HC Deb 02 April 1985 vol 76 cc1071-7

4.6 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Norman Tebbit)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the possibility of disruption to postal services as a result of industrial action by members of the Union of Communications Workers.

The Post Office has been discussing with the UCW for several months a number of measures to improve productivity and provide a more reliable mails service. The need for improvemt has been indicated over many years, most recently in the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on the letters service, published in September last year.

Negotiations last weekend resulted in a failure to reach an agreement acceptable to both parties. Some UCW members subsequently refused to continue operating the optical character recognition machine at the Mount Pleasant sorting office yesterday and were suspended. That led to a walk-out by staff. I understand that, following an injunction granted to the Post Office in the High Court, the afternoon shift reported at 2 o'clock today, and the OCR machine is now operating normally.

Subject to certain derogations, the Post Office enjoys the exclusive privilege of providing a letters service in the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), the then Secretary of State for Industry, told the House on 16 July 1980 that powers are available to remove the monopoly, either in a local area or nationally, and that those powers would be used in the event of industrial action within the Post Office that resulted in a cessation or serious decline in the quality of service. That remains the case.

Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)

Does not the Secretary of State realise that the settlement of the differences between the Post Office management and the UCW over quite difficult matters such as the proposed large increase in part-time workers and the use of OCR machines throughout the country can be satisfactorily achieved only by negotiation and a real attempt by both sides to reach an agreement? Is it not remarkable that in the statement that the right hon. Gentleman has chosen to make to the House today, at no stage did he refer to negotiations or wish the process of negotiation any success? Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that at this very moment discussions are taking place between the executive of the UCW and the chairman of the Post Office? Would it not be better to encourage that attempt to settle the dispute rather than, at this delicate stage, to make a provocative and ill-judged threat to withdraw the Post Office monopoly?

Mr. Tebbit

I have made no threat whatever. There has been no provocation and nothing that has been done either by me or by the Post Office management has been ill-judged. I understand that negotiations have been resumed and I welcome that. I believe that it is best not to comment on those negotiations at this stage, but I hope that they will come to a fruitful conclusion.

Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

As disputes of this kind are very difficult to resolve once they have started, will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is nothing to prevent ACAS intervening in advance of any dispute if the parties are unable to reach agreement? To the extent that a dispute is possible, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the Government's duty to allow and encourage the maximum movement of mail in this country? Is he satisfied that there are private sector companies ready and willing to do that?

Mr. Tebbit

My hon. Friend is right. ACAS is ever ready to offer assistance but it is up to the parties to agree on whether they wish to take advantage of such assistance. One of the most important aspects of the dispute is the fact that the Post Office has used the injunction procedure and thereby ended the industrial action. The question of suspension of the monopoly therefore does not arise at the moment as there is no problem with the post. Should the post be interfered with, I should, of course, have to consider the matter most carefully.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Does not the Secretary of State realise that the fears of the workers at Mount Pleasant sorting office in my constituency have been exacerbated by the management's provocative action in unilaterally introducing new technology and productivity measures? Does he agree that it is even more provocative for the Government now to be making implied threats about the future of the Post Office monopoly?

Mr. Tebbit

The hon. Gentleman refers to the introduction of new technology as though the machine in question had not already been working for a year. New technologies mean major changes in the way we work and how we live. In the Britain of the future, we will need a new flexibility in the way we work — with less hours at work, a positive approach to new technologies, a new priority to training and retraining throughout our working lives". The prose may be pretty turbid, but that is the kind of stuff being put out in the names of the Leader of the Opposition and a pop singer called Bragg.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

As the TUC is constantly telling the Government to encourage the cutting down of excess overtime so that more people can be taken from the ranks of the unemployed, will my right hon. Friend invite the TUC to support the Post Office, which is proposing exactly that by cutting overtime and employing more people at present out of work?

Mr. Tebbit

The formal view of the TUC was expressed in its paper presented to the March meeting of the National Economic Development Council. It said: Although in limited cases for short periods overtime can provide extra flexibility it rapidly becomes entrenched and inefficient. We all agree with that, don't we?

