§ 3.56 p.m.
§ THE MINISTER WITHOUT PORTFOLIO (LORD DRUMALBYN)
My Lords, with permission, I will repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The Statement is as follows:
§ "Last night the British Railways Board and representatives of the three railway unions reached agreement on the basis of a settlement to their dispute. This provided for the implementation of the Board's offer to pay from June 5 the rates of pay recommended by Mr. Jarratt and, in addition, lump sum payments to each employee, proportionate to their basic rates and totalling approximately £2million.
§ "The executives of the unions are meeting this afternoon to consider the agreement reached last night."
§ My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, I find myself in some difficulty in replying to this Statement. On the one hand, I would express contempt of Her Majesty's Government in this matter and on the other a sense of gratitude that a settlement is possible and that the general public are not, to be put at more inconvenience than they have been. I also feel a sense of sympathy with the noble Lord who had to make this Statement. I cannot help feeling that in view of the position which the Government have taken in this rail dispute it ought to have been made by a Cabinet Minister. I hope—and I am certain that all those on this side of the House will share my hope—that the three unions will accept the settlement which I understand has been described by Mr. Farrimond, the Director of Labour for the Railways Board, as a very good settlement in the light of all the circumstances.
My Lords, is it not a fact that this settlement could have been reached some eight weeks ago through the initiative of Mr. Vic Feather, and had it not been for Her Majesty's Government's wish to use the Industrial Relations Act, the cooling-off period, and then the divisive use of a ballot seeking to create division between the members of the unions and 710 various executives? I hope that the railway unions will accept this settlement. But would not the noble Lord agree that a 12½ or 13 per cent. increase is in fact an inflationary settlement, and would not the Government now agree that the three sides of industry—the Government, the employers and the unions—must seek a new method of achieving wage agreements, as opposed to the sense of confrontation which the present Government brought into being during their period of office? Would not the noble Lord agree that the time is now very close when it is essential, to find a proper solution in view of the quite disastrous figures on trade which the tapes show were for the first five months of this year in deficit to the tune of some £42 million? Would not the noble Lord agree that the Housing Finance Bill at present before the House is going to make the position of railwaymen infinitely more difficult? Whatever they may have achieved as a consequence of this settlement, some £1 is going to be deducted from their income as a consequence of this Bill
§ LORD GLADWYN
My Lords, of course we welcome this settlement, in the sense that it is obviously better than a strike which would have resulted in great misery for millions of people and enormous loss for the railways and the railwaymen, and indeed the entire nation. But the settlement itself will also clearly adversely affect British Rail, who will have to put up fares and restrict their activities; the railwaymen, quite a few of whom will, I fear, soon become redundant and whose actual wage increases will soon vanish into thin air, as well as the nation, which will now proceed presumably on the primrose path of inflation. It therefore seems to us—and I echo the words of the noble Lord Lord Shepherd—that it is high time that we thought of a better system of ending industrial disputes, by the C.B.I. and the unions working together, which obviously should be based on some new prices and incomes policy. If all these three bodies simply go on blaming each other, the result can only be disastrous. Like the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, the only question I ask the Government is this. Do they agree?
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, I think it is customary to reply first to 711 Front Bench questions. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, did not find it in his heart to be a little more forthcoming—he was so very critical on this occasion. He spoke of contempt for the Government in the same breath as speaking of a sense of relief that this settlement has come about—and we hope that it will be confirmed by the three unions. He criticised the Government for everything they have done and he still asked me whether I would agree that this is an inflationary settlement. Of course it is an inflationary settlement. One object of Government is to ensure that inflationary settlements that are against the public interest, such as this case, should be discouraged. I cannot believe that the noble Lord would deny that this has been the object of the Government throughout.
