HC Deb 08 May 1968 vol 764 cc421-4
Mr. Bryan

(by Private Notice) asked the Postmaster-General whether, following this morning's meeting between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and representatives of the Union of Post Office Workers, he will make a statement regarding the threatened strike of Post Office workers.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Roy Mason)

Representatives of the Union of Post Office Workers came to see my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and me this morning. They reminded us of the time that had elapsed since negotiations with the Post Office on the pay research survey for postal and telegraph officers had reached an advanced stage, and said that it was difficult for their members to understand why an offer could not now be made.

I told the union on 2nd May that I hoped to be able to make an offer within two weeks or so. My right hon. Friend and I were conscious of the fact that the difficulty was one of timing rather than of the substance of an offer or its relationship to the Government's prices and incomes policy. My right hon. Friend therefore told the representatives of the union that he would use his best endeavours to make it possible for offers to be made by Monday, 13th May on this and other Civil Service pay research surveys currently under negotiation.

The representatives of the union welcomed this statement, which, they said, would enable them to call off the industrial action. The House will, I know, be glad to learn that the matter has thus been brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Mr. Bryan

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that we on this side of the House are extremely pleased that strike action, with all its consequent hardship both to the public and Post Office workers, has been avoided? With a view to avoiding a repetition of the unnecessary—and, I think for him, very humiliating—events of the last week, may I ask him two questions?

First, did not the Chancellor completely undermine the authority of the Postmaster-General by treating him literally as a puppet throughout the talks and by himself coming to an agreement with the union which he could easily have authorised the Postmaster-General to make

? Secondly, why did the Postmaster-General literally provoke the union with such vague statements such as that he would start negotiations in two weeks or so, when, as it now transpires, as we always suspected, it was nothing but bureaucratic rigidity and pig-headedness which prevented an earlier date being given?

Mr. Mason

It is understandable that the hon. Member's lack of experience and naivety in this affair leads him to make such ridiculous statements as that. He is fully aware that 350,000 people are involved, all having to have negotiations flowing through the Civil Service Pay Research Unit surveys.

The talks started in Janaury this year. From the U.P.W. point of view, the initial talks concluded on 8th March. The union's representatives felt a little frustrated that an offer was not forthcoming quicker than hitherto, but on 2nd May I promised that an offer would be forthcoming within two weeks or so, thus giving my right hon. Friend and me the necessary latitude to be able to settle all at once.

We have now been able to do that. I should have thought that this would be entirely satisfactory to the House.

Mr. Randall

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House and the public will welcome the reasons being removed for the frustration of the counter clerks and that so far as the reasonable demand that they have made is concerned the House is glad that this has now been met? May I thank my right hon. Friend for the part he has played, and also wish him well in the negotiations which must follow?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for those remarks. Of coure, negotiations will have to follow when the offer has been made. I wish to pay my respects to the Union of Post Office Workers' representatives. They have made their representations in a moderate manner both to the Chancellor and me and have been most statesmanlike in making the representations.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the whole question of redefining the responsibility of the Postmaster-General and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in these matters so as to prevent this kind of problem arising in future?

Mr. Mason

That is not necessary. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has overall responsibility for deciding awards to 350,000 civil servants, of whom the postal and telegraph officers are only 22,000. We were both involved, but my right hon. Friend has overall responsibility, as the hon. Member should be aware.

Mr. Shinwell

Will my right hon. Friend explain, in view of the abysmal ignorance of some hon. Members opposite, that there never has been a case in my experience when public servants have asked for an increase in salary and the Treasury did not intervene?

Mr. Mason

Yes, I suppose that in many instances it is very right that the Treasury should. It had some responsibility in this respect.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether, in his talks with the Post Office Workers' Union, the question of increased productivity arose, because I understand that the Chancellor's directive was that there should be no wage increases unless they were matched by an increase in productivity?

Mr. Mason

A productivity agreement with U.P.W. is an entirely different matter. It has always proved to be very difficult for the white collar grades and clerks behind counters to increase productivity, but in October last year the U.P.W. decided to start a productivity agreement. It has already proved that it can increase productivity. It has effected savings and it is due for a productivity deal separate from the award that we are now making.

Mr. Alfred Morris

While congratulating my right hon. Friend on the important part he has played in this difficult and unfortunate episode affecting one of the most pacific groups of working people, may I ask whether, to prevent this happening in future, he will consider accelerating negotiations on future reports from the Civil Service Pay Research Unit?

Mr. Mason

That is not a responsibility of mine, but no doubt the postal and telegraph officers concerned will be watching with a great deal of interest the progress of the Post Office Status Bill, which will be coming before the House later this year.

Mr. Sharples

May I ask whether or not the offer made falls within the criteria laid down by the Prices and Incomes White Paper?

Mr. Mason

Yes, the offer will not breach the incomes policy at all.