HC Deb 04 November 1976 vol 918 cc1637-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gorst.]

Leave having been given on Wednesday 3rd November under Standing Order No. 9 to discuss: The action of Post Office workers in failing to deliver mail to Grunwick Processing Laboratories in contravention of the Post Office Act 1953.

Mr. Walter Clegg (North Fylde)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the coming debate there will be very serious legal issues before the House. Would it not be preferable, therefore, to have a Law Officer present during the debate?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman will know that I do not decide who sits on the Front Bench, but his words will have been noted.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a fact that the subject for this emergency debate is stated on the Order Paper? Would it not therefore be right and courteous to the House for the Minister responsible for the Post Office, a Law Officer, or, indeed, the Home Secretary, since he is responsible for law and order, to be present and to speak in the debate, rather than a Minister who has no responsibility in this matter at all?

Mr. Speaker

I have no responsibility for who sits on the Front Bench and who speaks for the Government.

4.9 p.m.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

What we are discussing this afternoon is specifically the illegal action of the Post Office workers in preventing Grunwick Processing Laboratories Ltd. from receiving its mail. We are not discussing and we are not concerned with the rights and wrongs of a protracted industrial dispute. We are not discussing the rights and wrongs of the dispute which preceded the action by the Union of Post Office Workers last Monday. Nor am I involved in trying to promote the case on one side or the other.

My interest in this matter arises because a member of the company that I have named came to see me as his constituency Member of Parliament to seek the protection of the law against an illegal act. Of course the implications of what has been done go much further and wider than my constituent's interests and could well go to the heart of much industrial activity in the whole country.

Before I deal with a number of important matters of principle, it may be helpful if I describe the normal postal procedure in this firm. The usual practice is for the firm to send a company van to the WCI sorting office. On arrival, the driver, with the help of Post Office workers, carries sacks of packets addressed to the firm from the first floor of the building to his vehicle. I understand that the Post Office does not deliver these items because the company prefers to make its own collection in order to have control over the time at which these items are delivered. As for the company's outgoing mail, the usual practice is for the company to frank it and hand it over in bulk to the Cricklewood sorting office. The present position is that since last Monday UPW members have refused to accept outward-going mail at Cricklewood or to hand over incoming mail at the WC1 sorting office. A number of important matters of principle are at stake here, and I shall deal with them in order.

First, there is the deliberate breaking of the law. Section 58 of the 1953 Post Office Act lays down: If any officer of the Post Office … wilfully detains or delays … any … postal packet, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour and be liable to imprisonment or to a fine, or to both". Secondly, there is the highly questionable position taken up by the General Secretary of the UPW, who is quoted as saying that the Act was written many years ago and has not been tested. Surely no one can support this dangerous doctrine, least of all Ministers whose duty it is to uphold the law. If criminal acts can be committed on the basis of the antiquity of the statutes that make them crimes, criminal law in this country will immediately collapse into chaos.

Thirdly, there are the repercussions that must result if a law is broken and no action is taken against the law breakers and if they succeed in their purposes. Surely every reasonable man must then suppose that law-breaking can be advantageous if only one gives a little thought to which laws should be broken. Could there be a better recipe than that for bringing the law into contempt?

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

The hon. Gentleman will recall that in 1973 when a Conservative Government were in power Post Office workers in Japan and in New Zealand, at the time of the French nuclear tests, asked our Union of Post Office Workers not to deliver mail to France. The UPW complied with that request and the Conservative Government did nothing about it.

Mr. Gorst

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I do not recall that, but I recall an official strike by Post Office workers in, I think, 1971. However, I do not think that either is particularly relevant.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

According to the Order Paper, the hon. Gentleman has put down the subject for debate as being The action of Post Office workers in failing to deliver mail … in contravention of the Post Office Act 1958. The hon. Gentleman is wrong about that—

Mr. Speaker

I should have apologised to the House at the beginning of this debate for that misprint. The fault lies with me. It should read "1953", not "1958".

Mr. Weitzman

In that case I apologise for making the point against the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst).

The other point that I wish to make is that the hon. Gentleman read the relevant section in relation to which he says the law has been broken. However, will he take it from me that the words are .… wilfully misspends his time so as to retard the progress or delay the arrival of a mail bag"? The essence of the matter is the word "wilfully". How can the hon. Gentleman say, if an action is authorised by the union, that— —

Hon. Members


Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Now we know.

Mr. Gorst

The hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) will perhaps be interested to know that Section 68 of the Act—not Section 58—reads: If any person solicits or endeavours to procure any other person to commit an offence punishable on indictment under this Act, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour. If I may return to the matters of principle that I was discussing, the fourth is that we must consider carefully——

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but would he not be well advised to pursue the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), who appeared to suggest that the authority of a trade union is more important than the authority of Parliament?

Mr. Gorst

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall be saying more about that in the course of my speech.

The fourth matter of principle is that we have to consider most carefully the implications which arise if interference with the monopoly delivery of the mails on a selective basis is allowed to take place. There are few businesses, particularly small ones and especially mail order firms, which are not highly vulnerable to postal disruption. Illegal action such as that which we have seen since last Monday may well lead to the winding-up of this business, because this sort of action kills rapidly.

If this sort of industrial action goes unchallenged, one wonders how long newspapers or periodicals which go through the post, or banks for that matter, can survive a determined onslaught of this nature. I imagine that the commercial life of the country could very soon be disrupted.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

And the political life, especially if it were to coincide with a General Election.

Mr. Gorst

The fifth matter to which I refer relates to the action which is now to be taken to deal with the situation. We hope that at this moment, some action is being taken somewhere. But the law is emphatic about what may not be done.

I ask the Government who is to apply the law. Will the UPW now call off its illegal action and take the initiative immediately? Will the Post Office itself institute proceedings if the UPW continues to flout the law? Will the Attorney-General pass the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions? Should the onus be put on the injured party to take legal action? Can or should the matter be left to action by the general public to interfere in order to see that observance of the law is re-established? There are reports in the Press that such action is already either contemplated or taking place.

These are questions for the Minister to deal with when he replies to the debate. What we shall be expecting from him, though, will be something far more emphatic than we had from the Minister of State last Tuesday when he signally failed to deplore the UPW's illegal actions and gave no indication that the Government intended to fulfil their obligation to uphold the principle of law. What steps do the Government propose to take to restore legality to the situation in the North-West of London?

Mr. Ashton

Send in ACAS.

Mr. Gorst

No one suggests that the best way to conduct industrial relations is by having to fight out a dispute in the courts. Government supporters do not suggest that, and nor do Opposition supporters. This is not what the issue is about. The issue here is quite clear. It is that a group of workers, namely the Union of Post Office Workers, are not in dispute with the Post Office, but have illegally decided not to hand over public mail which by law they are bound to hand over.

Postal communications are to the infrastructure of commerce what the jugular vein is to the human body, and Parliament is right to insist that this intensely vulnerable spot should receive special legal protection. This example which we have to consider from the North-West of London is perhaps a trial run by the union, a test case to see whether the Government are on the side of those who uphold the rule of law.

I hope that the Government will not seek refuge in the shocking doctrine that all is fair in industrial disputes, or that there is a certain amount of illegality which must be expected and tolerated if one provokes or displeases a union. The Government have always insisted that they will not suffer the trade unions being above the criminal law. This was the point at issue in the Shrewsbury case, and it is the point at issue here.

The Union of Post Office Workers is breaking the law and we want to know what the Government propose to do about it. Are they going to support or deplore this kind of law breaking?

4.21 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Albert Booth)

The dispute at the Grunwick Processing Laboratories, which this week has suddenly become so important to members of the Opposition, has been going on for more than eight weeks. That is a fact. Since 23rd August, 136 employees have been on strike because they are seeking to reinstate 10 fellow employees who it is alleged were unfairly dismissed.

Mr. Carlisle

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I realise that the business before the House is the motion, That this House do now adjourn, and that on that motion technically anyone can talk about anything. But the subject for debate here is The action of Post Office workers in failing to deliver mail to Grunwick Processing Laboratories in contravention of the Post Office Act 1953. I wonder what the limiting effect of these words is. Is it in order to go wider than the actual words on the Order Paper? The matter we are discussing is that which you gave us permission to debate, namely, the behaviour of Post Office workers in this matter, rather than the actual dispute itself.

Mr. Speaker

I have given a great deal of consideration to this matter because I realised that this question might arise. The wording on the Order Paper is much the same as the wording for the Adjournment each night. On an Adjournment debate hon. Members are free to go wider than the actual subject as long as they do not call for legislation. This is the rule. I have had research done into what has happened in Standing Order No. 9 debates over the past 15 years. I understand that the result of the research is that generally the debates have gone wider.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would like to point out that when an hon. Member raises an Adjournment debate at night he is entitled to say which Department he hopes will answer him. What is unfortunate today is that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) addressed the point to the Department of Industry and now we have to suffer an answer from the Secretary of State for Employment who has nothing to do with the matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is so. Although he may be interested in the industrial dispute, he has nothing to do with the conduct of the UPW or the failure of the Post Office to do its duty. Whatever the right hon. Gentleman has to say, it will be of little interest to the House.

Mr. Booth

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I submit to you that it is the contention of the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst), who opened the debate, that an illegal action has been committed by members of a particular union in this particular dispute. That is his allegation. It is not his allegation that any strike action by postal workers at any time is illegal. Therefore I submit that, even within the narrow terms of reference to which he has referred, it must be possible to deploy every aspect of this dispute which has led to the industrial action.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In addition to that point, may I remind you that the Private Notice Question on this matter which was raised in the House earlier this week was answered by the Department of Employment?

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to all hon. Members for their help. I think that the Minister should now make his speech.

Mr. Booth

When the strike began, the company decided that it would sack those on strike. The strike was immediately made official by the union involved, APEX, so it was an official strike from the outset. APEX has sought the services of ACAS to obtain conciliation but the company refused to meet ACAS or to meet APEX under the auspices of ACAS. Therefore from this point conciliation has proved to be impossible.

APEX decided on 15th October to refer the recognition issue involved in the dispute to ACAS under Section 11 of the Employment Protection Act. The Union of Post Office Workers decided on 29th October to authorise its members not to handle mail to and from the company. It backed this decision after APEX had used its proper rights under Section 11 of the Employment Protection Act in an attempt to resolve the dispute, and the company had refused to co-operate in a process for the resolution of this type of dispute which has been approved by the House of Commons. When the House of Commons passed Section 11 of the Act it decided that this was the proper method.

Mr. Adley

Can the Secretary of State please answer a simple question? Does he believe that, whatever the circumstances, any trade union has the blessing of this Government to overthrow an Act of Parliament passed by this House if it wishes to do so?

Mr. Booth

Of course I can answer that question. No Government Minister standing at the Dispatch Box can endorse the action of any individual or organisation in defiance of the law. But by the very same token no Minister could stand at the Dispatch Box and do what the hon. Member for Hendon, North did, which was to set himself up as both judge and jury on an issue. The hon. Member was acting in the capacity of judge and jury. He tried the Union of Post Office Workers and he found it guilty of a breach of an Act of Parliament. I contend that that was a most unreasonable action which could be held to prejudice the outcome of a criminal proceeding which might arise.

Mr. Clegg

On this case, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Attorney-General or one of the Law Officers to come to advise the House?

Mr. Booth

No. I will not suggest that the Attorney-General should be here, and the reasons for that will become clear if I am allowed to continue my speech.

