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Heathrow Airport (Dispute)

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 3 March 1970

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asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he will make a statement about the current position at Heathrow Airport.

The unofficial strike of firemen continues. The British Airports Authority has made temporary arrangements to maintain fire service to meet the safety requirements for the airport.

I understand that the Authority has told the Transport and General Workers' Union, whose members the firemen are, that the Authority is ready to discuss the firemen's claims as a matter of urgency through any of the agreed procedures available.

Talks are in progress between the Authority and the union, and the Department of Employment and Productivity is in touch with both parties.

Will the temporary arrangements enable Heathrow to stay open throughout 24 hours? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied, in the face of the possibility of short-notice diversions occurring, that all safety precautions can be maintained? Can he say to where these diversions will be made and, in particular, whether Gatwick and Stansted are in a position to take diverted aircraft?

The three questions asked by the hon. Gentleman are extremely important. First, I understand that the temporary arrangements apply to 12 hours during day time; the fire officers who are now standing by for emergency service must have rest periods.

Secondly, the diversions are to Manchester, Luton, Gatwick and Stansted. The position varies as between these four airports. If the hon. Gentleman wishes me to go into detail on this aspect I will, but, for the moment, diversion is being effectively carried through.

Thirdly, I am assured that the safety aspect is well taken care of.

To what extent is there a wide gap between the parties to the dispute? Will my right hon. Friend use his best endeavours to ensure that whatever discussions occur they will not be spread over days and possibly weeks?

I can certainly give that assurance. The Department of Employment and Productivity has been in touch with the T.U.C. which, in turn, has been in touch with the union concerned. Every effort is being made now and will be made in future to secure that this most unfortunate and wasteful dispute is resolved as quickly as possible.

Will the right hon. Gentleman see that whenever diversions occur wide publicity is given to the fact on radio and television, for the convenience of the public? Would he agree that this disgraceful piece of anarchy is the worst advertisement in the world in Britain's shop window?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about radio announcements. It is important that the travelling public is kept as fully as possible in the picture of available facilities.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, he would not expect me to join him in that sort of language at this time.

In view of the continuing bad industrial relations within the British Airports Authority, is my right hon. Friend prepared to order an immediate investigation into why this is the case?

I could not accept that the position is as my hon. Friend described it, and, therefore, I do not see the need at present for such an investigation.

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that this latest example of a minority striking to the adverse result of our national prosperity is just one more example to which Lord Stokes drew attention in the motor industry and the whole of industrial relations? Is it not time that the Government rethought their entire attitude towards improved industrial relations and immediately brought forward legislation, as they promised a year ago, that they would do?

Important though these matters are, they go rather wide of the Question and of my Department's responsibilities.

As one who was diverted on the midnight's plane last night from Edinburgh to Birmingham, rather than to Luton, may I offer B.E.A. congratulations on the slickness and efficiency of its arrangements at a time of some crisis for B.E.A.?

I will take special steps to see that B.E.A. is made aware of my hon. Friend's congratulations.

Is it not a fact that this dispute is only one of very many that are taking place at Heathrow Airport? Would the right hon. Gentleman therefore reconsider the reply which he gave to the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr) in the light of the study that has been taking place during the past year into the question of disputes? What steps are now being taken by the union to convey to the men on unofficial strike the offer of urgent discussions? What action can the right hon. Gentleman take in the long term to improve communications between the union and the officers and men it is supposed to be serving?

Those points are more appropriately dealt with by my right hon. Friend the First Secretary. I have no doubt that she will take full note of what has been said by the hon. Gentleman and by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr) on this subject.

Is it not clear that some of the exaggerated statements that have been made by hon. Gentlemen opposite do not help at this time? Is my right hon. Friend aware that strikes of this kind are by no means confined to Heathrow Airport, but occur throughout the world in the various aircraft industries? For example, is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon Members who attend the Council of Europe are often held up because of Air France strikes, which regularly take place in France, and that this has nothing whatever to do with the British working man?

The second part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question was a statement of fact. The answer to the first part is that I very willingly echo the hope that nothing will be said to make the discussions which are now going on more difficult than they are.

Has the Minister seen a statement made by the firemen's representative to the effect that fire, officers are not competent to deal with complicated fire fighting equipment? Would he comment on whether or not that is true?

I will only comment to the extent of saying that there is absolutely no foundation for that statement, it it was made.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of the statements made by hon. Gentlemen opposite, and particularly that made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey), who was a mouthpiece for B.A.L.P.A. during the pilots' trouble, represent an entirely different attitude from that being taken by the firemen at the airport? Is my right hon. Friend aware of our hope that normal industrial negotiations will resolve this dispute, and that it is no good blaming the pilots or the firemen on this issue?

Those matters also range into the sphere which is dealt with by my right hon. Friend the First Secretary. I am bound to say that our first objective should be to see that this dispute, like every other, is dealt with by normal constitutional methods.

Could the right hon. Gentleman say how much per hour this strike is costing the nation?

If my right hon. Friend should be considering the suggestion of hon Gentlemen opposite that there should be a ballot before a strike takes place, would he at the same time consider the desirability of having a ballot before company directors go to horse race meetings, which they do every day, and on the golf course, which is exactly the same sort of thing?

Again, these are matters which range far beyond my Departmental responsibilities. I have no doubt that in the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow my hon. Friend's comments will be read with varying degrees of interest by various people.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that disputes of this sort, whether they involve pilots, firemen or possibly in the future even air traffic controllers, cause great inconvenience and great potential danger? Since it is over 12 months since the Commission on Industrial Relations was set up to look into the problems of collective bargaining, would he agree that this is the sort of urgent matter which it could ideally explore?

I think that the whole House would very strongly support what my hon. Friend has said about inconvenience to the public and the need to use available procedures to settle problems of this kind.