HL Deb 19 April 1972 vol 330 cc89-99

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, I shall now reply to the Private Notice Question put earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and I shall reply in the words which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment has used in answer to a similar Question in another place. The reply is as follows:

"Immediately after reporting to the House on April 17, I met the General Council of the T.U.C. and asked them whether they had any proposals which could provide a settlement of the dispute which, in view of the Board's expressed position, would not involve any further increase in the wage and salary bill of the British Railways Board beyond that proposed by the award made by Mr. Jarratt. I also asked the Council to urge the three unions to ballot their members on the award and to suspend industrial action while a ballot took place. In reply I was told that a meeting of the T.U.C.'s Finance and General Purposes Committee would be arranged on the following afternoon to consider my requests.

"Early yesterday morning, with this meeting still in prospect, I thought it right to meet representatives of the three railway unions myself and ask them urgently to consider suspending the work-to-rule while their members were given an opportunity of expressing their views on the acceptability of the award in a ballot conducted by the unions themselves. They undertook to put my suggestion to their executives.

"Last night, the Chairman and the General Secretary of the T.U.C. gave me some account of the discussions the Finance and General Purposes Committee had held with the railway unions. They told me that my requests for a suspension of the work-to-rule and for a ballot were being put to the executives of the three unions. They also told me that the executives were then meeting in order to find a possible basis for further discussions with the British Railways Board on the award. In their view the unions would not be able to make any proposal that night, despite my expressed willingness to invite representatives of the Board to come to my Department immediately. Nor were they able to tell me whether the unions were prepared to suspend industrial action while any discussions took place or while they balloted their members on the award.

"I told the representatives of the T.U.C. that I still very much hoped that the unions would be able to agree a basis acceptable to the British Railways Board on which any necessary discussions on Mr. Jarratt's award could take place. I also expressed the hope that the public could be assured that the unions would suspend industrial action so that passenger and freight services could run normally while these discussions took place. I had, however, to add that if these hopes were not realised, the Government would feel bound to apply to the Industrial Court at midday today for an order seeking the discontinuance of industrial action. This I have now done. My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, may I express my gratitude to the noble Lord for replying to my Private Notice Question? I think the House will agree that we have listened to a very grave Statement. All of us will feel that the present situation is both tragic and potentially dangerous; tragic in the sense that most of us in one way or another journey on railways and have to put our life and limb very much at the competence and discretion of railway operatives. There is a general feeling that railwaymen are moderate and sensible people. Therefore it is indeed tragic that these moderate and sensible people feel that they need to go to these lengths of causing inconvenience and hardship to the people they serve in order that they can get what they believe are their rights. I say dangerous because the course of action which the Government have now undertaken may well lead, not only to a hardening of view but to a greater determination, not only by the men who may be affected but by the broad trade union movement.

This is the first opportunity that we have had of considering this dispute, and I am bound to say that we on this side of the House feel that there is serious criticism to be made of the actions of Her Majesty's Government. Last week we were at a critical stage of negotiations; then we had the speech of Mr. Barber, where quite clearly the gauntlet was being thrown on the ground. It was either surrender by the railway unions or they had to pick up the challenge. Nothing can be worse for a settlement by negotiation than a feeling on one side that a gauntlet has been thrown down.

The Statement refers to the meeting yesterday morning when the Secretary of State said that he asked the railwaymen to consider urgently suspending their work-to-rule. The Statement then says that the representatives of the unions undertook to put my suggestion to their executives. My first question to the noble Lord must be this: was there any discussion on what the Secretary of State put to the representatives, or was it, as has been rumoured, that an ultimatum was given to them and that there was not an opportunity for discussion? Secondly, may I ask the noble Lord whether the T.U.C. last night asked the Secretary of State for a further 24 hours before action was taken, in order that the T.U.C. themselves could approach the Railways Board to see whether a settlement could be reached? Thirdly, can the noble Lord say why the compulsory ballot proposal, which certainly from inspired comment was clearly in the mind of the Government, has been dropped?

