HC Deb 11 February 1971 vol 811 cc792-7
Mrs. Castle (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he will make a statement on the steps he now proposes to take to settle the postal workers' dispute.

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

Since I reported to the House on 4th February, I have continued to keep in close touch with the situation, and my Department contacted both the union and the Post Office as recently as this morning. These contacts have, however, confirmed that both sides still hold firmly to their previous positions.

I reaffirm my readiness to hold further discussions with the parties just as soon as I have any indications that this would be useful, but I regret to tell the House that my judgment is that any intervention on my part at this juncture would not achieve the result which we all desire.

I shall, of course, continue to keep in touch with both sides, and I repeat my promise to keep the House informed as soon as there is anything to report.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House have been very patient with him? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] The Secretary of State said that he was "waiting for Wilberforce". Well, we have now had Wilberforce. Is he aware that that Report sets out certain guiding principles, a concept of which the right hon. Gentleman is very fond, which are all relevant to the postal workers' dispute; namely, the principle that the workers in a vital public service should be properly paid if their claim is to be fairly considered irrespective of the profitability of the industry? l s he not aware that, contrary to the impression he has given in his statement, the Union of Post Office Workers has repeated its willingness to get round the negotiating table and has merely been met by a stony refusal from the Chairman of the Post Office Corporation to admit that there is even anything to discuss? In view of that, will the right hon. Gentleman admit that it is now clear who is responsible for continuing the strike, and will he recognise that his continuing inactivity is quite intolerable and that it is his duty to call the two parties together and to get this dispute under negotiation again?

Mr. Carr

I await with interest the experience of the right hon. Lady's impatience. The right hon. Lady, who for a considerable time occupied the office I now hold, must know that it is a matter of judgment—and it is a difficult matter of judgment on which there can be differences of opinion—as to when to intervene and with what success. I am sure she will also know that ill-chosen timing can be counter-productive. On two occasions I have had personal meetings with both sides, and both sides, including the union, have expressed their satisfaction that I and my Department have done all in these difficult circumstances which they could have expected my Department, or anybody who held my office, to do. Therefore, at least the parties believe that I have done all I can do. When I can do more, and judge I can do more, I shall do so. But in industrial situations we sometimes reach the point at which the position of both sides is so firm and so hard that it is difficult to bring them together. It must be realised that the Post Office feels genuinely that it has offered all it can offer without the need for an immediate application for a further increase in postal charges. It says—and I repeat this because it is the Post Office's view—that it will go to arbitration and will abide by it. And it believes that the Union of Post Office Workers should go to arbitration, as other Post Office unions have done in the last few months.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Following the right hon. Lady's reference to the Wilber-force Report, could my right hon. Friend say whether the Post Office workers have considered or commented upon the clear and cogent references in that report to industrial arbitration and the obligations arising thereunder? Is it not inconceivable that where such obligations exist no acceptable chairman can be found from among all the citizens of this country who can be counted on to do justice in this matter?

Mr. Carr

I am quite sure that were there a willingness to consider arbitration there would not be any real difficulty in finding suitable arbitrators.

As to the parties' attitude to all that was said in the Wilberforce Report, I do not believe that the union has at the moment commented on the point to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred. I really think that a little longer should be given for study of what was quite a long and deeply argued report.

Mr. Hattersley

Why does the right hon. Gentleman continue to answer questions as though his Department was available to conciliate in the Walter Monckton fashion, when clearly it is largely responsible for the continuation of the dispute by implementation of Government policy?

Mr. Carr

I can only say that Mr. Jackson believes that we are conciliating in the best traditions of the Department.

Sir G. Nabarro

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of sensible people do not want a ninepenny post? Will he also bear carefully in mind that the Wilberforce settlement of 10.;9 per cent., referred to yesterday, would be excessive in the case of the Post Office workers having regard to their large award last year?

