HC Deb 02 July 1979 vol 969 cc916-24
The Secretary of State for Industry (Sir Keith Joseph)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement.

In the middle of last week the Post Office had a backlog of one and a third days' mail—about 40 million letters. This was the cumulative effect of industrial action in the Post Office and on the railways, bad weather earlier in the year, staff shortages and letter bombs in Birmingham. The worst effects have been in the London area.

Over the weekend there was extensive working to reduce this backlog, and I welcome these efforts. But, while improvements were made, some problems remain, particularly in parts of London and the South-East. Continued efforts will be necessary.

Although I recognise that special circumstances, some of them beyond the Post Office's immediate control, played a considerable part in last week's difficulties, these problems have only confirmed that much needs to be done to improve the efficiency and productivity of the postal service, and I have made this clear to the chairman of the Post Office—for whom I have great respect. I am particularly disappointed that an offer by the Post Office of better pay for reduced costs, higher productivity and better services has been refused by the work force.

If co-operation to improve services is not manifest, it will be necessary to review the Post Office's monopoly for the carriage of letters. I shall be asking for reports on possible modifications, their practicability and their implications, to reach me before the end of this year.

Mr. John Silkin

In view of the enormous effort made over the weekend by postal workers—they worked long hours after a long week—does the Secretary of State agree that the two final sentences of his statement are both ungracious and mean-spirited? May I, on behalf of those on the Opposition Benches, congratulate the postal workers on having worked so well over the weekend to clear up the backlog?

I wish to ask the Secretary of State two questions. First, does he recall that during the postal strike of 1971—which was the last occasion that a Tory Government broke the monopoly—The Economist on 20 February stated that Most groups of private postmen have shown a conspicious lack of business expertise. Most groups are going to be thankful to pack up when the postmen are back. Secondly, how does the Secretary of State think that morale in the Post Office is helped by ill-considered threats to men who have shown that they are willing to work appalling hours to ensure that the public receives its mail?

Sir K. Joseph

The right hon. Gentleman made comparisons. There is all the difference in the world between a licence granted by the Government of the day at the request of the chairman of the Post Office—which is necessarily a temporary occurrence—and modifying the monopoly. It is because modifying the monopoly moves us into new territory that I have asked for reports, so that I can understand clearly the practicability and implications.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the long hours worked by the postmen. I recognise that many of these men who have enjoyed high public esteem resent the long hours. Although I am not responsible for management, I understand that it would be possible, in co-operation with management, to serve the public better at a lower cost and without such long hours if there were co-operation to improve productivity. I do not regard anything that I have said as mean-spirited. I have a duty to protect the public.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the position in London was acute and is still serious, in that second-class mail is between seven and 10 days behind? Is he further aware that in my constituency, which has one of the largest sorting offices, under-recruitment is about 20 per cent.? Is my right hon. Friend aware that this has nothing to do with levels of pay in the Post Office but concerns the point that he has been making? May I reassure my right hon. Friend that when I spoke to representatives of the management there this morning they told me that they do not expect any fundamental change and improvement until there is a fundamental change in attitude and co-operation amongst the unions.

Sir K. Joseph

I believe my hon. Friend to be accurately reporting the position. I do not want either to exaggerate or to minimise matters. Delays have been worst in London, but there have been delays also in the Midlands, the North-East and the Home Counties, and second-class letters have been delayed by up to a week.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Is the Secretary of State aware that the deterioration in the postal service is not a matter of the past few weeks or months but goes back several years, and does he agree that the answer to the problem lies not in entering new territory but in reverting to the Post Office being a Government Department as it was previously, with a Postmaster-General answerable to the House?

Sir K. Joseph

I wish I thought that the attitudes that lie behind the standards of the day would be so responsive to a Minister's responsibility.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

I preface my question by declaring an interest as a former member of the national executive of the Union of Post Office Workers. Does the Secretary of State accept that the deterioration that has taken place in the Post Office's services generally is a matter of regret on both sides of the Post Office, but will he, for his part, accept that this deterioration stems from the fact that there are at present 10,000 vacancies for postmen and postmen of higher grade in the Post Office?

Does the right hon. Gentleman further accept that another major factor is low basic pay, together with the long antisocial hours of attendance plus the fact that postmen and postmen of higher grade are obliged to work a six-day week? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman indicate what impact the introduction of part-time workers would have on the long anti-social hours of attendance and on the low take-home pay of postmen and postmen of higher grade?

Sir K. Joseph

Surely, all these factors, which certainly are relevant, could respond to negotiation to reach higher productivity and better pay for shorter hours, all consistent with better service to the public.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Will my right hon. Friend consider the question of the monopoly on its merits and not in response to the present troubles? Further, will he undertake to report to the House the circumstances in which the postal workers concerned with the election in the Essex, South-West European constituency failed to collect and deliver election addresses?

Sir K. Joseph

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question is "Yes" On the second part, I am sure that my right hon. Friend concerned with the European election will have noted what he said.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Does the Secretary of State realise that the shortfall in Post Office staff is very varied and that in some parts of the country there is a shortage while in other parts there are plenty? Does not this reflect not just an issue over wages, as was rightly suggested by his hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker), but conditions of service? Could not the Government do something by introducing standardised letter boxes, and could not occupiers put letter boxes at their garden gates to help the poor postmen?

Sir K. Joseph

I must be careful to eschew all management responsibilities. I am sure that the Post Office management will note the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. John Page

Will my right hon. Friend take it that his sensible statement this afternoon will be welcomed and that we look forward to seeing the report that is presented to him by the end of the year? Does he not find it rather mystifying that there are large shortages of employees in the London district post offices and yet there is a high rate of unemployment? What does he think is the cause of this.

