§ Mr. Mason (by Private Notice) asked the Postmaster-General whether he would make a statement about the dispute in the Post Office.843
§ The Postmaster-General (Mr. Reginald Bevins)
In December last the Union of Post Office Workers claimed a substantial increase in pay for postmen. At the beginning of this year the Post Office offered a three-year agreement providing increases of 4 per cent. from 1st January, 1964, and 3½ per cent. in each of the two subsequent years. The union was not willing to accept the 4 per cent. in the first year, or to use the normal machinery for resolving disputes in the Civil Service—that is, the Civil Service Arbitration Tribunal. It pressed, instead, for an independent inquiry into the pay of postmen.
After discussion it was agreed to set up a Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. A. L. Armitage, to rule on the proper interpretation of the particular paragraph of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Civil Service, 1953–55, which was said by the union to be the crux of the matter. It was also agreed that the Committee's findings would be accepted, and that if it proved impossible to reach a settlement by negotiation in the light of the Committee's recommendations the issue would be referred to the Civil Service Arbitration Tribunal.
Broadly speaking, the Committee felt there should be more comparisons with people doing similar work in manufacturing industry and with people whose qualities compared with those of postmen. With a view to giving effect to the report, I suggested an immediate pay research survey. The team of experts who made the last survey of postmen's pay is now available and I believe that a new survey could be completed in about two months. In putting this proposal to the union last week I offered, at the same time, to increase the pay of postmen straight away by 4 per cent. as from 1st January, 1964, and I also stated that any further resulting increase in pay which stemmed from negotiations on pay research would also be backdated to 1st January, 1964.
This offer is not the same as the offer the Post Office made earlier this year. It is, however, fully consistent with the Report of the Armitage Committee.
The union's representatives rejected this proposal. They said that nothing less 844 than an immediate increase, backdated to 1st January, 1964, of 10½ per cent., to be followed by pay research, would be acceptable. I cannot regard this as justifiable and I accordingly suggested to the union that if, on further reflection, it was still unwilling to accept the Post Office offer, it should take the case to arbitration, as, indeed, it had earlier promised to do.
As the House knows, there has already been widespread unofficial industrial action and the union has decided to call a one-day strike on Thursday to be followed by other industrial action. Postal services have already been disrupted and the inland parcel service to and from London has been suspended. As from midnight tonight I am having to suspend the inland parcel service altogether and also the inland printed paper service.
I shall, of course, do my best to minimise the inconvenience which this will inevitably cause to the public.
§ Mr. Mason
Is it not a sad state of affairs that a union like the Union of Post Office Workers should have been forced into this unfortunate position by the Postmaster-General and that we are now witnessing strikes in a public service which has not known a strike for nearly 70 years?
While not endorsing any of the unofficial action which is taking place at present, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that his offer of 4 per cent. is no higher than the February offer, that he has ignored the report of the Armitage Committee which was set up to find a settlement of this issue and which said that a settlement should be reached on the basis of its report? Is it not possible, therefore, for the right hon. Gentleman to negotiate with the U.P.W., using this report as a bridge instead of ignoring it and just throwing the union the same offer as was made at the beginning of the year?
§ Mr. Bevins
Of course, that is precisely what I and my right hon. Friends in the Government have been trying to do ever since we received the Armitage Report. With the best will in the world; it is very difficult when one party makes, as the Post Office has made, a 4 per cent. offer to be followed by anything which may arise in the way of a further offer as a result of pay research and when 845 the other party pitches its bid as high as 10½ per cent. I ask the House to remember that both parties to this dispute agreed in advance to accept the Armitage Committee's Report and its conclusions—
§ Mr. Bevins
—and, failing agreement, to refer the dispute to arbitration.
All that I have been trying to do during the last fortnight with the Union of Post Office Workers has been to work out how practically to implement the Committee's findings. I gave my word, and, indeed, the Government gave their word, that we would honour our pledge to respect what the Committee said, and we stand by our word.
