HC Deb 22 July 1996 vol 282 cc21-31 3.32 pm
The President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian Lang)

I want to make a statement on the disruption of the postal services nationally as a result of recent and planned future industrial action by employees of the Royal Mail. First, Madam Speaker, I apologise to you and to the House for the fact that news of the Government's intentions was inadvertently disclosed in another place last Thursday.

In the past four weeks there have been three 24-hour national postal strikes, which have caused significant inconvenience and disruption to businesses and to the public throughout the country. In the Government's view, it is unacceptable that the country should be faced with the threat of a series of further strikes in the coming weeks. These strikes are unnecessary and damaging. They harm the industry and the work force, but the real and immediate victims are the customers; and the Government can no longer stand aside.

In the light of the Communication Workers Union announcement on 11 July that the strikes in late June were to be followed by a series of four further strikes, the first of which took place last Thursday, consultations were initiated with the Post Office on 12 July about the implications of a suspension of the statutory monopoly on the delivery of letters for less than £1. I am now consulting the Post Office on a specific proposal to suspend its monopoly for an initial period of one month with effect from 26 July, unless before then the CWU calls off its strike action. If it becomes clear that disruption of the postal services is likely to continue beyond that currently announced, I would propose a further suspension of the monopoly for three months.

The resolution of this dispute is a matter for the Post Office and the union, and I am pleased that they are now talking to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. In these circumstances, it is wholly inappropriate that the planned series of strikes should continue. The Government are concerned to protect the public interest, which is why we now contemplate the suspension of the Post Office's monopoly. If that happens, it will be solely because the union persists with these damaging strikes—strikes which are wrong for consumers, wrong for the economy, and above all wrong for the postal workers themselves. I invite the whole House to condemn the strikes.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

Is the Secretary of State aware that most customers will see straight through this piece of transparent dishonesty and will recognise that the Government are trying, yet again, to pursue the folly of Post Office privatisation by any means or on any excuse—despite the fact that it is so unpopular with the public that only 60 out of 16,000 supported the Government's proposals on the last occasion?

The Secretary of State has tried to imply that this action has been forced on him by the announcement of the continuing dispute; but had not the CWU already made public a reduction in its planned action from a 36 to a 24-hour stoppage, and an agreement with the employers to seek conciliation at ACAS, before the Secretary of State made his announcement? He says that he is pleased that the union is now talking to ACAS. Is it not true that it was talking to ACAS before the right hon. Gentleman made his announcement?

Did the Secretary of State rush to make the announcement because he was afraid that the dispute might be settled before he had a chance to use it as an excuse? Is it true that the union and the employer had been with the conciliator for only one hour before the Secretary of State made his intervention?

Does not the pattern of this announcement reveal the right hon. Gentleman's real agenda? He apologised to the House for the inadvertent disclosure of an answer in another place. Will he admit that he told this House that he intended to consult on whether to lift the monopoly; whereas within less than 24 hours, in an answer in another place, he revealed that he was consulting on whether to lift the monopoly on 26 July for one month, with an option on a further period of three months? That made it quite clear that the decision had already been made.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman have a statutory obligation to consult the Post Office; and is not that the only reason why he announced consultation rather than action? Did he in fact consult the Post Office in advance? Is he aware that the Post Office is saying that it is not appropriate for this action to be taken unless there is a continuation of the dispute?

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the Post Office is saying that this is not the course of action to take, because lifting its monopoly threatens the universal service at a uniform price, threatens the Royal Mail as we know it, and hence threatens post offices as we know them, with all that that implies for the rural community?

Mr. Lang

I suppose that represents progress of a sort. When I opened my Sunday newspapers I discovered that the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) was saying on this matter: I have nothing whatsoever to say". In this, she was at odds with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), a member of Unison, who called for the Underground strike to go to binding arbitration. His colleague as employment spokesman, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher)—ironically also a member of Unison—contradicted him by saying that there was no question of forcing arbitration on the unions. Meanwhile, the deputy leader of the Labour party was said to be being scraped off the wall. When he denied that, we had to settle for the idea that he was throwing the teacups around. The rest of the shadow Cabinet coyly claimed suddenly to be bound by collective responsibility.