He said that this agreement could have been reached eight weeks ago. There is not one shred of evidence for that. There have been ten separate moves by the Board and up to that time there have not been any movements whatsoever on the part of the three unions. The noble Lord really cannot hold either the Board or the Government to blame in any way for this. He seemed to think that we were wrong in having the cooling-off period and the ballot. Nobody can say whether that has or has not contributed to the settlement. It certainly gave a satisfactory period for reconsideration and allowed the economy to be protected in the meantime. It is difficult to say that that was not the right thing to do at the time. As to the need to find a settlement, I can tell the noble Lord that the Government and my right honourable friend are always ready to consider employers' and unions' suggestions for improving the arrangements for curbing inflation. This is one of the main purposes of the series of talks my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment is having with the T.U.C. and the C.B.I. at the present time.
I am grateful for the noble Lord's sympathy, but I feel that I am able to speak for the Government on this matter and clearly to express their point of view. I hope that I have done so. So far as the sense of relief is concerned, this is a matter on which we should all agree. Now that it looks as if a settlement is, to use a colloquial expression, "in the 712 bag", I hope that we shall all be able to concentrate on the national problems that lie ahead.
§ LORD POPPLEWELL
My Lords, may I express an opinion and my appreciation that this settlement has taken place? May I also express regret and echo what my noble friend has said: that this settlement could have taken place weeks ago? The difference between the sides now and at that time was said by the unions to be £2,400,000. The Railways Board had said that it was £3,700,000. The last time we mentioned this matter I asked that these facts be ascertained. We now understand that the settlement is approximately £2 million. But, according to the Press, it is £2,200,000, which is only £200,000 less than the figure claimed by the unions many weeks ago. Meantime, will not the noble Lord press his right honourable friends in future when they are engaged in these industrial dispute matters not to use such intemperate language as was used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in accusing the unions of blackmail? Will the noble Lord also take note of the arrogant way in which the Minister of State for Employment dealt with the unions at that one o'clock meeting on Monday morning? These are the things that have hardened the hearts of the trade unions. I hope that matters may be got on to an even keel; but with this type of approach to organised labour, with its ballots and cooling-off periods, does not the noble Lord realise the tremendous damage that has been done and the long time it will take for this to be eradicated?
§ LORD DERWENT
My Lords, is it not a fact that when a Statement is made it is the custom of this House to ask questions. So far, we have had two speeches and we have had one question from the Liberal Benches.
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, I think it is the normal practice that speakers from the two Front Benches opposite are allowed to make comments on the Statement but that it is more usual for subsequent speakers to ask questions.
§ 4.7 p.m.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is not aware of what is contained in the present edition of the Companion, where the Procedure Committee recommended 713 to the House that the right of the Front Benchers alone to make comments, as opposed to questions, should be extended to the whole House? Clearly, those questions have to be within limits; but I think I am right in saying that the right to make comments was extended to the whole House. None the less, I endorse the fact that we cannot turn this into a debate.
§ LORD BLYTON
My Lords, will the Minister agree that the policy of an 8 per cent. norm has now gone by the board, that experimenting through the Industrial Relations Act has now proved an absolute failure and that the cooling-off period has strengthened the hand of the trade union leaders? Does he not think that the Government now ought to repeal that Act, get down to common sense dealing with the three bodies involved in this matter and get a fair and decent settlement and conciliation by agreement?
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, perhaps I had better resolve this matter by answering the question of the noble Lord, Lord Blyton. It is not the fact that there has been a departure from the 8 per cent. norm. We have had variations, but the fact remains that both in the public sector and in the private sector there has not been a very wide variation from the 8 per cent. norm, except in particular cases, and this happens to be one of them. So far as the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act is concerned, we have a great deal yet to gain from that Act; it is only in its very early stages. We are learning how to operate it as we go along and we shall certainly keep it.
§ LORD ROBBINS
My Lords, would the noble Lord agree with me that if this settlement had taken place eight and a half weeks ago, and if the behaviour of the Minister had been such as to have proved satisfactory to all noble Lords on that side of the House, it would still have been highly inflationary and a defeat for the public?
§ BARONESS GAITSKELL
My Lords, may I ask a question on a specific point. Should we not get it quite clear that higher fares are not entirely synonymous with this settlement?—as I heard Mr. Richard Marsh say at one o'clock that higher fares were going to come in any case.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, I too heard Mr. Richard Marsh say that. I would rather not be drawn on to the question of higher fares, as this is a matter for the Railways Board.
