in the debate, but it must be said that there has been a misleading barrage of information from Conservative Members, including the Under-Secretary of State. I am tempted to put right a few basic facts and figures. For example, the benefits of investment in the Southern region have been extolled. The hon. Member for Reigate referred to the vast signalling improvements that are being made on the Southern region. The truth was presented by Richard Hope, the editor of the Railway Gazette International in The Times on 4 February, when he wrote:Cash limits have only been met in the past five years by deferring maintenance and renewals.That is the parlous and perilous situation in which the railways find themselves, notwithstanding some of the rather misleading figures that Conservative Members have presented. If the Under-Secretary of State chooses a different base year for his figures, he will find that they do not produce such favourable results.
When we listen to Conservative Members we are led to think that it is impossible to run an efficient railway system without flexible rosters. The British Railways Board estimates—the Under-Secretary of State said that the board reckons to have lost about £80 million because of the ASLEF dispute at the beginning of the year—that if it can get from ASLEF in negotiations the flexible rosters that it wants, it will save a mere £9 million by 1985. Those are the board's figures and not mine. If that is the minimum gain to be won from flexible rosters, is the dispute really about flexible rosters or is it, much more significantly, about breaking a major transport trade union?
The Minister was kind enough to quote me when I said that it would be ideal for negotiations on the railways to be conducted within the railway machinery. I still subscribe to that view. However, the record of the British Railways Board in adhering to such procedures is not exactly a good one. It was the board's decision not to observe a tribunal decision last year that started the present series of arguments about flexible rostering. The board has spent a great deal of time condemning ASLEF for its apparent rejection of the tribunal's findings. However, when the board rejected the decision of the RSNT No. 75 last May it stated—this was its response on 21 July 1981—after all, the Tribunal were only making recommendations on a Clause 65(b) non-binding reference. They were merely giving the parties the benefit of a very considered opinion".That is what the board said when it rejected the tribunal's decision. However, when ASLEF says that a tribunal's decision is unworkable it is lambasted throughout the country, especially in the press and on the media by the chairman of the board.
Last year various organisations were involved in a number of procedures. We went through the ACAS understandings and various stages of the RSNC and RSJC loco machinery. Again, it was the board which, in November and December 1981, broke away from the machinery. That led to the ASLEF dispute at the beginning of the year, which culminated in a committee of inquiry, which was set up under the auspices of ACAS. The McCarthy inquiry reported on 16 February. Included among its recommendations was the advice that the 3 per cent. increase should be paid, that it should not be 53 connected with productivity issues and that negotiations on productivity should continue within the railway machinery.
The committee of inquiry under ACAS resulted in a complete vindication and justification of the ASLEF stand. It found very much in favour of the ASLEF position but the board proved rather difficult when it was pressed to implement those conclusions.
It is worth saying to the hon. Member for Reigate and the Under-Secretary of State that they seem not to understand the meaning of the committee of inquiry's ruling on 16 February that stemmed from the ACAS understandings of 19–20 August 1981. The Secretary of State keeps on saying that flexible rostering is a productivity improvement for which ASLEF has already been paid. That is not so. The ACAS productivity understanding of 20 August—it was reinforced by the committee of inquiry's ruling on 16 February—states:Specific rewards will be negotiated for those staff whose responsibilities are directly affected under these agreements.That proves that even the Government Front Bench does not understand the ACAS understanding of last year—
§ Mr. Huckfield
—and the ruling of the committee of inquiry which reported on 16 February. As I have said, the findings of the committee of inquiry were a complete vindication and justification of the ASLEF position.
§ Mr. Huckfield
The presence of the hon. Gentleman during railway debates has not exactly been noteworthy. Obviously he misunderstands the position.
§ Mr. Huckfield
We went to the Railway Staff National Tribunal on 15 and 16 March. It ruled on 4 May that flexible rosters between seven and nine hours should be negotiated and that a criteria and safeguards agreement for negotiations at local district committee level should be reached. The difficulty is that if one adheres strictly to all of the safeguards and restrictions that RSNT 77 recommends there cannot be flexible rostering. In other words, either the RSNT 77 recommendations on safeguards and restrictions are just a good idea, in which case it might be possible to have a system of flexible rostering with meaningless safeguards and restrictions or, if the safeguards and restrictions mentioned by RSNT 77 are to have meaning, are to be enforced and are to be rigorously adhered to, there cannot be flexibility in rostering.
