HL Deb 24 February 1975 vol 357 cc574-82

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I wish to repeat a Statement which has been made by my right honourable friend in the other place. The Statement concerns the unofficial action taken and being threatened by some railway signalmen. The Statement reads: "The signalmen concerned complain about the outcome of the major pay restructuring exercise for all British Rail employees which was finally completed last year. They are demanding a further 15 per cent. increase.

"Negotiations on a new, comprehensive pay structure for the railways first began in 1972. They were always accepted as being in addition to the negotiations for normal annual settlements. The negotiations proved long and arduous and the House will remember that they were from time to time accompanied by official industrial action which seriously disrupted railway services. In February 1974, agreement not having been reached, all the outstanding issues were referred to the Railway Staff National Tribunal, the railways' agreed and independent arbitral body. In July last, year, the Tribunal reported after carefully considering all the issues, involving as they did the complex of all pay relativities between different groups of workers. Its recommendations were accepted by British Rail and the unions and were implemented.

"It is important to remember this background in considering the present unofficial action by a small minority of all railway employees, indeed a minority of signalmen. The current relativities were established only after long negotiations and a comprehensive and detailed inquiry by an independent tribunal, set up by agreement in the industry. They were accepted by all the unions and the overwhelming majority of those they represent.

"It has been suggested that because of the hardship and inconvenience the unofficial action is causing, I should intervene in some way to secure a settlement or that I should appoint an inquiry. I certainly deplore the appalling inconvenience to the travelling public that has resulted and have urged that it should end. But the present pay structure was itself established by an independent inquiry. I would hope the House would agree that it is neither reasonable nor practical that an issue raised by an unofficial body of some kind should be referred to further inquiry. This could only undermine the established procedures of negotiation in the industry and the authority of the unions. It is a step which could greatly encourage further disruption on the railways and further afield. For the same reasons any third-party intervention is in my view to be avoided. Honourable Members "—and noble Lords—" who advocate such a course should not be misled by the plausible assurances from the unofficial spokesmen that action would stop on such an intervention. The consequences in the longer term could be most injurious to all efforts to uphold established negotiation arrangements and procedures, and to sustain the democratic machinery of the unions.

"It also needs to be remembered that British Rail and the National Union of Railwaymen have recently agreed on the reclassification of some 1,800 jobs in signal boxes which will lead to pay increases of between £2.95 and £5.35. Moreover, negotiations have recently begun for a new annual settlement for all railwaymen and the National Union of Railwaymen has already indicated that the expressed grievance should be considered in the context of those negotiations. I am prepared to accept that the signalmen concerned hold their views strongly and sincerely, but I believe that they must in turn understand that they cannot secure a fresh hearing of their case in this way.

"I trust the House will join with me, British Rail and the National Union of Railwaymen in condemning any continuation of these unofficial stoppages and in denying those who instigate and foster them the recognition to which their action is directed. The resolution of any grievance cannot be secured by these methods; it can only be secured through the democratic machinery of the union and in the forthcoming negotiations."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, from these Benches we wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, for the courteous way in which he has given us the information contained in the Statement. I am sure he will understand that there are a number of questions with which we on this side feel he could help us, or at least go part of the way towards answering. First, we wish to ask whether this dispute is merely a question of an unofficial group of, as we understand, between 800 and 1,300 signalmen out of a total of 9,000 signalmen who work for British Rail disagreeing with the National Union of Railwaymen and with British Rail— because we wonder what the National Union of Railwaymen have to say about this particularly inconvenient dispute. We understand that the Railway Staff National Tribunal made a recommendation which was accepted by both British Rail and the NUR acting for these signalmen. We understand, however, that the unofficial Union of Railway Signalmen is still dissatisfied with the negotiations.

Secondly, could anything be achieved by asking for the good offices of the Conciliation and Arbitration Service; because this situation is one that they are designed to solve and one that is, I believe, totally for them? Thirdly, how effective is the National Union of Railwaymen's Signalmen's Committee, because some of the dissident signalmen do not have a very high opinion of it? We have heard from the noble Lord that 1,800 signalmen obtained increases of between £3 and £5.45 earlier this year. Fourthly, we have read in the Press of widely differing views as to the increases which have been obtained; and I wonder whether the noble Lord could discount the fears expressed. For instance, the National Union of Railwaymen say that when they were negotiating last year, they obtained a responsibility allowance of over 7½ per cent.; and yet the signalmen say the Railway Staff National Tribunal did not obtain anything for them.

