HC Deb 06 June 1947 vol 438 cc672-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. j. Henderson.]

4 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

We pass from the Companies Bill to the deterioration of the postal services. Every Member of Parliament knows, and I am sure the Government will not deny, that the service given by the Post Office since the war is far inferior to what it was before the war, and even, in some respects, to what it was during the war. This week there has been a further big deterioration with the complete withdrawal of afternoon deliveries all over the country, except a delivery at 3 p.m. in Inner London. In the last few days, I have had a great deal of evidence of public dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. Before the war, our postal service was the best in the world. As I want to be brief, I will take only Inner London as an example. Before the war, one could post letters in Inner London up to 5.30 p.m. for delivery the same evening in any part of London, up to 7.30 p.m. for delivery by the first post next morning everywhere in England and Wales, and up to midnight for delivery by the first post in Greater London, in a large part of the home counties, and even as far away as Taunton and Cheltenham. All this was a spur to business and a boon to the public.

Today, both collections and deliveries cease about six hours earlier. The last delivery—again, I take Inner London—is 3 p.m. and the last collection 6.30 p.m., which is too late for most people who want to do their correspondence after business hours, including a number of small business men. The result is that no letter posted in London at, say, 7 o'clock in the evening is delivered even in Greater London for 38 hours, or, if it is posted on Friday, for 62 hours. The depth to which the internal postal service in this country has sunk is shown by the fact that many letters posted in London take longer to be delivered in a London suburb than in New York or Johannesburg. What makes the situation still worse is the later hour of the first morning delivery. Most people leave their homes before the post has arrived.

The Government have given various reasons or excuses for the inadequacy of the collections and deliveries, and the fact that the reasons have changed is evidence, to my mind, that the true reason has not always been given. In March last year, it was announced that, in the summer of last year, in London, the 7.30 and 9 p.m. pre-war collections would be resumed, and that there would be a 7 p.m delivery, except on Saturdays. That improvement, which was announced for last summer, was subsequently postponed until January of this year. I want to know what happened in the meantime. What was the cause of the delay? Was the delay due to protests by postal workers? I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General—to whose courtesy in answering the many questions which I have put to him I would like to pay tribute—to answer that question. On lath February, he admitted in this House that protests have been received. The later collections and deliveries were introduced in January, but after a few weeks they were withdrawn. The fuel crisis was blamed for that. I suppose the absence of light in the streets was meant. Was that really the reason? If collections and deliveries could be made during the war when the streets were blacked out at night, why should they not be made in peacetime? I suggest that the Government clutched at the fuel crisis as an excuse. If the Press can be believed, great pressure was brought to bear on the Government against the new hours by the Union of Postal Workers. I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether he will confirm or deny that statement which appeared in the Press?

Today the streets are still unlit, but now we are told that the reason for maintaining the cuts, and this week for extending them, is not fuel but manpower. If that is so, what has happened to the manpower that has been saved? If it has been diverted elsewhere, could he tell us where? Has it been used to shorten the postal hours? I put that question to the Assistant Postmaster-General Three weeks ago, and he could not give me a direct answer. He said, "Not necessarily." Is the surplus being so used or not? Or is it being used exclusively for the examination of Conservative slogans on letters? Apparently there is no gain in manpower yet, because the number of postmen, according to the latest figures that we have, has actually risen since the cuts were made. When the later collections and deliveries began, for their brief spell of life, in January, there were 85,178 postmen, and on 1st April, many weeks after the improvements had been withdrawn, there were 700 more postmen. I should like the Assistant Postmaster-General to explain that.