Let me deal now with the hon. Gentleman's point about Section 58 of the Post Office Act 1953. Can the hon. Gentleman suggest any time in history when this section has been used as a means of resolving an industrial dispute, official or unofficial? I take it that the hon. Gentleman agrees that up to now that section has never been used for that purpose. From that point of view, therefore, we are considering a completely new proposition.

This is not the first time that the country has faced a strike of postal workers. In the strike of 1971 the then Conservative Government did not consider it appropriate to use Section 58 to deal with the dispute.

Mr. Gorst

Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a major difference between withholding labour and withholding mail?

Mr. Booth

I can see no practical difference for the purposes of Section 58 between withholding labour and withholding mail. Surely the effect of an industrial dispute by the Union of Post Office Workers involving the withholding of labour by its members must be to cause the mail to be withheld, unless the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the members have not only withheld the mail but have, by their action, prevented others from transmitting it.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Surely the significant difference is that in the 1971 dispute none of the union members concerned drew pay from the Post Office but that in the current dispute they are in fully paid employment by the Post Office and are discriminating against one customer. In that connection, if the Minister cares to look at the 1969 Act he will see the powers that the Minister has in that respect.

Mr. Booth

It has been alleged that there has been illegal action by a breach of Section 58. I can see nothing in that section which in any way draws a distinction between postmen who are being paid and postmen who are not being paid. The issue is whether the section is appropriate to deal with an industrial dispute. All of the precedents to which one can turn, and particularly that of the 1971 strike, indicate that never before have a Government or has any hon. Member suggested that Section 58 should be used to deal with a dispute by postal workers.

Again, in the 1973 case already quoted there was the refusal of postal workers to handle mail to and from France in support of a dispute by Australian and Japanese postal workers. That was a selective action called in response to postal unions abroad. Nevertheless, the Conservative Government chose not to use Section 58 as a means of dealing with it.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

Is the reason for the absence of the Attorney-General this afternoon that he has told the Secretary of State that he cannot stomach the argument that is being advanced?

Mr. Booth

No. That is not the reason for the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend.

It has always been the contention of Labour Governments that industrial disputes are better resolved by negotiation and conciliation than by recourse to the criminal law. I very much regret that the Opposition, after such a long silence about this dispute, should now rush to the conclusion that the criminal law provides some sort of remedy.

Mr. Peter Thomas (Hendon, South)

I assume that the right hon. Gentleman must have obtained some legal advice before taking it upon himself to reply to the debate. Is it not right that if a Post Office officer wilfully withholds the delivery of mail he is, under Section 58, and in the absence of any exemption contained in the proviso in that section, guilty of a criminal offence? Does he not agree that although in the contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute civil illegality may on occasions be justified, crime can never be justified, and if committed in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute it still remains a crime? What advice has the right hon. Gentleman been given on that matter.

Mr. Booth

The decision whether an illegal action would have taken place in the event of Post Office workers having withheld labour either selectively or generally under the terms of Section 58 has never been tested in a court. Had it been so tested, I might have been able to obtain much wider advice than has proved possible. The right hon. And learned Gentleman knows very well that in the absence of any court decision as guidance, it would be most improper for me to express a view whether a criminal act had been committed. That is why I regret that the Opposition have, after such a long silence, now rushed to the conclusion that an illegal act has been committed.

The House of Commons has twice considered in recent years the issue of illegality in industrial disputes. On the 1971 legislation we debated whether there should be criminal sanctions for the withholding of labour by workers in the public services. On that occasion, the House decided, on the proposition of a Conservative Government, to repeal Section 4 of the 1875 Act which made it a criminal act for workers in the gas and water industries to withhold their labour. We also repealed then Section 11 of the Electricity Supply Act which might have been held to make it a criminal act for workers in that industry to withhold their labour.

In the debate on the Trade Union and Labour Relations Bill we considered as a House whether secondary boycotts should give rise to civil actions and we decided that they should not do so, that they should not be illegal. Therefore I hold that in so far as this House has given any indication of its attitude on this question whether the withholding of labour by people in a public service should be dealt with by criminal action, it has been to the effect that that is not the way in which it wants to go.

Mr. Skinner

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that we all understand that he has no need to listen to pompous interjections from ex-Cabinet Ministers on the Tory Benches, especially when we take into account the fact that in the period January to February 1971 seven statements were made in the House on the Post Office dispute by the present Lord Carr on behalf of the then Tory Government and that at no time was this issue raised? When it comes to this question of illegality, it is nothing less than hypocritical for Tory Members to talk about this particular strike.

Mr. Booth

I agree with my hon. Friend to this extent, that there is nothing whatever, from any previous discussions in the House, to suggest that there was concern about this issue generally. It must be something peculiar either to the occasion or to the dispute.

Mr. Gorst

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that last Monday I sought guidance on this matter from the Minister of State, Department of Industry, who is sitting beside the right hon. Gentleman? The Minister of State was not in his office at that time and his officials put me in touch with the Post Office, which informed me that it was about to inform the General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers that he would be breaking the law. I was referred by the Post Office to these two sections.

Mr. Booth

I have checked carefully upon this point. The Post Office has not informed the Union of Post Office Workers that it is breaking the law by taking this action. The Union of Post Office Workers yesterday stated to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service that it would call off the action of its members provided that the company would accept the recommendation of ACAS on the issue—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton


Mr. Booth

This has resulted in the company agreeing, for the first time, to co-operate with ACAS in the Section 11 inquiry and also in the company agreeing to abide by the outcome of that inquiry.

In view of this the General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers came to me this afternoon and delivered a letter to me of today's date— —

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Special delivery.

Mr. Booth

—in the following terms —[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members to conduct the debate in a less noisy fashion. The debate can last for only three hours from the time of its commencement and there is a large number of hon. Members who wish to take part.

Mr. Booth

The General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers has written to me in the following terms: The UPW has considered the situation which has developed at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories since Monday, when the union began to take sympathetic action on behalf of the work-people involved in the dispute. As you are aware this firm had steadfastly refused to treat with ACAS on a Section 11 reference. Since Monday, however, the firm has now agreed to provide facilities for ACAS to undertake a Section 11 canvass. It has also agreed to bind itself to the result of that inquiry. It is likely, therefore, that the recognition question can be settled by the end of next week. In the circumstances, our union has discussed this matter with APEX and as a result our members have now been instructed to withdraw from the sympathetic action which began on Monday and normal service will be resumed immediately."—[Interruption.]—"It is a matter of regret that our union should have been forced to take the action it did."—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There is far too much noise. Am I to take it that hon. Members wish to bring the debate to a conclusion in view of the statement by the Minister? Is that what they are saying?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Certainly not.

Mr. Gorst

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be possible for the Minister to confirm or deny what I have just been told, namely that the industrial action has been withdrawn?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am not responsible for what the Minister says.

Mr. Booth

If the House will allow me to read the terms of this letter the House will be informed. I will re-read the appropriate paragraph: In the circumstances, our union has discussed this matter with APEX and as a result our members have now been instructed to withdraw from the sympathetic action which began on Monday and normal service will be resumed immediately. It is a matter of regret that our union should have been forced to take the action it did. But this conclusion could have been reached at any time during the past 10 weeks had the firm"—[Interruption.]—"concerned been prepared to accept the facilities available for conciliation. Yours sincerely, Tom Jackson, General Secretary. We are debating this afternoon the first occasion on which the Union of Post Office Workers has taken official sympathetic dispute action in support of another union— —

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

And broken the law.

Mr. Booth

I reiterate the statement of the General Secretary. Had Grunwick responded to ACAS or APEX approaches—[Interruption.]—I believe that the sympathetic action by the Union of Post Office Workers would not have taken place.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not ridiculous to have a situation in which the noise from hon. Members, mostly on the Conservative side of the House, is forcing my right hon. Friend to strain his voice to such an extent that I and most civilised Members are having great difficulty in hearing? May I ask my right hon. Friend to speak in a whisper and so reduce the volume of noise from the hooligans on the Tory Benches?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order. I hope that all hon. Members heard my appeal a few moments ago for a less noisy debate. In my view the interruptions and the noise are coming from both sides of the House.

Mr. Booth

At a time when the number of strikes in our country is lower than in any comparable period since 1953, when the number of days lost is the lowest since 1968, when there is every reason to believe that the number of days lost through strikes this year will be 50 per cent. lower than last year, it is a matter of considerable regret that the Opposition should choose to focus on a peculiar dispute knowing full well that that carries with it the danger of focussing the attention of the House and country on one aspect of one dispute when what we need to make clear to the world is that we are resolving our industrial relation problems and that the conciliation services are doing their job well. The workers of this country, those who work in the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service, are meeting with success in their efforts to overcome—[HON. MEMBERS: "Resign."]—our industrial problems.

Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must warn the House that if these noisy demonstrations continue to the point when it becomes imposible not only for the Chair but for hon. Members to hear what is being said, I may have to suspend the Sitting.

4.50 p.m.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I know that I speak for all my right hon. and hon. Friends when I say that we are extremely pleased that this industrial action has been suspended and that the mail is now being carried through. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) for initiating this debate and drawing attention to an issue of grave concern.

I was particularly pleased to hear about the letter which the Secretary of State received from Mr. Tom Jackson. I know of his union's reputation and I am pleased that it has taken this action. It is entirely in keeping with what one would expect from the UPW.

However, my congratulations do not extend to the Secretary of State, whose contribution to the debate was deplorable. He appeared to be saying that the union's action was justified because it had achieved a certain amount, including the intervention of ACAS. It is deplorable that a Secretary of State for Employment should applaud illegal industrial action.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

The hon. Gentleman has said that he and his hon. Friends are delighted that the union has withdrawn its strike action. The whole House will share that view. However, did the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) suggest to the firm during this 10-week period that it should go to ACAS? If not, why not?

Mr. King

I had never heard of the firm before. I do not know whether my hon. Friend knew of it, or whether he became aware of the situation only when a constituent came to see him.

I welcome the action taken by the UPW, but many questions remain unanswered, including the attitude of the Government in this sort of dispute. The Secretary of State is the wrong Minister to answer this debate, because we are concerned exclusively with the Post Office, the Post Office Acts and the Union of Post Office Workers. The motion makes that quite clear.

When the Minister of State, Department of Employment answered the Private Notice Question this week, it was clear that he had not read the Post Office Act 1969 and was not aware of the powers and responsibilities of the Minister who answers on Post Office matters.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Harold Walker)

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. There was no necessity for me to refer to these matters on Tuesday. He will bear in mind that the Private Notice Question was directed to the Department of Employment and not to the Department of Industry.

Mr. King

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain why he said: It is not for me to judge the legality or illegality of such action."—[Official Report, 2nd November 1976; Vol. 918, c. 1200.] Is he familiar with the requirements of Section 11(4) of the Post Office Act 1969?

Mr. Harold Walker

When I said that it was not for me to judge the legality or illegality of actions, I did so on the fundamental premise of the law of this country that a person is innocent until proven guilty by the courts. As yet, neither of us, not I nor the hon. Gentleman, sits in judgment.

Mr. King

I shall read to the hon. Gentleman the responsibilities and powers of the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications contained in the 1969 Act. These have now been transferred to and subsumed by the Department of Industry and although responsibilities change rapidly I understand that the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), is the responsible Minister.

