LONDON TRANSPORT (DISPUTE)
Mr. Boyd -Carpenter
(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Transport whether he will make a statement on the dislocation of passenger transport services in London resulting from the dispute on the Underground.
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Richard Marsh)
An unofficial strike by London Transport signalmen took place today. I understand from London Transport that during the morning peak about one-third of the normal train service was operated, and that this improved later in the day.
I much regret the situation, and the hardship caused to the travelling public. I understand that agreement was reached yesterday between London Transport and the National Executive of the National Union of Railwaymen on alterations in the basis of payment to signalmen, and that the signalmen's action is against the union's advice.
London Transport is in touch with the N.U.R., and my Department and the Department of Employment and Productivity are keeping a close watch on the situation.
In view of the hardship, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, to millions of people in the London area who will be struggling [column 644]to get home from work this afternoon, will he say what steps he is taking to alleviate the position? In particular, does he propose to exercise his powers under the vehicle licensing system to get more road transport moving or to assist the organisation of the giving of lifts by private citizens by accepting insurance responsibility?
I should make it clear, concerning the last part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, that the terms of insurance policies at present remain unaltered. It is not customary to invoke these regulations or these changes in relation to a strike of one day's duration and which, at the moment, is not having the catastrophic effects which were suggested.
The Metropolitan Police Force is using additional policemen to keep the traffic moving. There is no evidence at the moment of serious congestion. [Hon. Members: “Oh” .] Hon. Gentlemen opposite seem determined to be gloomy, but they might recognise the facts. The position at the moment is that a third of the London Transport services are operating—[Interruption.] A third of the London Transport tube services are operating—[Interruption.] I wish that I could be allowed to answer the question, because it is a serious issue to people wanting to hear the answer. The present position is that the traffic is being coped with and there is no evidence of the major breakdown in services which the right hon. Gentleman was suggesting.
There have been rumours in the Press this morning that this action is to be repeated every Thursday until a settlement is reached. Can my right hon. Friend say whether these rumours are true? Will he also give an undertaking that the maximum amount of notice will be given to the travelling public in London if there are to be these stoppages?
I sincerely hope that there will not be any further stoppages. Agreement was reached between the union and London Transport fairly late yesterday afternoon. A meeting took place rather later last night at which the men, against the advice of the union, decided to withdraw their labour today, and I believe that it was suggested that they would do so on subsequent Thursdays. [column 645]
The National Union of Railwaymen's full-time officials are now hard at work putting over to the men exactly what the position is. The men, through their union, have negotiated an agreement with London Transport. I hope that, whatever else is said in the House now, it will be borne in mind that this is a delicate position—[Hon. Members: “Oh.” ] If hon. Gentlemen opposite do not understand industrial relations well enough to recognise that, I really am worried. The union is actively engaged in trying to get the men back to work. The union and the employers are both trying to avoid a recurrence of today's events. If hon. Gentleman opposite do not recognise it, and need it spelt out, that is a delicate situation.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there was total chaos in business and commerce this morning? In view of this, and despite the delicacy of the negotiations to which he has referred, will he ensure that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity intervenes if there is a threat of a further strike next week?
The Department of Employment and Productivity and my own Department are obviously very much concerned and involved with this dispute. At the moment, both the union and the employers are trying to avoid a recurrence of this dispute. I think that it is as well now to leave the union and the employers to see how far they can get in their own way.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that a good number of us on these benches—certainly the progressive few—are becoming increasingly unsympathetic to lightening strikes of this nature whose main purpose seems to be bloody-mindedly to inconvenience as many people as possible with as little warning as possible?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making it quite clear that he represents, as on most things, a very small minority on this side and that he is, in fact, consistent in this view. This is not an occasion where it is particularly helpful, with respect to my hon. Friend, to make the sort of contribution that he did.[column 646]
There are things to be said.
Sir D. Renton
Is this an unconstitutional stoppage, covered by the undertaking given by the General Congress of the T.U.C. to the Government?
The undertaking was that the trade union movement would involve itself in seeking to solve problems of this type—[Interruption.] Immediately this dispute took place the National Union of Railwaymen intervened. It is now, and has been throughout the day, working to end the dispute. I think that is a good achievement.
Has not my right hon. Friend been misinformed about the situation on London Transport this morning? If it is not catastrophic—that may be exaggerated language—it is certainly very embarrassing to those who have to travel on the tube trains. What is more embarrassing is that it might be repeated. It is very important that it should be avoided. Surely the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity should interest herself in a matter of this sort?
It is all very well for the Minister, who has a Government car—I do not object to that—but perhaps he will be kind enough to lend me his car tonight to get home.
The last part of my right hon. Friend's question is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works. If he is happy about it, my right hon. Friend can have the car, but he has to square it with him.
Of course, a stoppage of this kind causes enormous inconvenience to large numbers of people. I made this quite clear when I said that I much regret the situation and the hardship caused to the travelling public. This is inevitable, but the reports which we have had from the police today show that, given that there is a stoppage on London Transport, they are coping with it.
The Department of Employment and Productivity is very much involved in this issue, but at the moment the situation is that the union is trying to end this dispute.
Mr. John Page
To minimise the great hardship to Londoners, can the right hon. [column 647]Gentleman say whether London Transport is using the maximum number of its own bus services this evening to help people to get home, and also whether, if necessary, it will draft in buses from outside to reinforce this alternative mode of transport?
I cannot answer the last question without notice. The position at the moment is that the loadings on the central buses were higher than usual, particularly north of the river where there are no alternative British Rail train services. Traffic congestion was slightly increased overall, and was particularly bad at Ilford and Aldgate, where delays built up considerably. Country bus services were only slightly affected. There is not at the moment a demand for a large increase in the number of buses, but London Transport is doing what it can to improve the service.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that sometimes it is particularly easy and popular to criticise the signalmen who have gone on strike, despite the fact that they have been in negotiation for some time? Does not the chaos which they have created for business and industry, apart from the general public, show what really important people they are, and that perhaps they are being underpaid?
People who come out on strike usually believe that they have a valid case. I believe that on this occasion they have not. There has been negotiation with their union. The decision was referred to the national executive of the union, and the union concluded an agreement. The important thing now is to give the union the opportunity of making the case to its men.
Of course these men are important, as is evidenced by the problems we face, but they have reached an agreement with London Transport which gives a sizeable increase in pay.
I am concerned with the transport consequences of the strike. As two-thirds of London's Underground is not working, and as there is a possibility of a recurrence next week, will Richard Marshthe Minister assure the House that he is making extensive arrangements in case [column 648]of such a recurrence, and take the matter more seriously than he has done today?
Second, will he say whether season tickets are likely to be capable of being used on buses, as they cannot be used on underground transport today?
On the question of taking this seriously, I can only say that I had discussions on this last night, the last discussion taking place at about a quarter past twelve. This is obviously something which is taken very seriously indeed by many people. A lot of contingency plans have been laid for disputes of this type, but it does not help to start waving contingency plans around in the middle of negotiations.
Season tickets cannot be used on buses. People with monthly or longer tickets can apply for the extra day to be allowed when they renew their tickets.
Several Hon. Members
Order. Mr. Heath. Business question.