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Membership Of The Post Office

Volume 934: debated on Monday 27 June 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

5.12 p.m.

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 14, leave out from beginning to 'of' in line 15 and insert:

'No order shall be made in pursuance of this subsection unless a draft of the order has been approved by resolution of each House'.
This is a drafting amendment. I can say genuinely and honestly to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) that we thought we had this right in Committee. We had not. This amendment puts matters right.

May I thank the Minister for his explanation and say that we naturally accept what he has said? We are pleased that he is repeating the point that the Government are prepared, provided that it is in the correct form, to accept the amendment that we originally suggested in Committee. The Government's amendment amends our original amendment. Ours was defective and so was the Government's original improvement.

The purpose of our amendment, as the House may not be aware, was to make sure that this experiment was confined to a two-year period, which is what the Government have said ought to be the purpose of the Bill. We think that that ought to be written into the Bill, because when this measure becomes an Act certain consequences will flow and all sorts of things might happen to the structure of the Post Office. We want to make sure that the Government are compelled to come back to the House and also that the Post Office Board will revert to its normal size. I am pleased that the Government have accepted the spirit of our original amendment. I am happy to accept this amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 15 at end insert

'but before such an order is laid, the Secretary of State shall make available to Parliament a White Paper detailing the results of the experiment'.
This is the third time that this matter has been under discussion. The first was on Second Reading when in reply to me the Minister of State said that he was attracted to my proposal that some way should be found to assist hon. Members and the public to assess the outcome of the experiment. In Committee I pressed this proposal again because I did not feel that the Government had taken the point on board.

The Under-Secretary of State said that again I had made a reasonable point, adding:
"at this precise moment in time I cannot give him an absolutely copper-bottomed guarantee of the precise format of what we may be able to offer."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 21st June 1977; c 30.]
I accept that it was not possible for him to do that and for that reason I drafted this amendment.

I am sure that I can accept 50 per cent. of what the Minister will tell me, namely, that the amendment is technically badly drafted. At least he and I are on an equal footing, because even the Government's draftsmen cannot get it right the first time. What chance has a Back Bencher? If this is to be an experiment of any value and if Parliament is to decide at the end of two years whether it should continue, we shall want more than a brief statement by a Minister or a statement from the Post Office Board. Parliament would wish to have some document to consider prior to having to take a decision. The matter is as brief and as simple as that.

I fully sympathise with the desire of the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), which I know is shared by other hon. Members, that Parliament should have the opportunity to review the experiment at the end of its two-year term. The hon. Member has reminded the House of what I said on Second Reading and of what my hon. Friend said in Committee. The hon. Gentleman's amendment would lay a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to present a report in the form of a White Paper. The hon. Member has been good enough to acknowledge that it would not be a satisfactory amendment to incorporate into the Bill.

The amendment would not accord with normal practice in that a statute does not stipulate in what form a Secretary of State should present a report to Parliament. I am advised that the term "White Paper" is not a legal term and that it would not be appropriate to use it in statute. On the other hand, I fully accept the fundamental point behind the amendment, namely, that Parliament should be properly informed about the result of the experiment. I give the House a firm undertaking that a report on the experiment will be presented to Parliament.

Clearly, my right hon. Friend cannot decide finally at this stage precisely what form will be appropriate for a report to Parliament on the experiment. We have been considering it. Perhaps the mast appropriate way to handle this would be for the Chairman of the Post Office to provide my right hon. Friend with a report on the operation of the experiment, which would be made available to Parliament. My right hon. Friend would invite the chairman in preparing this report to include the views of the Post Office unions as well as of the board. This approach would in no way cut across the arrangement agreed by management and unions and I believe that both sides would welcome the opportunity that such a report would provide for a full and honest review of the experiment. That being so, I hope that what I have said will have satisfied the House that Parliament will be given the information necessary to form a judgment of the success of the experiment.

