HC Deb 18 February 1971 vol 811 cc2125-9
Mrs. Barabara Castle (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the steps he is proposing to take to settle the postal workers' dispute, following the union's decision to continue the strike.

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

Since my statement yesterday there have been two developments. First, the Executive of the Union of Post Office Workers decided yesterday to continue the strike, Second, Mr. Jackson came to see me, at his request, to report his executive's decision. Mr. Jackson and I also had a long discussion, in the course of which we reviewed the dispute from every angle and also possible courses of action which might help to resolve it. We mutually agreed that, given the wide gap between the firmly held positions of the two sides, which have already been intensively explored in previous discussions, a further attempt to conciliate at this juncture would, regrettably, not result in progress towards a settlement, and might even be damaging. Mr. Jackson also made clear that the union's refusal to go to arbitration remained unchanged. While, therefore, neither of us saw further scope for a useful initiative, unfortunately, we promised to keep closely in touch with each other.

Mrs. Castle

Does the right hon. Gentleman remember the words which he used in the House yesterday, when he said how vital it was for this union and other unions to be prepared to go to arbitration if we were to have a more orderly and peaceful society? How does he reconcile those words with his decision not to reappoint Professor Hugh Clegg as Chairman of the Civil Service Arbitration Tribunal? Is he not aware that this has seriously damaged the confidence of all unions in arbitration machinery under this Government? As he can now no longer press the Union of Post Office Workers to go to arbitration, what does he intend to do to break this deadlock? Will he set up a court of inquiry?

Mr. Carr

As to the question about arbitration, I note two things: first, that the Civil Service side in the central pay negotiations have been quite content to go to arbitration, in spite of knowing the decision first—[Interruption.] They knew the position when they took their decision. The second thing is that the refusal of the Union of Post Office Workers to go to arbitration completely antedates this decision. I should like to add that this matter was not mentioned to me in the slightest way by Mr. Jackson in talking to me yesterday—[Hon. MEMBERS: "He did not know."] I do not know whether he knew or not——

Mr. Callaghan

How could he raise it if he did not know?

Mr. Carr

But that does not invalidate the point which I have made, that the union's refusal to go to arbitration antedates anything to do with Professor Clegg's appointment. That is the substantial point.

Third, as to a court of inquiry, I must ask the House to realise the difficulty which faces that possible course of action. Only last week, we had a report from a court of inquiry, namely, the Wilberforce Committee, which, apart from its recommendations on actual pay in the electricity supply industry, made strong recommendations on two issues which are of general application and which are central to this Post Office dispute—namely, the need for parties to honour procedural agreements, including agreements to go to arbitration, and, second, the need to tie our increases in earnings to specific increases in efficiency. Those were two central recommendations expressed in very strong terms by the Wilberforce Committee. The House and the country really must accept these as fundamental principles which cannot constantly be challenged and inquired into.

Mr. Tom Boardman

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the time has come when the unions should make sure that they represent the views of their members, and that they should hold a properly conducted ballot of their membership for that purpose?

Mr. Carr

I believe that, while of course this is a matter for the union, it is a matter which the union should now consider. I think that there is a danger, not only in this but in all protracted disputes, for the people concerned to remember the claim and to remember the rejection of the claim but to lose sight of what is actually on offer to them.

Mr. John Mendelson

Does the Secretary of State recall that this situation is not wholly unprecedented in that two sides have been as far apart in previous disputes? Is he aware that the fact that one court of inquiry has sat has never been given as a reason for not setting up another court of inquiry, if the dispute was of sufficient national significance?

Would he agree that constitutionally a court of inquiry has only to point in the direction of a settlement often to allow the two sides to reconsider their position without having to feel publicly defeated? Is it not his duty, therefore, to proceed forthwith to the setting up of another court of inquiry?

Mr. Carr

I do not believe that going to arbitration, to which one has agreed in a voluntary procedure agreement, is in any way admitting defeat by either side, whatever may be the outcome of that arbitration. Courts of inquiry are, of course, specific to industries and cases, and I agree that the appointment of one does not automatically rule out the appointment of another.

However, I ask the House and the country to consider the fact that the Wilberforce Court of Inquiry was asked to look at these matters in a wider and more fundamental way than previous courts of inquiry. Its Report is only two weeks old. In looking into that dispute, it made strong recommendations about two central points which are of universal application; namely, the need to honour agreements, including agreements to go to arbitration, and the need for increases to be tied to increases in efficiency in a specific way.

Both of those issues are central to the union's position in this dispute. I believe that they are universal principles and that the nation will not make the progress we want it to make unless and until these principles are accepted and practised, and are not constantly challenged and inquired into.

Mr. McLaren

Would it surprise my right hon. Friend to hear that postmen in my constituency have been to see me to say that they think the Post Office offer to be fair—[Interruption. ]—and that they would like to return to work on those terms?

Mr. Carr

I am interested to hear that. It underlines—[Interruption.]—that at some stage, and I hope at a quite early one, this union should consider what it has, I believe, done before; namely, putting the offer to its members in a properly conducted ballot.

Mr. Loughlin

Does the right hon. Gentleman remember that on the last occasion when he made a statement to the House he referred to the willingness or unwillingness of the Acting Chairman of the Board to make an additional payment and that he emphasised the need to respect the Acting Chairman's commercial judgment? Is it not a fact that the Government have very clearly told the Acting Chairman that should he improve on the present offer, then under no circumstances would the Government allow any increases of any kind in Post Office prices? Is it not equally a fact that the Government are aiming to smash the Post Office Workers' Union as a deliberate lesson to the whole of the British trade union movement?

Mr. Carr

No. the last part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is the complete opposite of the truth.[Interruption.]It is a complete and utter falsity. As to the first part, it was the former Labour Government who established the Post Office as a nationalised corporation and gave it, among other things, financial targets.

As I believe is well known, the Post Office is at the moment running into deficit. To cure that situation, it has had to apply, as from this week, very large increases in postal charges—increases far larger than ever before. In spite of this, it has made an offer, a substantial one, to its employees.

However, it has said, and the House must accept this, that it cannot—[Interruption.]—I am stating what the Post Office has said, and perhaps if the case went to arbitration this is one of the things that might be tested. It has said that it cannot increase its total offer—I emphasie "total offer" and not individual earnings—without asking at once for further increases in prices. It believes that if it were to have to do that it would not only be unpopular but would lead to a downward trend in the business of the Post Office, which would damage employment.

Mrs. Castle

On a point of order. I wish to give you notice, Mr. Speaker, that at the appropriate moment I shall seek to raise this matter under Standing Order No. 9.