HC Deb 20 January 1971 vol 809 cc1068-74
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Robert Carr)

I should like, with permission, to make a statement about the Post Office dispute.

I held a long series of meetings yesterday with representatives of the Post Office and of the Union of Post Office Workers, ending with a meeting of both sides under my chairmanship. I very much regret that despite these protracted discussions the dispute remains unresolved. Throughout the talks, the positions of the two sides remained firmly as they had been when negotiations broke down.

The Union maintained strongly that the only basis for a settlement was a substantial increase in the Post Office's offer and justified its claim in relation to the level of settlements in the last twelve months, and as being necessary to maintain the relative position of its members.

For its part, the Post Office regard its present offer as the limit to which it can go in view not only of its present financial position but also because of the damage to its longer term commercial viability, in view of the scale and timing of further increases in charges which an improved offer would make necessary, and the effects of such increases on the volume of its business.

Nevertheless, the Post Office confirmed its willingness to go to arbitration under its agreement with the union of last August, and be bound by the award. The Post Office maintained that this agreement placed an obligation on the union, if the Post Office so required, as it has done, to join the Post Office in asking me to refer the dispute to arbitration.

The union, however, is not prepared to go to arbitration. Moreover, it takes the view that the agreement does not require one party to accept arbitration if the other party requires it, and its representatives explained to me that they would not have signed the agreement had it in their view placed such an obligation on them.

From my reading of the agreement, which I find clear on this point, I agree with the Post Office's view. I must accept, however—and I promised that I would make this clear to the House, as I am doing now—as did the Post Office representatives, that the difference arises from a genuine misunderstanding.

At the end of the talks, Mr. Jackson expressed his thanks for the genuine attempts that had been made during our discussion to try to find a basis for conciliation, and asked me to report this to the House. The Post Office representatives associated themselves with this expression of appreciation, and I should like to say how grateful I am to both sides for it.

I finally made clear that I would hold myself available for further discussions if either side should at any time feel that this would be useful.

Mrs. Castle

In thanking the right hon. Gentleman for that statement, may I confirm how grateful the union is to the right hon. Gentleman for having brought the two sides together under his chairmanship last night, and how much it appreciated the way in which he personally handled the meeting, in keeping, as Mr. Tom Jackson put it, with the best conciliation traditions of the D.E.P? We are glad that the services of the D.E.P. are back in business, and may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to keep it that way? Will he assert his own rôle in this Government, and will he do everything in his power to persuade the Post Office to get round the table again with the union to find a settlement?

Mr. Carr

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her remarks, and I want, if I can, to do nothing to spoil this unusual but pleasant harmony of view.

I probed long and deep to try to establish the real fundamental positions of the parties in order to discover whether there was any chance of helping them to come to their own agreement, and that, I believe, and always have believed, is the proper rôle of conciliation. We all had to agree, however regretfully, that the gap was unbridgeable at that moment.

I really do not think that I ought to say more. Least of all should I say anything which might be taken to mean that one side ought to move rather than another. I am sure that I am right in saying simply, as I did to the parties last night, that I am available for further discussion at any time if either side should think it useful.

Mr. Hastings

Will my right hon. Friend and the Government ensure that those Post Office employees—and there seem to be a fairly large number of them—who wish to continue working are not prevented from doing so, or are otherwise molested,—[HON. MEMBERS: "Blacklegs."]—by strikers' pickets?

Mr. Carr

There is a long-standing law in this country about peaceful picketing. The police have a duty in this matter and, may I say, so do the public themselves. This is not a matter for Ministers.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

While acknowledging the contribution of conciliation which the right hon. Gentleman has made in this dispute so far, may I ask whether he accepts that the nation will find it remarkable that, in a situation in which 250,000 employees of a public corporation are involved in an industrial dispute, the Minister who has responsibility for that public corporation has not found time during the dispute to meet the leadership of the union involved in it? Will the right hon. Gentleman caution his right hon. Friend, and certainly the Post Office Board, in regard to the forecasts which appeared in the earlier editions of the Press this morning about the effectiveness of this industrial dispute with regard to the nation's telephone services?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the latest figures available indicate that, as far as telephonists are concerned—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."]—the strike is 94 per cent. effective? As far as the membership of the Union of Post Office Workers is concerned—

Hon. Members

Too long.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the hon. Member has already managed to put about three supplementary questions.