§ Mr. Huckfield
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish, I shall give way. I have sat patiently through a number of speeches from the Conservative Benches that have given some misleading information.
The ASLEF executive on 13 May rejected RSNT 77, not because it was unacceptable but because it found that if the McCarthy safeguards and restrictions were to be imposed they would make that type of system of flexible rostering unworkable. That is why ASLEF rejected RSNT 77 on 13 May and that decision was endorsed by the annual conference of ASLEF a week later.
In the Minister's eyes, if the NUR conference decides to call off a strike, it is a good decision. It is democratic 54 and in touch with the members. But if the ASLEF conference decides to take a rigid stand including the taking of industrial action, that is totally undemocratic and quite out of touch with the members. If the ASLEF executive has taken a decision over the past two weeks, it is only because it is a decision that is binding upon it by ASLEF's annual conference.
§ Mr. Neil Thorne
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the flexible rostering that is worked on the Continent means that the entire railway networks of France, Germany and else where are unsafe, or is it that we have an entirely different system?
§ Mr. Huckfield
The difficulty is that so many Members on the Conservative Benches have not read the McCarthy tribunal's recommendations. If the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) wishes, he can borrow my copy. He can read there about the safeguards and stringent conditions that are recommended in the report. If those safeguards and restrictions are enforced, there cannot be a system of flexible rostering. That is why the ASLEF executive and the ASLEF conference decided that type of flexible rostering is unworkable.
To save the House's time, I wish now to turn to the matter at issue between the two Front Benches. Hon. Members have referred to the Railway Staff National Council discussions of 22 and 25 June. What is interesting is that on 22 June in the RSNC discussions the National Union of Railwaymen, although it had threatened strike action, was offered the facility of experiments on some of the topics that we have discussed today.
It was said to the NUR that there was an acknowledgement that that was a decision that might have to be put to its conference. On the same day, on the issue of flexible rostering, a similar facility for the possible conduct of experiments was offered to ASLEF. The British Railways Board might have thought that the offer would be rejected by ASLEF but what ASLEF said at the RSNC on 22 June was "Put it in writing". The two letters that have been quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) from Mr. Wilcox on 23 and 25 June do precisely that. The letters put that offer in writing.
I shall go further than my hon. Friend and quote from the draft minutes of the RSNC of 25 June. I emphasise to the House that they are draft minutes in the sense that they carry the board's endorsement but have not yet been endorsed by the unions. But that reinforces my point and not the Minister's. The board's acknowledged draft version of the minutes says thatif the ASLEF could agree quickly to the proposal made regarding dual experiment being carried out, that imposition"—the imposition of flexible rosters—would not need to be proceeded with.The meeting took place in a fairly congenial and relaxed atmosphere. The draft minutes continue:It was hoped that, following receipt of the board's proposal in writing, the ASLEF would look favourably upon the suggested arrangements and he looked forward to hearing from them in the very near future.Those minutes of the discussion that took place on 25 June say that at that stage the offer was still open and ASLEF could come forward and give its agreement to some type of experiment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North has given details of exactly the way ASLEF responded to the proposal. If that was what was on offer—those are the 55 minutes of the meeting, and my hon. Friend has given the details of the reply—one starts to wonder what the dispute is about. ASLEF went along to the TUC general secretary and to ACAS and offered to the British Railways Board precisely the same type of experiments that the board sought and that it held open in the minutes of RNSC on 25 June. Unfortunately, when ASLEF offered the board what it had been seeking in the RSNC of 25 June, the board not only did not want to hear about the alternative proposals but increased its demands. Over the weekend there were all sorts of latterly-denied press leaks—they were press leaks—which said that the board was now embarked upon the possibility of breaking the union and sacking railwaymen.
That is the type of proposal that was on offer and ASLEF responded to it. The Minister must address himself to that. The hon. Gentleman made reference to the strike call but the reference to the strike call and the strike call itself took place because, at the same time as the board was holding open the possibility of experiments, it was writing around the country telling depots that flexible rosters were to be imposed. There was a strike call, not because ASLEF did not want to negotiate, but because the board, at the same time it was putting an offer on the table, was writing to the depots saying that there would be an imposition of flexible rostering.