In conclusion, I am sure everyone in this House has the greatest admiration for the devotion and hard work of the individual postman. Everybody like Members of Parliament, who have a large correspondence are under a great debt to them. But if the public interest requires it they ought not to be exempt from evening work. After all, railwaymen lorry-men, dairy men, newspaper men, and even Members of Parliament toil far into the night for the common good, and members of an essential public service such as the Post Office ought to take their share. Besides the more letters are delayed the greater the burden on the night telephone operators. When I raised this question before I was told by the General Secretary of the Postal Workers' Union, in a letter to "The Times," that in prewar days some postmen worked 50 per cent. of their time on night duty. To me that indicates bad organisation, and I suggest that by better organisation and perhaps more mechanical sortings such a high percentage could be avoided. Anyhow that figure has no relation to today's conditions because the pre-war service included a midnight collection, which we were told by the Assistant Postmaster-General is never to be restored. In fact, he told us that people ought not to sit up at night and write letters. But what about the 7.30 and 9 o'clock collections and what about the 7 o'clock deliveries in London? What is the Postmaster-General's attitude to that, apart from the question of manpower? Does he think it reasonable or does he think it unreasonable that postmen should collect and deliver at those hours in the evening? I cannot believe that postal workers themselves think it right that a country so dependent on commerce as ours and with such a good postal record in the past, should be deprived, not only of any evening delivery, but everywhere, except in inner London of any afternoon delivery, or that in this great capital city the last collection should be at 6 or 6.30 in the evening.

4.10 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Heston and Isleworth)

I am glad to have an opportunity of replying to the stuff spoken by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) on this Adjournment. I know his love for postmen, I think he would like to have a postman on his front door on an average every half hour a day, and another at his gate collecting every hour—

Mr. Keeling

As the hon. Member has called my speech "stuff," would he use the few minutes he has available to point out in what respect he thinks it is "stuff"?

Mr. Williams

I will, if the hon. Gentleman will have patience. I want to make three points. First, I want to make it perfectly clear that no staff organisation connected with the Post Office has any desire at all to see a lower level of efficiency or a slower transaction of business so far as postal deliveries are concerned. As a matter of fact, all unite on a programme that there should be an efficient postal service, and in the past the history of the organisation is one of which we can be proud, because of the negotiations and discussions that have taken place in regard to the efficiency of the service. There were some of us, however, who thought that before the war the Post Office had been pandering to the whims of certain commercial interests, that midnight collections and 9.30 deliveries were uneconomic, and certainly not the desire of the general public. The British public are much more reasonable than some hon. Members opposite in regard to services and facilities.

With regard to the immediate cause of the more recent restrictions to which the hon. Member referred, there is no doubt in my mind that the restrictions are directly attributable to the need for saving manpower in the Post Office. I understand that there has been a direct instruc- tion to that effect from the Government, I submit, therefore, that if you are trying to save manpower in the Post Office, there are only two alternatives: the first is to restrict the facilities and services, and the second is to impose further burdens on the staff employed in the Post Office. With regard to the latter, I would make it quite clear that in no industry in this country is the staffing provision so closely, so methodically, so systematically, adjusted to traffic requirements as it is in the Post Office. In many directions it is almost on a half-hourly and, in some respects, on a quarter-hourly basis. If, therefore, there is to be any appreciable reduction in staff—and I understand that the demand of the Government is that there must be a substantial saving in manpower in order to provide for essential industries—it is impossible to carry on the same facilities and the same services.

I would state further in regard to the point made by the hon. Member, that one would think from what he said that the Post Office staff finished at 5 o'clock or 5.30 every night. The fact is that on the postal side of the Post Office the bulk of the attendances are of late incidence and of all-night incidence. Not only that, but the high proportion of the duties on that side are split attendances, long covering periods, irregular attendances, and so on. As a matter of fact, in 1938 only 40 per cent. of the duties were through duties, 60 per cent. were split duties, with the result that men would have to work from perhaps 5 o'clock in the morning on a long covering period of 12 or 14 hours. Having regard to the travelling problems, particularly in London and the outer London area, there is no need for me to emphasise what that meant in the lives of the men and women who had to perform those duties.

So far as the staff are concerned, I think that my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General and my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General are going to find it extremely difficult in the future to get men and women to come into the service under these conditions. In outside industry there have been improvements in regard to security of tenure, in regard to conditions, in regard to wages, and in regard to hours of attendance. We observe that there is disinclination on the part of men and women to come into the Post. Office service while these irregular attendances obtain.

