HC Deb 23 June 1977 vol 933 cc1740-5

Sir M. Havers (by Private Notice) asked the Attorney-General if he is aware that there are more than 80 sacks of mail at the Cricklewood sorting office to go into and out of the Grunwick processing laboratory which Post Office employees have been wilfully detaining or delaying and whether he will take action to enforce Section 58 of the Post Office Act 1953.

The Attorney-General (Mr. S. C. Silkin)

In answer to the first part of the Question, the best information which I can obtain is that the outward mail which reached the Cricklewood sorting office from Grunwick on Wednesday, 15th June, and which consists of approximately 65 sacks, has not been handled by the Post Office employees at the sorting office and remains there. No other outward mail is there. That sorting office does not handle inward packages for Grunwick, but I understand that a number of letters are there and are not being handled.

The action by the employees at the Cricklewood sorting office is, according to my information, contrary to the instructions of their union's executive committee and general secretary. I understand that those instruction are being followed at other sorting offices and that Grunwick is receiving its inward packages for processing in the normal way.

The Post Office has a responsibility to deliver the mail, and I have to consider whether I should take action to enforce the provisions of the Post Office Act, having regard to the facts which I have stated. I explained in answer to questions on 13th December last that responsibility for taking whatever action is necessary to ensure compliance with the law is normally for the Post Office, for very good reasons which I gave. I said that it was of the greatest importance that the Post Office, which is best placed to establish the facts and has to take decisions affecting delivery of the mail to the public generally, should be left to carry out its responsibilities and that only in the most exceptional circumstances should the Law Officers step in so as to take the matter out of the hands of the Post Office. On the information available it would appear likely that there are prima facie continuing breaches of the Post Office Act.

In deciding whether those most exceptional circumstances exist, I have to take into account the damage caused by a failure to ensure that the law is complied with, on the one side, and, on the other, the risk of grave damage to the public as a whole if action taken is likely to provoke far more widespread repercussions.

In making this balance it is plainly necessary for me to do so with the best possible information as to the intentions of all those concerned and in particular of the Post Office itself. I have therefore formally written to the Chairman of the Post Office asking him to inform me of the steps which he has taken or proposes in the immediate future to take in accordance with the responsibilities of the Post Office.

Sir M. Havers

Since in its operation of carrying mail, the Post Office, which is a monopoly, is failing in its responsibilities to deliver mail, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that he has a duty ultimately to see that the law is enforced? Will he undertake immediate action, so that this firm is not forced to close as a result of an illegal and gross breach of duty?

The Attorney-General

I have said quite sufficient to make it quite clear what I am doing, the information that I am obtaining, and the reasons why I am obtaining it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman—and may I take this first opportunity of congratulating him upon that honour?— knows very well the doctrine which my predecessors and his have enunciated again and again. The mere fact that there has been an offence committed does not mean that automatically there must be prosecutions. It is absolutely right that before I make a decision of this kind, which can have the most momentous consequences, I should be fully acquainted with all the facts and should not give undertakings or assurances in advance of knowing them.

Mr. Beith

Does the Attorney-General accept that grave damage to the public as a whole could arise if the principle is ever accepted that the mail of individual customers can be singled out and not delivered or collected? Is there not a world of difference between that and the right of Post Office workers in general to withdraw their labour?

The Attorney-General

I can see a number of differences between those two concepts. One of those differences is that it is the general view, and was a view tentatively expressed by the Master of the Rolls, in the Gouriet case, that for Post Office employees wholly to withdraw their labour would not be a breach of the criminal law and, accordingly, that if the result of premature action, before I know precisely what is the situation, is that Post Office workers in that sorting office, and indeed in other sorting offices throughout London, were totally to withdraw their labour, they would not be committing breaches of the criminal law. It is absolutely right that I should have that in mind as one of the public interest factors which I have to consider when I know all the facts.

Mr. Pavitt

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that part of the 1956 Act that is called in aid by the right hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers) is, word for word, that which exists in an Act of Queen Anne, now deceased, in chapter 10, in the year AD 1710? In the light of that, will he examine the possibility of learning something from this in terms of changing the law in view of all the circumstances?

