HC Deb 04 March 1971 vol 812 cc1905-11
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Robert Carr)

I am glad to be able to inform the House that in discussions which continued at my Department until early this morning agreement was reached between representatives of the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office on a basis for resolving the dispute.

The executive council of the union unanimously agreed to recommend the union's members to accept the terms of the agreement and to return to work and is taking immediate steps to conduct a ballot for this purpose.

The agreement provides, subject to a return to work, that the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office will set up a Committee to settle the dispute, consisting of a chairman, mutually agreeable to both sides, with a nominee of the union and a nominee of the Post Office. My Department has been asked to provide the secretariat. The Committee will have the following terms of reference: To inquire into the circumstances of the dispute between the Post Office and the U.P.W. arising out of the U.P.W.'s claim for pay increases and shortening of incremental scales. The inquiry to include the financial situation of the P.O., its utilisation of manpower and the present relationship between the P.O. on the one hand and the U.P.W. and its membership on the other. To assess the arguments advanced by both sides, to hear witnesses and finally to make recommendations for a settlement of the dispute. The parties agree to accept these recommendations. In the event of a disagreement between members of the Committee on a recommendation, the recommendation will be made by the chairman.

The Committe will report to the Post Office and the Union of Post Office Workers and the report will be published.

I am hopeful that we can look forward to an early return to normal working in the Post Office and an end of this strike which has caused grave damage to both Post Office and union and serious inconvenience to the public.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side welcome the fact that at long last a Committee of Inquiry is to be set up into the postal workers' grievances? Is he aware that we particularly welcome the far-reaching terms of reference, covering all aspects of the Post Office's finances and manpower management, and the decision, to which he did not refere but which is an essential part of the settlement, to start talks urgently between the Corporation and all the unions concerned into the pay principles which should operate in the Corporation?

Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House one adequate reason why a similar Committee of Inquiry was not set up two weeks or more ago, when it was being pressed from this side of the House as the only basis for a solution of the problem?

Mr. Carr

I will deal first with the middle point put by the right hon. Lady. I only gave the terms of reference of the Committee. I naturally agree with her that an important part of the document to which the two sides agreed yesterday is that, separately from the Committee, the Post Office will invite, as a matter of urgency, the U.P.W. and the other union concerned into discussions with a view to reaching agreement on a basis for determining pay in future. I welcome that. It is a very good follow-up from the Committee.

I turn now to the right hon. Lady's first and third points in her question. There really is a distinct difference between the Committee which has been set up and a Committee of Inquiry, which is traditional and for which she has asked in the past. I believe that this new Committee, with its particular terms of reference, is almost a new device in industrial relations—and if I may I would like to call it a "Committee of Settlement". There are distinct differences. The right hon. Lady asked why we did not have this before, and the answer is simple. It was not possible to have it before, because, quite apart from the reason I gave to the House last week and on other occasions—the parties at no time asked for it—the essential thing is that the new Committee has terms of reference which involve the advance willingness of the parties to bind themselves to the Committee's recommendations.

Another essential difference between this Committee and a Committee of Inquiry is that the parties have given to the chairman of the Committee the right to make recommendations which are binding on them in the event of any disagreement within the Committee. Also, of course, the whole thing is dependent upon a return to work. These are vital differences from a court of inquiry.

Mrs. Castle

I agree that this is a new type of inquiry and it is certainly different from the normal type of arbitration, which was refused. The important element which helped to lead to a settlement was the wide-ranging nature of the terms of reference and also the procedure which is to be adopted, under which both sides will have a chance not only to call witnesses but to cross-examine each other's witnesses. The point I am putting to the right hon. Gentleman is why some such similar proposal at least could not have been offered before to the union either by the Post Office or by the Government.

Mr. Carr

This, of course, must remain a matter of opinion and of my knowledge as a result of my long discussions with both parties. I can only assure the House that in my view, however regretfully, we could not have got this sort of Committee any earlier than we did.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Contrary to what the right hon. Lady has said, is my right hon. Friend aware that opinion outside will overwhelmingly feel that the country is much indebted to him for the speed, tact and sense of timing with which he has handled this most difficult situation?

