HL Deb 11 December 1973 vol 347 cc1056-61

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment in another place. My right honourable friend said:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the ASLEF dispute.

"I have to inform the House that no agreement was reached at yesterday's meeting between British Rail, ASLEF, the National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association. ASLEF refused to lift its threat of action or to refer the issues in dispute to the next stage of the industry's agreed procedure. On learning that this remained ASLEF'S position after their Executive meeting this morning, I thought it right to invite them to see me immediately. I have also discussed the situation with the Chairman of British Rail and have invited the other unions to see me.

"At our meeting I impressed upon the ASLEF Executive the extreme seriousness of the threatened action and its consequences for the community. The action proposed includes general non-co-operation, bans on overtime, rest day and Sunday working, and there seems little doubt that this could lead to a progressive and rapid breakdown of both passenger and freight services.

"The travelling public will be immediately affected and have to face considerable hardship. This is happening in the fortnight before Christmas and at a time when, because of the petrol shortage, many people are switching to rail in order to travel.

"The current shortage of energy supplies already poses a most serious threat to our prospects for economic growth, to our living standards and to employment. The ASLEF action will materially worsen the position.

"Against this background, I urged the Executive to reconsider their decision and to seek to resolve their remaining difference with British Rail and the other unions. I told them that I believed the proper course for them, in the national interest, was to refer any outstanding issues on restructuring to the Railway Staff National Tribunal, the industry's jointly established arbitration machinery, which is the next stage of their procedure, particularly since ASLEF had recently reached agreement with British Rail and the other unions on the appointment of a new independent chairman to their Tribunal, who must clearly be acceptable to them.

"The Executive undertook to reconsider their decision in the light of what I had to say and promised to let me know the outcome. I sincerely hope that they will call off their industrial act ion."

3.49 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be indebted to the noble Earl for repeating this Statement which is undoubtedly very grave. We on this side of the House welcome the initiative of the Secretary of State in calling the Railway Board and the other unions to see him. Would the noble Earl confirm that the National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association are still negotiating with the Railways Board, and that it is ASLEF alone that is considering industrial action. As to the wisdom of referring this issue to the Railway Staff National Tribunal, I think we should await the decision of the ASLEF Executive before we make a comment.

My Lords, the last paragraph of the Statement says that the Secretary of State only hopes that the ASLEF Executive will accept this suggestion, but they have promised to let him know the outcome. Will the noble Earl say whether the Sec- retary of State expects an answer to-day? If he does, could he repeat another Statement to-morrow? If, unfortunately, ASLEF do pursue industrial action, will the Government be ready to institute petrol rationing immediately? Clearly, if there is to be a shortage of railway stock and trains, then a very serious position will arise, particularly in London and the main cities. If we do not get a settlement to-morrow, one would hope that the Government will be in a position to make a Statement on this matter. I think it would be best, at least from this side of the House, to leave the Statement as it is, to hope that ASLEF will accept the suggestion made by the Secretary of State, and that the Government will keep the House informed.


My Lords, on behalf of my Liberal colleagues, I should like to join in thanking the noble Earl for repeating this Statement. I am not given to overstatement, but if this threatened action does take place at midnight, it will be a very great tragedy. Would the noble Earl agree that, taking the employees of British Rail as a whole, the majority are against this disruption? The great majority of the general public are certainly against it. It will be frustrating to the general public, damaging to the economy and to industry, and I fear it will indirectly damage the cause of the ASLEF train drivers. May I put one specific question? As we know, there have been complaints about delays in getting the claim of the ASLEF members settled. In the event of there being agreement to go to arbitration and to adopt the arbitration machinery, is it possible for the Government to say how speedy this process would be, and how quickly it would be brought into effect?


My Lords, I am grateful for the way in which the noble Lords, Lord Shepherd and Lord Wade have taken the Statement. I agree with the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that we should wait and see what transpires. I understand that ASLEF are meeting this afternoon. I cannot say when their answer will reach the Secretary of State, but I can guarantee that your Lordships' House will be kept informed of this.

The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, mentioned the question of petrol rationing. Of course, the Statement made reference to the energy situation. I can say to him that the question of our supplies of petrol will be monitored most carefully in the light of the new situation. The noble Lords, Lord Shepherd and Lord Wade, asked me whether I agreed that the other principal unions which are involved were broadly in agreement with the offer made by British Rail. This is certainly the case.


My Lords, does the noble Earl think that the fact that on Friday last the higher civil servants were given a rise of £20 a week contributes to the sort of social situation in which matters of pay differences can be discussed in logic?


My Lords, no; I do not agree with that.


My Lords, would not the noble Earl agree that the Industrial Relations Act, in the context of the present economic situation, is now null and void? Why do not the Government take powers under this Act now for a 60-days cooling-off period in which to hold a ballot? The Government are denying themselves the powers taken under the Industrial Relations Act, and blaming others for it.


My Lords, my right honourable friend is clear that there are direct matters of principle involved here between ASLEF and the British Railways Board, and he is convinced that arbitration should be used to resolve the differences between the two parties, as my Statement suggested. At present my right honourable friend does not feel that using the Act will more easily enable the parties to reach agreement.


My Lords, would the noble Earl say how an arbitrator can make an independent decision in the light of Phase 3 of Government policy?


My Lords, I do not think that comes into it. Of course, all settlements—and this offer from British Rail is no exception—are made within the provisions of Stage 3.


My Lords, would the noble Earl convey to his right honourable friends the importance, when negotiating with trade unions, that they do not wait until the eleventh hour before getting into a tizzy? The restructuring of the pay conditions which has led to this conflict has been on the go for no less than two years—and the initial meeting did not take place until September. In those circumstances it is very difficult, at this late hour, to plead for patience. Would not the noble Earl agree that it is far better to try, as the Minister is in negotiation with the union, not to pass judgment on the actions of the unions, particularly as their feelings are exacerbated for the reasons I have mentioned? Would he also please not be jollied by pressure into taking decisions about petrol rationing? Would he bear in mind that petrol rationing in 1956 with 4 million cars was one thing, but that as a result of Government action transport facilities have been steadily run down and now there are 15 million cars, so an equitable system of petrol rationing is quite impossible to carry through.


My Lords, I think the question of petrol rationing in detail is a little wide of the Statement. I have said we will monitor the situation. I think the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, agrees with me there. As to the advice he asked me to pass on to my right honourable friend, of course I shall do so.


My Lords, can the noble Earl deal with the other question raised by my noble friend Lord Wade; that is to say, how long the Government think it would take, if the arbitration procedure was used, to submit recommendations?


My Lords, I am sure that if ASLEF would agree to use arbitration machinery that would be an encouraging sign to get this settlement quickly.


How long?


My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that it is better for this House and for Parliament as a whole at this particular stage to express the hope that ASLEF will fall into line with the rest of their colleagues in the N.U.R. and T.S.S.A. on this matter? This is much more important and is something that can be settled by arbitration. Have there not been something like 45 to 50 meetings taking place in connection with this new package deal that offers a real advancement to railway men? It is on behalf of railway men, the railway industry and the nation as a whole that ASLEF should work in co-operation with their two big union colleagues in seeking a settlement at this stage.


My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Popple-well, has absolutely judged the mood of the House on this matter. On the last point, I understand that the offer, which is well over £50 million, is the largest offer ever made in railway pay negotiations. I am most grateful to him for reminding the House of this fact.