HC Deb 01 February 1971 vol 810 cc1247-54
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Robert Carr)

With permission, I should like to make a statement.

Officials of my Department yesterday had separate meetings, followed by a joint meeting, with representatives of the Union of Post Office Workers and of the Post Office. I was kept informed throughout the day and in the evening I met separately both the union and the Post Office.

I am sorry to have to report to the House that no progress was possible. Both sides held firmly to their positions as I explained them to the House on 20th January.

The union maintained that the Post Office's offer would, given the trend of pay settlements since their last increase, mean a relative worsening of the position of their members which they were not prepared to accept. They made clear that they would only resume negotiations on the basis of an improved offer from the Post Office; without this, the strike would continue and would result in long-term damage to relations between management and staff.

For its part, the Post Office insisted that its offer was a fair one and should be seen not in isolation, but as one of a series of substantial improvements in pay and conditions since the Corporation was set up. It said that any addition to its present offer would lead to a further early and substantial increase in charges, and that this on top of the increases coming into effect in a fortnight's time would lead to a downward spiral in the volume of Post Office business which would damage the commercial viability of the Corporation and the longer-term interests of its staff and of the public.

In spite of this, the Post Office repeated its willingness to go to arbitration, but as before the union maintained its attitude that any form of arbitration is unacceptable to it.

Although I made clear that I was prepared to continue talks under my chairmanship either separately or jointly, both sides felt that no further progress was possible at this juncture. I told both sides that while I must regretfully accept that I could do nothing further at present, I would continue to keep in close touch with developments and that my Department and I would be available for further discussions at any time should this seem useful.

The House will, I know, share my concern about the serious effects of the strike on the public and I will make another statement the moment there is anything further to report.

Mrs. Castle

Is it not a fact that the right hon. Gentleman only moved at all because Mr. Victor Feather offered his services to both sides? Is it not a rather undignified position for the right hon. Gentleman to be in, that he attempts to use his conciliation services only to outflank Mr. Victor Feather?

Is not the right hon. Gentleman misleading the House when he suggests that although he was willing to hold joint discussions both sides—that is, including the unions—thought that they would not be of any useful purpose at this stage?

Is it not a fact that the union has made it clear that it is in a position of flexibility and that it is the Post Office that is standing rigid? Is it not clear that the union would welcome joint discussions under the chairmanship of the right hon. Gentleman as soon as possible? Will he please bring pressure to bear on both sides to get talking round the table?

Mr. Can

No, that is not so. I tested this out very carefully with Mr. Jackson yesterday evening and he said, as I stated in my original statement, that he did not feel that any joint discussion under my chairmanship or in any other form could be any use unless he first knew that the Post Office was prepared to increase its offer.

Mrs. Castle

That is rather different.

Mr. Carr

It is not different at all. I made this absolutely clear in my statement. I explained that the Post Office is equally firm that while it will go to arbitration it cannot, for the reasons that I summarised to the House, increase its offer, because it is certain that that would mean a substantial further increase in charges. It believes that that, coming on top of the big ones which are due in a fortnight, would lead to a downward spiral in its volume of business to the detriment both of the public and the longer-term interest of its staff. That is the position of deadlock. As I said in my statement, neither side is prepared to move.

As to the first part of the right hon. Lady's question, I should have hoped that her object might be to promote peace rather than strife in this matter. It is a nonsensical suggestion that she made, which is nothing but mischievous. The leader of the union in question went out of his way at the first meeting, when he asked me to report to the House as I did, and again last night, to express satisfaction at the rôle I and my Department had played.

An Hon. Member

Honest Bob.

Mr. Carr

Both sides knew after the first meeting that I was available at any moment. I am ready to intervene whenever there is a sign of movement. I did not believe that there was any chance of movement, but in view of what was said I thought that there might be. If there is any chance that there might be any movement I regard it as my duty to intervene.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Is it not obvious that very little additional work of value can be done either by the House or the Government in this unfortunate dispute at present? Does not my right hon. Friend agree that it is now time for both sides to reconsider their position, particularly in the light of the arbitration procedure and the vicious damage which the dispute is doing to the economy?

Mr. Carr

I asked both sides last night to report the position and consider it further, the Post Office with its full board and the union with its full executive.

Mr. Golding

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the unilateral abandonment of the principle of wage comparability by the Post Office Board has created great bitterness throughout the Post Office trade union movement? Is he also aware that if levels of pay in the Post Office are to depend upon ability to pay it will be very unfair for the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications to give directions that charges should not increase, and that it will be very unreasonable to expect Post Office staff to maintain socially desirable but uneconomic services?

Mr. Carr

I must maintain my own responsibilities in this and not be drawn too widely. The hon. Gentleman and the House should realise that perhaps the biggest increases in charges in history, certainly in my memory, are to come into force in a fortnight. Of course, I understand the sincerity of feeling of the union on behalf of its members. That is why the difference between the two sides is both simple and very difficult to bridge, because on the one hand—[Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) is anxious for prices to go up, perhaps he will get up and say so. We are in a dilemma here. The employers feel that they have made improvements in pay and conditions which, including their present offer as it stands, will add about £120 million a year to their costs. They have already put upon the public the very big increase which is coming in a fortnight's time. If they increased their offer further that would mean a further increase in prices. They genuinely believe that that would not only be unpopular with the public, but genuinely believe that it would lead to a reduction in their volume of business, which would rebound in the longer term to the disadvantage of their staff.

