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Post Office Bill

Volume 932: debated on Monday 16 May 1977

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Order for Second Reading read.

7.0 p.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The effect of this very short and simple Bill is to increase the maximum permitted number of members of the Post Office—the Board, in other words—from 12 to 19, in each case excluding the chairman. In all other respects, the formal structure of the Post Office will remain unchanged.

The purpose of this increase in the size of the Board is to enable the Government to give effect to agreed proposals from the Post Office and the Council of Post Office Unions for an experiment in industrial democracy in the Post Office. I should like to describe the history of these proposals.

In 1974 the Government asked the management and unions of the Post Office to produce proposals for the extension of industrial democracy in the Post Office. Following on from this initiative, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), invited the Post Office and unions to a tripartite meeting last July to discuss the way forward. At that meeting it was agreed that the Post Office and its unions would get together to negotiate agreed proposals for an experiment in industrial democracy in the Post Office. After a great deal of hard work, they submitted their proposals in the form of a joint report earlier this year. I have placed copies of this report in the Library of the House.

It is right that we should pay tribute to all those in the Post Office, management and workers' representatives alike, who have taken part in formulating the proposals. The Post Office and its unions have a long history of forward-looking and effective consultation procedures, and this is one of the factors which weighed heavily with the Government in considering the prospects for an experiment in industrial democracy in their industry.

The proposals recommend that there should be an experiment in industrial democracy in the Post Office, lasting for two years. Progress will then be reviewed with an entirely open mind by the Post Office, the unions and the Government.

The key feature of the proposals is an enlarged Board, consisting of equal numbers of full-time executive members and employee members, with a smaller number of independent members. The joint report recommended that on this basis the number of seats should be 16, with six management, six employee and four independent members. The chairman would be independent of the three groups unless his functions were designated not only as those of chairman but as including a specific and titular executive management role. In that situation the chairman would be counted as one of the management group.

The Government welcome these proposals as a constructive and well thought out arrangement for extending industrial democracy in the Post Office. We have studied the proposals with care, and have also taken into account the strong feeling in favour of a consumer presence on the Board. At the same time, we have been anxious to ensure that the overall structure of the Board leaves room for an adequate blend of experience.

After further consultation with the interested parties, the Government have accepted the joint report, but have concluded that there would be advantage in adjusting the proposed size of the Board from 16 to 19 members. This would mean that the composition of the Board for the experimental period would be seven management members with full-time executive responsibilities, seven members from the work force, and five part-time members independent of these two groups.

Two of the independent members should be persons specifically experienced in consumer affairs and able to speak from a consumer viewpoint. This will allow for adequate employee membership, while also providing a strong element of independent membership. The proposed new arrangement cannot be accommodated within the present statutory maximum of 12 members of the Post Office. That is why this Bill is needed.

As the House will be aware, the Post Office Act 1969 confers the power of appointment of the members of the Post Office on the Secretary of State after consultation with the Chairman. This will remain the position for all members of the Post Office for the duration of the experiment, if the House approves the Bill.

All members, once appointed, will have the same statutory duties as now, and will share full corporate responsibility for running the Post Office. The appointments of the seven executive members will be made, as now, primarily on the basis of general management ability and, where appropriate, of individual skill and experience in more specialised management functions, such as finance and personnel.

For the seven worker directors, I shall invite nominations from the Council of Post Office Unions. The unions will agree arrangements for allocating these seven seats among themselves, and the unions will choose their nominees by the same machinery which is used for the election of national officials.

In accepting these arrangements as appropriate for the Post Office I have had very much in mind the high degree of union membership in the Post Office—well over 90 per cent.—and the fact that the great majority of Post Office employees are members of unions with no membership outside the Post Office.

I shall not be obliged to accept union nominations put to me, though I should expect normally to be able to do so, and I shall be willing in cases of difficulty to consult the union concerned.

In choosing the five independent members I shall bear in mind the need to ensure that this group of members is genuinely independent of the other two groups. My main concern will be to provide the Board with a wide range of skill and experience from outside the Post Office.

I have explained the importance which we attach to adequate consumer experience on the Board. I shall, of course, consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection on the appointment of the two members with consumer experience, though it would not be in accordance with normal practice to provide for such consultation in the Bill.

In appointing the five independents I shall be ready to consider nominations from management and unions in the Post Office, though I would not confine my consideration to such nominations and would not be bound by them.

I would also take account of any objections which I judge to be reasonable from management or unions to proposed appointments. I would expect that objections would be raised only exceptionally to independent candidates, and the final decision will, of course, be mine.

All members of the Board, to whichever category they are appointed, will share full corporate responsibility for running the Post Office and will be expected to play their full part as Board members. There will be no restricted category of membership.

The proposals agreed between the Post Office and the unions have been submitted and have been accepted as being an experiment suitable to the particular circumstances of the Post Office. This is in line with our policy of encouraging the development by agreement—and I emphasise that it is by agreement—of forms of industrial democracy appropriate to the particular circumstances of individual organisations.

May I revert to what the right hon. Gentleman was saying about the independent members? I think he said that he would give the right to management and the trade unions to raise objections. Can he enlarge on that point? Can he say in what circumstances he would think it proper for management and unions to pass comment on the suitability of proposed independent candidates for the Board?

In the present circumstances, with the present Board, I am required to consult the Chairman of the Corporation about appointments, and, of course, I have done so ever since taking office. I am not suggesting that, within the context of this experiment, it will be possible or may be necessary for the Corporation, through its management members, and, equally, for the union members, to raise points about individual members. I do not think that it is possible to cover every contingency and to suggest that they could

There is some confusion on this matter. If the individuals are not acceptable to the Secretary of State or not acceptable to the Chairman of the Post Office, does the Secretary of State have the final say, or does the Chairman?

I have the final say on all appointments within the context of this experiment.

The experiment is in line with general Government policy on encouraging the development of industrial democracy by agreement.

The Post Office is the largest business in the country, and it has a long history of good industrial relations and progressive and responsible attitudes on the part of both management and unions. All those who have been associated with this experiment are keenly aware of the Post Office's ability to make a success of the next two years, and there is no doubt that if the experiment is a success it will have a considerable influence on the whole future of industrial democracy in Britain. This experiment will be closely watched by both the champions and enemies of industrial democracy.

raise this or that objection. It is part of the agreement, which, no doubt, the hon. Gentleman has considered if he has obtained a copy of it. I would not be bound by the objection and I would still, if necessary, go ahead with the appointment. That is part of the consultation process that I envisage.

I should like to extend what I believe to be well-deserved congratulations to the Post Office management and unions on producing agreed proposals for the experiment and to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for his skilful chairmanship of the tripartite meetings. They have devoted much time and effort to this important matter over the past two years, but they recognise that the making and acceptance of these proposals is only a beginning. The real test will be to make the experiment work.

The various Post Office unions will be putting the proposals for the experiment, as modified in discussion with the Government, to their annual conferences in the next few weeks. I hope that they will receive full endorsement, and that the unions will enable their members to participate in the experiment and share in electing members to the board.

Has the Secretary of State thought through the implications of what will happen should a situation arise in which trade union members of the Board are at loggerheads with their opposite numbers in management over some industrial matter? What would happen if they were unable to reconcile this, and it led to industrial action? In these circumstances what would be the position of trade union members on the Board?

I apologise if the hon. Member has not had time to look at the agreed proposals that were placed in the Library this morning. That kind of situation was envisaged in the discussions that took place between the Post Office Corporation and the unions. They accepted full corporate responsibility as members of the Board. They will not engage in discussions about factors the hon. Member has described, although there will be a procedure for reporting back to their conferences. I cannot point to the particular section in the agreement without taking up too much time, but no doubt my hon. Friend will point this out when he winds up. While one cannot cover every contingency—we are breaking new ground here—this was a factor, because it was an obvious one, that was taken into consideration in discussions on whether the experiment should go ahead. I am not trying to evade or avoid the hon. Member's question. I hope that he will accept that this matter was considered at some length.

I want to bring my speech to a close as this is a short debate and other hon. Members wish to speak. I hope that what we are proposing will get the full endorsement of all concerned.

The Government, for their part, have moved quickly to introduce this Bill, which is essential to put the experiment into operation. All being well, and with the good will of all concerned, and of the Opposition in Committee, I hope that appointments can be made as soon as practicable after the Bill receives Royal Assent. I hope that the House will give this experiment an opportunity to go ahead and succeed, and that hon. Members will support the proposals.

7.16 p.m.

There are two interesting features in this Bill. The first is that it is a one-clause Bill, which is unusual. But when it is short on words it is long on significance. I do not think that anyone should be misled by the fact that it is so short. It is extremely important.

Another reason why the Bill commands our attention is that it is the first eccentric gasp of life from the Lib-Lab consultative committee. Here we have the bright fruits of the alliance. We have been waiting with bated breath for the results that will stiffen the sinews and make the blood run quicker through the veins of the Liberal workers in the trenches.

However, I was disappointed with the results because I thought that we would get something more than a bit more State patronage. The hills have been in labour but they have produced only the smallest brown mouse.

I do not think that my hon. Friend is right in saying that the Lib-Lab pact has made the Post Office the guinea-pig of the Bullock Report. The seeds were planted long before the pact.

My hon. Friend is quite right but it is true that the original proposals that the Government had in mind and to which the Secretary of State referred, were modified in the light of the discussions with the Liberals. The intention has been and is to use the Post Office as an experiment in industrial democracy.

There are some curious features in the Bill. Despite this we would wish to give it a Second Reading, and I commend it to my hon. Friends. Some people may feel that at best it will make little difference and that it runs risks. I hope that such sceptics will be confounded and that the Bill will prove a success.

There have been differences between the two sides of the House over the implementation of the Bullock Report. Conservatives accept that it is right that employees should be given a say over matters affecting their lives, such as those relating to investment, takeovers and new plant. We see that primarily in terms of improving the efficiency of industry and meeting the aspirations of people.

I do not go along with the more extreme rhetoric from the Labour Benches comparing the extension of industrial democracy with the extension of the franchise. The analogy is misleading, not least because the extension of the franchise was not confined to trade union members.