Section 11(4) says: If it appears to the Minister"— there is no question of going to the courts— that the Post Office is showing undue preference to, or is exercising undue discrimination against, any person or persons of any class or description … he may, after consultation with Post Office"— again there is no question of going to the courts; he must satisfy himself— give it such directions as appear to him requisite to secure that it ceases so to do. I shall explain why these responsibilities exist and I hope that the Minister of State for Sport and Recreation, who is President of APEX, will pay attention. The importance of this matter is clear, despite the smokescreen put up by the Secretary of State. This is the first occasion in history that the Post Office has exercised discrimination against a single customer in this way.

The industrial dispute at the firm was made official and I understand that the TUC circulated affiliated unions to ask for their support. The UPW knows as well as anyone the contents of the Post Office Acts. I understand that members of the union's executive met to consider the gravity of the TUC request and, because they were in a rather different situation from other unions—since the 1953 and 1969 Acts make it a criminal offence for a postman to detain or delay the mail—they went back to the TUC and asked whether the gravity of the request was fully understood. I understand that the TUC replied that it understood the position and required the union to join in the solidarity being shown in this dispute.

There is a clear responsibility on the TUC to make a statement about how it can possibly justify members of an affiliated union having to indulge in an illegal act.

Mr. Robert Mellish (Bermondsey)

If I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, he is suggesting that the Union of Post Office Workers is subject to the law to which he has referred and that it may never delay mail and may never go on strike. In 1971 and 1973, when the hon. Gentleman's party was in office, action was taken by the Union of Post Office Workers. Will the hon. Gentleman be good enough to tell us what he did?

Mr. King

It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman was not able to be in the Chamber earlier, as we have covered that ground. He has made half a point, but not a very good one. During the Post Office strike none of the members of the Union of Post Office Workers was drawing pay from the Post Office. They were not then working in the Post Office and drawing pay from the Post Office.

That distinction is that in this case all those who have been concerned in what we hope is now a concluded dispute are fully paid and employed by the Post Office. They have been drawing pay but detaining or delaying mail to a particular customer. That is the seriousness of the situation and that is the real distinction.

Mr. Booth

Is it the hon. Gentleman's contention that had the postmen refused to draw their pay, they would have been acting quite legally in refusing to handle mail for the firm?

Mr. King

The right hon. Gentleman will realise that the situation is entirely different when employees are delivering all the mail that is coming in for other addresses but preventing one particular addressee from even collecting its own mail from the Post Office.

Mr. Booth rose——

Mr. King

No, I must get on. It must be understood that the Union of Post Office Workers is in a different position from any other union. I shall not enter into the argument about secondary actions as the whole point of the motion is to attract attention to the position in which members of the Union of Post Office Workers find themselves.

A further point that was not brought out by the Secretary of State is that every employee on joining the Post Office has to sign an undertaking. Included in the undertaking is a reference to the relevant sections of the Post Office Act 1953. On joining the Post Office an employee's attention is drawn to the fact that Under the Post Office Act 1953 it is an offence for a Post Office servant to delay any other postal package in the course of transmission by post. Every employee has signed that agreement and everyone has been made aware, in the correct way, in his contract of employment of the conditions under which he serves.

The seriousness of the action required by the TUC was to put uniquely the members of the Union of Post Office Workers in a position in which they were exposed to the risk of criminal prosecution. I sincerely hope that there will never be another occasion when the TUC will seek to put individual members of a particular union in that situation. The Secretary of State is aware that there is no legal immunity for the Union of Post Office Workers as exists in certain other forms of industrial action. There is no legal immunity for the leader of the union or the union's officials when they encourage what in this case is defined as a criminal act. That adds to the gravity of the TUC's action.

Mr. Booth

When I challenged the hon. Gentleman to say why the action was illegal when other Post Office disputes were not he contended that it was because the union's members were being paid. When I asked him whether in every other action they would have been held to be acting illegally on the same ground, he changed his ground.

He says that their action was illegal under Section 58 not because they were being paid but because they were being selective as to which customer's mail they would handle and which they would not. Why was it that in 1973, when the Union of Post Office Workers was being selective and interfering with mail from one source but not from another, action was not brought by the hon. Gentleman's Government?

Mr. King

I do not know whether the Secretary of State has better sources of information than I have, but I understand on direct information from the Post Office that there has never been a comparable incident. If the right hon. Gentleman can obtain better information from the Post Office than that, I shall be interested to hear it. I obtained that information myself direct from the Post Office at a senior level and I understand it to be correct.

If the right hon. Gentleman is trying to continue to justify the action that has been taken, and if he is trying to take up these points and argue them in justification of the action, he had better start considering the position he has adopted. Every time the right hon. Gentleman intervenes and opens his mouth on the issue he casts Mr. Tom Jackson in a very much more favourable light and adds to the statesmanship of the action that he has taken. That makes the Secretary of State's view look singularly unattractive.

At an earlier stage one or two unfortunate statements were made implying that the provisions of the 1953 Act were perhaps a little out of date and not relevant. As anyone familiar with the Post Office knows, there are good reasons for such powers existing. Parliament has conferred on the Post Office the privilege of a sole monopoly in the carriage of mails in this country. With that privilege, that monopoly, go certain responsibilities. One of those responsibilities or duties is that the Act requires the Post Office to deliver mails and perform all services in that connection. It also provides strict penalties for anyone who attempts to discriminate, detain or delay in any improper way. It should be recognised that that price is paid for the privilege of a monopoly. That is why the Union of Post Office Workers is in a special situation.

In this instance a public service—it does not matter whether it is the miners, the electricity workers or those engaged in supplying water, as all such action gives rise to concern about public utilities and their ability to cut off certain people—has discriminated against a firm. As it was the Post Office that was involved, there are two essential differences.

The first difference is that the goods being carried by the Post Office were not the Post Office's property. The goods that it carries are other people's property. Therefore, it is that much more grave for the Post Office to delay or detain property that does not belong to it. Another difference is that whereas power supplies, for example, are paid for in arrears, the service offered by the Post Office has been paid for in advance of the goods being shipped, goods that are other people's property. That means that there is a very different situation from that existing in the other public utilities.

It is important that people realise that the Post Office Acts are not old statutes that we have forgotten about because they are 20 years old. They are statutes that Parliament has designed. As far as I know—the Secretary of State may like to confirm that this is the position—the Government have no intention of amending the requirements of the 1953 or 1969 Acts. The House has been told no such thing. We therefore assume that the statutes are still in force and that they should be observed.

Mr. Skinner rose——

Mr. King

No, I shall not give way.

Another argument that has been advanced is that somehow there were certain circumstances pertaining to the dispute and the operations of the company that were such as to justify industrial action.

Mr. Skinner

On that very issue——

Mr. King

I hope that the Secretary of State will make quite clear——

Mr. Skinner rose——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member addressing the House does not give way, no other hon. Member may intervene.

Mr. King

I hope that the Secretary of State will make quite clear that where the law is specific and where it involves criminal offences, no matter what the situation and no matter how grave the secondary dispute in which the union itself is not involved, the principles contained in the Post Office Acts should be observed. We have had no statement to that effect from the right hon. Gentleman or from the Minister of State.

Unless the Secretary of State accepts that principle, who will judge in each case what is a bad company? Who will judge when action is appropriate in not so bad a company? Who will then say "Whereas it is quite a good company, we feel so strongly about the situation that we feel entitled to break the law"? That is the rule of anarchy. In that situation we have either the rule of law or——

Mr. Skinner

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. King

I shall not give way.

It has been recognised that the use of the Queen's mail as a weapon of industrial warfare is intolerable in such situations. I have said before that in such situations the Queen's mail is a vital lifeline to any company in this country. It is a crucial element in commerce. To anybody involved in mail order, it is an essential ingredient. Any company in that sphere threatened with industrial action of this kind will find it impossible to continue. Because of the gravity and seriousness of the principle involved, the Post Office Acts were designed to make clear the duties and responsibilities of those who enjoyed the privilege of a monopoly service.

Mr. Harold Walker

The hon. Gentleman has made wholly unjustified com- ments on remarks of mine on Tuesday. If he had taken the trouble to listen, if he was present on Tuesday, or had looked at Hansard, he would have realised that I said that we expected workers and other people everywhere to behave in accordance with and to uphold the law. I hope that he will withdraw his remarks.

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman has deliberately misunderstood what I said. Whatever he may say about expecting people to uphold the law, I suggest that it would have been a good thing if, before he came to the House to answer questions, he had read the law himself. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. I should be interested to hear his views on Section 11(4) on the duties and responsibilities of Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman implied that he had no status and that the Government—he speaks on behalf of the Government because he is a Minister of the Crown—had no status in that matter. That is fundamentally incorrect. It is no use the Minister's saying that he told people to observe the law when he blithely ignored a crucial element in the law—namely, his direct responsibility as a Minister of the Crown. I suggest that part of the duty of the Minister for Posts and Telecommunications, now subsumed in the unlikely personage of the Minister of State, Department of Industry, the hon. Member for Ardwick, is to advise the hon. Gentleman on his duties. Fortunately, the gravity of the situation—defiance of the Post Office Acts—has now, albeit late, been recognised, and we welcome that recognition.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I know that he has had a lot of interruptions, and I apologise for interrupting him now. I imagine that the Secretary of State had the courtesy, before the debate, to hand my hon. Friend a copy of the letter from Mr. Jackson informing the right hon. Gentleman, as he should have been informed, of the progress of this dispute. Can my hon. Friend tell the House whether postal deliveries have been effected to this company? It is important that we should know at this time whether that is so.

Mr. King

I am afraid that I have not seen a copy of the letter. The Secretary of State did not extend that courtesy to me. Therefore, I am unable to say whether the mail is now being delivered. I understanad that it is.

This debate has been extremely important and will be of value because of the contributions that will be made by my right hon. and hon. Friends in emphasising the crucial difference between the Post Office and the Union of Post Office Workers. We welcome the fact that this aspect of the dispute appears to have been settled. But we still deplore the fact that we have had no indication whether the Secretary of State approves or disapproves of industrial action of this kind of defiance of the law. I hope that before the debate is concluded he will rise to his feet and make it clear that the Government thoroughly disapprove of action of this kind.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Whenever the Opposition have a thin case—I speak as a Member who has spent more years on the Opposition Benches than on the Government Benches—it is characterised by a lot of interjections, a lot of noise, interruptions of the Minister's speech, and even by calls for other Ministers to be present. This debate has been no exception to that rule.

The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), unfortunately, would not give way to hon. Members in the same way as my right hon. Friend was prepared to give way time after time. I should like to take up two points which were made by the hon. Gentleman. The first concerns the 47-day strike in 1971 when the then Government did nothing. The hon. Gentleman talked about the narrow action of the Union of Post Office Workers. In doing so he ignored entirely the blacking of post to France in 1973. All other post was delivered and postmen were still being paid. The Conservative Government took no action in either case.

The hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) tried to narrow the debate. I do not blame him. It was as though for some reason the cause of the action by the UPW was a matter about which we need not bother. What has caused the dispute to be resolved has been the fact that after five years the company has at last agreed to go to the conference table. It would not have done that but for the action of the UPW. It might seem to the hon. Gentleman that Mr. Jackson descended like one of the fiery gods from heaven for no reason. Thank God for Mr. Jackson! Without the action taken by the UPW, hundreds of my constituents who have done sweated labour year after year would still be facing sweated labour year after year.

