Oral Answers to Questions — Treasury – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 16th March 2010.
Before I call Theresa Villiers to ask the urgent question, I should inform the House that an appeal has been lodged in the court case related to the British Airways strike action. This matter therefore falls within our sub judice resolution. I have exercised my discretion to allow this matter of public importance to be discussed, because I do not consider that there is a substantial risk of prejudicing the court proceedings.
Passengers will be seriously inconvenienced if a strike goes ahead. The Prime Minister and my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport have both urged the union to call off the strike and both sides to seek to reach an agreement. However, British Airways is a private company, and the resolution of the dispute is a matter for the company and its staff. The Government have no powers to impose a settlement.
Since before Christmas the Conservatives have been urging Unite to cancel the strike, which will inflict huge misery on passengers and serious damage on BA. Why did it take the Prime Minister so long to condemn the strike? Has the Prime Minister spoken directly to Unite officials to urge them to call off the strike? Will the Minister admit that Labour accepted £300,000 from Unite on the very same day that the Christmas strike dates were announced; and that the party was able to get its accounts signed off in 2008 only after the union gave a written guarantee of future funding? How can the Government stand up for the interests of passengers when one quarter of Labour's funding comes from the-
Order. I am genuinely sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but there is for parliamentary purposes a distinction between the Labour party on the one hand and the Government on the other, and it is in relation to the responsibilities of the Government that she must focus her remarks and questions. I know that that is what she will now do.
Yes, Mr. Speaker. Will the Minister join me in urging cabin crew to work despite the call for strike action? Will he ensure that the Government are going to stand up to the unions? How can Labour propose to do that when one quarter of its funding is provided by the very same union that is holding passengers to ransom and threatening to wreck their holidays?
You always, Mr. Speaker, impress on people who speak in the Chamber the need to think about how the public will view them, so I ask the public to ask the question about how a party that seeks to form a Government tries to politicise what is an industrial dispute. Some serious allegations have also been made about the motives of the trade union and the Government, and, rather than trying to encourage both sides to reach a resolution of the dispute in a calm and less emotive manner, one party is seeking to politicise what is an industrial dispute. I urge both sides of the dispute to start talking again to try to reach a settlement, so that the thousands of passengers who would otherwise be inconvenienced will not be. I would have hoped that there would have been agreement around the Chamber on that wish; given that an election is imminent, I am afraid that that has not been the case.
I am disappointed that British Airways and the Unite union are behaving like two badly behaved children and seem to be paying little attention to the needs of their passengers; macho management from BA and intransigence from the union help nobody.
May I ask the Minister in particular what steps he has been taking since November, when the dispute first appeared imminent, to try to stop it occurring? Clearly, the strike has had a long period of notice. We could legitimately expect the Government to have taken action to try to prevent our reaching the stage that we have got to now. Without any clear indication of what action has been taken, the Minister will understand why some feel that there has been some influence from the trade unions.
May I ask the Minister about compensation for passengers who are not able to get their flights but will nevertheless be significantly out of pocket-through holiday tours that they have booked, for example? Will there be any compensation for them, from the airline or elsewhere?
Does the Minister believe that when they voted for industrial action, the union's members understood that they were voting for seven days or more of such action, or did they think, as many appear to have done, that it was a one-day strike?
Lastly, what further steps does the Minister intend to take now to knock heads together? Would it not be sensible for the BA offer to be retabled now-if necessary, at the same time as Unite withdraws its strike action, as it ought to do immediately?
As ever, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. Ministers have been in close contact with all parties from the outset and continue to be so. It would be unhelpful to give a running commentary on the steps taken to try to resolve the matter. What is important is that there is willingness in some parts of the Chamber for there to be a resolution; clearly, however, it is in some parties' interests for the dispute to carry on.
It is important that BA should provide as much information as possible to the thousands of passengers who would otherwise be inconvenienced. I checked its website before I came to the Chamber; it does provide lots of advice to passengers who may be inconvenienced, and it has a phone number that can be rung by people who do not have access to a website.
The hon. Gentleman's final point was about balloting. It is not for me to look into whether the balloting was fair. He will know from previous history that when BA thinks that there has been unfair balloting, it seeks to challenge the trade union in the courts. It has not sought to do so in relation to this ballot.
Order. Some 14 Members are seeking to catch my eye, and as always I should like to be able to accommodate everybody. However, I require brevity, a legendary example of which will now be provided by Mr. Howard.
Is there not a very simple way in which the Government can demonstrate that they are sincere when they say that they disapprove of this strike? Why does the governing party not refuse to take any more money from Unite until the dispute is resolved?