Another significant difference between us and the Government on this matter is that we fear that the Government might use the Bullock Report as an opportunity to impose one particular system of worker participation on industry as a whole. At least that is not happening in this situation. This is a one-off Bill, and it is not being imposed by law. The details were worked out within the Post Office and what we are being presented with today is essentially an enabling Bill for the enlargement of the Board to allow the experiment to be carried out.

One perhaps ought to make the point that although no solution is being imposed by law, one suspects that a certain amount of pressure has been put on the Post Office to conduct the experiment—pressure from the trade unions on the Government—I suspect that the management in the Post Office has not been quite as enthusiastic as the trade union side.

One ought to recognise that there are risks in conducting this experiment. The Post Office, as Ministers constantly remind us, is a very important part of the economy of this country. It is one of the largest corporations in the world. It is the largest in this country and the largest in Europe. It is larger than many corporations in the United States. It is a difficult enough corporation to run, one might say, without being an experiment for the private sector.

Although we recognise and, indeed, support the arguments against imposing worker participation by law, in some ways I think it is extraordinary that we have been given so little detail until this moment of the way in which the agreements are to operate. We seem to be presented with a blank document, a blank cheque, to Mr. Jackson, guaranteed by the most unlikely of guarantors, the Liberal Party.

There are many details in the scheme which still seem to be unclear and still seem to be in need of greater clarification. There is to be a code of practice for the directors. Will this code of practice actually be made public? Will Parliament, as well as the conferences of the trade unions, have an opportunity to approve that code of practice? Has the scheme actually been approved by all the negotiating parties, all the people involved in the Post Office unions, including the associate members of COPOU? Another area which seems to be left largely grey is that neither side has yet committed itself to what should happen at the local or regional level. For these reasons, it seems that we are presented with a blank document—not so much a half-baked scheme as one that has hardly been in the oven at all.

In many ways, too, the proposals differ from those put forward in the Bullock Report. It is unclear, for example, how far the Post Office Board is to correspond to a unitary board, because there are references in the original document—the study group between COPOU and the Post Office—to the relationship between the management board and the Board of the Post Office being altered. Will the Board conform to what the Bullock Report saw as being a unitary board?

It appears that COPOU itself is not the same as the joint representative committee that was envisaged in the Bullock Report. There are, I believe, eight unions in all in the Post Office. They are not all members of COPOU. Some are associate members, as I have mentioned earlier, and it is extremely important that they should be fully consulted and give their agreement to what is proposed.

Most important of all, there is no evidence that the work force in general has been asked or consulted about whether it wishes to have worker-directors at all. In the Bullock Report it was specified that there ought to be a firm-wide, or corporation-wide ballot on whether people wanted to have the principle of worker-directors at all.

I welcome what the Secretary of State has said about the union people being elected. That had not been clear in the documents we had had so far until today, and I have not seen any document placed in the Library this morning.

But one knows that there is a difference between the procedures being followed here and those actually proposed in the Bullock Report, where it was suggested that no scheme ought to be implemented until it had been triggered by a firm-wide ballot.

One of the doubts that one must have about the scheme concerns its timing. Perhaps we have grown too used to the rather leisurely pace at which the business of Parliament is currently proceeding, but there are all sorts of inquiries going on in Whitehall, one understands, about worker participation. There are variout committees relating to worker participation in the public sector. According to Press reports, there is a committee in the Civil Service Department and one in the Department of the Environment. There is one that was being run by Mr. Lord, on industrial democracy generally in the public sector. He has now gone to greener pastures elsewhere, but what is happening to his report? Is it to be published? What has it said? How far does it fit in with what is proposed here?

Apart from those internal reports in Whitehall, there is also the Carter Report. We know from Press reports—or think we know—what is in the Carter Report, but why could not the Government have waited until the report was published and we had had a debate on it in the House, and the public at large had been able to digest it and gauge its reaction to it? After all, the Carter Committee considered the question of worker participation and took some very good evidence from the Post Office Engineering Union about worker participation in the Post Office.

It is widely rumoured that the report will recommend that the corporation should be split into two parts. Will that be made easier by making a premature decision now on worker representation on a joint board? As I was driving here for this debate tonight, I heard Mr. Jackson himself saying how very strongly he was opposed to any proposals in the Carter Report to split the corporation into two. How easy will it be to implement those proposals—if they exist—if we have this scheme implemented now? Will it be easy to implement any reduction in manning, which may be recommended by the report? It seems to me that it would have been wiser to wait for the report to be published and for people to gauge their reaction to it.

With regard to the scheme itself, there are three criteria by which one should judge what the Secretary of State said today. First, will the proposals ensure the accountability of the Post Office? Secondly, will they speed up the introduction of change within the Post Office? Thirdly, and most important of all, will they result in improved services to the customers?

It is when one examines the proposals by these criteria that one must have some doubts. Consider first the fact that there seems to be a tremendous blurring of responsibility by some of the proposals. In answer to an intervention the Secretary of State tried to deal with one point which interested me. Under the 1969 Act he has the last word on the appointment of Board directors, but unions at the same time are to be able to nominate them. Will the Secretary of State really be able to reject someone if the unions suggest a person whom he thinks unsuitable? I hope that he has very firmly said that that is the case.

But the more important question to which I should like to refer is whether we can be sure that all the directors of the Board will have the same obligations and responsibilities. It would be a real tragedy if these proposals resulted in seven-a-side football, with five linesmen and a referee. Are they all to take the same obligations? Are they all to have the same responsibility? the Secretary of State touched on this today and said "Yes", but that is not entirely born out by the joint study group report of the Council of Post Office Unions and the Post Office.

When talking about the attitude of the unions and their position, the report said that the union members
"would not be ' mandated ' by the unions but they would need to report back to their ' constituencies ', possibly at Annual Conferences and more frequently to Executive Councils. To this end the parties accept that a general understanding or agreed code of practice would be necessary".
The report went on to
"envisage that such union nominees would discuss at a meeting of the Board… the general nature and extent of reports back; that while they could not be expected to defend publicly a Board decision which was at variance with their unions' policy, they would refrain in public from taking such decisions".
It seems to me that it will not lead to the smooth operation of a board to have members of it who are not to undertake to defend the decisions of that board in public. If all they have to do is to maintain silence—if that is the most that can be expected of them—all a member of the Board has to do is to say "No comment" and it will be as plain as a pikestaff exactly what his attitude to a Board decision has been. Boards cannot work in that way, and that document is symptomatic of how it really will operate. It will ensure that the Board will be a forum for debate rather than for decision making.

The hon. Gentleman has quoted out of context in order to strengthen his argument. The hon. Gentleman was quoting from paragraph 13 of the document. He should have gone on to say, in pointing out the unions' responsibilities, that like all Board members, the union members would explain the Board's reasons for decisions—including any with which they might disagree. That goes much further than the hon. Gentleman suggested. The members will not be washing their hands of responsibility. That is fully explained in paragraph 13 when it is read from start to finish.

I am sorry that I did not read out the whole of that sentence, but I thought that I had read a long extract. The part to which the Secretary of State referred is more an expression of hope than anything else. Of course, Board members can formally undertake to convey what the rest of its members have given as their reasons for a particular decision, but if it is to work successfully it must operate on the same basis as the Cabinet. Members must have collective responsibility and abide by the decisions made. Despite what the Secretary of State has said and despite what is written in that document, the theory of Cabinet responsibility here is similar to that held by the Secretary of State for Energy and, quite rightly, it is rejected by the Prime Minister because it will not work. A board must abide by the collective decisions of that board.

There are also doubts about the size of the Board, although it could be said that there are private sector boards that are just as large. I note that Sir William Ryland has expressed doubts about its size. It is extremely important that its independent members really shoud be independent, and that the union nominees should be people who are listened to on the ground, people of experience and qualifications who can contribute to the Board. I hope that this will not be an excuse for "Buggins's turn next". The Secretary of State did not say anything about training or other facilities that might be available. I hope that there will be something that we can learn from this for the future and that the unions will provide good people, because nothing could do the scheme more good than the unions coming up with good people for the Board.

The main point is that it is not just participation at Board level that matters. Participation matters at all levels, and perhaps it is a pity that more has not been said about participation at regional and local level. I gather that is to be left until later. Participation at Board level will not work great changes just by itself. I noticed that the Minister of State, in an admirable speech the other day, referred to worker participation as unleashing a great reservoir of enthusiasm and talent in the Post Office. All these "bound Prometheians" will not come forward to contribute to the Post Office simply because we enlarge the Board. Something must happen at a lower level as well.

The test to which the greatest attention will be paid is how much having union representatives on the Board will enable the Post Office to speed up modernisation and change. Those who are sceptical about the scheme fear that it may lead to bargaining power being brought into the board room and that there will therefore be less change, not more. In that sense, what happens in the Post Office will be a good test for worker participation generally.

When we receive the Carter Report we shall have a more balanced and authoritative view of overmanning in the Post Office, but I shall be surprised if the report does not confirm some of the things that have been said about overmanning and union practices in the past.

We know the difficulties that have been experienced in the past in introducing mechanised sorting, and how the Post Office has been compelled by union attitudes to pay what many consider to be a high price for its introduction. It is due to that resistance that for long periods up-to-date and expensive machinery has been lying about unused, under plastic sheets. Meanwhile, productivity has declined. Throughput per man in the mail has declined by 12½ per cent. since 1970. That is the equivalent of a penny on a letter.

I make no apology for mentioning union attitudes. I am not for a moment suggesting that everything that is wrong in the Post Office is the fault of union attitudes, but we are here talking about the extension of union power and responsibilities. It is therefore legitimate to discuss how that power has been used in the past and how it will be used in the future.

Nor is this simply a question of economics and efficiency. Political matters are involved. I had intended to refer in passing to the evidence that the unions were anxious to repeal some of the statutory obligations of the Post Office—particularly Section 58 of the Post Office Act 1953, but as I drove here tonight I heard on the radio that the Government and the unions are now talking about this very thing and, according to Mr. Jackson, there is a chance that that section of the Act will be repealed. We have considerable reservations and regrets about that. The postal service should not be the subject of regional or national whims, or political interference in any way.

