HL Deb 26 June 1984 vol 453 cc784-7

3 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will state what directives they gave to the British Rail Board in recent negotiations with the trade unions and whether this represents a departure from the Government's declared policy of nonintervention in the management of nationalised industries.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the wage negotiations were the responsibility of the British Railways Board. Naturally, the chairman kept my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport informed of the progress of the negotiations and, in his turn, my right honourable friend kept his colleagues informed. This is because the Government need to know—and if necessary to comment on—the implications of wage negotiations for the finances of the nationalised industries, for the taxpayer and for the public interest. On the recent pay settlement, the Government were content with the Board's proposals. There were no directives to British Rail and there was no departure from the Government's normal practice.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister if he will confirm that a letter was sent from the Prime Minister's office to his department, which stated: British Rail should increase its pay offer to keep negotiations in play", and that the Department of Transport, quite rightly, made its views known to the chairman of British Rail. In the light of this precedent, would the Minister now state whether they are prepared to suggest to the British Rail Board that it proceed under civil law to prevent the railway unions disrupting coal and iron-ore supplies at Llanwern and also at Ravenscraig?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, so far as the first supplementary of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, is concerned, I would say that certainly there was an exchange of letters, and this would not be unusual between Ministers who have overlapping responsibilities in these matters. I feel that the noble Lord's second supplementary is somewhat wide of the original Question.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, is it not a fact that the letter to which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, referred has not been denied? Is the Minister also aware that a Written Question was asked of the Secretary of State for Transport, as to whether he had discussed wage levels in the railway industry with the chairman of British Rail? On 9th April, in a Written Answer, the Secretary of State said that wage levels in British Rail are for negotiation between the British Railways Board and the unions. Yet the letters to which we are referring were on 2nd April. This Written Answer was on 9th April. Has the Minister any suggestion of a permitted parliamentary terminological expression to explain that sort of conduct?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I should hope that all of us, in all quarters of the House, would deplore and condemn the theft of documents and any breach of confidence between Ministers and their officials. Those who leak papers such as those to which the noble Lord refers must accept that they damage the reputation of the entire Civil Service and betray. the trust they owe the Government.

In reply to the earlier part of the question by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, it would be strange indeed—would it not?—if Ministers in charge of nationalised industries did not discuss with the nationalised industries' chairmen various matters of common interest. Of course that interest would include wages and wage settlements. But I repeat: there was no direction whatsoever from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport to the British Railways Board with regard to the negotiations to which the noble Lord has referred.

Lord Jacques

My Lords, is the Minister aware that if the Government were quite candid and said, "We represent the owners of these industries, and, when intervention is necessary, we will intervene", there would be no need for any breach of loyalty?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, suggests in his question something which is slightly misleading. He will recognise, and I am sure all noble Lords will recognise, that Her Majesty's Government are accountable to Parliament for the nationalised industries. It stands to reason that they must provide those industries with a broad framework within which to work, and that means discussing with them the implications of wider Government policies.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, in returning to this Question, I should like to ask if it is not a fact that last October the Government set the chairman a clear and achievable set of objectives for all its businesses? Is it not a fact that the Government have accepted in full the grant claim for £837 million submitted by British Railways for grant in 1984? We have not heard very much from noble Lords opposite about that fact.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, certainly on 24th October last my right honourable friend the Secretary of State set out objectives for British Rail. Those objectives were accepted by the chairman, Mr. Bob Reid. I confirm the figure that my noble friend has quoted. I should add that the Government have also approved £134; million-worth of investment in British Rail since last October, since those objectives were set down.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that there is growing uncertainty in the public mind about the relations of government with nationalised industries, and that the time has come when this situation should be clarified in the form of a White Paper or by other means, as previous governments have done?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. I do not think there is any confusion in the mind of the public. I have stated quite clearly, and on other occasions noble friends alongside me have stated, the relationship between government and the nationalised industries. I should have thought that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, himself, would have full knowledge of what are those kind of relationships.

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough

My Lords, would the Minister thank me if I suggested that his reply might be on the lines that, if there is a possible chance of putting the tiniest bit of sense into the heads of the managements of these nationalised industries, and the unions, there is no reason in divinity, morals or politics why the Government should not have a go at it?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I think I should thank the right reverend Prelate for his comments

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, will the noble Lord comment on the remarks being made about the duty of the Government to interfere in nationalised industries, on the basis that they own them? Will he agree that what has been going on is that the Government have been interfering much too much in the nationalised industries, and that this is the cause of most of their present troubles? Is it not one of the very good reasons why we should denationalise these industries so as to keep the Government's fingers out of them?

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, I think the answer to the noble Viscount is, not this afternoon. It is 31 minutes since we started Questions, and the noble Viscount's point is rather wide of the original Question. Perhaps he would come back to it another day.

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