Finally, I should like to compare the treatment by the British Railways Board of ASLEF with the treatment by the British Railways Board of the NUR. The RSNC meetings of June 22 and June 25, which were fully-fledged discussions between the board and the railway unions, took place under threat of strike by the NUR. I do not say that against the NUR, but the discussions took place under threat of strike. Under threat of strike, Clifford Rose, the director of personnel relations of the board, flew down to Plymouth to talk at the NUR's annual conference. If the British Railways Board is prepared to negotiate with the NUR under the threat of strike, why is it not prepared to negotiate with ASLEF under threat of strike?
If the meetings of the RSNC of 22 and 25 June were amicable—I have quoted from the minutes and they were—and if since the 22 and 25 June the board's attitude has dramatically changed, as indeed it has, what has happened between those RSNC meetings and the board's present completely intransigent stance? What has taken place? The board's attitude has hardened now that it has found its chance to isolate ASLEF. It has come to some kind of understanding with the NUR and it now feels that it can pick off the other union.
Another development is that since the RSNC meetings in June the Government's guiding influence is again evident. During the weekend there were suggestions in the press that the Prime Minister's hand could be seen in some movements during the Falklands campaign. Her hand can also be discerned in some of the movements in the rail negotiations, as she and the Government hankered after yet another Falklands campaign. They believed that they could rouse such a campaign when they took on the Health Service unions, but the Health Service unions proved to have far too much public support. The Government believed that they could take Port Stanley again when they confronted the NUR, but the NUR conference overturned the decision to strike and the Government were thwarted. Having failed to take on those unions, the Government 56 then decided to take on ASLEF. For a long time ASLEF has been the victim of one of the bitterest press campaigns ever mounted in Britain.
The board has deliberately refused to take advantage of the Major concessions that are now being made by ASLEF. It is obvious that the Government are encouraging the board in that intransigent stand. It is a dispute not so much about flexible rostering but about smashing ASLEF. The Under-Secretary of State should realise that, in taking on the union and in hankering after another Falklands-like campaign, his constituents will be the casualties. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) that if the Government can talk continually to the chairman of the British Railways Board, as they have been doing, they should also talk to the other parties involved. The Under-Secretary of State and his right hon. Friend have never ceased to tell us about their successive meetings with the chairman of the British Railways Board. They should now get both sides together and try to solve the problem before it is too late.
§ Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)
The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield) has given us an interesting account of his version of recent events from his detailed knowledge, which of course we respect. However, I noticed that, although he made frequent reference to ASLEF and the British Railways Board, he made no reference to another party—the travelling public.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) not only on choosing this topic for his Private Member's motion but on the wording of the motion and for its reference to the travelling public. Those references have been reflected in the speeches of Conservative Members, especially that of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, but we have had little reference to the travelling public from the Opposition Members. British Rail relies on passengers. If there were none, British Rail would virtually cease to operate. Many passengers are commuters from various parts of the London area. Within my constituency, I could almost claim that commuting is our staple industry. Within and around my constituency, there are no fewer than 10 stations from which thousands of my constituents travel daily into London. I use the line except during the unsocial hours that we occasionally work in the House when British Rail, ASLEF and the NUR have gone to bed and we are still working. The NUR and ASLEF should realise that commuters are no longer the captive market that they were a few years ago. My constituents and those of my hon. Friends have been reaching London despite the fact that there is no rail service. They have had to leave home a little earlier and it will take them a little longer to get home this evening, but they are getting to and from work without the railway service.
Every time there is a strike, railwaymen must realise that more and more people decide that it is just as easy, and more reliable, to travel by car, either by themselves or with someone else. Every time there is a strike, more coach companies are used and see the advantage of setting up groups. However, the life pattern of many people is based on the rail service, especially around London. Strikes such as we suffered last week and are suffering now cause considerable inconvenience, to put it no higher. They upset business, domestic and holiday arrangements 57 and last week we heard of the sad business of some students missing examinations for which they had studied for years because they could not get to school.
