HC Deb 06 December 1956 vol 561 cc1602-14

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

11.9 p.m.

Mr. John Rodgers (Sevenoaks)

I think that most people, including hon. Members of this House, would agree that of all the Government Departments and Government monopolies the Post Office for a long time has been in the forefront in explaining its services to the public, trying to meet their needs, and promoting its services vigorously. All of us remember the splendid work done in this connection by the late Sir Kingsley Wood. I am glad that the excellent start he made has been carried on by the majority of his successors.

At this time of the year, just before Christmas, we are acutely conscious of the very heavy burden which we place on the postmen throughout the country and also on the men and women behind them—the sorters and those responsible for collecting the mail. We listen to the exhortations to post early for Christmas and to address our letters correctly because we realise that it is no easy task to handle and deliver in a few days a mail amounting to about 750,000 packages and envelopes, which, if my mathematics are correct, is about one-eighth or one-ninth of the total annual mail.

The postal staff of all grades cope with this work in a spirit of cheerfulness and good fellowship, and we regard our postmen as very friendly people. We often hear it said that the British policeman is a very fine fellow; he certainly is, and we all agree with that statement. But I think that the postmen are equally worthy of praise and gratitude for the way in which they deliver our mail day after day, despite the weather, and for the extra effort which they make at Christmas.

Tribute should also be paid to the postmasters and postmistresses, especially in country post offices and sub-post offices. I know from my own experience how often they help the old and the illiterate to fill in forms and draw their allowances. They have become the friends and advisers of the ordinary people in their locality.

In recent years there has been a great change in the status and functions of the Post Office. No longer are their duties confined merely to handing out stamps or postal orders. In a real sense they have become a key part of the Welfare State. Not only that, but they have become the bankers of the ordinary people, with the Post Office Savings Bank, the sale of Savings Certificates and, now, the sale of the excellent Premium Savings Bonds. I very much hope that the Post Office staff will do their best to stimulate the maximum sale of these bonds, in the national interest.

Obviously, in the Post Office, as in other institutions which deal with the public, much depends on the cheerful and obliging personal service of the people in the post offices. I must confess, however, that the lay-out of most post offices—I am not talking about the sub-post offices—is very depersonalised and dehumanised. The iron grill curtains—I dare say they are necessary—do not make for friendly relations between the customer and the person behind the grill.

I should like to see much more of the friendly, brisk efficiency which we find in the modern airline offices. For instance, is it too much to ask that the assistants should have their names on that part of the counter where they are serving, so that one could say, in a friendly way, "Good morning, Miss Brown," or "Good morning, Miss Jones," when entering the post office? They could be made to feel that they are part of the show and not merely an impersonal individual serving behind the counter.

When the economy of the country improves I should like consideration to be given to putting the assistants into attractive uniforms or overalls, in the same way as air hostesses. I do not press that at the moment, for I do not think we can find the necessary money, but it is a point which should be considered in the future.

The walls of post offices are often bare. Could we not have some more colourful posters and pictures on them, or some information leaflets and posters explaining the various welfare provisions served through the Post Office and drawing attention to the various Post Office services, such as cheaper evening telephone calls and cheaper rates for book postage?

Above all, could more consideration be given to increasing the self-service in post offices? I am sure that more automatic machines could be installed to deal with rush hours. I do not mean only stamp machines, but also automatic machines for the sale of postal orders of certain values or stamped cards and stamped envelopes. Here is a very fertile field for investigation.

But however well planned the offices and however cheerful and willing the staff in a post office, a monopoly such as the Post Office must always guard against complacency, slackness and inefficiency. In private enterprise, a customer has a wide choice. If shop assistants are casual or rude, he can easily go to another shop and buy goods there. If goods are inferior, he can buy a similar type of goods—but better—at other shops. That is not the case with the Post Office. It is a monopoly, and it is, therefore, essential that the Post Office should take active steps to find out whether people are satisfied with the service. They must continually consider whether the services can be improved, and whether changes are desirable or not.

One of the instruments for doing this is the local advisory committee. As far back as 1930, surveyors, or regional directors, were encouraged to form local advisory committees, composed of representatives of local authorities, trades unions, chambers of commerce, rotary clubs, and so forth, but, unfortunately, by 1937 it was no longer incumbent upon regional directors to encourage the formation of these committees. By 1940, during the war, it was laid down that no more committees should be set up, nor moribund ones resuscitated.