I welcome what the Minister has said. I very much hope that when deciding what form this report might take he will bear in mind the points made in Committee about how difficult it is to measure the performance of the Post Office. We have gone over this point before and I believe that the Minister accepts it. Given that the Post Office is a monopoly whose borrowings are guaranteed by the Government, profitability alone is not an adequate measure- ment of its performance. It is important that we have available all the data about output per standard man-hour to try to assess the improvements in the performance of the Post Office.

We pointed out, for example, that the accounts do not always conform to the best commercial practice and are thought to be somewhat vague. Net assets, for instance, are not very clearly defined and do not always visibly measure the return on capital. I feel strongly that much more information should be made available on a standard basis over a period. That is information that the Government have and that the Post Office has and that would enable us to judge much better than by profitability by itself how the Post Office is doing. That is a general point, but it applies to the period of the experiment.

We want to see whether having union representatives on the board will make a difference to the performance of the Post Office. No doubt the consumer will be able to judge performance for himself and whether the services are improving.

I hope that when the Minister tries to work out what form the report to Parliament takes he will bear in mind what we have discussed, namely, the need to have more information about the performance of the Post Office. That is material that he already has but that is not always made available to the public.

The Minister has been most helpful and I press him on only one minor matter. The hon. Gentleman said that the chairman would present the report and that the unions would be consulted. As the new board is, by statute, to have some consumer representation, will he ensure that the Post Office Users' National Council is consulted before the chairman makes the report?

On that basis I am delighted to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

5.23 p.m.

We gave the Bill a welcome and we hope that the experiment will be a success.

We have sounded one or two notes of caution. First, we very much hope that the experiment's implementation will not delay the implementation of whatever the Carter Report recommends about the structure of the Post Office. That is one fear that we are bound to have. It seemed extraordinarily premature to put forward the proposal to enlarge the board before the issue that has been considered by the Carter Committee, namely, whether the corporation should be split into two or whether it should continue as a joint organisation, has been considered by the House. Many people will fear that a premature decision has been made. As the Post Office Workers Union and Mr. Jackson have already declared their opposition to separating telecommunications from the Post Office, the fears are bound to be the greater.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us when we can expect the Carter Report. It seems to have taken an extraordinarily long time. The committee started work in January and the report was presented to the Minister in May. In the middle of that period the United States had a similar investigation into its postal services. That investigation has taken a much shorter time. I believe that it took only eight months to present the report to Congress. I hope that we can have some further information about that.

The only other note of caution that we wanted to sound was our hope that all members of the board would act as such and not as representatives of interests. I know that the Minister has said that that is his hope and the aim of the Government, but he will understand that fears will persist.

Some of us have read the document that was the result of the study of the Council of Post Office Unions and the Post Office management and that indicated that the unions did not initially entirely accept the need to act in such a way. In the document there were references to the unions being expected not to criticise the board's decisions in public but not actually to defend them.

I know that the Minister went on to say that everyone accepted the responsibilities of being a board member, but the very fact that a document had been produced containing such an absurd suggestion that board members should be expected to do nothing more than not to criticise decisions of the board did not give enormous confidence that the board would operate as a team and operate in the interests of the Post Office as a whole. It was because the Minister assured us on that issue that we withdrew one of our earlier amendments that would have enshrined the responsibilities of board members.

We hope that the message has got through loud and clear to union representatives on the board. That is the only way in which the experiment can work successfully. Ultimately the experiment will be judged by whether it helps to speed up change within the Post Office and telecommunications and whether it results in a better service for the consumer. With those remarks, my right hon. and hon. Friends wish the experiment well.

5.27 p.m.

I do not wish to detain the House at any length but Liberal Members wish to welcome the Bill. We welcome the fact that it has been unopposed and that it springs from the initiative of parties within the Post Office. It is in no way being imposed upon any parties in the Post Office.

We are reassured by the full assurances that have been given to the House about the Carter Report not being in any way prejudiced by the experiment when it is under consideration. I hope that we can be reassured that the unions intend to produce their directors for their share of the numbers on the board by democratic processes. It is not for the House to interfere in the domestic arrangements that unions make to produce their representatives, but it is our hope, which we have expressed to each of the unions, that selection will be carried out in a manner that is seen to be democratic by all concerned.