The fact is that we have heard a great sponsored silence on industrial disputes from the Labour party, and the right hon. Lady today has done nothing to change that situation. We listened to hear her condemn the strikes, but not a word of condemnation passed her lips. She referred to transparent dishonesty. I must ask the House: where is the honesty in a party which pretends to be new Labour, with new policies and friends with everyone, yet which fails to condemn strikes that damage the public interest?

The right hon. Lady referred to privatisation, which has nothing to do with this industrial dispute, and she talked about a reduction in support for the strike. The number of workers who are defying their union and going back to work has doubled since the first strike in June.

I welcome the fact—and I welcomed it last weekend—that the unions and the Post Office are both talking to ACAS. There is no question of a decision already having been made, as the right hon. Lady suggests. I have made it clear in all correspondence and statements that our final decision depends on the conclusion of consultations with the Post Office, which are taking place at present, on the specific proposal of lifting the monopoly for one month from 26 July if the strikes go ahead.

I will consider the Post Office view when I receive it, but it is time that the House came together to condemn strikes in public services of this type. We heard not a word of condemnation from the Labour party—not a word of sympathy or understanding for the disruption to the public interest, to business and to members of the public. Is the Labour party indifferent, or is it in the grip of its trade union bosses? People outside will see the new dangers attaching to new Labour.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Points of order are taken at the end of statements.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the issue at the centre of this dispute is the management's attempt to introduce team working both to improve productivity and to devolve decision-making and responsibility to individual workers? Does not that fact show how luddite the unions still are in their attitude to industrial relations?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is right. Substantial improvements in productivity could be made in the postal services, and the Post Office is seeking to introduce them. It has made good progress in the negotiations, which is another reason for condemning the movement of the unions to strikes. My hon. Friend is right to identify streaming and team working as the two issues that most concern the negotiations at present.

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

Does the Minister recognise that the Post Office and its workers have achieved record productivity and profits already, and that one of the root causes of the strike is the fact that the Government have decided to take away twice the profits that they had been going to take away through the external financing limit? Should not so important an issue as the Post Office monopoly be reviewed in a strategic and long-term way, rather than in this tactical way? Does he think that the private sector will be capable of responding on such a short-term basis when it does not have the infrastructure to do so? Is not the true motive for the Government intervention in a strike, after years of saying that that was not the role of Government, a combination of pique that they were unable to get privatisation through the House and pre-electioneering tactics?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman is talking utter nonsense. Last year, profits fell by £50 million. That underlines the fact that the Post Office must continue to build on the improved productivity that has already been achieved and to which I have paid tribute. Substantial further productivity gain is to be had, not least as a result of the KPMG report. The Post Office is right to press for the modernisation of working conditions, and the union is not doing itself or the public any service by abusing the Post Office's monopoly.

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the rumours that the difficulties in the negotiations originated in Glasgow and Liverpool, cities not notable for Conservative representation?

Mr. Lang

My right hon. Friend is ahead of me with his information. I have not heard that the difficulties were confined to that, but the union's writ runs across the country and, as I have said, support for the strike among union members has diminished substantially since the first strike.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the rural areas that he and I represent will suffer most by the lifting of the monopoly? How can he face his electorate at the next election when he represents a constituency where the universal provision at a uniform rate is the only way of ensuring an efficient service in our rural areas?

Mr. Lang

No one is contemplating the abandonment of the universal service obligation, but how can the hon. Gentleman face his constituents when he supports a strike that denies the collection or delivery of postal services not just in rural areas such as his, but throughout the country?

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

I warmly welcome the Government's action to protect mail users and the ultimate viability of the Post Office. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is typical of the craven cowardice of the Labour party that it refuses to protect mail users by condemning the strike? Does he also agree that it is now time for the Government to consider lifting the monopoly on mail services so that they can compete properly with overseas interests in providing a service for the 21st century?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend raises a broader issue that can be considered only in the long term. It is important to maintain the universal service obligation at a standard price, which is central to the continuing delivery of mail. Those issues would have to be considered against that obligation. In the meantime, it is important that these unnecessary industrial disputes, which have recourse far too easily to strike action, are condemned by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is an empty gesture to threaten to lift the monopoly? Does he realise the repercussions that that would have, particularly on rural areas? Does he not know that the dispute is almost settled? There is agreement on pay and working conditions, and only a minor amount remains to be agreed. He should not stand there posturing but should sit back and hope that the dispute will be settled. He should not interfere with genuine negotiations that are going on at this moment at ACAS.

