I am sure that all hon. Members present are grateful to Mr. Speaker for agreeing to this brief second Adjournment debate to discuss the crisis in British Rail. There is general agreement, I think, that we should seek to keep the debate as brief as possible in view of the wish of staff to try to get home, faced, as they are, by travelling difficulties. As many hon. Members have stated, this is the most serious transport crisis in London since the General Strike. It is the first time that both the underground and rail services are likely to be out of operation at the same time.
One of the most noticeable things about the ASLEF strike that took place earlier in the year was the determination shown by commuters throughout London to get to work and to support the British Railways Board's decision to introduce flexible rostering. Seen from my perspective, there was considerable anger among commuters when the board decided not to continue to insist on flexible rostering. Many of my commuter constituents could not see what advantage had been gained from the board's stance during that industrial action.
I think that I am right in saying that commuters throughout London will be determined that once the strike starts, it should not finish until the board has won what it requires—the unions keeping to productivity agreements made in the past. Commuters throughout London have seen a deterioration in the services offered to them over the past few years. They recognise that unless there are changes in manning levels, in productivity agreements and in the attitude of the unions, there is no hope whatever of an improvement in services. Indeed, further deterioration is inevitable.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will have the support of all Hertfordshire Members—I see my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) and Hertford and Stevenage (Mr. Wells) in their places—in the fair comments that he makes. My hon. Friend will, I think, agree that there is great resentment among commuters, especially in my constituency, who have had to contend with the problems of electrification and fare increases and will now, it appears, have the service denied to them by the unrepresentative action of the union leadership. To have the problems of suspension of the underground heaped upon them will create havoc for people trying to earn their living.
I recognise that the concerns that I express relate not only to my constituents but to constituents represented by neighbouring hon. Members. I have many similar problems to my hon. Friend as the Hertford North to Moorgate line runs through my constituency.
In view of the wish of everyone to keep the debate as brief as possible, I do not intend to go into the background and reasons for the British Rail strike, except to say that I am certain that commuters will wish the board to stand by its determination to ensure that productivity agreements are honoured. I believe, however, that all commuters will be concerned and worried and that they will have contempt for the union's decision and action in relation to the underground strike. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are fully aware that London Transport made an offer to withdraw the timetabling changes, that this offer was accepted by ASLEF and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and that they agreed to return to work—
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the offer to withdraw the service cuts was an offer not to withdraw them permanently but to withdraw them subject to certain conditions? They were to be withdrawn for a month while discussions took place. That is why the offer was unacceptable to the NUR.
I accept the point made by the hon. Gentleman. It was a temporary withdrawal for discussions. I am sure that all hon. Members would welcome a further chance for the unions and management to get together to discuss the future of the underground timetabling. There is nothing between hon. Members on that.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) knows that ASLEF and the TSSA went along with that offer, but, of course, the NUR did not. We are entitled, on behalf of our constituents, to ask what was the motivation of the NUR in relation to the underground strike. After all, it is a traditionally moderate union. One would have expected it to take exactly the same line as ASLEF and the TSSA. It did not do that. It sought, as I am sure the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South knows, to change the argument from timetabling to pay. By doing so and declaring an all-out strike, it broke the procedural agreements which require three weeks' notification of industrial action. I am sure that some of my constituents and the constituents of other hon. Members will come to the conclusion that certain members of the NUR executive, for reasons best known to themselves, want a strike on the London underground at the same time as the strike on British Rail.
A further matter, which I do not imagine will have surprised Londoners, is the position taken by Mr. Ken Livingstone and the Labour GLC. We all know the background of the "Fares Fair" scheme. We also know that, in February, the Labour GLC set the London Transport management certain objectives relating to the service offered and the subsidy available. A direct consequence of the targets set by the GLC was that if, as expected, demand fell on the London underground, there would have to be marginal reductions in train frequencies—in this case, little more than a 30-second increase in waiting times for trains, and only then at peak hours. It was surprising that the Labour GLC, having set those targets for London Transport, then overtly and determinedly advised the London Transport unions to go on strike. At least part of the responsibility for what will happen on the underground must lie directly with the political motivation of the Labour GLC. I am sure that Londoners will draw their own conclusions from that. They will note that the body that represents them has deliberately increased inconvenience for commuters on the underground.
I have great respect for the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Roberts) and I recognise the part that he plays on behalf of his constituents and the gloss that he has chosen to put on the dispute. However, I must tell him that the subsidy enjoyed by London Transport this year is similar in real terms to the subsidy that it enjoyed last year and the year before that. Therefore, he cannot blame what is happening now on any decision of the Law Lords or the reversal of the "Fares Fair" policy.
One thing that will unite all London commuters is a total determination to see that they will not be prevented from getting to work by the actions of a small group of individuals whose primary motivation they will realise is political. They will recognise that they cannot expect this Government or any other Government to consider putting additional—and, I admit, necessary—investment into London Transport and suburban British Rail lines unless they can be assured by the unions of co-operation in working practices and productivity agreements.
This is the first time that I have spoken in a debate that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have chaired. As the senior Labour one of the unpaid members of the Chairman's Panel, I congratulate you on your new office. I remember when you assisted me greatly in the long hours of the night on, of all subjects, a Transport Bill. Your assistance was much appreciated by me.
This debate is not likely to take as long as that debate—at least, I hope not—but it seems to be falling into the danger of becoming entirely a London commuter representatives' debate. I understand why hon. Members from constituencies in and around London are here. Their seats are nearby, and, of course, hon. Members representing other constituencies have more difficulty getting here at present.
One of the problems that we are supposed to be debating is productivity, and we shall never have productivity on the railways if we have bad management. I want to give two illustrations. The first is the board's problem, and the other is much closer to ministerial level.
Let me describe what happens in the East Midlands. We used to have three inter-city rail services. There was a Central line which ran from London to Manchester through Nottingham and the East Midlands. That is now closed, in spite of running through a very densely populated part of the country. There was and still is a Midland line, as it is called. There was and still is the East Coast line. It is the last that is always accorded the first priority of the two by British Rail.
If a transport system is to be efficient, one should run it through the most densely populated places. The route that should go north from London is rather like the route of the M1 motorway. We do not duplicate the motorway. Instead, we have two railway services—one is the most densely populated per mile of any railway line in the country, and that is the Midland line, which runs through Nottingham, and Leicester; and the other is the East Coast line, which runs through the two least densely populated counties in the country, Lincolnshire and Northumberland, as well as generally running through much smaller places. It probably pleases the Prime Minister, because Grantham, for example, or Newark, which are tiny market towns, have a far better service than the great cities of Nottingham and Leicester. Hon. Members who have tried to make speeches there will know exactly what I am talking about.
The line to Bedford on the Midland line is being electrified. Obviously, that electrification should be carried on to Nottingham. British Rail already has high speed trains on the East Coast line, and now the Midland line is to be allowed to have high speed trains secondhand and not be electrified. So British Rail in its plan, which I am glad to say that the Government have not yet accepted, wants to electrify the line that runs from London to Edinburgh through rural counties. It is absolute nonsense, and it is a waste of money to do it in that way. Years ago, someone should have worked out how to improve the Midland line, which runs through the great centres of population, and perhaps link it up in South Yorkshire or somewhere like that, with the present East Coast line, and carry it on to Edinburgh. All that British Rail thinks about is competition with the plane service to Edinburgh.
While I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, because the town of Burton-upon-Trent is somewhat afflicted by the restrictions of which he is talking, does he not agree that there are two more important priorities for the moment? First, the railway strike should be stopped. Secondly, the people of Britain should be entitled to say that if they are paying £2·4 million a day to subsidise the railway service, they ought to have a far better one than they are getting.
I agree that the British people are entitled to a far better service than they are getting. I am coming to subsidies, which do concern the Government. However, I was dealing first with the question whether British Rail should manage its enterprise in such a way as to yield as much revenue as it could or whether it should increase its capital expenditure on the least densely used line and reduce it on the better used lines, although that is not what the average business man would normally do. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when he considers the capital costs.
The rail service must be subsidised to some extent. That extent is fairly clearly given away by the extent to which roads are subsidised. The capital cost of our road network is paid for basically by the taxpayer. The vehicles upon it are paid for by the road users but the capital cost is paid by the taxpayer. If somebody is not using his car but travels on the train, that reduces congestion on the roads. Something similar would be appropriate in the case of the railways.
There can be no justification at all for the Minister saying, as he did today, that he agreed with his predecessor's policy that inter-city lines should break even but that commuter lines should be subsidised. I am not trying to get rid of the commuter subsidy, but I do not see why there should be that injustice.
