HC Deb 24 February 1975 vol 887 cc34-43
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the unofficial action taken and being threatened by some railway signalmen.

The signalmen concerned complain about the outcome of the major pay restructuring exercise for all British Rail employees which was finally completed last year. They are demanding a further 15 per cent. increase.

Negotiations on a new, comprehensive pay structure for the railways first began in 1972. They were always accepted as being in addition to the negotiations for normal annual settlements. The negotiations proved long and arduous, and the House will remember that they were from time to time accompanied by official industrial action which seriously disrupted railway services. In February 1974, agreement not having been reached, all the outstanding issues were referred to the Railway Staff National Tribunal, the railways' agreed and independent arbitral body. In July last year the tribunal reported after carefully considering all the issues, involving as they did the complex of all pay relativities between different groups of workers. Its recommendations were accepted by British Rail and the unions and were implemented.

It is important to remember this background in considering the present unofficial action by a minority of all railway employees, indeed a minority of signalmen. The current relativities were established only after long negotiations and a comprehensive and detailed inquiry by an independent tribunal, set up by agreement in the industry. They were accepted by all the unions and the overwhelming majority of those they represent.

It has been suggested that, because of the hardship and inconvenience the unofficial action is causing, I should intervene in some way to secure a settlement or that I should appoint an inquiry. I certainly deplore the appalling inconvenience to the travelling public that has resulted and have urged that it should end. But the present pay structure was itself established by an independent inquiry. I would hope the House would agree that it is neither reasonable nor practical that an issue raised by an unofficial body of some kind should be referred to further inquiry. This could only undermine the established procedures of negotiation in the industry and the authority of the unions. It is a step which could greatly encourage further disruption on the railways and further afield. For the same reasons any third-party intervention is, in my view, to be avoided. Hon. Members who advocate such a course should not be misled by the plausible assurances from the unofficial spokesmen that action would stop on such an intervention. The consequences in the longer term could be most injurious to all efforts to uphold established negotiation arrangements and procedures, and to sustain the democratic machinery of the unions.

It also needs to be remembered that British Rail and the National Union of Railwayment have recently agreed on the reclassification of some 1,800 jobs in signal boxes which will lead to pay increases of between £2.95 and £5.35. Moreover, negotiations have recently begun for a new annual settlement for all railwaymen, and the National Union of Railwaymen has already indicated that the expressed grievance should be considered in the context of those negotiations.

I accept that the signalmen concerned hold their views strongly and sincerely, but I believe that they must in turn understand that they cannot secure a fresh hearing of their case in this way.

I trust the House will join with me, British Rail and the National Union of Railwaymen in condemning any continuation of these unofficial stoppages and in denying those who instigate and foster them the recognition to which their action is directed. The resolution of any grievances cannot be secured by these methods; it can only be secured through the democratic machinery of the union and the forthcoming negotiations.

Mr. Hayhoe

It is often the custom to criticise Ministers for not coming to the House to make a statement but, instead, giving information by Written Answer. On this occasion, however, we have had the Secretary of State coming to the House, and making a long statement which contained nothing new at all compared with what he said in the House 10 days ago.

While one of course urges the signalmen to end this unofficial action which, as he said, is causing appalling inconvenience, difficulty and hardship to thousands of commuters, one asks why should the community be made to suffer because of this internal dispute within the National Union of Railwaymen? What proposal has the Secretary of State for dealing with this sort of pay relativity problem? Over two months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) put this precise point to the Secretary of State, and we have had nothing from him at all.

Although one can accept his judgment that in the particular circumstances, knowing all the facts, he believes that it would be wrong to ask the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service to intervene at this stage or to set up an inquiry—he said all this 10 days ago—because he feels that the matter must be solved through union channels, will he not at least urgently consult the president of the NUR to find some way of bringing this dispute to an end? What the House is asking of the Secretary of State is action from him to protect the innocent travelling public.

Mr. Foot

I am certainly in favour of doing everything possible to protect the innocent travelling public. But I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the rest of the House that I think that they should make up their minds about this matter. Indeed, if there is any criticism of my making this statement today, it seems all the more necessary that I should have made it, because the hon. Gentleman still has not understood. There was an inquiry into the whole matter. There was an inquiry which brought to an end some of the difficulties that were experienced by the innocent travelling public a year or so ago on the railways.

The advice which it appears that the hon. Gentleman is giving is that because of this action we should reinstitute a new inquiry. The hon. Gentleman was asking whether we could have a new inquiry or an investigation by the ACAS. Either of these courses in my opinion would be accepting what the small number of signalmen wish to secure by their action. If that is what hon. Members of the Opposition ale wanting, they should say so openly and not try to get it by a side wind.

I say to the House—I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree—that the only way that this matter can be satisfactorily settled is in the forthcoming negotiations. It is not merely a question of the internal politics of the NUR. It is a question whether we are to sustain democracy in the trade unions and a proper system of negotiations.

