Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)
KEN HANBURY AND GARY WATKINS
WEDNESDAY 1 MAY 2002
1. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I wonder if you would be kind enough to introduce yourselves and tell us about your position with the Communication Workers Union; Mr Hanbury, perhaps?
(Mr Hanbury) My name is Ken Hanbury. I am the Regional Secretary for Wales and the Marches. I have worked in the Post Office for something like 33 years, but I have been on release and working as a full-time trade union official for ten. My background is, well, virtually an apprenticeship in the trade union movement, I suppose, that I was a workplace representative, district official and eventually became a full-time regional official.
(Mr Watkins) Gary Watkins. My union position is, I am the Branch Secretary for the Gwent area of the Communication Workers Union. I am actually employed by the Post Office, in Royal Mail, I have worked for the Post Office for about 23 years. My actual grade is a Letter Administrator, started on Post Office Counters back in the 1970s, but for the last few years I have been on full-time release, on union duties.
2. Thank you. I understand you were planning a strike next week, over new delivery standards; are you still planning to hold one, and, if so, what are the standards that you oppose, and why do you oppose them?
(Mr Hanbury) The dispute is in terms of a Royal Mail dispute, if it does come about. At the minute, the Communication Workers Union and Royal Mail are with ACAS, and they were there until 9 o'clock last night; they were going back with ACAS today. The terms of disagreements have been written up, and the reason why we are keeping 8 May as a date for industrial action is because it takes some time to organise a strike these days, whereas several years ago it was comparatively easy, with a show of hands, etc. But we are confident that that strike will not come about, they are quite near, looking at the terms of disagreement, to resolving that dispute.
3. Can you explain what the dispute is about, Mr Hanbury?
(Mr Hanbury) The annual wage award was due in October 2001 for Royal Mail staff, for the postmen and postwomen; the actual percentage was worked out to be round about 4.5 per cent over two years. So the main cause of the breakdown is the fact that Royal Mail and the CWU have aspirations to have a basic wage of something like £300 by October 2003, and the way they get there is, of course, linked to terms of bonuses and other things, which is not necessarily linked to the RPI.
4. I see; so it is mainly a pay dispute then? I thought that it was something to do with delivery standards, that was why we were asking the question really; but it is not?
(Mr Hanbury) The management team have tried to link in what we call delivery specification. They want to link in to the pay dispute the possibility of a fall of deliveries, and then you will have the second delivery, only for business areas, and possibly businesses may have to pay for that, we are not sure, but they are trying to link the delivery span in with pay, and that is a big disagreement for us. We still think that pay should be dealt with as such and should not be linked in with anything other than that.
Chairman: Right; thank you very much for clarifying that.
5. At the lobby of Parliament on 10 April, you described Consignia's proposed closure of one third of its urban post offices as "folly". Where does the folly lie, in your view, with Consignia, with Postcomm, or with the Government?
(Mr Watkins) You are talking about the retail network, post offices, now. I think it has come about over a number of years of lack of investment. As long as I have been involved in the Post Office Counters side, it has been more about cost savings rather than trying to grow the business, and, of course, now they are hit by the problems with the new computer system, Horizon, where that did not actually come in as they were expecting it to, under the Private Finance Initiative, so they have to bear the costs of that. And then, of course, they were faced with the loss of the Government Agency work, which is about 40 per cent of the actual traffic that goes over Post Office Counters, that is going to come about next year. So we would say, actually, if you wanted to blame somebody, it is partly Government and partly the Post Office.
6. Would you like to expand on the Post Office aspects?
(Mr Watkins) As I said before, ever since I have been involved in the Post Office Counters, it has been about not growing the business but about saving costs. And it was only in recent times, when they knew they were going to lose a lot of the Government Agency work, that they have started to become more dynamic in actually trying to grow the business. The whole of my career has been about trying to protect main post offices, Crown post offices, from closure, because these were seen by the Post Office as being too expensive to run, compared with the costs of sub-post offices, because the staff were directly employed by the Post Office. Nobody has ever come along and treated the Crown, or main, post offices as the jewel in the crown, if you like, of the network, and trying to use that as an asset, rather than just being looked upon as overexpensive.
7. When I have met with Post Office workers in my constituency, there seems to be a lack of respect for the management, the quality of management, within the Post Office; they themselves seem to see a great deal of the blame with the Post Office and the quality of management. Would you say, was that a parochial thing, just peculiar to my area, or is that the case across the whole of Wales?
(Mr Watkins) I think, if I am to be absolutely fair, it varies from office to office; you can get good managers and you can get bad managers. I would not like to say that every manager in the Post Office is a bad manager, it is not true. But I think what happens is, where they do not have any respect for the particular manager then I think that leads to more problems. So I suppose the answer is, it varies from office to office.
