HC Deb 13 December 1976 vol 922 cc964-7
48. Mr. Marten

asked the Attorney-General if he will give his reasons why his reference of the Post Office workers and Grunwick affair was deemed not to be in the public interest.

The Attorney-General

In considering whether to refer this matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, I had particular regard to two factors. The first was that decisions whether to prosecute under the relevant sections of the Post Office Act 1953 are normally taken by the Post Office and prosecutions are normally brought by that authority and not by the Director of Public Prosecutions. The second was that there have in fact been no prosecutions under the relevant sections in circumstances of a similar nature. There did not appear to me to be any exceptional factors relating to the public interest in the present case which should cause me to set a precedent by intervening.

Mr. Marten

Does that mean that the Government do not condone the action of the Post Office workers? Have the Government had an assurance that there will be no repetition of that action, especially in view of weekend events?

The Attorney-General

As I said, the Post Office has control of this matter. The Post Office makes the decisions and has the material facts. If the hon. Gentleman is referring to me when he speaks of "the Government", I have not condoned the matters to which he referred. The provisions of the Act are there and, if the law is broken, no doubt the Post Office will consider what is its duty in the manner in which I replied to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten).

Mr. Heffer

Will my right hon. and learned Friend notice that in a speech to the workers involved the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress pledged the support of the TUC for those workers? Will he also note that the Assistant General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers indicated that those workers might be prepared to take further action if necessary? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many of my hon. Friends believe that in the circumstances the actions of the Post Office workers and of other workers in support of them are perfectly justified?

The Attorney-General

That is an entirely different question. My hon. Friend is dealing with industrial matters whereas I was asked to deal with prosecutions. The Post Office will no doubt take into account all relevant circumstances, including the state of industrial relations at the time when it has to make a decision.

Mr. Gorst

Will the Attorney-General take into consideration that the situation has changed materially, not only by reason of the statement which came yesterday from the UPW but also by virtue of the fact that several dozen Government supporters have escalated this dispute into a political matter? Consequently, is it not necessary for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to uphold the law of order by making clear that it will be not left to the Post Office to uphold Section 58 of the Post Office Act 1953?

The Attorney-General

No. It is a matter of great importance that the Post Office, which knows all the facts and which normally deals with these matters—I gather that there have been about 600 prosecutions altogether since the Act came into force—should be left to deal with this, unless I come to the conclusion, quite exceptionally—and I have not done so far—that the Post Office is in breach of its duty, whatever that may be in the particular circumstances. I do not believe that one ought to presuppose that it is or will be.

Sir M. Havers

Does the Attorney-General accept that, if continuing criminal offences arise and the Post Office fails to act as it should, he would be under an obligation to step in?

The Attorney-General

I do not think that I should make that sort of assumption or that I should answer that kind of question on a hypothetical basis. There is an offence under Section 58. These are matters with which the Post Office normally deals. As I said, it would be quite exceptional if any Attorney-General or any Law Officer were to step in in those circumstances. He would have to be satisfied on the clearest evidence that there had been a gross breach of duty.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

When the Act was passed, was there not a Postmaster-General at the head of the Post Office who was answerable to Parliament? Now that there is no Minister answerable to Parliament for the day-to-day administration and decisions of the Post Office, is not the Attorney-General answerable to Parliament on matters of this kind in the shoes that were once those of the Postmaster-General, who no longer exists? Is not that the point of parliamentary accountability that the Attorney-General has lost?

The Attorney-General

The Attorney-General has always been responsible to Parliament for the enforcement of the law, and in the last resort the Attorney-General no doubt would always have to make decisions if they were not properly made by other people. As the hon. Gentleman referred to the period since the 1953 Act, I can tell him that there have been no prosecutions to my knowledge in relation to industrial disputes at any time during that period, including the time when there were industrial disputes when a Conservative Government were in power.