House of Parliament 2nd July 1982

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Howell)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the further threatened strike on British Rail and Government measures to help rail users.

The House will have shared the general relief that the delegate conference of the NUR overturned the decision of its executive to call strikes on both British Rail and London Underground. But this good sense has been overtaken by the decision of the executive of ASLEF, the train drivers, to call an indefinite national strike from tomorrow night.

The ASLEF executive's ground for this action is that it refuses to operate British Railways Board's plans for more flexible working hours or rosters, on which there have been extensive consultations, including a tribunal award, and which have already been accepted by railway guards and their union and implemented by four-fifths of them.

Unless there are last minute wiser thoughts, ASLEF is now embarking on the most pointless national strike called by a trade union in half a century. Unless the strike is called off, it will again bleed away vital railway funds needed for modernisation, as it did in January and February of this year, and it will further worsen the pay prospects for all others in the industry. The railway system will be forced to contract. Many associated industries supplying equipment will be hurt. Many more railway jobs will be lost, as will many wage packets. A strike will also harm other industries and the jobs of those working in them.

The British Railways Board has done all that is reasonable, and more, to understand drivers' worries and to introduce new flexible hours with all necessary safeguards, but without consulting its members the ASLEF executive responded by calling an all-out strike.

Faced with that ugly prospect the Government will again take all possible measures to minimise the grievous difficulties for commuters and to protect the public. The police will again make substantial extra car parking spaces available, including 3,000 extra spaces in Hyde park and Regents park. Clearways will be kept free. Roadworks will be postponed wherever possible. However, as London Transport will be operating, normal parking restrictions will apply. It will be vital for hours to be staggered and, above all, for cars and journeys to be shared. There are no legal or insurance obstacles to car-sharing, so let every car travel full.

It is not too late for the many engine drivers who normally serve the public well to see that they are being grievously misled by their executive. They will do great harm to their own members' livelihoods, as well as to those of many others and to the railway itself. Much their wisest course is to call off the strike and accept the introduction of flexible rostering arrangements. This they should now do.

Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness) Is the Secretary of State aware that on 30 June ASLEF made a proposal to the BRB that if the board would call off its unilateral implementation of flexible rostering on Sunday night the union executive would recall its conference as speedily as possible and seek from it authority to co-operate in experiments on productivity improvements and flexible rostering which would be carried out on the basis of experiments in a substantial geographical area proposed by ASLEF to review work allocation, to concentrate more work into programmes, to link rosters so that savings could be achieved to cover the introduction of the 39-hour week at a minimal cost and to produce productivity improvements that would match the board's own flexible rostering proposals?

ASLEF also proposed that, concurrently with that, it would go along with the board's proposal to cover a substantial geographical area on the basis of the board's interpretation of the rostering proposals of the Railway Staff National Tribunal's decision No. 77 and would agree with the board that both parties should give a fair and reasonable trial to the experiments, without prejudice to any existing agreements.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement appears to take no account of that very substantial and significant move, which offers an opportunity to resolve, by a desirable agreement, what has undoubtedly been an extremely difficult industrial relations issue for the board?

Why does the right hon. Gentleman appear to be encouraging the board in refusing to negotiate with ASLEF on that basis, while the strike threat is on, when he knows that the Railway Staff National Council met last week to discuss the NUR position when that union had a strike threat on? Does that not suggest that there is more than a hint of dual standards being applied in the Secretary of State's approach? For example, why is the right hon. Gentleman talking to the chairman of the board about the dispute, but not talking to ASLEF? A degree of evenhandedness would not come amiss.

Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake, as a matter of extreme urgency, to urge the board to take up ASLEF's offer and to put it to the test, because I believe that that would lead to the calling off of the strike and the averting of massive inconvenience to thousands of passengers?

Mr. Howell The significant event that the right hon. Gentleman forgot to mention was ASLEF executive's decision on Tuesday night to call an all-out national strike. The most significant event that is needed now, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will use his influence to try to bring it about, even at this late stage, is for the ASLEF executive to call off the strike and to agree to the introduction of flexible rosters.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that the board has been ready to discuss how the flexible rosters should be introduced, but the first requirement is for the ASLEF executive to call off the strike and to agree to the introduction of flexible rosters. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that further discussions are needed on whether those rosters should be introduced, I have to remind him that promises were made last August that they would be brought in, there was a target date in October, an inquiry in February, a tribunal award for the board in May, and notice was given to the union in June for introduction in July. No one can say that there has been a lack of time for the introduction of flexible rosters or for discussions on how they should be introduced.

