HC Deb 19 January 1971 vol 809 cc726-31
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Robert Carr)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement.

Officials of my Department yesterday had meetings with representatives of the Union of Post Office Workers and of the Post Office. These discussions showed that both sides held strongly to the positions which each held when negotiations broke down.

However, in view of the serious situation, I thought it right to inform myself personally of the position, and I have therefore invited representatives of the Union of Post Office Workers and of the Post Office to meetings with me later this afternoon. I shall report to the House again tomorrow.

Mrs. Castle

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that statement and for his promise to keep the House informed by making another statement tomorrow. May I, at the outset, inform him of how glad we are that he has yielded to the request which I made last night that he should come out of his hibernation—[Interruption.]—as the Government's conciliator, to meet the two sides?

May we have an assurance that, having met the two sides separately and having informed himself of the position, he will then go on to call them together jointly, in front of him, to explore whether there is any basis on which this strike can be averted?

Mr. Carr

I will continue to use my discretion, as it is my duty to do, as to when to see the sides in this or any other dispute, whether to see them separately or together and what to say to them. I can only assure the House that I will use that discretion without any preconceived prejudices one way or the other. I hope that the right hon. Lady will take care not to prejudice the position by, for example, inciting one side not to accept arbitration. [Interruption.]

Sir Harmar Nicholls

If this is the season for yielding, may I ask my right hon. Friend to suggest to the parties, when he meets them, that it would be sensible for them to yield to the commonsense decision of allowing an arbitrator to come in, as was laid down by the procedures, bearing in mind that one of the most dangerous things that is happening in this country today is the suggestion, fostered by people of some eminence, that we have nobody impartial enough—[Interruption.]—because they question the integrity of everybody in this country? Is my right hon. Friend aware that if sensible negotiations are to occur in future, we must recognise that arbitration as voluntarily agreed is the only real way out?

Mr. Carr

I think it is better that I should, as I said, keep myself absolutely free to use my discretion as to what I say to each side and as to how I see them. However, I assure my hon. Friend and the whole House that just as I will have to do this, so I am sure that the House and the country will expect both sides to keep in mind the interests of the whole community and not just their own.

Mr. Atkinson

Does the right hon. Gentleman recollect the statement made yesterday by his right hon. Friend the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications that to grant an 8 per cent. increase would mean a 44 per cent. increase on the cost of the 5d. stamp and that if the U.P.W. claim for 15 per cent. was met in total it would mean a 92 per cent. increase in the cost of the 5d. stamp? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware—and if so, will he say so—that those were fictitious figures and are considered by many experts to be absolutely ridiculous? May we be assured that they will not be submitted to any arbitration group or used in any discussions with the U.P.W. about its wage claim?

Mr. Carr

The hon. Gentleman seems to be in a helpful mood. I really believe that the House would be well advised not to enter into a discussion of this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] When it comes to any question of arbitration, I am sure that all concerned with such an arbitration inquiry will be quite capable of taking and sifting and forming a proper judgment of any evidence that may be submitted to them from whatever quarter.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Will my right hon. Friend explore with the parties the possibility of getting the recently agreed arbitration procedure moving and, in particular, give the details as to the problems arising in relation to the appointment of a chairman on this agreed procedure?

Mr. Carr

I assure my hon. Friend that all these things will be taken into account, but I hope that I will not be pressed on them at the moment.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

On the assumption that the Minister intends the discussions which he now proposes to have to be meaningful, may I ask him if he is aware that both the public and the postal staff generally will welcome his eleventh hour intervention? Will he keep at the forefront of his mind the fact that a long and protracted industrial postal strike would bring hardship to the community and the higher postage rates to which his right hon. Friend referred yesterday?

Mr. Carr

Of course I will bear all those things in mind, just as I shall bear in mind—and I am sure that the parties will bear this in mind, too—the fact that the greatest hardship in prospect to the community at present is the continuation of inflation.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that hon. Members in all parts of the House are anxious that there should be a settlement of this dispute? However, so that the situation may not be prejudiced, could he not prevail on his right hon. Friends to engage in a self-denying ordinance not to make prejudicial statements about the situation—[Interruption.]—by, for example, the propaganda claim of the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications that this would be called the "9d. letter strike"? That statement could not have been based on objective figures of any kind, because the right hon. Gentleman knew that a further 2d. on the stamp would bring in £50 million, whereas even if the claim was met in full it would involve only an additional £18 million on the offer already made. So I say to the right hon. Gentleman very seriously that it is this sort of prejudicial statement which is standing between the unions and an acceptance of arbitration. [Interruption.]

Mr. Carr

The right hon. Lady should remember when she asks other people to show restraint that example is better than precept.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I suggest that the self-denying ordinance must begin now. The Minister said that he would make another statement tomorrow. On that basis, we must move on to the next business.

Mr. John Mendelson

On a point of order. With respect, Mr. Speaker, may I remind you that we are probably on the eve of what may possibly be a major strike? Are you aware, considering the few minutes that we have spent questioning the Minister on this subject, that it is the custom and practice for the House to spend a little while asking questions when an important issue of this kind is raised?

I wish to represent to you the opinion that it might be advisable on this occasion to allow some other hon. Members to say a word on this matter before the Minister enters the talks which he is to have this afternoon. A matter of principle is involved here. There is a difference between informing himself and acting as the Secretary of State for Employment and trying to get the two sides together. Hon. Members should have an opportunity to get this point over to him.

Mr. Speaker

The Speaker is in great difficulty in a situation like this. We have a debate which is eagerly awaited and which has to finish by 7 o'clock and in which there are many varying views to be expressed. We also have one other statement and another matter of business to come. As the Minister is to make a statement tomorrow, I must ask the House to move on.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Further to that point of order. Supporting as we all do your view that we should get on to the business as quickly as possible, and having regard to the fair point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson), if no progress is made as a result of the Minister's meetings this afternoon or early this evening, will the Minister undertake to make a statement to the House on the interruption of business at 7 o'clock at the end of the three-hour debate so that the House may question him on it and, if necessary, press him to further activity? If the Minister makes no statement tonight, and if no progress has been made, the strike will go ahead. If he were to make such an offer now, Mr. Speaker, I am sure the whole House would strongly support your desire that progress be made.

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

Further to that point of order. I certainly note what the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has said. There is some difficulty in the proposition which he puts forward, in that I understand that my right hon. Friend will be pursuing discussions with both sides and may not be in a position to make a statement. He has promised one tomorrow and I think that is the best basis on which we can leave it at the present time.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Further to that point of order. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he will consider what has been said. I hope he will. He is sometimes quite flexible about these matters. He will recognise that there is all the difference in the world between a statement at 7 o'clock tonight and a statement tomorrow. If the Secretary of State cannot make a statement at 7 o'clock, will he make it at an appropriate time on an interruption of business, which is perfectly easy in Committee at any time later in the evening? Even then it might not be too late to avert the situation which the whole House wants to avert.

Mr. Whitelaw

Further to that point of order. I once again note what the right hon. Gentleman has said. It would be quite wrong for me, in view of the various discussions which my hon. Friend will have, to make any commitment of that sort at this time. I think I am right in saying that I certainly note what the right hon. Gentleman has said.