In the last analysis, this experiment will be judged by the results and on whether there is any improvement in the postal service. Unfortunately it will be extremely difficult for people to measure the results, because we do not receive the information that we ought to have about the efficiency of the Post Office. Indeed, the unions have been obstructive and have tried to prevent more information being made available to the users of the postal services. I cannot see any reason why we should not have the figures relating to output per man, and per man hour. That is the way in which we can judge the efficiency of the Post Office. The fact that the Post Office is able to borrow all the money that it wants, to put up its prices, and is a monopoly, is all the more argument why we should be entitled to such detailed information in order to judge its performance.

It is no use the Government complaining—as the Minister of State has sometimes done—that the critics of the Post Office are confined to columnists in The Times or the Sir Herbert Gussets of this world. In a previous incarnation, when the Minister of State was in the Opposition Benches, he complained that whenever he took up his telephone all that he could obtain was a high-pitched whine.

That was the responsibility not of the Post Office but of the PBX system in the House.

My impression was that the hon. Gentleman was talking about the telephone service generally and about the telephone in his own home.

In the absence of statistics about the performance of the Post Office, people will judge the service by their own experience and they will judge this experience by the results achieved. We want to know whether the experiment will do anything to rectify the situation in which 7,000 first-class letters are late every day, that prevents a telex being installed in South London in less than three to six months, and in which automatic telexes in this country cost five to six limes more than they do in the United States.

There is public dissatisfaction with the services and a feeling that as costs go up the services are not improving—far from it. I hope that the critics of the scheme are confounded. I wish the Board well, and I hope that we shall be able to see a real improvement in the performance of the corporation, but I do not think that it is any use pretending that people are watching the experiment other than very critically.

7.40 p.m.

I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill and on the agreement they have brought to the House which has been reached between the Post Office and the unions concerned. It will be warmly welcomed by the union members and in the Labour Party, where many people have been expressing concern for some time about the lack of democracy in the public sector. They will be watching with close interest to see how the experiment in the Post Office works with a view, if it is successful, to a possible extension on similar lines to other public corporations.

I rebut the suggestion of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) that the proposal has come to light only as a result of the Bullock Report. The House knows of my association with one of the Post Office unions, and I know that the unions have been pressing for more than 30 years to have a voice in the shaping of the decisions that affect their members' lives. The remarkable degree of consultation which takes place within the Post Office and which is a response to the pressure is testimony of that fact.

The general secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers said at the union's conference today that his members are anxious and eager to have the opportunity that this experiment in industrial democracy will provide to have a say and to take part in the shaping of the decisions that affect them. I agree with him that the worker-directors of that union and others will work in the interests of the community as well as in the interests of workers within the industry. I also agree with him that they will be working for greater efficiency and an extension of the usefulness of the services provided.

The unions will expect the new Post Office Board to have a better track record than we have seen in the past, and I think that all those who participate in the scheme will share that wish. The Post Office workers have a great and positive contribution to make in these matters. They have developed the finest and most effective joint consultative machinery one could hope for in an industry of this size. They are ready for the logical extension of that machinery into this experiment.

I am connected with the Civil and Public Services Association, which, in backing the experiment and giving it full-hearted support, would like certain assurances, some of which have been referred to already. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) referred to extending this democracy to local and regional level. We are all anxious that the experiment should not take place only at the top level at Board meetings in Post Office headquarters in Howland Street that are totally removed from workers in the North of Scotland, Manchester, Liverpool, the North-East, Devon or other parts of the country.

We hope that the experiment will, as the agreement seems to indicate, link with similar developments at regional and local level. I should like an assurance from the Minister that there will be immediate moves to introduce such participation.

The CPSA feels strongly and made clear in its evidence to the Carter Committee that certain changes are necessary in the structure of the Post Office. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that any change, such as splitting the Post Office into two parts as has been widely discussed, will not be obstructed as a result of the new structure of the Board agreed between the unions and the Post Office. I hope also that we may have an assurance that the new structure will not be used to change or impede the present collective bargaining procedures that have been worked out as a result of sometimes painful discussions over the years. Much has been achieved and there is the best of relationships between the management and the unions in the Post Office. It is to be hoped that this can be continued along with the present collective bargaining procedures.

The House may be interested to know that the CPSA has decided that if it has a representative on the Board he or she will not be involved in the collective bargaining process with the Post Office and will not be able to vote on Post Office issues within the union. He or she will be able to take part in any discussions, but will not be able to vote.

I have also had a long association with the co-operative movement, which, as a consumer organisation, is closely interested in the experiment from the consumer's point of view. It is interested in the appointment of outside directors to the Post Office Board.

The report of the National Consumer Council on consumer machinery in public sector enterprises came down in favour of representation on the boards from users' councils. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection has yet to give his opinion, but an opportunity has arisen for the practical testing of that suggestion in the Post Office experiment. The Post Office Users' National Council is broadly based and is representative of large and small users of the services. I believe that the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) once served on the council, which has more experience of commenting on services and charges than has almost any other body in the public sector. I suggest that the Minister should consider the POUNC as one source of names for the independent people on the Board.

It is important to have persons with business experience. The Post Office is a business and it will be important for the reconstituted Board to achieve commercial success. We must get the right blend of commercial and ordinary domestice user represented on the Board so that a strong consumer view is being pressed. The reconciliation of good results with consumer satisfaction remains the greatest factor challenging public sector enterprises. The trinity concept enshrined in the agreement that has been reached of management, worker and consumer directors is worthy of our encouragement. I hope that the House will give it its support by giving the Bill a Second Reading

7.51 p.m.

The first consequence of the Bill, if, as Liberals hope, it is carried, will be that for the first time the great British Post Office, one of our finest national institutions, will have a real board in the full sense of the term, rather than being governed by a series of field-marshals with their successive retinues of junior officers. That is surely greatly to be welcomed.

At this time of impending national celebration it is to be noted with what a blaze of truly symbolic pageantry the old Post Office régime appears to be departing. It is announcing to the nation that it has managed, without being aware of it at the time, to amass more than £100 million of excess profit. It did not know that this was accruing until the balances were struck at the end of the period.

Elevating the Post Office's rule of thumb to a great maxim of State, it is now to distribute the excess with a lack of discrimination that has not been equalled since a general baptised the whole of his army with a hosepipe. It appears to be oblivious of the immensely different needs and circumstances of the different people who are each to receive the £7 Jubilee bonus, and oblivious of the 7,000 jobs that are estimated to have been lost by the excessive prices that have put telephones out of reach of so many people during the period of the excess profit, and oblivious of the fact that the worst-hit people have now gone off the telephone, having been forced to abandon it before the qualifying date for the £7.

When we contemplate that situation it is surely high time that there should be a fairly radical experiment in a new form of control of this great national institution. I believe that the experimental Board, with the zeal that is kindled by the new prospects, will work as a board. There will be no question that it will be content to receive on a Sunday afternoon from a dispatch rider the papers for the meeting to be held on the next day, the Monday. Its members will be keen to get down to things and to demand a standard of information that I am afraid the Post Office is not at present equipped, accountancy-wise, to provide for its directors.

There will be a revolution in the financial establishment of the Post Office to comply with the requirements of the new Board. It is also welcome to Liberal Members that we should be proceeding at last in this place by way of experiment rather than by forcing doctrinaire methods on great national institutions, only to have them repealed when the electoral pendulum swings. As the Secretary of State has made clear, the experiment is to be carried out with the agreement of the representatives who speak for 95 per cent. of those who will be involved.

It is no secret that this measure has been the subject of a modest amount of pre-legislation consultation. Alas, that consultation has taken place between only two parties. We wish that it could have been consultation between all the various parties in the House. We hope that eventually measures of this sort will have a large degree of all-party consultation before they are laid before the House. At any rate, a start has been made, and I shall refer to that briefly in a moment.

The only minus in the Liberal assessment so far is that the House, alas, does not have the Carter Report available for the purposes of this debate. It appears to have missed the opportunity by a whisker. The report would not have served to quash the experiment, but it might conceivably have altered the shape of it. Given the information that has been provided by the free Press about the report, the official channels seemingly having been very sluggish, we grasp to some extent the heroic task that the union members and independent members have agreed to take on by engaging in responsibility for the Post Office at this precarious time in its fortunes. I wish that the House had before it the Carter Report and its recommendations for this debate.

As has been emphasised in total contradiction to the interjection of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby), who, having made his interjection, promptly fled, the experiment has nothing whatever to do with Bullock. Any suggestion that this is in some way a sprat to catch a mackerel in respect of shapes and forms of worker participation is nonsense.

Liberal Members believe that the Government were right to treat this as a matter of urgency. New modes of communication are rapidly coming into force throughout the developed world. They are not likely to reduce the need for a letter service but they are likely greatly to reduce the demand for it, which will pose tremendous problems for our Post Office.

The Post Office now has to seek its staff from an entirely new generation, which is totally unwilling, for the most part, to accept the old regimentation on which the Post Office has traditionally worked. The wholly centralised régime is in urgent need of remodelling if there is not to be a breakdown. In those circumstances it seemed wise to bring together all the various parties involved to share responsibility. At the very lowest level, if people find themselves lost on a barren moor in fog, with the traditional landmarks out of sight, the best thing to do is to huddle together for warmth for a period so as to survive. However, I believe that this enterprise can represent rather more than that.

It is no secret that when these proposals reached the Lib-Lab consultation committee there was no specific provision for consumer representatives among the 16 members—the membership then proposed by the Government. The Government advanced an argument that we believe had some merit. It cannot be denied that everybody on the Board must, by definition, be a Post Office consumer. That is manifestly true. We hope that that fact will be borne in mind when the appointments are made.

If the total membership of the Board is to be kept within reasonable bounds there can be only two places for the ordinary private consumer. This creates the great problem of representing the needs of the big user, who represents very great profit to the Post Office and without whom it would be non-viable. We hope that that type of user will be represented by at least one of the other independent members. If the Government are seeking, for example, a representative of retailing or modern business methods, or both, it should not be difficult to ensure that such a person is capable of representing the needs of very large users of the Post Office.

We urge upon the Government the provision of an extra independent member so that there may be two members on the Board who will be there for no other reason than their specific familiarity with consumer affairs. We were thinking of the ordinary private consumer, who, except in times of special urgency, has no organised lobby acting on his behalf and has no access to any space in the newspapers to advertise his grievance. He should be represented where the knowledge and power really lie.