Strikes should be a weapon used rarely—the ultimate weapon used only in the most extreme circumstances when no other course is open. Why is there a strike on this issue? What is the purpose of the strike? Is it to attract sympathy for the cause? If it is, I assure the House that it is failing completely. It has the opposite effect. Is it to attract publicity for the case? One cannot deny that it is receiving publicity, but is the withdrawal of the entire service the only way to obtain publicity for a case?
I raised that matter with Mr. Buckton during the strike earlier this year and asked him why he did not publicise his case by more conventional means. He replied:You have asked why my Society did not give greater publicity to its viewpoint, though I am sure you will appreciate that a Trade Union does not have available the considerable resources provided by the Press and Publicity Department of the British Railways Board".Whether that is true or not, anyone who listens to the radio, watches television or reads the newspapers cannot say that the names of Buckton and Weighell are unfamiliar.
The unions have had ample opportunity to put across their case. Last week, rather uncharacteristically, we heard that Mr. Buckton said that he had no comment to make. If access to the media is inadequate, which I dispute, there must be other opportunities to put across their case.
Many hon. Members at election time, anxious to meet as many people as possible, stand outside factory gates making speeches and dishing out leaflets. The House will not be surprised to learn that at election time I stand outside railway stations morning and evening talking to my constituents, handing out leaflets and putting across my case. That may be one reason why I have increased my majority each time. ASLEF's customers, the taxpayers, those who pay the fares and those who pay the £2.3 million a day to which my hon. Friend referred, pass through railway stations in my constituency and all round London twice every working day. ASLEF and the NUR should take advantage of the opportunity to put across their case, if it is as strong as they believe.
Strikes on the railways are doing a great disservice to the trade union movement and untold damage to the nation's economy. They endanger the British railway system and cause widespread inconvenience and, in some cases, personal distress to thousands of commuters.
On behalf of the travelling public—nearly all of whom are just as much working people as the members of the NUR or ASLEF—I say to those railwaymen "Argue your case in every way open to you but, meanwhile, for your own sake, for our sake and for the sake of the nation, go back to work."
§ Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) because I believe that he has made one of the more constructive speeches today. I do not believe that the debate will be fruitful because too many insults have been bandied about from one side of the House to the other. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) made out that all British Rail's troubles are the fault of the trade unions, and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr.
58 Dobson) made out that it is all the fault of the British Railways Board and the Government. We do not achieve anything by that. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) made a reasonable and constructive speech except that when I asked him a crucial question he failed to answer. The right hon. Member for Barrow-in—Furness (Mr. Booth) may be able to answer the crucial question—do the official Opposition support the strike? I am happy to be interrupted if the Opposition Front Bench wishes to answer. I did not think it would. I had the answer, of course, from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). He believes that all strikes are justified. He fully supported the ASLEF strike.
§ Mr. Booth
The hon. Gentleman invited me to intervene. It may help if I advise him that I made it clear on Friday that we thought that the proposal by ASLEF on 30 June was one that we could back, and which would provide a reasonable and fair basis for progress to withdrawal of the direct implementation of flexible rostering and proceeding with the two experiments.
§ Mr. Mitchell
That still does not answer the question whether the right hon. Gentleman believes the strike to be justified. It worried me to see a programme on television at the end of last week, the point of which was "Do we need a railway system at all?" It is self-evident that we need a railway system for a variety of reasons—convenience, environmental, fuel-saving, strategic and so on. I can thank of dozens of reasons. The fact that that question is being asked on television is important. A number of people on the programme argued that a railway system was not needed because, as the hon. Member for Chislehurst said, people are finding alternative ways to get to work. Coach companies and bus companies are expanding and doing good business, but I still strongly believe that we need a railway system. That is not being helped by the present strike.
A railway system cannot be run as a purely commercial proposition. That is not done in virtually any country. It could be done if Beeching was followed drastically and all unprofitable lines were cut out. There would then be hardly any railway system. In my part of the country only the inter-city line from Waterloo to Bournemouth would remain. There would be nothing else in the region. A railway system has to be subsidised to keep communities alive.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Cockeram) said that the National Bus Company had done very well. It has, and I praise its initiative. Some of its profits come from cutting out unprofitable routes. The result is that there are no buses in many villages in rural areas. That could be achieved on the railways, but it would be a disaster.