Mr. Carr

I thank my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, judging from the reaction of the thousands of postal workers demonstrating at Hyde Park this morning, we might well be in a situation where there is some way to go before we see an end to the dispute? My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) has drawn attention to the important element of determination of pay principles. Will he draw the attention of the Committee of Settlement to the need for urgency to deal with this point and to produce a form of machinery to replace the old Civil Service Pay Research Unit?

Mr. Carr

The Committee of Settlement is the parties' own committee and they are free to bring before it what they wish or do not wish.

Mr. Heffer

The right hon. Gentleman did nothing, then, did he?

Mr. Carr

The other important matter to which the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris) referred—the inquiry into the whole question of pay settlements in the Post Office—is, of course, a matter which the parties themselves have agreed to proceed with outside the Committee, one of the main reasons being that other unions are involved. It is therefore outside the new Committee, and what goes to the Committee is a matter for the parties concerned.

It is, of course, true that the strike is not yet over. The establishment of the new Committee and the rest are subject to a return to work. I hope, however, that the House will realise two things. This settlement received the unanimous recommendation of the executive committee of the union to back it, and the decision will be taken not by voices at a rally but by a branch-by-branch ballot.

Mr. John Page

Is not the proposed method of settlement just another form of arbitration?

Mr. Carr

The proposed Committee of Settlement has two features to it. The first feature is no doubt very similar to arbitration in that it will take place while work is going on, the recommendations are accepted in advance by the parties as being binding on them, and the chairman has the right to make recommendations if there is disagreement in the Committee. These are typical of arbitration. What are not typical of the normal arbitration boards are the wider terms of reference and certain parts of the procedure. This is important to the union, and this is why I am loosely calling the new Committee a new name—Committee of Settlement.

Mr. Thorpe

Leaving aside the past and not wishing at this stage to dissect the details, many of us will welcome the setting up of the Committee, wish it well, hope that it will get down to work immediately and, having said that, enough said.

Mr. Carr

I am grateful to the right hon. Member. Perhaps this gives me the opportunity to say that I think a great deal is owned to the persistence and good will of the parties during the very long discussions yesterday in what were not easy negotiations but were always carried out with persistence, determination and good will. Perhaps the House will not think it out of place if I pay tribute, which I know the two parties did, to the very skilled services of some of my senior officials.

Mr. Michael Shaw

Could my right hon. Friend make it clear that the Committee of Settlement will begin its deliberations whether or not there is an early return to work by the Post Office workers?

Mr. Carr

Both parties agreed that the implementation of the settlement and the working of the Committee were dependent on a return to work.

Mr. Bidwell

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that, despite its length and magnitude, the strike has retained a remarkable degree of public sympathy and support? Does not he further agree that none of us in the future has the right to assume that, notwithstanding the inflationary situation, the members of the public are not prepared to pay decent wages to postal workers or to remove the antiquated salary scale which afflicts many of them?

Mr. Carr

I would be unwise to comment on salary scales and so on which have been at the heart of the dispute and which are now to be considered by the Committee.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The whole House will agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about his own officials. Indeed, some of us would have hoped that their services might have been invoked a little earlier in the dispute. [Interruption.] Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that what we said about even the present vulnerable situation and the need for a return to work means that we should all of us do better not to go further into the present situation in order to allow the parties to do what they can to get the new Committee at work for the future, with its very welcome terms of reference?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he recognises—[Interruption.]—as some hon. Members behind him do not, the very serious situation shown by the rally this morning? The issue has to be decided, as he says, by ballot. Is the situation shown by the rally not a tribute to the courage shown by Mr. Tom Jackson and others in putting the proposal before their members?

Mr. Carr

I certainly reiterate the tribute I paid to both parties and specify quite happily and fully the part which Mr. Tom Jackson has played as the general secretary of this union. As to the rest of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, I can only say that I am glad he associated himself with the tributes to the work of my officials, but I think it a pity he made the other remark. [Interruption.] He has a perfect right to make it, but I think it a pity that he did so. I think he has forgotten that the officials to whom he rightly paid tribute, as well as myself—and I do not expect him to pay tribute to me—were involved on ay occasions starting on the day before the strike ever began.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.