Mr. Adley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pavitt

No. I propose to give way three times, but not yet. The hon. Gentleman may be one of the favoured Members who catch my eye.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is a most unusual declaration for a Member to make. I have never heard it before. Perhaps the hon. Member could cut it down to one.

Mr. Pavitt

I am an unusual Member, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Grunwick is a sweat shop with a management which could have been lifted straight out of the Dickens era. Conditions and management attitudes such as these have never been seen in Willesden since the First World War. They are a blot on an extremely good area. Many factories—Heinz, United Biscuits and a brewery which makes Guinness—are a century ahead of Grunwick.

The majority of Grunwick workers live in my constituency in Alperton and Wembley. Some workers live in Brent, North and others come from Brent, East, the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. Until 1974 the Grunwick factory was in my constituency, but not now as a result of boundary changes.

For the last eight years I have had a tremendous struggle in trying to achieve ordinary humane conditions in the area. In 1973, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson), I became involved in a similar dispute because it is in our area. Now it is in his area my right hon. Friend has taken a major role. Contact with the company has been in our joint names. Indeed, I have here a copy of a letter dated September 1973 from my right hon. Friend to the company pleading for it to go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. I have a stack of letters in our joint names.

My right hon. Friend is naturally inhibited from entering into the debate because of his ministerial position. However, since the end of August, my right hon. Friend has made repeated attempts to get the management of Grunwick to go to the conference table. I served on the picket line for a while at the beginning of September and was delighted that, at about 7.30 a.m. or 8 a.m. yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East was also present to see what was going on in that area. That is the responsible way in which Members of Parliament should treat a dispute in one's area.

I charge the hon. Member for Hendon, North with gross discourtesy. I know that it is not obligatory to inform hon. Members when raising a matter affecting their constituency under Standing Order No. 9 or on a PNQ, but it is traditional in the House for a note to be put on the board to say that it is happening. It did not happen in this case. My right hon. Friend wrote to the hon. Member pleading with him at the beginning of this week and he has not yet received the courtesy of a reply. That is scandalous.

Mr. Gorst

With regard to the letter to which the hon. Member refers, I received it as I came into the Chamber this afternoon.

Mr. Heffer

That is your own inefficiency.

Mr. Gorst

As for giving notice, I was acting on behalf of a constituent just as much as the hon. Member is acting on behalf of constituents. Furthermore, the dispute about which I am concerned relates to what has been happening in sorting offices in Cricklewood and WC1.

Mr. Heffer

Why are you not concerned about the workers in the factory?

Mr. Pavitt

I will come to the point about the sorting office, with which I am familiar, later. The hon. Member does himself an injustice when he fails to follow the normal courtesies of the House. My right hon. Friend was able to communicate with me faster than the hon. Member says it took him to receive his letter. I do not understand that, because the services of the House are the same for all.

I turn now to the support for the motion expressed by the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Adley rose——

Mr. Pavitt

I shall give way in a moment.

The Opposition have revealed that since the time of the three-day week, when they went out of office, they have learned nothing about relations with trade unions. If—Lord forbid—we ever had a Tory Government again, we should be back again to confrontation and conflict. They seem to think that the sooner they can get into an argument with the unions the better. Even the hon. Member for Bridgwater sought to extend the conflict and to have a bash at the TUC. That is typical of the Conservative attitude to these problems. Unlike the hon. Member, the TUC does not live so far back in the past.

When the hon. Member for Bridgwater was unfolding the full panoply of the two Acts he quoted, I was able to follow the paragraphs to which he referred. The Act in question was No. 9, Queen Anne, Chapter 10, AD 1710. I was able to follow him word for word and it is always as well to refer to precedents. The hon. Member rested on an antiquated Act. If any Government want to tackle the Union of Post Office Workers or any other union, let them do it. They will have to justify what happened in 1710 in terms of what happens in 1976.

Mr. Adley rose——

Mr. Tom King rose

Mr. Pavitt

I will give way to the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley). I will give way to the other hon. Member later.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that if he allows both hon. Members to intervene he will have exhausted the number he promised.

Mr. Adley

The hon. Gentleman said that he believed that the action of the Post Office workers had brought about the settlement. Surely what has happened is that the granting of this debate by Mr. Speaker has brought about the settlement. Were it not for the assiduity of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) and the action of Mr. Speaker, the firm would have gone out of business and that is how the dispute would have ended.

Mr. Pavitt

No one cares for this honourable House more than I do. No one is more aware of its profound influence and no one cares more deeply about its influence. But I must tell the hon. Gentleman that in this case, whether this debate had taken place or not, once the management was prepared to go to conciliation, the strike would have stopped. The solidarity of APEX, the UPW and the rest of the TUC made the management think twice about its ridiculous action. For the first time in seven or eight years the management has agreed at last to talk.

Mr. Tom King

The hon. Member referred to a passage that I quoted as being somewhat antiquated. I was reading from a copy of the Act passed in 1969 by his Government and piloted through the House by the former right hon. Member for Walsall, North, Mr. Stonehouse, which is an interesting thought at this time. The hon. Gentleman accused me of "bashing" the unions, which I certainly was not. I was seeking to suggest that it was unwise of the TUC to recommend to the UPW that it should join in the action when it involved the union acting against the law. Does he feel that the TUC was right to encourage the UPW to break the law?

Mr. Pavitt

The hon. Member does me an injustice if he thinks that I do not do my homework when quoting an Act of Parliament. Of course I knew the two Acts to which he referred, but it is not for me to advise the TUC or the UPW. They are capable of standing on their own feet. They are both responsible bodies and I should be happy to accept the advice of the TUC or the UPW on any action they decided to take. I would support it, and I would support it unequivocally.

I am indebted to the Brent and Willesden Chronicle for a reminder of events in which I was involved in February 1973. That was the occasion of the last attempt to organise a trade union, more than three years ago, when the mostly Asian workers sought some form of recognition. It was ruthlessly crushed by the management.

I am trying to show the House that this is not something which was blown up by the hon. Member for Hendon, North suddenly getting a brainwave in the middle of this week. It has been hanging over my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East and myself for many years—[HON. MEMBERS: "What have you achieved, then? "] The Chronicle of 16th February 1973 said: Police stood by as 150 workers ended their first month of picketing. There had been an attempt to organise a TGW branch and five were sacked and 35 others walked out in support. The union was formed in 1972 in order to secure proper overtime rates for compulsory overtime. Rates given by management were no extra up to 46 hours; 46–52, time plus a quarter; over 52, time plus a half. Easter and summer were very busy but workers were expected to work throughout the night with no extra overtime rates. There were no cleaners for weeks, the lavatories were in a filthy and unhealthy state and there were no canteen facilities. These conditions prevail in 1976 as they did in 1972.

Workers were sacked for no given reason, on average one a week. The management said that its policy was not to make people redundant, but as time went on people were sacked and their places were filled. That was ruthless repression of an attempt by ordinary people to organise themselves at their place of work by a management as antiquated as that 1710 Act, a management not living in modern times.

There has been no change and elementary rights are still denied. The majority of members now on strike have testified that when they wished to go to the lavatory, they had to put up their hands where they were standing and wait for permission to leave their desks.

Mr. Heffer

The Tories are defending that.

Mr. Gorst

No one is defending that.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West) rose——

Mr. Pavitt

Does the hon. Member wish to intervene?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member cannot give way any more. He has exhausted his number of interventions.

Mr. Bottomley

I thought that the hon. Gentleman had not noticed me, Sir. I was asking whether I might intervene.

Mr. Pavitt

Not just yet.

I have here a statement of terms of employment of an employee of Grunwick, but this is only a short debate and perhaps I should not take up too much time with these details.

Mr. Mellish

Let us have the whole story: they have not given it.

Mr. Pavitt

It is too long to read. Mr. Heffer: No—go on.

Mr. Pavitt

This refers to Mr. Rajendra Pandya, like many of my constituents, a Gujerati. According to these terms of employment, his commencing rate of pay was £28 a week, his normal working week would be 40 hours, with half an hour extra without overtime and any extra would have to be worked when necessary. The hours worked meant that he had no time to get lunch. There was no canteen, so workers could only clock out for their lunch hour and then simply clock back again when it was over. I am prepared to leave this document on the Table for hon. Members to read. No hon. Member has in his constituency a factory in which the terms and conditions of employment are such as are to be found in that one. Yet we are asked why there is a need for organised trade unions.

The UPW decision was taken responsibly by responsible men. I cannot speak too highly of the postmen in the sorting office in Station Road in my constituency. Councillor Bill McLellan has been a councillor for many years, and Ashworth Elwin is a key community worker. There is a scheme in my constituency whereby postmen look after the old-age pensioners. They give their services voluntarily to make sure that no old person in winter is left with inadequate contacts. Any idea that the UPW is an irresponsible group of people who take decisions lightly is complete nonsense.

I have here a stack of correspondence. The efforts which have been made ever since August have been concerned with getting the company to sit round the table. The whole correspondence boils down to a request for arbitration and conciliation. We say that we do not want strikes and stoppages; we want to meet and talk matters out round the table. But the Opposition are not content with that.

The hon. Member for Hendon, North said that he had an interest in that his constituent is the managing director of the company. He is perfectly right to pursue the interests of the managing director, just as I have a perfect right to pursue the interests of my workers.

Grunwick's response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East was not just negative but arrogant to the point of rudeness. In my 17 years in the House during which I have had extensive correspondence with the management of hundreds of firms, I have never received that sort of treatment from any other firm in Park Royal and Alperton.

The fact that the Secretary of State has been able to tell the House after all this pressure that at long last the services of ACAS are to be utilised robs me of my peroration. I intended to say that I would go on my hands and knees to beg him to exert his influence. Fortunately, thanks to the UPW——

Mr. Adley

Thanks to Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Pavitt

—the ACAS is to conciliate. This case represents the worst form of exploitation. Most of the workers are Gujerati, coming from Kenya and Uganda. They have black faces and most of them have come to this country as refugees, having been thrown out. They have difficulties in language, in establishing a family home and they have to try to establish themselves as workers and members of the borough in which they settle. This firm exploited them to such an extent that the House of Commons has had to debate the matter. It has revealed a domination and wage slavery unparalleled anywhere in the United Kingdom. I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity you have given me to put that lot on the record.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)


5.34 p.m.

suppose that the verdict of the Government and their supporters on the debate would be that all's well that ends well. A company which is alleged to have behaved badly has at last been forced to go to the conciliation procedure which it might have used much earlier.

I know nothing about the company, and I fancy that many other hon. Members—perhaps a majority—know nothing about it either. We should be unwise to leave the matter in the context of all's well that ends well, for the debate has given us an illustration of what the Minister for sport, droughts, floods and other things had in mind recently when, speaking in his role as President of APEX, he spoke of the need, as he saw it, for members of the union to pay their political affiliation to the Labour Party and referred to the need for political protection.

At the time I thought that was an expression which might have been more easily used by the chap going into the liquor store in New York and saying to the owner "You need protection". Now we have a much clearer idea of what political protection means. It means that if the objective is one of which Labour Members generally approve, it is permissible to use methods which are at the best dubious and in all probability illegal to achieve it.

The Minister of State for Sport and Recreation (Mr. Denis Howell)

Will the hon. Gentleman do me the honour of quoting the rest of that speech so that the House may know exactly what I said on that occasion?

