HL Deb 28 June 1982 vol 432 cc29-35

4.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should 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 should like to make a Statement about industrial action on British Rail and London Transport.

"As the House knows, the NUR are now on strike both on British Rail and the London Transport Underground. Nine London bus garages have also joined in.

"The NUR strikes have not been total. Limited services have been running in a number of areas, including some into London. But with rail or Underground services the major routes into London have been heavily overloaded with very substantial delays, particularly in east and south-east London. Hundreds of thousands of people suffered enormous inconvenience this morning. I congratulate all of them for the initiative and effort they have shown in getting to work. The help being given by the police, the motoring organisations and the radio stations is particularly appreciated.

"The Government's view is that these strikes constitute a wholly pointless and unwarranted assault on the travelling public. They should be called off without further delay before irretrievable damage is done, not least to the railway system. I under-stand that the General Secretary of the NUR has called ACAS in to help, at 12 hours' notice. But plainly the first requirement is that the NUR and ASLEF should deliver on the productivity arrangements for which they have already been paid and which emerged from the intervention of ACAS last summer. All who want to see a modern and efficient railway should support the British Rail Board in getting these promises on productivity delivered.

"On London Transport the pretext for the strike was flimsy in the extreme. London Transport had already called a cooling-off period for further discussions on their proposals for timetable changes. And negotiations on pay were still in their early stages. There are no grounds whatsoever for throwing over the normal negotiating procedures, as the NUR has done.

"In full co-operation with the Metropolitan Police steps have already been taken to help ease the traffic situation in London. In addition to 8,000 extra car parking spaces being provided in central London, arrangements by the Ministry of Defence are now in hand to provide a further 3,000 places in Hyde Park and Regent's Park. Parking restrictions and parking meters have been suspended in all side streets. Special efforts are being made to keep the radial routes free of obstruction. Road works are being suspended wherever possible within 60 miles of central London. Businesses will be asked to minimise heavy goods movements during the rush hours.

"In addition it is essential that people stagger their working hours and above all see that cars are full and that journeys are shared.

"We stand ready to introduce all further measures necessary to help the flow of traffic and to ensure that Britain keeps moving. I will keep the House fully informed".

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement, and from this side of the House I should like to express, and share, concern about the effect of the industrial action on the travelling public and on industry. We also appreciate only too well the possible effects of the action on our railway system. Bearing that point in mind, does the Minister appreciate that men do not lightly take action such as this? Is that not sufficient reason why the Minister should act and should not content himself with issuing strictures and homilies?

The Statement said that the unions should deliver on productivity arrangements. Do the Government give sufficient credit to the unions for the fact that over the past two years they have agreed to the loss of some 14,000 jobs in British Rail, and should not the Government do their part and deliver on the invi stment programme? For example, does the Minister recognise that the investment expenditure for 1981, when compared with the investment ceiling for that year, is £135 million down; and that in 1982 the difference will be £156 million? Does the Minister also recognise the serious concern that exists among the London Transport staff and the travelling public over the cuts in services caused by the House of Lords judgment, and that the Government have declined to act to remedy that situation?

Will the Minister explain the point in the Statement about arrangements being made by the Ministry of Defence to provide 3,500 further parking places in Hyde Park and Regent's Park? Perhaps he will explain that, because I had no idea that the Ministry of Defence was responsible for those two parks. Is there not also a clear indication that the General Secretary of the NUR has tried to get negotiations moving; and as Mr. Weighell has tried during the past week to deal with ACAS, is not the reference in the Statement to the effect that he called in ACAS at 12 hours' notice either careless wording or unjust to Mr. Weighell? Will the noble Lord clarify that reference or withdraw it?

In view of the seriousness of the situation, may I ask what steps the Government will be taking, or propose to take, to deal with the dispute itself? Will the Government endeavour to arrange tripartite talks? Is it not important that the understanding that existed between British Rail and the unions, as evidenced in the joint policy declarations which were presented in 1980 and 1981, should be restored; and would the Minister not agree that that can only be done by the Government taking the initiative to deal with tripartite negotiations?

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we on these Benches would like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, and say that, of course, we agree it is deplorable that so much disruption has been caused and that there has been so much trouble to the travelling public. We take the line that there can be no compromise on the productivity agreement; that the productivity improvements must be implemented, and that there can be no exception to that. We also agree that the negotiation procedures for London Transport should not have been abandoned. Once procedures agreed to are not allowed to operate, then a state of anarchy in industrial relations results.

