HC Deb 13 January 1977 vol 923 cc1641-5
Mr. Norman Lamont

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Industry whether he will make a statement on the plans by the Union of Post Office Workers to cut communications links with South Africa all next week.

The Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Eric G. Varley)

I understand that the union has today written about its decision to the Post Office, which is asking it to reconsider its proposed action.

Mr. Lamont

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that any interference by the union with mail will be an offence against Section 58 of the Post Office Act 1953 and will constitute a misdemeanour liable to a fine or imprisonment? Has he any information about whether the Post Office Engineering Union, whose members control telex and STD calls, will support the Union of Post Office Workers, as that could ensure a total boycott? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are indications that a substantial number of the members of the Union of Post Office Workers do not support what is being proposed by their executive and feel that they have been inadequately consulted?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that there is widespread public concern about and objection to basic services being interfered with for purely political reasons, and a feeling that if the principle is conceded there will be no end to the disruption and inconvenience that the public may be asked to bear? Will he use his influence to ask Mr. Jackson to stop this foolish and pointless action?

Mr. Valley

I shall consider getting in touch with the Post Office Corporation, but I understand that the Union of Post Office Workers informed the Post Office only during the morning, and I have not yet had a chance to consult the Chairman of the Board. I shall consider doing that.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the proposed action would be contrary to the Post Office Acts. That would be a matter for the courts to decide, and it would be premature for me at this stage to take action. But he should know—I am sure that he does—that this is not the first time that action of this kind has been taken. Action was taken by the Union of Post Office Workers to suspend the transmission of mail to France prior to the French nuclear tests in 1973, and, as far as I understand it, the then Conservative Government did not take any action, and certainly not the action the hon. Gentleman has been urging on me today.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider the dangerous situation where the employer of these men is also the prosecuting authority? Is it not time that these two roles were separated, even if it required legislation to do so, because it is putting too great a burden on an employer that he should prosecute his own men?

Mr. Varley

I do not think that the question whether the responsibility for taking action against those proposing this industrial action rests on the Post Office Corporation is a matter for me. It is something which should be considered, but I do not think that it is relevant to the specific issue today.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Will the right hon. Gentleman come off his pedestal of caution? To many of us, there is an agonising choice where methods of attacking apartheid are proposed which are, if that is possible, even more reprehensible than apartheid itself. If the Government allow this action to succeed next week, their authority will have finally crumbled and collapsed.

Mr. Varley

It is not a question of anyone being on a pedestal. The Government will look at the situation closely. I have already said that I shall consult and be in close touch with the Post Office Corporation. It is far too premature at this stage to comment on the situation. In any case, we need to know whether the action is entirely comparable with the situation in 1973. If it is, as I think, that the policy adopted by the then Conservative Government was sensible, we shall follow it.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

Will the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to urge on his colleagues in the Government that they should take a much more robust official policy towards the appalling attitude of the South African Government? One consequence of a more robust policy by the Government would be to reduce the very natural unofficial measures of which this proposed action by the Union of Post Office Workers is an example.

Mr. Varley

The Government have a very creditable record in our dealings with South Africa. We believe that it is essential, whatever action is proposed by the Union of Post Office Workers, to make clear, as we have done, that we and the people of Britain in general take a clear stand against apartheid and racialism. That is where we stand.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, told the House in 1974 that the Government had taken action, and perhaps I should list it. The action we have taken is fully in line with our international obligations and undertakings. We acted upon the Trade and Industry Sub-Committee's report concerning wages and conditions in South Africa, and we have asked firms in this country to follow the guidelines laid down then. My right hon. Friend told the House: In matters of civil trade, and where international obligations do not conflict, it is not the policy of Her Majesty's Government that commercial trading relations with other countries should be based on considerations of their internal or external policies."—[Official Report, 4th December 1974; Vol. 882, c. 1555.] That is our position, and we have made it clear again and again over the last two and a half years.

Mr. Heffer

As the National Executive of the Union of Post Office Workers has no so-called Marxists on it and is one of the most moderate trade union leaderships in the country, it must be feeling a great deal of frustration, and is, in fact, proposing to take part in action which is on an international trade union scale. Is my right hon. Friend aware that if the union is to assist, there is little it can do except take the action it has decided to take?

Mr. Varley

There is no doubt that the union, in common with many other trade unions and many hon. Members, feels very strongly about what is happening in South Africa [HON. MEMBERS: "And in Russia?"] Russia does not arise out of this question but we also feel strongly about events there. As I have already said, it would be premature for me to comment now on the proposed action by the union, but I shall keep closely in touch with the Post Office Corporation, and if necessary I will consult the union.

Mr. Carlisle

May I refer to the Answer which the right hon. Gentleman gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont)? Whilst no one is suggesting that the right hon. Gentleman should take action at this moment, would he not agree that, in a parliamentary democracy, a strike which is contrary to the law of the country, conducted for a political end, can only be condemned by any Government of any party? Would the right hon. Gentleman say that if the action of the Union of Post Office Workers is contrary to the law it cannot be condoned by the Government and must be condemned by the Government?

Mr. Varley

We will not condone any action which is contrary to the law. I make that plain. But I must tell the hon. and learned Gentleman—and he has acknowledged that it is early days yet—that, as far as we have ascertained at this stage, the situation is entirely comparable with the situation in 1973, when he was a responsible member of the then Conservative Government.

Mr. Faulds

Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us who loathe apartheid would be happier if such measures were to be taken by the Government rather than that they should be left to individual unions?

Mr. Varley

We have made our views known about apartheid and racialism, and we stand by the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 4th December 1974.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

It is not a question of what the last Government failed to do, or whether the National Executive of the Union of Post Office Workers is Right wing or Left wing, but a question of the rule of law. That is the simple point. Surely any Government should say "We will stand on what the law says" and advise those who are breaking the law that they are putting themselves and their colleagues in peril.

Mr. Varley

I have made plain my views on behalf of the Government. I have stated where we stand in relation to the law. I do not think it necessary for me to comment any further. I ask the House at this stage not to react hastily to this matter. I have said that I will consult the Post Office Corporation and, if necessary, the Union of Post Office Workers.