Mr. Tebbit

It is not for me to waste the time of the House in quoting the right hon. Gentleman's speech in full. He knows that he used the expression "political protection", and I am entitled to draw from it the conclusions I do.

Mr. Denis Howell rose——

Mr. Tebbit

No doubt the right hon Gentleman at some stage will wish to make a speech, but not in an intervention during my speech.

Mr. Denis Howell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am quite willing, although it is not relevant to the debate, to explain the context of that quotation. Is it not in accordance with our procedures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if an lion. Member is misquoting or selectively quoting part of another hon. Member's speech, he is asked to give the whole context and if necessary to put it on the Table?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

In view of the exchanges that have occurred, it would be just and gentlemanly if the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) allowed the Minister to explain his position during an intervention.

Mr. Tebbit

If the hon. Gentleman proposes to repeat his speech, which was a long one, I do not think that he should. If he intends to tell us briefly what he means by "political protection", it would be a good idea if I allowed him to do so.

Mr. Denis Howell

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) reads my speeches—my members do not always read them. I was talking about the importance of paying the political levy and of having in the House trade union Members of Parliament to protect the legitimate interests of union members from the activities of the Conservative Party. I drew attention to the Industrial Relations Act, which was put on the statute book by a Conservative Government and which created more havoc than the country had ever seen.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

You created unemployment.

Mr. Denis Howell

I also drew attention to the fact that large numbers of our members because of the pay policy——

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Are worse off.

Mr. Denis Howell

I said that a large number of our members who were employed in the aircraft industry, the coal industry and so on needed advice from Members of Parliament. The debate today has confirmed every word of the advice I gave to them.

Mr. Tebbit

You will see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how wise I was initially not to give way to the right hon. Gentleman. However, he has made my point for me. He sees the importance of political protection for his members as being the scheme by which he and other hon. Members achieve their position in this House. It enables them to espouse the doctrine that their friends in the unions are above the law.

I do not know what other construction could be drawn from the expression used by the Secretary of State when he said that the UPW had authorised its members to ignore the provisions of the Post Office Act. On what authority did the union authorise its members to ignore those provisions? What is the authority given to the trade union movement—even such a reasonable bunch of chaps as members of the UPW—to interpret the law, and indeed to tell those members to defy an agreement which they signed when they took up their employment, an agreement making it plain that they were not allowed to detain or delay a packet in the post? The Minister is a little stuck to say what that authority was.

This debate has not been about the Grunwick firm, but about illegal interference by Post Office workers obeying union instructions to "black" certain articles of mail. It is interesting to ask whose mail was being affected. It was not everybody's mail as it was in the 1971 strike. If it was the intention of the Post Office Act to make industrial action of all sorts illegal—in other words, to make a Post Office workers' general strike illegal—the Act would have said so. It does not. Therefore, there is every reason why nobody attempted to use the Act in the context of a Post Office workers' national strike.

The mail delayed in this case was not everybody's mail, but mail consigned to or from a particular company. It was not the property of that company, but the property of many thousands of individuals who had gone to the Post Office having bought stamps, stuck them on their property and entrusted that mail to the Post Office to be delivered.

Those people had no quarrel with APEX, with Indian or English workers, or anybody else. But they were exercising their rights enshrined in the law under the Post Office Act in the expectation that their mail would be properly delivered. Those facts are not in dispute.

There is no dispute about the meaning of Sections 58 or 67 of the 1953 Act. The Minister may say that the matter has not been tested in law and that the Act is an old one but, so far as I know—and the hon. Gentleman who sits beside me, the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) will tell me if I am wrong—the Act of Union has not been tested in law and that, too, is an old Act. I do not know whether that means that those who live in Scotland need not pay income tax.

Mr. David Penbaligon (Truro)

It is all according to the laws of arithmetic.

Mr. Tebbit

The laws of arithmetic have been defied by Chancellors of the Exchequer over many years.

We must ask ourselves why the powers in the Act were granted. The Post Office is a State monopoly whose services are as essential as one can imagine. The coal mines are also a State monopoly, but people can still buy their paraffin if there is a shortage of coal. None of the other monopolies is of the same kind as the Post Office, whose functions are laid down in the 1953 Act.

Section 69 of the 1953 Act bears close examination. It is headed "Limitation of liabilities" and makes plain that there is no action to be taken against the Post Office for loss or damage as a consequence of loss or damage in mail or delay in mail except in the narrowest of circumstances relating to registered mail.

The unfortunate individual, let alone companies affected by the dispute, has no alternative supplier to go to and can take no action against a State monopoly by seeking damages. That is why there is such a responsibility laid on those who choose to work in the Post Office—and they are not compelled or conscripted to do so—in the knowledge of the law as it affects them.

Section 11 of the 1969 Act relates to a large number of powers to give general directions, save one—and that is the one that is relevant to this case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). This is not an instance of the Minister having powers to give general directions to a nationalised industry. In this case he has in subsection (4) one specific power to make a particular direction and that is because it is a Post Office monopoly. Subsection (5) then says The Post Office shall comply with directions given to it under any of the foregoing provisions of this section. If the Minister had had the guts to make the direction, the Post Office would have had no option but to comply with it. The fact that he did not do so speaks for itself. The fact that this dispute has been in support of a third party dispute is no excuse for it.

We are glad that the dispute is over, and very much hope that the conciliation offered will be successful. When I say "successful" I do not mean, as some Labour Members may assume, that the union will be recognised. I mean that the workers in the company will be free to decide without pressure from employer or union.

Mr. Denis Howell

That is what they are fighting for.

Mr. Tebbit

The right hon. Gentleman could have fooled me.

Mr. Howell rose——

Mr. Adley

Stick to water, Denis.

Mr. Tebbit

At the end of the day there are three questions which still remain to be answered at the end of this dispute. The first question is this. The Government say that it is legitimate for the Post Office workers to take selective "blacking" actions to support other industrial disputes. Indeed, some Government supporters have said that it is legitimate to do so and indeed highly praiseworthy—[Interruption.] I wish the right hon. Member for "Drought" would not jab his finger in that rude manner. We must ask ourselves whether the time has come to end the statutory monopoly of the Post Office and to end its immunity from claims for damages as the result of its wrongful actions or those of its employees.

Secondly, there is the general question of whether the Government, the Labour Party and the TUC are now committed to the view that compliance with the law is a discretionary matter, and that they and they alone are the owners and keepers of conscience in that respect.

The final question hanging over the debate is who will be next for this treatment. I might approve or disapprove of Grunwick—I do not know, because I have not got the facts. But I cannot disapprove of all its customers, that is for sure. I disapprove intensely of both the Communist Party and the National Front or National Socialists, or whatever they call themselves now, as political parties. Many hon. Members opposite disapprove of either one or both of those organisations. But that does not give me the right to stop their mail and it gives no one else the right to do so.

Will Post Office workers in future, in pursuit of industrial action, be encouraged to cut off the telephones of companies or persons? Will one day a Member of this House find that his telephone is cut off? Indeed, will one of us, or a company, or any other individual, one day find that his telephone is being tapped in defiance of the Post Office Act in order to get material for some good purpose in an industrial dispute?

We must remember that the layman's definition of the act of conspiracy, which is still, happily, illegal in this country, is that it includes the use of illegal methods to achieve a legal object. Even if that is not often used these days, it could perhaps be used in some of these disputes.

This has been the thick end of a very thick wedge. I regret that that wedge has got so far, and I regret that the use of what we believe are illegal methods has borne fruit, because, unhappily, although that fruit may be good, the implications for the future are very bad for this House and the rule of law.

5.52 p.m.

Mr. T. W. Urwin (Houghton-le-Spring)

In joining the debate, I declare an interest—sponsorship by a trade union in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, chairmanship of the trade union group of Labour MPs, and some dozen years of experience as a full-time trade union official before entering the House.

The hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) said that we were not discussing the rights or wrongs of this case. He could not have been more wrong in opening his remarks on that premise. It is largely the wrongs of the case that concern the House and ought to concern every decent-minded person in the country, whatever his politics.

From what I have been able to learn of this matter, it seems to me that the question of whether there has been an illegal practice by the UPW need never have arisen. The hon. Gentleman could have offered his constituent the advice which I am sure the majority of hon. Members on this side of the House would have offered him in the circumstances which were apparent at the time.

Why did not the hon. Gentleman advise his constituent to stop being regressive in his attitude to the union representatives and to respond to the pleas of the people on the shop floor to refer the case to the ACAS? I am sure that if that advice had been offered to and accepted by the management, there would have been no need for this debate, no need for the withdrawal of labour and no need for Tom Jackson to take the action—the successful action, incidentally—for which he was responsible on Monday.

Mr. Gorst

The hon. Gentleman's argument is almost analogous to saying that, when a constituent complains to me about a burglar whom the police will not apprehend, I should ask him not only why he is bothering me but at the same time why he is beating his wife. The hon. Gentleman should address himself to the wrong-doing in breaking the law, which was what the union was doing, rather than to the rights and wrongs of the dispute itself.

Mr. Urwin

The hon. Gentleman confirms my suspicion that he did not think about offering the kind of advice which he should have given to his constituent, because it has a direct bearing on the legal issue on which the debate is based.

Many people in the trade union movement have deeply held reservations about the exploitation of immigrants, and some of those reservations may be perfectly justified. I have heard from time to time substantial evidence of people in this category getting less than the negotiated union wage rates. That cannot be good for the factory in which they work, nor for industrial relations as a whole when these things are discovered.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) gave a lurid picture of the conditions of employment in the factory. It was the responsibility of the hon. Member for Hendon, North to satisfy himself, at least first of all, that a genuine case was being presented to him by his constituent. My hon. Friend told us about the £25 weekly wage for 35 hours' work and £28 for 40 hours' work. He said that overtime working is a condition of employment in the terms of contract which these people are called upon to sign, and that the overtime rate is at the appallingly low level of time and a quarter for the first six hours and time and a half for the next six hours. These are conditions of employment which indigenous British workers and even immigrants who have been here for some time would never dream of accepting.

Mr. Pavitt

There is nothing for the first six hours' overtime. Only after the first six hours' overtime do they get time and a quarter.

Mr. Urwin

That is even worse. I am sorry that I misunderstood what my hon. Friend said. That is even more appalling than I intimated earlier. Therefore, it is quite understandable that the labour force employed in this factory has by this time, because of more or less normal evolutionary processes, become largely Asian. On the evidence presented in this debate, it seems that these people have been very seriously exploited over the past two or three years.

One must ask this question of the hon. Member for Hendon, North and his right hon. and hon. Friends. What is it that they seek to defend? What right have they to say that Asians or people of any other nationality working in this country should be subjected to these wholly intolerable conditions of employment? One may go so far as to say, with complete justification, that this appears to be a case of a firm that is indulging in a rabid form of racialism. No other group of workers would tolerate this situation.

Mr. Adley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Urwin

Perhaps in a minute or two.