Mr. Lang

I hope that the hon. Lady is right and that the dispute is almost over. If that is so, why does she not join me in asking the unions to call off their damaging series of strikes?

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this unnecessary strike, which appears to have much to do with a power struggle within the union, will lead to a loss of business, through the use of faxes, E-mail and other modern technologies, which may never be recovered?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is right. As I said in my statement, the union is damaging the interests of its own work force. Since the last postal strike, there has been a substantial development of E-mail, fax machines and other means of communication. Every time that there is a serious dispute in the postal service, the Post Office loses substantial business, some of which never returns.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the President of the Board of Trade answer the factual point put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett)? Is it true that the unions had been at ACAS for only an hour when he made the announcement from the Front Bench?

Mr. Lang

I understand that the first ACAS involvement was on 17 July—last Wednesday—and the second was last Friday. The unions and the Post Office are speaking separately to ACAS this afternoon.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

In making this welcome statement, is not my right hon. Friend being a little unfair on the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett)? How can she be expected to take the side of business and the people of this country when later this week she will need the votes of all the trade union-paid poodles to elect her back to the shadow Cabinet?

Mr. Lang

That may be why the Labour party is being so coy about this matter. But the public have a right to know the Opposition's policy on industrial relations. If the spectre of the car park meeting, secondary picketing, secondary strikes, flying pickets and closed shops is to be resurrected, the electorate should know about it, and the sooner the better.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Secretary of State recognise that his statement will be regarded, and rightly so, as an act of sheer spite against the unions? He clearly took every opportunity to put the employer's side. Some Conservatives—the Secretary of State may be one—would like to see strikes in the public sector banned. Is it not a fundamental right in a democracy to tell one's employer that one does not want to go into work and that one has a right to strike? That is the point that we used to make against dictatorships. What about that right in Britain?

Mr. Lang

I am not taking the employer's point of view. I am not taking a side in this dispute. I am simply taking the side of the public interest, and it is time that those who operate a monopoly service recognised that they must take seriously their obligation to the public.

Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his proposed suspension of the postal monopoly will be a welcome relief to the businesses that rely on the postal service to keep them in business—that is, for the receipt of orders and the execution of orders? His swift action to bring the matter to a head will be welcomed.

Mr. Lang

No one would pretend that the suspension of the monopoly will ensure that the service will continue in the way that the Post Office has operated it—this will be a second-best solution. However, if it enables at least some mail to get through, it will be better than nothing at all.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that this is a dispute, leading to a strike, in which the members of the union have a powerful case? Is he aware that they are trying to get rid of Saturday working? The Secretary of State, as a Member of Parliament, has voted in the House for Members to have a four-day week, to have Friday off, for 10 weeks a year. In this day and age, surely the people who deliver the mail have the right to a five-day week. I believe that they have a powerful case. Will the Secretary of State bear in mind the fact that a ballot was decided by Conservative Members of Parliament in debates in the House? It is a moderate union, putting a moderate case. We are beginning to see the real face of the Tory Government—Hitler and Mussolini banned strikes, which is what the Government would like to do.

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong. The strike is not about Saturday working—it is about team working as an improved mechanism for sorting mail in the post offices, and about how much first-class mail should be delivered in the first delivery and how much should be delivered in the second delivery. These issues could easily be resolved by negotiation and good will on both sides, without the need to damage the public interest.

Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in this country will regret the decision of the Post Office workers to take industrial action? Does he agree that today's decision may turn out to be an historic one? Perhaps it is time that this country addressed the question whether essential workers in the Post Office, on the tubes and in other areas should have the right to strike, or whether it might be better to replace this outmoded and outdated weapon by a negotiating board and arbitration.