There is one party that has been clear and transparent in how it receives donations -[Interruption.] It is an insult to the 6 million hard-working trade unionists, all of whom pay taxes, who have chosen to give money to a political party. I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that parties have stayed within laws made by Tory legislation. One big donor to the Conservative party, I am afraid, has breached both the spirit and the word of the law.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the trade unions have stuck within the law during the whole of this dispute and the one thing that we do not want is politicians interfering? This is an industrial dispute, not the political dispute that the Opposition are trying to orchestrate to make the situation worse, not better, for the passengers.
It is noteworthy that while a Member of Parliament is trying to urge both sides to get together and resolve the issue, other Members are hectoring him. The public will not be fooled by the politicisation of what is an industrial dispute.
Will the Minister now answer the question about why the Prime Minister took four days to condemn the strike? Does it have anything to do with the fact that Charlie Whelan, the political director of Unite, is now back at the heart of Downing street?
If evidence were required of some people's desperation to try to politicise a dispute, it has been provided by the tone and substance of the questions that have been asked. This is a private dispute between BA and Unite, the trade union. It is important that both sides should get around the table and resolve the issue. I am disappointed that there is not agreement in the House that the dispute should be resolved sooner rather than later.
May I declare, as a member of T and G and Unite for some 36 years, that I genuinely feel that stuck in the middle of all this, as my right hon. Friend the Minister has indicated, are the customers of BA, the work force, and the company itself and where its future lies? Does he agree that cheap political point-scoring plays no part in where this company and its work force should be going?
It is worth comparing and contrasting the questions by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who was concerned about customers and the work force, and the questions from Conservative Front Benchers and Back Benchers-evidence, if ever it were needed, that they believe that this is a political dispute, and that rather then trying to resolve this in an amicable, calm and temperate manner, they are trying to use emotive language to raise the temperature.
The Prime Minister said yesterday on "Woman's Hour" that the strike was
"worthy of effort to try and prevent it."
Given, however, that we have been made aware by the Unite union since
I have already answered that question. One of the problems when someone is given a question to ask by their Whips is that they often do not hear the answers that are given before they ask it. To put the answers that the Prime Minister gave on "Woman's Hour" in context, he said:
"It's the wrong time. It's unjustified. It's deplorable. We should not have a strike. It's not in the company's interest, it's not in the workers' interest, and it's certainly not in the national interest, so I hope that this strike will be called off".
Do the Conservatives agree with that?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that of the approximately 40 per cent. of BA flights that will not go ahead during the dispute, the overwhelming majority are on the domestic routes, primarily to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which means that travellers to and from Scotland, and businesses in Scotland, will be disproportionately affected by this industrial action? Does not that underscore the need for a grown-up attitude towards this and for all sides to get back around the negotiating table to solve what is primarily an industrial dispute, which is not being helped by partisan point-scoring?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right. Cool, calm heads are required now, not dossiers about perceived links between a trade union and a Government being unfurled at press conferences. I really hope that British Airways and the trade union will listen to some of the debate in the Chamber today and get round the table to resolve this so that my hon. Friend's constituents, big businesses, small businesses and ordinary residents of this country are not suffering unnecessarily.
Following that question, with Aberdeen airport in my constituency and as a regular user of BA, I welcome the fact that BA has protected some of the services at Aberdeen because it recognises how important it is, but the situation is still inadequate.
May I follow up the point made by my hon. Friend Norman Baker about compensation? I am told that people who have discounted tickets are being told that no refunds will be provided following industrial action. Will the Government intervene to ensure that that issue is addressed, and will the Minister do everything he can to ensure that this strike does not destroy British Airways, because the union does not seem to understand that?
It is a private dispute; BA is not a nationalised company. BA has said on its website, and made it clear in all its press announcements, that it will allow passengers who are inconvenienced to rebook or to cancel and be refunded. If there are particular issues that the right hon. Gentleman wants to raise with me, I will be happy to raise them with BA.
Will my right hon. Friend rise above the smokescreen of party funding and use all his energies, and those of his ministerial colleagues, to get a satisfactory conclusion to this bitter dispute? Does he agree that any inflammatory statements are counter-productive? Will he find out where Mr. Walsh is, because we have not heard from him, or from any of BA's senior management, for quite a long time?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What is required at this time are cool, calm heads, and for British Airways to meet the trade union to try to resolve this dispute. I am afraid that sending out press releases, doing press conferences and using emotive language is not the way to reach a resolution, and nor are sending one's pit bull to press conferences and using dossiers to try to muddy the waters.