Londoners are feather-bedded. A typist in the Civil Service receives a higher rate of pay in London than she would outside it. The Government deliberately increase their civil servants' rates of pay if they live in London. In addition, London commuters are getting a relatively high subsidy compared to those on the inter-city service.
A person who lives in Nottingham and travels down to London receives a much lower rate of subsidy—ideally he is not getting any subsidy—than a person who lives in the leafy suburbs outside London and travels in daily on the train. It is wildly unjust. It is intolerable that people in the rest of Britain should be subsidising the South-East. It is one thing to subsidise a poor region such as Northern Ireland, the North-East or the North-West, but to subsidise the South-East, which is the most prosperous region of Britain, is a total injustice that is not to be borne by the majority of people in Britain.
The Minister made one snide remark about Mr. Livingstone. However, I was surprised to hear that he basically agreed with him. Ken Livingstone is elected to run London and naturally believes in subsidising London commuters. It was one of life's great mysteries to me that the GLC proposals would have been more beneficial to those living in Conservative suburbs than in Labour central London seats. However, that was the case until Lord Denning decided to change it.
The Minister is now making placatory noises, saying that next year he is prepared to legislate if necessary to put the whole matter right. Conservative Members seem to have misunderstood him. He was saying—I am glad to see that the Minister is nodding his head—that he agreed with Ken Livingstone that the commuters should be subsidised. I find it extraordinary that a Government who are supposed to believe in market forces and free market economics have this attitude towards subsidising the people who happen to live in the capital. That is not free market economics, nor market pricing. It is Ken Livingstone's policy that the Minister is taking over. That must be laid at the Government's door.
The Government have a clear responsibility for improving the management of British Rail. When I worked for a great multinational company with worldwide interests I was always taught that strikes are almost invariably the consequence—not necessarily the immediate consequence—of bad management. It takes two people to make a strike. Bad management creates the industrial climate that causes such events. I still believe that to this day.
I live in part in the East Midlands and it is obvious to me that there is bad management. It saddens me to see it, since my father was the commercial manager of one of the old railway companies. It is a matter of great regret to me that there should be bad management in various parts of British Rail's managerial structure. The Government should sort that out. If they did so and if they dealt with the proper capital subsidies—and not the unnecessary ones—they would achieve much better industrial relations as a by-product.
I wish to speak briefly and I shall not follow the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) in his prolonged travels round the countryside. However, at the end of his speech he implied that there should be direct Government involvement in the management and affairs of British Rail. If that is Labour Party policy, that is one rather interesting contribution to the debate.
Since becoming a Member of Parliament five years ago I have tried to pursue, on behalf of my constituents, the electrification of the line from Kings Cross to Cambridge. That is now at risk because of the prospective strike. Cambridge is not a commuter city, but its people, industry and tourism are heavily dependent upon good communications. They are also now at risk. However, I also represent railwaymen and their wives and families. Their future, their jobs and their industry are most at risk. Therefore, on their behalf as well I condemn the insane and completely unjustifiable strike that is proposed. All are now at risk. Even at this late hour, I hope that those in the unions who intend to lead the strike will accept some responsibility, not only for the railwaymen of the present, but for the industry of the future.
Conservative Members allege that there is something political about the strike—[Interruption.] I deny that. Those who have eyes to see what has happened to the railway industry in the past few years will know that two or three years ago—even under this Government—morale was reasonably high among ordinary rank and file railwaymen.
I do not claim that the rail strike is primarily politically motivated, although political motivations had a considerable part to play in the decision to bring the NUR out on the underground. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to join me in condemning the way in which normal procedural agreements have been broken by the NUR.
I do not know to whose politics the hon. Gentleman is referring, but he should consider the background to the railway industry during the past three years. He should understand why traditionally moderate railwaymen have been pushed over the edge by a Government whom they perceive to be hostile to their industry's interests. After a bleak period following the Beeching cuts, the industry seemed to have a limited future. However, two or three years ago certain developments on the horizon led railwaymen to believe that they were in an industry of the future. I think particularly of the electrification scheme, the Channel tunnel and increased investment in rolling stock.
All those components, which together gave railwaymen the impression that the industry had a future, have been undermined in different ways by the Government's policies. Because of their hostility to the railway industry, the Government have been seen to have the unique gift—in this industry, as in others—of turning moderates into militants during the past three years. It appears that the Prime Minister, fresh from her victory, as she sees it, in the Falklands, is standing on the sidelines in this dispute, seeking an unconditional surrender of our railwaymen in a similar way. That they will not accept.
The investment for which railwaymen had hoped has not occurred. Over the years journey times have been reduced, but, in the new timetables, because of the lack of investment, some journey times have been increased. The Euston to Carlisle route is an example. Even on a major line such as that between London and Birmingham, speed restrictions have been applied because of the lack of investment.
The process has been cumulative in the last few years. Because of the energy benefits involved, investment should occur in the industry, but it does not. British Rail set out in a recent report what it hoped to achieve by investment over a 10-year period, but the investment allowed is less than 50 per cent. of that required.
Railwaymen recognise that, compared with similar European countries, Britain's railway system is starved of subsidy. That is the context in which the ordinary rank and file railwayman regards the position. He believes that he is in a corner in a hostile environment.
The spark that set off the dispute was the provocative pay offer.
I should be delighted to take the hon. Gentleman through each industry and examine the thesis that this Government turn moderates into militants. I should like to examine with him the mining industry, the hospitals and the steel industry to test the validity of my thesis. I am confident that such an examination would prove that I am right, but if I did that I should rapidly be put back on the tracks.
Will the hon. Gentleman turn his mind to one or two other issues? If the rail strike goes ahead, all the letters to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre will be carried, not by the railways, but in other ways, because the Post Office is dying to get away from the railways. The business will not be returned to the system.
Many people working on the railways will become deeper and deeper in debt because they will not be receiving income from work. Many other working people will have to work longer hours and spend longer travelling. Their jobs will be put at risk because the prosperity of their employers will be harmed as much as the railways. All of that will be caused, in part, not by the pay issue but by the fight within the NUR executive and the fight between the NUR and ASLEF.
I accept that there will be enormous disadvantages for the travelling public and enormous dangers for the future of the railways if the strike goes ahead. That is why anybody who is concerned about the future of the railways must be desperately worried about the consequences, not only for the travelling public but for the Post Office and the future of rural lines. Indeed, some of us feel that not only the Prime Minister and her principal advisers, but others in the Government, would not be unhappy to seize upon the strike to justify policies which they would like to carry out in any event in respect of rural lines and other matters.
Provocative actions have been taken recently. The pay offer was certainly provocative. Other public sector workers were given 5 or 6 per cent., but the offer to the railwaymen of 5 per cent. from July was actually worth only marginally over 3 per cent., because their pay year runs from April to April. That was one of the sparks that set off the dispute.
The chairman of the board, whom I have supported until now, sent a bungling and ill-judged letter to individual members of the NUR, seeking to go over the head of the union. I was brought up under an NUR poster proudly stating "Unity is Strength" and anyone who has had contact with the union will understand, as the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was forced to learn when he was Prime Minister, the enormous solidarity in the union and loyalty to it.
Whatever hesitations individual members of the union may have about the rightness of the strike and the ultimate dangers, there will be an enormous reservoir of loyalty to the union. The board's letter was ill-judged.
Like other hon. Members, I was caught wrong-footed by the debate and I do not have the letter with me. It seems that the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) has a copy. The letter may have been sent to Conservative Members, which would be significant. It appears not to have been sent to Labour Members.
The substance of the letter has appeared in newspapers. The board said in effect, to NUR members "If you ignore your union and go to work on Monday we will look after you and seek to end the closed shop in the industry." The closed shop has been of major benefit to the industry over the years. That letter was a thoroughly ill-timed intervention by the board at the eleventh hour, when the issues were very sensitive. The letter seemed designed to put up the backs of rank and file railwaymen and to force reason to fly out of the window.
Sir Peter Parker is normally sure-footed in such matters, and I am sure that he will live to regret that ill-considered and ill-timed intervention.
There are elements of Greek tragedy in this saga, as well as a certain inevitability. The industry may emerge much thinner after what could be a prolonged dispute. Everyone who has the future of the industry at heart must be desperately worried.
