HC Deb 25 February 1971 vol 812 cc832-5
13. Mr. John Page

asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he will make a further statement on the industrial dispute in the Post Office.

Mr. R. Carr

On Tuesday and Wednesday I had a series of separate discussions with the U.P.W. and the Post Office. My objective was to have a joint meeting under my chairmanship to explore ways in which the earnings opportunities of the staff could be improved without adding to total costs and, therefore, causing further increases in Post Office prices.

Unfortunately, the union felt unable to participate in such joint meetings because it regarded it as a matter of principle that it must be assured of some increase in the Post Office's offer without any conditions whatsoever.

For its part, the Post Office was prepared to consider committing itself to a phased programme on shortening the incremental pay scales to commence next year rather than this, but only on condition that any further increase in its 8 per cent. offer for this year would be on a basis which would avoid further increases in costs and prices. Both sides made some change in their attitudes in the course of these talks, and I can only regret that the union did not feel this sufficient to justify joint talks under my chairmanship.

All I can say to the House at this stage is that my offer to the parties of joint talks remains open.

Mr. Page

Will my right hon. Friend take any farther opportunity by both parties to renew his painstaking efforts to seek a solution?

Mr. Carr

Most certainly.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that of course the whole House welcomes his efforts to get the two sides together, and that we would certainly not wish in any way to do anything to jeopardise the talks—[HON. MEMBERS: "That is a change."] Just one moment. I have not finished. We would not wish to do anything to jeopardise the talks if there were any prospect of their leading to a successful outcome. But is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the opinion of the union, as shown by the leaflet which it has distributed this morning at the very big rally held in Hyde Park, the talks have totally broken down, that the executive of the union has endorsed the rejection of the proposals put forward by the Post Office on the ground that it is being offered nothing more than the original 8 per cent., and that, on the productivity side, all that the corporation has done is to come forward with some general, vague talk but has not laid any concrete proposals on the table nor put any specific figure against its proposals?

I want to say urgently to the right hon. Gentleman—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question!"] May I ask him this? I am sure that he is as concerned as I am about the continuance of this dispute. Therefore, I want to put this to the right hon. Gentleman very seriously. Not only are any discussions about productivity bound to take months; they ought to take months if the willing co-operation of the employees is to be obtained. Clearly, therefore, we cannot settle this dispute on the basis of vague talk about productivity. May I, therefore, ask the right hon. Gentleman most seriously once again whether he will consider setting up a court of inquiry as being the only way to break the deadlock?

Mr. Carr

I have dealt with the court of inquiry point. I believe that one of the reasons against a court of inquiry in this case is that even a court of inquiry cannot continue in depth the joint negotiations between the parties which are essential to the right sort of productivity arrangements.

As to the vagueness of the Post Office's offer—if that is how the union describes it—one of the reasons why I hope that the two parties will come together under my chairmanship is in order to explore this. I cannot very easily transmit ideas of a detailed nature at third hand. That is why I believe that talks under my chairmanship would have been and still could be instrumental in bringing some help in this matter. I very much hope that that offer will yet be taken up.

Mrs. Castle

Yes, but—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware—[Interruption.] Is he not experienced enough in productivity deals to know that even under his chairmanship it will be impossible to work out carefully formulated and costed productivity deals? What the union argues, therefore, is that its claim must stand on its own. It is in respect of that claim that we have to reach a settlement. I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to rule out the possibility of a court of inquiry if his hopes of getting talks prove wrong.

Mr. Carr

I believe that what is needed is for both sides to have confidence in continuing machinery of negotiation between them leading to the release of productivity and, therefore, earning opportunities. They must do this themselves. My chairmanship can only help them to arrive at an arrangement in which they both have confidence for the future.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

In the course of his talks with Mr. Jackson, did my right hon. Friend raise or did Mr. Jackson mention the possibility of holding a ballot of the union's membership, not least because some of us are being made aware by postmen in our constituencies that that is what they would like?

Mr. Carr

This matter has been discussed. But I ask both sides of the House to help me by not pressing me on these matters today.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the clear message which emanated from 40,000 postal workers at the Hyde Park rally this morning is that there will be no victory for the Post Office or, indeed, for the Government in this dispute? The right hon. Gentleman has again rejected the establishment of a court of inquiry. Will he examine again the possibility of inviting a distinguished public figure to act as a mediator in the dispute, certainly against the background of the information that the right hon. Gentleman has given us today about the difficulties of analysing the productivity aspects of the dispute?

Mr. Carr

I should like to point out to the House and to the parties that I am not looking for defeat or victory for anyone. I am looking for a solution to what is a very difficult stubborn problem in which both sides, whatever we may think, hold very sincerely to their present positions. There has been some change of attitudes in the last day or two. I hope not to be pressed further today.