HL Deb 17 February 1971 vol 315 cc604-10

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, it may be for the convenience of your Lordships if I now repeat a Statement that has been made by the Secretary of State for Employment in another place on the postal dispute. The Statement is as follows:

"When I reported to the House on Monday, the Post Office and the Union were meeting following the Post Office's suggestion that the two sides should meet to discuss the possibility of finding measures to improve efficiency which would enable the Post Office's offer to be increased without adding to costs.

"In these discussions, the Post Office tabled a proposal to increase their offer to 9 per cent. in return for a specific commitment by the Union to action to increase efficiency.

"The Union's executive met the same day to consider this improved offer and rejected it, their negotiators having tabled during the joint meeting a paper which specifically stated that the offer must be increased from 9 per cent. to 13 per cent. without any conditions whatsoever.

"In their letter of rejection the Union proposed that the two sides should have private meetings under the chairmanship of an independent mediator.

"The Post Office came to see me yesterday, at their request, to report the position which had been reached. I also thought it right to invite the U.P.W. to see me, so that I could be fully informed of their position and in particular clarify with them the precise meaning of their proposal for a mediator. They explained to me that in their view the mediator would be empowered to attempt conciliation but would have no authority to put forward any recommended settlement in the event of the parties failing to agree. At the Union's request, I then conveyed to the Post Office the explanation which the Union had given me of their conception of the mediator's role.

"The Post Office representatives then left me in order to consider their decision with their colleagues and, as the House will know, they announced late last night that they were unable to accept the Union's proposal on the ground that they could not see how mediation of the type suggested could resolve the difference on amount and on the question of productivity. The Post Office reiterated their view that arbitration remained the right course for resolving the dispute, but the Union have since reaffirmed their refusal to consider arbitration.

"In the circumstances, I regret to have to inform the House that the deadlock continues."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, the Minister, for repeating the Statement which has been made in the other House. I find the whole of this Statement distressing. This is a distressing situation, and the concluding words of that Statement are even more distressing than the whole tone of the Statement itself. I have sufficient experience in this general field to know that for a Minister of Employment the timing of a decision purposefully to intervene in an industrial dispute is a matter of nice judgment and a careful assessment of the situation. To intervene too early is to find that the combatants have not really tested their relative strengths; to leave it too late is to find that the position has hardened into a state in which a solution becomes more difficult to find on each successive day.

I fear that the Post Office dispute has entered this latter phase, and that the solution is becoming daily more difficult to find, as the concluding words in the Statement that we have just heard indicate. The dispute has reached a stage at which both parties are anxious for a face-saver, but each not being prepared to find a face-saver for the other. We on this side have been in this sort of situation; we know something about it. In this situation surely it would be right for Mr. Carr to use the expertise that undoubtedly exists in his Department to produce a face-saving formula which would end a dispute which must, if longer continued, seriously damage the country's economy.

I appeal to the Minister, Lord Drumalbyn, to put this point very strongly to his right honourable friend. Those of us who know anything at all about that Ministry know something of the excellence of the officers within that Department. I am sure that if the Minister will intervene purposefully a face-saver will be found, and the country will be saved the further disaster that can spring from a continuation of this dispute.


My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. My colleagues and I are very disappointed with the breakdown of the talks. May I ask the noble Lord whether his right honourable friend envisages any further meetings, or is there a complete impasse? Perhaps he could enlighten us a little further on this word "deadlock". Sooner or later someone will have to make some step with a view to bringing about a settlement.


My Lords, I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say how much I appreciate the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Champion. I do not think it would be right for me to add in any way to what he has said, except to assure the House that I will convey to my right honourable friend what he has said. The noble Lord, Lord Wade, asks whether any further meetings are in contemplation. I am informed that the Union's executive have been in session all morning, and up to the latest time that I heard were still in session. We shall have to wait for the end of that meeting, and the outcome of it, before I can give any indication as to the next step.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that I should like to support what has been said by my noble friend Lord Champion in regard to this dispute and the stage it has now reached; and that, as I am given to understand, the Union are still at this moment meeting at their headquarters working out something, if at all possible, whereby a solution may be able to be found regarding this situation?

