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During the course of the Bill's proceedings, I, too, have found it fascinating and a great privilege to serve with distinguished members of the Treasury Committee and distinguished Members of this House. I cannot
help feeling a little disappointed by the Bill's eccentricities, but only one or two items of principle divide us. The item of major principle which has divided us is the Bill's reaffirmation of the tripartite arrangement. I am absolutely devastated that we lost the vote on the amendment that would have removed clause 1, because that would have been a fitting end to the endless speeches on the subject from me and my colleagues. The Bill takes an ostrich-like approach, in which the tripartite arrangement is still seen to be resilient and a good thing; and it is a Bill in which the creation of a body that is almost identical to its predecessor is still seen as a major step forward.
There is symmetry in the new system, however. The biggest criticism of the old system was a lack of leadership, and the biggest criticism of the new system is a lack of leadership. Even that, however, provided Government Members with a golden opportunity to practise in Committee the skills that they will undoubtedly need in opposition of calling for us to explain our policies. I hope that those skills stand them in good stead.
We have created some confusion by marginalising and blurring the responsibilities of the Bank of England while allowing the Financial Services Authority to stray from simple regulation into politics. The Bill is high on PR but low on change, and I still struggle to see the real additionality to it. The other issue about which I felt frustrated was the enormous lack of detail, particularly on costings. It came out in relation to living wills, for which the impact assessment provides no costings, and in relation to short selling. That aspect of the Bill was pulled back remarkably today into a sensible state, but the ranges of available costings are too wide to be useful.
Other Members have spoken of the good work that the Bill promises on improving public education in finance, but there was still some confusion about its relationship with what the private sector already does. The relevant clauses left so much open and provided such a vague framework that, in the opinion of one witness,
"the wording is sufficiently wide that in all probability we will be able to come up with appropriate regulations that fit within whatever comes" --[ Official Report, Financial Services Public Bill Committee, 10 December 2009; c. 110, Q48.]
There are backstops all over the place, such as the consumer redress measures. They are headline grabbing, we are not sure when they will be used, and there is no consistency or real understanding of the potential to introduce US-style litigation to UK courts. One witness was prompted to say that
"just about everything of substance is passed to a secondary legislative process through regulations... It does not seem to be the way to proceed." --[ Official Report, Financial Services Public Bill Committee, 10 December 2009; c. 78, Q14.]
I entirely agree with that. Having regulations, even in draft, alongside the Bill would have helped enormously in giving us a greater understanding and depth of discussion, which at times we have had to skirt around.
That the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 2 December, be approved. -(Helen Jones.)
That, at the sitting on Thursday 28 January, notwithstanding Standing Order No. 20 (Time for taking private business) the Private Business set down by the Chairman of Ways and Means may be entered upon at any hour, and may then be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours, after which the Speaker shall interrupt the business. -(Helen Jones.)
That, for the purposes of its approval under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, the Government's assessment as set out in the Pre-Budget Report 2009 shall be treated as if it were an instrument subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118 (Delegated Legislation Committees). -(Helen Jones.)
That Mr Virendra Sharma be discharged from the Justice Committee and Rosie Cooper be added. -(Rosemary McKenna, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I think that it could fairly be said that postmen live unique but important lives. They work some pretty unsocial hours, yet they need to have the social skills to interact with every kind of person they meet. They call at every house and every business, so they have an unrivalled view of how our communities and towns are made up. They are a tolerant lot, putting up with letterboxes in ridiculous places, dogs of all dispositions, and gates and paths that offer more in the way of hazard than access. Not surprisingly, usually there is a real camaraderie among postmen, which is encapsulated quite well in the recent Ken Loach film, "Looking for Eric"-"Eric" being Eric Cantona-which even I, as a Liverpool supporter, managed to enjoy and which I would recommend to you, Mr. Speaker, if you have a spare moment. The British postman is part of the life of all of us. He brings us the bills, the good news, the presents, the offers, the bad tidings; and most importantly, of course, the constituency mailbag. It is easy to romanticise Royal Mail.