In so far as the strike on London Transport is in fact a strike against the Law Lords' decision not to allow London ratepayers to subsidise London Transport, the desire of the NUR to obtain grants to enable the cuts not to be made is understandable, but it means that it is to some extent a political strike rather than an industrial strike. On the other hand—and I speak as a ratepayer of London and, therefore, as an interested party—it is true, is it not, that pretty well every other Government subsidise the Underground service of their own capital city? I think I am right in saying this. While it is, in the view of many of us, entirely unreasonable that the London ratepayers should subsidise the Underground service, is it really unreasonable that the Government should make some subsidy towards what is a national service in view of the fact that so many non-Londonders in fact use that service—commuters, visitors to London and tourists? There is a case, surely, for the Government doing something to ease the burden of cost on London Transport, rather than the London ratepayers doing it.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and I shall try to answer the points that they have raised. First of all, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, talked about the investment programme. I feel that when we talk about the investment programme of British Rail we should bear in mind a few of the facts. Those who travel on the St. Pancras/ Bedford route will see a classic example of £150 million of investment lying idle because the workforce simply will not put it to use. We often hear that if investment was made first then there would be a response, but here is a classical example of a very substantial investment having been made, and we sec the response. I think that is a cause for much concern when we are talking about investment.

I think that one could talk a great deal, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and I have in the past, about investment in British Rail, and indeed about subsidies for British Rail. I think it should be stated yet again that the taxpayer is paying some £900 million a year to British Rail. Some may consider that it should be more, and it may be that it should or it may be that it should not; but if productivity deals are made and not adhered to, then what kind of incentive is that to increase the £900 million and more?

As to the point with regard to the Ministry of Defence, I think that is a fairly clear one which does need explaining. The answer is simply that the MOD will provide tracking to enable access to be gained to the additional parking which will be made available to ensure that people have a place to park. That is the significance of that—and I understand why the question was asked.

On the point of Government intervention, I think I should say at once that it is for the Railways Board to negotiate with its workforce on matters of pay and productivity, and for them alone to resolve the dispute which threatens such devastating damage to the railway industry. One has to be very careful, in discussing matters of this kind on Statements, not to say anything to exacerbate the situation. We are in fact all concerned to see an end to the dispute, and all that goes with it. It would be very easy for me to make a lot of statements which I think are justified, but at this moment of time I think I should not make them unless I am pressed further. So I shall not do so at the moment.

I think I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, so far as a Government subsidy to the Underground is concerned, yes, she is quite right; clearly there has to be a subsidy. But I would remind her that the Government already subsidise London Transport to the tune of £250 million a year. Again, one has to say: is that enough? Some would say that it is too much. It is a judgment you take; but the fact is that we did not have all these traumas and dramas that we are having at the present time in London when the previous GLC administration was there. We had problems, certainly. Indeed, I think the very first time I ever spoke in your Lordships' House was to make a Statement on an impending London Underground strike, and that is now over three years ago. So it is not a new thing with this administration.

Nevertheless, it has to be said that there is much cynicism and much politicking going on in this whole matter of what is happening to London and its Underground. There is much reason to think that the workforce is being led along by people whose motives are not those which I think most Members of this House would support. I think that is the best answer I can give to the points raised so far. I will pick up others as they may come.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us take the view that this is very a sad day for the railway industry and a very sad day for the National Union of Railwaymen, which has now embarked on an industrial dispute which it stands no prospect whatever of winning and will only inflict great hardship on many members of the travelling public, especially in London? Is the Minister aware (as I am sure he is) that in the last few days great hardship has been caused to many people in London as a result of the industrial action taken on the London Undergound, and that this is undoubtedly causing a great deterioration of relations, which in the past have been excellent, between members of the travelling public and railway and Underground employees in London?