All that the ASLEF executive has to do now is to reverse the strike call of Tuesday 29 June and agree to the introduction of flexible rosters. The board has made it absolutely clear that if the union will do that it will he ready to discuss details of how it should be done.

I understand that ACAS is still in touch with the parties, and if ASLEF will follow the course which I believe would be wise for all its members the opportunities for discussing how flexible rosters should be introduced are open to it. But the first requirement is to call off the strike.

Several Hon. Members rose - 
Mr. Speaker Order. I propose to allow questions until 11.30 a.m.
Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire West) Does my right hon. Friend share my anxiety that there are many marginal branch lines in our constituencies—the Matlock to Derby line is only one example—which, I greatly fear, will never reopen if they shut on Sunday? Will he join me in urging railwaymen on those branch lines to ignore the strike?
Mr. Howell I certainly join my hon. Friend in that. It is the Government's view, and my view, that there is no wish to see any substantial reduction on the nation's railway network. It would be a tragedy if, as a result of the sort of action that is threatened, decisions were forced which could lead to the outome that my hon. Friend fears.
Mr. Les Huckfield (Nuneaton) Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, following Sir Peter Parker's exhortations to railwaymen to give flexible rostering a try, the ASLEF executive has now agreed to seek authority to participate in precisely such an experiment? Is he aware that, despite that major concession on the part of ASLEF, the BRB has already sent out notices to at least 30 major depots throughout the country stating that from 4 July it will impose flexible rostering on train crews? Is he aware that ASLEF has said that if that imposition is withdrawn the strike can also be withdrawn?

When so much is being offered by ASLEF in the dispute—more than has been offered by other unions in similar disputes—why do the BRB and the Government persist in the deliberate intention to take on ASLEF and provoke a bitter industrial conflict? Will the Secretary of State, even now, see Sir Peter Parker once more and urge him to take up ASLEF's genuine offer?

Mr. Howell The hon. Member mentions what other unions have offered in disputes. What other unions have done—including the major railway union, the NUR—is to lift their strike threat. As the hon. Member has influence in this area, would he not be more wisely employed in seeking to persuade the ASLEF executive, first and foremost, to withdraw the all-out strike decision that it made on Tuesday night and to accept the introduction of flexible rosters? It is not a matter that can be said to have been rushed prematurely, because it has been discussed for an interminable period. The method of introducing the rosters could then be discussed between ASLEF and the BRB. That is the course that the ASLEF executive would be wise to pursue. It would be in line with the wisdom shown by other unions in similar circumstances. I hope that the hon. Member will recommend that course to the ASLEF executive.

Mr. Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central) Is my right hon. Friend aware that the travelling public are absolutely exasperated with ASLEF and all its works—perhaps I should say "non-works"—but that the public will probably stick it out if they have a reasonable belief that their miseries will lead to a better train system in the future?

As certain ASLEF members are involved in the London Transport system, can my right hon. Friend say what the effect might be on London Transport, which has already suffered enormously through the incompetence of the GLC?

Mr. Howell My hon. Friend is correct in what he says. It can also be said that there will be no better railway if the work practices of 1919 are persisted with and if there is a failure to accept the introduction, one way or another, of flexible rosters. That must be accepted, and I believe that the ASLEF executive would be wise to recognise it and to lift its strike threat.

There is no prospect at present of a renewal of the industrial relations problems that were experienced last week on London Transport. I understand that London Transport is working normally and is likely to continue to do so.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport) Is the Secretary of State aware that many people think that the Government are right not to intervene and that it is reasonable for the BRB to insist that ASLEF withdraws its strike threat? There have been too many cases recently in which progress has been blocked because of the persistent use of the threat of strike action.

Will the Secretary of State consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment about the introduction of postal ballots for the election of union executive officers? Can there be any doubt that if the ASLEF executive had been elected by the members on a secret ballot it would not be acting in this utterly irresponsible way?

Mr. Howell I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support, as the BRB will be. I believe that the board is pursuing sensible and reasonable paths in order to get the productivity that is needed, and that it deserves the support of all those who want to see a better railway.

