HC Deb 18 January 1971 vol 809 cc521-31
The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (Mr. Christopher Chataway)

The House will know, and will share the Government's regret, that the Union of Post Office Workers, which represents some two hundred thousand postal workers and telecommunications operators, has, with some dispensations to which I will refer later, called a total strike from Wednesday. The House will wish to be informed of the background to this grave development and of its effects.

The union has claimed a minimum wage increase for virtually all its grades of 15 per cent. from 1st January. The total claim is equivalent to an overall increase of 19½ per cent. The Post Office has made an offer of 8 per cent., and, bearing in mind the serious financial position of the postal services, it feels it cannot go beyond this. It has also asked the union to join with the Post Office in referring the dispute to arbitration. Under a recently-concluded agreement, the union is obliged to accept this request. But regrettably it has rejected it.

In consequence, some letter and all parcel services have already been suspended, and the remainder will be suspended this evening. All inland and Post Office international telegram services will have to be suspended from mid-day tomorrow. Main post offices will not normally open, but limited counter services—including Giro deposit and withdrawal—will continue at sub-post offices. The Post Office will attempt to deliver "life and death" telegrams but cannot guarantee delivery. Telephone services involving Post Office operators, including directory inquiries, personal calls, and so on, and some Telex services, will be subject to suspension, curtailment or delay. Automatic services—local, S.T.D., I.S.D. and Telex—will continue. Special arrangements are being made with co-operation from the union, to assist pensioners and allowance holders and to operate maritime services, 999 and other emergency telephone services. Pension allowance orders dated up to the end of January may be cashed forthwith; if the normal office is closed, a pensioner may use another office which is open.

Customers can help themselves and the Post Office by keeping their telephone calls short and by avoiding non-urgent calls during business hours; this is because the automatic services are bound to be heavily congested during business periods.

I have given the Post Office a general authority under the terms of the Post Office Act, 1969, enabling it to waive the monopoly provisions of that Act as they affect postal services and the Post Office will deal with individual cases on their merits with the aim of being as helpful as possible. Many traders will make their own arrangements for the delivery of urgent letters, but this is not likely to involve any infringement of the monopoly.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has arranged for representatives of the union and of the Post Office separately to see officials of his Department in the course of today in order that he may be fully informed of the respective points of view.

The responsibility for the negotiations with the postal workers lies with the Post Office and I have every confidence in its judgment in handling this extremely difficult situation. There is no question that the union has the capacity to inflict great damage on the country and great hardship to individuals, but I hope that even at this stage it may be prepared to abide by its agreement and go to arbitration.

Mr. Richard

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman could tell us why there is such meagre recognition on the part of the Government that Post Office workers are grossly underpaid, even allowing for overtime? Why do not the Government accept the fact that any rational, sensible set of criteria must be based upon that single fact, and that if this dispute is to be settled that has to be recognised and taken account of in any settlement? Would the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is a fact that the Union of Post Office Workers volunteered its co-operation in providing emergency services? Is he not, therefore, in the terms in which he has referred to the union in his statement, being much less than generous to the union?

Then, as he told us this afternoon that the Post Office had authority enabling it to waive the monopoly provisions under the Post Office Act, can he say what he envisages as a result of that permission? A sort of national pirate post office operating its own services? Is he going to issue stamps for this pirate post office? How is it going to guarantee the security of the mail? [Laughter.] Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite may laugh, but if I am being asked to pay two bob for a letter one of the things I want to know is whether or not its transmission is going to be secure. Would the right hon. Gentleman not recognise and agree that if Post Office facilities are to be used by those pirates who are to come in and try to deal with the mail that, in itself, will be grossly provocative and, indeed, can only exacerbate an already difficult situation?

Does the Minister not know that the unions do not accept that they are under any legal obligation to go to arbitration? Does he not also recognise that, in any event, the Government have devalued arbitration by their behaviour when the Scamp inquiry report was published; so it is hardly surprising that another group of lower paid workers in the public sector should feel that arbitration cannot be either impartial or fair?

