HL Deb 16 January 1979 vol 397 cc876-83

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport on the industrial action on the railways. The Statement is as follows:

"I reported to the House on 22nd November about unofficial industrial action in the Southern Region. I explained that this resulted from a recent recommendation of the Railway Staff National Tribunal rejecting a claim by ASLEF for new bonus payments for all footplatemen.

"Yesterday evening, the Board and the leaders of the three rail unions explained to me how matters now stand. The Board have put forward proposals for specific productivity improvements, and significant progress has been made in discussion. There are substantial benefits to be gained for railwaymen as a whole, for British Railways, and for the travelling public if satisfactory agreements can be reached. There is every reason why constructive negotiations should continue.

"In these circumstances, I regret that ASLEF have called their members out in a national rail stoppage today and on Thursday.

"In my previous Statement I made clear that industrial action was wholly unjustified, unfair to other railwaymen, damaging to the long-term prospects of the railways and inexcusable in the inconvenience it caused to the travelling public.

"I have no reason to change that view. On the contrary, I have said to the General Secretary of ASLEF that it is quite senseless to embark on a course which can only damage the interests of those it is intended to serve, and I have asked all the parties to meet me again this evening to see how best negotiations can be carried forward. I know that the whole House will feel that industrial action should be brought to an end without further delay".

4.4 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Baroness for repeating that Statement, although I am sure that we are not particularly glad for the reason for it. I am glad, and I am sure all my noble friends are glad, that the noble Baroness is now the Under-Secretary at the Department of the Environment, and I hope that the whole House will congratulate her on this appointment.

I am sure that we all deplore the effect of this action on passengers, on the travelling public, and on the railway industry and its long-term prospects. The only question I feel it would be useful for me to put to the noble Baroness at this stage, when matters are obviously at a very delicate point, is this: can she, on behalf of the Government, give us an absolute assurance that whatever the outcome of these difficulties it will not be the passengers who will have to pay; that they will not be called upon to pay for the increased costs that may flow from this, and that it will be something that will really rest with those who are responsible?

This is a difficult stage in the history of the railways. All of us wish the railways to go on playing a major part in our transport. I hope that anything that I say today will not prejudice that decision. I hope that the Government will continue to display the sort of attitude that we have heard in this Statement, and at the same time make sure that in the end the travelling public, who have suffered, will not have to foot the bill.

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches would like to join in congratulating the noble Baroness on her new appointment, and to thank her for having repeated this Statement. Deplorable though we think the action of ASLEF has been in calling these strikes at the present time, particularly having in mind the progress that we are told had been made in discussion, our main concern, as always on such occasions, is to say nothing that would exacerbate the situation while talks are proceeding, or are about to be resumed.

I have just two questions to ask the noble Baroness. One of them is in a somewhat different form but covers perhaps the same ground as the question just asked by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan. Are we to understand from this Statement that any further payments contemplated for British Rail employees in the immediate future are to be made only in return for guaranteed improvements in productivity? Secondly, for the longer term do the Government accept that this unhappy dispute is a reminder to us all of the need to do everything we can to facilitate the formation, however formidable the obstacles now in the way, of a single union covering all employees of British Rail?

4.7 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their comments on my promotion, I suppose it is, and I certainly hope to continue to serve the House. The noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, asked what would be the outcome, and for an assurance that the passengers would not pay. Of course it is a matter for the British Railways Board as to how they meet their costs. What we are concerned with, and what my right honourable friend is concerned with, is that it is vital that we should not slacken our efforts to keep inflation in single figures. This means that any extra pay for the railwaymen can only be generated by increased productivity.

The Government are certainly not going to find any money to bail out British Rail, and we have made that very clear to all parties. It will be a matter, if this action continues, for the British Railways Board to decide how they tackle the situation. Again, as I say, it is a commercial decision for them, but I would hope that it would not be the passengers who would suffer. I think that this probably answers the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, on the longer term, of the formation of a single union. If we lived in an ideal society, or we were starting again as did Germany after the war, then perhaps we might be able to do something about this and have one union for one industry. It would make life simpler right across the industrial field if Ministers, and the trade, and the employers had to deal with only one union. But we live in the world as we find it and at the moment we have more than one union, and what we want to see is those unions working together for the good of the railways, the good of their members, and above all to serve the public whom they are there to serve.