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

Will the Secretary of State concentrate on the real issues in the dispute? Is not the truth of the matter that the Government are now pressuring Sir Ronald Dearing to bash the Post Office workers, just as they pressured Mr. MacGregor to bash the coal miners? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Post Office union's conference takes place in six weeks' time and that if negotiations had been conducted with a bit more diplomacy and sensitivity these issues could have been amicably resolved? As it is, on 15 April part-time and casual workers are to be introduced without consultation or agreement with the unions. Will the Secretary of State use his good will to allow common sense to prevail in the negotiations and restrain the charman of the Post Office from taking such hostile measures?

Mr. Tebbit

I gather from the hon. Gentleman that there is some criticism of the chairman of the Post Office. I must confess that I would not differ from the view that Sir Ronald Dearing is superb, inventive, humorous, loyal—

Mr. Ryman

Like you?

Mr. Tebbit

Indeed. Those adjectives were applied to Sir Ronald Dearing by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) in his book, talking about the Civil Service. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Ryman) is critical.

As for provocation, the Post Office management and the UCW have been in negotiation for many months on many of these issues concerning productivity and working methods. Although a good deal of progress has been made, the hands of the UCW negotiators were tied by conference decisions about the extension of productivity agreements corporation-wide and the recruitment of part-time staff. The Post Office had hoped that the special delegate conference in early March would untie the union negotiators' hands, but the knots were firmly retied by very large majorities. In those circumstances, there seemed little point in waiting for the normal conference in May and every reason to press ahead with the introduction of arrangements which will benefit the staff and, above all, those who use the Post Office service. The Post Office is there for the public to use, not for people to play silly games in.

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

I welcome the news that there has been a return to work, but should not those who went on strike yesterday to preserve inefficient and high-cost services realise that no one is indispensable, as the United States air traffic controllers discovered when President Reagan sacked them? Although we welcome my right hon. Friend's cautious words about the Post Office monopoly and industrial action, as the Government are bent on deregulation is it not time to consider the matter on a long-term basis to see whether there is any justification for the monopoly?

Mr. Tebbit

I think that it is fairly clearly established that the Post Office monopoly of the letter post has benefits as well as disbenefits. If my hon. Friend feels that there are arguments about this as yet unrehearsed I am sure that he will give them a fair airing. Of course, if there are bouts of industrial action in the Post Office the balance will change, perhaps decisively.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

We accept the case for introducing new technology and reducing overtime to achieve flexibility and to spread jobs, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a prolonged industrial dispute would lose all the benefits of those reforms? Does he accept that the key to solving the dispute may lie in assuring Post Office workers that productivity bonuses will go some way to reducing the loss of overtime earnings on a regular basis? Does he also agree that it would be foolish for the Government to convert the dispute into a battleground over the introduction of further privatisation?

Mr. Tebbit

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. No one who is sensible about these matters would want a dispute in the Post Office. That would damage the Post Office and the prospects for jobs in it. We all expect excessive overtime to be cut back so that more workers can be taken on. That is common sense. There is, of course, the problem that some workers have become very reliant on long hours of overtime. I emphasise, however, that Sir Ronald Dearing made it plain in a letter distributed to all Members of the House that 55 per cent. of the gains from these changes would fall into the hands of the Post Office workers. That is a fairly generous split.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

Bearing in the mind the success of private operators in providing a highly efficient letter service at very short notice in the last major Post Office dispute, will my right hon. Friend confirm that if there is a major dispute the monopoly will be lifted immediately, at the beginning of the dispute?

