Rail Dispute (Southern Region)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd November 1978.

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Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler , Sutton Coldfield 12:00 am, 22nd November 1978

(by Private Notice)asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will make a statement on the rail dispute affecting the Southern region.

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

Train services for many suburban commuters were severely disrupted on the Southern region this morning when drivers did not report for duty. The depots affected are those in the London area of the South-Eastern division of the Southern region and the depots at Gillingham, Kent, and Wimbledon.

This course of events arises from the dissatisfaction with a recent recommendation of the Railways Staff National Tribunal rejecting ASLEF's claim for payments for footplate staff in parallel with a bonus payment for pay-train guards.

The industrial action is unofficial. It is not supported by the executive committee of the union. In these circumstances it is wholly unjustified, unfair to other railmen, damaging to the long-term prospects of the railways and inexcusable in the inconvenience that it is causing to the travelling public.

A meeting between the British Railways Board and the unions is in progress at this moment which will discuss the ASLEF complaint. I hope very much that common sense will prevail.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler , Sutton Coldfield

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition endorse strongly his condemnation of this action? We hope that the whole House will do the same.

I wish to ask the Secretary of State three short questions. First, is he aware of the mounting anger of rail passengers over the disruption of the commuter services, particularly when they face substantial increases in fares? Does he agree that the only effect that the dispute will have is to drive passengers who have any choice off the railways altogether?

Secondly, is the Secretary of State aware that action of this kind wrecks not only the rail services but the efforts being made by British Rail to improve its financial position? Heavy losses are being sustained. Can the Secretary of State give an estimate of the loss in passenger revenue caused by the dispute?

Thirdly, the Secretary of State said that a crucial meeting is taking place this afternoon which could settle the question of whether the dispute is widened. May we have an undertaking that he will keep the House fully informed of developments and that if the dispute widens he will volunteer an immediate statement on the Floor of the House?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

I am happy to give an undertaking in response to the latter part of the hon. Member's question. Should the situation become worse, I shall keep the House fully informed. It is a difficult matter of industrial relations and I am the last one to claim that I have an easy answer. Most of all, we need a solution.

I acknowledge that there is mounting anger among commuters. I agree that the strike can do no good to the livelihood of those who work on the railways, to the future of the railways, to the travelling public and to our wish to see more people rather than fewer travelling on the railways.

The House has on many occasions expressed concern about British Rail's finances. I estimate that today's events will lose British Rail about £250,000 in revenue.

Photo of Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the unofficial action on Southern region adds enormously to the difficulties of commuters who have already been saddled with swingeing fare increases? Will he resist the temptation to follow the Opposition into taking a negative attitude? Will he see whether he can make a contribution to finding a disputes procedure which is more effective and responsive to the men who are involved in the dispute?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

I agree with my hon. Friend that such action adds enormously to the difficulties of the railways and of those who wish to use them. It is a matter which should be of concern to the House and to all those involved in the industrial action.

I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend said about disputes procedures. I am sure that the British Railways Board and the unions are anxious that there should be a disputes procedure which really works. This is an extraordinary proceeding. Those involved are not striking aginst the British Railways Board or the Government. They are striking against a non-binding arbitration which nobody has yet discussed, let alone accepted. It is an unusual occasion. I hope that those concerned will go back to work.

Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates , Petersfield

Will the Secretary of State examine the position of the holders of season tickets? Is he aware that to commute 50 miles into and out of London costs nearly £700 a year? Is he aware that the commuter has no redress against British Rail when he has to use expensive alternatives to travel to and from work when British Rail fails to carry out its contract to move him? Is it not almost in the category of highway robbery that British Rail makes no arrangement to compensate those who have suffered financial loss because it has failed to carry out its contract?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

We are all tempted to use intemperate expressions, but they do not help to solve the difficult problem. I recognise that those who have chosen to live outside London and to make long journeys each day are entitled to believe that they can make those journeys except when there are adverse, inescapable circumstances for which nobody can be blamed. One should not blame the British Railways Board. It would like to solve the dispute if it could, and it has been trying hard to do so.

I understand that weekly season ticket-holders will receive pro rata refunds because they have not been able to travel today. Holders of monthly or other season tickets will receive refunds or extensions of the validity of the tickets.

Photo of Mr Chris Price Mr Chris Price , Lewisham West

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, even at the best of times when there are no industrial disputes, travelling in the rush hour from South or South-East London into London termini is an appalling experience? Is he aware that today has made matters worse?

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that in particular the South-East London network has for many years needed enormous investment to bring it up to the standards that exist for commuter traffic coming from other directions? When the dispute is settled, will the Secretary of State concentrate on that?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

I am sure that commuters have appalling experiences. Those who travel in the rush hour often do. I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said about the state of the rolling stock in the South-East region. British Rail is aware of that. The problem is—the House has faced it before—that the railways must raise most of what they need in revenue or through grants, made with the approval of Parliament, out of the general taxation fund. There is no other way. If there is to be a great deal more investment in the rail system, we must choose the priorities—between the London and inter-city lines, for example—and we must decide precisely how it is to be financed.

