HC Deb 04 February 1971 vol 810 cc1912-5
Mrs. Barbara Castle

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on any further developments about the Postal workers strike.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Robert Carr)

Since I reported to the House on Monday, my Department has been in touch with both sides and will continue to keep in touch. I am sorry to say that so far there is no change on either side in the positions that I had to report to the House on Monday.

I shall keep the House informed as soon as there is anything to report.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that while he maintains his attitude of complacent detachment the Post Office workers are growing daily more embittered? Is he aware that only this week Western Union, a privately-owned concern, has reached a settlement with its own overseas telegraph operators under which they are to get, among other things, an immediate 13 per cent, increase in pay on all points in their scales, a built-in guarantee of a further 4 per cent. increase if the cost of living rises by 4 per cent., and a further contraction of their incremental scales,which are already much more favourable than the scales of their counterparts in the Post Office? In view of this, can the right hon. Gentleman be surprised at the anger of Post Office workers? Is he further aware that the Post Office trains these operators at public expense and then loses them to the private sector, which is under no such restraints as the right hon. Gentleman is trying to put on the public sector? Does he think this is the right way to run the country?

Mr. Carr

I do not remember that comparability was one of the major criteria laid down by the right hon. Lady in her own incomes policy. Since the right hon. Lady has referred to 13 per cent., she should also tell the House that this applies to 230 workers, which is a rather different scale of problem. What is perhaps more important is that that agreement is to last for two years. According to my calculation, that turns the 13 per cent. into a very different annual percentage.

Dame Irene Ward

Although we appreciate what has been done by many of the Post Office workers in paying pensions and family allowances, could my right hon. Friend make a statement as to how retirement pensioners are getting on in collecting their pensions? They must be having a very difficult time indeed.

Mr. Carr

My hon. Friend should address that question to my right hon. Friend. I cannot give her and the House a detailed answer, but I hope that the House will express a united opinion that the Post Office and Post Office workers should continue to do what they did until this week, namely, provide an emergency service for pensioners. I hope we can ask them to do this again.

Mr. Charles Morris

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement today is one of a whole series of statements he has made on the Post Office dispute? Is he further aware that during the course of these statements he has identified himself almost without exception——

An Hon. Member

With the public interest.

Mr. Morris

—with the view of the Post Office Board? Since the Secretary of State has been projected as an understanding man, which feature of the U.P.W. claim does he feel has the greatest merit?

Mr. Carr

I am sure that I should be wrong to do that. I do not know that any of my predecessors ever did such a thing during a dispute. The hon. Gentleman was not right to make the imputation he did. In my statements I have been very careful—as I was, for example, last Monday—to state with equal force the Post Office view and the Union view. I can only say that the view of the hon. Gentleman is not shared by the union leader.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

Would my right hon. Friend ask his officials when they are next in contact with the union to convey the disquiet felt in many parts of the country at the growing number of people who are losing their jobs as a result of the dispute? Would he not agree that the general public feel that the Union of Post Office Workers would have nothing to lose by going to arbitration and allowing its case to be justified?

Mr. Carr

I do not want to be drawn further than I can help into this. There is a severe deadlock between the two sides in which both sides sincerely hold to their different positions, and there is no move between them. In these circumstances I continue to believe that arbitration in some form or another is probably the right solution. I very much hope that that is where we shall get to.

Mr. Atkinson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Acting Chairman of the Post Office Board has said that the Post Office cannot concede an agreement, as a result of arbitration or otherwise, above 8 per cent. without increasing the price of stamps above 7.2 pence? If any arbitration procedure is not competent to deal with the price of stamps, does that not mean the union cannot go to arbitration because of the problems of price and all the other difficulties that will arise? Therefore, would he not consider some extraordinary method of getting negotiations started again between the two sides?

Mr. Carr

We should be clear about the view of the Post Office, which is that if it increases the present offer it will have to make a further increase. This is why the Post Office feels that it should not increase its present offer, but it has nevertheless said that it would abide by arbitration if more was awarded. It is making clear, as it should make clear, that this would inevitably mean a further increase in price. I have not ruled out any form of investigating inquiry and both sides are well aware of that, but I do not think the House or the country can escape the hard economic fact that any further increase in pay inevitably will mean a further increase in price. This is one of the factors which both parties, as well as the public and the House, have to take into account.