In regard to the cooling-off period, can the noble Lord say for how long that will be? What length of period are the Government asking for? Is it the 60 days, as is possible under the Act, or, as rumour has it, 21 days? We must ask what Her Majesty's Government's intentions are as to how they plan to use those days, should they get a cooling-off period Order, in order to achieve a settlement. The Act requires that before the Secretary of State can go to the Industrial Court he needs to be satisfied that certain conditions arise. May I direct the noble Lord's attention to Section 33 of the Industrial Relations Act, subsection (4), where in paragraphs (a) and (b) an irregular industrial action short of a strike is defined as follows: is carried on by a group of workers with the intention of preventing, reducing or otherwise interfering with the production of goods or the provision of services, and (b) in the case of some or all of them, is carried on in breach of their contracts of employment …". It then goes on to deal with employees who may not be in that position. I wish to ask the noble Lord, first, whether the terms of contract provide for rest days, and do they provide for overtime? Can the noble Lord confirm that one of the most important parts of the terms of contract is that the railwaymen must obey the rules which have caused so much of the difficulty? Would the noble Lord inform the House whether it is the intention of the Government to seek power to order railwaymen to work overtime and to work during rest days?


My Lords, without wishing to comment on the merits of the dispute I should like to express the hope that, whatever the Industrial Court decides, the decision of that Court will be obeyed. What has been very disturbing in the past few weeks to those of us on these Benches is the obvious intention of the T.U.C. to encourage their members to disregard the Industrial Relations Act. Whatever one thinks of this Act—and there are very differing views on it—it is the law of the land until it is repealed, and I hope that those who have influence with the trade union movement will realise the constitutional anarchy which this country is going to face if there is non-compliance with the orders of a duly constituted Court.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may reply at this stage to the two Front Bench speakers who have spoken. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, started his remarks by saying that this was a grave Statement in a tragic and potentially dangerous situation. I entirely agree with that view, and that is precisely why the powers are being invoked; because the situation is potentially dangerous. We are in a position in which there is undoubtedly disruption of the supply of goods and the provision of services and that disruption is liable to get progressively worse. It seems sensible that there should be a return to normal working so that discussions can continue without duress from either side. It is in that way that a settlement could be most easily reached. It is for that reason that my right honourable friend has thought it right to make the application to the Industrial Court.

The noble Lord asked me a series of questions, not all of which I am able to answer, for the very good reason that I was not present at the discussions. I can only say, in reply to his first two questions, that my right honourable friend made it abundantly clear that he would be taking this action unless a reply was received by noon of to-day. For the reasons that I have already stated, the time this dispute has gone on, and also, I might add, the refusal of the unions to go to arbitration, it seems that this is the appropriate course to take. My right honourable friend has taken the course which he thought was most likely to result in a settlement. Had he thought that a compulsory ballot at the present time would have been more likely to produce a settlement more quickly, then no doubt he would have taken that action.

So far as the application to the Court is concerned, the application itself is now in the hands of the Court and it would be inappropriate for me to go into exactly what it contains. It will be for the Court to make known the contents of that application to those people to whom it thinks it is right to disclose them. I cannot answer the technical questions about rest days and overtime. No doubt the Court will give its own ruling in its decision; but the object, obviously, must be a return to normal work. This is what is aimed at in the present circumstances. My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Byers, that whatever the Court's decision may be, it should be adhered to.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware how disappointed members of the trade unions as a whole are with the Government's handling of this situation? Does he realise the damage that has been done by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech, and by the speech of the Vice-Chairman of the Tory Party the other night; and, above all, the damage that was done when Mr. Macmillan met the railway trade unions at 1 o'clock on Monday morning after asking for their decision, and took no notice of them but read out a prepared statement, and then jumped up and walked out of the meeting without even saying, "Good-day"? Do the Government feel that this is the right method of approach in this extremely difficult and serious situation which has now developed? Furthermore, does the Minister really understand that the trade unions involved feel that the Railways Board are not a party to what has taken place but are simply acting under Government directions; and that the real trouble is that there could have been a settlement if the Government had been willing?