The Minister spoke of clarity and transparency, so he will not mind being reminded that Messrs. Whelan, Dromey and Woodley all have passes to the House of Commons provided by members of the Labour party. Does he agree that this is a question of the Labour Government being bankrolled by Unite while Unite bankrupts British Airways in Britain?
Let us be clear. The Labour party has been fully transparent about how it is funded by 6 million hard-working trade unionists, all of whom pay taxes, and by many other individuals. One political party relies on a small number of individual donors, and only because of the Freedom of Information Act did it reveal how it was funded. At least those who contribute to the Labour party pay their taxes.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is not in the interests of British Airways or the travelling public for this matter to be turned into a party political football? Does he agree that what would help is if Willie Walsh put the offer that was made previously back on to the table as a basis for both sides getting into serious renegotiations?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. What is required is not for British Airways, the huge work force or the thousands and thousands of passengers to be used as political footballs in the lead-up to a general election. What is required is for British Airways and the trade union to sit around a table and resolve any differences that still exist. My understanding is that they were close to agreement last week as a consequence of the terms to which my hon. Friend referred, and I am disappointed that they were unable to reach a resolution. I am optimistic still that cooler heads will prevail, but what is important is that we must not allow what is an industrial dispute to be politicised. The question that must be asked is this: why do some people wish to do that?
The reality, though, is that this is a political dispute, because Unite gives Labour money, and it is one of the key stakeholders pushing for the expansion of Heathrow, which is the policy of this Government. Will the Minister therefore condemn Unite in going ahead with this strike? It puts not only passenger services at risk, but Heathrow jobs and local communities.
The history is that a Conservative Government passed legislation on how political parties should be funded. Unite, like other trade unions and individuals, gives money to political parties, and does so in an open and transparent manner. Some individuals decide not to abide by the rules, and only because of a freedom of information request are funding sources revealed. I am disappointed that undertakings are not respected and that deputy leaders are hoodwinked. I am keen to see whether the deputy leader of the Conservative party and its deputy chairman will come to give evidence on Thursday to the Select Committee.
Order. I have operated a very considerable latitude in these brief exchanges, and there have already been several-frankly, too many-references to the issue of party funding. The matter upon which we need exclusively to focus is that of the BA strike. I feel sure that a fine example of that focus will now be provided by Mr. Dennis Skinner.
In any industrial dispute, it takes two sides to cause a row. Will my right hon. Friend draw the distinction between the clean money that is given by the trade union movement to the Labour party, as opposed to a man who refuses to pay tax on £127 million and bankrolls the Tory party?
Order. The hon. Gentleman has placed his point firmly on the record, but the Minister requires only the- [ Interruption. ] Order. The Minister requires only the briefest of replies.
Why do you only stop me and not these others?
Order. [ Interruption. ] Order. The House needs to let me address this. I must say in fairness to Mr. Skinner that I did not stop him. He made his point, and I have no objection to him doing so. To be fair, I did not interrupt him. He had his say.
Order. I do do some interrupting when it is necessary for me to do so.
Over the years, trade unionists have understandably campaigned for bank holidays and public holidays. Does the Minister not agree that there comes a time when there should be an understanding or convention so that we do not always have disruptive strikes over bank holidays? They destroy the holidays for many working families, people who want to go and see relations, and kids who want to get back from university. I understand that there is also a suggestion that the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers is going to go on strike over Easter. It is very unfair-not to employers, but to working families-when other trade unionists strike, so disrupting their lives.
Clearly, any industrial dispute causes a huge inconvenience, but when families have planned holidays or to visit loved ones, and saved money to do so, a strike looming over them and their plans is a huge source of discomfort. That is one reason why I hope BA and the trade union will sit around the table, and why they should not allow emotive language to affect the possibility of reaching a resolution to what is an industrial dispute.
Order. I am sorry- [ Interruption. ] Order. Leave me to deal with this. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that his question does not remotely relate to the issue that we are considering, and that is why- [ Interruption. ] Order. I do not require any comment or signalling from the hon. Gentleman. I am giving a ruling: the hon. Gentleman can listen to it and he can like it or lump it. I intervene- [ Interruption. ] Order. I require no gesticulation from the hon. Gentleman- [ Interruption. ] Order. His question was out of order. That is the beginning and the end of the matter.
Clearly, the holidaying public and business need to see this strike called off and an end to the dispute. May I specifically ask the Minister to reinforce to British Airways the point that Aberdeen is a long way from London? It may be a domestic route, but there is no viable alternative for getting business done. Therefore, can he reinforce to BA the need to maintain as many vital services to Aberdeen as possible despite any disruption to services?