Orders of the Day — Railway Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th April 1975.

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Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury 12:00 am, 14th April 1975

I will tell the hon. Member. The reason is quite simple. When we were in power, we had an overall strategy for prices and incomes that was a tough strategy and that went a long way towards working. The present Government have a very loose strategy. I am not concerned to argue over the past in the sense that I am not trying to say that everything that happened in the past was perfect and everything that is happening today is imperfect. I am simply trying to say that we are faced with a very serious problem and one of its ingredients is that the people who run the railways, Mr. Marsh and his colleagues, need a greater degree of commercial freedom than they are getting. Whenever Governments try to delay increases of charges, particularly in the context of an incomes policy that allows incomes to soar ahead of prices, they aggravate the difficulties of the railway management.

The financial crisis ties up with all sorts of other important ingredients—pay, labour relations, overmanning and the grim conditions on some lines. I should like to say a word about these matters, but I shall be brief because I know that a number of hon. Members wish to speak and I do not want to hog the time.

I come first to pay. Clearly, the current pay negotiations are crucial. It is now accepted that manpower accounts for about 68 per cent, of total railway costs. These negotiations are clearly crucial to the social contract, but I shall not go into that here. They are also crucial to the railways. The Secretary of State was absolutely right when at Grimsby on 21st February he said: Any excessive wage settlements would undermine our efforts to achieve a healthy railway industry. I am sure that that was true.

I will not go into the negotiations in detail because they are under way and it would not be helpful to do so, but I am glad to note the efforts of the Trades Union Congress to point out to the railway unions the gravity of the situation. I would simply say that this is clearly a moment of tremendous importance to the railways.

It follows from that that labour relations generally are vital to the solution of the problem. The NUR has on the whole a responsible tradition, and I urge as strongly as possible that in these negotiations it should live up to it. As the Secretary of State points out, it is not only the NUR that has a responsible tradition. The union that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bradley) represents also has such a tradition, one is bound to say.

However, I cannot necessarily extend that compliment to ASLEF, which I believe the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield) represents, because over the past few years there have been a number of occasions when the actions of ASLEF have driven millions of innocent people to sheer despair. If it happens again, ASLEF will be helping to destroy the service that we want to keep going.

The truth is that public opinion has been driven to intense anger by some of the things that have happened on the railways, especially on the commuter lines, in the past few years. Again, I do not want to go into this in detail, but the railways will have no worthwhile future unless industrial self-discipline improves.

There was a horrifying list in the Daily Telegraph today of the disputes that have taken place in the London region. On Southern Region there were stoppages in 1973 in February, March, May, June, September, November and December and in 1974 in January, February, June, October and November. The Southern Region has only just seen the end of the signalmen's dispute, which began last October and hit the region almost weekly.

The Eastern Region—and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) is here—has been worst hit. In 1973 it had one-day strikes followed by the drivers' and guards' work-to-rule. In 1974 there were the drivers' one-day strike and the overtime ban, which crippled services in January and February. From October onwards the signalmen halted trains in rush-hours, escalating to one-day strikes which ended last month. For the past three weeks services on both the Southern and the Eastern Regions have been cancelled, late or shortened as the railway workshop supervisors staged a work-to-rule and ban on overtime and rest-day working. This is clearly something that cannot go on indefinitely.

Overmanning is plainly of paramount importance. I do not for a moment underestimate the difficulty, especially at a time of high unemployment, but it has to be faced. In particular, I think that the Railways Board is entitled to ask the Government for real backing in facing it. There has been a good deal about this subject in the Press recently. For example, on 26th March the Daily Mail had an article by the editor of the Railway Gazette that was headlined When 7,000 men are still paid to sit doing nothing and there are 60,000 too many workers. In The Guardian of 7th April there was a piece by Dr. Richard Pryke and Mr. John Dodgson, of Liverpool University, who, I suspect, are both well known to Ministers, foreshadowing their forthcoming book on the railways problem, saying: … in spite of reductions in rail employment. BR remains badly overstaffed and the position is likely to be even worse by 1981. It still has about 7,300 former firemen who can be dispensed with, as they have been already by a number of other railways. About 6,000 men are employed as freight guards, many of whom are superfluous and travel along with the drivers and 'firemen' in the locomotives. … Where passenger trains have power doors, BR can follow the example of London Transport and dispense with the guard. It should also be possible to greatly reduce the number of drivers by, for instance, speeding up freight trains which only average 22½ miles an hour and by reducing the amount of unproductive time. At present on the London Midland drivers only spend an average of 3¾ hours on the move out of an eight-hour shift. I think that British Railways do not accept that everything in the book is accurate, and it may well not be, but it cannot be avoided that the two authors are serious academic contributors, and if the Minister has reason to believe that their statements are wrong he should tell the House tonight.