With permission, I would like to make a statement on the Post Office dispute.
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 its 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, its negotiators having first 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 its 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 its 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 its position and in particular clarify with it the precise meaning of its proposal for a mediator. It explained to me that in its view the mediator would be empowered to attempt concilation 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 its conception of the mediator's rôle.
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 its view that arbitration remained the right course for resolving the dispute, but the union has since reaffirmed its refusal to consider arbitration.
In the circumstances, I regret to have to inform the House that the deadlock continues.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the unyielding attitude of the Corporation has only succeeded in stiffening the determination of the postal workers to continue their action, and that the country, therefore, now faces an indefinite strike, with increasing dislocation of private and commercial convenience? Is he also aware that Mr. Ryland has made it pretty clear that he is prepared to pay more, if only somebody would tell him to do so. [HON. EMBERS: "Oh."]
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is useless for him to continue to say that the union ought to go to arbitration in a situation in which no clear wages policy has been worked out by the new Corporation to take the place of the Civil Service pay principles under which these workers used to be dealt with, and that when the right hon. Gentleman tells the House that other Post Office unions have gone to arbitration he is failing to point out that the union concerned, the Association of Post Office Executives, has made it clear that it has gone to arbitration in a very different situation, where the pay claim was being dealt with on a Civil Service basis, and that the association has made it clear that it supports the Union of Post Office Workers, the postal workers, in refusing to go to arbitration where no clear criteria have yet been laid down?
In view Of this—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."]—in view of this, have not the Government a clear and urgent public duty to break this deadlock by the personal conciliation efforts of the right hon. Gentleman really bringing the two sides together and trying to find a settlement, or by the appointment of an independent mediator, or by setting up a court of inquiry?
On a point of order. One of my hon. Friends made a statement in the heat of the moment. I do not know whether he meant it. I am wondering whether it is in order for him to repeat it.
Since the right hon. Lady has raised these points, I must reply to them to some extent. She chose to criticise the attitude of the employers for being unyielding. The employers have in fact twice increased their offer.
The union over the weekend has reduced its claim from 19 per cent.—I think of that order—to 13 per cent. So both sides have not been unyielding, but the gap is still very big, and the union has been at least as unyielding as the Post Office on certain matters—for example, on its attitude to arbitration and on its complete refusal to discuss any increase in the offer with any conditions attached to it whatsoever in relation to productivity; on that the union has been utterly unyielding so far. The right hon. Lady referred to Mr. Ryland being prepared to pay more if anyone would tell him to do so. That is completely incorrect. What Mr. Ryland has said all along is that he and his colleagues do not believe that their existing offer of 8 per cent.—or rather, the total cost of their existing 8 per cent. offer—can be increased without their having to ask for yet further increases in postal charges which they do not think there ought to be, not only from the public's point of view but from the point of view of their own industry because of the effect any increase might have in causing a decline in their business. He has, however, said all along that, since he was a party to an arbitration agreement, he would be prepared to go to arbitration and abide by it even though it went against him and he had to ask for increased charges. The union will not accept arbitration. I cannot accept the arguments of the right hon. Lady because, if they are valid, why did the union sign the arbitration agreement as recently as last August? Had this been a long-standing arbitration which had been brought with the Post Office from its previous incarnation under different circumstances, there might possibly be something in that, but the union signed the agreement last August in full knowledge of the conditions.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us feel that if there had been a secret ballot before the dispute the strike would never have taken place? Can he tell us whether any machinery exists whereby there could now be a vote on either the original offer of 8 per cent. or the revised offer of 9 per cent. with strings, so that the rank and file voice of the postal workers could be heard?
No precise machinery exists for that, although Mr. Jackson has in the past put an offer on ballot to his membership and has spoken of the possibility of doing so on this occasion when he has an offer which he is prepared to recommend. So far there has been no question of it, nor is there any automatic machinery available for balloting the membership on the offer as it stands at the moment.
If it is inevitably a matter of speculation whether a meeting under an independent mediator might produce progress, is it not nevertheless the case that it could not possibly do any harm? Since anything is preferable to deadlock, will not the right hon. Gentleman suggest to Mr. Ryland that at least it is worth a shot? If it cannot do any harm, it might just do some good.
The view of the Post Office, as I understand, is that the discussions have been so long and the gap is so great, not only about the amount but about the attitude to tying anything to productivity, that the Post Office needs the help of somebody who, in addition to conciliating, can make recommendations and decisions. This is part of the gap between the two parties. My services and the services of my Department have been available, are available and will be available.
In regard to the allegation, for which it appears there is no evidence, that Mr. Ryland would be willing to pay more if somebody would tell him to do so, was not one of the objects of the Act, setting up the Corporation, introduced by the Government of which the right hon. Lady was a member, to enable the Corporation to take its own commercial judgment without Ministers perpetually breathing down its neck?
Mr. Ryland may be afraid of getting the sack, as his predecessor did, if he gives way. I am mystified about the rôle of the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. Could not he be made redundant and his salary paid to the pool to assist the poor oppressed postal workers?
I wonder what the hon. Gentleman feels that question contributes to the solution of this public trouble. Anyone who has met and dealt with Mr. Ryland, as I have done in the last few weeks, could not make that sort of charge against him.
The last major settlement was the one which came into force on 1st January, 1970. The dispute is about the agreement which should have started, and presumably will start, from 1st January, 1971, once it has been agreed. The January, 1970 settlement was, I think, of the order of 12 per cent.
