HL Deb 23 June 1977 vol 384 cc770-6

3.57 p.m.

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Elwyn-Jones)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement, which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Attorney-General, in answer to a Private Notice Question on mail for Grunwick which was identical with a Question raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone. It may be for the convenience of the House if I read that Question again so that the Statement which follows can more easily be followed. The Question was: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that there are more than 80 sacks of mail at Cricklewood Post Office sorting office inward to and outward from the Grunwick Processing Laboratory which employees of the Post Office are wilfully detaining or delaying, and whether they will now take action to enforce Section 58 of the Post Office Act 1953. The Statement of the Attorney-General was as follows:

"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 instructions 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 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."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble and learned Lord who sits upon the Woolsack for having repeated that extremely serious Statement to the House. Speaking generally, I think it desirable that we should be kept abreast, stage by stage, of matters that are discussed in the other place. We should not get out of step and we should be kept in touch.

The Post Office Act 1953, which is the subject matter of this Question, is perfectly explicit in its provisions and I believe that the House should realise how plain it is. I shall read the relevant words of Section 58: If any officer of the Post Office, contrary to his duty … wilfully detains or delays— I am leaving out irrelevant words— or procures or suffers to be detained or delayed, any … postal packet, [in course of transmission by post] he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour and be liable to imprisonment or to a fine, or to both". That is a consolidation Act that has been accepted by both sides of the House and has been in force for more than 20 years.

I note with pleasure—and it is, I think, the only thing I do note with pleasure—that the Executive Committee and the General Secretary of the union have issued instructions to their members to abide by the law, and Section 58 in particular, so that what is happening is not only against the law but against the instructions of the union concerned. I therefore do not have to criticise either the union or the Government for what is happening at the moment, but I want to ask one or two questions about it. In the first place, how many members of the public does this collection of 65 sacks represent? How many members of the public are having their holiday snaps or whatever it may be illegally detained contrary to the criminal law of this country?

Secondly, while I agree—as I believe we all agree—that, as we handed over responsibility to the Post Office for the handling of the Act, the Attorney-General should enter into the matter only in, as he describes it, "exceptional circumstances", I wonder whether these circumstances are not exceptional, with 65 bags of mail illegally detained contrary to the law and to the instructions of the union? I wonder whether those who are responsible have asked themselves, or whether the Government have ever brought it to their attention, directly or by other means, that they should ask themselves, where they are taking the trade union movement of this country and where they are taking civil law and respect for law? There may or there may not be a case for altering Section 58 of the Post Office Act, but is it really to be said that people can make up their own mind whether or not to abide by a law so long as it is in force; and, if it is done on this scale, is it not a matter of exceptional importance in the light of what we read in the newspapers every day?

I hope that the Government will take my concern most seriously. I am anxious not to embarrass them, but many of us on this side of the House and, I doubt not, on other sides of the House too, are deeply concerned at the deliberate defiance of the law and the apparent ability of certain members of the Post Office to get away with it when they defy the law to the great damage of the public, the great damage of those whose mail is being detained, the great damage of the reputation of their union, which has given them instructions to act differently, and the great damage of respect for the law and the rule of law in this country.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, this is clearly not an occasion upon which to make emotive observations about the merits of an industrial dispute, parts of which are sub judice and in many of which there is no clear evidence as to the precise facts. But, in thanking the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for repeating the Statement, I am bound to say that my noble friends on these Benches view some of its contents with considerable perturbation.

We view with particular alarm the paragraph in which the Attorney-General is saying in terms—when one clears away the obfuscation of the surrounding language—that, in deciding whether to proceed when there is clear evidence of a breach of the criminal law, the Attorney-General is prepared to bear in mind how many people are opposed on political grounds to the law in question. In our view, this is a dangerous path down which to proceed, and I would ask the noble and learned Lord whether he would not agree that it is the Government's duty to amend the law if it is unsatisfactory and that, until they do that, it is their clear duty to enforce it.


My Lords, with regard to the questions asked by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, clearly, I am not in a position to say how many members of the public are involved with the 65 sacks of mail now in the Post Office. That is not a question that I am presently able to answer.

On the matter of the taking of criminal proceedings, which is a matter for the decision of the Attorney-General, that decision he alone can and must make. He does it himself. He has a duty as the protector of the public interest to make that decision, and when he does so what he will consider will be the public interest in the matter. No Minister can require or compel him as to what he shall do. Indeed, your Lordships, sitting judicially, are considering that matter in another context; therefore, I shall make no comment upon it. However, that is the clear position under our Constitution The decision must be that of the Attorney-General.

I need not say that of course the intention and wish of Her Majesty's Government is to see that the law is complied with. That is our approach to this matter.

I cannot help thinking that perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, has not read the Statement of the Attorney-General with sufficient care. If I may say so with respect to the noble Lord, the Statement did not seem to justify the anxiety to which it gave rise. What the Attorney-General said was: 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". The next sentence of the Statement related to the announcement of the Attorney-General that he desires to learn from the Chairman of the Post Office the steps which he has taken or proposes to take in the immediate future. It is obviously right that the Attorney-General should properly inform himself. He will do so; he will make a decision and that decision will be his in the light of his judgment of the public interest in this matter.


My Lords, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will forgive me if I ask another question. I was very careful in what I said neither to cast into doubt that the Attorney-General's role as a prosecuting authority in the criminal law is a quasi-judicial one, nor one in which the noble and learned Lord, or his colleagues, have the smallest right to bring pressure to bear on him in either direction. I was very careful to press that. But I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord whether the Attorney-General is fully aware of the very great urgency of his coming to a conclusion in this matter. Let us suppose that the firm were to disappear completely as a result of the illegal action which the Attorney-General is investigating with the Post Office. Does he realise that a great number of people will wish to investigate the length of time that he has taken in arriving at a decision, with regard to whether it was not possible to arrive at the decision a little earlier?


My Lords, I feel sure that the Attorney- General has been watching the progress of this unhappy matter most carefully, and that he is acting as he thinks right in the circumstances. But I will certainly draw to his attention the anxiety which the noble and learned Lord has just expressed about the urgency of the situation, although, with respect, I do not think it is necessary to do so. I think that the Attorney-General understands it, but I will certainly communicate it to him.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor whether the Statement which he has read out implies that if there are a sufficient number of people who threaten to make sufficient serious repercussions— I think that that was the word—then the law will not be enforced?


My Lords, the Attorney-General has identified what balance he has to strike in his coming to a decision in this case. I would rather leave the matter in the proper way in which it stands constitutionally. It is his decision, and his decision alone. I cannot command him, and I would be acting unconstitutionally if I were to do so.


My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack say whether it is legally possible for individual members of the public to go in person to the sorting office in question in order to collect the property which is rightly theirs?


My Lords, that raises an interesting question, to which I am afraid I have no immediate answer. I will seek to find information and communicate with the noble Lord.