British Rail

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 5:21 pm on 21st June 1982.

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Photo of Mr Walter Johnson Mr Walter Johnson , Derby South 5:21 pm, 21st June 1982

I shall try to follow your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and be as brief as possible. I know that many of my colleagues wish to take part in the debate.

In the last 20 years I have been involved in negotiations with the British Railways Board, and as I have sat on the Rail Council, which is the top consultative body for the railways, I should like to give the House the benefit of my experience and try to issue some advice to the railway unions, the British Railways Board and the Government. If the strike goes ahead, we are in for probably the worst-ever crisis in the railway industry. That is my view.

We have had such crises before. We have lived with them on and off for 10 or 15 years. We have managed to resolve them fairly well during that time, but there is no doubt that in this crisis there is a real danger of the railway network closing down, which will affect those who work in the industry and the railway industry generally.

The debate is about whether the strike will take place. We have debated transport over and over again, but today we are debating the effect that the strike will have both on those who work in the industry and on the customers.

During the ASLEF strike earlier in the year British Rail lost many customers who will never come back. Fare-paying passengers on the railways found alternative ways of getting to and from work. We must face those facts of life. That will be the situation once again if the strike takes place, only it will be over a longer period, because I believe that the British Railways Board means what it says this time. There will be no fudging. If the strike takes place there will be a complete shut down of the railway network, with all the consequent effects. Passengers and freight will be lost. That is unfortunate, because the freight side of the business was picking up. All the signs were that we would have had a much more effective system.

I am one of those who share the view of the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers) that Sir Peter Parker is a first-class chairman of British Rail. He is doing a good job in difficult circumstances. Having worked with him during discussions and negotiations, I know that he is enthusiastic and keen to make a success of his job as chairman. That is my personal experience of how Sir Peter Parker has been dealing with his job.

The only people who will rub their hands if the strike takes place are the road hauliers and the bus companies, who will get additional business. At present they are doing nicely anyway.

What concerns me more than anything else is the effect that a strike would have upon those who work in the industry. There would be massive redundancies on a scale that we cannot envisage. If the British Railways Board does not have the money to deal with the current pay claim, it will not have the money to deal with severance or redundancy payments. That is another factor which I hope will be taken into account.

It is only a few weeks since there was the threatened closure of the railway workshops. Many of us are concerned about that. There was a magnificent lobby of the House of Commons. The enthusiasm shown by those who work in the railway workshops, coupled with the help and support that they received from my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) and others, was responsible for keeping open the railway workshops.

What will happen to the railway workshops if the strike takes place? They will be closed for good. There is no question about that. The British Railway Board was helpful about the workshops. It handled the situation badly in the first place, but when it was faced with dealing with the situation, it was helpful.

I have outlined what will happen to the industry if the strike takes place next Monday, which will be absolutely disastrous for many commuters who had a rough time during the ASLEF dispute. Against that background, surely it is not too late for something to be done to try to assist. I hope that the Secretary of State will find it possible during this week, before the strike takes place, to get together the unions and the management, talk to them and try to find a way around the dispute. That has been done in the past, time and again, and there is no reason why it should not be done again.

The unyielding and tough approach of the British Railways Board has been brought about largely by the dispute earlier in the year by ASLEF. I shall not go into the pros and cons of that dispute. It was wrong. The union did not measure up to the full requirements on productivity. That is a personal view. That dispute has led to the tough line that has been taken by the British Railways Board in the current set of pay negotiations.

The British Railways Board's offer of 5 per cent. from September was provocative and ridiculous. It knew that the anniversary date was towards the end of April. To make an offer of 5 per cent. from September, which has been estimated at 3 per cent. during the year, is unfair and unreasonable to the vast majority of railwaymen, who are doing a first-class job. It annoys me that the two unions that have met the productivity deals right, left and centre—the National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association—are now having to pay the price of what took place earlier this year. The British Railways Board is taking a tough stance. Something can be done about that.

I hope that a meeting will take place this week between the railway management and the unions concerned. I hope that Sir Peter Parker and the British Railways Board will come off their high horse and realise that a more realistic offer than 5 per cent. must be made. The offer must be sensible and one that the unions can recommend to their members. I know the problem. I realise that the obvious question is: where will the money come from? My answer is: if any other industries, whether gas, electricity or oil, are in financial difficulty, what do they do? They put up their charges. I do not want fares or freight charges to go up. However, if that is the only way in which the British Railways Board can make a realistic pay offer, that should be done if the board needs the money.

In addition, the Government should play their part. I hope that a meeting will take place between Sir Peter Parker and the railway unions this week. If there is still difficulty, the Secretary of State should intervene and call the parties together. If the Government do not intervene to stop the disastrous strike, it will be a disgrace. They want the railways to continue. It is nonsense to let them decline.

I have friends in the NUR, including Sid Weighell. I know them well and have worked closely with them. I ask them to use the machinery to the utmost. If all else fails this week they must go to the Railway Staff National Tribunal. That will see that the issue is properly aired again before an independent body that will make recommendations. It will put the ball in the Government's court. I hope that the NUR will use that mechanism as a last resort. It will delay the dispute to allow wiser counsels to prevail.

I hope that the Government will take on board the suggestions that have been made. The NUR and the TSSA have played the game on productivity. In just over one year 15,000 railwaymen have left the service, saving £74 million. Not many other industries can measure up to that. The will is there. Railwaymen want to make a success of their industry and to provide a service. I ask the Government to give them the opportunity to do so.