§ LORD AVEBURY
My Lords, my noble friend did put a question which the noble Lord neglected to answer. Is he not aware that in all railway systems in use subsidies are paid by the Government to the railway systems? In many cases they have much higher operational deficits than British Rail. Since we are going into Europe, would it not be appropriate if we consulted our European partners on harmonisation of the mechanisms of subsidy so that the travelling public does not always have to pay the cost of any increase? May I also put to the noble Lord this question? How much did it cost to undertake the ballot and what percentage of the final additional settlement did that represent?
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the valuable suggestion that we should consult with our future colleagues on the Continent as to how to run the railways. None of them seems to be very successful. I listened to the broadcast to-day and I gather that the noble Lord did as well. As to the other point, I have not an exact figure. I have heard estimates on the radio of what it cost to run the ballot. I have not an exact figure to give to the noble Lord.
§ BARONESS WOOTTON OF ABINGER
My Lords, I have great sympathy with much of what has been said by my colleagues on this side of the House, but may I call attention to Standing Order 34, which says:Questions of which private notice has been given may be asked, and statements made, without notice given in the Order Paper, but these should not be made the occasion for immediate debate, unless the House so order.May I ask whether the House has ordered a debate on this Statement?
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, I should like to echo what the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton, has so wisely said. The noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, drew attention to the Companion to the Standing Orders.
It states.Ministerial statements are made for the information of the House, and, although brief comments and questions for clarification are allowed, such statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate, unless the House so order.We have had reasonably short statements and reasonably short questions and I think we should now proceed to the next business.
§ LORD DOUGLASS OF CLEVELAND
My Lords, have I the right to ask a question? If I have not I will sit down. In this morning's Financial Times there is a list of wages claims and the settlements that have been arrived at in consequence thereof. From that statement it is evident that where unions have instructed their members to strike, settlements have been higher than where unions have had regard to the new Act. Would it not appear that the ordinary worker who reads these statements will feel that the Act, if abided by, is not yielding the same results as if he goes on strike? That is the great question that is before this House at present. In other words, is the Industrial Relations Act providing equal advantage for those workers who observe it as for those who do not observe it?
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, in this particular case we had for a short time a work-to-rule. Fortunately there was not a strike and I do not think that I need really go into the point that the noble Lord has raised, except to say that, if I understand correctly the remarks of my noble friend the Lord Chancellor during the course of the Industrial Relations Bill through this House, one of the essential points was that the right to strike was, if not given, at any rate confirmed in the legislation. Therefore the distinction the noble Lord makes as to 716 those who strike and those who do not is not valid.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, I wonder whether I could appeal to the Deputy Leader of the House to ensure that the noble Lords who sit on his side of the House should read the Companion and learn the procedure of this House in regard to questions and statements. A number of noble Lords have been objecting to comments that have been made. In my experience to-day, the comments have been very short in comparison to many that I have heard on previous Statements and many that I have heard on Statements when we were Members of the Government. There is clearly a point beyond which it becomes undesirable to continue discussion. I think the noble Lord has shown the usual restraint that I expect from him and has not sought to curtail it. Probably the time has now cone to curtail this discussion, but it would be very unfortunate if Statements of this kind were not made the subject of reasonable comment, since we should inevitably, as an Opposition, have to insist on calling for debates when debates were not really required.
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition feels like that. I thought I had said that we had stuck to the Standing Orders and I think it would have been rather more usual if, after I had appealed to the House that we should finish this debate, we had then moved on to the next business. I am sorry that we did not. I hope the noble Lord will accept from me that we are sticking to the Companion, that we have had reasonably short comments and some questions and that we ought now to move on to the next business.
§ LORD DOUGLASS OF CLEVELAND
My Lords, I have been given an article in the Financial Times which cannot be called a Labour paper. I am asking the question now and I think it ought to have an answer: whether the unions, in the light of this article, are entitled to feel that it is right to respond to the Industrial Relations Act or to ignore it. I think that needs an answer.