The railways should be an industry for the future. Even at this late stage, the Government should accept their responsibility, because the crisis in the industry is due to the imposition of cash limits, the relative lack of investment, and so on. The Government should realise the substantial compliance that there has been with productivity arrangements, certainly by the NUR, often on very sensitive issues. They should no longer stand on the sidelines. They should abandon the posture of the folded arms, which simply allows the tragedy to evolve. They should realise that there has to be some Government intervention if the industry is to develop in a positive way.
I hope that even now, at this eleventh hour, the Government will see sense. I hope that, before the annual delegate conference of the NUR opens at Plymouth on Monday, they will give a sufficient concession for the union to be able to call off a strike that will be thoroughly damaging to everyone, not only in the industry, but in the country as a whole.
Like the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), I am concerned about the future of the railways and, in particular, of those who work on the railways.
I struggled to get here today. Several ticket collectors and train drivers spoke to me about the strike. They said "How can we possibly avoid it? We do not want it. We have not organised it. We do not want to take this strike action." Likewise, the commuters desperately do not want the strike. I heard them talking about the trade unions dragging this country to ruin.
The strike will not serve the unions' cause well. It will certainly not serve the interests of the commuters in my constituency, because it will make it extremely difficult for them to get to work. They will become very angry with the leaders of the unions, but not with the members of the unions. That is an important point that union leaders should weigh carefully before going ahead with this ill-considered strike.
The unions have not given adequate time for negotiations to take place. The 5 per cent. offer was made in May. We are now at the end of June. Proper negotiations, in difficult circumstances, would take far longer than that. As I understand the situation concerning the underground, the unions have not even begun to negotiate properly.
Clearly, the leaders of the rail unions have in mind things other than the good working conditions of the men concerned. There is no doubt that there is political motivation. I believe that commuters will react in anger against any attempt to use the strike as a means of taking political action against a democratically elected Government.
I beg the union leaders to call off the strike, to allow negotiations to take place, and to permit the modernisation of the railways that the railwaymen and the commuters so earnestly seek.
It is disgraceful that the £150 million expenditure on the Bedford to St. Pancras line is being wasted because of the continuing argument about the single manning of the trains and the absurd restrictive practices imposed by the NUR. The railway community does not want obstructive action. It wants to create an efficient system.
Commuters are proud of the modernisation that has taken place on the lines between Hertford and Moorgate and Stevenage and King's Cross, but they get very annoyed when the services on those lines are interrupted. Recently a new station was opened in my area. That shows how much people in my constituency—especially commuters—value the railway service. There was great rejoicing when the station was opened. It shows the pride that we take in the railways.
I beg the union leaders not to ruin their members' future. I beg them not to destroy the market and the good will of those who use the railways.
The threatened rail strike is only one of many strikes which have been discussed in the House since this Government were elected, and it has some relevance to the statement made by the Prime Minister on the day following her election. In Conservative News, the headline was "My Troops are Ready." There has been a constant battle between the Government and the trade union movement. We have seen consistent attacks upon the trade union movement in various industries and strikes have occurred particularly in the public sector in the very industries for which this Government are responsible as the employer. The Government have provoked disputes with the recalcitrant attitude that they have taken towards the wages and conditions of the people they employ.
Does the hon. Gentleman consider that his argument is supported by the strike record of the past 12 months, which shows that there have been fewer days lost in the past year than in any year since 1947? Does that support what he has just said?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that during the same period, although some 14 million working days were lost as a result of strike action, nearly 4 million yews of production have been lost as a result of the unemployment caused by this Government. That is the real relationship. That unemployment is the result of the policies being pursued by the Government.
If the threatened rail strike is not settled satisfactorily in the interests of the people in the industry, it will lead to more sackings and to a greater increase in unemployment. All the talk about so-called productivity agreements always ends in more unemployment for the workers involved.
The strikers in the rail industry and their families, as well as their fellow workers, are suffering as a result of this dispute. They do not want strikes. They do not want the present dispute to continue. They want it to end satisfactorily with their jobs and their standards of living protected. They want modernisation and electrification to go ahead, but they also want what in my view we should insist upon—better management of our railway services.
I have already commented in the form of a question earlier that the problems of London's commuters arise mainly from the "Fares Fair" policy of the GLC, which was undermined and removed by the present Government and their allies, the Law Lords.
Unfortunately, Law Lords have voles. They have political opinions and they express those opinions in a variety of ways. Very rarely do they support the Labour cause and the point of view of trade unionists.
Government supporters ask where the money is to come from. There is no shortage of money. We spend £14,000 million on Trident. We spend £600 million on the EEC. There is plenty of money.
The Government are the biggest employer of labour in the country. The problems is that the Government are not using the nation's finances in the interests of the living standards of the people. If they were they would set about resolving our transport problems, and by that I do not mean trying to resolve them by increasing the sweated conditions of those who have to work in the railways industry.
I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Roberts) that the House does not wish the strike to proceed. However, thereafter, I fear that he and I live in different worlds. He seems to be saying that the Government have no interest in the future of the railways. He flies in the face of reality, because he should know,, as an hon. Member who follows such matters, that the Government are spending more on the railway system in real terms than any previous Government spent. That is the Government's commitment to what he wishes and I hope that he will support the Government now that he realises it.
We are facing a national domestic crisis which does not extend only to hon. Members representing London constituencies. That is why I am glad that I caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I represent a rural constituency. Many of my constituents live in the railway town of Holyhead and work for British Rail. They do not wish the strike, nor do they wish the executive to call the strike for the reasons that it has. I pay tribute to British Rail's employees. Before battle is joined between management and work force, with the unfortunate commuter or traveller caught in the cross-fire, both sides must draw back from the brink so that bloodshed, in terms of the destruction of our railway system, can be avoided.
Before hon. Members become too entrenched on either side of what could be a damaging dispute, tribute should be paid to what has been achieved so far. I received a document from the NUR, entitled "The Future of the Railway Industry", which sets out five ways in which advances have been made: the rationalisation of freight marshalling yards, the withdrawal of C and D parcels, a reduction in passenger train mileage and facilities of about 10 per cent. by October this year, the acceleration of administrative streamlining and co-operation in good housekeeping, with the work force being matched to changing demands in the rail industry. It is right to pay tribute to that work, because it makes the present dispute even more sad.
The fundamental point is that the work force does not wish the strike to take place and is out of sympathy with those who have called it.
I hope that if the hon. Gentleman catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will advocate a ballot of the NUR membership to see whether it supports the executive. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the National Union of Mineworkers is an extremely responsible union. However, sometimes the membership and the executive do not have the same views. I wish to see that tested with the NUR.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall the only ballot in which railwaymen participated under the ill-fated Industrial Relations Act 1972, when more than 80 per cent. of NUR members voted in favour of further industrial action? An enforced ballot becomes a straight choice for the average trade unionist—about whom the hon. Gentleman knows little—between the union to which he pays his dues and the Government, invariably Conservative, who have mucked up industrial relations.
The hon. Gentleman supports my case for a ballot. If he is so confident that a ballot of the NUR membership will support the executive, let him have the courage to advocate it. I look forward to his stating that in a moment. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will not advocate such a ballot, because he knows in his heart that the membership would not support the executive.
The newspapers are full of examples of investigative journalism—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) chooses to mock the press. I think that he does it a disservice. It is full of examples today of comments from ordinary members of British Rail's work force who do not want to go on strike.
I read with particular care an article in The Guardian. I suspect that Labour Members will agree that it is a fairly disinterested newspaper politically. The article in The Guardian states that at the carriage works at York NUR members are so concerned about their jobs that they have already voted overwhelmingly against stopping work next week. The same article says that it is hard to find a rail worker in York who is in favour of a strike. It seems that there was a feeling among those interviewed that Sir Peter Parker is being honest and firm when he says that no more money is available.
The same article refers to the work force at Crewe, which comes within the region of which Holyhead forms a part. That being so, I took particular cognisance of what was written about Crewe. The message was that petitions against a strike had been organised by NUR workers at Crewe. One petition from station staff bears 240 signatures. That is the voice of the ordinary NUR worker. He is saying that he does not agree with his executive having called the strike.
The tragedy is that the executive is drawing the membership unwillingly to the brink of disaster. If we have a prolonged strike, the railway system will be ruined. Even more disastrous than that, a long strike will give strength to those who do not wish to see the public funding of our transport system. It will enable them to say that it should not happen.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have a vested interest in denying the opponents of public funding the chance to say that public money should not be spent on the railway system. I hope that the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) will rise to the occasion. With respect, he failed to do so earlier when questions were being addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The House has a right to expect the right hon. Gentleman to condemn the strike, not least because he knows as well as anyone else that there has been a breach of procedures.