Of course, one can understand that in time of war, but by June of this year there were only 62 committees, and many of those were in a moribund condition or a state of suspended animation. In my own area there are three such committees; one is at Tunbridge Wells, which is very alive and active; the second at Rochester and Chatham is just about alive; and that at Maidstone is moribund.

I should like to congratulate the Postmaster-General and my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General on deciding that vigorous encouragement should be given to the establishment of more committees and to the stimulation of committees to greater activity, and there are three questions which I should like to ask my hon. Friend. First, how many committees are there, and how many are in process of formation? Secondly, how often do they meet, who takes the chair, and who acts as secretary? Thirdly, what is the relationship of the local advisory committees to the Post Office Advisory Council?

These local advisory committees are valuable sources for information and disseminating Post Office news, but my hon. Friend will agree that we must guard against taking their views unless they are really representative of the general public. One of the snags of the post-war world is the so-called "representative person". For instance, a housewife may be appointed to one of these committees and consider herself representative, not only of the ordinary housewife—which she may not be—but also of trade unionists and shopkeepers. Admirable though they are, and worthy though their object, the fact is that they really represent only the prejudices and ideas of their friends.

The real opinion of the country can only be obtained by market research, and that is why I welcome the news that the Post Office has undertaken a piece of market research to try to find out what people really think of its services. I wonder whether the Assistant Postmaster-General could tell us tonight when its survey will be published, if it is to be published. I hope that it will. Could he tell us whether it is intended to repeat the survey, say, every two years, or at other regular intervals, because it is important to have an accurate assessment of what the people think of the Post Office and its charges?

Above all, the public wants efficiency and economy, and I am always somewhat suspicious of a monopoly which carries out an investigation of its own services. If it is true that the Post Office has called in an outside industrial efficiency expert, I welcome that; but could we have confirmation, because the public is entitled to know?

Personally, I believe that the Post Office has, over the years, served the country very well. I have initiated this short debate in no spirit of criticism because I believe that the Post Office is alive to its responsibilities and has attacked its task in a forward-looking spirit. I commend the efforts of the Postmaster-General to stimulate the advisory committees, and I hope that he, and his hon. Friend, will do all in their power to keep the Post Office as high in the public esteem as it has been for so many years.

11.19 p.m.

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

I came-into this debate expecting to hear a number of major criticisms; but all we have had is a few animadversions from the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. J. Rodgers). The only substantial point we have heard is a plea for market research and I would like to say that I believe there is something in that idea.

I am not in favour of numerous committees. I remember that when I went to the Post Office, in 1946, my right hon. Friend the then Postmaster-General cut down the number of committees. One of the troubles of the post-war world is that we are suffering from "committeeitis". It is far better that what is desired to be done should be delegated to people to carry out, rather than to have a number of people just talking about it. It would be possible to act on the suggestion of market research, if desired, without having a whole plethora of committees.

As for decoration in the Post Office, I would say that the Post Office, of all Departments, is the one which has most departed from the terrible yellow and brown—at least, they have done so in Devon—and brought a certain amount of gaiety into the general surroundings. The grilles, can, of course, be very annoying but it must be remembered that we are dealing with an astronomical amount of cash over the counters, and that care has, therefore, to be taken.

One should not allow an occasion like this to pass without paying a tribute to the counter staffs of our post offices. The amount of work they have to do, and the knowledge they have to possess is phenomenal. It is not just a case of selling stamps, dog licences and the like. The task of dealing with petrol coupons has now been foisted on to them. It has been truly said that they are the maids of all work for the Government, and, unfortunately, there is not much money in it for them.

The suggestion of putting the staffs in uniform would involve staff consultations. I was a public servant in a power station for many years, and I do not think that we ever felt the need for a special uniform. It is all right putting people into special overalls if they have particular access to the public, are going into homes or trading with the public, so that it can be seen that they are officials, but the public know that those behind the Post Office counters are bona fide employees of that Department.

I will conclude with a reference to a matter about which I had intended asking a Question, namely, the form for Premium Savings Bonds. I am told by female members of my family, and by others, that the form is construed by them as demanding that a lady should state her age. Actually, the form says "Age," and then, in very small type, words to the effect that it is needed provided the applicants are under the age of 21. I think that that is so, although I am speaking now from memory. Quite a number of ladies, thinking that they had to divulge their age, have taken a dim view of the form, for reasons into which, at this late hour, I need not enter.