Several Hon. Members:

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Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. The House is aware that when I know that right hon. and hon. Members have direct constituency interests I do my utmost to help them to express their points of view. But it will help me if hon. Members will make their points as brief as possible.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch and Lymington

Is the Secretary of State aware that an ASLEF member, a driver from Bournemouth, told me that as the miles increased from London, so the support for this strike waned, and that the familiar figure of Mr. Fullick at Waterloo was behind most of the trouble? If the right hon. Gentleman is looking for positive suggestions, will he therefore do what he can to enlist the support or the opinions of the majority of the members of ASLEF, if not all of them, somehow to get a ballot before these unofficial disputes take place so that we can try to avoid this disruption which he describes so well?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

I am less expert in personalities than the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley), but I am prepared to believe that there are differences of opinion amongst those involved about the legitimacy of this strike. I wish that I could believe—but all experience shows the contrary—that problems of this kind could be solved easily by some formula. The British Railways Board has responsibilities here and is working very hard to solve them. Indi- vidual trade unions have responsibilities, too, to ensure that their own machinery is responsive but also effective in dealing with the grievances of their members.

Photo of Mr Ronald Atkins Mr Ronald Atkins , Preston North

Does my right hon. Friend agree that all three railway unions and the management are making very constructive attempts to settle this dispute? It can be settled only by them. It cannot be helped by statements such as the one by the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley), which will exacerbate the situation.

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

There is much wisdom in what my hon. Friend said. We must all wish that we could play a personal part in solving this problem. For the moment, however, we must rest, though I will not be euphoric about the possibilities, on the discussions now taking place at the headquarters of British Railways.

Photo of Mr Maurice Macmillan Mr Maurice Macmillan , Farnham

Does not the right hon. Gentleman think it a little odd that a large number of my constituents are being extremely inconvenienced, put to very considerable expense in getting to work and have no redress against anyone in the courts, even if they should wish to use it? Will he please bear in mind such matters when he conies to bring forward proposals for an increase in petrol tax, which will result in even more expense to those of my constituents who are unable to use the railways to commute?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

The right hon. Member tempts me into some very interesting discussions, but I doubt whether this is the time or the place for them. I understand the sense of grievance which many commuters have and the very real problems that they face. I shall do all that I can to help.

Photo of Mr David Young Mr David Young , Bolton East

I thank my right hon. Friend for the efforts that he has made so far in this very difficult situation. I do not think that we want to add to his difficulties here and now, but may I ask him to consult in order to discover the position of the servants of this House who provide us with literature, who sometimes come from great distances and who are dependent on the railways? May we be assured that some help will be given to them so that right hon. and hon. Members can be supplied adequately with the material that they need?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

My hon. Friend raises very important matters which, I am sure, have been noted by those mainly responsible for them.

Photo of Sir Albert Costain Sir Albert Costain , Folkestone and Hythe

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that disruption of this kind each week is having a disastrous effect on people's employment? Will he make some arrangements to help to ease car parking restrictions in London in some way?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

I am prepared to look at any suggestion of that kind. This is a very irritating state of affairs. I hope that it will not get worse. If it does, we must find a way, until the problem is solved, of minimising the consequences. But, as I said earlier, I shall report to the House if there are any developments of that kind.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

I am sure that the House is very much obliged for the Secretary of State's condemnation of this action. However, condemnation is not quite enough. Unfortunately, Gillingham is a renowned ASLEF branch for these unofficial strikes. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the British Railways Board to look very carefully into the circumstances at this depot to try to discover what motivates ASLEF members there and what the future is likely to be, because I understand that there are threats of further action in the weeks to come which will cause nothing but trouble and distress to commuters?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

The British Railways Board is fully aware of the considerable difficulties involved in dealing with the problems of industrial relations generally. These problems are not new. As we know, some of them arise from the changes in the numbers of people working on the railways and the existence of three trade unions which sometimes see matters in different ways. I am sure that all these factors will be taken on board.

Photo of Mr Tim Rathbone Mr Tim Rathbone , Lewes

Will the Secretary of State reconsider his earlier answers and encourage the trade union concerned to introduce into its management procedures the use of a secret ballot to try to alleviate circumstances of this kind?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

I do not think that it is my task to do so. I would not do so at present. I do not think that the results are quite as predictable as the hon. Member supposes.