I could go on delving into the points raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham if time permitted. Although we have to admit that there has been some deterioration in the service, if we are going to be fair we shall also have to agree that it is impossible to maintain the high standards of service and facilities that we had before the war unless we are first prepared to secure the number of staff required for the purpose.

4.17 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braithwaite (Holderness)

The hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. W. R. Williams) was, presumably, giving us the views of the U.P.O.W., and the view of the Government we shall have from the Minister; and the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth has come down on manpower as being the reason for these things. I think that very likely that is true, and I want to put two questions to the Minister arising out of that argument. If that is so, why are skilled women sorters being dismissed in large numbers at this moment when the Minister of Labour is appealing to women to remain in industry? Have not the wires got crossed there somewhere? Secondly, why is it that ex-Service men taken on in February are now being discharged? I had a case only yesterday of a young friend of mine, an ex-naval signalman with a very gallant record, who has been discharged from the Southend post office, and has got a job with the parks department, tidying up the flower beds. How does that help production? In rural areas vans are being withdrawn and the postmen are going back to bicycles. Is that going to help the manpower position? Is not that going hack to the days of Methuselah, or something like it? How is that going to help the manpower question?

There is another reason tot all this which the hon. Member did not tell us, and which I just have time to submit to the House before 20 minutes past four when, I know, the Assistant Postmaster-General will rise to reply. The Union Conference was held at Rothesay. I hold in my hand "Post," the organ of the U.P.O.W., and it gives a graphic description of the Conference, and the activities there of the hon. Member. I will quote the relevant passage: The item in the Annual Report touching upon the Union's claim for a 40-hour week was made the occasion by the General Secretary for a statement of what had passed between the Union and the Department. He was profoundly dissatisfied with the response to the Union's claim by Lord Listowel"— the previous Postmaster-General— who had said that any approach must be governed by the consideration that it must not involve any addition in staff. The Union, aware of the manpower position, had not asked for the immediate establishment of a 40-hour week, but for the acceptance in principle and consultation as to how progress could be made towards it—a demand that ought to have been welcomed by the Postmaster-General of a Labour Government committed in advance to a 40-hour week. He hoped that Conference would send him back to the new Postmaster-Genera] with the full claim.

Mr. W. R. Williams rose

Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite

I have not time to give way, because the Minister wants to get up at 20 minutes past four. The hon. Member has said his say, and I have quoted from his official pamphlet. That is another sidelight on this matter. Is that the reason for all this? Are the Government now preparing for a 40-hour week for postal workers at the earliest possible moment? We should all like it. Such diverse sections of the community as Members of Parliament and housewives, who have come into juxtaposition today in the precincts of this House, would both welcome a 40-hour week. Is the Post Office about to surrender to this demand, which is so out of touch with the problems of the country at the moment? Are the Post Office workers to become a privileged class in this matter? I cannot believe the Government will do that. Late collections are of the most urgent importance. I do not think late deliveries matter so much. If this country is to swing into its production drive in the way the Government urge, it is most important that business correspondence should be collected late at night and delivered the following morning. I hope the Minister will give us some satisfaction.

4.21 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Burke)

I am glad the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) has raised this matter. I wish to deal with the points he raised straight away, and also those raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite). I do not think I need deal with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. W. R. Williams), who, put the point of view of his own organisation. He told the House what is perfectly true, and I hope the hon. Member for Twickenham will believe me about it. We have discussed this before, but I am afraid he has never been convinced. However, it is perfectly true that these restricted services are for one reason, and one reason only: because the Government, in reviewing the claims of the Civil Service —and hon. Members opposite have repeatedly called attention to the growth of the Civil Service—on the manpower of the country, asked various Government Departments, including the Post Office, to cut down their manpower, in favour of turning manpower over to production rather than the processes of distribution. That is the reason.

The hon. Member has taken a very great interest in the postal services, and all through 1946 he asked Questions about it. During the summer, after a statement had been made in March, he asked a Question. In the statement it was promised that there would be an improvement in the services during the summer, and that in the new year there would be a bigger restoration of the services. It was then that the hon. Member asked me a supplementary question, to which I replied that the midnight collection would not be restored. He now says that I told him and others that they ought not to stay up late writing letters. I do not care how late the hon. Member stays up writing letters.