Is not the right hon. Gentleman being totally hypocritical in suggesting to the House that he is sitting on the fence and not taking sides in this conflict? Have not the right hon. Gentleman and the Government throughout the conflict been behind the Corporation in its endeavours to keep the postmen's wages down? Since the union has no strike fund, is it not clear that the right hon. Gentleman and the Corporation are trying to starve the union into submission, and is it not time that he got off the fence and started genuinely using his mediation services to get something done to solve the dispute?
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his views. If the attitude of myself and my officials is as the hon. Gentleman has described it, or was thought to be so by the parties concerned, it is surprising that only last night when I stressed to Mr. Jackson and his colleagues that before the Post Office Board made its decision it should be fully aware of what the union meant by its mediation proposal and suggested that the union should meet the Post Office again to make sure that it did understand, Mr. Jackson said that he completely trusted me and would prefer me to convey that understanding. I cannot believe Mr. Jackson would have done that in the presence of six fellow members of his executive if the charge made against me by the hon. Gentleman were true.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the attitude of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), as expressed in the House and elsewhere, could, and no doubt does, have an important influence on the future of the negotiations? Does not my right hon. Friend agree also that this is neither the moment nor the issue to induce mean, cheap party political considerations?
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why it seems to most of us that automatically in all matters on every occasion he takes the employers' point of view? I say to him sincerely, would it not help him greatly in this difficult task if, for once, he would say that he believes the union is right and the employer is wrong?
I do not believe that it is my duty, or that it has been seen as the job of any of my predecessors, to express points of view of that kind, because I do not believe that in this or in any similar matter which comes before me right or wrong is always entirely on one side.
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that it is in the national interest that all of us in this House, however deeply we may disagree on many matters, should uphold the highest reputation of arbitration, and that unless we all uphold the impartiality of arbitration the long-term interests of the country will be damaged?
My hon. and gallant Friend has made this point before. I believe it is essential that both sides of industry should be prepared—while the normal practice must be to reach agreement by negotiation—on occasions when negotiations cannot succeed, to accept and abide by arbitration. I see no alternative if we are to have a more orderly and peaceful industrial society.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants this independent assessment—and he knows the feeling of the union about arbitration—why does he not set up an independent court of inquiry and allow the matter to go there? Is it not a fact that the right hon. Gentleman wants instead to see the unions go crawling back? While he has kidded or convinced Mr. Jackson, is he aware that that is not the case here, and that he has not convinced this House?
The last part of the hon. Gentleman's allegation is the complete opposite of the facts. As to the first part, we had the report of an inquiry recently which spoke very strongly about the failure of the union to keep to its agreement about arbitration. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that within a week, and in view of that, we should not get the same result?
The two sides have been meeting this morning and the last news I had before I came to the House was that they were still meeting. When that meeting is finished I hope to have a full report of the situation. Then I must judge what to do next. I shall do whatever I can and whatever seems possible to obtain a solution.
Is it a fact that the Post Office during the course of this dispute has lost revenue in excess of £13 million which, had it not been so lost, would have enabled the Corporation to concede an additional increase of 5 per cent. or 6 per cent. to the Post Office workers? Could he tell the House what scale of loss we must reach before the Minister who is politically responsible for this Department decides to intervene?
I am not sure what the lion. Member means in the last part of his Question, because he seems to forget that, not through the action of this Government, but through the action of his own Government, this is now an independent Corporation. My right hon. Friend can no doubt be questioned about his powers in relation to that when appropriate, but it is certainly not a matter for me. As to the first part of the question, this is one of the tragedies in a strike, on both sides. On the one hand, the workers involved feel sufficiently strongly to forgo a lot of earnings because they believe it is so important. Equally, the employer is prepared to do likewise, and that is why strikes are such serious matters and why, thank Goodness, they do not normally arise in any official, serious way on this scale. This happens when both sides take deep positions to which, whatever may be the rights and wrongs of the situation, they hold very strongly
Is my right hon. Friend aware that only yesterday the Chancellor reaffirmed that the Wilberforce settlement of 10·9 per cent., taken at its best, was not to be regarded as representing a norm? If the Post Office does go beyond 9 per cent., with a general settlement of say, 10 per cent., would it not be regarded as a norm to be applied across the whole field and make the inflationary process catastrophic?
The Wilberforce inquiry stressed very strongly that the electricity workers were a special case because of their productivity. What matters from the overall economic point of view—and this is what causes some of the difficulty and confusion about figures—for the industry is the addition to the wage costs of the industry. The reason why movement is much more possible in the electricity industry at the moment is because of the ongoing introduction of well-founded incentive bonus schemes. It is possible in that industry for people to add substantially to their personal earnings while making much smaller additions to the overall labour costs of the industry. In the Post Office it is not so easy. This was also the basis of the Post Office negotiations at the weekend. While it could not add to the total amount involved in its previous 8 per cent. offer, it said that it would be prepared to seek ways and means of making that more in individual terms if it could be offset through efficiency which would reduce the total additions to labour costs to what was originally offered.
Is it not significant that the Post Office chose last weekend, at the height of the strike, to release to the Press its long-term plans for wrecking the postal services, including the gradual abolition of all postal deliveries to houses and therefore the complete abolition of all postmen? Is that not an indication of its intention not merely of starving them but of trying to frighten the postmen back to work?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will realise that this is outside my field of responsibility and I am not able to answer in detail. But I understand that they were not specific plans, they were Press speculations—
Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that "arbitration" is an ugly word to the trade union movement because of past experience? Will he now delve into the archives and take guidance from the old Ministry of Labour conciliation machinery, which paid dividends to trade unions and employers alike? Is he aware that this would be acceptable to the postmen and would lead to a successful conclusion, which is what the country is asking for?
I take note and do not disagree with the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. As to the first part, he must ask himself why, if what he says is true, this union signed this new arbitration agreement as recently as last August.