Then there is the question of differentials. We believe that it has been mentioned and it is relevant here and wonder whether the noble Lord could fill us in on these differentials. The Union of Railway Signalmen say that the differentials have been eroded from £2 to less than 30p over other station staff; yet the National Union of Railwaymen disagree strongly with this and say that after the latest increases, the differentials have been increased. Perhaps the noble Lord could fill us in on this. Lastly, what is the likely position after 1st May 1975?—as we understand that negotiations are likely to lake place and the outcome of these negotiations will result in further wage rates being fixed to take effect from 1st May. As recently as last September Mr. Sid Weighell, the General Secretary of the NUR, stated that his members had received rises of up to 45 per cent. in the year to September 1974. The signalmen say they have had 30 per cent. and would require a further increase to bring them to the level of other railwaymen. I am sure that the noble Lord will be able to comment on this. I apologise for the lengthy list of questions; but we feel that some questions run into other questions and that the noble Lord would possibly be able to help us.


My Lords, I pose only a brief question. What does the noble Lord think is to be gained by continuing to condemn the continuation of these unofficial stoppages, as we are invited to do by the Secretary of State? Has not this House and the other place already condemned unofficial stoppages and has not the Secretary of State appealed without any effect to the un-official strikers to go back to work and cease their stoppages every Thursday? Can the; noble Lord explain why it should have any greater effect if this House or the other place condemn them yet again this afternoon?

Could the noble Lord say whether the reclassification of the 1,800 jobs mentioned in the Statement means that British Rail now think that the Railway Staff National Tribunal have their arithmetic wrong and that these particular signalmen, at any rate, if not any of the others, should have been given larger rises in the restructuring award? Could the noble Lord say when this increase of between £2.95 and £5.35 is to come into effect and whether, when it does, he thinks that this will satisfy the Union of Railway Signalmen and those on strike at the moment? Can he give us any indication of what the prognosis is? Are we to get an endless series of Thursday stoppages, or will it escalate into something worse? Could the public be told what to expect, so that they can make plans accordingly?


My Lords, I wish the public could be told what to expect. When I go to the railway station and find that there are no trains, I am one of those who would like to be told. I do not know how the Government can tell the public when the railway staff themselves do not know the night before and sometimes do not know the same morning. The Government are responsible for many things and should be able to give some information; but not information of that kind.

Let us look at the basis of the claim that is being made by the signalmen. They consider that present pay structures agreed between British Rail and the unions have eroded differentials between signalmen and other grades and that insufficient account has been taken of their responsibilities. They are demanding apparently, as a signing-on allowance, an increase of 5 per cent. on the basic rate; and, to restore the differentials, a further responsibility payment of 10 per cent., making a total of 15 per cent. The signalmen did not receive responsibility payment in last year's restructuring, as their pay structure was separately restructured in 1972. However, it was accepted last year that under the restructuring some anomalies would arise. The signalmen's case was considered and the NUR and British Rail established a Working Party, the findings of which were agreed by the NUR Executive and resulted in the reclassificaion of some 1,800 jobs in signal boxes. This gives a further pay increase of between £2.95 and £5.35 per week to about 1,400 signalmen, and, in addition, some 850 signalmen will benefit from a doubling of the isolation allowance. I regret that I cannot give the date when these increases will commence to be paid.

I can also give some information on the amounts of wages. There are six categories of signalmen whose rates vary from £29 to £48 a week. In addition they receive shift and other allowances, special payments and, for those working in London, an additional payment. I understand that the signalmen in the lowest grade earn £53 a week and that the highest earn £80 a week, on average. This is an increase of about 27 per cent. As I have already indicated, there is a further £2.70 in respect of railwaymen who work in the Greater London Council area; and to these figures must be added the reclassification increases of £2.95 to £5.95 to which I have already referred. That is, I think, the answer to the principal question.

May I look at some of the other questions. First, this is an unofficial group. I understand that this dispute was initiated by the Union of Railway Signalmen which is recognised neither by British Rail nor by the NUR; nor is it affiliated to the TUC and we take the view that it is not the place of Government to recognise it. On the last occasion of the disruptive action, the members of that small union were apparently supported by some members of the NUR and probably by some non-union members. So far as referring this matter to CAS is concerned, this is a dispute between a small section of a union and the union itself; it is not a matter for CAS. So far as the NUR Signalmen's Committee is concerned I regret that I have no information on that question and I cannot answer it. I understand that the results of the present negotiations will be payable as from 1st May.

If the National Tribunal were wrong, we have to consider two points. First they were dealing with a most intricate problem, one of the most intricate in wage negotiations. Secondly, whether or not they were wrong, it was accepted by both the unions and the NUR. Even afterwards when there was some discontent, the NUR and British Rail set up a Working Party and as a result of that Working Party adjustments were made. Those adjustments were accepted by British Rail and by the NUR, and those payments are additionally being made. How far can you go?