I pay tribute to the zeal of the Post Office Users' National Council under Lord Peddie, which neither receives sufficient information nor has adequate attention paid to its recommendations to be effectively representative of the consumer. If one wants evidence one needs to go no further than Lord Peddie's letter in The Times of today, in which he makes clear that his council was pushed and bullied into accepting the £7 refund. The present consumer body is therefore toothless.

We welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that the new Bill will provide two directors who are specifically appointed for their familiarity with consumer affairs and who will therefore be held accountable by the consumers.

I conclude my remarks by explaining how members of the Liberal Party believe that members of the new Board should be appointed. Just as the wholly unwarranted old-time secrecy about JPs and all the mystery that surrounded that has been swept away by the newspapers carrying an intimation at least once a year that a particular clerk will be pleased to receive suggestions for membership of the Bench, we hope that through the National Consumer Council the consumer representative appointments on the Board will be advertised. That will mean that anyone can submit his application or that anyone may submit the name of another person. Such advertising would mean that the widest range of people would be considered. I understand that the British Airports Authority advertises for its consumer membership. I have already mentioned the parallel of appointments of justices of the peace.

We believe that the experiment will help to promote the likely recommendations of the Carter Committee. We believe that the hundreds of thousands of concerned users of the Post Office can expect a most promising two years of debate and discussion, which we hope will result in major legislation from a radical Government by about 1979–80. In the meantime, we shall watch the experiment with hawk-like care.

8.4 p.m.

I am a member of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. For a short time I worked in the Treasury and was particularly involved with the Post Office. In principle, I believe that worker-directors in the Post Office, nationalised industries and other major industries are a good idea. As a journalist I spent some time in Germany looking at how the system worked there. I was impressed by communications in the workers' councils in Germany and the way in which disputes were defused before they got out of control, as they sometimes do in this country.

I am less convinced that we should have worker-directors in all companies, because for companies of a certain size that would involve major changes in company legislation. In principle it is a good idea. It is sad that it has taken so long for this country to realise the implications of the idea, particularly in view of our entry into the European Community, where the wisdom of some degree of worker participation is recognised.

It is important to see the Post Office in the wider context. It is just over a year since the Carter Committee was set up. Lord Wall, a former deputy chairman and Government supporter, expressed his concern about the scheme. On 20th April he said:
"To have taken this major decision before the Carter report is published and the future of Bullock has been decided looks unwise as well as discourteous. I am certainly not against having trade unionists or workers on the Post Office Board, but I believe that the Board needs some really top-rate business people as well. This hasty decision can hardly help."
The Post Office Review Committee, which apart from the 1966–67 Select Committee inquiry is the first thorough investigation into the Post Office since the Bridgeman/Gardner Reports of the late 1920s and early 1930s, was specifically asked
"to examine the performance and main features of the organisation of the Post Office and its use of its resources and assets; and to consider whether any changes would better enable it to perform its functions under the Post Office Act, 1968."
The unions gave evidence to the review committee about worker participation at board level. As the issue is apparently to be decided without the committee's views, that evidence now seems irrelevant. In evidence, the Post Office Engineering Union suggested the establishment of an executibe board
"appointed by and answerable to a management board".
That idea has considerable merit. It is regrettable that we are to proceed with this measure without the Carter Committee's evaluation of it.

The way in which the scheme has been evolved appears to be the negation of the democratic ideals that it seeks to serve. At no time did the Government.

Post Office management or unions actively involve user organisations in their discussions.

The hon. Member may care to know that I have discussed this matter both with Lord Peddie and with Mr. Michael Young. Both have wished the experiment well. Lord Peddie has done so verbally and I have a letter from Mr. Young expressing enthusiasm, particularly about the consumer voice on the Board.

I am delighted to hear that. Customers should surely have the same rights as people who work in the Post Office, especially in view of the monopoly which the Post Office has.

If the new arrangements are to be as beneficial as the Government argue, why did they not involve independent bodies such as the Mail Users' Association and the Telephone Users' Association? Only lately have consumers secured more than a token representation in the discussions.

Much has been said about the new-style Board. Statements about what it is intended to achieve have not been forthcoming. Before embarking on the experiment we should be quite clear about what we expect of it, otherwise in two years' time it will be assessed in terms of dogma rather than performance.

This type of experiment cannot be conducted with scientific precision, but we can set a series of tests by which it may be judged. There are four broad areas in which the new Board must perform if the experiment is to lay any claim to success. Those areas are the improving of the introduction of change, speedy response to change by employees, customers and management, improvement of the accountability of the Post Office, and improvement of customer relations. Performance in each of those areas has been poor and particularly disappointing under the present corporation status. Even so, no detailed statements of how they are to be improved have come from the unions or the Government.

Is this a scheme to improve the operation of the Post Office, or is it merely a means of extending Government and union patronage? The impression seems to be that the Board will be too big and that it will be constructed for conflict rather than for co-operation, and for debate rather than decision-making. The majority of Board members will have no defined responsibility so far as one can see, and there seems to be very little indication that they will be selected on the basis of ability. For the union representatives we shall have to rely on whoever their systems of patronage throw up. If the unions really mean this experiment to work, they surely ought to be prepared to give up some of their best people to serve on the Board.

However, it must be recognised that the unions too have their own establishment "worthies". The Post Office is a major sector of the British economy and mediocrity flourishes in it, although not in all the State industries. There seems to be some disquieting evidence to hand of the unions' conduct. They are apparently seeking to have Section 58 of the Post Office Act 1953 altered. It is that section which establishes the principle of the inviolability of the mail.

The unions have in part been responsible for the delays in the postal mechanisation programme and seem to attach too high a price to its introduction. The agreement with the Post Office of a lead-in payment of £1·15p and 20p advanced savings is costing about £10 million a year. Moreover, the further agreement is costing half to the unions and half to the Post Office itself.

The limiting of coding desk operations to higher-grade postmen will further increase costs. The selection of members for the Post Office Users' National Council leaves much to be desired. Most of the Post Office business is provided by a small percentage of users. These users carry the uneconomic services and the general user, yet this segment is grossly under-represented in POUNC, where more knowledge of Post Office affairs is clearly needed.

The haphazard method of selection is well illustrated by the fact that no member of the Mail Users' Association has a seat on POUNC, yet a similar method is to be used to select the independent Board members. My argument is that the Post Office, like many other nationalised industries, is insufficiently accountable on a month-to-month or quarterly basis. Evidence of this was highlighted in the NEDO Report "A study of United Kingdom Nationalised Industries", which drew attention to the inadequacy of annual reports and accounts.

In America large companies are monitored on a quarterly basis. This surely is most important if people are to follow what is happening and what is going on on a continuing basis. It would greatly help a judgment of the experiment if the Post Office produced an interim report—something that every public company does. Also, a more comprehensive set of key indicators is surely needed. For instance, we need to know about output per man, increases in productivity and so on.

I would make a special plea for a change in the present arrangements for the collection of mail. The abolition of the late collections of mail in this great city and other major cities throughout the country has proved expensive for the consumer. I know that this point has been made many times before in the House and in another place, but I cannot believe that it costs eight times as much, or whatever the figure is, to collect a letter at 9 o'clock in London on a weekday evening or to collect a letter on a Sunday evening. The diminution of services has been a great disservice to the consumer in this country. The argument is that we cannot afford this service, which used to exist and which was particularly valuable to professional people. But the Post Office could perhaps arrange for a surcharge to enable one to post a letter at such times.

As far as I know, the only place in London where one can post a letter in the middle of the night is the post office at Leicester Square. The argument is that the Post Office cannot afford to do these things, but perhaps we could be allowed the privilege of spending three or four times as much to post a letter and have it collected on a weekday night or on a Sunday afternoon.

8.15 p.m.

I shall not follow the last remarks of the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Cockcroft) when talking about the existing service of the Post Office, but it would be interesting to find what the workers' representatives on the Board would say on matters such as Sunday collections.

I join with other hon. Members who have given a general welcome to the Bill and I congratulate the Minister of Stale for the discussions that he has had with the various trade union organisations involved. I also pay tribute to the success of the Department in bringing forward this one-clause Bill. I am sure that many hon. Members welcome the move towards shorter Bills and that the Minister of State, when thinking about the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill, wished that he could have found an appropriate clause to bring before the House.

This Bill is a historic decision and it is pleasing that one has condensed it to one clause. The Government could easily have said "We have set up the Royal Commission under Lord Bullock to look into the whole question of industrial democracy and, therefore, we should not proceed on this question but wait for that document and the White Paper" There would have been considerable temptation to wait until the outcome of Carter, which was set up to look at the Post Office, but that would have been a way of postponing doing something about this matter.

I am glad that the Government are proceeding in the way that they are. I understand that the Liberal spokesman would like to claim some credit for their discussions with the Government. That is fair enough. They are doing something for the Government and they should be rewarded for it. But I would point out that workers' representatives within the Post Office is not a new idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth) talked about 30 years. If we go back to the constitution of the Union of Post Office Workers we find that they were talking about that back in 1919. Not long after Sydney Webb wrote Clause 4 into the Labour Party constitution, which talked about common ownership and new means of production, distribution and exchange. Worker participation has been with the Post Office unions for a long time.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Sydney Webb. Does he recall that both Sydney and Beatrice Webb said that at least one-third of the members of the boards of nationalised industry should be representatives of the consumer?

Yes, I hope to come to that point. Both Sydney and Beatrice were strong co-operatives as well as Socialists, and recognised that in the running of efficient industries we should have Government and workers represented and that the consumer should have a voice. I shall come to that at a later stage.

I am glad that the Minister of State has already said that he has had discussions in this regard. What we are concerned with here is a sort of small Bullock, in the sense that we are dealing with the Post Office specifically. It is the heart of an industrial democracy. The failing in so many countries is that they tend to think of democracy is putting a cross on a paper and putting the paper in a ballot box every four or five years. We must realise that political democracy is something more than that. If we are to have genuine democracy, people should participate in the industries in which they are involved. Bullock will be dealing with this matter for the private sector.