Mr. Tebbit

I think that it is much better not to jump to the conclusion that there will be a major dispute. We should work for a sensible solution. I have made it plain that I entirely stand by the words of my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State which I quoted in my statement. Should there be a dispute which suspends or gravely damages the mail service, I shall make early and quick decisions about the suspension of the monopoly.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Is the Secretary of State not aware that all that prevented the UCW and the Post Office reaching agreement on Saturday night on the operation of the OCR machine was the fact that in recent days the Post Office has thrown into the discussion the need to employ part-time labour? Will the Secretary of State accept that there is a suspicion now that the Post Office — today, unfortunately, joined by the right hon. Gentleman — is trying to pre-empt the presentation by the executive of my union, the UCW, to the annual conference in Bournemouth in May, of a much more flexible approach?

The relaxation of the monopoly did not operate in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith). The cost of delivering a letter by using a private company was 10 times greater than the cost of a postage stamp. After the 1971 dispute ended, hundreds of thousands of letters were found in the possession of private companies and subsequently had to be delivered by the Post Office. I hope that the Secretary of State will not turn a grievance into a full-scale industrial dispute.

Mr. Tebbit

I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman, who has some connection with the union, should say that the issue of part-time workers was thrown in over the weekend. It has been under negotiation for months and months. Neither the Post Office nor I can stop the executive of the hon. Gentleman's union putting constructive proposals to the conference in May. Indeed, we were overjoyed at the thought that some constructive proposals might result from the conference in March. Some progress was made, but unfortunately not on the important issues of a corporation-wide productivity agreement and part-time staff.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that customers—especially companies that took part in the recently published CBI forecast showing great economic recovery — will be delighted to learn that in the event of serious industrial action this essential national service will be maintained?

Mr. Tebbit

Certainly. If the Post Office will not, or is unable to, deliver the mail, it would be unpardonable for us to permit the service to cease when there are options available to us.

Mr. Gregor MacKenzie (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

Will the Secretary of State accept that the sensible way of reaching a settlement of the dispute is to permit the chairman of the Post Office and the general secretary of the UCW to get on with the discussions by themselves? Will the right hon. Gentleman also accept that veiled threats of breaking the monopoly do nothing to calm the atmosphere so that the dispute may be settled?

Mr. Tebbit

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The best thing that we can do is to let the parties negotiate together. However, the hon. Gentleman describes as a veiled threat about the monopoly what he should regard as an assurance given to the consumer.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Would my right hon. Friend accept that the action taken by workers at the Mount Pleasant office was nothing short of industrial sabotage? Will he warn the UCW that unless it co-operates properly and ensures that the post is delivered on time the Post Office's monopoly will be very much in question, and that the Post Office is a natural candidate for privatisation?

Mr. Tebbit

My hon. Friend expresses himself somewhat robustly. I am a moderate and quiet chap. I say only that if the Post Office cannot or will not operate the mail service there will be an increasingly strong case for allowing others, who can and will, to do so.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

Will the Secretary of State agree that industrial action is in no one's interests, particularly when we remember the damage done by the previous industrial dispute both to the Post Office and to its workers? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what the position of Post Office workers will be if the productivity agreement is adopted? Will they be worse off? Will there be any redundancies?

Mr. Tebbit

I understand that Sir Ronald Dearing has assured the union that there is no question of redundancies arising from the agreement. Part-time workers will be taken on at normal rates of pay. They will in this sense be permanent members of staff, not casuals.

It is difficult to say what will happen to each individual's pay. Some Post Office employees currently work very long hours of overtime. I do not know whether in future they will have the opportunity to work quite such long hours of overtime, or whether the extra productivity payments would make up the difference. Those are matters for negotiation, and the parties should be allowed to get on with the negotiations and sort them out.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that about half the mail of the firm of solicitors of which I am a partner is delivered through the private enterprise system? We use the private system because it is much cheaper than the public system, and only when mail is delivered by private enterprise can we guarantee that it will reach its destination on the following day.

