HL Deb 29 October 2003 vol 654 cc263-6

2.59 p.m.

Lord Monson asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are taking steps to promote an early end to the current series of postal strikes in London.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, no one will benefit from industrial action by postal workers in London. It will disrupt services to consumers and businesses that rely on Royal Mail services. Resolution of disputes is a matter for the management of Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union. The Government continue to encourage them to sit down together and reach a settlement on all outstanding issues.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply, the first part of which I agree with. Would he agree that, whereas a 24-hour stoppage is tolerable, to suspend postal deliveries for a full week, as has happened in the greater part of London, causes immense hardships—not only financial hardships to individuals and businesses but emotional distress as well? One thinks of lonely elderly people waiting in vain for the three or four birthday cards that they can normally look forward to getting, or the recently bereaved widow waiting for letters of condolence and support.

As successive governments have awarded Royal Mail quasi-monopoly status, is it not incumbent upon the Government to do everything in their power to bring this matter to a speedy resolution?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I agree that the disruption is most unwelcome. In fact, the 24-hour disruptions to which the noble Lord made reference were also most unwelcome and made difficulties for people. I recognise the points made about the elderly. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that all benefit claimants receive their payments over this difficult period.

The Government are doing all they can to urge the two sides to come to agreement. They met yesterday afternoon and are meeting again today. We trust that those meetings will prove to be fruitful.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I deplore all that is happening and share the opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Monson. What is the number of items—letters and parcels—that have been delayed? When the situation is resolved, how long will it take to return to normal, so that those of us in the wider community can return to the service to which we have become accustomed?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am not able to give a figure for the number of items that are held in the post. That is an ever-changing figure, as the noble Lord will recognise. In addition, this is unofficial action and, therefore, we have not been able to predict the effects on the postal services. The noble Lord is right that the Post Office will expect to put maximal effort into restoring its services to normal as rapidly as possible when the disputes are settled. The first issue is, of course, to get the disputes settled.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, will my noble friend join with me in wishing the talks well this afternoon? We are in a situation in which 20,000 low-paid workers have withdrawn their labour, 11 major mail centres are shut, every London delivery office is closed for delivery and there is already a prospect of the dispute spreading to Southend, East Anglia, Oxford and other places. That is a matter of concern for the Government.

Would my noble friend agree it is not good to hide behind the idea that management must manage, when the Government appointed the current management structure, which is carrying out a vengeful and spiteful attack on those people who had an official day's action? When they returned to work, old agreements that had been properly negotiated were torn up and thrown in their faces. Can my noble friend spare the time this afternoon to sit down with me so that I can tell him about some of the incidents that have taken place in the name of the management that our Government, this side of the House, agreed to— although not with my permission or approval? When the Postal Services Act 2000 went through this House, I warned noble Lords what would happen. Get those spiteful, vengeful dogs off the back of these decent postal workers!

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the House will recognise how knowledgeable my noble friend is about these issues. I can only benefit by sitting down with him later this afternoon and discussing the issues further. What I am not prepared to do is to debate the merits of the dispute over the Dispatch Box when, as he will recognise, there is much complexity involved. It is absolutely essential, as he has said, that the two sides get together and address the issues properly.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, as noble Lords know, the strike, although spreading, is unofficial, and is taking place notwithstanding the valiant efforts of the Minister's noble friend the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer— who is not present today. Nevertheless, would the Minister agree that the dispute demonstrates the need for the Government to encourage moves towards compulsory arbitration in disputes involving essential public services?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House recognises one point that the noble Lord made; namely, that my noble friend Lord Sawyer has contributed substantially to improvement in industrial relations. In the past three years, industrial relations in Royal Mail have improved, and the present outburst of unofficial disputes is doing considerable damage.

The noble Lord will recognise that, when we are dealing with unofficial disputes, the only way of resolving them is by the two sides getting together. They met yesterday and did not resolve the issues, but the talks are continuing, and it would be quite inappropriate for outside agencies to act at this stage.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, speaking as a lonely elderly person who is aware that her birthday cards have gone astray, may I ask the Minister what he considers normal? Does he consider it normal that, when a parcel is delivered, the postman no longer rings the bell but simply leaves a card? While paying huge tribute to the postal services in the Palace of Westminster, will he ensure that, while the conversations are going on, more attention is paid to the efficiency of the Post Office as it works at present?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, it is in the interests of Royal Mail to ensure that it offers the best possible service. However, the noble Baroness will recognise why some aspects of past practice are inappropriate in this day and age. We can all recall the times when packages were left on our doorstep, or with friendly neighbours. It is much more difficult these days to distinguish people, when all sorts of material is sent through the post. It is important that items are collected by the individual concerned, that proper regard is given to security, and that items are not simply left outside the house.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, I speak with my old trade union hat on. Are the Government satisfied with the progress being made, bearing in mind the report of the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, about the industrial relations situation as it has developed in the Post Office? Does the Minister agree that the huge fat-cat salaries being paid at the top end of the structure are unhelpful?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, salaries at the top level are related strictly to performance-related agreements, and payment is made only on the basis of achievement. The House will recognise that the disputes and difficulties will affect the hitting of such targets.

More generally, my noble friend, with the vast trade union background which he brings to bear on these matters, will recognise that there have been improvements in industrial relations in Royal Mail. This setback has sprung from difficulties over one issue alone—the question of the London allowance. In other parts of the country, great progress has been made, with the assistance of my noble friend Lord Sawyer. All is not gloom. At present, we are in difficulties, but I reiterate the point that the two sides are meeting again today. We hope for a successful outcome.