My Lords, as a man who spent most of his railway career as a signalman, I join with my right honourable friend in deploring the action of the signalmen which is causing the inconvenience which we are experiencing at this time. Anyone who knows anything at all about railway grades, who knows something about the relationship of grade to grade and the delicate balance between them, as well as the difficulty of altering differentials, will realise that this is the kind of job best left to experts, experts from the National Union of Railwaymen who have in the past served the signalmen so well.

I notice that yesterday the signalmen of South Wales, not always the most docile group in the country, decided rightly not to support this unofficial action, but to rely on the National Union of Railwaymen to conduct their case in the negotiations that are now about to take place. The South Wales signalmen were right, and I hope that the rest of the signalmen of the country will follow their excellent example.


My Lords, may I take up one point that the noble Lord kindly made in answering the questions I raised? It concerns the responsibility payment to signalmen. I think that the noble Lord's figures tallied exactly with mine as to basic wages, overtime payments and total earnings of signalmen. But according to the information I have received, which was indeed confirmed by the National Union of Railwaymen, the signalmen received a responsibility payment of 7.8 per cent., whereas the Railway Staffs National Tribunal said that nothing was given, because the union (which I presume is the NUR) did not ask for any. The noble Lord is perfectly clear about this; I hope I am. Perhaps he can confirm that I am.


My Lords, may I first thank my noble friend for his support? I would add that, in addition to the arbitration by the National Tribunal and the Working Party which made adjustments, the NUR have said to these signalmen: "We are now negotiating on the annual increase and any disgruntlement you still have we will deal with in these negotiations." Concerning what was said from the Front Bench opposite, I have no information and cannot confirm or deny what was said.


My Lords, I have great sympathy with the noble Lord's own travelling difficulties as a commuter on the Portsmouth line, since I share his experience. Is he aware that I should be the last person to ask him, in Government, to take action to recognise this unofficial group? Is the noble Lord also aware, however, that he is a member of a Government which claims a special relationship with the trade union movement and a special understanding of industrial relations difficulties, and that the million or so suffering commuters look to him, to his noble friends here and his right honourable and honourable friends in another House to take some action with their friends in the trade union movement, particularly in the NUR, and to ask them to ensure that the same discipline is observed by their members in this unofficial matter as is normally observed by them in official strikes?


My Lords, I am one of the suffering public who expect somebody to do something about this situation. I do not think it is the place of the Government to do it; it is the place of the Government to use their influence upon the trade union. But when it comes to the individuals concerned, that is for the unions' influence rather than for the Government's influence. That is exactly the line that has been taken by my right honourable friend.


My Lords, can the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, repeat what is the take-home pay of signalmen at the present moment? I believe he gave two figures—between £55 and £85 take-home pay. Will he confirm that?


My Lords, there are six grades of signalmen. In the lowest grade the earnings are £53 per week on average; in the highest grade, £80 per week on average. These figures do not include the reclassification which was made by the Working Party recently, and which gave further increases of between £2.70 and £5.35 to about 1,400 signalmen —not to all but to about that figure. I might also add that those figures of earnings do not include the GLC allowance of £2.70.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that when one is leading thousands of trade unionists there comes a time in life when one encounters an awkward squad in a union, and it gives the trade union officials a lot of hard work to control them, never mind the Government? Is he further aware that if we once give way to splinter groups from the big unions where collective bargaining is done, we should say "good-bye" to collective bargaining?


My Lords, I entirely agree with everything my noble friend has said, and I thank him for his support.


My Lords, my noble friend gave to the noble Lord opposite figures about average earnings. Did he take into account that those figures do not represent only normal hours of labour but take into account overtime?


My Lords, they certainly do and I can measure the situation for the noble Lord. In the case of the lowest of the six grades the rate per week is £29, but the earnings, because of shift allowances, London allowances, overtime and so on, are £53. In the case of the highest grade the weekly rate is £48, but because of shift working and overtime, et cetera, the average earnings are £80. I think those figures give a fair conception.


My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, opposite has some validity and that there is a special relationship between a Labour Government and the trade unions? After all, we talk the whole time about the social compact or contract. Therefore, surely, although a Labour Government cannot direct any trade unions, they can—I hope they can —use a certain amount of influence.


My Lords. I would wholly agree with my noble friend. My right honourable friend is using every bit of influence he has upon the union concerned, and I know that the union is using all the influence it has upon the splinter group. But it is not the place of the Government to recognise and argue with the splinter group.