Mr. James Hill

While sharing my right hon. Friend's great concern over this strike, may I ask whether he does not agree that it is bearing hardest on pensioners? Could not a temporary arrangement be made with the banks to enable the pensioners to cash their pensions?

Mr. Carr

I personally hope that the union will continue to make it possible and do all it can to see that, despite the strike, pensioners are not left without their pensions. So far the union has gone out of its way to do this, and I hope its members will continue to do so. I think that is how we should leave it for now.

Mr. Richard

Is there not a fundamental inconsistency in the Post Office's attitude? The right hon. Gentleman has twice repeated that it is willing to go to arbitration, although it considers that its 8 per cent. offer is fair. If it is prepared to go to arbitration, does not that imply that it is prepared to consider the consequences of an increase over and above the 8 per cent? If it is prepared to consider that increase, as it must be if it is prepared to go to arbitration, would it not be more helpful if it would say so now and start negotiations?

Mr. Carr

The position of the Post Office, as I understand it, is that it believes its case to be a good one, that it is prepared to go to arbitration and that its case would be upheld. [HON. MEMBERS: "What if it were not?"] If it were not upheld, the Corporation has said that it would abide by the result. It has emphasised, of course, that if there were to be an increase on the offer it would have to ask for further increases in prices. This view is as sincerely held on the employer's side as the union's case is on the union's side. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cardiff, South-East intervenes again. I would have thought that he would have realised by now that whoever occupied my position should not express views in favour of one side or the other in matters of this kind. [Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite may hoot, but they should, bear in mind that the union—and this is not always the case—is very satisfied indeed in this case with the part I and my Department have played.

That may be a matter for the House to decide eventually, but I hope that we can at least agree now about one thing—and that is that we want this dispute to end. I believe that further questioning and debate in the House would not be in the best interests of the situation at the moment. Let us have a post mortem afterwards, if hon. Members so wish. I will bear my responsibilities and stand up for my actions. In the meantime, I hope that we can all accept that the less we say about the matter at the moment the better, except to say that the sooner the strike is settled the better.

Mr. Redmond

Is not the crux of the matter that the Post Office contends that the union's claim would result in a 9d. post while the union says that it would not? Has my right hon. Friend had the chance to consider the suggestion I put to him last week—that a firm of chartered accountants acceptable to both sides be called in to make a detailed cost investigation and to report?

Mr. Carr

I will consider that and any other suggestions. The real difficulty at the moment is that there is no willingness on the one side to accept arbitration of any kind. I have, particularly in my talks both on the first occasion and again yesterday, asked the union whether it would consider not only arbitration within the terms of its agreement with the Post Office but any other form or guise or any similar sort of process. So far it is adamant in saying that it would not be willing to accept it.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Callaghan


Mr. Speaker

If the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) does not mind, I will call several of his hon. Friends who have risen several times.

Mr. Delargy

Is not the simple fundamental question whether the postal workers are receiving a just wage? If they are not, they should be given a just wage, no matter what happens to the charges. That is the morality of the case.

Mr. Carr

That is a simple statement which, in its simple form, I dare say the great majority of people would agree with. But what people have not yet discovered how to do, in this or any other country that I am aware of, is how to find the impartial authority that will lay down a scale of relativities which seem to be just in all the circumstances. If that were so, life would be much easier but that is not the case and the hon. Gentleman must know that it is not.

Mr. Tapsell

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the great majority of my constituents are either low-paid workers on the land or retired people living on fixed incomes, and that they regard the present rash of wage demands, of which this is only one, as posing a frightening threat to their standard of living?

Mr. Carr

This does raise the kernel of the problem—that if we continue with the present cost inflation everyone will suffer. All of us should bear some regard to charges and costs which lead directly to increased prices. I believe that we must also bear in mind that the rate of money increase really has to be considered very carefully in this and every other industry.

Mr. Callaghan

My remark which led the right hon. Gentleman to ask whether I was in favour of increased prices and if so why I did not say so was that otherwise there would be an unjust settlement. This is surely the case and I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he has a view that he should express. Is not he aware of the fact that, since 1953, wages in the Post Office and the rest of the public service have been fixed on the basis of comparability and that there has been no departure from that principle as far as I know by this Government? If he is not departing from it, the Post Office workers clearly are entitled to more than 8 per cent. If he is departing from that, he should say so.

Mr. Carr

It was the right hon. Gentleman's own Government who passed the legislation hiving off the Post Office as a public corporation charged, like all other public corporations are, with certain financial duties and targets. It has to consider the charges it can make and the business it can acquire as a result of charges, and it cannot divorce itself of that responsibility. The right hon. Gentleman talks about a just wage. That, like the point raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy), is an extremely difficult concept. He will remember that the Labour Government for years resisted pressure, when they had a statutory prices and incomes policy, to defie what constituted a low-paid worker. They consistently refused to do so. The Post Office includes some low-paid workers, but compared, for example, with local authorities or some other sectors we have dealt with recently its workers are not in general low-paid.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On at least four occasions the Secretary of State seems to have gone out of his way to plead the employer's case. He has not seen fit—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must warn the hon. Gentleman that he must come quickly to a point of order if he begins like that.

Mr. Morgan

Is this a proper way of maintaining a judicial impartiality?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter for the Chair. We must now move on.