Concerning the actions of the union, it must be placed on record that the activities of Mr. Roy Grantham, for example, and his full-time trade union colleagues have been absolutely impeccable. They did everything possible to resolve this dispute in the early stages by representing the case of their new members to the management, and latterly they tried to persuade the management to join in discussions with the ACAS. No such discussions have taken place. Even as recently as this morning, representatives of this recalcitrant firm have been saying that they have no intention of negotiating with a pistol held at their heads. What arrogance! What sheer nonsense! Who is holding a pistol at their heads? They have no intention of being bullied, they say, but the 71 employees, who, I understand, signed a petition to the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago, are surely the people who have been bullied, as well as exploited, by the management.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South has referred to the way in which the factory is run and to people being treated like schoolchildren, having to put up their hands in order to get permission to leave their places of work to use toilet facilities. That takes some believing.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that these workers are being treated more like slaves than schoolchildren, and that the Opposition are actually condoning slave labour?

Mr. Urwin

I hesitate to use the term "slave labour". The term "sweat shop" has been used. That conjures up visions of what we have read of Dickensian conditions of employment. It could not be put any higher than that.

The company is in an absolutely indefensible situation. The Tory Members who are responsible for this debate, and those of them who have participated in the debate so far, tend to encourage this kind of activity rather than to denounce it.

Mr. Adley


Mr. Urwin

It has been said more than once in the debate by Opposition Members that they knew nothing of the conditions that existed. They are very concerned about the breach of law. Of itself, that is a vitally important issue. However, the related factors are surely the matters that ought to have received their attention before they took the issue as far as they have taken it. It seems that they do not learn by their mistakes. They were in Government for about three years and eight months and they incurred the wrath, hostility and opposition of the whole trade union movement.

Despite all the claims made by the Leader of the Opposition, supported by her right hon. and hon. Friends, that if the Conservatives are successful in coming back to Government—heaven forbid!— they will seek to associate harmoniously with the trade union movement, I am sure that Labour Members and the electorate at large will take that assertion with a large pinch of salt.

The Conservatives seek to perpetuate exploitation and victimisation in this case. One must ask whom the hon. Member for Hendon, North really seeks to represent in this issue.

Mr. Gorst

Law and order.

Mr. Urwin

The hon. Gentleman is certainly not representing the people being exploited in the factory. If he had sought in the first place to help them, we might well not have faced the present situation. The result has been that one of the most moderate of trade union leaders, Tom Jackson, has responded in the way he has done in order to try to reach a satisfactory conclusion to this dispute. It is tragic, to say the least, that a man of his calibre and make-up should put himself in this position. I have the highest respect for law and order, as does any other hon. Member. It should be upheld at all costs in every section of society. [Interruption.] Whoever was responsible for that remark may be pleased to know that in all probability I am a great deal more honest than he is.

Mr. John Page rose——

Mr. Urwin

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I have said that law and order should be upheld in every section of society. Clearly there has been a breach of law. I am equally sure that Tom Jackson knows as well as anyone else that he has been in breach of the law. The most important feature here is that Tom Jackson has withdrawn the sanction that he imposed in the name of the Post Office workers. However, I wish that Opposition Members had not behaved so boorishly when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the statement arising from a letter he had received from Tom Jackson earlier in the debate. Opposition Members were boorish in the extreme.

The only satisfaction that emerges from this matter is not for the Conservative Benches. It is for the people employed in the factory concerned and those who have participated in the dispute. Had the action not been taken, the dispute would not be on the way to being solved, as it certainly is at present.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I should like to say that it is self-evident that a large number of hon. Members wish to speak. The debate will finish at 7.9 p.m. I make an appeal for brief speeches.

6.9 p.m.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

I shall try to comply with your request, Mr. Speaker.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), I very much welcome the fact that Mr. Jackson has called off his action. I accept what the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) said. We all look upon Mr. Jackson as a very reasonable man. I am glad that he must have reflected on the way in which things were moving and the slope down which he had started. I am delighted that he has thought again.

I resent one or two of the comments of the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring. Like him, I have been present throughout the debate. I never heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater or any of my other hon. Friends deliberately encouraging the type of behaviour carried on by the firm or encouraging what the hon. Member described as exploitation and victimisation. If half of what he and his hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) say about the company is true, it does not lie hi my mouth to try in any way to defend its actions.

The hon. Gentleman went totally wrong, however, when he said that the merits or demerits of the dispute were at the centre of the issue. For the purpose of what I have to say, I shall accept that the company is totally in the wrong. However, I think that the Secretary of State will regret his speech. He left many questions unanswered and he may think that it would have been wiser to leave it to the Attorney-General or the Secretary of State for Industry to deal with matters that were their ministerial concern. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that under the Post Office Act 1969 the Post Office, which is a monopoly, has a requirement to provide a service? It is clear that under the Act it has a duty to provide a service, and it has a monopoly in providing it. The matter goes further than that, because with only certain exceptions it is a criminal offence for anyone to attempt to deliver post other than through the mail.

Mr. Weitzman

It has been assumed throughout, and the hon. and learned Gentleman is assuming, that the criminal offence here is failing to deliver or deal with the mail. It is not. The relevant word of Section 58 of the 1953 Act is "wilfully". When I raised this point before, an hon. Member sneered, but that does not make it a bad point. If the hon. and learned Gentleman were defending someone charged with the offence, he would surely make the point that "wilfully" might be answered by showing that the defendant had reasonable cause, that he was not doing it spitefully or maliciously. In view of what other hon. Members have said, a case might well be made out in that way.

Mr. Carlisle

I had not reached the point of the criminal law. I do not accept what the hon. and learned Gentleman says, and I shall explain why later.

It has always been accepted that a necessary corollary of the monopoly privilege which the Post Office holds, and its requirement to deliver the mail, is that it is an offence for an individual officer of the Post Office wilfully—I accept what the hon. and learned Gentleman says—to detain or delay any postal packet in the course of transmission by post. As the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring fairly said, by refusing to deliver mail to the firm or to allow it to collect mail, Mr. Jackson appears to have been in breach of that section, as he himself has accepted. He said that he realised that his members were deliberately detaining the mail.

The hon. and learned Gentleman knows as well as I do, because he has had many more years in the criminal courts than I have, that in those circumstances "wilful" means "deliberate". There can be no doubt—it has never been disputed—that the people concerned were deliberately, on Mr. Jackson's instructions, withholding the mail. The Minister has left unanswered the following question. Does he condone that action, which is clearly illegal? Rightly or wrongly, that was the impression the Minister of State gave on Tuesday.

The law is one and indivisible. Ministers, of all people, cannot choose which laws they will encourage people to obey and which to ignore. Any Government depend for their legislative policy and programme on their ability to obtain public acceptance of, and obedience to, the laws they pass. As recently as 1969, it was clearly stated that it is an offence for any individual officer of the Post Office wilfully to detain or delay any postal package.

Therefore, I repeat that the merits or demerits of the issue are irrelevant. What the Post Office workers were doing at the request of the TUC, as Mr. Jackson has said, was to act contrary to the law for the purpose of putting on pressure in a dispute elsewhere. Whatever the merits of that dispute, I ask the Secretary of State to say that as a Minister of the Crown he can do nothing other than condemn a breach of the law.

If this breach of the law is allowed to go by, what will the next one be? My hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) has referred to the political issue. I deplore the National Front, and I suspect the right hon. Gentleman does. I deplore the Communist Party, and I suspect that he does. But he and I would probably agree that if they choose to put up candidates at an election they have the right to have their election addresses delivered. Would we condone, or would we feel it necessary to condemn, selective action taken contrary to law to prevent the delivery of that mail? That would be the same issue in a non-industrial and perhaps less emotive area.

Would it not be right for the Secretary of State to accept, the Post Office workers themselves having admitted that they were acting contrary to Section 58, that it is no good saying that the means justify the end in that the company has backed down? The right hon. Gentleman should say that he welcomes the calling off of the industrial action and that, whatever the provocation, such action can never be condoned by the Government but must always be condemned.

Mr. Harold Walker

The hon. and learned Gentleman attributed a certain remark to me. I think I am entitled to ask him to reflect further on that matter, because I am sure he does not want to misrepresent me. He said that I suggested on Tuesday that we condone the action of the Post Office workers. I ask him to say which words of mine gave that impression. I said: I am sure that we all want people in disputes anywhere to observe the law.

Mr. Carlisle

I accept that, but the hon. Gentleman earlier said something which gave the impression to which I referred.

On Tuesday my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford said: may I ask the Minister whether he will now advise Post Office workers that it is no part of their job to discriminate in the delivery of mail in response to industrial disputes, political likes and dislikes, or any other factor whatsoever? The hon. Gentleman began his answer with the word "No" and continued: I think it is perhaps a symptom of the character of this dispute that reasonable and moderate men feel sufficiently outraged to take the action they have taken."—[Official Report, 2nd November 1976; Vol. 918, c. 1201.] I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman intended to condone the action, but the Secretary of State today appeared to condone it entirely. He seemed to be saying that because it was a bad dispute Mr. Jackson and the Post Office workers were right to act as they did. That is what I hope the right hon. Gentleman will condemn before the debate ends.

6.19 p.m.

Mr. Ifor Davies (Gower)

I first declare my interest as a sponsored Member of APEX. Many Opposition Members have conveniently ignored the real issues. You said earlier. Mr. Speaker, that other wider matters might properly be considered. The debate would be unreal if the House did not recognise that the dispute at Grunwick Processing Laboratories did not concern only the Union of Post Office Workers.

I am here not to defend the breaking of the law but to defend the right of workpeople to be organised and for the trade union concerned to be recognised.

The real cause of the dispute is much more serious than has been stated. It arises from the unfair dismissal of employees some months ago and the refusal of the management to recognise APEX as the legitimate trade union concerned. The union has made every possible effort to refer the dispute to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, but the management has refused to co-operate.

Questions have been asked this afternoon about what has been done to approach the management. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) that there has been a reference in the Press this morning to bullying by the union. Many months ago the APEX representative wrote to the company, and the House can judge whether this is bullying. This letter was written in August by Mr. Gristey, the senior area organiser. He wrote that it is in everybody's interest to put an end to this unofficial strike as speedily as possible, for the company to be able to demonstrate its willingness to negotiate upon the terms and conditions of employment of their staff, and particularly to show that whatever issues were serious enough to take such action, at least the company are willing to discuss them with an authoritative body. I have suggested to you that my objective would be to persuade the company to recognise APEX as the appropriate union to deal with the affairs of the company staff and it seems to me that if we can reach a speedy agreement concerning that issue and can institute proceedings for the conduct of negotiations, then we will be in an ideal position to bring about an end to the present situation which exists with the workforce. I suggest to the House that that is a courteous letter and cannot be referred to as bullying. In the light of that letter, it is incredible that a dispute of this nature in these days should have been allowed to lead to such serious consequences due to the failure of management to follow recognised procedure.

In recent times, the Conservative Party has laid much emphasis on its desire, in its industrial relations policy, to cooperate with and fully to recognise the trade union movement. Surely the Conservative Party's efforts would be better spent in encouraging the management of this company to recognise the legitimate trade union involved and to follow proper industrial procedures.

My own industrial experience has taught me that in numerous cases emotional disturbances rather than logical grievances lie at the root of many of our disputes. In this case, however, it must be said that the company's refusal to recognise a trade union has logically given rise to a very real grievance on the part of APEX. The Post Office workers also had a proper grievance when they saw their fellow workers being unfairly treated and the union refused recognition.

It is noteworthy that the Opposition have failed to urge the company to negotiate with APEX or with ACAS in an attempt to ensure that the issues are sensibly resolved around the table. Furthermore, during the whole 10 weeks of the dispute the Opposition have not raised any of the issues involved, either in the House or outside.