May I ask whether it would not be admirable if, at this very late stage, when it is obvious that a large number of members of the NUR do not want to take industrial action, the union now meeting in its annual conference took the initiative itself to order a ballot of its own membership? I think that that would reassure many of us and give the opportunity to those members of the NUR who do not want to take industrial action to have their voices heard. May I ask the Minister this? At the end of his Statement, he said that it was essential that people should stagger their working hours. That is manifestly right. May I ask what action the Government themselves have taken as employers to ensure that that is being done?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, on the latter point, the noble Lord makes a good point. I cannot give an immediate answer, but I would assure him that the Government would expect that we practise what we preach, and I will take away and discuss it and make sure that it is happening. As to a ballot, this is a decision for the union people at the conference. I should have thought that it probably was a good thing to do. I should welcome it, but it is their decision. Otherwise, I would agree with and accept the other points that the noble Lord made about the great burden imposed on everyone in the short term. Some of us are very concerned about the longer term effects that it will have on jobs and those who read Sir Peter Parker's letter—and some may feel that it came at the last moment—may feel that it is a moving one and I hope that no one thinks that this is playing around for negotiating advantage.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it has been commented in the press that the actual machinery of the railway negotiations between the unions and the Railways Board is extremely cumbersome and takes a long time to get its way through and work itself out. It appears that this machinery is enshrined in the 1962 Transport Act. If that is the case and if the machinery is as inefficient as it is said to be, can my noble friend look into the possibility of reforming the Act to make sure that it is an encumbrance no longer?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am not able to comment on the extent to which that Act is or is not defective and is contributing to the particular situation at the moment. I hope that one would always be looking at ways to improve legislation. I should not have thought, when we are now in the third Transport Bill of this Government's term, that there was much need to complain that we are not prepared to make changes. If the point that my noble friend makes has some specific aspect he would like to discuss with me. I should be glad to hear of it from him. I am reminded by my noble friend Lord Avon that my particular office has started staggering. They were there at six o'clock this morning.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that political parties which receive large sums of money from trade unions should be particularly careful about appearing to defend union actions that are plainly contrary to the national interest?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I should prefer not to make a comment on that point. Precisely because of what I have said at the moment, I am anxious not to exacerbate the situation by giving a view. Everyone has his own view. I do not think it would help if I commented on this.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, while taking on board what the Minister has said about not exacerbating and speaking for myself so as not to embarrass my noble friends on this Bench, is the Minister aware that something should be said on behalf of the passengers? Is the Minister aware that I have nothing to put in Hyde Park, however many places they make available, being entirely dependent on London Transport?

I should like to ask the Minister a specific question. Am I correct in understanding that last week ASLEF accepted the proposition which was put forward by London Transport for "settling" the London Transport dispute, involving a trial period of one month; and then the NUR called out their members on an entirely separate issue?

May I ask this question, which I think is a very serious one for the ordinary travellers on London Transport? When I am told that the unions say that they care very much about the travellers and the ordinary consumers, I do not believe it—having heard that tale too often. I am not afraid to cause exacerbation on this point, because somebody must speak up. I should like to ask the Minister whether we are not now approaching the stage—and if he does not want to answer it now, I will accept that—when it seems to many of us in this House and outside that we are governed not by the Government of the day (irrespective of party) but by a sectional interest?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am sure that there would be much sympathy with that point that the noble Baroness makes. I ought properly to answer the one specific question that she put. It was whether an offer was made and whether it was agreed to and later rejected. I shall spell out my words carefully. The dispute between London Transpot and its unions arose in the first place with the introduction of a new timetable on the London Underground. The unions were not prepared to accept the new timetables and the Underground has been more or less at a complete halt all last week. After extensive talks, London Transport offered a full week's cooling-off period and ASLEF, representing 50 per cent. of the drivers, and TSSA, representing clerical and managerial staff, were prepared to accept the offer. It is understood that the NUR's London Transport representatives were also prepared to accept. The offer had to go to the NUR national executive for a final decision. They rejected it out of hand and called an all-out strike of their members from midnight of last night. NUR members run the signal boxes, and the system cannot work without them.

It is very tempting for me to go into a lot more detail, but I am not going to do that. Maybe there will have to be other Statements. I hope not. It may be that one would go into more detail then, but not at this stage. On the general point that the noble Baroness makes, the philosophical one, who could not wholeheartedly agree with the depths of the feelings that she expresses? I should have thought that when she refers to the effect on the poor, long-suffering travelling public, her view must be shared by everyone. It seems that they are always at the receiving end.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I shall merely say this. Is the Minister aware that I and the travelling public are grateful to the Minister, if to nobody else?