8. And that they cited turnover of management, pay levels for management, as well, they were not paying the right level to attract the right calibre of candidate, and there were no suggestion boxes, there was no rapport with the staff on the shop floor, asking for ideas, initiatives, it just seemed to be hierarchical, and so on?
(Mr Watkins) Yes. I think in some offices that is definitely the case, there is a lot of distance between management and the workforce. I think, if you were to ask a typical postman in an office with bad relations, they feel they are just treated like pack-horses, delivery postmen there, and they do not feel that the management are there actually to assist them in doing their job on a day-to-day basis, they seem to feel that some managers are there to hinder them and make it more difficult for them.
9. Do you think that is behind the large number of strikes over the years within the Post Office?
(Mr Hanbury) Can I just come in, because what you have to appreciate, in Wales, is that, today, as opposed to maybe ten, 15 years ago, there are no decision-makers in Wales; you have staff in offices, particularly Royal Mail, with the budgets, the strict budgets, that the managers at a particular payment delivery office, a small delivery office, or even some of the larger ones, are not decision-makers. And if you look at, for instance, the Royal Mail, they are linked in to the Western Territories; now that covers an area between the West Country and right up, almost as far as Liverpool. Parcel Force, they operate in zones. Parcel Force, the two depots, Deeside and Wrexham, Wrexham is due for closure anyway, their head office is in Birmingham, and if you look at the South West, where you have an input at Pontypridd and Swansea Parcel Force depots, they are linked in to the South West. And if you look at the Counters business, for instance, they have head offices in Birmingham and Bristol. So, looking at it in terms of the decision-makers in Wales, they are not there. Wales has a Chairman of Consignia, a Chairman of the Post Office Board, as it used to be; to my recollection, he is still part-time, he is a part-time Chairman, or at least he was up until very recently. So all these operations are outside of Wales, and I do not think, if the truth is out, that you have people working for, I know it is not a postal service in Wales, it is a UK service, but there is nobody really punching their weight for Wales, because we are losing an awful lot of jobs.
10. Is that situation getting worse, is there more centralisation?
(Mr Hanbury) It is getting worse, and even if you just concentrate on the Royal Mail, the A55, for instance, the Expressway, which was there to bring jobs into North Wales, Bangor, Colwyn Bay, Rhyll, Wrexham, all these post offices, Royal Mail depots, were set up and originally processed all the mail; they have lost all the open sorting, there is no mail processed in North Wales, it goes to Chester. And, again, if you look at some of the figures that come out, it is rather misleading, because the investment in North Wales, and using figures from Consignia, it is a press release that they sent to Assembly Members, not so long ago, for example, North Wales, they claim that £22.1 million has been invested in North Wales, as opposed to £27,000 in Mid Wales, and in South West Wales, which covers the Swansea area and Carmarthen, £75,000. Well, the £22.1 million, if you break that down, that is a new sorting office, processing centre, in Chester, and yet you will find it linked to North Wales.
11. I was told by a postal worker in Rhyll, actually, that the toilet block in that Chester depot was actually in Wales, that is the only part that was.
(Mr Hanbury) I am not going to comment on that, I would like to, but, no, I will not.
12. On a more serious point, and on the understanding that the actual weekend working is actually moved from Chester to Warrington, from Shrewsbury to Wolverhampton, from Cardiff and Swansea to Bristol, so there is a march eastwards, so to speak, and that the further east you go the more difficult it is for Welsh workers to travel to those depots, they are not well-paid jobs anyway, particularly well-paid jobs?
(Mr Hanbury) It is happening that way, and you can expect it with centralisation, because you mentioned, the progression, if you like, from Chester to Manchester, for the weekend concentrations, will happen, all of Mid Wales which is processed in Shrewsbury, all that SY code, will now go to Wolverhampton, and Cardiff and Swansea, which are the last two mail centres in Wales itself, the weekend working will go to Bristol. Now what we cannot understand, and it is simplicity in itself really, is why, if you have got a Swansea mail centre with extremely good industrial relations, they have the capacity to cope with all the inner London second class mail, the concentration sometimes does not come the other way; the Cardiff mail centre, admittedly, in recent years, has had its disruptions, with industrial relations and strikes, but they have one of the highest productivity figures in the whole of the UK. So people do not centralise on the good points, they look at the bad points; and sometimes it is because of the morale and the people working in those mail centres which causes the unrest. So we would like to see it work the other way. There is no reason at all why the investment in Swansea, Cardiff, or even somewhere in North Wales, cannot bring those jobs back.
