HL Deb 04 March 1971 vol 315 cc1507-10

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, it may be for your Lordships' convenience if I now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The Statement is as follows:

"I am glad to be able to inform the House that in discussions which continued at my Department until early this morning, agreement was reached between representatives of the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office on a basis for resolving the dispute.

"The Executive Council of the Union unanimously agreed to recommend the Union's members to accept the terms of the agreement and to return to work and are taking immediate steps to conduct a ballot for this purpose.

"The agreement provides, subject to a return to work, that the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office will set up a Committee to settle the dispute, consisting of a chairman, mutually agreeable to both sides, with a nominee of the Union and a nominee of the Post Office. My Department has been asked to provide the secretariat. The Committee will have the following terms of reference: 'To inquire into the circumstances of the dispute between the Post Office and the U.P.W. arising out of the U.P.W.'s claim for pay increases and shortening of incremental scales. The inquiry to include the financial situation of the Post Office, its utilisation of manpower and the present relationship between the Post Office on the one hand and the U.P.W. and its membership on the other. 'To assess the arguments advanced by both sides, to hear witnesses and finally to make recommendations for a settlement of the dispute. The parties agree to accept these recommendations.' "In the event of a disagreement between members of the Committee on a recommendation, the recommendation will be made by the chairman.

"The Committee will report to the Post Office and the Union of Post Office Workers and the report will be published.

"I am hopeful that we can look forward to an early return to normal working in the Post Office and an end to this strike which has caused grave damage to both Post Office and Union and serious inconvenience to the public."


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating that Statement. I think it unwise for me or anyone else in this House to express on the terms of the agreement an opinion which might be construed outside as either supporting or criticising the decision that has been taken. Certainly I deplore statements in the Press this morning presenting the agreement as a defeat for one side or the other. The Union branches now have an extremely difficult decision to take. It will have to be a responsible decision, and such statements as that to which I have referred are quite unhelpful in the circumstances. I can only express the hope that the outcome of the Committee's deliberations will prove reasonably satisfactory to both the parties involved, and that our vital postal service will soon return to normal working.


My Lords, we on these Benches, for our part, welcome the agreement which has apparently been reached, and we only hope that the ballot that is going to be taken will ratify the agreement: but I am not sure that that is certain. There is one question that I should like to ask. As I understand it, the vital recommendation regarding salaries and conditions of work will be made, if necessary, by the chairman of the committee, who will be mutually agreeable to both sides; and both the parties apparently agree that such a recommendation on the part of the chairman of the Committee will be completely binding and, I imagine, not subject to any appeal. Since the representatives of the two sides, judging from their behaviour in recent weeks, will be quite unlikely to reach an agreement, everything would seem to turn on the personality of the chairman. My question therefore is: What happens if agreement cannot be reached on a suitable chairman? Would the strike be likely to be resumed, or would the Post Office simply proceed to put its already announced increase of pay into operation?


My Lords, is the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, aware that I wholeheartedly agree with the expression of opinion of my noble friend Lord Champion, that nothing should be said at this stage which would in any way prevent this dispute from coming to an end? But I should like to ask this question. Do I understand that Mr. Robert Carr, the Minister for Employment, acquiesced in the setting up of an inquiry? If that is so, can the noble Lord explain why, when more than two weeks ago the suggestion was made in your Lordships' House, and indeed in another place, that an inquiry should be instituted, Mr. Robert Carr checked it? Would it not have been better to agree to the establishment of a Committee of Inquiry at that time?


My Lords, may I start: by joining with the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, and the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, in associating myself entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Champion, said, and by thanking him for the statesmanlike way in which he has received this Statement. The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, expressed the hope that the outcome of the ballot would be as we should all wish it to be. I am sure we all join him in that hope. As to the question he asked—what happens if agreement cannot be reached on a chairman?—I think that he is attaching too little weight to the will of both sides to reach an agreement. I sincerely trust and believe that the difficulty which the noble Lord thought could arise will not in fact arise.

The noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, asked me whether the Secretary of State acquiesced in the setting up of an inquiry. This was an agreement reached between the representatives of the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office. We welcome this agreement. Great stress has been laid throughout upon the need for the two sides to get together and work this problem out for themselves. That is what they are going to do. The noble Lord asked further whether an inquiry could not have been set up earlier. One deduces from what he said that what is being set up is an inquiry. However, this is much more akin to arbitration, as the noble Lord well knows, because the parties have agreed to accept the outcome of this—whatever you like to call it, settlement or arrangement. Therefore I do not think it would be worth while at this stage to go over all the old ground. This arrangement is obviously something which is acceptable, whereas other arrangements were not acceptable. I would only repeat what the Secretary of State said at an earlier stage: that at no time has either side pressed for a court of inquiry.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether it is part of the terms of reference of this committee, inquiry, investigation, or whatever it is called, to make some analysis of the economic consequences to the community of this prolonged and distressing strike; and, if not, whether any other body will be set up to do this? Because I suspect that many businesses will have suffered very grievously from the strike, and someone, at least, ought to have some estimate of the total cost to the community at large, as distinct from the Post Office and its workers, of this grievous and prolonged dispute.


My Lords, I would ask the noble Lord to study the terms of reference for himself. For my part, I can find nothing in the terms of reference that would suggest that what he has in mind would be covered by the inquiry. We have to look at this stage to the future, rather than the past.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Champion, referred to a victory: could not this be considered to be a victory for common sense at last?


My Lords, I would agree with my noble friend.