§ Mr. Randall
The Postmaster-General will know, because of my long experience in the Post Office, that I am not prone to making exaggerated statements about the Post Office, but would he take it from me that I believe it to be true that the whole country is stunned and shocked by his adamant attitude towards the postmen? Some of us on this side of the House feel that he has deliberately provoked the postmen in this issue.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the conduct of the postmen over the years has been impeccable? Their loyalty to the Post Office and to the union is without question. How does the right hon. Gentleman, therefore, explain the difference in their attitude? Does he realise that, in the light of the arrangements which he has made, whatever he does now, he will not retrieve the good will of the postmen and that only one thing will achieve that and get the traffic moving, and that is for the right hon. Gentleman to accept what the Armitage committee said, namely, that there must be constructive and responsible negotiation. Why does not the right hon. Gentleman do that?
§ Mr. Bevins
I have tried to say to hon. Members on both sides that my only desire since the report of the Armitage Committee was received has been to implement its conclusions in a practical way. With respect to the hon. Gentleman—I appreciate his feelings—that can only 846 be done on the basis of ascertaining the facts and figures and then coming to a reasonable conclusion. But it cannot, with all respect, be done on the basis of sheer horse trading.
§ Mr. Gunter
Is the Postmaster-General aware that everything that he has said this afternoon reveals his complete ignorance of the generally accepted standards of industrial negotiation? The Union of Post Office Workers agreed to the setting up of the Armitage Committee on the understanding that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Postmaster-General would agree that what came out of it would be accepted. What did come out of it? It was that negotiations in an atmosphere of good will should continue. For the Postmaster-General to sling at the postal workers the same offer as he made before the Report is completely disgraceful and it is an indication—
§ Mr. Gunter
If I may continue the question, Mr. Speaker, is not the Postmaster-General aware that, in the opinion of most thinking people in the industrial field, because of his arrogance and his ignorance he ought to resign?
§ Mr. Bevins
I ask the House to believe me when I say that never at any time in my dealings with the trade union within the Post Office have I shown either provocation or arrogance and that never shall I do so. I must remind the hon. Member that the Armitage Report suggested that negotiations should take place in the light of the conclusions of that report.
§ Mr. Bevins
The hon. Member, as I understood him, said that we recently made the same offer as we made earlier in the year. As I have been at pains to point out, that is wholly untrue. It was the offer of pay research and what stemmed from it backdated to 1st January this year, which is a very different proposition.
§ Mr. F. Harris
Whilst not supporting for one moment this most unfair criticism of my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General, may I ask him to consider making, possibly, a more realistic increase 847 above the existing figure of 4 per cent. to stop the chaos and concern which can arise from Thursday onwards as a result of the already considerable inconvenience to the public and the business community?
§ Mr. Bevins
I appreciate the point which has been made by my hon. Friend. Equally, however, he will appreciate the difficulty in which we find ourselves of bridging a gap which is as wide as between 4 per cent. and 10 per cent. It has, of course, been made perfectly clear to the union that the Government want to act reasonably in relation to its claim, and if there is any desire by the union to engage in further talks during the next few days, certainly I am at its disposal in the hope that we can find common ground.
§ Mr. G. Brown
Did not the Minister rather give away his attitude to the negotiations when he used the term "horse trading" just now? Negotiations mean that both sides accept that they may have to move. This has to start. So far, the Minister has not moved at all except to say that if the postmen will accept yet another inquiry, taking more months, he will accept that outcome. As, however, he has not accepted the earlier outcome, how can any postmen, whatever their leaders may think, be expected to believe him?
Why does not the Postmaster-General accept that when it recommended negotiations the Armitage Report clearly im- 848 plied that the existing offer of the Postmaster-General was not enough? Why does not the right hon. Gentleman now start trying to put up his offer? Then we can see how close is the bridge and there may be something on which to arbitrate. At present, there is nothing on which to arbitrate, because the Postmaster-General is being so obstinate and stubborn in refusing to move.
Negotiations are not horse trading. They are two sides willing to make offers and trying to get together. Will the Postmaster-General invite the union to sit down again on the understanding that he will make some move?
§ Mr. Bevins
The right hon. Gentleman, I think, rather misunderstands the position. The situation is quite clear. The Armitage Committee was desired by the Union of Post Office Workers itself. Both parties agreed in advance to accept the conclusions of that Committee and the Armitage Committee said, very properly, towards the end of its Report, that it hoped that the two parties would now get together and, in effect, discuss the matter or negotiate in the light of the Committee's Report. One can only sensibly and rationally do that if, in the first place, we try to ascertain the facts and figures of outside comparisons. That is what the Government have suggested.
§ Several Hon. Members rose—