Mr. Lang

I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, and he has expressed a point of view that is held in some quarters. The armed services, the police, prison officers and merchant seamen when at sea are not permitted to strike. These are issues where there are difficulties of definition, of enforcement and of the international law and our obligations under the International Labour Organisation. I have noted what my hon. Friend said, and I have no doubt that the debate will continue.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Government effectively own the Post Office and get about £400 million profit from its activities. Which other company, when faced with a dispute in its own organisation, would seek to destroy the organisation? That is precisely what the lifting of this monopoly is all about.

Post Office workers are not the best paid workers in the world. We owe them more than perhaps any other group of workers for the services that they give us as Members of Parliament. We should be supporting them. They will see the lifting of the monopoly as nothing more than stinking blackmail from a stinking Government.

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman underlines the fact that the Post Office and the union have an interest in avoiding having the monopoly lifted, which can easily be achieved by the union calling off its industrial disputes—they will be far more damaging to the Post Office and to its staff in the longer term.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

How long does my right hon. Friend think it will take for another U-turn to be performed by the Leader of the Opposition in opposing this strike and splattering his deputy back on that wall?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend tempts me to stray into the private grief of the Labour party. I know that there are shadow Cabinet elections this week. I suspect that union sponsorship affects most of the Labour Members' attitudes in these matters.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

As the Secretary of State has intervened in this industrial dispute, will he tell us whether it is now the attitude of Her Majesty's Government that, where workers have a ballot to decide their industrial action, they should be overridden by the particular interests of the Conservative party?

Mr. Lang

The fact that the trade union had a ballot to embark on this series of industrial disputes—a ballot that happened as a result of legislation introduced by this Conservative Government, which has caused industrial relations to improve beyond recognition—does not prevent the union from calling off the strike now. It is to protect the public interest that we are urging the union to call off the strike.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real threat to the future of the Royal Mail comes from these strikes, which are costing the Royal Mail millions of pounds and threatening jobs—not merely among people employed by the postal service, but among those in companies that rely on a regular and punctual mail service for the future of their business?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the reasons why this country's economic performance has improved so dramatically in recent years is the dramatic improvement in our industrial relations. Eternal vigilance is required by us to ensure that the improved industrial relations record that we have achieved is not forfeited, and that it does not fall prey to the Labour party.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is not this about dividing up the Post Office, undermining it and reaching a situation in which privatisation is achieved in the end? Once the Government get their teeth into something they never let it go, despite the strength of public opinion. Everyone should be aware of that, and ensure that we do not accept privatisation.

Mr. Lang

This dispute is not about privatisation, but about the abuse of a public monopoly. Where there is a monopoly there are obligations. The union should be more aware of its obligations to the public interest before calling these damaging strikes.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

The President of the Board of Trade is to be congratulated on his actions so far, but will he now meet industry representatives to consider a permanent reduction in the monopoly—from £1 to 30p, for example? That would certainly help companies, such as Document Interlink in my constituency, to provide a first-class service for urgent business mail.

Mr. Lang

That is an issue for consideration at a later date. I think that my hon. Friend would agree with me that the current priority is to ensure that this damaging series of strikes is called off. I have made provision for the lifting of the monopoly not to come into force if the forthcoming series of strikes is cancelled, and for the lifting to last for only one month if the series of strikes is not followed by further strikes. If there is a threat by the union of further strikes, however, I shall announce that we are considering extending the suspension for a further three months. I hope that that will not be necessary.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry deny that there have been substantial increases in productivity in the Post Office in recent years, and that the matter that is in dispute is a relatively small one, which is now before ACAS? As for the public interest, will not the whole nature of the historic Royal Mail be changed if the monopoly is taken away? How will the public be assured that the Government are taking away the monopoly in the public interest and not in the interests of a few people who run high-speed, limited mail services, and who may recently have had a dinner with the Prime Minister?

