HC Deb 27 March 1956 vol 550 cc2113-22

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

10.25 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I wish to raise a matter of solely constituency interest. It is one of the happy features of the House that it is able to move from matters of great Commonwealth significance to matters concerning the humblest people in these islands. One of the privileges accorded to hon. Members is that, if they are fortunate enough to obtain it, they may use the Adjournment debate to raise matters which concern their constituents. The issue which I wish to raise is small by the standards of this House but important to the people concerned. I may say at once that it is a non-political question—it is a constituency matter. That is why I am able to welcome the Assistant Postmaster-General to what I believe is his first Adjournment debate.

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

indicated dissent.

Mr. Thomas

In any case, I welcome him.

The small matter which I wish to raise concerns the sub-post office in Leckwith, Cardiff. Small things sometimes assume great proportions in our daily life. Our post office, the regular supply of milk, the daily callers at our home, all play an important part in our family life. The Leckwith community in Cardiff is quite separate, by topography, from the rest of the constituency. When we enter, under what I call Leckwith Bridge, the council house estate which is neatly divided into two parts, we come to a well-planned estate of decent, thrifty people.

This is not an estate given to complaining. It is normally the sort of happy community which is the dream of any Member of Parliament. In the past decade I can recall only one major upset in that community, and that was when it suffered the havoc of flooding. Since we were able to have steps taken to put that matter right there has been no further disturbance, but these people—whom I present to the Minister and to the House as reasonable, decent people—feel that they have had scurvy treatment from the Post Office, and I wish briefly to outline the circumstances.

Due to the unfortunate death of the sub-postmaster at Leckwith, his widow, Mrs. Williams, decided to sell the business and retire. She acted honourably towards the Post Office. Indeed, before she advertised the sale of her business she notified the Post Office that she intended to sell out. I think everyone agrees that she played an honourable part. For many years that post office has worked admirably and has well suited the people of the area. Once the Department was notified that the business was for sale its machine went into operation. The vacancy was advertised, and here we meet with our difficulty.

I understand that an agreement was reached with the new sub-postmaster. Of him I have no complaint at all to make I am quite sure that he is equally as honourable and useful a citizen as the others have been, but he was given the appointment despite the fact that Mr. Coles, who took over the business, applied for the right to be sub-postmaster: I understand that he was a day late in making the application. It is here, I feel, that the Post Office authorities have been pernickety, if I may use a word which expresses exactly how I feel. They have been too closely tied to rules, and have failed to consider as adequately as they might the public considerations concerned.

They gave the post office to people whose quarters are adjoining the most dangerous road junction, in one of the main suburbs of Cardiff—a junction of five roads. I am told that the new post office is forty yards away from the traffic lights of these five roads. While I must accept the arithmetic of the hon. Gentleman's Department, I must say that I think that those concerned there must have taken their tape from the traffic lights down the road and behind the counter to reach the furthest point where the postmaster was standing.

It so happens that that sub-post office is placed at the narrowest part of Leckwith Road. The last thing I did before leaving my constituency on Monday was to go there and have a last look at it. I realised that with cars pulling up outside that sub-post office a very dangerous position is created near to the traffic lights. The original sub-post office was on the fringe of what I term the lower Leckwith estate, and people already had a long walk to get there. The extra distance involved has been estimated as half a mile; the Post Office says it is 200 yards. As a reasonable man, I rake the average and I have taken the distance as a quarter of a mile. It certainly seems to be a quarter of a mile.

That extra distance is a great burden to the local pensioners. It is also an added danger to children who run errands for their parents. I have with me a list of five business concerns and factories which were using the old sub-post office in order to obtain stamps for their workers, and because of the large amount of money involved people were sent in cars to collect the stamps. The new post office is too near the traffic lights to allow the cars to queue up. I am not making that the main burden of my complaint, as I am sure the Assistant Postmaster-General will understand.

I did not come into this matter as the local Member until unhappily it was almost too late for anything to be done. A new sub-postmaster had been appointed. But I took the ordinary steps which every hon. Member of this House likes to take to protect his constituents. I approached the Minister concerned. I met with every courtesy from the Postmaster-General and from the Assistant Postmaster-General who will be replying to the debate tonight, but I am afraid that courtesy is all that I did get. I was unable to get any major concession. It would be untrue to say that I got no concession at all, because the pillar box and telephone kiosk were allowed to stay on the old site, to avoid adding to the inconvenience of the constituents.

Following my meeting with the Postmaster-General, a public meeting was held for the residents of this area, and the local postmaster was kind enough to come along. I very much appreciated the fact that the Cardiff postmaster attended that meeting of 200 residents to deal with this question. I must say that he convinced no one. I have a very great respect for him. I am very grateful to him for attending, but, so for convincing even the door boy, he failed completely.