Mr. Carr

I take note of my hon. Friend's remarks, but I am sure he will understand that I do not wish to comment on them.

Mr. Golding

Will the Secretary of State make it quite clear that the Post Office has unilaterally departed from the principles of pay determination and that this makes it very difficult to agree terms of reference for arbitration?

May I also ask the right hon. Gentleman to turn his attention to the telephonists' claim and to make it clear that productivity in the telephone service increased by 8 per cent. between 1964 and 1970 and is expected to increase by 10½ per cent. in coming years? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the great bitterness which has been injected will jeopardise this very fine record?

Mr. Carr

These are all difficult matters about which I know people feel strongly. But I really must ask hon. Members, if they have not already done so, to look at the terms of the arbitration agreement which this union signed as recently as last August and which other unions in the Post Office, despite the absence as yet of a permanent chairman, have been prepared to use in recent months.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House will agree with what he said about it being a matter for his discretion, or that of anyone holding his position, to decide when to intervene? Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that, contrary to some views which may have been expressed by some of my hon. Friends, I have every confidence that he will use that discretion to intervene, as he has done on six previous occasions, whenever he sees Vic Feather on the move?

Hon. Members


Mr. Carr

I hardly thought that the comment of the Leader of the Opposition was worthy of an answer.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

On a point of order. Did not the stupidity of that last supplementary—…

Hon. Members

No. Sit down.

Mr. Speaker

That does not sound like a real point of order at all.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

On a point of order. Did it not confirm the desirability of calling hon. Members alternately instead of having two questions running from one side of the House?

Mr. Speaker

No point of order can arise on the exercise of the discretion of the Chair.

Mr. Mawby

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, while there have been suspicions that arbitration would not be impartial, a close look at the Wilberforce Report shows that these suspicions can now be ruled out? Would it not, therefore, be a good idea for the parties to be prepared to sit down and put their facts before arbitration? After all, the whole principle of comparability and so on could then be looked at as cold fact rather than people getting excited with one another.

Mr. Carr

I should certainly have hoped that both the content of the argument and recommendations of the Wilberforce Committee would have done a great deal to confirm what should be the confident use of different forms of arbitration in this country. I very much hope that the report will be studied and that that lesson will be drawn from it.

Mr. Orme

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is about time that he stopped acting as a publicity officer for the Post Office Board? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, with the country facing decimalisation, the closure of the banks, and the inconvenience arising out of this justifiable claim by the Post Office workers, he has a responsibility, as the Minister, to bring the two sides together and to allow negotiations to take place and that, if he acted impartially, negotiations could take place and a settlement brought about in this dispute?

Mr. Carr

If I wish to act and speak responsibly and impartially, as I have, I shall not follow the hon. Gentleman's example.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

Will my right hon. Friend convey to Mr. Jackson that it might be helpful if he would study carefully the Wilberforce Report and that, if he felt that it was proved that this was open and fair arbitration, his union might agree to go to arbitration without binding itself to accept any decision? I think that this at least would be in the public interest.

Mr. Carr

I have made clear before that I have probed the union's position in depth as to its willingness to accept arbitration, or anything similar under any other name. I repeat, there is no machinery of inquiry or arbitration, call it what one will, which I have ruled out. The union, as well as the employers, is well aware of that fact.

Mrs. Castle

In view of the increasing urgency of the situation, because of the mounting inconvenience to the public and to the business world and also the imminence of decimalisation day, with all the disorganisation which that will bring, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will assure the House that he will make another statement on Monday so that we can be kept informed whether he has any movement going at all?

Mr. Carr

Of course I shall, because I know, as well as anybody on either side of the House and the public, how urgent it is to bring the dispute to an end. I appeal to hon. Members to realise that there was once a tradition in the House that we did not press these matters too hard, because, on the whole—[Interruption.]—question and answer of this kind tends to harden and make the attitudes and positions of parties more inflexible rather than flexible. I hope that the House will bear that in mind.