Many railway employees feel demoralised because, rightly or wrongly, they believe that the Government are anti-nationalised industries and anti-railways. They are worried about the Government's action of siphoning off the profitable part of the railway system to private enterprise. They feel that they will be left with the unprofitable part.
§ Mr. Mitchell
They are the less loss-making part, the plums. I accept that the shipping side sustained a loss last 59 year. The railway employees are worried about the whole system being dismantled and the lack of investment. I saw a programme on television last weekend that showed a station master with a waiting room that had water pouring through the roof and he was sweeping it up from the floor. The significant remark he made was "How can I attract passengers back to the railways when it is like this?".
I do not expect that there will be cheers from the Opposition Benches when I say that I accept that there will only be major investment in the railways if there is improved productivity. I believe that there should be major investment. Rail electrification is one of the best things the Government could do to get the economy moving. There will be a spin-off in many other industries apart from those directly involved. There will be major investment only when the Government and the British Railways Board are satisfied that there will be a genuine response from those working in the industry on productivity and the acceptance of modern working methods. I am not saying whether that is right or wrong. I am not saying who is to blame, but it is ludicrous that new stock that should be operating on the Bedford-St.Pancras line is sitting in the sidings. Whoever is at fault, it is daft that that stock should be sitting there like that. Nobody will invest in modernisation if they fear that his investment will be wasted.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the experiments that are to be carried out on the Bedford-St. Pancras line are a big step forward and should be welcomed? They point the way to initiatives in other areas:
§ Mr. Mitchell
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is correct and that that will happen. I should like to see that line operating with the new equipment as quickly as possible.
Some unfair comments are often made about Sir Peter Parker. I believe that he has consistently fought not only this Government but the previous Labour Government for increased investment. He has been a great friend to the trade union movement. He is now cast, of course, as the devil in this dispute.
Flexible rostering is one of the issues that is symptomatic, if nothing more—I believe that it is more—of what I meant when I said that there is a need for the railwaymen to accept more modern working practices. There was an article in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday describing a long interview with an NUR guard who had accepted flexible rostering. The article said that flexible rostering was appreciated by the guard's wife and family and that many other benefits had accrued to him. On balance he was pleased that he had changed to flexible rostering. The ASLEF executive is backward-looking.
As we have said for many years, we need one trade union and not three in the railway industry, although it is for the members to decide. But industrial relations would be much better if there were only one. There has been a lot of inter-union rivalry.
Let me answer the question that the Labour Front Bench consistently refuses to answer. I believe that the strike at this time is utterly unjustified. It should be ended as soon as possible. Last week's NUR strike showed that that union's executive was completely out of touch with the rank and file members. The delegates to the conference came directly from close discussions in their areas with the 60 railwaymen, and they had a different story. As Liberal and SDP Members have said on numerous occasions, all trade union members should be balloted before a national strike is called. I am a long-time believer in that.
§ Mr. Cowans
Should there not then also be a ballot to go back to work, and might that not lengthen strikes?
§ Mr. Mitchell
That is the old argument. In a few cases it might lengthen a strike, but I believe that a ballot would substantially reduce the number of strikes. All the evidence shows that.
If the strike continues it will seriously harm the passenger and freight side of the railway industry. Trade will be lost and will not be regained by the railway. Only the railway industry and those working in it will suffer from a prolonged strike.
We need a thriving railway industry. The Government must subsidise it to a great extent, as is done in every other European railway system. The unions have a duty to co-operate to ensure modern work practices. Let us have less of the "we" and "they" and a little more recognition that only by working together can both sides maintain a viable and successful railway industry.
§ Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)
The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) did the House a service in pointing out that, in his moderate and closely argued speech, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said nothing about ASLEF. I hope that people outside the House will note the fact that he expressed no regret that the strike had been called by ASLEF.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) on affording us the opportunity to debate the issue and on the moderation of his speech. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North accused him of being intemperate, but what he said was a good deal more temperate than what Mr. Weighell has said about ASLEF in the past few days.