Finally, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we welcome such talks as are taking place this afternoon? Would he confirm that those talks are meant to be an exercise of the conciliation powers of the Department of Employment and not merely an information gathering exercise?

Mr. Chataway

The talks by my right hon. Friend are to enable my right hon. Friend to be fully informed about the position of both sides. As to the monopoly provisions, there is no question of running a national service. There has never been any suggestion of that whatever. There cannot, of course, be a guarantee of the same standards, but it would be foolish for the Post Office not to relax its monopoly in a situation in which it is prevented from continuing its services.

As for the payment of postal workers, there is in the community an enormous amount of good will for postal workers on the part of many people who realise that, in many respects, our postal services are the best in the world, but it certainly cannot be argued that postal workers are among the lowest paid. The average earnings of postmen in the country—

An Hon. Member

For 60 hours.

Mr. Chataway

—is at the moment £25 3s. 8d. [Interruption.] If I am allowed to continue, under the 8 per cent. offer which has already been made those average earnings would be for postmen £27 4s. and the average amount of overtime—since this point has been raised—is 7½ hours. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]

As for arbitration, the agreement was entered into only on 27th August last year. The agreement is absolutely clear. It is that if either party to a dispute asks for arbitration the other is bound to agree. The Post Office Union signed that agreement last August. A chairman, as the hon. Gentleman knows, can be appointed by my right hon. Friend at any moment. At any moment he can appoint a chairman if the Post Office Union is prepared to go to arbitration, and I believe that the vast majority of people will agree that it is highly irresponsible to plunge the country into potential chaos when arbitration arrangements of this sort exist.

Mr. Turton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is anxiety lest the services of sub-post offices in rural areas which normally draw their funds for pensions and allowances by post from head offices may be interrupted? Can he today give an assurance that means will be provided so that those sub-post offices have sufficient funds to pay out pensions and allowances to pension and allowance holders?

Mr. Chataway

My right hon. Friend is entirely right—this is a matter of concern. I am assured by the Post Office that it will make every effort to try to ensure that funds are available in all those sub-post offices for essential payments, but it would be wrong to conceal that there are bound to be cases of hardship because, despite the arrangements with the Post Office Union to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the sub-post offices still rely, as my right hon. Friend has said, upon postal services for obtaining essential books and vouchers.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that this afternoon he is sitting within 30 ft. of the leader of the responsible Union of Post Office Workers, and is he not further aware that the nation will think it remarkable that, despite the fact that he is in such close proximity, he has not so far found time to talk with the leader of this responsible union? May I make a plea to him, even at this late stage, to invite Mr. Jackson and the chairman and officers of the Union of Post Office Workers to get round the table with the Minister and representatives of the Post Office Board to try to resolve this very difficult and contentious issue?

Is he further aware—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—that this afternoon he spoke of serious financial difficulties facing the Post Office Corporation but that those serious financial difficulties have in some way arisen because of faulty financial forecasting of the Post Office Board—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."]—and is he not aware further that £52 million would have been available to meet this claim—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member has asked several supplementary questions already. Let him allow the Minister to answer them.

Mr. Chataway

As the hon. Member knows probably better than most, the responsibility for the negotiations rest, of course, with the Post Office under the Post Office Act. That is the position.

He also knows that procedure exists for an arbitration tribunal. There would be three members; one from a panel of people chosen by the union; one from a panel of people proposed by the Post Office Board; and one after consultation with both sides by my right hon. Friend. The hon. Member will probably know, too, that arbitration awards have already been made in the last few months to engineers and higher executive officers of the Post Office and that these have been favourable to the union. In fact, in the case of the higher executive officers, their full claim was met. So there the machinery exists. What we are asking is that the U.P.W. should honour its agreement and go to arbitration.