Mr. Keeling

The hon. Member did say so.

Mr. Burke

Oh, no. I have it here.

Mr. Keeling

And I have it here, too. Mr. Burke: What I said was this: With regard to the first part of the question, the statement was that there would be a considerable improvement in many places during the summer …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th June, 1946; Vol. 423, C.2134.] The hon. Gentleman has now accused us of not carrying out our word when I said there would be an improvement in many places during the summer, and generally by the end of the year. That was done, except that we were not ready to put the new services into operation in London before Christmas. We allowed the Christ- mas rush to get over and put them on on 20th January. What I said to the hon. Member was not about his writing letters, but that his letters would not be collected at 12 o'clock midnight, as was done before the war.

Mr. Keeling

I would remind the hon. Member that on 31st October I asked: May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he is still of the grandmotherly opinion, which he held on 6th June, that it is not in the public interest that people should stay up late to write letters?


I am not at all grandmotherly, but I am still of that opinion."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st October. 1946; Vol. 428, c.765.]

Mr. Burke

Yes, still of the opinion that I expressed at that date, that it would be encouraging the public to get back to the late hours from which we got away during the war. I assure the hon. Member that I do not care how late he stays up writing letters.

I now come to the question of ex-Service men and sorters being dismissed. It is true that they are being dismissed, because they were temporary people who were taken on on that basis. The hon. Member asks what happened to them. Take the case of Birmingham. In Birmingham, 100 temporary women workers were to be dismissed; the Ministry of Labour were called in, and 91 of them have been drafted into other occupations; the other nine want to have a rest before finding other occupations. By the end of this month, 3,500 temporary postmen and postwomen will be released from the service to go into productive occupations.

I now turn to the question of the postal services. We have withdrawn the late collections and the late delivery, but the fundamental basis of our postal services still stands. Ninety, per cent. of all correspondence is received up to the 5.30 p.m. or 6.30 p.m. collections. If letters catch the 5.30 or 6.30 collections, those in business will get what they had before, and what they had for a short period when we put the new postal services into operation, namely, delivery in most parts of England the next morning, and in other places as well, except in the most remote corners like Penzance and Thurso. For the other 10 per cent., it means that there is a restriction. We regret that, but we feel satisfied, having given this service, that we are justified in acceding to the needs of production.

There is another point. Not only will most of the letters in the 5.30 to 6.30 p.m collection be delivered the first post next morning, but at most head offices and at every head district office in London, if people have urgent letters—and this includes only the 10 per cent. of the millions of letters—and they go down to these offices, they can get a later collection up to about 8 p.m. for delivery by first post in the morning. It will be seen that we are not ruining the postal services as was suggested, but have drawn a balance between the claims of distribution and production. If hon. Members want any support of my contention, I have only to quote the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. They say that so long as there are the two deliveries we are giving them now, they do not want later deliveries or later collections. I submit that we are producing a service which, having regard to the needs of the country, is meeting the requirements of most of the people.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

Was the decision of the Department to withdraw the services, which were brought back as recently as January, in any degree affected by the representations made by the trade unions concerned?

Mr. Burke

No, Sir. There is a good deal of misconception about those representations. Only one office in London was affected. There was a good deal of publicity, and a certain amount of agitation which the union did not support. The publicity was out of all proportion, because there was only one office involved.

Mr. Keeling

The Postmaster-General has referred to what happened this year. May I ask him to explain the statement he made on 18th July last year, that the Post Office wished to strike a fair balance between the convenience of the public and the interests of the staff?

Mr. Burke

That is what we have done, and what we are now doing. We have had regard to the staff and have struck a fair balance in seeing that 90 per cent. of the correspondence gets the same service as before.

Mr. Henry Wallace (Walthamstow East)

May I take it that it is not the intention of the Post Office to go back to the conditions which previously obtained, when thousands of men had to rise at 4.30 in the morning and did not get home until II o'clock at night? These conditions have gone, and I do not think hon. Members opposite would wish to see them return. I should like to hear the Postmaster-General say that there is no intention of going back to those conditions.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.