Mr. Carr

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications is properly answerable, and is very capable of answering, to the House for the conduct of his own responsibilities. I thought that the hiving off of the Post Office as a separate nationalised corporation which was conducted by the Labour Party when it was in power was clearly to establish that the Post Office Board was the employer and not the Minister.

Mr. Finsberg

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on returning to the conciliation policies of the old Ministry of Labour which were so ably conducted under the auspices of the right hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Gunter). Did the discussions which my right hon. Friend had yesterday with the Union of Post Office Workers result in his being in a position to make available to hon. Members the document containing the arbitration clause? Secondly, did he ask why the U.P.W., unlike the National Union of Mineworkers, did not put the offer to a ballot of its members?

Mr. Carr

The arbitration agreement is, of course, a private document and not a public one, but, since it is obviously of great importance, I will, if the House wishes it, seek the permission of the parties—but it must be for the parties to decide—to make available copies of the document in the Library, so that hon. Members may study it. I must emphasise that this is entirely up to the parties. On the second point, the question did not come up last night, but it is fair to put on record that on the occasion of the last settlement the union concerned put the offer to a ballot of its membership. Although this did not come up last night, I believe it would be the union's intention, when it feels able to recommend an offer, to do the same again.

Mr. John Mendelson

Will the right hon. Gentleman note that, whilst there is general support for his first approach in bringing the parties together so as to avoid misunderstanding of the position, it is the tradition of his office to go beyond that, if he judges it right, and to try to get the parties to see that there is a direction in which an agreement may be reached? This is the tradition of his office and it goes beyond merely bringing the two sides together for a confrontation and an exchange of information. In view of the seriousness of this strike, I urge him to act forthwith in carrying out the traditions of his office.

Mr. Carr

I believe that I have done so. I am supported in that view by the generously remarks of Mr. Jackson, generously repeated by the right hon. Lady a few moments ago, namely, that in what I and my officials did last night we were to the full fulfilling the traditions of my office.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Although nobody would want to require the Post Office workers unwillingly to go to arbitration if they have inadvertently misconstrued the agreement, cannot efforts be made to allay these apprehensions about industrial arbitration which has an honourable and useful record going back over 50 years and whose continued existence will be in jeopardy if it is frequently rejected?

Mr. Carr

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend, and I said openly to Mr. Jackson last night that, while I would report my view that the misunderstanding was an absolutely genuine one in full good faith, nevertheless, I would be bound to say what was my interpretation of the agreement and also to express the view that it was the right course to adopt. I particularly pursued with the union representatives the question whether there was arbitration under any other form which they would be prepared to consider, and I received a polite but nevertheless firm "No" to that question.

Mr. James Hamilton

We on this side of the House recognise that the right hon. Gentleman is doing a very good job, but will he recognise that the trade unions have a great fear of arbitration? Will he disregard the statement made by the hon. Member for Bedford, Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) which will aggravate the situation, and will he try to get conciliation between the two parties? Mr. Jackson is recognised on this side of the House as one of the most responsible trade union leaders. On that basis a settlement can easily be reached if the right hon. Gentleman, in accordance with his statement, continues to try to get conciliation between the two parties.

Mr. Carr

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I can only report, however regretfully—and the regret was felt equally by all three parties last night, although for different reasons—that we really could not get any further by any form of conciliation known to man as things stand at the moment. That was fully agreed, and that is why I said to both sides how serious the dispute was and went out of my way to emphasise my availability to them.

Mr. Bruce—Gardyne

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings), will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there is no truth in reports being circulated by the union to the effect that employees reporting for duty during the strike would not be paid by the Post Office Corporation?

Mr. Carr

I know of no truth in those reports. It is the first time that the matter has been put to me.

Mr. Orme

Following the welcome new-found impartiality which Mr. Jackson so generously bestowed on the Minister last night, can the right hon. Gentleman say that the Post Office is completely independent and free to arrive at a settlement, and that the Government are in no way trying to influence it, particularly in view of the statement last night of the Chancellor of the Exchequer about wage increases? Are the Government involved in this, or are they not?

Mr. Carr

Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman doubts my word he might take the word of Mr. Jackson.

Mr. Orme

I have done so.

Mr. Carr

Mr. Jackson went out of his way to say to the Press last night that one result of his meetings yesterday evening had been to satisfy himself that he was dealing with a properly independent employer.