Given all that, and given such a perspective, what I have to do tonight is to explain why, in the relatively small Royal Mail office in Southport, 46 postmen have been suspended or dismissed or have gone off work with stress; why I receive e-mails and letters from their wives, alarmed by the prospect of dismissal, loss of income, mortgage arrears and repossession; and why apparently experienced and loyal staff get dismissed and good postmen fear for their jobs. I have tried to answer those questions outside this place in the ordinary way of casework. I have inquired about specific cases, but Royal Mail will not talk about specific cases. I have tried to get comparative statistics, but Royal Mail will not provide them. I have tried, in desperation, writing to the chief executive, Mr. Crozier, but his underling replied with warm words that did not assist me with my questions. So here I am on this Monday night, not because I am against Royal Mail privatisation, although I am, and not because I think that the union states a good case in that respect, which I do, but simply because I know people who are losing good jobs and I understand what they, their wives and their families feel.
Let me explain. In my constituency, Royal Mail is summarily dismissing or suspending people for things such as not wearing their cycle helmets; for leaving letters in post boxes, even if they have never done it before; and for leaving mail, in exceptional-and I mean exceptional-circumstances, unguarded. All this is picked up and identified by a management intent on surveillance and on forcible action. It does not matter that the individual has an excellent employee record or that affairs are conducted differently elsewhere. I gawped with wonder when I recently saw in another town postmen without helmets cycling happily away from the local HQ, in full view of everyone. I will not mention the town for fear that at some later date those postmen, too, will get into trouble. No matter that management reserve the right to breach the rules on occasions themselves-that does not seem to have any impact.
They sometimes do not sign for registered mail, especially if it is a letter from an employee about their disciplinary hearing.
It would be quite easy to leap to the conclusion that there is an underlying strategy to find reasons to shed experienced staff, so as to cut costs, replace permanent staff with casual or reduce pension liabilities. How else can we explain the fact that the manager who has sacked the most staff appears to be the most applauded by the Royal Mail? I do not go for easy explanations, but I am not entirely certain what other explanations I should offer in this case.
Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech in defence of his local postal workers. Does he agree that the experience of postal workers in Southport, about which he is telling the House, is not isolated? In other parts of the country, including Crewe, in my constituency, where 600 postal workers are currently facing the prospect of losing their job, the problem is down to the management's running of Royal Mail and their cack-handed approach to the review of the postal service, of which the workers are taking the brunt.
It is a fact-a rather suspicious fact-that as experienced staff are replaced by less experienced staff, even if they successfully appeal to an employment tribunal, the crippling pension liabilities of Royal Mail are reduced. I have seen one case in which a saving of £37,000 was engineered, if I may put it like that, from such a dismissal. The management with that dismal record of suspension and dismissal received an award in 2009 for being the most improved. Is that because they have got gross staff hours down by 25 per cent.?
I have been told of a good career ending when a postman signed for a little old lady-a known customer whom he saw most days-so that she would not have to make the trek out of town to the sorting office, because there was no bus route. She phoned the office to get her thanks passed on, and it cost the postman his job. I have been told of a suspension when a postman stayed too long answering customer queries inside a shop. His load was left within range and eyesight, and critically within Post Office guidelines. He had to be reinstated, but he should never have been suspended.
I have been told of postmen followed out to the countryside to isolated dwellings to see whether they leave their van unlocked for a second, which is not an altogether irrational thing to do, and of loyal workers suspended for mistakenly leaving a bag in a van or a letter in a post box-all understandable mistakes. They are examples of not good practice, but they are cases for a word of advice, not for a disciplinary hearing.
"Wilful delay of the mail", I have learned, is a serious offence, but it is used against people in circumstances in which "serious" is perhaps not precisely the word to use. What are we to do if hard-working postmen with otherwise good records return from shifts having been unable to complete their deliveries in time, in extraordinary and atypical circumstances, sometimes having been given additional work by management, and are charged with wilful delay of the mail? Is that bad management direction
or a sackable offence? It appears to be the latter in Southport, and postmen do it at their peril because disciplinary hearings will inevitably, it seems, result. Staff are constantly warned of the consequences of wilful delay of mail-so they should be-but they are not told how to protect themselves if for any reason they are unable to complete their duty. There will be good reasons for that at times.