The hon. Gentleman knows that there have not been proper consultations on the issues on which the executive is claiming to call the strike. I hope that the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness will say that he believes that the proper procedures should be followed. If he does not, he will be advocating a recipe for anarchy in industrial relations. That is something that I hope he will not do.
I listened with great care and interest to the proper report that the hon. Gentleman gave of the considerable advances that have been made in productivity. I was concerned subsequently to hear what he had to say about the NUR executive. Does he accept that NUR executive members are elected by the membership and have a right to be regarded as representative of the membership, as the hon. Gentleman and I are representative of our constituents?
Secondly, does the hon. Gentleman agree that what he is saying about railway trade unionists is inconsistent with what the Secretary of State and some of his hon. Friends said this morning about them being a lot of mindless militants? Will the hon. Gentleman dissociate himself from the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends?
The right hon. Gentleman's first point was about the executive. Of course it represents its membership in general matters, just as the right hon. Gentleman and I represent our electorate. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is proper, when a national rail strike is being called which could ruin the railway system, that the executive should be certain that it still represents its membership. The right hon. Gentleman will accept that if a motion of censure against the Government is carried it is right that there should be a general election so that the people of the country can reaffirm or deny their support for their elected representatives.
With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I was not aware that my right hon. Friend had said anything of the sort. Of course, there are militants everywhere—
There are militants everywhere who are mindless in many things that they do. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the tenor of my speech has been one of appreciation for the majority of the members of the NUR, who work hard at their jobs on the railways and who want to see the railways prosper, as is the wish of the whole House.
Reference was made by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) to the letter written by Sir Peter Parker. I have a copy of it and I do not think that it is provocative. It is a plea at the last moment to the membership of the NUR not to destroy the railway system. He says:
So, for your sake, the sake of your family and the future of the railway system, help me stop the strike before it starts.
That is not a particularly provocative statement. I do not regard as provocative the further sentence:
If the strike does go on, thousands of railway jobs, perhaps yours, will disappear for ever. That is a fact.
The House knows that that will be the fact if the strike goes on.
I believe that the executive does not have the support of the union membership, who know that jobs will disappear if the strike goes ahead. The members of the NUR will need courage to resist what could be the destruction of their livelihood. They will need courage to say that they will not go out on strike on Monday. If they say "No" overwhelmingly, as I am confident they will, they will have the backing of the House.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) as well as some of his hon. Friends. It is at times like this that the Tory Party's rank hypocrisy about trade union matters can be seen at its worst.
There have been expressions of concern about the future of the railway industry, the future of railwaymen and their families and jobs. Why have not the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends expressed concern over the past three years, when the railway industry has been in a serious state of decline? The jobs about which Conservative Members shed many crocodile tears are already under threat because of the state of the industry. It is an open secret that the British Railways Board would like to get rid of about 3,000 miles of track, principally in rural areas. It is an open secret that the board would prefer a much smaller industry, so let us have no nonsense from the Conservatives about the future of railways and railwaymen.
Despite what the hon. Member for Anglesey said about investment levels, under this Government the decline that had been taking place for some years has spiralled almost out of control. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government were putting more investment into the industry than any previous Government and that the rate of investment in the last financial year was higher than it had ever been. To a certain extent that is true, but the assets of the board are declining far faster than investment is increasing. We are in the middle of a major problem with the replacement of railway assets installed under the 1955 modernisation plan—all of which, regrettably, are becoming due for renewal at about the same time. There are problems not only with rolling stock but with the signalling systems in many parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) referred earlier to the problems of commuters travelling between London and the East Midlands. Once one is clear of the outer London area, the Midland main line in the 1980s is signalled in exactly the same way as it was 100 years ago and in many cases from the same signal boxes. The fact that massive investment is needed sweep away these Victorian relics cannot be offset by the sham sorrow now being expressed by Conservative Members about the railway industry.
With regard to the current dispute, the hon. Member for Anglesey accused my union—the National Union of Railwaymen—of breaking agreements. Certainly, agreements have been broken—they have been broken by the British Railways Board. The settlement date for the 1982 wage negotiations was the end of April. We are now almost in July. The board's offer runs, with productivity strings, from September and is worth only about 3 per cent. to most railwaymen.
Conservatives, as always, have quoted the usual stuff that appears in the Fleet Street press about railwaymen not wishing to go on strike. I think that both sides are united on that. Nobody wants a railways strike. The railwaymen themselves are certainly well aware of the impact of such action and the way in which the decline of their industry would be hastened if such action proved necessary. The press simply asks one question and prints the answer. Clearly, if railwaymen are asked "Do you want to go on strike?" the answer will be "No", because nobody wants to go on strike. If the same question were put to workers at the supposedly strike-prone car factories in the Midlands, the answer would be "No, I do not want to go on strike." The next question, however, must be, "Are you happy with your present rate of pay?" The take-home pay of many railwaymen is £50 per week or less, and the answer will be, "No, I am not". Equally, to the question, "Are you happy with the increase offered by the board?" the average railwayman will reply "No, I am not", because he, too, has all his outgoings to pay and an increase of 3 per cent. over the full year is hardly likely to assist hire in that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good debating point, but it is syllogistic. If the answer to the question "Do you wish to go on strike?" is "No", and the answer to the question "Are you satisfied with the present rate of pay?" is also "No", one cannot deduce from that that the NUR work force is in favour of this of this strike. The hon. Gentleman must see that that is nonsense. The question being asked is whether the work force wants to go on strike for the reasons expressed by the executive, and the answer to that is a resounding "No".
The hon. Gentleman falls into the trap in which he accuses me of being firmly embedded. If the straight question "Do you wish to strike?" is put to railwaymen, the answer, of course, is "No". The same answer would be given in any wage round. The industry is full of loyal people many of whom have given their whole lifetime to it. It is rightly regarded as a family industry. Before coming here, I worked on the railways, as did my father. At no time would railwaymen, as a whole, say "Yes" to that sort of question.
This brings me back to the question whether the executive of the NUR properly represents the views of its members. I do not know whether Conservative Members are aware of the electoral procedures and the democratic nature of my union. Whether they like it or not, I intend to enlighten them. The elected executive of the National Union of Railwaymen, unlike that of any other union, so far as I am aware, is not allowed to stand for re-election. At the end of its three-year term of office, its members must return to their original jobs in the industry. I suggest that this makes them far more representative of the views of rank and file railwaymen than some other union leaders that one or two hon. Members could perhaps name. Because of the union's open and democratic procedures, executive members are allowed to serve one term after which they must spend at least three years back in their jobs in the industry before being allowed to stand again for election.
There is a further test to decide the desirability or necessity of this dispute. Under the rules of the National Union of Railwaymen, the executive, from Monday, has no responsibility for running the union. As from Monday and for the following three weeks, the responsibility for running the union falls entirely and exclusively on our annual general meeting. The 77 delegates to the annual general meeting of the National Union of Railwaymen are all working railwaymen. There is not a single full-time paid official among them. They are people such as branch secretaries and branch chairman who are, of course, union activists. I would have thought that the average age of the delegates—they will not thank me for saying so—is considerably in excess of 50. To talk of Moscow-dominated militants engaging in political action and hoping to bring down the Government would not strike many chords with them.
If there is the feeling, as illustrated by the Fleet Street press this morning, that the strike is not fair and just and that railwaymen do not want it, the annual general meeting will no doubt say so next week. I do not believe, however, that this is the case. I believe, regrettably, that many railwaymen feel they have been driven into a corner from which there is no escape. There has been a litany of broken promises from the Government on investment and co-operation. In recent months, there has also been a deterioration in the relationship between the rail unions and the British Railways board.
There has been reference to the letter from Sir Peter Parker to every member of the staff. I can understand that Sir Peter, in his last term, he says, as chairman, would not want to leave behind an industry broken-backed and racked by industrial disputes. I fear that Sir Peter, in sending out this letter, shows a complete lack of understanding of the average railwayman and his likely reaction to the letter. One has also to consider his threat to tear up the closed shop agreement with the National Union of Railwaymen. To hear Conservative Members, one would imagine that the closed shop in industry is the most wicked inquisition since the original Spanish one.
However, according to the British Railways board itself, the closed shop within British Rail has been eminently beneficial. The board member for industrial relations, Cliff Rose, was the only speaker, so far as I am aware, at last year's CBI conference, to speak in favour of the closed shop and the benefits that it had brought to the industry. The National Union of Railwaymen, in particular, has been careful to work, along with the board, to prevent unofficial action that occasionally breaks out in various parts of the country. We had to warn members of our union that if they persisted in unofficial action while their negotiators were still involved in talks with the management, they could render themselves liable to expulsion from the union and thus lose their jobs. That is an aspect of the closed shop that has brought some benefit to the British Railways Board, but it is an aspect that we never hear mentioned in this House.