Photo of Mr John Ovenden Mr John Ovenden , Gravesend

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is no monopoly of concern about this issue on the Opposition Benches and that many Government supporters who represent commuter constituencies are extremely concerned about the discomfort and inconvenience caused to our constituents this morning? However, does my right hon. Friend accept that attacks from the Opposition Benches imputing strange motives to the people involved do nothing to improve the position? Will he confirm that the way to sort out these recurring problems on British Railways is to look again at the disputes machinery and see whether we cannot involve in some better way the people at shop floor level?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

My hon. Friend has many times expressed in the House his deep concern on behalf of the commuters whom he represents. I agree that there can be no monopoly of virtue in this respect. I should not like to impute motives. I would not try to do so. If anything can be done to improve the machinery for dealing with disputes, I am sure that it should be done.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

As South-Eastern commuters have had to put up with excessive increases in fares as well as excessive disruptions in recent years, will the Secretary of State discuss with the chairman of British Rail the possibility of delaying the next increase in rail fares for a few weeks, or possibly even a month, in order to give hard-pressed commuters some compensation for the disruption which they face at the moment?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

It is an ingenious idea, but I am not sure who would then foot the bill. It is only fair to say—although we are discussing problems of those who travel in London today—that many other people use the railways in other parts of the country. I do not think that they would want to pay more to finance the sort of gap which the hon. Member suggests.

Photo of Mr Roger Sims Mr Roger Sims , Chislehurst

Is the Secretary of State aware that many hundreds of my constituents have no choice but to use the train service to get to and from work, that they have been suffering for months from delays and cancellations and that today's events are the last straw? Will the right hon. Gentleman use his influence with the bodies concerned to impress upon them that their action, far from attracting public sympathy to such case as they may have, is having the reverse effect?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

I agree with the hon. Member's final comment. This sort of action does not help anyone. The travelling public can sometimes be unreasonable, but equally they can be aggravated very understandably by circumstances of this kind. What worries me greatly is that this House has been trying to give a settled future to the railways. Action of this kind does not help in that direction.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

What has the Secretary of State done in a positive manner, as urged by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Corbett), to try to resolve disputes of this kind? Is he aware that the impression he has given in this instance is that the Government are standing by impotently, that management is standing by impotently, that the unions are standing by impotently and that nothing is being done? Will he at least give some assurance that he is giving his attention to trying to introduce an improved disputes procedure, perhaps with cooling-off periods and perhaps even harking back to the "In Place of Strife" proposals of his own party, so that passengers and the railways can look forward to a more settled future? Is he doing anything positive?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

Ministers ought to have a sense of responsibility about what they can or cannot do. I am not one to claim in this House or elsewhere that Ministers should get involved in day-to-day matters with which they have not the experience or specialist knowledge to deal. This is a matter for British Rail. I am responsible for the appointment of the chairman and the board, and they are responsible for industrial relations. However, the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and the House may take it that the chairman is very much aware of my concern, and, of course, he will be told of our exchanges in the House today.

Several Hon. Members:

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Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I must tell the House that I intend to limit questions to those right hon. and hon. Members with con- stituency interests who have been rising throughout these exchanges.

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

The Secretary of State has failed to answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate). What precisely does he intend to do, bearing in mind that the various rail unions have threatened to continue their action over the next few months? The situation is already bad in Southern region areas, and I venture to suggest that if the right hon. Gentleman represented a Southern seat he would be using arguments very different from those he is postulating now. What does he intend to do over the next month or so to eliminate the suffering that is being caused to so many of our constituents in Southern England?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

To say that I have a sense of proportion and reality is to beg a number of questions, but I am not trying to persuade the House that any rapid intervention of mine would immediately solve the problems. That is my message to the hon. Gentleman. If I judged that my intervention with those principally concerned would improve the situation, or, better still, solve the dispute, I would take that step. I do not believe that that is the right course today, particularly when discussions are taking place with a view to resolving the dispute.

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

Can the right hon. Gentleman justify to me and the many thousands of my constituents who travel to London every day discontentedly, but who have no option, the 10 per cent. increase in their fares from January if their wage increases are to be held down by the Government to 5 per cent.?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

The hon. Gentleman has raised a separate and fascinating question which I should like to discuss at considerable length.

Photo of Mr Peter Rost Mr Peter Rost , Derbyshire South East

When will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

If the hon. Gentleman will wait, I may even attempt to do it now. Any increase in fares must be related to the increased cost of the railways. The labour costs of the railways are about 70 per cent. of the total, and the next fare increase must take account not only of any increase in wages from next April but of the increase that occurred in April this year. I should like to develop that theme, but this is not the moment to do so.

Photo of Mr George Gardiner Mr George Gardiner , Reigate and Banstead

Though the Secretary of State clearly wishes to avoid intemperate expressions, he must accept that Southern region commuters are just about at the end of their tether when action of this sort comes on top of the habitually poor service they receive even when working is, as the railways say, normal. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if this wildcat action continues it must call into question many of the assumptions on which our transport planning in the South-East has been based?

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Teesside Stockton

I do not agree w0069th the hon. Gentleman. It is a difficult and awkward situation which is infuriating for many people, but I see no reason to believe that our broad transport planning is wrong or that we are wrong in the importance we attach to supporting public transport, including the railways.