Why are enterprises controlled in 1977 by shareholders' representatives? Why do those who give their lives to a company have no say in its running? Working people should be involved in decision making in the public and the private sectors. They often know what is wrong, but their voice cannot be raised directly in the board room. Their suggestions have to be passed on to Members of Parliament.

I hope that the Government will rapidly implement Bullock's main proposals and I am pleased that they have gone ahead with this small element. It is one thing for a Labour Government to say what should happen in the private sector, but they must practise what they preach in the public sector. That is being done in this Bill.

This is an experiment for only two years, so it has no bearing on whether the Carter Committee eventually recommends splitting postal services from telecommunications. I prefer the two sides to remain united. At the moment, posts are labour-intensive and telecommunications are highly mechanised. If they are split, prices will have to be greatly increased on the postal side because of labour costs and inflation or rising living standards, while, with new technology, telecommunications can make great savings. But unification is no argument against this experiment and I am glad that it is to go ahead.

I hope that consumers' representatives will be considered for the Board. The Minister said that he has had discussions with Lord Peddie of the Post Office Users' National Council and with Michael Young of the Consumer Council, both of whom have accepted the proposal. If both group and individual consumers are represented among those managing it, the Post Office will be administered better.

On the engineering side and in the Union of Post Office Workers there are people dedicated to the industry. When they are making efforts to create an efficient service, they are greatly displeased by back-biting complaints. That used to happen in the House. If a letter was delivered to the wrong address, or arrived three days late, hon. Members used to complain.

I am delighted that the Bill has only one clause. I am almost tempted to volunteer for the Committee. I hope that it has a speedy passage and that it moves to the other place even before Whitsun. It is a small Bill, but it represents a historic step. I hope that it is a first step on the long journey towards establishing industrial democracy.

8.26 p.m.

I should like to share with the House an experience that I had 10 days ago during polling in the GLC elections. It is relevant to the Bill.

While taking a taxi from one part of central London to another, I got into earnest conversation with the driver, who had no idea who or what I was. He said that he was an inhabitant of Tower Hamlets, and without probing his intentions too far I gathered that he intended to change his vote from Labour to Conservative. My interest was naturally aroused and I asked him why. He put it most graphically: "The Labour Party always makes two and two make three. The Tories always make two and two make five." He might have added, but did not, that the Liberals always make two and two make four—and look what has happened to them.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Tories make two and two make five—but five what? That is the important thing.

I am coming to that. The relevance of the story is that every enterprise, public or private, should be aiming, psychologically and in fact, to make two and two make five. In nationalised industries, particularly the Post Office, that should mean better service and meeting the needs of consumers rather than necessnarily making excess profits which have to be handed back in some dubious rebate.

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that that is much better than the Post Office being compelled by Act of Parliament to make losses, as it was under the Counter-Inflation Act for which he voted, which the taxpayer then had to compensate for with massive subsidies running into billions of pounds?

There is nothing between us on that. It is certainly not part of my argument that the Post Office is or is not making money—although it is clear that telephones make money while posts lose it. There are good reasons for that. My concern is with the main question: what is the purpose of the Bill? Surely it should be a way of improving the service to consumers and not simply of changing placings on the Board, unless that serves a useful purpose.

I am surprised to hear so much discussion about the need for consumers to be represented among these 18 or 19 extremely elevated gentlemen. As the co-founder of the Telephone Users' Association 12 years ago—an association which has never had any acknowledged recognition but which has had modest successes from time to time—I say, speaking solely for myself, that the last thing I would want is to be part of the Post Office Board, for the simple reason that I do not believe that a person can serve the interests of consumers from within as well as they can be served from without. Serving from without, a person is not hamstrung by being a party to decisions and, therefore, to compromises. Of course one would want to be consulted and to have one's views listened to, but no one would wish to be a party to compromises on behalf of the people whom he is trying to represent.

Every consumer organisation doing its job properly wants a totally uncompromising approach to the services offered to it. One of the things which distresses me most about the speeches we have heard so far has been the fact that there is greater concern about who is representing what than there is to know about the functions of the Board. I refer to such things as the question of making a profit, efficiency, whether risks should be taken with public money, and the unity of the Board and its ability to achieve its objectives, which must be the satisfaction of the needs of the consumer. There is also the question of expertise as well as many other factors. These are what we should be talking about.

I question whether the Government, in concerning themselves with seven of one, seven of another and five of a third category have given sufficient attention and emphasis, at least in their statements from the Dispatch Box, to the importance of the Board fulfilling its objective of meeting consumer requirements.

I leave aside the question whether the Carter Report will embarrass the Government because of its recommendation of a separation of posts and telecommunications. That seems to be a side issue, although it may explain the timing of this measure. I particularly want to see more accountability to the consumer and more responsibility towards him.

First and foremost, I pay a special tribute to the rank and file of the Post Office, those working not only in posts but in telecommunications. They are a band of people who, from my personal knowledge over the past 12 years, have contributed loyalty, kindness and a devotion to the service which in many cases reveals something not far short of a sense of vocation. I wish to be totally uninhibited in my compliments to these people. I cannot extend the compliments which I give to the staff to the system within which they work or, sometimes, to middle and senior management who control the activities of the staff. Here, I believe, is where the shortcomings lie.

If there is one particular criticism from which the Post Office cannot escape its share of guilt, it is the failure to be responsive to the flow of new ideas and to react sufficiently quickly to changes in public taste. This failure is a fault not so much of management but largely of the system. I do not believe that multiplying the number of directors who can pass the buck among themselves will in any way solve the problem. I want to consider one specific aspect of this new change, which is admittedly experimental. Many people will be concerned, having read the Press this morning, about the remarks made by the Lord President of the Council in his address to the Union of Post Office Workers.

I do not believe that anyone would quarrel with one point that the right hon. Gentleman made when he said, as reported in today's Press:
"It is the combination of individual vigilance, together with parliamentary vigilance and action, that is necessary to protect the freedoms of the people of this country."
That is what the right hon. Gentleman said in the context of making what appeared to me to be a commitment to legislate in the next Session to remove the provision in the 1953 Act which prevents Post Office workers from witholding the mails.

What concerns me about this is that we are now to see seven employee representatives, presumably drawn in the main from interested trade unions, sitting on the Board, and yet these self-same unions, the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office Engineering Union, have in one case in recent weeks used or attempted to use their industrial might for the sake of furthering a political matter—not an industrial matter.

If I may digress slightly, it might be of some interest to the House to know that my organisation received many telephone calls from telephone operators who were extremely unhappy about having to inquire of telephone callers, under the instruction that they received from their union, if they were making calls to South Africa, whether it was a life or death matter. This went completely against the grain with them, both as employees, with the traditions of service that I have mentioned, and as trade unionists. But if the situation in the near future is to be that trade unionists are to be part of management, how are they to reconcile the interests of a union that wants to use its industrial might not in any way to improve the terms and conditions of its members but for political reasons? How are these members of a trade union to reconcile the behaviour of the Union of Post Office Workers a few months ago —last October. I think—when Tom Jackson, the general secretary, said that he would go to prison rather than give in to the requirements of Section 58 of the 1953 Act, in a matter that had nothing to do with the interests of his own members but was only a sympathetic action in a matter that was highly dubious in the first place?

One wonders, therefore, how the dichotomy will be resolved on the part of the unions when they have representatives on the Board, particularly apropos of industrial disputes in which they are not interested or matters of a political nature.

The union-appointed directors will have to make a decision when they are appointed that they cannot in any way become involved in politically-motivated industrial action. Unless we can have an assurance from the Minister tonight that no such action by the union representatives on the Board will be permitted, it really will be a farce and a total waste of two years' experimental time.

8.39 p.m.

I was intrigued by the historic analysis from the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans). He described the Bill as a small Bullock. I doubt whether anyone would call it a genuine Heffer at any rate.

The hon. Member spoke about the unitary Board, which he wanted to preserve, and went on to talk of the highly profitable telecommunications side—because it was capital-intensive and equipment-intensive—and the labour-intensive side of postal services. He said that if the Board were split it would inevitably mean more increases on the mail side and perhaps fewer increases or even reductions on the telecommunications side. What I think the hon. Member was doing—although he may not have intended to do it—was arguing for some form of cross-subsidy. That has never been accepted by either of the major parties in the House or, indeed, by anyone who has the interests of the Post Office at heart.

Before coming to my own observations on the Bill, I must say that I was very nearly put off it by the remarks of the hon. Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth), who opened by saying that he welcomed the Bill because it would be welcome to the Labour Party. I sometimes wonder, if a Bill is welcome to the Labour Party, whether it is welcome to anyone else. However, there is enough that is good in the Bill for me perhaps to overlook that mental aberration.

However, I cannot quite overlook some of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Cockcroft)—he is not in the Chamber at the moment—who spoke about the quality and nature of representation of the Post Office Users' National Council but complained that mail users were not represented on it. With great respect, I do not think that my hon. Friend has studied the matter. The Post Office Users' National Council embraces wide representation of all kinds—the CBI, the Mail Order Traders' Association, the co-operative movement, the British Hotels, Restaurants and Caterers Association and so on—and I reckon that those people are frequently better fitted to represent the consumer than are some of the mushroom organisations, self-appointed in many cases, which claim to speak for the consumer. I am sorry that my hon. Friend is not here. When the printers have finished their strike and we have Hansard again, he can attack me for what I have said.

I welcome the Bill in principle, and I declare my interest as the only Member of Parliament who has been and still is a member of POUNC. I have been a member since its inception in 1969–70. I was appointed by Mr. Stonehouse, and I have been reappointed by Ministers of both political parties, which at least shows some impartiality in Governments of all kinds.

Thanks almost entirely to Lord Peddie, POUNC has achieved a reputation which none of the other users' councils can even begin to touch. He has managed to get that body to work in a way which really represents consumers, and POUNC has been acknowledged on all sides as being about the only one of the statutory users' councils which has worked and has expressed strong views.

The Post Office Users' National Council has not been afraid to express views which may not have satisfied the Government of the day, whether the present Government or their predecessors. One of the issues on which POUNC felt, and still feels, that both Governments have been wrong is the monstrous way in which the Post Office pension fund has been deprived of the deficiency payment. In the long run this cannot be good commercial practice. POUNC, the unions and almost all others are united on the matter, and I believe that it is only one of the odd characters sitting at some desk in the Treasury who is saying "No". One of these days, I believe, the Treasury man will be walked over, and those who understand these matters may be allowed the bigger say.