As for the hon. Member's other question about serious financial difficulties, the Post Office has made it absolutely clear that if it were to accept the claim of the U.P.W. it would amount to 19½ per cent. and that for anything like that it would be necessary to introduce a first-class letter rate of at least 9d. before the end of next year. The Post Office Board believes that, on top of the very large tariff increases that have already been announced, this would have a serious effect on traffic and probably, therefore, upon employment.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Does the Minister realise that, popular as postmen are in the community, and quite rightly so, we are now in a situation where every sectional interest has to be subordinated to the national interest of halting inflation which, if allowed to continue, will prove disastrous to everyone?

Mr. Chataway

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the general importance of halting inflationary wage settlements. It is, however, the particular circumstances of the Post Office which have led the Post Office Board to make this offer of 8 per cent. which, following the agreement last year of 12 per cent., it believes to be a reasonable offer.

Mr. Mikardo

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that if, contrary to current expectations, the matter goes to arbitration, the tribunal will be chaired by a former Conservative candidate and include a declared anti-trade unionist who is a notable contributor to Conservative Party election funds?

Mr. Chataway

I have already described the agreed procedures for appointing the tribunal. These are procedures which were freely agreed between unions and management last August.

Mr. James Hill

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 12,000 members of the Telecommunications Staff Association within the Post Office Corporation will not be going on strike but will continue to carry out their night and day services? They are most concerned that the public should have knowledge of this because they say that they are members of a responsible registered trade union whose feelings have to be considered.

Mr. Chataway

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sure the House will have taken note of the information he has given.

Mr. Orme

Is the Minister aware that his statement about arbitration is nothing short of humbug? The lower-paid workers have taken to heart the words which the Government have uttered since the election. They will stand on their own feet and fight for a decent wage for lower paid workers. If one forgets the percentage, what these people are talking about is between £2 and £3 a week on wages of between £14 and £17 a week—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—I am talking about net incomes. We are told by the Minister that the workers should accept lower standards, but they are fully aware that they are of vital importance to the nation—as were the refuse collectors and electricity workers—and should be paid accordingly. Is the Minister aware that only recently this House voted large increases for High Court judges, yet decent wages are refused for people who are the backbone of the nation?

Mr. Chataway

The hon. Gentleman is entirely mistaken in the income figures that lie has given. I have given the average earnings of postmen, which are just over £25. For postal and telegraph officers, another major category covered, the average earnings are £27 19s., and 8 per cent. has already been offered. These people cannot be described as among the lowest paid workers in the community. The Post Office Board has made it absolutely clear that it is quite willing to negotiate, within its overall 8 per cent. offer, something more than this for those at the lower end of the wage scale.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Since in the arbitration procedure two out of the three members of the tribunal are the appointees of the parties and the objection can only come to the possible lack of neutrality in the chairman, will my right hon. Friend say whether there has been discussion between the parties as to a chairman, and whether it is possible to find somebody of a demonstrably neutral character to take the chair so that justice can manifestly be seen to be done?

Mr. Chataway

Unfortunately, the union has ruled out arbitration altogether, and there have therefore been no discussions of that kind, but I believe that the majority of those involved would have considerable confidence in my right hon. Friend being able to choose a fair chairman. [Interruption.] If there were no confidence on the part of the General Secretary it is a little strange that he should be photographed through the weekend apparently waiting on the end of the telephone for an intervention by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Golding

Is the Minister aware that many Post Office workers have read with interest of the settlement at Chryslers of 18 per cent. last week? Is he further aware that postmen, electricity workers and nurses are watching the creation under this Government, as occurred before 1964, of a widening gap between workers in the public sector and the private sector? Is the Minister further aware that when the Post Office engineers went to arbitration during the last Tory wage freeze the settlement was not honoured, and that there is great disillusion throughout the public sector about the chance of getting a fair hearing at an arbitration or an industrial tribunal?

Mr. Chataway

Under the recently agreed procedure of arbitration, the award would be binding on both sides. The hon. Gentleman has adduced some arguments, and if he feels that there are strong arguments for a higher offer to be made by the Post Office, surely this would constitute one further argument for trying to persuade his friends to go to arbitration.