Mr. Ron Lewis

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is no internal dispute so far as the NUR is concerned, that over the past few weeks the NUR has consistently done everything within its power to urge signalmen to remain at work, and that if they would only follow the practice of remaining at work the present grievances could be looked at in the new negotiations which are already in progress?

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. It should be stated as clearly as possible that if the advice of the NUR were followed, there would be no inconvenience to the travelling public now.

Mr. Cyril Smith

Does not the Minister agree that he has adopted an ostrich-like attitude on this matter? While it may be true that there is no dispute within the NUR, may I ask whether he agrees that there is a breakaway union involved which he is pretending does not exist? As that union does exist, will not the Minister at least agree to meet its representatives, not to promise an inquiry but at least to hear what they have to say? Is the Minister aware that I have a meeting with that union planned for tomorrow morning? Can the Minister give me any message that I can give to the signalmen in the morning which may help them to resolve their difficulties? Does the Minister not agree that he himself set up a third party in disputes, namely the ACAS? What part has he invited the ACAS to play in the dispute so far?

Mr. Foot

Hon. Members should consider what they are asking me to do. An inquiry has reported on an important and very complicated matter about differentials and the relations of different people in the unions. The inquiry examined these matters with great care and reached findings which were accepted overwhelmingly by all the parties concerned. Hon. Members now suggest that, because of disruptive action, we should take steps either to ask the ACAS to intervene or to institute some inquiry. That is a recipe for widespread chaos that hon. Members are recommending us to adopt, particularly as negotiations will be taking place in a very few weeks in which precisely these matters can be examined afresh. In those circumstances, it would be most unwise for us to take the action suggested or implied by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe). If hon. Members want a good, simple recipe for spreading industrial chaos everywhere, they have heard it.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that his negative reply of today will be very cold comfort to many thousands of commuters or would-be commuters from Hertfordshire and elsewhere? What is to happen in the long run if a deaf ear continues to be turned to his exhortations? Is not this a task for the conciliation and arbitration procedures which he has put in place of any court? Are they not on trial in this matter?

Mr. Foot

No, I do not think that there is any criticism of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service in any sense whatsoever. As I have repeated, an inquiry was instituted and a report was made and it was accepted by all the parties concerned. If hon. Members are proposing that the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service should be put into operation immediately, or very soon, because of disruptive action, they are proposing a recipe for spreading industrial chaos in this country.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks what we are proposing to do to deal with the situation and the great inconvenience to which the travelling public are being subjected. I agree about the difficulties. I deplore the difficulties. The best way for them to be removed is for the matter to be settled in the forthcoming negotiations. It is not a question of anyone on my side turning a deaf ear. The deaf ear has been turned by the right hon. and learned Member, who does not seem to appreciate that these matters can be and will be dealt with in the forthcoming negotiations.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if there were to be any change in the differential at this stage it would almost certainly lead to industrial action by another group of railwaymen and chaos over the coming months?

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. One of the reasons for the setting-up of the inquiry in February of last year—incidentally, it was an inquiry instituted by the Tory Government—was the industrial disruption which was already taking place. Hon. Members make a great mistake if they think that we should reopen that situation.

Sir John Rodgers

Cannot the Secretary of State use his good offices to bring home to this small number of signalmen that their anti-social behaviour is causing great distress to thousands of commuters? If he cannot see any way through it at present, should he not talk to the National Union of Railwaymen and the Trades Union Congress and see whether unofficial stoppages of this nature should be included in the social contract, so-called?

Mr. Foot

One of the reasons for my making the statement today, although the fact that I have made it seems to be regretted by some, is that prior to Thursday or any other time when this small number of signalmen propose to take action they should know what the Government's attitude is.

I wish to make it absolutely clear so that there can be no misunderstanding about it. The Government are not prepared to institute an inquiry in these circumstances, for all the reasons I have given. However, the National Union of Railwaymen has been using its exertions to try to persuade signalmen not to join in this action. The NUR, with which of course I have had conversations, has done its very best to persuade the signalmen not to join the action. I hope that the efforts of the NUR to ensure that everybody is able to get to work will be supported unanimously by the House of Commons.

Mr. Dalyell

Does the Secretary of State recollect that he came under great criticism in Scotland at the time of the Scottish road haulage strike back in November? Confessing that I was one of those who flirted at one point with the idea that he should be called in, may I ask whether he will now accept our total support? Will he remind those in Scotland who think that it is only when things are wrong in Scotland that he takes no action, and that when things go somewhat critically wrong on Thamesside and in the South-East he pays immediate attention, that they are wrong? Can he put this view of the world straight?