We are not quite satisfied with the noble Lord's answer that he could not give some of the details asked for by my noble friend. If the Government are putting this matter to the Industrial Relations Court, are they saying to the unions' members, "You should work normally", and that that means that the rules of the railways, including the safety rules, should be ignored? This is the interpretation. Ts the Minister saying that the agreements between both sides on hours of labour should be ignored? Does the Minister realise that in the contract of labour that is given to each railway employee there is no specification of overtime or Sunday duty? These matters are covered by agreements. Is the Minister saying that these shall be totally ignored? These are questions that must be answered.

In view of the background of the Ministers who have been dealing with this matter, and the dictatorial attitude they have been adopting, the offensiveness that they have been adopting, can they expect a peaceful solution of this particular problem? Will not the Minister try to persuade his Government to have another look at this matter in a more intelligent, common-sense way that will win the good will of these people, who are most moderate and very responsible, to say the least—




My Lords, it is no use noble Lords jeering at this. The railwaymen have had so much from Members opposite. They pay tributes to them, yet when the railwaymen are attempting to bring themselves into line with other workers they are accused of blackmail and all kinds of things. This is just not good enough in 1972.


My Lords, may I answer that rather lengthy question immediately? It would be inapproriate for me Ito go into the merits of the dispute, or indeed to counter one ex-parte statement with another ex parte statement on what actually happened. Neither the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, nor I know exactly what happened in these discussions, and it would be unwise for either of us to try to guess, or even to report hearsay evidence about them. Nobody would for one instant deny that the railwaymen are responsible people, but we have to look at this matter from the point of view of the actual claim that has been made and the way in which it has been pursued. We have already had a refusal to go to arbitration. There was then the reference to Mr. Jarratt. There is the refusal to accept the result of that reference, although it was stated that it was to be an award—this seems, from the record, to have been agreed. So I really do not think the noble Lord is justified in his strictures.

Perhaps I ought merely to inform the House that, so far as the award which was proposed by Mr. Jarratt was concerned, it would have given a minimum basic rate of £19.65, with a minimum guaranteed weekly earnings of over £20.50 for leading railmen, and a basic wage for drivers of £30.25, plus also a minimum basic wage of £20 with comparable increases throughout from January 1, 1973. This was turned down. Even if my right honourable friend had momentarily lost his patience in those circumstances, I think he might well have been forgiven.


My Lords, can the Minister say whether it is safe for people to be travelling long distances—




My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Stockton Heath, tried to ask a question previously.


My Lords, may I add to the words of my noble friend Lord Shepherd when he says that we are now entering upon a very grave situation. This really is so. We spent a great deal of time in this House in discussing the Industrial Relations Bill. It is now an Act and this is the first time the Government are calling this provision into use. The effect of this decision, if permission is given for a cooling-off period, is, as has been said in this House already, to cary the behaviour of the unions—whether one calls it the right to strike or the right to "go slow or whatever-you-will. To interfere with that—and we must all be agreed about this—is, in my opinion, a very interesting, historical, and unfortunate development. I have sat in wish some of the discussions with the Minister, and I do not envy a new Minister who is flung into the deep end in this kind of situation. But I must say in this House —and I say it objectively—that it is a tragedy when such events have to be faced, but it is possible that misunderstandings exist on both sides. For instance, if I may take the time of the House shortly, the railway unions regarded Mr. Jarratt as someone who was going to assist them but they did not think they were committed to accept what was described in his own document, and in his terms of reference, as "an award". I know that the Minister just could not understand this; neither could the officers of the Ministry of Employment who were advising the Minister. They could not understand that an award was something that you need not accept. But the three railway unions have for years had their own tribunal which can make an award and the award is not obligatory upon them. I also find this difficult to understand. But I mention these two points because they demonstrate some of the lamentable misunderstandings that exist even at the moment.