The ASLEF executive now has the power—and, indeed, the facilities—to conduct a ballot and can do so at public expense, but it has chosen not to do so. One has to make the necessary deduction from that decision. The ASLEF executive decided to call the strike without a ballot and without checking with the members.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire) Can my right hon. Friend confirm that flexible rostering is the common practice in most European railway networks and that it has already been accepted in Britain by the NUR?

If the strike takes place, will it not cost many railwaymen—and possibly many people in industry—their jobs? In those circumstances, should not ASLEF withdraw its strike threat immediately? Would it not help if, just for once, Her Majesty's Opposition offered their support to the railway network and the travelling public rather than to people taking militant action?

Mr. Howell My hon. Friend is correct in saying that flexible rostering and variable hours are now operated on every European railway network except one. The NUR has accepted the principle and, indeed, the practice of flexible rosters. Four-fifths of the NUR guards are now either operating or are ready to operate flexible rosters, and that has produced extra pay for them. I understand that there is a more satisfactory working pattern, to the benefit of the railways and the railwaymen. ASLEF would do well to follow that lesson.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) The Minister began his statement by complimenting the NUR conference on its good sense earlier this week and the NUR on its position concerning flexible rostering. What can he say about rewarding that good sense and safeguarding the bulk of the industry in the current troubles?

Mr. Howell As I mentioned in my last reply, the NUR guards received extra pay for working the flexible rosters. That is on top of the extra 3 per cent. that they received for undertaking to implement a wide range of productivity agreements. One has been implemented, but the others have not yet been implemented. I understand that they are to be the subject of further discussion. There has been a reference to the Railway Staff National Tribunal, and it will be for the NUR to see how it can implement its productivity promises of last year, for which it received the two layers of extra pay that I have described.

Mrs. Shelia Faith (Belper) 

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Matlock to Derby line, already mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris), was running throughout the NUR strike last week, and that it is very sad that the jobs of sound and sensible people such as these should be threatened by the narrow-mindedness and rigidity of ASLEF?

Mr. Howell I note and agree with what my hon. Friend says about the ASLEF executive, because I happen to believe that there are a great many dedicated engine drivers and railwaymen in ASLEF and the NUR who are appalled at the course on which the ASLEF executive is now set.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely) 

Will the Secretary of State accept that the House—and, indeed, my constituency and the railway yards at March—will be grateful to him for mentioning that the vast majority of honourable members of ASLEF are violently opposed to the strike?

Will the Secretary of State spell out even more clearly the long-term danger to the branch lines in East Anglia, in Northern Scotland and in other parts of Britain?

Will the Secretary of State consider bringing in some interim legislation so that when we have another rail strike people will not spend the whole day telling each other how they got to work?

Mr. Howell 

I think that I shall need time for further reflection on the hon. Gentleman's last remark, but he is right to emphasise the very heavy cost that will fall on the railway industry as a result of further and prolonged strike action. We have seen what happened earlier in the year, when over £80 million, which could have been used for much better things for the railway industry and its customers, went down the drain as a result of protracted and unnecessary strikes over the same issue. That is now threatened again. I repeat that this will be one of the most pointless strikes in living memory, and I urge anyone with an influence on the ASLEF executive to bring it to bear before that executive inflicts permanent damage on its members and many others on the railways.

Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake) Is there any good reason why women should not be trained as train drivers? It seems to me that they would not be as stupid as the men.
Mr. Howell I understand that there are 12,000 women in the employ of British Rail, and I believe that there could be good reasons why women should be trained as train 

drivers. It is a point worth considering. 

Jack Straw (Blackburn) 

Is the Secretary of State aware that, from all the contact that Opposition Members have had with working train drivers in depots, there is no question but that the anxieties and fears about flexible rostering which the ASLEF executive articulates are shared by drivers on the ground and that, notwithstanding those anxieties and fears, the decision of the ASLEF executive yesterday represents a major shift in its position towards reaching an accommodation with the British Railways Board and towards meeting the offer which the board made to it on 26 June to accept dual experimentation? In view of that, is it not plain that even at this late stage the Secretary of State ought to urge both sides in the dispute to seek to reach an agreement on the basis of what the board offered on 26 June and what the ASLEF executive sensibly responded to yesterday?

Mr. Howell Of course there are anxieties, as there are in any industry about changes in work practices, but what has occurred with National Union of Railwaymen guards, namely, that they have found the new practices acceptable and a positive benefit, is news that has spread and could be spread further to many ASLEF drivers. They will discover that some of their fears about the unacceptability of moving from the sacroscant 8-hour day are completely unfounded.