Secondly, is the Minister aware, and are noble Lords in this House aware, that due to this dispute the Post Office up to this moment have lost between £13 million and £14 million? Moreover, what is the position in regard to the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in all these negotiations that have been taking place? The Government must be aware that the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications has a political responsibility for this Department and for the particular Board which has been set up with responsibility for this public service to the nation. It is high time that we heard about the action or the line of approach that this Minister, who is so responsible for the Board, is taking on this issue.


My Lords, it is of course true that the Post Office are losing a lot of money, and that in the meantime the public are losing services. The noble Lord asked what is the responsibility of the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. He is faced with the withdrawal of labour in this case. He is not now in charge of the Department of the Post Office as the Postmaster General was before; he is in very much the same position as the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would be in the case of, say, a coal strike.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that I regard the attitude of the Government in the Post Office strike as being like that of Pontius Pilate: they are washing their hands of any decision? Furthermore, is he not aware that I think the underlying reason is that the Government are prepared to fight the poorest Union in the country? Why do the Government not take on somebody their own size?


My Lords, I should deprecate it if we in this House were to enter into the lists on either side. Much can be said on both sides. My right honourable friend's responsibilities at this juncture are the responsibilities of conciliation, when and where conciliation is possible.


My Lords, the noble Lord says that the responsibilities of his right honourable friend are those of conciliation; and with that observation no noble Lord will disagree. But does the noble Lord not feel that it is high time that his right honourable friend took a rather more active part? Would he not agree that hitherto his right honourable friend (to use a rather inappropriate phrase in the context) has not been very much more than a postman between the two sides? Does not his right honourable friend, for example, think it appropriate to press on the Post Office the idea of a mediator, suggested by the Union but rejected by the Post Office; or, alternatively, some development of that idea, such as that of an independent chairman of standing and experience whose services have been found on occasions of difficult disputes such as this to be valuable in helping the parties to a conclusion?


My Lords, the noble Lord asks me whether it is time that my right honourable friend took a more active part in the dispute. It is customary to leave the Minister himself to judge the right moment when he can act usefully; and my right honourable friend is ready to do so whenever this moment occurs. As to the idea of an independent chairman or something of that kind, the fact is that the Post Office have on two occasions advanced their original offer; and throughout they have been prepared to go to arbitration, in accordance with the agreement. This is still their position, and in view of what was said by the Court of Inquiry under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, it is difficult to fault it.


My Lords, first may I thank the noble Lord for the Statement to the House, for which we are grateful. May I ask him whether he is not aware that many of us, irrespective of where we stand politically, feel that the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications has completely effaced himself? I remember distinctly that when another Government were in power many times Ministers in another place were asked to resign because of the lack of information they gave to the House or because of their lack of activity. Will the noble Lord pass on to the Cabinet, and others, the vital importance of the need in this case, because communication is the essence of civilisation? When is the right moment, we should like to know? If the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications is having an out-and-out row with another Minister, the nation has no time to put up with that idiocy. If he cannot assert himself, he had better resign.


My Lords, I do not know why the noble Lord should make a suggestion of that kind. There is no ground for it whatever. Of course my right honourable friend the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications is keeping in the very closest touch with this issue. But it remains the fact that where there are disputes of this kind it is primarily the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Employment to deal with them.


My Lords, would the noble Lord use his best influence on his right honourable friend in asking him to persuade the parties to accept some compromise on the procedure? Will he use his influence to persuade them to accept a conciliator who would conciliate and, if in the end he was unsuccessful in getting agreement, would have the authority to propose an award for consideration of each of the parties?


My Lords, I take note of what the noble Lord has said and will convey it to my right honourable friend. Of course, this is not a matter for me.


My Lords, does the noble Lord realise that if the postmen and those associated with the postal services are forced to return to work and accept defeat it will create a bitterness in the postal service that will remain for many years in this country, and serve no useful purpose? Surely, in the circumstances it would be wise for the Minister of Employment to intervene, at any rate by appointing someone to inquire into the circumstances of this dis pute. If arbitration is unacceptable, surely, as in the case of the electricity dispute which led to the Wilberforce Inquiry, an inquiry is desirable in this case, and it may expedite reaching a settlement of some kind.


My Lords, in view of the noble Lord's great experience, everyone will take note of what he has said. I will certainly also convey that to my right honourable friend. I would only comment that in a dispute of this kind there are no victors, and no one is defeated except the public.

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