Sir K. Joseph

The hours are not all that seductive, as several hon. Members have explained, and, despite the efforts of my right hon. and learned Friend in the Budget, the gap between net take-home pay and net benefit is still not nearly wide enough. But my hon. Friend will recognise that it is possible to provide better pay and better service to the public if flexibility is accepted by the work force.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Post Office service will not improve while the men's morale is sapped by such statements as he is making about breaking up the Post Office monopoly? Is he aware that many trade unionists working in the Post Office feel that confrontation on the present wage round between management and unions is being encouraged by the Government so that the Government may justify their policy of wanting to break up the monopoly?

Sir K. Joseph

The wage round is being conducted between the management and the work force, and I very much regret that the management's offer of better pay for more productivity was refused by the work force, despite the recommendations to accept by the trade union executive concerned.

Mr. Whitney

Will my right hon. Friend comment on recent reports that a roughly constant work force of about 125,000 postal workers now deals with about 9 billion items a year compared with 11½ billion a year or two ago?

Sir K. Joseph

Not without notice—and anyway I suspect that that is a management task. I believe that recently the number of letters through the mail has actually increased.

Mr. Whitehead

Will the Secretary of State tell us which of the other countries that he admires have given up a letter monopoly? Does he agree that if that were to be done in this country it would be seen as a piece of discriminatory legislation between rural communities and others in need, on the one hand, and those in city offices who are able to afford to pay for the service, on the other?

Sir K. Joseph

I have not reached such tentative views as I have reached by comparing our situation with that of other countries. I think that the House will agree that monopoly has its responsibilities and obligations as well as its privilege.

Mr. David Price

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that in the present staff problem of the Post Office—the so-called anti-social hours—we have something that is typical of the British malaise at the moment, namely, that it is impossible to run a modern complicated society with everyone working from 8 o'clock till 5 o'clock? What views do the Government have about that and what discussions are they having with the TUC and CBI on the way in which we can resolve this problem?

Sir K. Joseph

This afternoon I am addressing myself principally to the postal situation.

Mr. Flannery

Is the Secretary of State so ham-fisted and insensitive as to fail to realise that his provocative statement today will have enraged Post Office workers? Does he not appreciate that the deteriorating standards under a Tory Government, who, in their first six or seven weeks of office, have made vast inroads into the standard of living of working people, are bound to make these workers realise that their low wages are leaving out of work 10,000 workers who would want to work for reasonable wages, and has the right hon. Gentleman any plans whatever to solve the problems that the Post Office is facing today?

Sir K. Joseph

As the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends have been pointing out, the deterioration in standards has been going on for some time.

Mr. John Townend

In view of the shortage of staff and the fact that at the same time we have a high rate of unemployment, will my right hon. Friend discuss with his colleagues a reconsideration of the basis for paying unemployment pay when there are a large number of jobs available?

Sir K. Joseph

That is a far wider question.

Mr. Ioan Evans

In view of what was said earlier about the effect of market forces on the distribution of petrol, will the right hon. Gentleman think again about his attitude to breaking up the public monopoly? Does he recognise that there is a difference between a monopoly in the public sector, where the benefit comes back to the community, and a monopoly in the private sector? In his consideration, will the right hon. Gentleman leave the telecommunications side alone?

Sir K. Joseph

We have laws that have been used by both parties to protect the community against the misuse of monopoly by the private sector. All I am asking for is a report into the possibility of protecting the public from a monopoly in the public sector if it is misused.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall call those hon. Members who have been rising.

Mr. Neubert

Can my right hon. Friend say whether there is a ban on recruitment of casual or part-time labour to meet the long-standing problems of delays in the letter post? In view of the shortage of permanent manpower in the Post Office, would it not be unacceptable if any such obstacle were put in the way of a return to prompt postal deliveries?

Sir K. Joseph

I understand that the Post Office has proposed the use of casual labour to deal with the backlog, and I understand also that the Union of Post Office Workers has refused its agreement.

Mr. English

Does the Secretary of State realise that his statement is a little confusing? He talked about the possibility of breaking the Post Office monopoly but referred solely to the mail, and even in response to a question did not say anything about telecommunications. Is he seriously proposing to hive off the profitable bits of the mail and leave the unprofitable bits to be looked after by a profitable telecommunications monopoly? Has he considered the Carter report, and what will he do about it?

Sir K. Joseph

The subject of my whole statement is described as the postal situation. The Government have to report to the House their views on the Carter report and will hope to do so before long.

Mr. Lawrence

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the recent crisis is merely a straw that is breaking the camel's back, and that there has been organisational chaos for much longer than the recent crisis? Is he aware that there is a firm in my constituency that has produced a schedule of delays? Although postal delays have been only five days since 14 June, the delays during the month until then were averaging 17½ days. Companies that are dependent on maintaining cash flow through cheques sent through the post are under enormous strain. Hence there is tremendous support—not merely theoretical but practical—in my constituency for a reconsideration of the Post Office's monopoly, which is failing the nation so badly.

Sir K. Joseph

It is common ground that there has been deterioration over quite a long time.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

May I add to the congratulations offered to my right hon. Friend on his initial statement? Will he bear in mind that it is on the whole our experience that public statutorily supported monopolies tend to operate primarily for the benefit of those who work in them? In the light of that, will he ensure that his consideration of the possibility of breaching the monopoly is not too long delayed into the new year?

Sir K. Joseph

Without accepting any wider generalisations than are necessary, the answer to the second part of the question is "Yes, Sir."

Mr. John Silkin

While the right hon. Gentleman awaits his review, will he bear in mind that the British postal service is about the cheapest in Europe and certainly the most far-ranging and efficient in its services?

Sir K. Joseph

To the extent that it is precisely true, yes.