HL Deb 02 July 1982 vol 432 cc460-3

11.30 a.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which is now being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport in another place. The Statement reads as follows: "With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the further threatened strike on British Rail and Government measures to help rail users.

"The House will have shared the general relief that the delegate conference of the NUR overturned the decision of their executive to call strikes on both British Rail and London Underground.

"But this good sense has been overtaken by the decision of the executive of ASLEF, the train drivers, to call an indefinite national strike from tomorrow night.

"The ASLEF executive's grounds for this action are that they refuse to operate British Railways Board plans for more flexible working hours or rosters, on which there have been extensive consultations including a tribunal award which have been already accepted by railway guards and their union and implemented by four-fifths of them.

"Mr. Speaker, unless there are last minute wiser thoughts ASLEF is now embarking on the most pointless national strike called by a trade union in half a century. Unless this strike is called off, it will again bleed away vital railway funds needed for modernisation, as it did in January/February of this year; and it will further worsen the pay prospects for all others in the industry. The railway system will be forced to contract. Many associated industries supplying equipment will be hurt. Many more railway jobs will be lost, as will many wage packets. A strike will also harm other industries and the jobs of those working in them.

"The British Railways Board has done all that is reasonable, and more, to understand drivers' worries and to introduce new flexible hours with all necessary safeguards. But without consulting its members the ASLEF executive responded by calling an all-out strike.

"Faced with this ugly prospect the Government will again take all possible measures to minimise the grievous difficulties for commuters and protect the public. The police will again make substantial extra car-parking spaces available, including 3,000 extra spaces in Hyde Park and Regent's Park.

"Clearways will be kept free. Roadworks will be postponed wherever possible. However, as London Transport will be operating, normal parking restrictions will apply.

"It will be vital for hours to be staggered and above all for cars and journeys to be shared. There are no legal or insurance obstacles to car-sharing. Let every car travel full.

"Mr. Speaker, it is not too late for the many engine drivers who normally serve the public well to see that they are being grievously misled by their executive. They will do great harm to their own members' livelihoods, as well as to those of many others and to the railway itself. Much their wisest course is to call off the strike and accept the introduction of flexible rostering arrangements. This they should now do."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. Let me make it quite clear that we welcome the decisions taken democratically by the NUR conference this week. From these Benches also we would deplore any new industrial action which could have a disabling effect on industry and the travelling public and imperil the future of the great railway industry. But is it sufficiently appreciated that the attitude of the ASLEF executive is dictated by the democratic decision of its own conference on the question of rostering arrangements? Does it not now appear that ASLEF is prepared to move? I regret the one-sided nature of the Statement, when what is required is the exercise of common sense and statesmanship to help ASLEF to make that move, and that type of attitude, I regret to say, is missing from the Statement.

Statements made on behalf of British Rail and ASLEF indicate that the gap could be closed, but each side wants an assurance. Would not the Minister agree that this could possibly be achieved by simultaneous declarations—possibly through ACAS—by ASLEF not to proceed with the strike and by British Rail to suspend the introduction of rostering and to be prepared to move quickly with the experimental rostering proposals put forward by ASLEF? It would seem that talks between the TUC General Secretary and the ASLEF Secretary have been extremely helpful. Will the Secretary of State now have urgent talks this morning with the British Rail chairman and give the opportunity for ACAS to move?

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we on these Benches thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We would also like to be associated with the expression of relief and appreciation that the NUR representatives in Plymouth had the good sense to call off the NUR strike. We obviously also deplore ASLEF's decision, without any further reference to its membership, to call an indefinite strike. On the other hand, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, we take the line that the British Railways Board cannot negotiate under duress. It cannot go back on its productivity proposals. There has been almost unending consultation about this stretching back into the dim distant past. There has been an arbitration decision on it and if there is to be any order in industrial relations, then that must be taken into account and the strike must be called off before any more negotiations can take place.

I should like to raise a point about parking during the strike. Is it or is it not the case that people who get a parking place may still get a parking ticket if they exceed the normal time when it says that normal parking restrictions prevail? That seems to me to be an intolerable situation when people have got up in the small hours in order to get somewhere to park their car when they get into London. If that is the case, is it really necessary to continue with it?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, for their remarks which are much appreciated. Perhaps I may take first the specific point raised by the noble Baroness. As I understand it, this is the normal practice. It is what happened in the previous strikes and it will happen again this time. I think that people are now accustomed to it, but I will bring her remarks to the attention of my right honourable friend.

I should like to put some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, into perspective. We must remember that ASLEF have still not delivered on flexible rostering after nearly a year of negotiations, arbitration and inquiry. They have ignored pressure from other unions, pressure from the TUC, the good offices of ACAS and the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy. They now say that they have counter-proposals which would achieve the same savings, but the simple fact is that after a year the board is still awaiting their delivery of a productivity improvement which they promised and which has been paid for in advance.

In spite of the ASLEF Executive's intransigence for so long, the Railways Board has bent over backwards to help them. They readily accepted all the safeguards which the McCarthy tribunal recommended to meet ASLEF's fears. In spite of that ASLEF rejected the report. When ASLEF suggested an alternative to flexible rostering which they contended would achieve the same aims and economies, the board was willing to test this alongside a similar trial of their own proposals. However, the reaction was, as we know, to call a strike before they had actually even considered the board's proposals. I do not want to enter into any more details on that because obviously we do not want to exacerbate the situation in any way.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I should like to put two points to the Minister. First, is he aware that many of us take the view that at a time like this it is absolutely right to support the position of the chairman of British Railways, given the totally intransigent position of ASLEF over a very substantial period of time? My second question is one which I put to the noble Earl's noble friend when he made a Statement earlier this week. What action is being taken within Government departments to ensure that hours are, in fact, going to be staggered in the way that he suggested should be done?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his opening remarks. As far as Government departments are concerned, it is left to individual departments, but I think as my noble friend said on Monday, certainly in our department they are doing extremely well at staggering them.