If Sir Peter believes that sending this letter and threatening to tear up the existing agreements is the way forward—incidentally, if such action were taken by the unions, Conservative Members would be on their feet, as they have today, attacking a major trade union for threatening to breach an agreement—the backlash will affect the management and its future prospects of re-establishing good relations with the trade unions far more than it will affect the unions themselves. The likely result of Sir Peter's letter is a hardening of resolve among many railwaymen and—regrettable though it is—at this eleventh hour the strike will go ahead. A strike is not in the interests of the people who work in the industry. Nor is it in the interests of the management of the industry. There is a growing feeling in Rail House among certain members of the British Railways Board that the time has come for a showdown with the railway unions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) calls it the Falklands factor. There has long been a feeling on the part of the present occupant of Downing Street that if there is to be a punch-up, she wants to be in the middle of it. That, of course, is a matter for her. Those members of the British Railways Board who think that the time is now ripe to take on the unions are making a mistake. If the dispute takes place on Monday, it looks like being protracted and bitter. I am sure, therefore, that all right hon. and hon. Members hope that last-minute action will be taken to stave off the dispute and prevent the strike. In my opinion, the only action that could prevent a strike would be either an increase in the somewhat derisory pay offer that has been made—obviously, it is the board's unstated view that it would be leaned on heavily by its paymasters at the Treasury if it made such an offer at present—or a commitment from the Government to go ahead with some of the schemes that have been lying on the desk of the Secretary of State, and his predecessor, without reply. Unless either of those desirable actions takes place, I see no way out of the impasse in which we now find ourselves.
If the strike goes ahead on Monday, and if it becomes a protracted affair, the decline of the railway system, which has taken place over the past decade, and which has accelerated over the past three years, will come about even faster. The problem for railwaymen and for the elected representatives of the railway trade unions is that they see that decline taking place anyway, regardless of the cooperation that they have offered over the years to the British Railways Board.
The hon. Member for Anglesey mentioned the co-operation extended by the National Union of Railwaymen in various productivity schemes. We estimate that the current savings from the schemes that he outlined are about £29 million over the full financial year. The same railwaymen who said "No" to a strike, made their views well known not only to me but to members of the NUM executive. They felt that the executive was giving away jobs year after year without getting anything in return. Of course, that is an over-simplification of the situation.
On productivity, we hear speaker after speaker on the Conservative Benches talking about the Bedford-St. Pancras line as though it were an earth-shattering dispute that merited the spotlight that has been turned on it. At the moment there are not enough train sets to operate a full service. There are only 30 units at the present time and it is not intended that the service should start until September in any case.
Not without some justification, the NUR believes that to have 400 to 500 people on one electric multiple unit in the rush hour—that is the figure that they were built for—with only one crewman, that being the driver, locked in the front cab, is not desirable.
The NUR has made various proposals for the re-employment of those presently employed as guards on the Bedford-St. Pancras line. The unions have not flatly refused to negotiate. There are proposals on the table for the board to consider. For some reason it is difficult to get a straight answer from the British Railways Board about what sort of modern railway it wants in the future and how it should be staffed. It is sometimes extremely difficult to persuade members of the British Railways Board of the operating realities of running a railway system. All of that does not show that there has been a complete rejection by the NUR of the operation of the units. We are anxious to see them in operation. There has been full co-operation on the modernisation and electrification of other lines in the London area. We want to see that electrification going forward in the future to cover other parts of Britain.
Reference was made earlier to The Guardian and its frequent leaders attacking railway productivity. The evidence is there. Since they were elected in 1979, the Government have held three separate inquiries into the financial aspects of British Rail, all three of which, including that of the Monopolies Commission, have given the industry a fairly clean bill of health. On any European comparison of productivity British Rail comes out better than the railway systems of most other countries in Western Europe.
The Guardian leader writer's obsession is repeated week after week. I have read at least four articles in a similar vein in that newspaper over the past four weeks. I must content myself with one reply. If the average railwayman had co-operated with modernisation and productivity at the same rate as the Fleet Street trade unions have, those electric multiple units to and from Bedford would have been preceded by a man carrying a red flag. Fleet Street newspapers are surely the last to lecture a nationalised industry about productivity.
Some way must be found out of the present crisis. I have tried to illustrate what, regrettably, I believe are the only two ways forward. If the Government are prepared to sit by and do nothing, the strike will take place. All will regret that. I do not subscribe to the "tea and buns at No. 10" view so far as every dispute is concerned. However, given the gravity of this dispute and its likely consequences, at the very least the Secretary of State should be directly involved in trying to bring both sides together and probably even the Prime Minister herself, although that might be against her natural character. A conciliatory approach to produce some constructive proposals to allow both sides to avoid this potentially disastrous dispute is necessary.
All too often hon. Members speak from preconceived party positions on national issues, not on their merits. Those Labour Members who have been attacking the Government's policy on this issue have attacked it not because of its merits but because, like Pavlovian dogs, they must signal that they will support the unions concerned. They are leaping to the trade unions' side, although most reasonable people agree that those unions are acting irresponsibly.
The rail unions have a case, but it is not to be supported to the detriment of the interests of the British people. Reference has been made to the letter sent by the chairman of the British Railways Board. That letter, which was entirely reasonable, was addressed to every member of the staff. There have been plenty of precedents, and in this day and age it was perfectly proper to send that letter. It has been attacked as provocative, but, when bargaining, both sides are always provocative. That is normal, natural and democratic, and usually peaceful. However, great resentment has been expressed because it is believed that Sir Peter Parker attempted to go over the unions' heads. As the letter has been referred to, I shall quote it. Sir Peter Parker begins:
It is now one minute to midnight. Unless commonsense from ordinary railwaymen takes over, the railways are now due to start the most disastrous strike in their history.
Surely the best person to make judgments is entitled to do so. Sir Peter Parker continued:
Nobody regrets this head-on clash with responsible union leaders more than I do. But on this occasion they are wrong, and I am writing again to urge you to ask your union leadership to think again.
That is an eminently reasonable plea to make to those who will suffer. Hon. Members should make no mistake. The union leaders will not suffer. The ordinary rank and file members will suffer, and the strike will lead only to the industry's further decline.
There is plenty of time for the hon. Gentleman to contribute to the debate. I should like to press on.
Sir Peter Parker's next words are no doubt the remarks that are most deeply resented by those Labour Members who speak not for the public interest, but for the unions. He says:
I want you to know these things: If there is a strike, there will be no pay increase. We will not withdraw our productivity conditions. I do not believe for a minute the Government will intervene to find the cash we haven't got.
I only hope that Sir Peter Parker is right and that the Government will not intervene. He continued:
If the strike does go on, thousands of railway jobs, perhaps yours, will disappear for ever. That is fact. Our business will be crippled. Passenger services will be cut back. I believe we could lose the contract for Post Office letter mail.
Hon. Members should contemplate that possibility. He continued:
Speedlink and Freightliner traffic will be lost. It will mean less rolling stock and, therefore, fewer maintenance jobs in Regions and in BR Engineering Ltd. With less business there will be a substantial reduction in white collar jobs.
Think about it—is it really worth the risk?
That has put the issue in plain language, but in words that one would expect from a responsible leader of one of our nationalised industries. He wrote:
If you decide not to strike, the board will not accept loss of trade union membership as a cause for dismissal.
Is that not a perfectly fair and proper thing to say? For too long, Britain has been held to ransom by the wretched concept of the closed shop. For goodness' sake let us get rid of it.
Let us adopt a more responsible attitude towards such issues. Sir Peter Parker concluded his letter with the following words:
We will continue to try to find common cause with your leaders—but I think it is going to be up to the commonsense and intervention of you and other workers this time if we are going to avoid disaster.
Please think very seriously before supporting a strike call. Make no mistake. If there is a strike you may well not have a job to come back to.
That is reality. Those are the facts. Those are the words of a responsible man who is entitled to speak in that way on behalf of the industry that he leads.
Opposition Members know that if similar circum-stances had occurred when they were in power, they would have encouraged the unions and the workers to accept a reasonable settlement—something like the 5 per cent. that is offered. Hon. Members can put their own interpretation on the figure, but I say that the offer is 5 per cent. It is subject to some productivity concessions and conditions which will show that the work force is prepared to co-operate in making the industry more efficient.