Mr. Foot

I am glad that my hon. Friend has repented of his previous error, if indeed that is what he is confessing to the House. I believe that the question when the Department of Employment intervenes in a dispute or when the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service intervenes is a matter of some importance. All I am saying and underlining is that if the Department of Employment or the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service were to intervene in a dispute of this character it would mean that every inquiry could be reopened within a few weeks or a few months by anybody who liked to cause any disruptive action. If that is thought to be a recipe for industrial peace, I suggest that somebody finds another.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept my sympathy for having to make his statement today, a type of statement with which I am all too familiar, having made it myself? If he cannot assure the House, as I fully accept that he cannot, that his own intervention would be helpful at this stage, will he at least assure us that he and his officers are keeping the situation under review and will accept that if this situation goes on long enough there must come a time when, either through the TUC or direct, he must take some action to avoid this inconvenience to commuters?

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman started by offering me his sympathy. What I much prefer to have from hon. Members opposite is a clear and honest statement of their views instead of their seeking to have it both ways. I believe that if I were to make the kind of statement the right hon. Gentleman invites me to make it would only encourage this tiny number of signalmen to proceed with their action, because they take the view that if they only continue for long enough they will be able to force me or the Government to institute an inquiry. I say that they will not succeed in that purpose. I wanted to make that point clear. Any hon. Gentleman opposite who wishes to be honest with the country will say the same.

Mr. Spriggs

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the statement he has made this afternoon. I declare an interest. On behalf of over 200,000 railwaymen who accepted the last pay agreement which covered the signalmen who are now quarrelling with the rest of the railwaymen about a differential, may I remind my right hon. Friend that some of us in the House who have a personal interest in the matter wish to add our appeals personally to this small group of signalmen who are causing such hardship to commuters? We believe that it is unfair and wrong of them to do so. However, it is disgraceful for criticism to be offered to my right hon. Friend by hon. Members opposite who left a miners' strike, a three-day week and a blackout when they went to the country.

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend is quite correct in saying that the settlement that was reached on the railways last year was one of the best settlements that has been reached for railwaymen as a whole in recent time. However, we are not saying that it is perfect and, if there are errors in it, the NUR and British Railways have said that they will correct it in the next set of negotiations, which are just about to begin. In these circumstances, it is absurd for any hon. Member to suggest that we should start a new inquiry which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) said, would immediately disrupt the whole of the settlement which was made last year.

Sir Bernard Braine

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that hundreds of thousands of commuters in Essex alone have been suffering not merely inconvenience but considerable hardship, not for the past few weeks, but for the past three months? The right hon. Gentleman has invited us to make positive proposals. Does he not recognise that either the signalmen have a genuine grievance or they have not? If they have a genuine grievance, is it not right that this should be ascertained without delay? Would it not have been right to ascertain it without delay two or three months ago? If the signalmen have not a grievance, should they not be disciplined by British Railways? Is there not a case for an inquiry at once without further disruption of services for so many commuters?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to listen to what has been said. He has apparently never faced the facts of the matter. There was an inquiry last year into precisely these matters—

Sir Bernard Braine

indicated dissent.

Mr. Foot

It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. There was an inquiry into all these matters by an independent body, the arbitral body which exists for the railway industry. That body produced its report, which was accepted overwhelmingly by the railwaymen. The hon. Gentleman is asking that very soon after that inquiry has been published we should reopen it because some people are causing disruptive action. I think that is particularly foolish when there is the possibility, as I have already underlined, of fresh negotiations in a very short time. If hon. Members want to have industrial peace and want to assist their constituents, they will do better if they support the view which I have expressed instead of pretending that there is some other way in which peace can be restored on British Railways.

Mr. Crouch

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept from me my absolute support in demanding, asking and pleading with the signalmen to go back to work, and continue their complaint from there? However, I must say to the right hon. Gentleman, too, that it is no good his coming to the House today and saying nothing to us, and then pleading with us, with all the oratory at his command, to believe that there is nothing that he as Secretary of State can do. Surely he is not a bureaucrat now. He is a Secretary of State and should be able to find a politician's way out. Can he not find some way that is not a statutory way of meeting these men? Can he not meet them in his room here at the House of Commons?

Mr. Foot

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said in the first part of his question, even though he appeared to withdraw it in the second part. It is not a question of bureaucracy or anything of the sort. The question is whether a person is prepared to speak honestly and straight about this matter. There is no way by which this dispute can be settled by the Government instituting an inquiry. There is no way by which it can be settled by my meeting these signalmen in the House of Commons or in any other way.

Sir Bernard Braine


Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman asks how. I have been trying to get it into his thick skull for about three or four months, or whatever the period is. The hon. Gentleman causes more problems in this House than the rest of the House put together. I have been trying to tell him. [Interruption.] I am referring to the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine). There is a perfectly good way by which this matter can be settled, and that is by negotiations which are available in the next few weeks. That is the way in which it can be settled. The hon. Gentleman likes to pretend that he is looking after his constituents, but what he would be doing would cause much more trouble to his constituents for many more years.