Secondly, is the Attorney-General aware that this week I saw outside the Grunwick factory two Post Office vans, fully manned, the contents of which could not be delivered, through no fault of the postmen? Will he take that into account when he examines the facts?

The Attorney-General

On the second point, I will take into account all factors in my examination of the facts in deciding which is the right course for me to take. On the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, I would point out that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry has already announced the Government's intention to change the law.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

Does the Attorney-General think that he is encouraging the rule of law to be obeyed by the pickets and demonstrators when in his statement he implied that he can be blackmailed out of applying the law by the threat of widespread action?

The Attorney-General

I made no such implication.

Mr. Kinnock

Is the Attorney-General aware that it is not blackmail but practical sensitivity which has dictated his general approach in these matters? Is he also aware that the fundamental question at stake in this case involves sympathetic action? Does he think it right in a democratic society that citizens of this country, by reason of the fact that they become part of the Post Office, or indeed of any other industrial or commercial or civil concern, should have to surrender their rights to undertake sympathetic action in support of their fellow men?

Hon. Members


The Attorney-General

In regard to the second part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, I have already said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry has stated that the Government intend to bring in legislation to amend the law, and so far as postal officers are concerned to bring it into line with the law as it is as a result of the Conservative Government deliberately amending it, so as to take industrial relations out of the criminal law. That deliberate intention of those who were in charge of the Industrial Relations Bill was clearly stated at the time.

In regard to the first part of my hon. Friend's remarks, of course I must take all these factors into account, but I must not at this time be asked to anticipate a decision, which will be an extremely difficult and delicate decision and one in which I shall take into account the precedents set by all my predecessors, both Labour and Conservative, in making the decision which I shall ultimately have to make.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

In assessing his position in regard to the two competing considerations identified by him in his opening statement, will the Attorney-General give an unequivocal undertaking to give priority to the rule of law and not to support or promulgate the unconstitutional doctrine that the enforcement of the law becomes unnecessary or impracticable if a sufficient number of people combine to seek to break it or to persuade others to do so?

The Attorney-General

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows very well that that is not what I said. Nor is it in accordance with what has been said by predecessor after predecessor in my office on both sides of the political divide. One does not, as I have said, decided that, simply because an offence has been committed, automatically a prosecution must follow. There is a wide public interest factor here, and Conservative Members would be saying a different thing if, as a result of action taken hastily, whether by myself or by anybody else, the whole of the mail of this country were brought to a standstill.

Mr. Greville Janner

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that preservation of the rule of law requires restraint in the initiation of prosecutions in regard to industrial disputes?

The Attorney-General

Of course that is true. It requires restraint whether in relation to industrial disputes or in relation to any other matters. Conservative Front Bench spokesmen who have had my responsibility or its equivalent know that very well indeed.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

We are dealing with a Private Notice Question for which I have allowed a quarter of an hour. I shall take one hon. Member from each side of the House. Mr. Carlisle.

Mr. Carlisle

In making his decision, will the Attorney-General bear in mind— in view of the fact that he appears to accept that prima facie there is a continuing clear breach of the law—that one of the major factors he has to take into account in coming to his final decision is that if at some stage no action is taken, is one not conceding that democracy has given way to mob rule?

The Attorney-General

The hon. and learned Gentleman said that in some cases that may happen. That is precisely why I want to know all the facts. I hope that the implication from the hon. and learned Gentleman's question is that, for the first time from the Conservative Benches, there is a recognition of the real and important dilemma in this case.

Mr. Atkinson

Does the Attorney-General agree that if the 65 bags of mail now undelivered had contained pornographic or other offensive material, the postmen would have had every right to refuse to deliver them to Grunwick? Why, then, in the Attorney-General's opinion, do Opposition Members demand a different set of conditions than those for pornographic material when dealing with something that is equally offensive, or even more offensive, to postmen, who consider that they have a right to refuse to deliver it?

The Attorney-General

I think the only answer I can give to my hon. Friend is that one hot potato is enough for anybody.