I am concerned, however, about the timing of the Bill. We are told that the Secretary of State has the Carter Report. In this connection I shall quote from a letter on the question of industrial democracy, dated 3rd March, sent to the Secretary of State jointly by Lord Peddie and Michael Young:
"Just over a year ago, however, on the recommendation of the Post Office Users' National Council, the Government set up the Post Office Review Committee to undertake an independent and fundamental review of Post Office structure, organisation and services. That Committee expects to report by spring, and it would be a travesty if decisions on the future structure of the Post Office Board are taken before it has reported. Any decisions on the proposed two-year experiment are bound to exert a considerable and lasting influence on the future pattern of the Board's structure. On a matter of this importance, it is difficult to see why any decisions need to be taken before the Post Office Review Committee has reported or why users' interests should not be included in the discussions."
I acknowledge at once that, following receipt of that letter, the last few words were taken into account and consultations with users' organisations have taken place. But it still seems illogical that, when the report of this major review is about to see the light of day, the Government have brought forward their Bill.

As we all know, there is a fairly small amount of legislation in the pipeline, because the devolution Bill will not see the light of day, and there would have been plenty of time for this one-clause Bill to come after the Carter Report had been published. That is my major complaint today, that we have the Bill before us now and we have to try to consider the matter without Carter.

We recall that letter, which was signed jointly by Lord Peddie and Mr. Michael Young, but since then I have had talks with Lord Peddie and he has expressed great enthusiasm for this experiment. He was particularly pleased that a user voice was to be on the Board.

I had a meeting only a few days ago with Mr. Michael Young, as a result of which he has sent me a letter in which he says, among other things:
"I would like to say how very pleased we are that there will be two consumer appointments to the Post Office Board".
He goes on to say:
"We all naturally think this is a very considerable improvement".
My discussions with both those consumer representatives have shown that there is good will on their part for the experiments that the Bill enables.

I accept every word of what the Minister has said. I do not think that he and I are quarrelling, but POUNC does not withdraw from what was said in the letter of 3rd March, that the timing is wrong. That is all I have tried to say, and nothing that the Minister has said has taken anything away from it.

The provisions of the Bill and the extension of the size of the Board mean that there can be at least two user representatives on the Board. This is a most valuable point, and this is the view which, as the Minister knows, has always been taken by POUNC. It has always shared the view that there can be nothing but good from having worker representation on the Board, if it is part of a package deal.

I must take issue slightly with the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wain-wright), although I liked his description. He spoke of the moors and of people huddling together for warmth to survive. What a graphic description of the Lib-Lab pact. I cannot think of anything that describes more clearly to the world the real basis for the Lib-Lab pact. It is not for the benefit of the country. They are huddled together for warmth to survive.

The hon. Gentleman tried to claim some credit for the Liberal Party in the user representation that is being suggested. I am sure he knows—and if he does not the Secretary of State does—that long before the Liberals were involved in any discussions there were strong representations from Lord Peddie on this matter. If anybody other than the unions, which have a much longer claim to this, has any right to credit, it is the users' council. The Liberals are very much Johnnies-come-lately, and that fact ought to be clearly exposed. There is little enough credit that they can get, and this is one matter in which there is no credit at all for them.

I should be the last to decry the massive contribution of Lord Peddie, but will the hon. Gentleman accept that, after the intervention of Lord Peddie, when we first met the Government in consultation they were still proposing to exclude any specific consumer representation, notwithstanding the representations that Lord Peddie had made?

I can only accept what the hon. Gentleman says so far as his conversations were concerned, but there were other conversations between the Government and Lord Peddie which I am not at liberty to reveal.

Perhaps I might continue by giving an example of why recent events have made it much more necessary for user representation on the Board. The files of the Post Office National Users' Council, the minutes and published reports show more than one example of the failure of the Post Office to consult effectively, or even, in some cases, to consult at all, but the latest example is quite monstrous, and I want to spend a little time on this

I should first pray in evidence the Second Report from the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, Session 1975–76.

Before my hon. Friend launches into that, can he explain why successful private enterprise companies do not have user representatives on their boards but have entrepreneurs who will deliver the goods that the customer requires? Why should it be so terribly different in this enterprise?

My hon. Friend is right. The real answer is that it is the difference between competitive, profitable private enterprise and a State monopoly. Tonight is not the occasion to launch into an attack on State monopoly. When there is a State monopoly, the consumer needs special protection. With private enterprise, the consumer is free to decide that he will not buy a shirt from the Co-op but will go to Marks and Spencer. Unfortunately, any letter a consumer posts will be delivered by the Post Office or by nobody. That is why he needs protection. However, that is a longer and much more detailed argument. Although I understand that the 10 o'clock rule may be suspended tonight, I shall not go into the argument now.

I turn now to the quotation I was about to make from paragraph 124 of the Second Report from the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, Session 1975–76. The quotation is brief, but it is important as leading up to the point I want to make. This is a unanimous report and the passage is dealing with POUNC:
"Yet 10 of the 12 reports published by the Council during the six years of its existence have dealt specifically with price increases, though they have also included comment on a wide range of Post Office activities. Very little time has been given to the Council for the preparation of these reports. In both January and July of this year, POUNC received only one week's notice of the Post Office's proposals for tariff increases which were being put to the Price Commission; it then had less than four weeks in which to submit its comments. It does the Council immense credit that it should in so short a time have produced such thorough and constructive reports."
That was referring to reports Nos. 11 and 12.

That is the background. I come to the latest episode, which I regard as the most monstrous of all. Some of the story has come out in Lord Peddie's letter, but it needs to be put on the record as firmly as possible. It concerns the excess profit of £100 million on telecommunications, caused by the usual bad forecasting. Nobody will dissent from that comment. If anybody has a bad record in bad forecasting, it is the Post Office.

The Price Commission first gave notice to the Post Office on 4th April that it had exceeded its reference profit levels, vet it was not until 4th May—one month later—that the Chairman of POUNC was told. He was told on that occasion that the Post Office was concurrently meeting the Price Commission, and an immediate decision from POUNC was wanted agreeing with the proposed way of the handing back of £100 million.

An argument arises on the £100 million. It is that in the long-term interests of the consumer it might—I say "might" because I do not claim to be an expert on the self-generating finances of the Post Office on the telecommunications side—have been better for the Secretary of State to decide that the £100 million was better left inside the Post Office so that it did not have to raise that extra amount of capital for its capital equipment programme. I am not saying whether I agree with that argument. I am saying that it was a genuine debatable argument.

Because the Chairman of the Post Office ignored the advice of the Chairman of POUNC, who refused to go along with that announcement before consulting his council, that option was closed. The Chairman of the Post Office made an announcement. He spoke about the £7-a-head reduction and the slight extension of from six minutes to 12 minutes in the time allowed for local telephone calls—which the large number of people waiting to make calls at public telephone boxes may feel less than happy about when they have to wait much longer to make calls at such places as railway stations.

Sir William Ryland was urged not to announce the details but to say merely that £100 million would be handed back and that the details were for consultation with POUNC. I intend to be extremely critical about Sir William. I have been critical of him before in the House and in public, so I am doing nothing behind his back that I have not said to his face. This is certainly not the first time that I have been critical of him, but it is to be hoped that it will be the last, because he will not be Chairman of the Post Office for much longer.

I say that Sir William was obstinate, stubborn and insensitive to what consultation meant. My impression is that all along he has resented the statutory powers which enjoin consultation with POUNC. At any rate, he refused point blank to hold his fire on this matter and he gave details to the media. As a result, he pre-empted any form of meaningful consultation.

The Post Office first became aware formally about this £100 million on 4th April, although if it had any accountancy sense it must have known three months earlier that it was well over the reference level, and it told the Chairman of the Post Office Users' National Council on 4th May. It was not until 11th May that there were sufficient details for the council to meet and have a full discussion. I am authorised by the chairman of the council to say that this action by Sir William Ryland makes a mockery of consultation and that a strong protest is being made by the council to both the Government and the Post Office about this farce caused by Sir William.

I repeat that the POUNC is made up of local authority representatives, unions, the co-operative movement, industry, domestic users and consumer organisations, and without dissent they all felt that, having been asked to do a job, they were being treated shabbily. I do not believe that any of them felt that there was any degree of consultation in this process. That is the latest but not the sole example of failure to have effective consultation, and for that reason I welcome the Bill. I hope that the user representation will include the Chairman of the Post Office Users' National Council.

No doubt the Minister of State will say that I have changed my mind, because when we were reforming the gas boards and the gas consultative councils I fought strongly for the view that it was not right for the chairman of a consultative council to be a member of a gas board, and that is now part of the legislation. But I confess that, with greater experience, particularly of the Post Office, I have changed my mind. I think that the ability of the chairman of a statutory users' council to represent all users and not the pressure groups that I spoke about earlier is of very great importance. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) does not like it, but I confess that, having sat on organisations of both kinds—the voice within and the voice without—I have come down firmly, at least as far as the Post Office is concerned, on the side of having the voice within.

Is not my hon. Friend overlooking the fact that part of the problem here is not that the job will be done better but that the consumer will not see that his interests are being properly looked after if he is represented in two places? The distinction ought to be more clearly drawn, otherwise, whatever else is being done, justice will not be seen to be done.

That is an arguable point of view. I do not happen to share it, but I see the force of it. I think that it is outweighed in this case by the ability to do the job on the inside. My hon. Friend and I must agree to differ on this one.

The Bill gives a chance for a way forward. We make a great mistake if we examine the Post Office as one organisation. I have nothing but the highest praise for the telecommunications side, for its highly efficient and effective union under Brian Stanley and for its high and effective standards under Sir Edward Fennessy. I think that the Post Office was very fortunate in getting Ned Fennessy to come in, and I regret very much that he is due to retire. His departure will be a great loss to the Post Office. I acquit him completely of any complicity in the failure to consult. There have been both sound management and sound unions on that side of the Post Office's operations.

I wish I could say the same for the letter side. I speak highly of Tom Jackson, who is a first-class union general secretary and, leaving aside the political aspects, which do not concern me on this occasion, he has done a great job for his members and for the users as well. I wish that there had been a similar high calibre in the management of that side of the Post Office.

