HC Deb 20 June 1994 vol 245 cc9-10
7. Sir Fergus Montgomery

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the effect on passengers of the plans to privatise the railways.

Mr. MacGregor

Our proposals will result in better, more attractive services being offered to rail passengers through the introduction of private sector skills, innovation and responsiveness to passengers' requirements.

Sir Fergus Montgomery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that better services for rail passengers are what is required? Does he also agree that the present strike is causing a great deal of inconvenience to rail passengers? Is not he amazed that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) still has not condemned the strikers?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree with my hon. Friend about the effect on some passengers deciding not to use the railways and I want it to be entirely the other way round. I want to build up more opportunities for railwaymen with a great many more people using the railways. Let me try it another way. I have said that I think that a strike on the basis of a pay claim of at least 11 per cent. with no strings attached is irresponsible in present circumstances. I have also said that the restructuring talks offer big opportunities to sort out the pay, terms and conditions of signalmen in a modern employment package. Might I therefore ask the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras whether he agrees that it would be desirable for the strike not to take place in order that the restructuring talks, to ensure value for money in any arrangements, may now take place? Perhaps he will make his position clear on that.

Mr. Dalyell

Has the Secretary of State been in one of the modern signal boxes? If so, has not he observed the incredible technology and the responsibility that signalmen now have—just as much as air traffic controllers? Has the right hon. Gentleman actually seen a signal box in operation?

Mr. MacGregor

These matters have been spelt out to me, and I know exactly what the issues are. That is why Railtrack is seeking a modern employment package for signalmen, with up-to-date terms and conditions, and I agree with Railtrack. That is precisely the point; separate discussions should continue on that, and the chairman of Railtrack has made it clear that he is keen to engage in such discussions. I support him, and hope that the strikes will be called off for that reason as well—to enable the talks to continue.

Mr. Michael Brown

If my right hon. Friend has difficulty in hearing me, it is because I have not used my voice in the Chamber for the past year.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the lesson that we learn from the experience of privatisation is that industrial disputes tend to be non-existent when we have privatised an industry? Is not the lesson of the current dispute that the sooner we put Railtrack into private hands, the better?

Mr. MacGregor

I assure my hon. Friend that I never have any difficulty in hearing him. I have had no difficulty in hearing him to great effect during the past year, and now the whole House can do so again.

We have made it clear that our aim is to privatise Railtrack in due course, at the appropriate time. The immediate need, however, is to ensure a modern employment package for signalmen that is self-financing, offers value for money and is separate from the pay offer. I think that that should be done in a sensible way, without the threat of unnecessary strikes that damage the railway industry and, therefore, those employed in it. I repeat for the umpteenth time my request for the Opposition to make their position clear; and in doing so, I refer not only to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras but to the contenders for the party leadership, who have used fine phrases, but have run a mile from the first key issue that they faced.

Mr. Dobson

Will the Secretary of State confirm that British Rail's signalling staff do extremely responsible jobs that are immensely important to everyone? Will he confirm that their representatives have been conducting negotiations about an improvement in their pay to reflect the improvement in productivity that has been taking place for several years? Will he confirm that the week before last those representatives believed that they had reached an interim agreement involving payment of 5.7 per cent. on account, and that that would be confirmed last week? Will he confirm that officials from his Department then summoned three members of the board of Railtrack and told them that it was not on, and that the boss of Railtrack had to be dragged back from his holiday—as did the chief negotiator, who had been holidaying in the West Indies?

Finally, does the Secretary of State recognise that it takes two sides to have an industrial dispute? Will he condemn Railtrack for its incompetence and stupidity—or will he condemn himself for intervening?

Mr. MacGregor

The Railtrack board made its offer last Monday afternoon. It was for a pay increase of 2.5 per cent.—exactly the same as the offer to British Rail, very similar to many other current public sector offers and, indeed, in excess of some private sector offers. The board also said that it was keen to undertake the restructuring talks as part of a separate exercise. The chairman of Railtrack has repeated that, and I strongly support him.

I repeat that it would be greatly in the interests of our reaching a sensible conclusion to this matter if the hon. Gentleman would condemn a strike based on an 11 per cent., no-strings-attached demand. We have all noticed that, despite many attempts to get him to do that, he has so far refused.

Sir David Madel

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if a further rail dispute is to be avoided, it will take all the skill of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, this evening and beyond it, to reach a solution? Does he further agree that, once the talks are under way, the threat of industrial action should be suspended and that management must show great patience in its talks with ACAS to try to work out a solution and to avoid another dispute?

Mr. MacGregor

I certainly hope that the talks can take place without further strike action, which would be unjustified and would be of no benefit to the railway system. However, the details of the negotiations on restructuring are a matter for the Railtrack board.

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