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Heathrow (Dispute)

Volume 929: debated on Tuesday 5 April 1977

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the dispute involving maintenance engineers at Heathrow.

About 4,000 maintenance engineers, members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, employed by British Airways at Heathrow, are taking industrial action in support of a claim—[Interruption.]

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This matter is of considerable interest to a number of hon. Members. We would be pleased if there were some quiet so that we can hear the statement.

The hon. Gentleman is quite correct. This is an important issue and that is why I allowed the Question. I hope that the House will listen quietly.

Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, I should start again and give my reply in full.

About 4,000 maintenance engineers, members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, employed by British Airways at Heathrow, are taking industrial action in support of a claim for separate negotiating arrangements and improvements in shift allowances. This action is unofficial and the engineers have been told by their union to work normally while their claim is considered within the usual negotiating machinery. I greatly regret the inconvenience which the travelling public is suffering because of this dispute, and urge the engineers to follow the advice of their union and return to normal working.

Does that answer amount to the wholehearted backing by the Government of the stand taken by British Airways? If that is so, will the Government consider a tripartite call to the men on strike to return to work? By tripartite I mean the Government, British Airways and the trade union leaders. Will the Minister further confirm that, under the policy of cash limits, this nationalised industry will not be in receipt of any further money and, therefore, lost revenue may well result in the need for economy in other areas? Lastly, is there any way in which the Minister can estimate the percentage of people expecting to go on holiday with British Airways this forthcoming Easter weekend—may I declare an interest?—who are likely to be carried by other airlines through the arrangements made by British Airways?

I have been asked a number of questions. I do not think that it is helpful for the Government to be appearing to take sides in industrial disputes of this kind. The hon. Gentleman asked about a tripartite appeal. I hope that the terms of my original reply indicate that we certainly share the hopes of both British Airways and the union that the men will speedily resume normal working. This is not a strike. It is limited industrial action short of a strike. We hope that normal working will be resumed as quickly as possible. With regard to lost revenue, I am sure that those engaged in this dispute will recognise the economic effects that their action may possibly have and the consequences of it on the employment of those engaged in British Airways.

It will be widely appreciated in the trade union movement that the union to which these men belong has asked them to return to work. But in view of the national importance of this dispute, however unofficial, and after we have set up important conciliatory machinery, may I ask whether it is not now necessary to start some conciliatory conversations with these men, however wrong their immediate action? We should not merely wait for a decision to ask them not to return to work at all, which seems to be the present course of the employing authority.

The Advisory, Concilation and Arbitration Service is in touch with both British Airways and the AUEW. My hon. Friend will recognise the difficulty because this is an unofficial dispute. Certainly ACAS is ready to make its services available if British Airways and the AUEW ask it to intervene. It might be interesting to my hon. Friend and the House if I tell them that the AUEW national executive discussed this dispute this morning at the executive council meeting and decided to instruct those engaged in the industrial action to resume normal working. I understand that a mass meeting is being arranged for tomorrow. It will be addressed by a member of the national executive of the union, who will put the union's instruction to the mass meeting. I hope that the men will respond to this call and that they will resume normal working. In the meantime, it would be rather unwise for me, and perhaps the House, to say anything which might put the outcome in jeopardy.

Does the Minister not think that this dispute, following the recent British Leyland toolmakers' dispute, indicates that the present make-up of these large unions, representing very diverse skills, may not be in the overall interests of good industrial relations and the British economy? Is it not now time to consider some form of inquiry with the unions themselves into plant bargaining or a trade union system more akin to the system which the British helped West Germany to institute after the war?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that on reflection he will realise that there is a contradiction in his point. We do see the advantages—I think it is common ground between both sides of the House—of reducing the number of unions. We do see the advantages of the relatively small number of unions in Western Germany. But to do as the hon. Gentleman has suggested and for the unions to go along the road to break-up would be counter to what he has suggested. There are common features between this dispute and the British Leyland situation. If the present bargaining arrangements are unsatisfactory to particular groups, it is for the parties to those arrangements to resolve this. I hope that any anxiety on the part of particular groups which feel that these bargaining arrangements are unsatisfactory will be pursued through the constitutional channels.

I shall call the three hon. Members who have been on their feet and no one else.

Will the Minister say whether the British Airways' ultimatum to the men—to resume normal working or be dismissed and suffer the consequence that if they are re-engaged it will be as new entrants—has his support?

The ultimatum was probably made before the news was available of the proposed mass meeting tomorrow. I hope that British Airways will now take into account the fact that the executive council of the union has made a firm, clear decision and has issued an instruction to the men. There will be a mass meeting tomorrow and I hope that there will not be any precipitate action which will inflame the position rather than help it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not the size or complexity of the trade union that matters but, very often, the way the Government handle a situation like this? Conservative Members should not exacerbate the situation. The miners' dispute was exacerbated most of all by Conservative Members, particularly the Leader of the party, in 1973.

I very much agree with what my hon. Friend has said, particularly his point about the importance of this House recognising the difficulties for those who have to handle this situation and those who may subsequently have to pick up the pieces. We in this House should not be responsible for imprudent and unwise statements.

Do the Government not recognise that the mood of the nation has changed and that it really has become essential that there should be active Government support against any unofficial action of this nature? Are not the Government ready in this case to ensure that the dispute shall be referrable to ACAS so that it can intervene and come forward with a report? Do the Government not also recognise that in this, and other disputes, it will be necessary to have some form of deterrent against people who cause grave industrial damage to the nation which they fully represent?

I repeat what I said earlier—that of course the services of ACAS are available if requested by British Airways and by the AUEW, the union involved. We urge the engineers to follow the union's advice and to return to normal working as quickly as possible.

With regard to the final part of the question, the deterrent concept has been tried, and it failed, with disastrous consequences. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friends will learn from their bitter experience and our bitter experience of the 1970s.

I was not referring to the Front Bench when I made my earlier statement. Mr. James Prior.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that we fully support his statement that there should be an immediate return to work? Is he further aware that although in certain circumstances one might have a great deal of sympathy for the cause of the engineers, that sympathy is completely negatived by the action they have taken at this particular time and that we believe that the union is perfectly right to ask the men to return to work? The Government and the House would wish to see an early return to work. That is the only way in which a settlement of what otherwise could become a very costly and inconvenient dispute can come about.

I do not think I should want to challenge anything that the right hon. Gentleman has said, and I welcome his approach on this issue.