The British Railways Board has gone to considerable lengths to propose safeguards and to introduce the flexible rosters sensitively. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) says that there has been a major shift in the ASLEF position. The best reflection of that major shift would be to lift the all-out national strike call that was imposed, without consulting its members, on Tuesday night, to agree to the introduction of flexible rosters—that would reflect the major shift which the hon. Gentleman says has taken place—and for the railways to proceed on a happier path.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South) 

Notwithstanding what the Oppositon have said this morning, does my right hon. Friend accept that the travelling public are heartily sick of the attitude of ASLEF in this matter, believing it to have had ample time to come to a sensible solution long before now? If hon. Members on both sides of the House are correct in their assumption that the vast majority of railwaymen do not want this strike, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the jobs of those who are prepared to put the transport network in jeopardy could easily be filled by people with no more than six weeks' training—which might give us an opportunity to introduce some of the ladies mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes)?

Mr. Howell 

There is no doubt that the public have shown great patience and fortitude, especially in the face of the strikes in January and February on the same issue. They rightly feel that this misery and inconvenience is being imposed on them for no good reason, that the ASLEF strike should be called off, and that the flexible rosters which have been discussed for many months and agreed by the machinery of the industry should now be introduced.

I believe that the right approach is for the board and for all those with influence on the ASLEF to say, as was said by the country to the NUR, that the sensible course is to go back to work, to operate the railway system and to let the board and the unions concerned discuss how to introduce the new rosters which have been recommended by the tribunal. I think that that is the sensible way to handle the matter.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South) 

Does the Secretary of State agree that the decision by the ASLEF leadership reflects a decision by the ASLEF conference and, therefore, by ASLEF members? Does he also agree that if the British Rail proposals are forced through, we are talking about a maximum saving of £9 million a year, which is pretty small compared with the total British Rail budget? Above all, is not the ASLEF suggestion of experiments in a couple of areas the best way forward? If the Secretary of State really wants to avert the strike, why does he not bring his pressure to bear on the British Rail management to agree with the ASLEF suggestion?

Mr. Howell I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the first requirement must be for the strike decision taken by the ASLEF executive to be lifted. The British Railways Board has made it quite clear that if the strike threat is lifted and agreement is reached about the introduction of flexible rosters, the board is ready to discuss how they should be introduced. Obviously it is better that they be introduced by mutual agreeement rather than the board being in a position, as it is now, where it has warned that it will impose them on 4 July and intends to do so.

I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman is seriously arguing that the discussion of how flexible rosters should be introduced should proceed under the threat of a national strike called by the ASLEF executive, apparently without consulting its members. He says that the executive's decision reflects the view of ASLEF members. I do not see how it can know that it does, because apparently it has not taken any soundings on the desirability of the strike. I believe that if the executive consulted its members it would find enthusiasm for the strike, with the consequences that would follow, very much more muted than some hon. Members suggest.

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Hemel Hempstead) 

Does not my right hon. Friend put his finger on the problem when he points out that the members of ASLEF have not been consulted? Did not last year's ASLEF strike cost £100 million in revenues to the railways? Before the executive goes ahead with this strike, which in my view it should call off at once, should it not consult its members by secret ballot so that that very sensible body of men—the individual train drivers—can express their view on this strike, which will be so damaging to their industry?

Mr. Howell I believe that it would be wise for the ASLEF executive to follow that course. I also believe that it was profoundly unwise of it to call the strike that it did on Tuesday night. Therefore, the hopes for wise action following that unwisdom must be limited. But I believe that even at this late stage the executive should follow the course suggested by my hon. and learned Friend. It would be even better if it reversed that intemperate decision to call a national strike, because that is in no one's interests, least of all those of its members.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stevenage) 

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that of the eight hours that rail drivers work only two are spent actually driving trains?

Mr. Les Huckfield 

Absolute nonsense.

Mr. Bowen Wells 

Will my right hon. Friend also confirm that the rigidities of the present system make rail drivers travel long distances to sign on, thus inconveniencing the drivers themselves?