That does not suggest that the Conservative Opposition have any real concern about the nature of the dispute, which is about the intolerable conditions of the workers. We have heard mention this afternoon of the disgraceful conditions to which the employees have been subjected by the company.

The decision to raise the matter today in this limited form can do nothing to help bring the dispute to a conclusion. I pay tribute to the action taken by the General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers and the way in which he has dealt with the whole issue. Nothing positive has been done by the Opposition in this matter. They seem to have learned nothing from their own disastrous industrial relations record. I suggest that the entire trade union movement should take note of the Conservatives' conduct in this debate today.

6.24 p.m.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

I believe that a great deal of the debate has been in many ways unsatisfactory. Many of the speakers seem to be living in an unreal world. I do not really know what the majority of hon. Members on the Opposition side want the Minister to do. Do they really want him to have the Post Office workers arrested and charged with some offence? On the other hand, the Minister was not exactly enthusiastic in his condemnation of the people involved in this action.

This lack of real balance on both sides of the argument disturbs me, not just because of this dispute, which now, fortunately, appears to be over, but in regard to the unevenness of the attitude towards industrial relations which dominates the politics of this country.

It is not a rare thing for an Act of Parliament to be ignored. Last night, for some reason which is completely beyond me, I sat here listening to the debate on the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill. The Lord Advocate argued during that debate that we should vote to include a whole body of legislation to make homosexual acts in Scotland illegal. He asked the House to vote for it on the premise that he would give instructions to the Law Officers in Scotland that in no circumstances should this measure be implemented. On the basis of that argument, the House passed the measure last night. It struck me at the time as appalling that we can have on the statute book an Act which in practice the Government will choose not to implement.

The simple fact is that only reasonable men can produce a society in which the economy and industrial relations are relatively peaceful, and it appears to me that the attitude of the management in this dispute can by no means be described as reasonable. People in my constituency are used to low pay. Most hon. Members do not know what low pay means, relative to constituencies such as mine, but even in my constituency the payment of £28 a week for 46 hours' work would be regarded as appalling beyond belief.

I do not know what the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) may have said in his private conversations with the managing director of the company, but I wish he had tried to persuade him to go through the normal conciliation process. I recognise that what the Post Office workers did was illegal and, frankly, I wish that the Secretary of State had condemned them with rather more enthusiasm, but I do not feel, as Conservative Members appear to do, that the Secretary of State should have sought to bring some sort of charge in a court of law against the people concerned.

Mr. Gorst

I would tell the hon. Gentleman, for the record, that at the time when my constituent came to me I was under the impression that ACAS was already involved, and that the company had conceded this.

Mr. Penhaligon

That is an extremely interesting intervention. No doubt the hon. Gentleman expressed his view later to the managing director, but obviously, if that was the precise situation on the earlier occasion, the hon. Gentleman was terribly misinformed.

I hope that the Minister in winding up will condemn, with a little more enthusiasm than has been shown so far, the action taken by the Post Office workers. There is no doubt that it was illegal, and such action could lead to situations in which one would by no means have sympathy for the workers concerned. Their action was illegal, and I wish the Minister would condemn it.

Mr. Weitzman rose——

Mr. Speaker

I wish that the hon. and learned Gentleman would not make long interventions, because I am hoping to call as many hon. Members as possible in the debate.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

I wanted to say a few words on this matter because it seemed to me that, when the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) raised the issue, the Opposition were trying themselves to erect a very important smokescreen. I realise now, of course, that the hon. Gentleman was not doing that, because he has now admitted that he did not know that the company had not gone to ACAS.

At the beginning of his speech the hon. Member for Hendon, North said that he was not concerned with the rights and wrongs of the issue. However, there would not have been a boycott of this company by the Post Office workers had the issue not been there. That is the essence of the whole situation.

Mr. Gorst

The hon. Gentleman is really misunderstanding the position. I became involved because the law was being broken and no one appeared to be doing anything about it. Had it been purely an industrial dispute I am sure that my constituent would not have come to see me about it.

Mr. Heffer

But the law was being broken precisely because Post Office workers, ordinary working postmen, could see what was going on at that factory.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about people. We have had this discussion many times before over industrial relations. The great leader of the Tory Party, long since dead, Winston Churchill, made it quite clear, during an intervention in this House in 1906, that the law should be kept out of industrial relations. Some people appear not to have learned since that time that he was right. On industrial relations matters the law should be kept out as much as possible.

I ask the House to consider the situation. Here were workers working for a company with appalling conditions. Incidentally, I heard that a worker had to put up his hand if he wanted to go to the toilet. I remember that, when I was an apprentice working in the shipyards and when I first worked for Cammell Laird, a worker had to clock off to go to the toilet and, if he was there more than three or four minutes, someone knocked on the door. They had doors at Cammell Laird's shipyard. On building sites, to ensure that no one was in there too long, they did not have doors. That is the truth of the type of industrial conditions that we have dispensed with in most of our industries; yet here was a company which continued with conditions of this type.

Let me read to the House from the statement of the company's terms of employment. A number of my hon. Friends have referred to some of these statements, but no one has read any of them to the House. This one is right up to date. It is dated April 1976. Incidentally, the worker concerned was getting paid £28 for 40 hours. It may be that there has been a slight improvement——

Mr. Tebbit

We have had all this already.

Mr. Heffer

Whether or not the hon. Gentleman has had it before, he is about to have it again. It is important that this matter should be clearly on the record and that people should know precisely what this dispute was all about.

It was about conditions of this kind: There will be one half-hour meal break at the completion of the normal working day to be taken only in the company's canteen when overtime is necessary providing such overtime does not necessitate leaving work before 8.30 p.m.

Mr. Adley

Has the hon. Gentleman been there?

Mr. Heffer

These are the conditions of employment signed by each worker. They go on: You will receive overtime payment for time worked each day in excess of half an hour over and above the basic 40 hours per week at the rate of time and one quarter for the first six hours, and time and one half for time in excess of six hours. All of my hon. Friends who come from industry know that that would not be tolerated anywhere in industry, yet those are the conditions that the workers were asked to accept.

There has come into my hands a document described as the minutes of the Joint Works Committee special meeting at Cobbold Road on Thursday 9th September. It refers to the Managing Director, Mr. Ward: Mr. Ward … stressed the importance of compulsory overtime in order that the Company could remain competitive … Mr. Ward agreed that Managers may sometimes appear rude to staff. Does anyone imagine that postmen delivering letters when workers were on strike and picketing did not know about these conditions and did not know that those workers were on strike for recognition of a union because they wanted to change those conditions? Of course they did. Postmen are like all other workers. They are not saints. When they talk to their fellow workers and hear about conditions of this kind they say to themselves "What can we do to help these poor workers in their struggle for better working conditions?"

That is what it was all about. There was no question of the postmen breaking the law. They were fighting in solidarity with other sections of workers—and, incidentally, they never considered their colour, either. The company's employees were nearly all from East Africa.

Were not those workers being exploited? Some Opposition Members whom I have heard have talked about these workers as though they are always on the dole and drawing social security, yet we discover that in this company they are working for buttons.

That is what this dispute was about. That is why the Union of Post Office Workers took the attitude and the action that it did. Of course it is what the issue is about, and I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was perfectly right in what he said today.

I asked the hon. Member for Hendon, North why the company did not go to ACAS. We wanted and argued for a body like ACAS. There it is, in existence. Until today, the company has refused to have anything to do with ACAS. It may be, of course, that the company was also influenced by the thought of a debate in the House of Commons.

Mr. Adley

That is what I said before.

Mr. Heffer

It may be that the company did not want the publicity that it is now getting. This was not just a question of breaking the law. The company's conditions of employment will now go the length and breadth of the country. It may be that the company decided suddenly, because of that, that it wanted the issue now to go to ACAS in the hope that there would not be a debate in the House of Commons so that the facts would not be widely spread throughout the country.

I want to say one word to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), who, unfortunately, has left the Chamber. He talked about the need for even-handedness. I am all for evenhandedness. We should always see both sides of an argument. I accept that point of view totally, but, when workers' conditions are poor, and they are struggling to improve them, I have to say quite bluntly that I see only one side of the argument. The side of the argument that I see is that of the working people fighting to improve their conditions, to get better wages, and so on. If those workers want more than £28 for a 40-hour week, proper overtime agreements with no compulsory overtime, and proper facilities for going to their meal breaks, I think that they deserve them and that they should be supported. To that extent, in my view, the Union of Post Office Workers was totally justified in the action that it took on this occasion.

I conclude by pointing out that this has happened before. One hon. Gentleman, who arrogantly walked out because he did not want to hear what I had to say—although we have had to listen to him time after time with his miserable remarks—said that as far as was concerned these workers were "good chaps". Of course they are good chaps. They understood what was going on and that was why they took action. They have taken action like this before. Remember 1971, when they stopped everyone from getting letters? It is only a thin line between a national strike and a strike which applies to one particular company. They took action again in 1973. The matter was not raised then, and it is being raised now only because the Opposition thought that this was one more stick with which to beat the Government.

They thought that this was a chance to prove that we are a bunch of Red raving lunatics who do not believe in the law —[Interruption.] Yes, that is exactly what the Opposition wanted proved to the people of this country, but it is a lot of rubbish, and people know that it is. I am very sorry that this debate was ever brought up in the House of Commons.

6.42 p.m.

Dr. Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

Some of my constituents work in the factory and some are on strike and some are still working. The issue of this debate is the action of Post Office workers in failing to deliver mail to the Grunwick Laboratories. Whatever the right or wrongs of that particular firm—and we have heard plenty about it this afternoon—the issue here is whether the Post Office can decide selectively which firms should have their mails delivered and which should not. The Labour Party does not like selectivity in education, but it does not seem to mind it in the Post Office.

The point at issue is whether the workers' action is legal or illegal. The rest is smoke from a pantomime dragon. If Post Office workers can decide that they will not deliver mail because there is a case of bad industrial relations in a particular firm, they can move on next time to a firm in which industrial relations are not quite so bad. From there they can move to one in which industrial relations are about average. It is the falling domino theory, and they could use the same method politically. I do not like Communists or the National Front and neither do many postmen, but does this mean that we shall have a situation in which Communist and National Front election addresses will not be delivered during the next election?

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) talked about Post Office workers feeling strongly about this issue, but what happens if a postman knocks on a door and happens to see a husband beating his wife? Does he decide that that man gets no mail in future because of his shocking behaviour? Will postmen who do not like pornography refuse to deliver mail to porn shops in London in future? Once this sort of thing starts, where does it finish?

Individual groups could bring the smooth running of this country to a full stop. Are the Government strong enough to intervene and say something? They have no control over the sterling crisis, obviously. Is it a fact that they have as little control over the unions, or are they simply prepared to sit back and sign a blank cheque for whatever the unions do?

On Tuesday when this debate first began as a Private Notice Question it was stated that these workers were moderate men. My mother thinks that I am a moderate man, but some hon. Members may not think so.

Mr. Carlisle

My hon. Friend is extremely moderate.

Dr. Boyson

As my hon. and learned Friend says, I am extremely moderate, but if I break the law by speeding, or going over the line, can I say to the policeman "I am all right because I am a moderate man; arrest my wife instead because she is an immoderate woman on these issues." If we act in this manner we shall end with some very strange laws. This is a geiger-counter moral test.