I wish to concentrate on that part of the motion which:condemns those union leaders who refuse to accept modern working methods".My hon. Friend rightly drew a distinction between union leaders and the rank and file membership. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State mentioned the experience in Peterborough. Last Wednesday members of ASLEF in Peterborough expressed to me their unhappiness and confusion at what they had been told by ASLEF officials at a meeting on Tuesday night. I arranged on the Wednesday afternoon to meet the chief executive of the British Railways Board. I took with me the leader of the Peterborough city council, Councillor Swift, whose telegram the Minister mentioned.
About a dozen men belonging to the ASLEF leadership in Peterborough invited me to meet them on Friday morning. Our meeting in the town hall lasted for over an hour. Conservative Members are accused by the Opposition of knowing nothing about the railway and caring less. I am pleased that those men in Peterborough felt that it was worth while talking to a Conservative Member of Parliament. They impressed on me their longstanding commitment to the eight-hour working day, but they accepted the inevitability of flexible rostering. They complained that they had been misled by their officials at the Tuesday night meeting. They had been led to believe 61 that detailed alternative proposals had been made to the board. Councillor Swift confirmed that none had been made.
§ Dr. Mawhinney
They accepted that over the past year all they knew of the industrial machinery pointed to accepting flexible rostering. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield) says, they accepted, too, that there was a sense in which they had been paid for the productivity increases the previous year and had not delivered.
§ Mr. Huckfield
It is misleading for the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to keep saying that. The ACAS understanding on productivity on 20 August was specific; if there were to be agreements reached on productivity the payments would be quite separate from the 3 per cent.
§ Dr. Mawhinney
I knew that it was a mistake to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I was clear in what I said. The men told me that there was a sense in which they had received the payment and had not given the productivity. The hon. Gentleman is not in a position to argue, as he was not in Peterborough town hall.
We found a broad area of agreement. For example, it would have been acceptable to those men for the leadership to call off the strike and for British Rail to announce that it would not suspend any driver who did not put into practice flexible rostering in the 31 depots into which it was to be introduced today. That is an interesting difference from what Opposition Members have been saying. They have claimed that ASLEF wanted the British Railways Board to withdraw flexible rosters. My members did not ask for that. They said "Leave the flexible rosters in. Some of the drivers will drive them. Some of them will not. Just do not suspend those who refuse to work them for this seven-day period. It is not an indefinite period."
We have been told that the leadership called for a strike because the British Railways Board intended unilaterally to implement flexible rosters. That is not what the members in Peterborough told me. Their understanding was that if someone were suspended, obviously other ASLEF members would come out in sympathy, and therefore a breakdown was inevitable. That is distinctly different from what Labour Members have been telling the House today.
The members went on to say to me—
§ Dr. Mawhinney
I will not give way. The hon. Member for Nuneaton has made a speech, and he has intervened.
The members went on to tell me that, within that seven-day period, they would expect ASLEF to reconvene the conference, reconsider the eight-hour day with a view of changing the conference decision on that subject, and produce detailed proposals.
I contrast most favourably the moderation and common sense of those ASLEF members and leaders of ASLEF in the Peterborough depot, whom I met on Friday, with the national leadership of ASLEF. That leadership has procrastinated, twisted and turned during the past 12 months to avoid coming face to face with the issue. As a consequence of the meeting that I had, and with the 62 blessing of those whom I met, I sent messages on Friday afternoon to Ray Buckton and to the British Railways Board, saying that what we had agreed was a way forward, and telling them that not one of the ASLEF members at the Peterborough depot wanted the strike. Just as the NUR men told me, at a meeting that I had with them the previous week that lasted for two hours, that none of them wanted to go on strike—in fact, about 50 per cent. of them turned up for work last Monday morning—so the ASLEF people told me the same story. They understood, furthermore, that a strike would damage the industry. Peterborough is close to brickworks and cement works. For example, Ketton Cement near Peterborough has a two-week contract to move its cement by road, with a view perhaps to extending that for a further six months. That would mean a loss of £750,000 worth of freight in the Peterborough area alone, if the dispute goes ahead. That is how industry will suffer.
The ASLEF members told me that they understood that there would be a loss of jobs for railwaymen, both NUR and ASLEF members. They accepted that there would be damage to jobs generally in Peterborough, because Peterborough, as a new town, depends on attracting new people to it. Moreover, about 500 of my constituents commute from Peterborough to London every day, and the members accepted that there would be great inconvenience for those commuters.