Mr. Lang

My statement today is not about the removal of the monopoly in the long term but about the suspension of the monopoly as a means of ensuring that the public interest is protected. If the dispute is as close to resolution as the hon. Gentleman suggests, clearly he should be pressing the union to call off the strikes so that the matter can be peacefully resolved.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

When my right hon. Friend hears about threats to rural post offices, will he remember that similar fears were expressed when British Telecom was privatised? Those fears were groundless, as are these fears about the future of rural post offices. Will he also comment on the fact that the Communication Workers Union contributes £200,000 to the Labour party?

Mr. Lang

I hear what my hon. Friend says in the first part of his question. As for the second part of his question, that fact speaks for itself.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that none of the business men who have recently paid £100,000 to be members of the Prime Minister's Premier Club will profit from the decision that the right hon. Gentleman has made today?

Mr. Lang

The people who will profit from today's decision—if it brings closer a resolution to this dispute—will be the public.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

What contingency plans does the Secretary of State have if, as a result of his interference, the dispute is racked up to a higher level and the Post Office decides to lock out some or all of its employees?

Mr. Lang

I wish that the Labour party, and the hon. Gentleman in particular, would be more positive and constructive in their approach to the dispute. We should be talking about resolving the dispute. Labour Members have the capacity to bring pressure to bear on their trade union masters to abandon the strikes, so that the dispute can be resolved.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Phillip Oppenheim)

He has just walked in.

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has not just walked in. He has been in his place—I saw him.

Dr. Reid

Thank you, Madam Speaker. As usual, the Under-Secretary of State has got his facts wrong.

I much regret the inconvenience caused to the public, but if there is one thing that they dislike more than inconvenience, it is corruption. If the Secretary of State gets rid of the monopoly, will he give the public a guarantee that no company whose members have paid large amounts of money to dine with the right hon. Gentleman or the Prime Minister will benefit from the lifting of the monopoly? Will the right hon. Gentleman answer yes or no?

Mr. Lang

The people who will benefit in the short term will be the companies that secure additional business by becoming involved in carrying the mail from which the monopoly has been suspended. The best way in which the hon. Gentleman can deal with his concern is to ensure that the strikes are abandoned. The monopoly would then stay in place.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

As the Secretary of State has failed to answer this question twice, I will repeat it slowly. Can the right hon. Gentleman give a categorical guarantee that no one who is currently paying large sums of money to the Tory party, via the Premier Club or any other means, will benefit from the industrial dispute?

Mr. Lang

I give the hon. Gentleman the same answer that I gave the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). I wish that Labour Members who have benefited from trade union sponsorship and financial support would put aside their commitment to their trade union masters and act for once in the public interest.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am not too sensitive a soul, but is not there a convention that Ministers make statements by leave of the House? That implies some kind of condition—that the statement will be about a particular matter. When the President of the Board of Trade answered my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) we heard a load of pre-packaged abuse that bore no relevance to the legitimate questions that she asked. Do you, have no power to cut short statements that are not about the subject to which they purport to relate?

Madam Speaker

Ministers do not require the leave of the House or my authority to make a statement—they have every right. The words "With the leave of the House" are simply a turn of phrase, and it is quite incorrect for a Minister to use them. Ministers can make statements in the House whenever they wish.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I have hardly finished. I was asked whether I can cut short a statement if I felt that it was not dealing with the subject in question. The straightforward answer is no. I do not know with which matters a statement deals until the Minister rises in his place to make it.

Mr. Spearing

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. We fully understand everything that you have said to this point, but surely it is within your power to cut short any right hon. or hon. Member—whether or not he is a Minister—who fails to answer a question but introduces new material that is abusive and irrelevant? Will you consider that particular power—which I believe you have?

Madam Speaker

I sit in the Chair hour after hour, and I hear Front Benchers and Back Benchers in all parts of the House introduce material that is not relevant. If I were to interfere every time that happened, I would be interfering every three or four minutes. I take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously—but the House would hear much more from me if I were to take it to its logical conclusion. I said not too long ago that there have been numerous occasions recently when hon. Members have not dealt with the matter in question, be it a statement or question. Ministers and Back Benchers are drifting too far away from the point, and I will do my utmost to bring them all back to the subject on the Order Paper. I believe that the House requires that of me.