The Post Office is part of a statutory monopoly and the only classical defence economically of this situation is that it provides a total service. Once it ceases to provide that service—and many people feel that it has already ceased to do so, with no Sunday collections and one-third of the telephones out of order on Victoria Station—there is no justification for monopoly. If we find that selective decisions are being made on whether we receive our mail, there is no defence for the continuance of a monopoly. The Union of Post Office Workers must recognise that unless there is a guaranteed continuance of a total service there is no case for continuing the statutory monopoly.

6.48 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

It is not part of our case on the Labour Benches to say that it is in order to break the law in any instance. All the contributions made so far by Conservatives, however, have failed to show clearly and beyond all doubt that there is here a case of frustration, where people from the Commonwealth have found employment but, unfortunately, with a very bad employer. That employer has created an image of employers in this country which is simply not true. There are far better employers, and it is my firm hope that people who have been exploited in this way will find employment elsewhere.

I hope that the Secretary of State will listen for a moment or two to a contribution from one of his own Back Benchers. The ACAS was set up by the Labour Government to encourage employers and employees to get round the table and avoid disputes of this kind. I hope that the Government will consider machinery whereby either of the parties will not have to be bullied into action and we will not have to have debates of this kind. Surely we should have Government Departments which can step in where a dispute is not justified.

I say to the UPW and to Tom Jackson that, while there is a right to give official backing to this kind of action, there should be some recognition of the suffering which results from mail not being delivered. We all know the kind of suffering, both in private and hi business life, which has to be endured through mail stoppages. We have all experienced this kind of thing from time to time.

I say to the Post Office workers that in a case such as this, while no doubt their action has created a certain amount of progress towards the conciliation table, they, in common with workers in all industries, and especially those in the public sector, should give their support without breaking the law. This applies no matter how sympathetic we may be in wanting to support our friends in other industries and in wanting to show our solidarity with them. There are many ways in which we can help one another, but there is something seriously wrong in government if we have to come to this kind of thing to get the matter settled.

6.51 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

I shall be brief, because the debate is coming to a close. I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) on being the first Labour Member to say in explicit terms that he condemns the action of the Post Office workers. That is the purpose of the debate. I am glad that he said what he did.

I know nothing of the company—I believe that it is Commonwealth from top to bottom—and I do not know who is exploiting whom. I do not think that matters. I do not think that ACAS comes into it. I remember a judge of the American Supreme Court coming to this House and speaking to us upstairs. He said that nearly always important principles had to be fought on very unmeritorious cases because if the case is meritorious the principle is not usually breached. Let us therefore forget about the merits of the background circumstances.

The first point which arises is the legal point. Nothing really can justify a breach of the law, so I leave that and I simply refer to the second point which is the misuse of monopoly. One Labour Member asked what we on this side were fighting for in the debate. I think that the answer is that everyone, whatever his politics or anything else, should have the uninterrupted services of the State monopolies. That applies not only to the Post Office, but to the electricity and water supply industries and to the other State monopolies.

It was said in a rather feeble kind of tu quoque argument that there was a postal strike when we Conservatives were in office and that we did not have the law on the strikers then. There are distinctions and the distinction was made, but I would remind hon. Members that when we had the Post Office strike, the monopoly had to be suspended. One cannot have a monopoly and a strike of the people who are operating the monopoly. We went back 200 years and we allowed private persons to deliver the post. One cannot have a State monopoly misused in that way.

I would hesitate to call the speech of the Secretary of State disgraceful, because he is not a disgraceful person, but he did not do himself justice this afternoon and he failed to appreciate the seriousness of the issue. He and his hon. Friends must appreciate that if there is a postal service which will not cross picket lines and which will be used in sympathetic action, as Mr. Jackson called it, to enlarge the scope of union representation, the country is sliding into chaos.

I do not join in the congratulations to Mr. Jackson in calling off this action. He called it off because he had succeeded, because the company—and I say nothing about its merits—was driven to take a course of action for which he was exercising pressure. That is a most improper reason for exercising pressure.

That is the issue which is before the House today. I promised to be brief and I have inevitably compressed the points I wish to make. But let there be no doubt about it. If we have established that the Union of Post Office Workers has behaved wrongly, that Mr. Jackson has in no way redeemed his reputation by calling the action off when he has won, that the law has been broken and that a State monopoly has been abused for the purposes of industrial and political action, we have well used the time at our disposal.

6.55 p.m.

Sir Michael Havers (Wimbledon)

The issue here is very simple, in spite of all the recriminations which have been thrown around the Chamber. The questions are as follows. When a few Post Office employees, who are subject to the Post Office Act, illegally behave in a selective and discriminatory way against one customer, should the provisions of the Act be effective? Secondly, should the Government refuse to support the law and, worse still, give at the very least tacit approval to those breaking the law? That is the issue the House has to decide today.

Mrs. Wise

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. and learned Gentleman to claim that citizens have broken the law when that has not been tested in the courts?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Gentleman is responsible for his own remarks.

Sir M. Havers

I was saying that I was absolutely astonished that the Secretary of State should come to the House today and say that he cannot see any difference between withholding labour and withholding mail. It was nothing more than a red herring to raise the issue of the previous Post Office strike. We are dealing here not with a general withdrawal of labour but with a selective discrimination by Post Office workers, who are in full employment, against one particular customer. I cannot think that the Secretary of State has consulted the Law Officers or, if I am wrong about that, I cannot believe that he has accepted their advice. Perhaps it might be more charitable to suggest that he has misunderstood the advice he was given.

Mr. Weitzman

I raised this point before and I put it again to the hon. and learned Gentleman. The offence charged under the section is not to interfere with the mail, but "wilfully" to interfere with the mail. Attention must be paid to the word "wilfully". I raised the point in several interventions, and in view of what was said I took the trouble to look at the Oxford Dictionary to find the definition of "wilful". I will read it to the hon. and learned Gentleman——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The debate finishes at nine minutes past seven, and the hon. and learned Gentleman is taking a long time over his intervention.

Mr. Weitzman

It will take me but half a minute, Mr. Speaker. The definition is: Wilfully … in a self-willed manner; perversely, obstinately, stubbornly. It defines 'wilful' as a disposition to assert one's will against reason. Anyone defending an individual on that charge could have put forward, in view of what my hon. Friends have said, a very strong case to show why the action took place.

Sir M. Havers

I am sad that my old friend the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), with all his experience in the law, should seek to advance an argument which is so clearly wrong.

The recent history of the Labour Party over its failure to uphold the law is very much in our minds. Clay Cross and the Shrewsbury pickets are two smears on its record which are not to be quickly forgotten.

It worries me to hear an ex-Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), saying in the House tonight that if the cause is strong enough the action is justified. I fear that that is what many of his colleagues feel.

What needs to be done is for the Minister of State, when he replies, to do what the Secretary of State so conspicuously failed to do, which is to make clear that the Government do not condone this action but condemn it. If I do not get such a response, I shall certainly feel bound to advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to take this matter to the vote.

In the absence of such a response this sort of case will happen again, not only because of what the hon. Member for Walton said, but because the failure to condemn this can only encourage those in the Post Office to believe that the acts they have committed are approved by the Government and will be supported by the Government in the future. They must learn that that is not the case and I hope that that will be made clear tonight.

7.1 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Harold Walker)

The hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers) said that the situation in 1973 was quite different from what we are debating here because it did not deal with discrimination against a particular customer. I am sure that the subtleties of that will be lost on my right hon. and hon. Friends. Certainly they are lost on me.

One of the great unanswered questions is why the Opposition embarked on such a course as this without having in any way considered it appropriate and fit to do now what they did in 1973. We know what the answer is. They had by then learned the lesson of the Industrial Relations Act. I am astonished that the hon. and learned Gentleman, of all people, should put forward such a meretricious argument to the House, since he was Solicitor-General at that time.

We were lectured and hectored at the outset about the narrowness of this debate. Yet the hon. and learned Gentleman saw fit to bring in, at the end of his speech, such extraneous issues as Clay Cross and the Shrewsbury pickets. We have been told throughout to use words of condemnation in respect of the action of the postal workers' union. The hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) is nodding his head. We have been asked to say that in our view the action was illegal. I rest on what I said on Tuesday, namely, that it is not for me and not for this House to usurp the function of the courts—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] The wisdom of the course on which my right hon. Friend and I have —[Interruption.] The public in the Gallery will judge for themselves when they see the behaviour of Tory Members. The wisdom of our course of action is illustrated by the fact that on the tape today is a statement that court action has been initiated this afternoon. It would be quite wrong for us to be persuaded—induced by Tory Members—to use certain words and to say things from this Bench that might well prejudice the outcome of those proceedings.

Mr. Gorst rose——

Mr. Walker

The House will be interested to learn that this court action has been initiated by an organisation called the National Association for Freedom. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] I believe that some Conservative Members who have participated in this debate are associated with that curiously-named organisation.

Mr. Gorst rose——

Mr. Walker

Notwithstanding the attempts of some Tory Members to restrict the nature of this debate and to prevent some matters from coming out, certain things have emerged into the light of day. They have not said a word in condemnation of the company's behaviour. It is right that my right hon. and hon. Friends should have brought out the underlying problem and the fact that this situation stems from an industrial dispute. Surely the Opposition have learned from their experience of recent years that the intricacies of the law have little to do with the realities of industrial relations. If they share with us an anxiety to see sustained improvements in our industrial relations, I would have thought that they would be prepared, with us, to say that the real answer is to seek a speedy termination of this ugly dispute rather than seek to perpetuate it.

Matters have been raised by my right hon. and hon. Friends which deserve wider consideration. It is right that some stones should have been overturned to show some of the ugly things lurking beneath them. I do not see that it is any part of my duty this afternoon—

Mr. Gorst rose—

Mr. Walker

—to deal with these matters now, and I hope that they will be dealt with in another form.

Dealing with the question of the observance of law and order, I sought this afternoon to put right the record of my remarks on Tuesday when I said that we would all, I hope, urge workers and management everywhere to uphold the law. I sometimes wish that Opposition Members would from time to time pass strictures on those thousands of employers who have been identified as being in breach of wages councils orders and all those thousands of employers who fail to observe the requirements of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Acts.

Mr. Tom King

Who are they?

Mr. Walker

I will tell the hon. Gentleman if he cares to write to me. After his shifty performance this afternoon, he ought to have learned to hold his tongue.

The hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) curdled our blood with some of the horrible things he saw flowing from this. I leave it to him to tell the House why we did not have these consequences flowing from the 1973 incident.

Mr. Tebbit rose—

Mr. Walker

I ask the House whether the timing of this debate is purely fortuitous or coincidental or whether it has something to do with events outside the House. I think it has a lot to do with such events. The underlying reasons for the debate initiated by the Opposition—[Interruption.] Have the Opposition learned nothing from the lessons of the past four or five years? Have they learned nothing from the Industrial Relations Act? Do they want to replace the "Pentonville Five" with the "Post Office Ten"? Do they not appreciate that the Industrial Relations Act was a disaster? Do they want to return to the disastrous industrial relations record which they set in 1972, when 24 million working days were lost—

Mr. Humphrey Atkins (Spelthorne) rose in his place and claimed to move. That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly. That this House do now adjourn:—

The House proceeded to a Division

Mr. SILVESTER and Mr. MATHER were appointed Tellers for the Ayes: but no Member being willing to act as Teller for the Noes, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Ayes had it.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Adjourned at eleven minutes past Seven o'clock.