Mr. Tebbit

I note what my hon. Friend says, as I hope will those concerned in the Post Office. It must have been quite a shock to the Post Office to read the recent report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which could not confidently say that the Post Office letter mail was being operated in the public interest.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

This morning I received, unsolicited and unenveloped, a seven-page letter from the chairman of the Post Office explaining his side of the argument over Mount Pleasant. Did the Secretary of State authorise the distribution of that letter? If so, why did the Post Office not bother to put it in an envelope like every other item of correspondence that hon. Members receive? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that equal facilities are made available to the UCW to write to all hon. Members to explain the union's fears about the method of introduction of new technology, the threat to jobs, and the threat of post office closures implicit in the Government's strategy for the Post Office?

Mr. Tebbit

The ability of the UCW to write to hon. Members could only be threatened if industrial action prevented the mail from being delivered. I am therefore very glad that the industrial action has ended. I am sure that if the UCW wishes to write to hon. Members, the union knows the address and the form. Of course Sir Ronald Dearing did not have to ask my permission to write to hon. Members.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I thought that three hon. Members had risen. I will call those who have consistently been trying to catch my eye.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Secretary of State aware that so long as he heads the Ministry there is bound to be added anxiety and concern that the Post Office is being encouraged to pursue a policy of confrontation? When will the right hon. Gentleman understand that there is no effective substitute for negotiation between employers and trade unions without coercion?

Mr. Tebbit

For once, there is not much difference between the hon. Gentleman's view and my own. The right way to proceed is to get the parties together and to encourage them to negotiate and reach a constructive agreement that would be to the benefit, above all, of those who use the Post Office.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

If the Secretary of State implements his threat of breaking up the Post Office monopoly, can he guarantee to those who use the Post Office that there will be no increase in charges?

Mr. Tebbit

I have made no such threat. I have undertaken to the House that if mail deliveries are suspended I will give careful and early consideration to the means of maintaining the service to the public. That is an assurance to the public. It is a matter between the public and those who would offer the service. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman understands the real world; he has been in the Labour party for too long.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the provocative manner in which the board and chairman of the Post Office have closed Crown and sub post offices, particularly in East and West Ham, bodes ill for the negotiations now in train? Will he have a look at the statement that he made concerning the optical machine now operating normally? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, according to the information that I have received, there was an agreement to operate that machine experimentally, which has expired? If that is so, will he make a correction, or let me know if I am wrong?

Mr. Tebbit

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is no. The answer to his second question is that the machine is operating normally. It operates today in the way that it usually does. The letters go in, are read optically, and come out the other end. As I understand it, that is the normal way of operation.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Is it not hypocritical for the Secretary of State to talk about the reliability of the service and its quality when the Post Office is closing Crown post offices and destroying local services, abrogating local and national agreements, and putting profit before public service? Should not the right hon. Gentleman have announced today that it was the responsibility of the management of the Post Office to return to full consultation and negotiation with the UCW, before — if the angry mood of the Coventry postal workers is any guide—the dispute inevitably spreads?

Mr. Tebbit

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do his best to spread the dispute. But he should consider whether a refusal to operate the machinery effectively represents an ambition to put profit before service to the community. Many people would think so.

Mr. Bob McTaggart (Glasgow, Central)

If the Secretary of State is concerned about giving a service to the community and preventing the hardship that is caused to many people through post office closures, will he use his good offices to instruct the Postmaster-General to cease the policy of sub post office closures? That policy is causing great hardship throughout the country.

Mr. Tebbit

The office of Postmaster-General was abolished even before the hon. Gentleman became a Member of Parliament. But the substantive point is that the proposed closures are subject to an extensive process of consultation. Not all the proposed closures are carried through, and I believe that the Post Office adopts an extremely responsible attitude towards its obligations in that respect.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for delaying the House, but many Opposition Members were unable to hear the precise answer that the Secretary of State gave in response to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Member for Islington, North asked whether the Secretary of State had given his permission for the chairman of the Post Office to circulate a letter. The Secretary of State either said he did, or he did not. We were unable to hear his reply. Could the Secretary of State clarify that point?

Mr. Tebbit

It may be for the convenience of the House if I make that point clear. I said that the chairman had no need or requirement to ask me for permission to circulate a letter. I did not give him permission' to circulate. He did it entirely off his own bat.