Mr. Howell It is true that it is a very old-fashioned system and that the actual driving time is on average about 3 hours 20 minutes, although obviously other time is required to prepare for the driving, and occasional breaks are also needed. Nevertheless, the actual driving time is very much less than eight hours—I believe that it is about five hours in all. It is a very rigid system. It has been abandoned by almost every modern railway system in the world. The system of more flexible hours has great benefits and will bring a shorter working week of 39 hours to the drivers. It is in their interests in every way to cooperate in the introduction of flexible rosters.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) 

As the ASLEF executive has had several months in which to engage in constructive talks about productivity, is it not a hollow offer that it makes now to engage in an experiment? Since there has been no consultation with the union's members, does it not follow that this industry is being harmed beyond belief by people who have no mandate for their action?

Mr. Howell 

It is very late in the day to talk about and to propose a major shift of attitude. But if there has been a major shift—and I shall welcome it if there has been—the best way for that to manifest itself is for the ASLEF executive to lift its strike threat, to agree to the introduction of flexible rosters and to show that its attitude has changed and that this major shift has occurred.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham) 

Should we not remind the Opposition of something about which the public are quite clear, namely, that flexible rostering has been discussed and negotiated ad nauseam and that even the McCarthy tribunal said that the introduction of flexible rostering was essential to the future of the railways? Does not the threatened loss of revenue to British Rail clearly show that the ASLEF executive is threatening its members' jobs, the future of many branch lines and the railway industry's future investment programme?

Mr. Howell I hope that the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) will use his authority and that of his colleagues to bring home to the ASLEF executive the message that my hon. Friend has put so clearly. There is no reason why anyone who is genuinely concerned about the health of our railway system and the workers in the industry should hesitate or hang back from clearly telling the ASLEF executive that it is set on a 
catastrophic course that will damage the whole railway and that it should reverse that course by calling off the strike action and accepting the introduction of flexible rosters.

Mr. Booth 

When the Secretary of State said that it would be wrong to go ahead with negotiations on the experiments under the threat of a strike, did he not reveal his complete misunderstanding of ASLEF's proposal? The right hon. Gentleman should be able to understand that ASLEF proposes that the threat of the strike should be lifted while negotiations take place on the proposal by the BRB that two experiments should be conducted concurrently. Is it not silly for the right hon. Gentleman to talk of the "interminable" length of negotiations when the board's proposal to deal with the matter in that way was made to the three union general secretaries only on 26 June? ASLEF's response was made on 30 June, only four days later. That is not an "interminable" length of time and the right hon. Gentleman should adopt a different word.

If the Secretary of State approved of the decision taken this week by the NUR conference and believed it to be correct, should he not at least open his mind to the idea that ASLEF should be allowed to put the proposition made by the president and the general secretary to the conference as soon as it can be reconvened? The right hon. Gentleman will then have a clearer understanding of ASLEF's views and of its members' willingness to co-operate in sensible arrangements for the introduction of rostering. The issue is extremely difficult and complex and rostering requires men to start at all hours of the day. The right hon. Gentleman should understand ASLEF's members' reluctance to give up their guarantee of an eight-hour day.

Mr. Howell 

I have always made it clear that both the Government and the board fully understand the problems and the sensitivities involved in changing working practices, despite the fact that those changes are desirable and have been made by almost every other railway system in the world. The proposals that I understand that British Rail made on 26 June were met not by the response that the right hon. Gentleman described, but by the threat last Tuesday night of an all-out strike. That was the ASLEF executive's response. It is in the hands of the ASLEF executive to reverse the brutal response that it made on Tuesday night for an all-out national strike.

Let ASLEF reverse that brutal response, call off the strike and agree to the introduction of flexible rosters. If it were to do that, it might well provide the basis upon which the British Railways Board can work out with the executive exactly how the rosters should be introduced, in line with last August's promises, the inquiry in February, the railway tribunal's award to the board in May and the notice given in June that the rosters would be introduced in July. This is the opportunity that the ASLEF executive has to make a better response than the one it gave to British Rail's very constructive proposals.

Mr. Speaker We now return to the consideration of Lords amendments

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) 

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When we reach the end of the time limit on a statement and only one or two hon. Members are still rising in their places, could you not be flexible? I represent many commuters who will have to get up from 4 am onwards to travel to London and elsewhere as a result of the strike. So far, I have been unable to represent the great anger and distress that they feel about the strike.

Mr. Speaker I am sorry for those hon. Members who have not been called and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s request  for more flexibility, if I am too flexible we shall not return to the main business before the House. I have to try to hold the balance nd the Ministers has been asked a fair number of questions today. 

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