It is a fact that when the Bill in its original form, which provided for only 16 board members, was shown to my hon Friends and myself we were positively unable to accept it. We indicated that we would oppose it. We did not believe that the ordinary private consumer was being given adequate representation. However, now that the board has been increased to 19 members—possibly 20 with the chairman—there is opportunity for representatives to be put on the board, as has been specifically promised, who will be there for no other reason than their specific familiarity with consumer affairs.

When we take into account that every member of the board will by definition, in common with every other British citizen, be a consumer of Post Office services, we think that the consumer interest will be well taken care of for the purposes of the experiment, always provided that the Government, as I believe they intend, carry out the most elaborate and careful search for persons adequate to voice consumer interests on the board.

On that basis we wish the experiment well and hope that other industries will take note of the need to proceed by experiment rather than by dogma. I am glad that the Bill has come thus far.

5.29 p.m.

I join briefly in welcoming the Bill. I am pleased to note that it has made such speedy progress through Committee. I hope that it will soon pass through this place and another place and that the Post Office will soon be given the opportunity to bring the experiment into being.

The Minister is to be congratulated on the way in which the Bill has been expedited this Session. My hon. Friend's Department have given its passage every encouragement. It is good to find that the Post Office and the trade unions within it have come together to promote an experiment in worker participation in the running of the Post Office. It is not a question of whether the experiment will be successful. I am convinced that it is a question of the extent of the success. The Post Office is to be congratulated.

There is great talk about the Bullock Report, and industrial democracy will be on Parliament's agenda for months and years ahead. However, the Post Office has gone ahead and it will be implementing the experiment. In Tom Jackson of the Post Office Workers Union and in Bryan Stanley of the Post Office Engineering Union we have two public spirited general secretaries. If the unions are to be involved in the experiment so as to make it a success, I am convinced that both the Post Office unions will make it a success.

I hope that consideration will be given to the making of an interim report showing how the experiment is progressing and that an appendix will be published pointing out how the workers have been brought into the running of the Post Office. I am convinced that, with workers and consumers on the board, we shall have a more efficient service in the Post Office. I hope that the Bill will soon be on the statute book and that in the next few months we shall witness the beginning of a great experiment in industrial democracy.

5.31 p.m.

I hesitate to strike a slightly carping note in the agreeable atmosphere that has been engendered today, but, as one who, unfortunately, could not take part in the Second Reading debate and therefore was not involved with the Bill in Committee, although I have read the Official Report of the Committee proceedings, I feel that we cannot allow the Third Reading to pass without recording the basic objective, which should be redefined, of the newly reconstituted board.

I realise that some reference was made to these matters in Committee, but it would be wrong to leave the House and the country with the impression that this experiment by itself will solve all the problems of the Post Office. No hon. Member would argue that. However, it is right that we should consider briefly what we want to determine as the acid test to decide whether the experiment has been a success.

It is not the structure and forms of the board but the results that they produce that interest us. We should consider what the three groups—management, trade unions and outside interests—will contribute in trying to overcome some of the problems. We cannot hide from the fact that there is massive discontent among the public about the service in the Post Office, particularly on the postal side, or from the anxiety of the taxpayer as he has seen considerable amounts of investment going into the postal and telecommunications sides in a difficult and uncertain course in recent years which has not been charted with great skill and which is still very worrying. This is a matter that perhaps primarily must be measured against the future of the management group and the contribution that it will make.

Anyone who considers the rise of one-third in postal charges since 1971—well ahead of inflation—must ask upon what basis management decisions were made and on what basis they will be made in future. We must also consider the tripling of charges within the context of the withdrawal of Sunday collections—a matter that has caused a good deal of upset and inconvenience to my constituents and to the constituents of many other hon. Members. Therefore, one of the first priorities of the management group in the newly reconstituted board must be its ability to look at these matters anew and perhaps to show a little more flexibility in its thinking about providing services and, in particular, the withdrawal of the Sunday service.