I want to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to realise that this matter, which is off our usual track here, is one to which he ought to give a little further consideration. The Post Office acted as if it was the complete master over the community, and, so far as I could find, consulted no one at all who represents the people. I should like the Minister to say whether he thinks it right that these decisions to move post offices here and there should be taken without consulting the local authority, the people who know the area best. Leckwith is a developing area; 200 houses are being built there at present and that will add to the problem that I have raised tonight.

I make only this request to the Minister. Will he promise to review the question of this sub-post office in six months' time and let us see how the matter works out? Will he give the people of Leckwith an assurance that the Post Office is not going to be obstinate on this question? Realising the feeling of the people and the inconvenience which they have suffered, will the hon. Gentleman say that further consideration be given to this question? Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that when such things are done in future there will be prior consultation with the local authority?

I am grateful to the House for being so patient about a constituency matter. I should not have raised it here if I did not know these people as well as I do. They are not unreasonable people. They want to express their warm appreciation of the services of the Post Office in the past, but as it is a public service they feel that they are entitled to more consideration than they have received. I trust that the Minister will not think that I have wantonly taken the time of the House in considering this matter, because it is the right of everyone in this country, if they are upset by a public service controlled by the House, to have the matter raised here and, if possible, put right.

10.37 p.m.

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

Listening to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) makes me recall that I spent a period during the late war with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and in that time I had an opportunity of appreciating the qualities of cheerfulness and courtesy which is part of the character of the Welsh. It is not easy to refuse a case put forward by the hon. Member, nor indeed by any of his Welsh colleagues, but I do so on this occasion because the case is, in our view, and in my view, an extremely bad one.

Perhaps the House will allow me to go over the details of the story which lies behind this case so that we can get it into perspective. It is perfectly true that Mrs. Williams, the former sub-postmistress, tendered her resignation in November last year to take effect on 22nd February this year. When the vacancy was advertised three applicants came forward. Two of them based their applications on the hope of acquiring the existing sub-office premises at 66, Leckwith Road. They were, however, unable to come to any agreement with Mrs. Williams about the purchase of her premises and, since they had no premises to offer, their applications failed.

I should perhaps explain to the House that it is a rigid rule of the Post Office that before an application for a sub-post office vacancy is considered the applicant must be in a position to offer suitable premises of which he is in the ownership or tenancy at the time of making the application. The result of all this was that the only application left open to the Post Office was that of Mr. Weller, the present sub-postmaster, an ex-Service man able to offer premises 285 yards from the original premises at 66, Leckwith Road.

The hon. Member asked why we did not consult the local authorities. We did not feel that it was necessary to consult them because we had available for consideration only one application. Thus, there was no question of an alternative application, and in order to ensure that the postal facilities for the area were maintained, we had no alternative to taking up the application made by Mr. Weller.

Mr. G. Thomas

Is it a fact—this is an important matter to the local people—that the new appointment had not been made when Mr. Coles applied for the job in the old post office, and that it was merely that he was a day late in making the application?

Mr. Alport

I shall come to that point in a moment.

I just want to make it clear that the accommodation that Mr. Weller was able to offer us at 26, Leckwith Road was, in our view—not, admittedly, in the view of the people in Leckwith, but for the district generally; the hon. Member's constituents are not confined to the Leckwith housing estate but are spread over the whole of this area of Cardiff and a good deal further around—more convenient for a larger number of residents of the area. Secondly, the accommodation of the new office is, in our view, much better than that of the old one. Indeed, this has been commented upon by a number of those who have used the premises since they were opened.

It is true that two other gentlemen applied very late for the vacancy, one a day before the decision was made—that is the one to whom the hon. Member referred—and the other about ten days subsequently. Again, they did not have premises. They were making an application on the basis of obtaining the premises previously used at 66, Leckwith Road. We did not feel that we were justified in considering the applications, just as we had not felt justified in considering the two earlier applications, and on precisely the same grounds, that the applicants had not premises available.

I must make it clear to the House that it is a rigid and, I think, proper rule of the Post Office that it will not allow a sub-post office to be passed between two persons as part of the consideration of a conveyance of property. In this case we were not prepared to allow Mrs. Williams to sell her shop to somebody and to receive a price on the understanding that the purchaser would receive the sub-postmastership in addition. Our reason for that is that a sub-postmastership even of a small sub-post office of this sort is an important appointment from our point of view, and it is most important that the Post Office should maintain full control over appointments, and should not allow them to become, so to speak, mere objects of merchandise. Those being the circumstances, we felt that we were not able to consider Mr. Coles' application.

Let me now turn to the point raised by the hon. Member with regard to road safety. Like on so many other aspects of this case, there are two points of view on that. It is true that the new Post Office is forty yards from the junction of five roads, but the old post office was about thirty-five yards from the function of four roads. In the case of the new Post Office, the crossing is controlled by lights, I understand, whereas the road junction near the old post office is not controlled.

We therefore consider that, on the whole, the position of the new post office from the point of view of road safety is preferable to the old one. We have made investigations, and we find that the width of the road at the new post office is greater than the width of the road at the old post office.