The Bill can highlight how worker-directors can operate. I need to be convinced that they will operate in a way which, at the end of the day, will benefit the consumer. I believe, however, that there is sufficient common ground throughout the Post Office—in management and unions and among users—to give this experiment a fair wind. I am not sure that the Bill will sail through Standing Committee as rapidly as the hon. Member for Aberdare wishes. There are some 10 or 11 amendments that will need very careful consideration and on which, as the hon. Member for New-castle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) will know from his past incarnation, there are genuine and constructive arguments.

For example, I wonder what guarantee we have that after the two-year experiment there will be a time for reflection and examination of its efficiency and effectiveness. The Bill as drafted does not limit the term of the experiment. Of course the Secretary of State will have the power to appoint these people for only two years, but I am not sure that that will be quite as effective as I would like. Perhaps the Minister could give an assurance on this. He and I have crossed swords on many occasions, but basically he is a harmless, amiable chap and is much more so when he does not have a commanding majority. When he does, it is a different matter—

Would the hon. Member mind telling us when this Government ever had a commanding majority in the past three years?

They had a commanding majority immediately after the October 1974 General Election, when they were in a position, because of one or two strange characters, to get their Bills through without relying on the support of the Liberal Party, whose Members, alas, like the winds, have disappeared from the Chamber already.

What I would like to see is something written into the Bill, such as a new clause, that will enable Parliament to judge the efficiency and effectiveness of the experiment. Will the Minister of State say that there will be a White Paper analysing the effectiveness of the experiment, not merely from the worker participation side but from the user participation side as well? I hope that Parliament will have a chance—as it rarely does—to debate that White Paper, and hopefully we will not be in Opposition when we hear the Minister tell us whether the experiment has been a success.

With that one major question to the Minister of State, I welcome the Bill. I hope that it will receive a smooth passage through the House, though not necessarily as swift a passage as the hon. Member for Aberdare hopes. I hope that it will be on the statute book by the Summer Recess, not the Whitsun Recess.

9.4 p.m.

This is only a small Bill, and I shall be as brief as possible. I know that the debate can be extended after 10 o'clock, but I do not intend to abuse that.

I simply wish to ask the Minister one or two questions. I wonder whether this Bill will in fact improve the efficiency of Post Office services to the public. I believe that the public is genuinely concerned about the accounting in the Post Office, and deeply concerned about the reasons given for such matters as the restriction on Sunday postal services.

We all owe a great debt to the people who work in the Post Office at the lower levels. The postman to us is rather like the milkman—an institution. He works terribly hard, in sometimes very difficult conditions of snow and other bad weather. He always does his best, certainly in London, to make sure that the post is delivered on time. I think that we should pay tribute to him.

This is a very short Bill. One might almost call it historic, in that, to my knowledge, it is the first of its nature to be introduced into Parliament.

I was very grateful to the Minister for clearing up a question about appointments and making it quite clear that his powers under Section 6 of the Post Office Act 1969 were undiminished and, incidentally, in line with the recommendations put to us in the document. In other words, he has put the stamp of authority on paragraph 6 of the recommendations.

When we get this enlarged Board, the decisions must, of course, be unanimous, like Cabinet decisions. Whether it be to abandon something or to introduce some new equipment, it must be a corporate decision. But what if, for instance, the trade union members or other members disagree with that decision? They obviously have to abide by it or resign. Are they allowed to discuss in public their reasons for disagreeing? I think that I know the answer, but I hope that the Minister will spell it out. Although it is in the agreement, I think that it would be as well if the Minister pointed it out. It is terribly important for the decision to be seen to be a corporate one and that the only redress for those who do not like it is to resign and leave the organisation.

One regrets that the document was not available in time for us to study it properly. I am sure that the Minister would be the first to appreciate this. I had to get the document duplicated in the Library. If hon. Members come in at midday, that does not give them time to go through it. When one of my hon.

Friends slipped up on it, because there had not been time to read it right through, the Minister was particularly generous.

I appreciate the printing difficulties, but it is extremely difficult for us if an important document such as this is not made available to the House in sufficient time for hon. Members to go through it. The document contains nine or 10 pages, and is of considerable importance.

This is an enabling Bill for an experimental period, not because it is laid down as such but specifically because, as I understand it, the Minister has the power to appoint for only two years, and unless he comes to the House again the experiment must end within the two years.

We are breaking new ground, and, as my hon. Friends have said, the Bill is flavoured somewhat with the recommendations in the Bullock Report. I do not quarrel with worker participation, but I am not at all sure about certain aspects of the Bill. A very marginal question is whether the consumer protection should be inside or outside the Post Office. Only time will tell whether this is an adequate protection for the public or whether the consumer protection should be outside. I have an open mind on this point.

Is it not possible to have the consumer organisation represented on the Board, as has been suggested, and also to have a consumer body outside to look at the decisions reached by the Post Office and to make its comments?

I am grateful for that intervention. It is absolutely necessary, in enormous corporations of this nature, to have something more than mere accountability. In my opinion, the accountability at the moment is insufficient. Perhaps by the small change which we may make today the accountability will be increased, but it has got to be possible from both sides. We shall not know until the end of two years whether the experiment has worked. I agree with the Secretary of State that it is right that the experiment should run for only two years in order to give the House and the country an opportunity to see the advantages.

What is far more fundamental is whether we should have waited for the Carter Report. Many hon. Members may not agree with me, but we really need to see more accountability in the Post Office. Hon. Members know how difficult it is to get a Question on the Order Paper, but I have one down on this subject of Sunday postal services. We need to know whether we can have proper accountability, so that the public can understand more easily why charges must rise. There should be a greater degree of supervision over the largest nationalised industry in the country.

I regret that Parliament no longer has the authority to intervene in these matters. I can remember the days when one could ask in the House why a letter that was sent on Friday had not arrived on the following Wednesday. Parliament has no time for such things now. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that the House does not have sufficient control. Perhaps we could have a one- or two-day debate in which to exercise our right to question the various things that the Post Office does.

No doubt the Secretary of State knows that I have put down a Question on Sunday postal services, but the Question has had to be phrased in a most roundabout way. Matters such as that, telephone communications and other such services are so important to the country that many people outside the House cannot understand why Parliament does not have some opportunity for discussing them, or time at Question Time for asking the Government why the Post Office has taken or failed to take a particular course of action. Many people do not believe that it is right that this should be so. We know that the Post Office can do what it likes—but it is wrong that it should be allowed to. There should be more accountability, and the best way of obtaining that is not simply through this Bill but by making parliamentary time available so that matters of principle can be debated in the House. I am sure that the Government realise how difficult it is to get a Question on the Order Paper.

I am glad to have had this opportunity of saying a few words about the Bill. It has been difficult to refer to the relevant documents, which have only just arrived, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will forgive me if I have overlooked anything in those papers. It is extremely difficult to read them and to listen to the debate at the same time.

9.13 p.m.

I must apologise to the House because, for reasons beyond my control, I have not been present for the whole of the debate. However, I heard the Secretary of State open the debate and I have heard enough speeches from both sides of the House to feel gravely suspicious about the real purpose of the Bill.

The Secretary of State said, quite properly, that the Bill was only an enabling Bill and that it would operate for a short period. The difficulty is that it could be a way of making the Post Office a guinea-pig for the Bullock Report in advance of any debate on the Bullock proposals for industrial democracy in all sectors in industry and commerce. We should pay attention to this.

I can recall from my own experience over a relatively short period the earlier days when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) said, Ministers responsible for the Post Office could be questioned and had to answer Questions asking why a letter took four days to get from London to Manchester.

I know the value of the Post Office and the tremendous service that it gives, but if my suspicions are correct the Post Office is being saddled with an experiment so that after two years it can be said "There you are. Bullock works." If that is the object of the Bill, we must look at it carefully in Committee and ensure that a considerable number of undertakings, and even specific requirements are written into the Bill, even if this means adding clauses to safeguard our position. I am sure that the Government have no intention of putting off a debate on the Bullock Report until the Post Office experiment has been completed, but we must have this clearly spelt out and we must have a lot more information about how the work people's representatives will be elected.

The Secretary of State said that the procedures would be reported to the annual conferences of the various unions. Will this information be given to next year's conference of the Union of Post Office Workers, which is now in the middle of its annual conference, or has the union been given advance information about the proposed scheme?

The Secretary of State has not treated the House properly. He opened the debate, and informed us that certain facts were available in the Library. That is not the way to enable us to have a sensible debate on the provisions of the Bill and what lies behind them.

Is my hon. Friend aware that only six copies were made available in the Library and that some of us had to have the information duplicated? Bearing in mind the number of hon. Members who were interested in this matter, that arrangement made things very difficult, as I am sure the Minister will agree.

I understand that our printing problems may have made it impossible for there to be sufficient copies available in the Vote Office, but for the Secretary of State to announce at the beginning of the debate that copies were available in the Library and for us to have to have copies run off for ourselves or read over one another's shoulders is not the ideal way to discuss an important Bill.

When I first looked at the Bill, it seemed to provide for simply a bigger Board—but nothing could be further from the truth. It introduces a completely new concept of members of the Board, representing, or at least coming from, certain interests. Normally there would be executive directors who would be mainly concerned with running the services.

The Bill will provide for executive directors, work people's representatives and representatives of users, which is another airy-fairy word. I hope that in Committee we shall be able to get much more information about how the users' representatives will be nominated or selected.

The Bill raises grave suspicions in my mind. This simple measure must be extended to make sure that Parliament retains sufficient powers to keep control even if, as the Minister said, the scheme is for only an experimental period.

9.20 p.m.

I think that the House has given a fair wind to the Bill by the general support that it has had from almost all hon. Members who have spoken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) rightly described the motivation behind it as being that of facilitating what he called a historic decision. That is what it is. It is a major advance in industrial democracy in this country. I am not trying to conceal that from the House in asking it to accept the Bill.

