Orders of the Day — Adjournment (Spring)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:54 pm on 25th May 1982.

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Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North 8:54 pm, 25th May 1982

I shall return to the matter of the railways, a subject which has already been raised by four of my hon. Friends. The Leader of the House will be aware that many Opposition Members are distressed because, due to the need to debate the European Community tomorrow, we have been deprived of the opportunity to discuss the grave state of affairs of British Rail, which is likely to lead to the worst industrial confrontation—and perhaps a decimation of services thereafter—that I can recall. It will certainly be the worst during the present generation. Those are serious words. I hope that they will be taken seriously.

We are now on a collision course, about which the Government must make a statement before the House rises for the recess. The deadlines involved will have been passed before the House resumes. It appears that on Friday, at a meeting of the Railway Staffs National Council, the British Railways Board will advance proposals that will lead to the complete shutdown of the railways. It may have decided on that course of action in the knowledge that a collision with all the major rail unions, at a time of national crisis and hypertension as a result of events overseas, may intimidate railway workers out of taking industrial action, which will be inevitable if the board puts forward its package.

The board is being egged on by the Government. The Government have brought about the impasse. That impasse will continue as long as the complete freeze on investment and a failure of confidence in the railways remain. Decisions about the future of the industry have been pre-empted because of the inquiry—which may be an inquest on the whitening bones of the industry if the Government force the industry to commit suicide by egging the board on to a collision course to disaster. I shall not go into detail as others have done. I shall deal with the problem as it affects my constituency and the industry as a whole.

It is not right to say, as I believe the Secretary of State for Employment—that well-known hammer of the unions—will say in Beaconsfield this evening, that the railways have not delivered, that the unions must be told that if there is a showdown they will be to blame and that they must be whipped back into line. The unions and those who work on British Rail have always acknowledged that there is a need for a more efficient and productive railway. Most of them have delivered.

The National Union of Railwaymen, to which I belong, has delivered on the productivity deals that the British Railways Board has suggested. The railwaymen have delivered on freight marshalling yards, rationalisation, cuts in passenger train mileage and the acceleration of administrative changes, and they have co-operated in all of the good housekeeping schemes that have been put up by British Rail.

Every month 1,000 people leave the industry. From April 1980 to April 1981 there was a reduction of 5,886 posts, with a saving of £28,896,000 in staff costs. In the following April to December of 1981 another 8,293 posts were lost, yielding a saving of £33,741,000. The unions have delivered time after time. They have delivered the jobs of their own members. What have they received in return? Nothing. All the schemes for electrification have been put on the back burner. They have had no tangible benefits recently to show for the years of co-operation.

The matter has been brought to a head by the proposal artificially to bring forward the decision to close two-and-a-half railway workshops and make major redundancies elsewhere. We have heard what has happened to the Shildon and Swindon works. In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Johnson) the Derby locomotive works must face 400 redundancies. The work force there has co-operated with the management in every scheme. Now the workers are told that they will have some work as a result of closures elsewhere, so why not co-operate? "Let the crocodile eat other people and he will eat you later." That is not working people's view of closures elsewhere when they know that their turn may come next or the time after that.

Two of the three apprentice schools in Derby have been closed as a result of a rationalisation. In those circumstances, how can British Rail say that it will be going out for expansion and that if productivity were better it could obtain more overseas orders? A large order for Nigeria is being discussed. Where will the rolling stock be built? Where will the trained personnel be found if lay-offs in the workshops continue in this way and skilled apprentices do not come through into the work force? The answer is that it will be impossible to find them.

Many of us suspect that not merely is British Rail embarking on a collision course with all the unions, having deliberately put together a package which includes elements of conflict with the staff unions, the NUR and TSSA, but that the Government are encouraging British Rail to act as their willing client in selling off most of the assets of the railways.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) referred to the sayings of Sir Robert Lawrence about asset-stripping. In Derby our workshops have been the pride of the railway system. There is the technical centre and there are the carriage and loco works. We now hear that those workshops may be candidates for privatisation. They will not be closed, because too much investment went into them in the good days of the railways, but if they are slimmed down and the work force bled away they may well become candidates for privatisation. Indeed, we are told that GEC may be coming to look around. It would be outrageous if the engineering workshops in Derby were sold off.

I believe that in the last Session of Parliament there was a draft Bill, which never saw the light of day or the scrutiny of Members of Parliament, to permit the selling off of all the workshops. Our suspicion and fear is that, after two months of total shutdown on the railways and a crisis from which everyone should now back away because it will lead to the most destructive confrontation, the result will be the devastation of the railway system as we have known it.

As has been emphasised several times this week, there have been persistent calls for statements from the Government on a number of issues. Where is the statement about the Channel tunnel? Where is the statement about the delays in electrification? Where is the statement about railway workshop closures? Finally, before the key decision that must be made on Friday, just before the House rises for the recess, I say in all seriousness to the Leader of the House that an explanation is required from the Government. There must be some understanding by the Government that if the essentially moderate people who work on the railways are driven too far, not only will they be driven to the point at which they have no alternative but to take industrial action, as I believe will be the case if the proposals to be put on Friday are carried through, but the result will be the destruction of the British railway system, for which the British public will not forgive the Government.