In such circumstances, the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth), on behalf of the Government, would have said how reasonable it was for the work force to make such acceptable and reasonable gestures to increase productivity.
Many ways to secure efficiency and greater productivity have been suggested. The suggestions include the unmanned station, the one-man operation of trains on the newly electrified St. Pancras to Bedford line and driver-only freight trains. What about locomotive drivers driving between seven and nine hours a day instead of the rigid eight hours? Such desirable improvements could be made.
I have described some publicly known details of conditions which could be adopted and lead to greater productivity. Will the work force adopt them? No. The workers are caught in the straitjacket of trade unionism. They are supported in the House—and parliamentary democracy suffers as a result—by a bunch of Labour Party Members whose first instinct, whatever the issues, is to rally to the support of the trade union leadership. They do not necessarily rally to the cause of the workers who suffer. That is bad enough, but worse still is their attitude to the national interest.
About one-third of the electorate in my constituency travels to London every day by rail. More people travel from Orpington station to the City than from any other station, according to Sir Peter Parker. My interest is as great as that of any Labour Member who may or may not be sponsored by a railway union. At least I represent the interest which I am here to represent. I am here to represent not a trade union or business interest, but the people in my constituency. They are entitled to know that I shall raise my voice on their behalf rather than talk about sectional interests. Labour Members talk claptrap about the public interest when they are really talking about their own petty sectional interest in trade unions.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that hon. Members who belong to railway trade unions are paid to express their views? Unlike some of his hon. Friends, we are not paid by anybody to express our views. Strange as it may seem to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, we express views because we happen to believe them.
That is interesting, because I said not a word about pay. I do not suggest that the motivation of Opposition Members is pay. If it were, it would be reprehensible, and no doubt hon. Gentlemen would declare their interests. I hope that they are concerned about the public interest, or at least about the interests of all their constituents. Are they thinking of the distress and misery that is being caused and will increasingly be caused from Monday? About 20,000 of my constituents will face hardship and misery, but most will be determined to get to work and will employ all sorts of means to do so. Why do they bother? It is because they have jobs to do and they believe that they should not draw money unless they work for it.
Labour Members ought to think more about the general interests of the country and their constituents and less about the narrow interests of trade unions. We should emphasise how sectional those interests are and how inappropriate it is for hon. Members to speak on behalf of the unions alone, while ignoring the interests of their constituents.
The issue in the dispute is simple. Railway workers are comparatively low paid. The question is whether their pay should be increased as a result of productivity increases or by Government subsidy—by taxpayers paying more so that the Government can finance an increased offer by British Rail.
I often wonder why it is assumed that anyone should automatically get a pay increase every year. Labour Members say that 5 per cent. is not enough for railway workers and that, even though the leader of the industry says that it cannot afford to pay more, the Government and taxpayers should chip in and subsidise a bigger wage increase.
If we pursue that abominable attitude we shall never make progress. For example, Labour Members are always demanding better social services and increased investment in British Rail. There would be more chance of achieving those aims if the Opposition did not insist on taxpayers' money being used to give railwaymen even more than the 5 per cent. that they have been offered.
There is no magic in wage increase figures. No doubt the British Railways board has worked out that it can afford to pay 5 per cent. if it gets certain productivity increases.
The hon. Gentleman talks of percentages. Will he tell the House what the lowest paid railwayman takes home each week and compare that with an hon. Member's pay?
That is the sort of petty argument in which I do not propose to indulge. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the issue can be settled on the basis of such arguments, it shows how wrong he is.
We have to make a judgment about what is in the public interest. Railway workers are low paid and we are obliged to find ways in which they could be paid more. They could be paid more and the railways could serve the national interest better if they became more efficient. The board's experts have examined the service, and reports have been produced year after year. The recommendations could be implemented. We could have greater efficiency and greater revenue.
Representing a constituency such as mine, I certainly do not want to see more freight on the roads. I want to see more heavy freight on the railways, where it should be. But how are we encouraging people to use the railways for that purpose? We are not encouraging them if we simply subsidise the wages of railway employees and do nothing about productivity.
I agree that the Government should not stand by and allow the railway industry to decline. There should be intervention, but it should be intervention of the very sort that the Government are prepared to make, with investment of a type that will produce greater productivity and efficiency and greater revenue. That will enable more money to be paid to the workers in the industry. It will also serve the needs of the nation as a whole. I repeat, we shall not achieve that purpose by using taxpayers' money over and over again to pay for increased wages without any corresponding improvements in productivity.
The Guardian is not a newspaper that I read every day, but I was impressed by its first leader on 23 June in which it said:
The brutal truth of the matter is that some two-thirds of the near £1 billion which British Rail will receive this year will go to feather-bedding restrictive practices.
I think that there is a great deal of truth in it, and I am prepared to respect the views of The Guardian to that extent. If I had quoted from The Daily Telegraph, Opposition Members would have criticised me for quoting from a Conservative paper. The Guardian does not automatically support the Conservative Party, as hon. Members well know. It could be that the leading article to which I referred represents a reasoned, independent judgment.
Just imagine what could be done with £1 billion in promoting the productivity of British Rail. Instead, we are asked to pay out more money to increase wages and to get nothing in return by way of productivity. That solution cannot be acceptable, and I am glad that the Government are not prepared to follow that path.
The leader in The Guardian went on to say:
Mrs. Thatcher and Sir Peter Parker should stand resolutely firm.
After the remarks of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), I unreservedly proclaim my membership of the National Union of Railwaymen. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) said, membership of the NUR can be something of a family matter. My father and my grandfather were both members of that union.
The hon. Member for Orpington may be interested to know that I represent King's Cross, St. Pancras and Euston stations, as well as several goods yards and London Transport stations, so that whatever is in the interests of the railway industry is in the interests of a large number of my constituents. There are not only those who are directly employed by the railways; there are many others whose employment results from the existence of those major main line stations.
There are more lawyers in my constituency than in any other, but I rely on the lawyers on the Conservative Benches—who are not here in their droves today—to represent the people from Gray's Inn, Lincoln's Inn and the legal offices in my constituency.
It is necessary to consider the British Rail and London Transport disputes in a slightly wider context than the events of this week. To that extent I share the Prime Minister's concern to extend the period of inquiry into the Falklands dispute over a slightly longer period than the week before the Argentine invasion.
If we consider London Transport, we see that for 20 years there was an unremitting decline in the number of passengers, a constant increase in fares, poor wages and ever-diminishing services. With the election of Labour to control of the GLC, those policies were reversed. Fares were reduced, services were improved and, beyond the wildest expectations of those who put through those policies and of the management of London Transport, there was a massive increase in the number of people travelling on both the Tube and the buses.
That was the first improvement in the number of people travelling and in standards of service and the first reduction in charges that had ever occurred on London Transport, and it appeared to be working very well. Then, aided and abetted by the Government, the law became involved, and no doubt again a number of my constituents, including the five Law Lords, decided that this highly successful policy was illegal, although no one had even suggested before that it was illegal.
As a direct result, we had a doubling of London Transport fares and an immediate effort to cut its services. The current dispute on London Transport springs immediately from the efforts of London Transport to cut its services in the way that the Law Lords made inevitable.
It is partly the fault of the Law Lords that there is a dispute on London Transport. But it is not entirely their fault, because London Transport, the GLC and Labour Members of Parliament—and, since several London Tory Members abstained in the vote, even some London Tories—believe that the law should be changed so that this inevitable increase in fares, decline in use and diminishing services may be halted.
The Secretary of State for Transport is not here at the moment, but he must take full responsibility for the fact that the law has not been changed so that a decent standard of service at a reasonable price can be provided by London Transport. The present dispute springs directly from that, and there ought to be no further comment about it. It is up to the Government, together with the management of London Transport, to reverse the policies that have led to the dispute. Until they do that there is no possibility of what might be described as full-scale peace on London Transport, because the staff are sick to death of providing diminishing services and being badly paid so that they can subsidise services out of their low wages.
I turn to the British Rail dispute. Contrary to what some Government supporters say, not even British Rail has suggested that there has been any failure on the part of the railway unions to carry out the full agreed negotiating procedures. Despite sending provocative letters to all the staff, even the chairman of British Rail did not suggest that there had been any shortcomings in the way that the railway unions had conducted their negotiations. All that he objects to is the outcome of those negotiations.
