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Royal Mail faces a lot of difficult change for a number of reasons, including competition from new technologies, a decline in letter volumes-parcel volumes
have increased, but not enough to replace that-and a long-term programme to introduce new technology and make a number of other changes, for which the Government have lent the company £1.2 billion. Whatever level of mechanisation is introduced, Royal Mail will still depend on its staff to deliver the postal service that we enjoy, the core of which is the universal service-the one-price letter that can go anywhere in the country, from Cornwall to the highlands, six days a week.
The delivery of that universal service depends on the army of thousands of postmen and women who, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, deliver in all weathers and all areas, rural and urban. We all saw just how important and valuable that service was during the recent very cold weather, when we had a lot of snow. I pay tribute to the hard-working staff of Royal Mail, who kept up a service in the vast majority of the country in that period.
Talks are currently taking place to try to secure a long-term agreement between the management and the unions on change in Royal Mail. They are being mediated by Mr. Roger Poole, a former Unison official and former chairman of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission-he is a man who knows something about conflict and compromise. I have kept in close touch with him in recent weeks. I do not want to go into the detail of those talks, and it is probably right that I do not do so, but both parties are working hard to reach an agreement. An agreement is important, because it is in everyone's interests, including staff, management and the public-this goes to the core of some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised-to get away from the damaging pattern of disputes that have characterised too much of Royal Mail's operations in recent years.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific points about disciplinary action and so on. Let me set out clearly what the relationship is. Ever since the Postal Services Act 2000, Royal Mail has been run by its board and management. It is for them, together with the trade unions involved, to come to agreements on procedures and practices in the workplace. There are appeals procedures if things go wrong and, ultimately, the sanction of the employment tribunals, which is the legal process through which individuals can raise grievances.
In particular, the hon. Gentleman referred to the issue of cycling helmets. I am an occasional cyclist, and I am familiar with the general debate on them. Unlike seat belts in cars, they are not required by law, although they are advisable, and most reputable cycle shops would advise anyone taking up cycling to wear one. In Royal Mail, more than 24,000 cycles are used by postmen and women. Dave Joyce, the national health, safety and environment officer, said a few years ago:
"Conscious of the fact that five members had died in cycle accidents from head injuries in a three year period, the Union and Royal Mail agreed that action was needed to improve Cycle safety standards in order to reduce the risk of serious and fatal injuries amongst our delivery workforce. CWU Conference subsequently debated the issue and voted in favour of compulsory Cycle Helmet introduction."
Following that vote, the first code of practice was agreed and introduced back in 2003. Royal Mail's policies on cycle helmets have been refined since then, and the current document states that it is mandatory for all postmen and women to wear a high-visibility waistcoat and cycle helmet when riding a Royal Mail cycle. Whenever
a postman or woman receives a helmet, they are also reminded through briefings and notices of the requirement to wear it while cycling. I, like some of the hon. Gentleman's correspondents at Royal Mail, do not really wish to comment on individual cases, because I cannot be sure of the full facts, but there is a clear policy on wearing cycle helmets that goes back a few years.
Any disciplinary action under that policy is for the company to deal with under its existing disciplinary procedures. Since 2003, cycle helmets have been supplied by Royal Mail as part of the personal protective equipment for staff using cycles, and high-visibility jackets and protective shoes are also issued to staff.
Dr. Pugh: The issue is not the policy, but the enforcement levels when the policy is not strictly observed. In many circumstances, a postman may take off his cycle helmet when going to the door of a house or to mop his brow. On many occasions in the course of his duties he may not have a helmet on, perhaps for a very brief period each time. If that becomes a case for dismissal, it destroys the benefit that the helmet is supposed to give to the employee in the first place.
Mr. McFadden: If issues arise from the policy, they have to be dealt with by Royal Mail under its disciplinary procedures. If employees still have a grievance, they have recourse to the tribunal. I am saying that the issue has been debated for some time within Royal Mail, and there is a clear policy on it.
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of consistency between areas. Royal Mail is a large organisation, and it is not inconceivable that there are inconsistencies. I suspect that not everything in Royal Mail is done in exactly the same way in every delivery office or sorting office.
Before the debate, I asked my officials to contact Royal Mail to see whether there are particular issues in the hon. Gentleman's local office. Royal Mail told my officials that that delivery office is one of the largest users of cycles in the UK and that failure to wear cycle helmets has been an issue in the past in the area. Locally, the issue was debated at an area forum in 2008 and a new approach was adopted, under which non-wearing of cycle helmets was deemed a serious breach of instructions. Royal Mail has told my officials that employees were briefed about that and the consequences of the failure to comply.
I understand that it is open to hon. Members to raise any issue with me in these debates, but the broader point is that under the reforms put in place in the Postal Services Act 2000, we gave Royal Mail greater commercial freedom and established a clear distinction between ownership of the company and the day-to-day running of the company. Since then, we have not tried to second-guess management every step of the way or on everything
that happens inside local offices. The company's board and its managers are there to run the company. The management and unions must work together to ensure that the proper procedures are in place. As I have said, the CWU, the main union in the Royal Mail, has been involved in the preparation of such policies, including on cycle helmets.
More broadly, and to return to the current negotiations, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there has been a pattern of local disputes in Royal Mail, whether in his local office or other local offices. It has held the organisation back, resulted in other disputes whereby custom is lost to other mail operators and affected morale in the organisation. It is in everyone's interests for the current talks to reach not an agreement that unravels in its implantation, but a long-term agreement that secures shared ownership of Royal Mail's long-term goals, because as I have said-sometimes perhaps without any great acceptance in the House-the technological challenge is not going away. The capacity to communicate by means other than mail will only increase, which means that the pressure for change will increase. What I hope will emerge from the negotiations is a long-term agreement whereby we can get away from that pattern of disputes and from the mistrust, to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, in the Hooper report-we all acknowledge that it is there-and get industrial relations on to a better long-term footing for the future.
Dr. Pugh: I in no sense disagree with the Minister, but is he interested in knowing the variations between individual Royal Mail centres? That information could tell us quite a lot about what is happening in the company. The Government have a genuine interest in Royal Mail working well, so those statistics ought to be available to somebody outside Royal Mail management.
Mr. McFadden: I certainly agree that we have an interest in Royal Mail working well. As I have set out, I am not going to get into second-guessing the disciplinary procedures inside individual sorting offices. If there are things that the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about so that I can pass them on to Royal Mail, I will be happy to do that. However, I want to be honest with the House and honest with the hon. Gentleman: it is for Royal Mail and its work force to work through the issues, because they are responsible for the day-to-day running of the company. I have nothing more to add at this point, but I agree with him that it is in all our long-term interests for industrial relations to be on a better footing in future than they have been in recent years.