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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 general secretary of ASLEF.

I am sorry for the right hon. Gentleman. When he next meets ASLEF, will he draw to its attention the leader in The Guardian last Monday, which is not a trade union bashing, Right-wing paper, headed "Off the Rails and Heading for Collision"? Does he agree with the theme of that leader, that it is time that this inter-union dispute brought some penalty to the unions and their members, rather than just to the public? Is it not time that the union leaders and their members paid the price, rather than just the travellers?

For a long time I have hesitated to agree with the hon. Gentleman, and perhaps I would prefer to agree with The Guardian leader which he quoted. I think that it set out very fairly the difficult problems involved. But there is no easy solution. I only wish there were. We must recognise that the vast majority of railwaymen are serious and hardworking, want to make a, success of their jobs and want to make our railway system one of the most efficient in the world. That, again, is a measure of the difficulties at the present time.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in that moderate article the penalisation suggested was to apply only to the NUR? Is not the problem one of the erosion of differentials, reduced manpower, increased productivity and the breaking last year of the 1974 consolidation of bonus agreements?

As I think my hon. Friend implied, in some ways the problems on the railways are a microcosm of our larger problems. On the one hand, there are those who want to maintain, and even widen, differentials, and on the other there are those who primarily want to be concerned with the lower paid. To find an accommodation between these two concerns is a, matter not only for the railways but for the country at large.

When he next meets the general secretary of ASLEF, will the right hon. Gentleman implore him to remember the long-suffering customers of the railways, to whom this action is causing great distress, and also those who have had to find alternative ways to work in the last few days in quite dreadful conditions, which in some cases has resulted in injuries or even death? Does not that play on the conscience of the general secretary and his colleagues in ASLEF and bring it home to them that they ought to call off this dispute, and the sooner the better?

I believe that there will be widespread sympathy for the way in which the hon. Gentleman put the matter. Certainly those who use the railways and rely upon them are gravely inconvenienced at the present time. I believe that everyone must examine not only his conscience but his sense of purpose and really consider what merit there is in, and what outcome there will be from, a continuation of the dispute.

When the Secretary of State sees the general secretary, will he echo, and echo strongly, the words of Sir Peter Parker, that it is an absolute tragedy that the dispute should strike the railways at the very time when they could be showing their strength? Will he go further and inform the general secretary strongly that the future of his own union is very much on the line at present? Will the Secretary of State show a little more leadership in assessing the structure of the unions in British Rail?

With regard to the third point, I do not think that that is my responsibility, or that I would carry it out very well if I accepted it. However, I believe that there are some very important issues here, less for Ministers and perhaps more for the Trades Union Congress. Mr. Len Murray has been playing a most constructive and patient part in trying to find a solution. But the matter raises much larger issues of trade union structure and the extent to which there is competition where there should not be.

Could not the current dispute have been avoided if ASLEF and the Board had not rejected a decision of the Railway Staff National Tribunal last year, which made recommendations which were entirely accepted by 90 per cent. of the work force, who cannot be criticised for wishing to insist on the arbitration judgment of Lord McCarthy?

I can think of one hundred and one ways in which the present dispute could have been avoided. I do not think that anyone is completely free of some degree of responsibility for the present degree of intransigence. I say that in no sense to exacerbate a difficult situation. We must now hope that the efforts being made at this very moment will bear some fruit.