13. We have moved on, actually, from the question I asked initially
(Mr Hanbury) I am sorry. I took advantage of the situation.
14. It is alright; but I would like you to comment on that as well. Are you, as a union, aware that this weekend service is not adequate, it has presented many, many problems for customers who send their mail from North Wales to Westminster, for instance, myself being one of them, and have you had an opportunity to do something about that, as a union? But, before you answer that, my colleague, Mr Ruane, asked a question on whether the situation he described was a parochial one, and maybe it was unfair to ask Mr Watkins, bearing in mind that he is Secretary of Gwent Branch, and maybe it should be Mr Hanbury who answers that question, as the person who has an overall view of the whole of Wales. I think you will remember what the question was?
(Mr Hanbury) If you are talking about the poor service, is that what you are saying?
Chris Ruane: Parochial to North Wales?
15. The relationship with management?
(Mr Hanbury) No, not really, no, it is throughout Wales you have got a poor relationship with management, and I have already mentioned it; when morale gets that low, you are going to get a knee-jerk reaction. I have often seen and I have been involved in disputes, I have got the worst job in the world, in getting people back to work, rather than getting them out of work. You will find that something will flare up, at four or five o'clock in the morning, when somebody maybe has had a late night and is not receptive to a manager, and man management is not good on management side, (the man/woman management is not particularly good and has not been for some time) you get a knee-jerk reaction to comments, or the way that people are being dealt with. And you have to remember that the ordinary postman/postwoman is on about £250, gross wage, it is not a job that people throw themselves into with any delight. But, having said that, I do believe that if we got to the £300 basic wage that we are aiming for in 2003 it would be better to concentrate some of the new technology in North or South Wales, for that matter, because you have the people there who are prepared to stay with jobs. The concentrations are going into Bristol, certainly into Bristol, and particularly that area, where the turnover of staff is huge, and they cannot meet their despatch times now. And if I am talking about the likes of Swansea, that have, over the past two and a half months, processed millions of items of diverted mail from Slough, because the further east you go the more difficult it is to employ people where you have quite a large number of vacant jobs in the area, and it is all about releasables going over the bridge, as we suggest sometimes, you go over the bridge to look for work, and the availability of work is far greater really than anywhere in South or North Wales. So why that new technology is not coming across, rather than going to Bristol, or Manchester, or Shrewsbury, well, Wolverhampton, for that matter, we could not tell you, these are management decisions that are made, and we do not speak to management, we do not have an input into where they invest. In fact, that is one of the big problems, I think, regionally, if you are talking about Wales alone, there is not a manager that I, or anybody, can sit down with and have an input into his decisions; we did, years ago, because we had a situation where we could try to influence a manager's decisions. As a union representative, I do not expect a manager to walk away from me, and say, "I'll do exactly what you say," but if he were to listen and take it on board, that would be something, but we do not get to see managers.
16. So what you are saying is, am I getting this right, that, the situation that my colleague described, in North East Wales, it is not a parochial issue?
(Mr Hanbury) No.
17. You are saying, as the Regional Secretary, with your eye on the whole of Wales, that this management problem is a regional problem?
(Mr Hanbury) I am saying, there are not managers that can make decisions, and that is what we are lacking.
18. So you are not able to have any access to managers outside Wales, to try to influence their decisions, at all? Because I am very concerned, as a Cardiff MP, about work moving from Cardiff, especially as the productivity there is so good, and it is, to me, very, very depressing that everything is going out of Wales, east, over the bridge. Is there no chance of you putting your point of view to the managers who are based in England, is there any sort of set-up for you to do that?
(Mr Hanbury) There are local representatives, area representatives, that deal with managers in Cardiff, Swansea, or wherever else, in North Wales; but what I am coming back to again and again is the fact that, that is fine, but, because of centralisation, again, because the Post Office, and whether you look at Royal Mail, Parcel Force or post office networks, the three main core businesses, there are not any people who can actually have an influence on whether or not there is investment into the Cardiff mail centre. There are managers there, but they are there with probably a strict budget, and they try to work to their full capacity in that mail centre to despatch the mail. When we are talking about where the managers have an influence outside of that building, to bring in extra work, I do not think so, in fact, I know so.
19. Does Wales does not have a say, really, in anything?
(Mr Hanbury) Very little; and I should imagine, because of the centralisation that has happened over the years, that is how it is. The business might tell you differently; but why is it, as I say, and it is a simple question, why is it that the money that is being spent on new machinery is such that it has to be in Bristol, particularly I mean South Wales, when you cannot match the turnover of staff to the amount of mail that they are dealing with.