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British Railways

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 24 January 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he intends to meet the chairman of the British Railways Board.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to meet the chairman of British Railways.

Will the Secretary of State impress upon the chairman of the British Railways Board the need to ensure that any productivity scheme agreed as a result of any settlement is genuine, otherwise how will we avoid a further increase in fares this year and a consequent loss in passenger traffic? Is it not about time that the British Railways Board took a rather firmer line in this dispute, with a view to ending this series of damaging strikes as soon as possible?

I do not think that I need impress the first point upon the chairman, because he is fully aware of the need for any productivity to be wholly genuine. I think that the initiative that has lately been taken by the Board, although it has, alas, run into the sand, was very much in this direction. As to being firm, I only wish that firmness was the simple answer to a highly complex, damaging and frustrating dispute which makes no sense at all to most of us.

In order to help the British Railways Board and the trade unions again to get round the table, will my right hon. Friend tell Sir Peter Parker that the Government's wages policy will not stand in the way of any settlement agreed between the Board and all three unions? Would not this be a more helpful approach than the destructive, trade union bashing tactics of some Tories, who do not seem to realise the value of the service normally provided by railways workers until such time as that service is withdrawn, such as during the recent strikes?

Even if I were prepared to make my hon. Friend's point to the chairman, I am afraid that it would not be relevant in this circumstance, because the present dispute has nothing whatever to do with the Government's pay policy. It is a long-standing one about differentials on the railways, and between two principal trade unions. But, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, a dispute of this kind shows how much we depend upon the railways. I very much regret that their future, which we hoped we were making secure, is a great deal less secure as a result of this damaging dispute.

In his talks with the chairman, will the Secretary of State make two points? First, that the public, particularly the commuters, are sick to death of the disruption caused to their lives by these strikes and are angered at the way in which they have hardened into an inter-union dispute. Secondly, will he ask the chairman to point out to all those concerned that if the loss from these strikes, which by the end of this week will have cost British Rail between £12 million and £15 million, is not to fall on the passengers or the taxpayer, the only alternative is to find further manpower reductions within the railway industry? Surely to goodness that is not what the unions concerned want.

I think that the public are fed up to the back teeth with this dispute, and rightly. I refer not only to commuters in the London area but to those who use our trains throughout the country. It would be ridiculous were it not tragic, but it is tragic. For that reason I hope very much that this dispute will be solved. There is no question of the Government bailing out the railway industry. This is a problem that it must solve. If, as a result, it loses passengers, that will cast doubt upon the future of the railways and make it far more difficult for any Government to invest seriously in them and regard them as having a central and stable future in our transport system.

Will my right hon. Friend take note of the fact that since September last year one union, and one union only—the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen—has been responsible for the disruption of commuter services in the South of England and, latterly, of services throughout Great Britain? When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of British Rail, I hope that he will discuss the future of British Rail, because, from my right hon. Friend's public statements, as well as the statements of the Chairman of the British Railways Board, I know that they want to take British Rail into the twenty-first century with a viable, modern, electrified railway system. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the damage which the strikes have done to the future prospects of British Rail? Will he do his best to get ASLEF to stop fighting to remain in the nineteenth century?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's assessment. The present dispute is between one union only, which represents a minority of railwaymen, and the British Railways Board, but all railwaymen are the victims of it. I hope that something can be rescued and that we shall again be able to nut things back on to a stable footing. But it is not easy, and we must all continue to use our very best endeavours and accept our responsibility in this matter.

Is not the job of Sir Peter Parker being made almost impossible? Is it not impossible to run the railways properly unless there is co-operation between ASLEF and the NUR? If that does not come about, does the right hon. Gentleman foresee any role for himself in trying to bring it about? Does he agree that if we cannot bring about a merger between ASLEF and the NUR, eventually there will have to be a takeover, one of the other, and that it is certain which way that will go?

I do not want to get involved in the question of the future of the unions concerned. This is a very long story. It is only fair to say that, given the contraction of manpower on the railways over the years, perhaps it was inevitable, in an industry where there are many craft grades and strong traditions, that problems of this kind would persist. The tragedy is that they have not been overcome. I had two long sessions with the chairman, his chief industrial negotiator and the three unions last week. I succeeded in getting them around the table again, and I am prepared to take any further personal steps if I really believe that progress will result.

Order. I have no doubt that we shall come back to this issue on the next two Questions.