Mr. Thomas

It does not seem like it.

Mr. Alport

The hon. Member may be arguing from impressions, but we are arguing from actual measurements taken on the ground. He will realise that although this is, as he said, a small constituency matter, the Post Office, whether it be the Cardiff Post Office or the Post Office generally, is always concerned to ensure that the facilities which it makes available to the public are so arranged as to provide the greatest possible convenience for our customers in whatever part of the country it may be.

When we are accused, as we have been accused, of high-handed action like this, we regard that seriously, and feel it is right that we should justify our position. I feel particular responsibility in this matter because the judgment at issue in this case is not so much that of the Postmaster-General as of the head postmaster at Cardiff. His part in this has been misrepresented in the local Press, and I think it is extremely hard on him. He has acted perfectly properly throughout the whole of these negotiations, and in accordance with the regulations maintained by the Post Office for dealing with this type of problem. The decision which he made was perfectly proper, taking everything into consideration.

The other person for whom I feel some special responsibility is Mr. Weller, the new sub-postmaster. It is not easy in a small neighbourhood of this sort to take on a public responsibility such as this and to provide for the satisfaction of all the customers. It is particularly difficult when one is caught up in what may be a small, but nevertheless is a vortex of political agitation. The hon. Member may say that this is not a matter of Politics, and I hope that this can be kept out of politics locally in his constituency, as well as we are trying to keep it out of politics at Westminster.

Mr. Thomas

The hon. Member is dragging in politics.

Mr. Alport

If I am doing so, it is in order to warn the hon. Member that he himself has come very close to dragging in politics. Our impression is that there has been too much of politics.

Mr. Thomas

The hon. Member is quite unfair to the community. It does not matter if he is unfair to me, because I can look after myself. In this matter we have had concerned a leading member of the Labour Party and a leading lady who supports the party which the hon. Member adorns. He should realise that this is a community, and not a party political, matter.

Mr. Alport

I am merely making it clear that the Post Office is most anxious that these circumstances should not be considered on political lines. Indeed, it is one of the rules which we make that any attempt to bring political pressure to obtain appointments of sub-postmasters will automatically ensure that the application will not be considered.

Mr. Thomas

The hon. Gentleman is being quite unfair.

Mr. Alport

A great deal of local prejudice has been raised about this question. The people who have been primarily affected by it are the present sub-postmaster and the head postmaster of Cardiff. It is only right when they are subjected to political pressures of this sort—very considerable pressures, even if they have been on only a local scale—that we in this House should make their position clear. That is what I am endeavouring to do. I acquit the hon. Member of trying to bring political matters into this, but he will remember that he took the chair at a public meeting organised in his constituency about this matter. I will leave it to the House.

From the facts which have been put forward, I would say that before that sort of, not encouragement, but at least sponsorship of a case of this kind is accepted by a Member, it is important that the full facts should be available to him. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member will agree that in this case the Post Office had no alternative but to make the decision which it has made with regard to this sub-post office, and that in the interests of the community as a whole, as well as in the interests of the Post Office itself, the decision which was made was the right one.

Mr. Thomas

The Minister has been most unfortunate in his choice of words in the latter part of his speech. May I say that if he wants all the facts brought out—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member must have the leave of the House if he wishes to speak again on the Motion.

Mr. Thomas

I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker. May I ask the leave of the House? If the Minister wants all the facts brought out, he can have them. It was on the suggestion of the Postmaster-General that I asked the Cardiff postmaster to attend the meeting. I have not taken any political interest in this question. The implication of the Minister's speech was that somehow or other I had cashed in on this problem in the area.

The people came to me, in considerable indignation. If the hon. Gentleman had been briefed properly, he would know, if he had had the cuttings from the South Wales Press, that the matter had been well ventilated in the Press before I received a deputation at the weekly interviews which I hold for constituents in the City of Cardiff. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has felt somehow that it was necessary for him—

Mr. Alport

I have all the cuttings from the Press, which have been collected with great care, and I have the particular cutting from the South Wales Echo, dated 22nd March, in which the hon. Member makes all the points which he has put forward here tonight.

Mr. Thomas

I have deliberately tried, both at Cardiff and here, to keep away from party politics, and it was quite unnecessary for the hon. Gentleman to drag them in. Obviously, by his words tonight, he has created far more hostility in the area towards the Post Office than would have been the case otherwise.

I tried to play down feeling. No one can say that by my words tonight, which will be circulated in the area, as will those of the hon. Gentleman, I sought to inflame feeling or was unreasonable in what I said. I was deliberately as restrained as I could be, because I know the area better than the Assistant Postmaster-General does, and I know how indignant and unhappy the people feel about it. I can only say that I had hoped for something better. I had hoped that the Assistant Postmaster-General would at least give a reasonable reply and not the kind of political twaddle which he uttered at the end of his speech.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.