I am committed to a good, strong and modern railway system. Moreover, I have taken part in railway debates in this House on previous occasions. I have pressed the Minister, as I am sure he would acknowledge, on the issue of electrification. My constituents will be unhappy to know that, although I have been pressing for finance for electrification of the East Coast line from Kings Cross to Peterborough and further north, the cost of the first ASLEF strikes this year would have paid for the electrification of the line from Kings Cross to Leeds—that would have taken in my constituency on the way. I have now had to tell the British Railways Board and my local railway people that I can no longer support investment for electrification until the railway gets itself sorted out. I see no point in throwing good money after bad if we cannot produce the modern system with modern methods that our country needs.
Let there be no question about my commitment to a good railway. I have a strong commitment to that good railway, but it must be a modern railway and one that is fit for this country in the twenty-first century. My ASLEF members—and my NUR members, too—have a loyalty to their union. I understand that. They said to me "If the strike is called, even although we are against it, and we do not want it, we shall strike". I understand that. Even Councillor Swift, who has been vociferous in his condemnation, is on strike today. I understand that loyalty to the union. I have been a union member for 12 years. I do not make fun of it.
§ Dr. Mawhinney
No, I shall not give way.
I am not trying in any way to destroy the union. However, those ASLEF members in Peterborough have a loyalty not only to their union, but to the industry and to their families.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that a point of clarification is not a matter for me. The hon. Member for Petersborough (Dr. Mawhinney) makes his own speech, and must be responsible for it.
§ Dr. Mawhinney
My members have those other loyalties. The message, as I understand it, from those men in Peterborough is that they have put the union loyalty first at the moment, but that the union leadership should not believe that that loyalty will remain paramount—to use an "in" expression—for a long time. In my view, loyalty to their families and to the industry will start to supersede loyalty to the union before too long.
I was glad to hear the Minister confirm that the Government are determined to back the British Railways Board in introducing modern methods. I am glad, too, that he confirmed that the Government will continue to invest money in response to increases in productivity by railwaymen. What he said should help to reassure both industry and commuters who depend on British Rail, and will help the workers to decide where their ultimate loyalty lies.
§ Mr. Harry Cowans (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)
I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) because he has taken part in transport debates. I cannot say the same for the other Conservative Members who have spoken. He spoke at length about his dealings with railwaymen. I freely admit that I am an NUR-sponsored Member of Parliament. I do not think that anyone else who has spoken in the debate has ever worked in it. I spent 25 years working in the industry.
The hon. Member for Peterborough professed to know a lot about trade unions. He said that he met NUR and ASLEF members, but surely he, as a responsible member who represents them, could have said to them, if they felt that strongly, "Go through your organisation, your official branch, and make the point there." He could have taken another tack. He could have asked them to address the branch when all the members were present. That would not have been unreasonable.
§ Dr. Mawhinney
I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) for his constructive comments. He may be interested to know that I encouraged ASLEF last week and the NUR the previous week to make their views known through the proper union channels, which they repeatedly did. The hon. Gentleman may also be interested to know that if the NUR strike had lasted for any length of time, I was to have been invited to address a mass meeting. I believe that the same thing may happen if this ASLEF strike lasts for any time.
§ Mr. Cowans
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that enlightenment. However, what he says makes his support of the motion all the more remarkable. It is the most negative motion that I have ever seen. While the motion congratulatesBritish Rail travellers for their determination to overcome the effects of industrial actionthere is not the slightest suggestion how the House or the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) will help to overcome the causes of that industrial action so that such determination will not be needed which, I should have thought, was the type of motion that the hon. Member for Peterborough should be supporting.
64 All that I have heard in the debate so far is a frantic attempt by the Government to say that it is everybody else's fault but theirs. Hon. Members may shake their heads, but that is the truth.
Unfortunately, and it is hon. Members' loss not mine, I have only a short time in which to speak because some hon. Members who have not worked in the industry talked for too long about matters of which they know nothing. The Government cannot absolve themselves from any responsibility.
Let me tell Conservative Members something that they do not know. Contrary to what they might believe, no trade unionist likes to strike, because it means that he loses money and that is what he works for. It is at the end of the day, when morale is low and he has been pushed into it, that the final action is taken.