Mr. Jarratt made certain recommendations which the T.U.C. have considered. We have talked to the unions and our view is that there is still a possibility of peaceful settlement, given time. I must give credit and be fair. I think that the Government were anxious to do something yesterday; but they have left it until to-day, and I think they did that because of the special pleading of the T.U.C. in these discussions. That ought to be said, but the tragedy is that the Government have not delayed a little longer. It is terrible that the third party who really have nothing to do with this business—the public—are being inconvenienced. I think all of us are extremely worried about that. But in view of one comment that has been made may I say that I do not believe—and I do not think noble Lords opposite believe it either—that legislation and compulsion can sort out these difficulties. Nor do I believe, in spite of all the faults on both sides of industry, that politicians are any better judges of a situation. Nevertheless, politicians have made the judgment that there must be a showdown. I am quite sure that this is the unfortunate situation that we have reached.




My Lords, I wonder whether I might interrupt the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Stockton Heath. I have fore-borne from doing so in view of his standing in these matters and his association with these difficult and indeed dangerous negotiations, but I must remind him and your Lordships of the wording of the revised version of the Standing Orders that ministerial Statements are made for the information of the House. Although brief comments and questions for clarification are allowed, perhaps I might just remind the noble Lord of that fact and ask him whether he would put any question that lie wishes to ask very briefly to your Lordships' House?


My Lords, I am quite happy to have on the Record the comments I have already made, and I am quite willing to work to rule.


My Lords, that point brings me back to an observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, about working to rule. He asked whether safety rules should be ignored. All we are asking is that they should be observed as they always are observed. I do not think there can be any discussion about that; I believe it is only in those conditions that we are likely to get a settlement. But I must make it quite clear that despite the application to the Court there is nothing whatever to prevent the negotiations from being carried on. All that the Government must do in the interests of the public at the present time is, having these powers, to exercise them to ensure that the disruption of the supply of goods and services does not cause far greater damage than has already been caused to the economy. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, has said about an award. I did not mean to imply that it was a binding award, but it was nevertheless an opportunity to reach agreement, and it was an opportunity that was missed.


My Lords, in the application which is to be made by the Secretary of State to the Court is he asking for a compulsory ballot?


No, my Lords; it is an application under Section 138 of the Industrial Relations Act 1971.


My Lords, may I apologise if I interrupted the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Stockton Heath, but I thought it was understood in your Lordships' House that questions were dealt with alternately, one from each side. My question is this: can my noble friend tell me whether it is safe for people to travel in overcrowded trains for long distances in such bad conditions as would be rightly disallowed for animals?


My Lords, the noble Lord has drawn attention to one of the difficulties to which these particular circumstances give rise at the present time, and we should like to see a return to normality.


My Lords, the noble Earl the Leader of the House, referring to his little red book, spoke of "a brief question for clarification". May I ask, first, whether it is not a fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been searching the highways and byways to find methods of giving away over a thousand million pounds? Secondly, could he not now find an extra £3 million to settle this possibly disastrous dispute?


My Lords, I intervene only to ask whether the noble Lord would reply to one of my supplementary questions which I think he inadvertently overlooked. I think the noble Lord would agree that a cooling-off period is an opportunity (and this is one of the requirements that the Industrial Court needs to take into account) for arbitration and conciliation to achieve a settlement. If the noble Lord cannot say to-day what from their angle the Government have in mind to bring about a settlement, will he undertake to tell at an early date what the Government intend to do to conciliate and arbitrate in this tragic situation?


Yes, my Lords, I will certainly give that undertaking but, as I have said, at the present time it is perfectly easy for further discussions to be held, and even for arbitration to take place if it could be agreed to. It is not possible to force this, and of course any decision that is given by the Court will not force arbitration. I think that must be quite clearly understood. The intention is that a settlement should be reached as early as possible and, if I may say so, the exact period—so long as it does not exceed 60 days—is immaterial because it can always be extended if necessary.