HL Deb 14 July 1982 vol 433 cc355-9

3.43 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the current industrial action on the railways.

"In the face of the continuing strike imposed by the executive of ASLEF against the new work rosters firmly recommended by Lord McCarthy's tribunal, the British Railways Board have within the last two hours announced that they will be forced to close the railway system down from next Wednesday unless there is a substantial return to work by the drivers.

"All those on strike on the previous day will be dismissed. At the same time they will be offered re-employment on the same terms, provided only that they agree to work to the new rosters.

"The decision to which the British Railways Board have been driven are clearly very grave. The strike which has caused them is a pointless one which should never have been called and should and could easily be lifted even now by the ASLEF executive.

"The McCarthy Railway Tribunal has left no doubt that flexible rostering should now be adopted by ASLEF, with no less than 13 safeguards, as it has been by the rest of those working on the railways to their clear benefit. The British Railways Board has all along been willing to discuss details of how the new rosters should be brought in and ways of making the change as easy as possible for engine drivers.

"Their proposals to this end were met with the blunt response by the ASLEF executive of an all-out strike call, although having pulled this trigger the ASLEF executive then suggested further talks, but still with no clear commitment whatsoever to any change in principle.

"The board have informed me that their further offer of constructive ways on which flexible rostering could be applied, once ASLEF have lifted their strike and accepted the principle, has again been rejected by the ASLEF executive in the last 24 hours.

"Mr. Speaker, the path ahead for the railways of this country is now very dark. Vast resources are being bled away. Thousands of jobs could disappear for good. Travellers and holiday makers are being caused much bitter misery and suffering.

"Those who call this unnecessary strike, as well as those who have given comfort and succour to the strike, carry an immense and direct responsibility for all this damage and all this suffering.

"It remains in the hands of the ASLEF executive to call a halt to the destruction. And it is the duty of all those who believe the public should be protected and the railways and those who work in them saved from disaster, to urge the executive of ASLEF to desist from their futile course".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. If allowed to continue, of course, this would be a national disaster, not only the effect on the travelling public, on industry and the future of British Rail, but also the wellbeing of all workers of all unions employed by British Rail. It is a tragedy that it should happen, especially as 18 months ago the British Rail Board and the unions were working in close harmony on the development plan for the years 1981 to 1985.

Does the Minister recognise that men as responsible as locomotive drivers are do not lightly take action of this kind without believing in their own minds that they have a rightful cause? The McCarthy Tribunal Decision 77 clearly recommends rostering, but the tribunal said that there is nothing in the report that should be used to impose things on any people, and I am certain noble Lords will agree that what must be avoided is an embittered workforce for the future. As was said on the last Statement presented to your Lordships, agreement was very near, including experiment rostering as put forward by ASLEF. There was an opportunity, if the Secretary of State had asked both sides to get together, to try to bridge that difference. It would be unwise for any words to be used which, even at this stage, may prevent a possible settlement.

Is the noble Lord aware that Mr. Michael Foot and Mr. Albert Booth, the Opposition spokesman on transport, have this morning been to the ASLEF headquarters, and my information is that they have worked out a formula. My information is that they are now presenting this formula to the chairman of the British Rail Board, and up to the time that I was presented with the Statement they had not returned from that meeting. We can only hope that will be successful.

We would query why the Government and the Secretary of State have stood aside from what could be a national tragedy, and if what I have just reported proves to be correct it is to be hoped that the Secretary of State will not stand aside if a little movement by him could bring a settlement to what otherwise would be a national disaster.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, from these Benches we should like to join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for repeating the Statement. The situation is, indeed, a grave one, as the Statement says. It is one in which, in our view, the long-term interests of the community must prevail, and to that end we feel bound to support the British Rail Board in their decision to give ASLEF drivers notice of dismissal and other employees notice that the rail system will be closed if there is not now a sufficiently widespread and speedy return to work. Are the Government aware that in our view settlement of this long-running dispute should now be reached only on terms which will ensure that the long overdue improvement in productivity that lies at its heart is actually achieved?

I have only one specific question to ask the Minister and it relates to the suspension of the guaranteed week agreement. Is the period of one week's notice, referred to in the Statement, such that in the light of British Rail's cash position no insurmountable legal obstacles will arise to frustrate the board's decision? Finally, on behalf of my noble friends, I should like to join in entreating the ASLEF executive to authorise the drivers to resume their duties in this essential public service.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and to the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, for what they have said and for the restrained way in which they have made their comments. I hope that I shall deal with the matter similarly. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked whether it was recognised that men do not lightly take action of this kind unless there is due cause. This clearly would not be the moment for me to go over the background as to how one comes to this position at present, after so long a period of negotiations. However, I think that the noble Lord would also accept from me that the Board, too, are responsible people who recognise their obligations to the country as a whole, and therefore I trust that that is equally important in this whole unhappy situation.