Mr. Warren

Will the Minister, whilst taking account of the fact that we all like our courteous, friendly postmen, make the union leaders aware that productivity in the Post Office has been decreasing over the last two years? Once again the public is being asked to pay and is getting heartily fed up.

Mr. Chataway

It is true that on the postal services there has been a decrease in productivity, as my hon. Friend has said. I agree that there is tremendous good will for the postal workers, but if this strike goes ahead—and I hope it will not—I believe that it will be regarded by the public as perhaps the "ninepenny letter" strike, because that would be the implication of awarding the claim in full.

Mr. Spriggs

On the question of a meeting between the right hon. Gentleman and the General Secretary of the U.P.W., is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if he will agree to meet the General Secretary this will be seen by the whole nation as an attempt by him to get a balanced point of view?

Mr. Chataway

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am not the Postmaster-General, nor am I in the position that the Postmaster-General was in. The negotiations lie between the postal workers and the Board, and I have outlined the arrangements agreed between both sides for resolving disputes of this kind.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if this unnecessary strike proceeds the public will be greatly inconvenienced and will want to know precisely why the Union of Post Office Workers has refused to go into the recently agreed arbitration procedure. Is there no method by which my right hon. Friend can get the parties to get down to agreeing a chairman so that the matter may proceed in the recognised way?

Mr. Chataway

I can only hope that discussions which both sides are having with officials of the Department of Employment will serve to persuade all concerned that the arbitration machinery should be used.

Mr. Richard

Since the right hon. Gentleman has castigated the union—I would have thought unfairly—for not going to arbitration, is it not a fact that the agreement in relation to arbitration envisaged the appointment of a permanent chairman? Is it not also a fact that, prior to this dispute having arisen, no permanent chairman had been appointed and that the union was not prepared to accept a temporary chairman appointed by the right hon. Gentleman because it did not think he would be fair and impartial?

Mr. Chataway

I have explained to the hon. Gentleman how recent is the agreement between the two parties, and I have explained that if there is a willingness to use arbitration machinery my right hon. Friend is prepared to appoint the chairman. I have also given recent examples of the way in which arbitration in these circumstances has been used by the Post Office and of the results—results which have not been unfavourable to the unions concerned.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot continue—

Mrs. Castle

On a point of order. Might I through you, Mr. Speaker, ask the Leader of the House if tomorrow, in view of the imminence of this strike, the Secretary of State for Employment would make a statement to the House on what his Department has done to avert the strike?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

I have no doubt my right hon. Friend will have heard what the right hon. Lady has said. I will have discussions with him and, if it is appropriate to make a statement tomorrow, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will wish to do so.

Mr. Atkinson

Further to that point of order. I have no desire, Mr. Speaker, to challenge your Ruling in any way, but is it not unusual, in the absence of some assurance about a further statement being made, for the Speaker to move on to the next business when so many hon. Members are on their feet wishing to ask questions, especially bearing in mind that this evening's business is open-ended? Is it not the usual practice to conclude questions only if there is a time limit on the debate that is to follow? In this case, with an open-ended debate to come, surely it would have been reasonable to call another half dozen or a dozen hon. Members to ask questions.

Mr. Molloy

Further to that point of order. May I support my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) in asking you, Mr. Speaker, to consider what he has said. The country is facing a serious situation and for the House to have spent only about 25 minutes in discussing a statement by the Minister must mean that quite a number of points of view will not have been heard and that a number of suggestions which might have been made will not be able to be considered by the Minister? In that case, Mr. Speaker, would you not consider that the House be allowed further time to examine this very serious situation?

Mr. Speaker

The Speaker is in a difficult position in these matters in that he must exercise his own judgment. I allowed about 27 minutes for the statement and questions upon it, I also had regard to the possibility raised by the right hon. Lady of a statement being made tomorrow, and I have decided the matter.

The Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day.