As I have said, knowing the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the commercial world, of advertising and American methods, I should have thought that he would have put forward something really startling on public relations which those of us who have the well-being of the Post Office at heart could have considered. I regret that he has not done so, but I think that there is substance in the suggestion about market research.

11.24 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. C. J. M. Alport)

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Seven-oaks (Mr. J. Rodgers) for introducing this subject for a short debate at this time of year, as it is a time of year when, as he said, major problems of public relaations for the Post Office really arise. He put forward some suggestions which I might begin by answering.

We have recently had a report from a working party on the set-up of our counters, in order to make them most efficient from the point of view both of staff and public. I hope that, over a period of time—and he will, I know, realise that it will take time—we will be able to get a standard lay-out for the counters which will give the staff the protection required and, at the same time, look as pleasant as possible in the circumstances.

My hon. Friend's suggestion that the name of the P. and T.O.—the post and telegraph officer—should be displayed at the counter, as is done by the banks, is an interesting one, and I should like to look further into it. We should all like to see an improvement in the interior appearance of our post offices. At the same time, we have to be careful, when we are dealing with public funds, to make certain that we do not expend those funds upon mere outward show when what we want most of all is efficient service, and I am quite sure that, provided we can give efficient service in our post offices, our customers will forgive the fact that we are not perhaps always as up-to-date in the decor of the interior of those post offices as other concerns such as the air travel offices to which my hon. Friend referred.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, though, in his remarks on the importance of trying to extend the use of mechanical aids at the counter and in the interior of public offices as well as in the sorting offices. He will be interested to know, and the House may be also, that we have recently had a reorganisation within the Post Office which has led to the setting up of a special branch to deal with postal mechanisation. There are many developments on that line, as we have learned from our representatives at a recent important exhibition of postal mechanisation which was held in Rome, and I should say that in these developments we are as far ahead as any other postal administration in the world.

Perhaps I may now turn to the other subjects which my hon. Friend raised. I can assure him that there is no organisation in this country which is, as he knows well, in such continuous and intimate contact with the public as is the Post Office. Therefore, there is no Department of State which is more aware that we need to win and retain the confidence of the millions of customers whom we serve. After all, as the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) has said, the Post Office plays a major part in the administration of our whole system of social services.

Business efficiency depends largely upon efficient and speedy communications, and in these days, when a telephone is becoming increasingly regarded as a social necessity, the Post Office plays its part in providing the amenities of a modern home. All these innumerable contacts at various points with the public in all phases of national life make good public relations for us vital, and I would join with him in paying tribute to the work done by my right hon. Friend's distinguished predecessor, the late Sir Kingsley Wood.

While we realise very clearly the importance of public relations, we do not underestimate the special problems which they present to a concern of the size of the Post Office which, as my hon. Friend said, is a State monopoly. The House will recognise that although we are a monopoly, we are in friendly competition from the point of view of efficiency and development with other postal administrations all over the world. At the same time, it is essential that we should find ways of applying to our organisation the forces which stimulate enterprise and which make us constantly responsive to changes in public demand on the one hand and to technical advance on the other.

Let me outline some of the aspects of the progress which has taken place as a result of my right hon. Friend's policy for ensuring that the Post Office is responsive to changes in public demand. My hon. Friend has asked me a number of questions about the advisory committees. In June of this year the number of committees in being was 62. Since then an additional 74 have been formed, and I hope that within the next few months to this present total of 136 committees there will be added sufficient to bring it up to a total of 250. That is a rise, in about 12 months, from 62 to 250.

I cannot accept the view expressed by the hon. Member for Keighley that to set up this sort of committee is a waste of time. We have no intention of asking the members of these committees to' meet when there is no business for them to transact. We hope that they will be available to meet to deal with special points which may be remitted to them for their advice by my right hon. Friend; alternatively, that they will meet when they feel they have subjects of importance to the efficient administration of the Post Office locally to discuss themselves.

The essence of these advisory committees is that they should be local. Their members are drawn, normally, from the local authorities, from the chambers of commerce, and from trade or other organisations representative of various sections of the community which use the Post Office services. My right hon. Friend does not appoint the representatives, and the members are completely free to say what they like, and to give what advice they like relative to the functions of the Post Office in their locality.