The noble Lord said that it is important to avoid an embittered workforce, and of course I agree with him. I think he would also agree with me that it is important that at the end of the day there should not be an embittered public who feel that they have been dealt with very badly in this whole matter. What the noble Lord has told me about his honourable friends Mr. Michael Foot and Mr. Albert Booth is something of which I had heard, but on which I have no more information than he does and, therefore, I cannot make any observation on it.

On the last point which he made about the Government standing aside, I think that I ought to repeat what I said yesterday on that matter when I was answering a Question on this subject; namely, that the Government feel very strongly that it would be quite wrong to intervene. It is for British Rail and their workforce together to settle this matter. The fact is that we must recognise that the Board are striving to change outmoded working practices in an effort to create a modern and efficient railway industry that can best serve the needs of the nation, and the Government fully support their efforts.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, for his helpful observations. As regards the one question which he put to me concerning the legal aspect of what the board are doing and whether it might frustrate their intentions, all I would say at this moment is that they have obviously considered the matter very carefully. I understand that they are very sensitive to the point. The matter may well come back on to the table in due course, but at the moment I would not be able to comment further without perhaps adversely prejudicing the line that they are taking.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, we on these Benches regret that a Statement of this kind has to be made today. At the same time, we understand and support the decision taken by the British Rail Board in their endeavours to bring the railways system in the United Kingdom up to the modern standards that are observed in most European railways. I support the proposition that was made that we do not want an embittered workforce. Is the Minister aware that no one has done more to build the morale of the workforce in British Railways than their present chairman?

The Select Committee of 1976–1977 identified 40,000 jobs in British Rail that should go. In the five years that have elapsed, only 12,000 of those jobs have been shed. The decision of the British Railways Board today will mean an immediate saving in taxpayers' money of something like £29 million per week: £12 million in wages and £17 million in other costs. While a great deal has been said about the workforce and the public, there is another factor to be borne in mind in this situation; namely, the taxpayer. British Rail this year will lose £165 million on top of the £850 million public sector obligation, which is the payment for the non-economic lines—a total obligation on the taxpayer of £1 billion per year. Is the Minister aware that that represents a very large slice of the available PSBR which must affect the claims of other important services in our community to a share of that cake?

We on these Benches would like to echo the sentiments of the spokesman from the Liberal Benches and very much welcome in the Statement the paragraph which says that once ASLEF have lifted their strike and accepted the principle of flexible rostering, the British Rail Board are ready today and prepared to enter into constructive dialogue.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I would simply like to say that I confirm the figures that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, has mentioned. They are figures which I, too, have, and I can only in the main agree with what the noble Lord says. I think that he, too, recognises the grave concern that there is on all sides. We want to see a solution.

The Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair

My Lords, can the Minister give a practical answer to a question without saying that this is not a matter for the Government but a matter for British Rail? In the circumstances of the dismissal of the driver workforce—which is a possibility—and their subsequent re-engagement, can the noble Lord say how this will affect the pension rights of those men and subsequent redundancy agreements should that occur?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I could venture an opinion but frankly, if the noble Marquess will excuse me, I would prefer not to do so at this moment precisely because I think that, if I am right, it might not help the situation generally. I would prefer not to answer the point. Clearly this is one of the legal points which I referred to in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, which the board obviously have in mind. There are implications all round. The noble Lord can be assured that the Board have this well in mind. I am sorry that at this moment I prefer not to try to give him a more detailed answer, and I hope that at present he will accept what I have said.

The Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a very important point in terms of modern labour relations and an unembittered workforce?

Lord Bellwin

I entirely accept that it is a very important point and that is why I am absolutely certain that the board have it well in mind.

Lord Milford

My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that the mass media is not playing a fair part in this dispute? Would not there be less embitterment all round if the ASLEF point of view was put fairly at a mass meeting as well as the public's point of view?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, the very last thing I shall do is make my own observations on what I think of the way in which the mass media is presenting this, or any other points if it comes to that. I would probably have to disagree with the point that the noble Lord made. I do not think that there is an unfair representation of that point of view, and I would have to say that. Beyond that, there is no way in which I shall enter into the debate.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think that this might be a convenient moment for the House again to resolve itself into a Committee on the Transport Bill.