Government Back Benchers, in a sense rightly, have said that there is some reluctance on the part of NUR members to come out on strike on Monday. Of course, Tory newspapers, including The Guardian, could be expected to hunt round the country for people who said that they did not want to come out on strike. That has always been the job of newspapers. I am surprised that they did not manage to drag in any of the widows and orphans who usually feature in their articles. The only strike that the Tory newspapers have not festooned with the legend "The lads do not wish to come out because their wives are revolting and children will die" is that organised by Solidarity in Poland. No doubt the party-controlled newspapers in Poland carried out a similar exercise.
However, there is a marked reluctance on the part of NUR members to strike. There always has been. They have not been out on strike for more than one day since 1926. They will be reluctant to strike, especially those who are worst paid, because they cannot do without even the miserable wages that British Rail pays them. They also know that the future of the railways hangs in the balance, and no one knows more about the vulnerability of jobs than someone whose job may disappear. No one considers the matter longer, more carefully and more bitterly than someone who is threatened with losing his job whether he strikes or not. We do not need crocodile tears from Conservative Members.
The basic problem of a member of the NUR is that he is faced with losing his job. The history of the industry during the past 20 years will prove that if he does not strike he will lose his job and that if he strikes he may lose his job. It is an invidious choice and anyone searching for lack of enthusiasm for a strike will find it. Only a madman or madwoman would be enthusiastic about a strike in such circumstances. However, having talked to many railway employees, I believe that they are prepared to strike, because they believe that what is happening has gone on for long enough. They have been promised jam tomorrow for too many tomorrows. Before Sir Peter Parker became chairman, and especially since he became chairman, every time the union was asked for a concession on shedding staff or on productivity, it granted it.
The much-maligned members of the executive must work hard to sell those agreements in depots where jobs will be lost. Sir Peter Parker did not write a letter to the staff in those depots saying "Ignore the advice of your union." He knew that, without the advice of the union, he could not get the productivity agreements through. It is hypocritical for him to do what he has done, and it is a breach of the agreement that he reached with the railway unions. The only breach was by Sir Peter Parker, when he abrogated, without consultation, the agreement with the unions. It will cause trouble that will echo in the industry for years, whatever the outcome of the dispute.
I hope that there will not be. Whoever decides such matters—the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State or the chairman of the Conservative Party, who was a member of the war cabinet—must take responsibility for resolving the dispute instead of pretending not to be responsible for provoking it. It is a deception when they pretend not to be responsible, because it is clear from private soundings within the upper hierarchy of British Rail that many management members would wish to make concessions to resolve the dispute but that they are being prevented from doing so by Ministers, though not in public. That is another disgraceful element in the dispute.
We must get the Government—they are basically responsible—to acknowledge that the railway unions, especially the NUR, have, almost without fail, met the requirements of losing jobs and improving productivity, while obtaining nothing from the Government in return. The Secretary of State claims that the high-speed train is a pay-off for current improvements in productivity, but that was the pay-off for earlier productivity improvements. It seems that the right hon. Gentleman wants to count it twice. He is also saying "I put the money into the Bedford—St. Pancras line". That is not true. The Labour Government entered into that commitment.
The right hon. Gentleman has claimed also that he has agreed to the East Anglia line electrification. He has, but that is not new money, because it had been agreed earlier to make the investment.
The right hon. Gentleman claims that he has approved the rolling programme of electrification. He has approved it, but he will not hand over any money. It is farcical to say that he has delivered his side of the bargain.
The cuts in the railway industry have been startling even to someone such as myself who could claim to be familiar with them. In 1950 there were 44,000 drivers, and there are now 18,000. In the same year there were 24,000 guards, and there are now only 12,000. Traffic staff in 1950 amounted to 96,000, and there are now 31,000. The number of signalmen has declined from 26,000 to 7,000, workshop staff from 51,000 to 20,000, and salaried staff from 112,000 to 46,000. Total staff numbers have declined since 1950 from 497,000 to 166,000. The House preaches productivity to the nation. If there had been similar job shedding in the House and improvements in productivity, we would have about 200 Members, or even fewer, instead of 635.
Those figures show the scale of job losses on the railways, and they have been achieved with the full co-operation of the railway unions. There has been no proper pay-off in return. When Beeching wielded his axe and closed down legions of rural railways, the promise was made that there would be a well-paid industry, which would be well-run and modernised. Promises were made that there would be new rolling stock, new track and new signalling. That did not happen. Jobs on the railways are badly paid and only a small proportion of the rolling stock is new. The track is in a deplorable condition.
The Under-Secretary of State who is to reply to the debate represents a Birmingham constituency. If he does not travel to Birmingham in his official car, he will know better than almost anyone else the deplorable decline in the state of the track, signalling and rolling stock between England's two major cities. That is but one example of the massive, inevitable and time-related decline in the standard of British Rail's equipment. Until the Government meet all the debts of honour which they and various chairmen of British Rail have entered into over the years, the railwaymen will no longer tolerate job losses.
Verbal attacks have been made on members of the NUR executive. A third of its members are elected every year. When they cease to be members they return to their ordinary jobs on the railways. Therefore, it is no good saying that the jobs of the leaders of the NUR are not at risk. They are all lay members of the executive. They are all working railwaymen. When they go back to their jobs with British Rail, the jobs may not be there. They are well aware of the risks involved. They have now reached the stage at which they are saying that if they and the people whom they represent are to be chopped and decimated by the Government, they should die with their boots on in a strike rather than just give way and give way again and end up with the self-same loss of jobs and poor pay.
That is a characteristic of British people which the Prime Minister considers admirable in other spheres. So do we all. But, if we welcome it when we ask British troops to fight on our behalf, we must also remember that that characteristic of British people is in them whether they are in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force or anywhere else. We shall get that stubborn response from people who work in the railways because they have seen that compromise after compromise by them has not been rewarded. One cannot have one set of national characteristics in one sphere without having to put up with it in another.
The plain fact is that the Government are responsible for the dispute in British Rail as well as the London Transport dispute. The responsibility lies squarely with them. If the hon. Member for Orpington had taken part in any previous debates on transport he might have known some of the reasons that were leading to the dispute that will cause difficulties for his constituents. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not speak out much earlier.
It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not speak out in the Chamber when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission said that there was no possibility of improving productivity or standards on the Southern Region of British Rail unless there was a massive increase in investment. The hon. Gentleman should have spoken out in favour of that investment. Had he done so he would have been representing the interests of his constituents. Instead, he has come along today like a jackal or a vulture to hover over the present crisis. If he wants to represent the interests of his constituents, he should do it all the time. He should have done so well in advance of the dispute.
This is an unhappy debate for my hon. Friends and me because over it is an air of inevitability in that Conservative Members are engaging in an orgy of union-bashing, and Opposition Members, who for a long time protested that the Government were failing to take steps to avoid a crisis, are defending their fellow trade unionists.
The right hon. Gentleman owes an explanation to the House and the country on two points. First, does he support the action taken by the NUR in calling the strike that is due to commence on Monday? Secondly, does he support the decision of the NUR to break procedural agreements on the underground?
I cannot give way to further interventions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acquit me of any discourtesy. Normally I am most willing to give way. On this occasion we are nearly at the end of a debate, after which the Minister must have proper time to reply. I want to make a number of brief points.
I recognise that the hon. Gentleman initiated the debate. I hope that my comments, brief though they will be, will make clear my general support for the position of trade unions, so that the hon. Gentleman need be in no doubt about that.
I object to Conservative Members talking about the strike putting jobs at risk in the industry. Jobs have been at risk in the industry for years, and we have pointed out the extent to which Government decisions made jobs losses the more serious and inevitable.
Jobs are at risk on two bases. First, they are at risk from the collapse of a large part of the network. If the present level of investment is not increased, British Rail's own estimate, which it put to the Government last year, is that about 3,000 miles of the network will become inoperable and further sections will be operable only under considerable speed restrictions. The Government will not acknowledge that the regime that they are imposing on British Rail has led to a collapse in investment expenditure.
Will the Minister confirm in his reply the following figures, which I have double checked with British Rail? Based on mid-1981 price levels, the total investment expenditure of British Rail has fallen year by year from £379 million in 1979 to an estimated £265 million this year. Moreover, the part of the total investment expenditure devoted to railways—as a board decision part of the expenditure was shifted from other areas to railways in 1980—has fallen from £309 million in 1980 to £242 million, which is about half the amount required to sustain, let alone modernise, the network.