It is important, in considering our proposals, to show what they are not as well as what they are. First, the Bill is not a final decision on the future of the Post Office and its Board. As the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) said, what we have is a two-year experiment. When the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) asks how we can guarantee that the experiment will last no more than two years without a specific provision written into the Bill, I say to him, first, that the appointments made under the experiment will be for only two years. Secondly, this is not an experiment in which the Government are the sole participants; this is an experiment in which the Post Office and the unions are the participants.

Section 15 of the agreement specifically states that
"Both parties wish to point out that their acceptance of particular provisions attaching to an experiment should not be regarded as implying that they would necessarily find these provisions acceptable in any permanent arrangement."
At the end of the experiment, when we shall all have an opportunity of assessing it, we shall have to take into account the fact that the Post Office and the unions have made many concessions to obtain the agreed document. Whatever the Government may feel at the end of the experiment, they may not wish to proceed permanently on the basis of the two-year trial period. Therefore, I say to the hon. Member for Hampstead that that is a guarantee that we are not going to have the experiment rubber-stamped and proceeded with thereafter. We shall all learn a great deal from it.

I was attracted by the proposal of the hon. Member for Hampstead that there should be some way in which Parliament and the public can assess the outcome of the experiment. I should like to consider ways in which that can be done. The hon. Gentleman suggests a White Paper. That may be appropriate, but there may be other ways. I assure him that in the two years I or my Labour successor in this job will enable the House of Commons to make the appropriate assessment.

Having facilitated the experiment, it is right that we ourselves should be able to consider it, just as the Post Office will consider it, and just as the unions, both collectively through the COPOU and separately through their own organisations, will want to have a long and searching look at what has been achieved.

The Carter Report and proposals have been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth). There has been some apprehension that the experiment will pre-empt any proposals that may come from the report and any decisions that may be made to implement them. I remind the House that this is a two-year experiment. When the report comes before us we shall have to consult the interested parties. The matter will have to be considered by the House and by others. It is out of the question that any reorganisation of the Post Office that follows from the report, should such a reorganisation follow, could possibly come within the two-year frame. The experiment will in no way pre-empt whatever decisions, if decisions there be, follow from Carter.

The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) expressed apprehension that what we are enabling by passing the Bill, as I hope we shall, will in some way be a trial of the Bullock proposals, or, as others may put it, a pre-emption of industrial democracy decisions by the Government. I should like to make it clear that that is far from the intention of the Government. Whatever happens with this experiment, neither the country nor the House should be led to believe that similar proposals will follow, either for the nationalised industries or for privately owned industries. This is a one-off experiment for a particular industrial and commercial concern, with a particular structure and circumstances.

The hon. Member for Colne Valley, who drudged through 58 Committee sittings of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare, will recall that that Act has its own proposals for industrial democracy for those industries. They are not the same as the proposals for the Post Office. In those two industries we sought to create the conditions under which a structure for industrial democracy could be achieved. This experiment is seeking to achieve a measure of industrial democracy for the Post Office.

I give the hon. Member for Totnes an absolute assurance that whatever comes from the experiment—and we hope that it will be a success—will in no way relate to the Government's general proposals for industrial democracy. Those are being examined, as the Secretary of State for Trade said they would be in his statement in January.

The discussions on this experiment for the Post Office were launched long before the Bullock inquiry was set up. The Secretary of State asked for proposals from the Post Office unions in 1974. The discussions on this experiment have proceeded entirely separately from Bullock and without the participants having any knowledge of what would emerge from Bullock. The fact that these proposals bear a surface resemblance to some of the Bullock proposals is coincidental.

Just as this experiment will not lead to a final decision on the future of the Post Office, nor will it in any way pre-empt the Government's proposals for industrial democracy generally, either in privately or publicly owned industries. The experiment is not a pattern for other industries, nor can it be. The Post Office is unique in its size and structure. The Post Office is also unique in its trade union penetration. Almost all Post Office employees are trade union members. Therefore, the experiment does not commit us to a similar structure for other publicly owned industries, let alone for privately owned industries.

That leads me to explain what the experiment is and what the Bill facilitates. It is an experiment in which there will be an opportunity to see how worker-directors play their parts. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Cockcroft) made his speech and left the Chamber, because he struck the only really jarring note in the debate. He seemed to suggest that the trade unions would not put on to the Board people of the first quality.

However, section 11 of the agreement states that
"Union nominees for such seats"
—that is, the seats allocated to trade unions—
"will be selected for their ability to make an appropriate contribution to the work of the Board, and it is envisaged that they would be of the standing of executive council members, or full-time officers of a Post Office union."
These are people of great standing in the unions. One's only concern is about the extent to which the unions will impoverish themselves by making such people available to sit on the Board.

When the hon. Member for Nantwich looked forward rather pessimistically to conflict on the Board he was presumably not aware of the fact that, again in section 8 of the agreement, both sides state the importance of what they describe as "consensus decision taking" on the Board, because both sides are entering into this experiment with a wish to make it succeed.

This experiment is of great importance, because it will be a testing ground for the assumption of responsibilities by trade union representatives of a kind which trade union representatives have never been asked to accept in any industrial venture in this country. Those responsibilities can quite often by unattractive. Both the Post Office Engineering Union and the Union of Post Office Workers have shown their public responsibility in the past by agreeing to unappetising reductions in manning levels in exchange for modernisation. The sense of responsibility with which the unions are approaching this was illustrated only today by Mr. Tom Jackson when speaking at the conference of the Union of Post Office Workers in Bournemouth. He said that the union directors
"will work for the good of the community at large."
That is the approach of the Union of Post Office Workers and, as has been generously pointed out by hon. Members on both sides, of all the employees in the Post Office. That is the way they will approach this experiment.

Again, a most important aspect of this experiment is that it is the result of an agreement between those who will be involved. It has not been imposed by the Government; it is the result of patient negotiation by the Post Office and the unions over a period of six months. In a speech that was generally most acceptable, I was sorry that the hon. Member for Hampstead felt it necessary to make the remarks that he did about Sir William Ryland. Sir William is a great public servant. He has devoted many years of a fine public career to the Post Office and he himself has played a great and enthusiastic part in helping to bring about this agreement.

It is entirely wrong for one hon. Gentleman—not the hon. Member for Hampstead—to imply that the Post Office is entering this experiment without enthusiasm. Indeed, without the good will and enthusiasm of the Post Office, this agreed document could never have been arrived at. It has done a great deal to narrow the differences between the Post Office and the unions, just as the unions have given up positions which they themselves hold dear for the sake of this experimental period. The Post Office, together with the unions, has played an active part in achieving agreement. It is their scheme which we are facilitating.

The hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) asked why conditions for privately owned companies should be different from those of publicly owned companies. If this were a privately owned company, we should not need this Bill. The experiment could go ahead without any legislation. Indeed, if the maximum size of the Post Office Board had been made larger in the 1969 Act, we would not need this Bill either. When the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Lamont) regrets that the size of the Board is too large he should spread his regret a little wider, because the Gas Board, under the Gas Act 1972, is bigger than the Post Office Board.

I am sure the hon. Member for Colne Valley will recall what a resource the Gas Act 1972 was to the Government. In this case, it comes in as useful as it always has.

Thus, while this is a small enabling Bill, its implications are significant. For the first time ever, workers will be elected to the main Board of a great industry. I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Thornaby that the experiment does not extend only to the main Board.

The Government certainly consider the regional and local level arrangements referred to in section 14 of the agreed document as at least as important as the provisions for representation on the main Board. So do the unions. I have had discussions about this with Mr. Bryan Stanley, of the Post Office Engineering Union.

On every conceivable occasion on which I have discussed industrial democracy generally, and industrial democracy in the Post Office in particular, I have said that workers on the boards, as such, do not signify industrial democracy—that workers on the boards are part of the concept, but that it must grow from the grass roots. That is why, in the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act, we talk specifically of industrial democracy in a "strong and organic form". That is what we wish to see in the Post Office also and that is what we know both the Post Office and the unions are anxious to obtain.

For the first time, workers will be elected to the main Board of a great industry. For the first time ever, we have recognised a consumer presence. That also is something that we shall be watching and whose benefits we shall be able to assess at the end of the two years. All these members of the Board—the worker representatives and the consumer voice—will have responsibilities as full Board members, not as narrow compartmentalised spokesmen, and will play a full part in its work, accepting the responsibility of membership.

That does not mean "collective Cabinet responsibility", nor does it mean that if someone disagrees with the decision of the Post Office, he will resign. After all, there is no unanimity on the present Board. Otherwise, presumably, its meetings would be of the utmost brevity; its members should simply have an agenda, all nod solemnly, and leave the room. Debate and discussion are necessary, and different opinions are voiced.

What is important is an acceptance by the unions of their responsibility as members of the Board. That same responsibility will be expected, and will certainly be forthcoming, from the five independents who are to be appointed.

Am I correct in saying that if the Bill becomes law, that is all that is in it? There are only two sides to it. An Act of Parliament increases the number, but it depends entirely upon a document that has no legel force in the courts. Am I correct?

The Government could have authorised this experiment without asking the House, if the present size of the Board had remained the same. There would have been no reason to ask for authorisation by the House—although obviously we should have informed the House. The only reason why we need authorisation is that we are enlarging the Board. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not expect more from the Post Office than he would from any other exponent of industrial democracy. However, we are looking to the Post Office for more, because we are giving it an opportunity which others have not yet had.

As I have said, this is a tiny Bill. It could not have been much shorter. On the other hand, it is no exaggeration to say that the future of industrial democracy in this country will be affected by the progress of this experiment.

Other workers, for example, in the aircraft and shipbuilding industries, will be watching the progress of the experiment, picking up tips and noting pifalls to avoid. The experiment will not be plain sailing. Many problems, expected and unexpected, will be revealed as we go along. This industry and these workers will be pioneers. This was very much recognised by Mr. Ken Young, of the Post Office, and Mr. Carter, of the Council of Post Office Unions—two men who have contributed a great deal to the achievement of this experiment. They referred in the agreed report to the exploring of unknown territory. That is what we are doing.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, their enemies will be hoping for failure, their champions will be cheering them on. The hon. Member for Hampstead described this Bill as being a chance for a way forward. That is a very good way of putting it. The Government are grateful for the welcome given to the experiment by almost all who have taken part in the debate. We ask the House to give its support to this venture of courage and hope.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[ Mr Frank R. White.]

Committee tomorrow.