Head postmasters and telephone managers are available to make reports to them to ensure that they have the best information possible about current developments locally. In addition, my right hon. Friend sends periodically to each member of each committee—not just to each committee—a personal news letter which helps to keep them in touch with the development of Post Office policy on a national scale.

I believe that this type of consultation through advisory committees by a State monopoly such as the Post Office has virtues which are not always present with the system of consultative councils used in other nationalised industries. The great advantage of this method is its ready accessibility to the private person. Anybody in a town or district in which an advisory committee exists can go straight to a member of it or to the secretary to get advice, make a suggestion, or, if need be, make a complaint. He does not have to go through the rather long and cumbrous procedure often associated with the existing consultative councils attached to, or working with, other nationalised industries.

It is certainly an experiment, but I believe that it offers an opportunity of ensuring that we are responsive and sensitive to our consumer demand and consumer interest, which, if it is successful, will be of great advantage to the public relations of the Post Office.

My hon. Friend asked who was the chairman. The chairman is elected by the members themselves. The secretary, in many cases, is the secretary of the local chamber of commerce, or is appointed by the convening body. But we are perfectly willing to assist in that matter, if it is possible or necessary, in certain cases.

My hon. Friend made some interesting suggestions, to which the hon. Member for Keighley referred, about the relation between our advisory committees and market research. I should like to tell him that we are fully alive to the importance of the continuous scientific study of the changes in public demand among our customers. We have recently carried out a market research project in connection with the telegraph service. It has been done by the social survey section of the Central Office of Information.

Although this is not the occasion to give the conclusions of this survey in detail, I can say that it has given us very useful information upon which to base our telegraph services policy in the future. It is not entirely an optimistic forecast of the future of the inland telegraph service. Certain suggestions arise from it, and these we propose to follow up.

My right hon. Friend has arranged to issue in the early part of next year two special greetings telegram forms, a wedding greetings telegram and a birthday greetings telegram, which, I believe, will make an appeal to a great many of those who use the telegraph service on those particular occasions. The designs of the forms, which have been done by Miss Corsellis and Mr. David Knight, respectively, will, I think, be very attractive to the public who use them. I do not regard this as by any means a major change. I give it merely as an example of the use we are making of market research in relation to deciding Post Office policy on difficult matters. I agree with my hon. Friend that this must, as far as possible, be continuous, although my hon. Friend, from his own experience, will know as well as I do that market research done efficiently is a fairly expensive undertaking. Concerning the use of advice from outside industry, at the beginning of the year my right hon. Friend commissioned a well-known firm of management consultants, Messrs. Harold Whitehead and Partners, to study sorting office processes, equipment and layout to see whether these consultants could give us any ideas as to improved and more efficient working. We have had their preliminary report and we await their final report, which, I hope, will be available shortly after the beginning of next year. At any rate, it is a good check upon our own methods and ideas to see whether somebody who comes fresh to our problems can suggest any improvements. That, again, is an example of a development of keeping the Post Office machine in touch with the latest ideas in industrial management and technique which would be generally welcomed.

I should, however, make it clear that out public relations policy generally cannot be precisely the same as in the case of private industry. First, our object is to obtain public co-operation in various spheres which will enable us to do our job more efficiently. Our campaign for clear and correct addressing and the present "Post Early for Christmas" campaign are all to help with the efficient conduct of our affairs.

Secondly, we aim at publicising certain new services and promoting existing services which we have not yet built up to their full demand. The development of Telex, an exhibition of which was held in this House, the Commonwealth Greetings Letter Telegrams campaign and the advertising of the Weather and Test Match Score Services are all examples of this second field.

The third field is, as my hon. Friend said, to present information of Post Office developments in tariffs and regulations and to aid recruiting. I fully recognise, however, as my hon. Friend himself said in his very proper tribute to our staff, that without efficient and willing staff who are able quickly and courteously to answer letters and cheerfully to give service at the counter and who are prepared to go out of their way to give special help to an old-age pensioner or similar customer, our public relations. could never be right.

No expensive campaign, no ingenious advertisements and posters, could make up for the spirit of the service itself, and I believe that in the future, as in the past, the Post Office services, from the top to the bottom, in every rank, will continue to give this willing service and, we hope, set a standard for public service throughout the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Twelve o'clock.