Then there are the helmets. I am aware of the national agreement on helmets and of a study on how it is going, but I am not aware of its having being put in the public domain, published, evaluated or mulled over. There have been two dismissals for not wearing helmets in Southport, both tragic cases that have affected families at critical times. They were not for an incorrigible refusal to wear helmets or perpetual non-wearing, and they did not necessarily relate to occasions when the postmen were in a hazardous environment. They were just chance sightings of a man without a helmet.
All over this land, including down the road in Formby, which is not very far from Southport, I see postmen on bikes with helmets either not on or in some cases not there. That is why I have asked for, but not got, statistics, and why I want consistency, which is crucial. I want to be convinced that any sanction on Southport postmen is proportionate, reasonable and fair, and that the helmet issue is not being used as a device to thin staff. So far, I have not been convinced.
I would genuinely like to believe that Royal Mail was unusually solicitous for the welfare of its staff, but it has no compunction in sending them out, as it did recently, with the pavements frozen solid-as the accident ledger shows. It did not even get the yard free from ice and snow. It had no compunction in sending a member of staff, who was supposed to be on light duties, out on a full round so that stitches unpicked and they had to go back to hospital. Subsequently, that member of staff got warned, went off with stress and resigned.
Given that the rule is for the good of the employee-that is the reason for it-how, in the sum total of things, is the occasional removal of a helmet to be viewed? Is the Post Office worried about the lack of redress if a postman is injured without a helmet, and so makes sure that he loses his job instead?
I know that there are good and bad employees, and managers with difficult people to manage. Perhaps I am giving only one side of the story, but I would like briefly to refer hon. Members to the 2008 Hooper report, which said:
"We are particularly concerned about the impact of poor industrial relations. The relationship between the Communication Workers Union and management remains extremely difficult. There is a lack of trust in the relationship at many levels. Both sides feel the need to defend past decisions and reactions. Both have been accused of taking a tactical and piecemeal approach to change... Although management and unions recognise that their relationship is a problem, neither side has found a way to resolve it."
We all know from personal experience that in any workplace, there must be some give and take, and that good teamwork is desirable. However, few people know what it is like when the atmosphere in the workplace goes wrong: when the employee fears that mistakes are no longer possible, surveillance seems to have a purpose, disciplinary processes seem to lack transparency and grievance procedure lacks credibility. If going to work
seems a battle to stay at work-because people are trying to get you out of work-something is going seriously wrong. For that reason-this is the point of the debate-I want the Minister to join me simply in a hunt for the facts.
Let us look at the disciplinary profile of each sorting office-whether it is Crewe or Southport-and let us encourage employees and unions to produce evidence. I do not know how things are elsewhere, but it is not difficult to run up the number of disciplinary cases, dismissals, the reasons given, employment tribunals and their results. If the figures are high or awry, we should address them-for something surely is going wrong. That is certainly true of Southport, also of Crewe and possibly elsewhere.
Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. I assure him that I am aware of similar situations in the area that I represent, so they definitely occur in Scotland, too. Does he agree that, despite that, Royal Mail employees provide a huge public service and that we must do everything we can to protect that? In the long-term, that will ensure that we get good mail delivery in this country.
Dr. Pugh: As on many occasions, I thoroughly agree with the hon. Lady. The employees deliver an important public service in stretched circumstances. I also note her point that the problem applies to Scotland as well as elsewhere, and that is worrying.
I am sure that other hon. Members would have stayed for the Adjournment debate, had they been alerted to the details of the topic. If more were present, I think that we would have heard a chorus from throughout the country-perhaps not from everywhere, but certainly from a wide area.
It is genuinely not the statistics that matter in the end, but my constituents who lose a job-and the heart-rending e-mails that they send me. That is the core of the matter and the reason for my standing here tonight to plead their case. I would like some assistance from the Minister-or some awareness that something in Royal Mail is not going right.
The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr. Pat McFadden): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson) on their contributions to it.
Royal Mail issues always arouse debate in the House, and tonight we have specifically focused on industrial relations within the company. The fact is that Royal Mail has a poor industrial relations record. That was shown clearly in the Hooper report, to which the hon. Member for Southport has referred. In the past two and a half years, there have been two national strikes, other threatened strikes in between and a number of localised and unofficial disputes.
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