4.10 p.m.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, if the Government are not going to bail out British Rail—and I am delighted to hear they are determined not to do so—and if the passengers are not going to bail out British Rail if increased pay is given to the drivers, is there not only one possible way by which the equation can be arrived at, namely, that any pay given in respect of increased productivity should be given only after the increased productivity has been achieved and not, as normally happens, beforehand?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am sure the British Railways Board and the Government will be looking for increased productivity for any increased pay that is awarded, and I am certain that if the increases that are given are so large that they look like breaking the inflation figures, for which we have set ourselves the target of keeping in single figures, the Chancellor will have to take account of that and take the action that is necessary.


My Lords, is there any reason to hope that when new productivity agreements are made they will in fact be adhered to? Is the present strike not taking place in breach of the agreements both with ASLEF and the NUR?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, the present strike is arising out of the negotiations with the tribunal who recommended that there should be certain additional payments for railway drivers who were driving the high speed trains, and at this time it is a difference of opinion as between the tribunal, the British Railways Board and ASLEF. The main pay negotiations do not come to a head until the end of March; these are not the pay negotiations as such. This issue arises from the one particular finding of the Railway Staff National Tribunal which ASLEF is not at this stage prepared to accept, and we are negotiating on that now.


My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that statement, but does it not illustrate precisely the point that these negotiations are not really due to be finished until March, and that the strikes are taking place to the great inconvenience of the travelling public at a time when the railwaymen should be guided by their agreements?

Baroness STEDMAN

As I said, my Lords, this is a sort of one off result of the decision of the working party and the tribunal appointed to look at this one particular aspect. The pay negotiations as such will not start until the end of March. We hope the negotiations that are now going on will mean that they will be a much more peaceful exercise than the one we are engaging in at the moment.


My Lords, I welcome the robust line which the noble Baroness and her colleagues are taking with regard to British Rail and their support of British Rail in insisting that extra pay must be related to extra productivity. However, may I ask her to take note that the travelling public are concerned with regularity of services? It is the continuous irregularity and the continuous breaching of service agreements, involving services being taken off, which destroy the value of the services altogether. Will she ask British Rail, in talking about increased productivity, to insist that that is related to regular attendance by the men in discharging their daily services to the public, and that the payments will not be forthcoming unless they give that service?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am certain those are all points of which the British Railways Board and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport are aware. However, I take note of them and will make sure that they are brought to their attention again.


My Lords, does the noble Baroness suppose that driving a high speed train is more exhausting than driving an ordinary train or requires greater skill?

Baroness STEDMAN

I was not a member of the tribunal which considered that point and came to this conclusion, my Lords; but there is certainly a tremendous responsibility in driving the high speed trains and perhaps, as some of the railwaymen are arguing, there is also responsibility in driving the very heavily committed commuter trains as well, and I think that is the nub of the argument at the moment.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness to enlighten the House a little further about the nature of the agreement between ASLEF and the Railways Board? What is the proper procedure to follow after the Railway Staff Tribunal has given a ruling? Is it within the terms of the agreement to strike, or is it not, and on what: basis?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I should have thought it was for all sides, all parties, to the agreement then to consider and to negotiate if they found there were any problems about the matter; to try to get round the table and settle them in that way. In this instance we appear to have gone beyond that and we have the unfortunate strike today and the other one in prospect for Thursday. My view as a trade unionist of many years standing is that you negotiate as long as you can and strike as the last action you take. That does not necessarily seem to be the popular view today, but I hope we shall come back to that.


My Lords, while I do not want to embarrass the Minister, may I ask her to say whether what ASLEF is doing is or is not in breach of their procedure agreement?

Baroness STEDMAN

I think not, my Lords, but I should like to take advice on that before replying further. I think that here it is a question that they negotiate and then take such action as is necessary. On this point they think the only way they can achieve what they want is by striking. That is the action they have deemed it necessary to take. But I will check on the point and write to the noble Lord.


My Lords, as it is the Southern Region of British Rail which has taken the brunt of these inconveniences over the years, may I ask the noble Baroness to consider the possibility of some kind of agreement between British Rail and the London Passenger Transport Board being entered into regarding the interchange of tickets, particularly in view of the chaotic scenes at Morden station which, to my cost, I witnessed this morning? While realising that this is a matter for the two boards, may I ask her to agree that if that were done, many man hours of productivity would be saved? Would she further agree that, in these circumstances, London Passenger Transport Board is doing an excellent job?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, to answer the latter point, yes; London Passenger Transport Board is doing and has done an excellent job in moving commuters and getting people into London. As for the transferability of tickets, I should like to look at that. I was not aware of the problems experienced by the noble Lord. I will look into the matter and write to him.