I should like to hear from the board and to read in the report which the Minister has undertaken to bring before the House that new thought has been given to the question of technological development in telecommunications—

Order. The Third Reading debate is a narrow debate. If the hon. Gentleman were to proceed on the lines that he is at present following, he could cover every facet of the services being provided. That is not the purpose of this debate. The intention is to increase the maximum number of members of the Post Office Board. If the hon. Gentleman proposes to go in depth into every separate department of the Post Office and say that these are matters to which the board must address itself, regretfully I should have to tell him that he is out of order.

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The newly reconstituted board will consist of seven management members, seven trade union members and five members representing outside interests, and I am trying to show that we look to the board to overcome many of the problems of the Post Office. I have been running briefly through some of the problems and considering which matters the reconstituted board might be expected to tackle. I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will bear with me if I move to the trade union side of the equation. It will be difficult for the House to consider whether the experiment has been a success if we have not brought out what we expect from the board—

Order. We are appointing a board. It will be the board's job to run the services of the Post Office. If the hon. Member goes into detail on matters to which he thinks the board should address itself, the whole purpose of the board becomes valueless.

I understand what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A number of these matters were discussed on Second Reading and in Committee, and I am trying to pull together the strands—

Order. That is precisely the point. This is not a Second Reading debate. It is a Third Reading debate and it is confined to the question whether we should increase the number of members of the Post Office.

I do not wish to challenge your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is difficult for Members who have not had an opportunity to take part in the previous debates, but, out of deference to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall try to confine my remarks within the terms you have indicated.

I hope that the structure, planning and forecasting of the Post Office will move in the way suggested by my hon. Friends. I hope that the fact that the union group has a commitment to its constituents will not inhibit it, because the pattern of the board will be meaningless if its responsibilities to its constituents supersede its responsibilities to the board as a whole.

Above all, the newly reconstituted board must, by definition, have as its prime concern a new deal for consumers and taxpayers. They have a right to expect that. If the board does not achieve that, it will have failed, not only from an industrial democracy point of view, but in doing the important job of resolving the problems that I have attempted to discuss.

5.38 p.m.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) asked when the Carter Report would be published. It is being printed, and we hope to be able to publish it next month. That is the intention.

The hon. Gentleman, in referring to the relationship of the experiment with the Carter Report, said that our decision to authorise the experiment was premature. Like many of us on both sides of the House, the hon. Gentleman was subscribing to the famous doctrine of "unright time". It can be argued that no time is the right time to make a decision. We decided to go ahead with the experiment. We realise that there might be criticisms, but, particularly in view of the way the House has received the Bill, we hope that the experiment will be shown to have been worth while.

It is satisfactory that, while we were considering the Bill in Standing Committee last week, the Post Office Engineering Union at its annual conference was voting to endorse the experiment. The Union of Post Office Workers, as the other major union involved, had already endorsed it. We are anxious to have the support of the other unions.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. I. Evans) was right to pay tribute to Tom Jackson and to Bryan Stanley for the way in which they have been receptive to points put to them by Ministers and by other hon. Members to make sure that the experiment is widely acceptable.

I think it is right, too, that we should pay tribute to Mr. Tony Carter of the Council of Post Office Unions and to Sir William Ryland and Mr. Ken Young of the Post Office, who have devoted themselves wholeheartedly to making this agreed document available to us.

Both the unions and the Post Office—particularly the unions, I think—are accepting a great responsibility in participating in this experiment. This is not simply conferring upon them or upon the independents—including those with consumer experience—some kind of privilege. They are taking on a very great responsibility in running the greatest business in Western Europe, a business expected to make large profits for the taxpayer. They are taking on a great responsibility in what I think we can agree to be a great and historic venture.

I am grateful to the House for the speedy and unhampered passage that it has given to the Bill. I think that it is possible for me, on behalf of the House, to say to all who are taking part in this experiment "We wish you well".

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.