It is also not true that the Government are now giving greater financial support to British Rail than has ever been given to it before. I have checked the contention made in Monday's debate. Although it is true that the public service obligation payment is higher than ever before, the total grant aid in the past included freight support, which has now been withdrawn. Again taken on a 19131 price basis, the total support of £818 million this year means that less is now being paid by the British public in support of British Rail than in 1975.
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) accused the Opposition of pursuing a narrow sectional interest. We have been raising the impending crisis in British railways as a matter of public interest in the first instance. We have been aided and abetted in that by the railway unions and the British Railways Board which have been able to advise us about the nature of the dispute.
I have made it clear that I support the railway unions in the position that they have taken. I share the regret of the railway unions and of all Members of the House that the policy that the unions have pursued could not be resolved with British Rail and has led to a dispute.
I make no apology in this House for saying that I think the primary responsibility for the dispute does not rest with the railway unions. It rests with the Government in the main and, to some degree, with the board. There is no doubt where I stand.
I suggest to Conservative Members and I hope, with respect, that I may also suggest to the Minister that the public interest would be far better served at this juncture if the Government were to recognise that it is not possible to sustain our railways, let alone modernise them, on the basis of the present financial regime and that a tripartite agreement is required between the Government, the unions and the board about the basis on which they will be financed. It is on the basis of such agreement that not only this dispute but further disputes can be averted, enabling our railway system to be a matter of pride and great support to our country rather than a constant source of dispute and threat to our economy.
I think it would be right if I sought, like the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) to speak briefly. I appreciate fully the great concern that caused my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) to give notice in respect of this Adjournment debate and that caused my hon. Friends the Members for Hertford and Stevenage (Mr. Wells), for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), who made a moving speech, and for Anglesey (Mr. Best) who dwelt particularly on the difficulties that will be experienced in rural parts of the country to take part. Together with my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley), all expressed their views on behalf of their constituents who face such serious difficulties due to the strike action that has begun in London and that has been called, in respect of British Rail, to begin at midnight on Sunday.
I have listened carefully to the speeches but it is my view that no fresh points of substance about the dispute have been raised which were not referred to by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his statement and in his replies to questions this morning. His replies were very comprehensive indeed. I think it right, therefore, to refer to three matters that have attracted particular attention during the debate. They are three subjects on which there is a difference of opinion. The hon. Members for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) and for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) referred to Government expenditure. The right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness also raised a number of points in that connection.
The facts are simple. Government grant to the railways was increased in 1981 by £110 million and still stands at over £2 million each day. That is relevant to the point raised by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) who referred to the condition of the track and maintenance work and also to the points raised by the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are concerned about the way in which the substantial funds provided by the Government by way of the PSO tend to drain away into the railway system, with the result that maintenance work has been neglected over a number of years. That is why we have agreed—I know that we have the agreement of the right hon. Gentleman—to earmark a part of the PSO for this year in a way that will oblige British Rail to do its work on maintenance of the track as a first essential. That should help to ensure that proper maintenance work is carried out to keep the railway system in good condition.
British Rail's investment ceiling of £428 million this year has not been changed in real terms from the ceilings set by the Labour Government. British Rail must generate funds to allow investment up to that ceiling, and that means reducing its operating costs. That brings us, of course, to the point of difference between the NUR and ASLEF and the British Rail management, the question of increasing productivity.
Anyone who has thought about the £150 million investment in the new commuter service between Bedford and St. Pancras, and who has followed the detailed arguments about rostering, will appreciate the critical importance of productivity to the future of the railways. Lord McCarthy emphasised the tremendous importance of productivity. The board's external financing limit is almost £900 million. The levels set since this Government came to office have been substantially higher in real terms than in any of the previous four years. We come back to the essential requirement that productivity is necessary to make use of the investment, to reduce the cost of operation, and to produce a healthier future for the railways. Lord McCarthy said, on the subject of rostering, that unless there was an improvement in productivity, there would be a gloomy future for the railways and railwaymen.
Hon. Gentlemen have spoken about railwaymen. I want to emphasise that these moves towards increased productivity give the British Railways Board an opportunity to create a modern and efficient railway service out of which railwaymen would benefit.
Does the Minister agree that, if his officials looked at the briefs that they had provided for Transport Ministers over the past 20 years, they would see that they had simply cut out a paragraph from the previous speech and attached it to the new one on every occasion, that what he says has never been true, and that it has never been fulfilled?
I hope that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South, who I know has a great interest in railways, will accept the truth of the argument about productivity, which has been repeated over the years, because of its importance to the future of a successful railway.
I thank the Minister for what he said about maintenance, but if the British Railways Board has to be told to spend money on maintenance, there must be inefficiency at management level. Any other organisation would know about it. Will the Minister go a stage further? He mentioned the Bedford line. No one believes that British Rail wants greater productivity when the Midland line is to stop at Bedford. That was the point of my speech. If the board wants greater productivity, it must give a better service through the most densely populated part of the United Kingdom—apart, of course, from that served by the West Coast line. It seems obvious. However, the board is actually offering to spend taxpayers' money on the least densely populated line. That cannot be right.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings about Nottingham, but I hope he will forgive me if I do not discuss a matter that concerns British Rail management, and if I confine myself to the subject of productivity, in respect of which the investment in the line from St. Pancras to Bedford is of great practical importance.
The second point that I want to mention is the reference to London Transport made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Roberts). As was made patently clear in the statement, the NUR's strike decision is a cynical and opportunistic move.
There is a "no redundancy" threat. The service cuts are minimal and are necessary for the long term. London Transport management has bent over backwards to negotiate reasonably. However, union leaders are now switching the strike issue to pay. The union executive is doing that without formal notice and has brushed aside the normal negotiating procedures in its haste to find any excuse for joining in the damage and disruption.
I emphasise that point, which was made in the statement, because the union's attitude has been so militant. Many Conservative Members have expressed the view that the union is not supported by many of its members throughout Britain.
Thirdly, the hon. Members for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and Holborn and St. Pancras, South and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook)—in his powerful speech—referred to the chairman's letter. It is for the chairman of the British Railways, Board to decide how best to communicate with its work force. He decided that a letter was the right course in the circumstances.
The letter points out clearly and starkly the harsh realities that face railwaymen if they embark on this disastrous action. The chairman of the British Railways Board wrote that letter in what he genuinely sees as the best interests of railwaymen and of all the staff of British Rail.
Does the Minister accept that the objection is not to the sending of a letter as such, but to the contribution that that letter is liable to make at a sensitive time prior to the dispute? Does he seriously believe that the letter will make a positive contribution at such a sensitive time to the solution of the dispute? With his knowledge of the industry, does he not agree that it is likely to put up the backs of ordinary rank and file members, particularly those who will be making decisions?
I must ask the hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members not to use the letter to develop further strong feeling among union members against British Rail. I believe that the chairman was genuinely expressing his great concern to all those who work for British Rail about the disastrous effect upon the future of British Rail that would follow from a strike. He was expressing his concern and it was right and proper that he should do that. That decision was essentially for the chairman.
It is apparent that the long-suffering commuter population in London has once again suffered unnecessary inconvenience and hardship this year. No doubt there is more in store for him next week at the hands of the same unions but under a different pretext. It is sad that the disruption will be spread throughout the country as the British Rail strike develops on Sunday evening unless there is a change of heart on the part of the union leadership.
The Metropolitan Police have made, and will continue to make, valiant efforts to keep the capital's traffic flowing as smoothly as possible and to organise the emergency car parks that have been opened. I appeal to everyone who is faced with these difficulties to take common-sense steps to minimise the worst effects. By avoiding unnecessary journeys into London wherever possible, car-sharing, giving lifts and staggering working hours, much can be done.
Earlier this year, commuters showed great fortitude and ingenuity in keeping the vital work of the capital going in the face of similar disruption. I have every confidence, knowing the true reasons behind this senseless and disruptive action, that they will show the same fortitude again. I feel sure that throughout the country those adversely affected by a British Rail strike will adopt a similar attitude.
The right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness referred to intervention. However, the Government have no locus in the negotiations between the board and its work force on questions of pay and productivity, and they have no intention of intervening.
We all noted carefully the words that the right hon. Gentleman used. The issues are clear. On pay, the board cannot offer what it cannot afford. It can afford nothing without delivery of the productivity improvements for which it has paid. The productivity measures have been thoroughly discussed and analysed both by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and by Lord McCarthy, who support their introduction.
Anyone who cares about the future of the railways can only repeat the hope expressed this morning by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State during the questions following his statement. We can only hope that the union will draw back from the brink and thus avoid all the unnecessary loss and suffering that could follow from a strike.