HC Deb 06 May 1968 vol 764 cc43-7
Mr. Bryan

May I ask the Postmaster-General a Question of which I have given him private notice?

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Roy Mason)

The present difficulties have arisen over the pay negotiations for postal and telegraph officers——

Mr. Russell Kerr

On a point of order. May we know the terms of the Question asked by the hon. Gentleman, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I thought that I had not heard it. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would put his Private Notice Question?

Mr. Bryan

It is to ask the Postmaster-General whether he will make a statement on the threatened strike of Post Office workers.

Mr. Mason

The present difficulties have arisen over the pay negotiations for postal and telegraph officers. These are the staff who man Post Office counters and do clerical work in head post offices.

In accordance with an agreement with the Staff Side of the Civil Service National Whitley Council, of which the Union of Post Office Workers is a member, the pay of P. & T.O.s is currently being reviewed. The detailed handling of Civil Service pay reviews of this sort is complicated. The procedures are, however, operated according to agreements with the Staff Side, and the early stages of the P. & T.O. discussions did, in fact, make very good progress. The Union of Post Office Workers tabled a claim early in March.

Because I have not yet been able to respond to the claim the union has mounted a series of stoppages at Post Offices. The union has said, in justification, that many P. & T.O.s have not had a pay increase since 1st January, 1966. This is true—the same is also true of many other civil servants.

The final settlement will, of course, be subject to the general arrangements about Civil Service pay in relation to the Government's incomes policy which are in the hands of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Subject to these, P. & T.O.s will not lose back pay provided the present claim is settled by the end of June. I have myself told the union that they will be getting an offer in two weeks or so.

Against this background, I naturally very much regret the action which the union has taken, and the difficulties that it has caused our customers. I have urged the union to refrain from further stoppages of work, so that there can be a good atmosphere for the pay negotiations which will begin shortly.

Mr. Bryan

Is it not the case that this particular section of the union has never before been on strike in all its 80-year history? Does not the fact that it is now on strike, even before an offer has been made, at least suggest that it has been treated with a lack of consideration and that there has been really intolerable delay?

Mr. Mason

The answer to the first question is, "Yes", this is the first time that the P. & T.O.s have even had one-hour token stoppages, let alone any major dispute. I cannot agree that they have been treated in a dilatory fashion, with undue delay. It so happens that, because of the good will existing between the Post Office and the U.P.W. when both sides evaluated the Civil Service Pay Research Unit's analogues in January of this year, the U.P.W. concluded its talks with us on 8th March.

The union expected an offer in about five weeks after that, based on its experience of 1966. I am sorry that it has taken a further three weeks, but I have already told the union that an offer is forthcoming, in about two weeks or so. It will certainly get a pay increase, which will not affect back-dating, and I am hoping, therefore, that the union will now resume normal working.

Mr. Randall

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the reasons for the token work stoppages and the threatened strike ought not to be allowed to continue? While I congratulate my right hon. Friend for the part that he has played in trying to avert this—and may I also congratulate the postal and telegraph officers who have made a contribution to productivity and have had no offer yet—may I ask him whether he will use his good offices to encourage the Chancellor to meet representatives of the Union of Post Office Workers as soon as possible so that we may avoid a grave situation?

Mr. Mason

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for his initial remarks. I am also obliged to him and the other U.P.W. Members of the House who have been most helpful during the course of the last two weeks. It is true that the postal and telegraph officers, who are really counter clerks, have made a productivity agreement. It is working at the moment and we are just now wanting to make arrangements with the U.P.W. on how best its share of the productivity agreement can be paid. The U.P.W. has requested a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and this is now receiving consideration.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

Is it not a remarkable achievement by the Government to have driven this normally pacific body of people into almost unanimous militancy? Is it not the case that they have been greatly provoked by the Government's obvious failure to make up their mind and by their obvious internal disagreement?

Mr. Mason

It comes ill from the hon. Gentleman to say that when under a previous Tory Administration there was a national stoppage in 1963.

Mr. Dobson

Will my right hon. Friend remember the anger and frustration which are felt by the Post Office workers at this stage after the inordinate delay, which is no fault of the Post Office? Will he consider now seeking to discuss the matter with the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, as well as with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to enable some progress to be made and to stop the strike getting worse?

Mr. Mason

Yes, I am aware of the concern of the P. & T.O.s. At the meetings I have had with them I have told them about my concern, and also about the effect this threat is having upon the customers of the Post Office.

As to a meeting with the First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, I think that it would be best to await the Chancellor's consideration of the request that has been made. He has overall responsibility for civil servants' pay and we had better await the outcome of that.

Sir Ronald Russell

Can the Post Office say who is responsible for the further delay? Is the Treasury being penny-wise and pound foolish, as it so often is?

Mr. Mason

No, because we have to take into consideration not just the P. & T.O.s but all the 350,000 civil servants and, in the light of the Government's incomes policy, it has to be thought out.

Mr. Tomney

What is in question is the authority of my right hon. Friend. Is he now telling the House that, as head of his Department, he has not the authority to make a settlement immediately on this matter, because this appears to be a new principle? Here we have a body of men in active daily contact with the public, who are very disciplined, very conscientious and who are operating in most trying circumstances, dealing with Government legislation and its frequent changes. Is my right hon. Friend telling the House that he does not have the authority to settle this matter himself?

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend must be aware that I have some responsibility, but there are two Ministers with particular responsibilities. I have responsibilities for the Post Office workers, of which there are in total 70,000 out of the 350,000 civil servants, but only 22,000 P. & T.O.s have taken this action. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has overall responsibility for civil servants' pay.

Dame Irene Ward

While I recognise the difficulty of the Postmaster-General and the way in which he has backed up the claim from his Department, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will tell me why the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not come here and face up to this angry House of Commons himself? Why does the right hon. Gentleman not send for the Chancellor of the Exchequer? We never can get at the right Minister. It is always somebody else.

Mr. Mason

My right hon. Friend has many responsibilities, but today the responsibility is mine.

Mr. Bryan

As the Postmaster-General has as good as told the union that it will get an increase, would it not be sensible to make that offer now and save the public all the hardship of a threatened total strike of the Post Office?

Mr. Mason

Conversely, in view of the fact that it has never been promised a specific date, that it was initially warned that it might take a little longer this time, and that it has been promised an increase with retrospection in two weeks or so, why should it continue to threaten to strike?

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