SpeechesTrade Unions

John Stonehouse – 1969 Statement on Resolution of Post Office Dispute

The statement made by John Stonehouse, the then Postmaster General, in the House of Commons on 3 February 1969.

I am glad to take this first opportunity to inform the House of the agreement I reached with the Union of Post Office Workers last Friday, 31st January, on the pay of the overseas telegraphists.

As I told the House on 20th January, I had offered 5 per cent. from 1st July, 1968, plus a further 2 per cent. from an early date, conditional upon acceptance of certain changes in practice devised to increase productivity, in particular the introduction of what is known as “Received Revision procedure”.

The agreement is for a 5 per cent. increase from 1st August, 1968; for a further 2 per cent. productivity payment from 1st April, 1969, provided the Received Revision procedure has been fully introduced by then; and for a post hoc revaluation in October, 1969 of the savings achieved, any necessary adjustment of the 2 per cent. being made retrospectively.

This costing will also take account of any other productivity changes that are agreed and fully introduced in the meantime and for the reactivation of O.T.R.U. to be completed by 30th September, 1969; and for the financial benefits of the reactivation to be considered jointly in October, 1969, any pay adjustments then thought necessary being backdated to 1st July, 1969.

This is a good agreement, which has the advantage of providing for firmly-based productivity arrangements related to defined changes in procedure by defined and early dates. It has an inbuilt incentive for productivity to be maximised to the benefit of the public, the staff and the Post Office.

I am delighted that the dispute has been settled in this fair and satisfactory way. I have no doubt that close and cordial working relationships with the union will quickly be restored so that we can go forward together to tackle the many new developments that lie ahead for the Post Office.

The immediate job is to restore services after the strike, and this is well in hand. Telecommunications services are largely back to normal already. All restrictions on postal services will be removed within the next day or so and services as a whole should be back to normal in a week.

Mr. Dobson May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and offer him congratulations upon achieving what he and the union consider to be a just settlement to this dispute?

May I ask why there were no negotiations between Monday of last week and Friday, when the union was at all times willing to meet other members of the Government to discuss this dispute and the terms of a settlement, broadly along the lines now reached by my right hon. Friend?

Finally, will my right hon. Friend tell the House the cost to Post Office revenue of this very difficult and unnecessary dispute?

Mr. Stonehouse It was not possible until Friday to achieve the negotiations on the productivity arrangements that the Government throughout have regarded as the most important aspect of this affair. Originally, the union, although it changed its tack during the course of the dispute, had asked for a 5 per cent. increase from 1st July last year, with no strings attached. We have insisted—and I announced this to the House some time ago—on a firm productivity agreement for which we were prepared to pay 2 per cent. It was on Friday that we were able to hammer out a very satisfactory settlement along those lines.

The loss incurred by the Post Office through this dispute cannot yet be made exactly, but I should estimate that on the information we so far have at our disposal it is at least £2 million.

Mr. Lubbock Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that no one will blame him, whom we admire and like, for the failure of communications that has taken place, but that we do utterly deplore the failure of communications between the Post Office and the Cabinet? Could he explain why it is that, although the Post Office explained the issues involved in this dispute very thoroughly at successive Cabinet meetings, the Cabinet was so dense as not to appreciate them until the very last moment?

Mr. Stonehouse The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to follow him in some of those remarks. Ministers have been united in the way that they have been dealing with this dispute throughout. I can only regret that the union thought it necessary to escalate the dispute in the way it did, bringing in tens of thousands of postal workers who had no direct relationship with the narrow telegraphists’ dispute. That was the most regrettable aspect of the whole affair.

Mr. Raphael Tuck Is it not a fact that the union originally agreed to a 5 per cent. increase, linked to a productivity agreement relating to received revision and overseas telegraph tape relay unit? Why was the agreement not based upon that, without the necessity for a strike?

Mr. Stonehouse This has been a complex question, with which I have had to live for the last two or three months. It has involved a number of questions that we have debated in the House. The reactivation of a piece of equipment called O.T.R.U. was one of the aspects about which there was disagreement between the union and ourselves. We have now been able to reach a very satisfactory agreement on the reactivation of this particular type of equipment.

Mr. R. Carr Is it not time to stop playing with words? Is it not absolutely clear that on the terms now conceded by the Government there need never have been a strike? Ought not the Government to apologise to the country for the mess that they have made?

Mr. Stonehouse I said on Thursday that I regretted the strike, and I think that the whole House does. Certainly, all my right hon. and hon. Friends, and my colleagues in the Government, regret the strike. It was quite an unnecessary dispute. It is certainly true that the negotiations we had on Friday have reached a very satisfactory conclusion. I believe that this augurs well for the future relationship between the union and the Post Office, and that it would be wise for the House not to attempt to ferret into the details, the confidential details, of those negotiations. The House should direct its attention to constructive ends and the build-up of valuable and useful industrial relations in the Post Office.

Mr. Heffer Can my right hon. Friend say how much it would have cost to have settled the dispute, as he has now said that the cost of the dispute to the Post Office was about £2 million? Would he not agree that it would have been much wiser, more sensible, intelligent and better for industrial relations to have sat down at a table much earlier and settled the business rather than going through the great travail of this industrial dispute?

Mr. Stonehouse There is a very big assumption here, that it would have been possible a week ago to have achieved a solution to this dispute on the lines negotiated last Friday. The House will be aware that the union was asking for a 5 per cent. increase, back-dated to last July, without any strings attached. We have negotiated an agreement, backdated to last August, so protecting the six months’ retrospection rule. We also have the union’s full agreement to the introduction of a productivity arrangement that will be of very great value to the Post Office and to those who use our services.

Mr. Peyton Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that nothing he has said has erased the suspicion that this disagreement and the strike could have been avoided, and that the terms of the settlement were always available? Is he also aware that although there may be some sympathy for him, based very largely on the other suspicion, in this instance there were too many cooks spoiling the broth?

Mr. Stonehouse I repeat what I said. There is a very big assumption that agreement on the terms negotiated on Friday was available even a few days before. I believe that all the union negotiators involved in this dispute have come to an arrangement which is extremely satisfactory to their members, but they have also accepted something which was perhaps not available on their side even a few days, and certainly a week or so, before, namely, the need for a wage increase tied to a firm productivity agreement. That was the essential point which the Government had put to the union over the past week, and I am delighted that it has now accepted it.