The Minister has accused us of being strangers to the truth, of misleading the union's membership, of giving wrong facts, and of creating a false picture for railwaymen. Let us examine that for just two seconds. I should like to examine it for an hour, but I have not got that long.
If, as the Minister would have us believe, money is being poured in from a bottomless purse, can he say how it is—this is what drives morale down—that track maintenance throughout British Rail is threatened nearly as much as it was by Beeching—3,000 track miles—because there is no money? Can he tell me why, with such a bottomless purse, professional civil engineers in British Rail would not justify the safety of track and recommended its closure? It is good of the hon. Member for Reigate to worry about the passengers. A death bed confession is better than nothing. Where were the Government when all the speed restrictions were applied because the bottomless purse, from which money was pouring, provided insufficient cash to keep the track safe and to allow passenger traffic to run?
Will the Minister explain why such things were happening when he was "shovelling money in"—to use his expression? Why are railwaymen robbing Peter to pay Paul every day and night by taking units off one train to make another unit serviceable for the next day? That would be unnecessary if there was all the money that he was talking about. Perhaps when he quotes figures in future, reeling off amounts such as £900 million, he will break that down. We shall then see what the real investment is and what the Government's answer has been.
I was impressed by some of the arguments of the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell). When the Minister said "What about the assets?" he fudged the answer a little. Not only profitable assets, but potentially profitable ones have been hived off. Perhaps the Minister will turn his attention to the next one, the British Rail Property Board, which is making money.
Frankly, nothing has come from Conservative Members that has anything to do with the passengers. If they really believed in the passengers and the customers of British Rail and wanted to do something, we would not be having this debate. Instead, they would be calling the parties together, putting the views of the British Railways Board on the one hand and ASLEF on the other and sorting the matter out.
The Minister has made a statement in the House and I intend to challenge him on it later. The NUR has suspended its action. The Minister has made great play of 65 the acceptance of tribunal decisions. I hope that that holds good when the tribunal comes out in favour of the NUR. I shall expect to see him at the Dispatch Box saying "Granted."
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)
In the few minutes that remain there is no way that I can make the speech that I had intended to make. I want to speak in sorrow rather than in anger. I was a Minister in the Department of Transport for two or three years and I fell very much in love with the railways. No one can be close to railway people without having the greatest affection and respect for them. That applies to managers and workers alike.
I feel a great sense of sorrow that this great railway has been brought to a halt, causing appalling hardship to people. To give one example, I am chairman of the Special Olympics for the Mentally Handicapped. Two planeloads of mentally handicapped children flew in from the United States and Barbados yesterday. We had intended to take them up to Merseyside for the special olympic games for the mentally handicapped by train. What better way can there be? Instead, because of ASLEF's action, those children with their jet lag had to be shunted here, there and everywhere on buses. What kind of brotherly love is that from the unions?
I also feel sorrow because of the attitude of the Opposition Front Bench. I have great regard for the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth), the Opposition spokesman on transport, who knows a lot about the railways. Does he not see the contrast between the chairman of the Labour Party in Peterborough, a lifelong railwayman, and a senior representative of ASLEF, who has begged that the strike be called off, and the Labour Front Bench? Why has it not had the same courage to demand that the strike be called off before it damages the railway?
I want to make some simple suggestions. First, one trade union in the railway industry would be better than two or three. Secondly, there has been investment, there needs to be investment, but it must be to improve the capital infrastructure of the railways and not frittered away in payment for overmanning and restrictive practices. I and the House know that that is the case and I believe that the vast majority of union members know that that is the case too. The problem is simply to convince their benighted leadership.
As in so many other industries, the railway industry should have a greater measure of industrial democracy. Both ASLEF and the NUR are democratic unions. Their constitutions say so, and their practices bear that out. However, if ever there was a case when industrial democracy should be given a chance to operate, it is now.
There is no reason why the honest and decent men who drive the locomotives on our railways should be forced to lose their pay, to cause hardship to the passengers and industrialists and to damage the railway system that they love without being given an opportunity to express their views on the matter. There is no excuse for ASLEF having denied its members the opportunity for a secret ballot before the strike. I look to the future. What the railway industry needs is confidence—
§ It being Seven o'clock, proceedings on the motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 6 (Precedence of Government Business).