HC Deb 20 April 1959 vol 604 cc181-8

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

11.24 p.m.

Mr. David Griffiths (Rother Valley)

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and to staff of the House for having to raise this matter at such a late hour. However, sufficient attention has been drawn to this problem that I feel it incumbent upon myself regardless of the hour to say a few words about it.

Raising this Adjournment debate tonight reminds me of a very old trade union friend of mine many years ago. He had rather a delicate problem to deal with and addressed the chairman as follows. "Mr. Chairman, I realise that I am kicking uphill, that the wind is against me and that to all intents and purposes the referee does not look as if he is inclined to be very favourable." However, I hope that by the time I have finished my few remarks the Minister's sympathy will be extended to the case which I am about to submit and thus give that degree of comfort to this poor, unfortunate lady and her family in getting some recompense.

This is a case of which the Assistant Postmaster-General and his Department are fully aware, particularly in view of the publicity which has been given to it, although in all modesty I should say that it has not been of my volition. This lady, like many other people, has for a long time been sending football pool coupons to various pool firms. For many years this lady has sent her coupons on a Friday evening from Rotherham. On the occasion in question her coupon unfortunately went to Doncaster. Consequently, by the time it had been redirected it did not reach the office in Liverpool until Monday, when it was too late.

The real misfortune of this lady is—and I assume that there have been many more such cases—that this was a winning coupon and she should have received the handsome sum of £3,500. The lady did not know that her coupon had gone astray until she applied to Littlewoods. Their representative called on her and said that the letter had arrived too late and, unfortunately, Littlewoods rules did not permit payment to be made in those circumstances, although they accepted the fact that her coupon had been correctly made out. One can appreciate this lady's dismay on receiving that news from Littlewoods representative. This is a poor humble woman who has to go out to work to maintain her home and her sick husband, a state of affairs which has gone on for a long time.

The Postmaster-General wrote on 2nd March stating that the Post Office has no financial obligation, which I accept. I can assure the House that if this were a case in which I felt there were not only moral but legal rights involved I should not leave the case alone. However, I accept that there is no financial obligation on the Postmaster-General. But surely the Department has a moral obligation in this case. There are no rules governing the Post Office such as govern Littlewoods Pools. In addition, the Postmaster-General is responsible for his employees and he must accept that a member of his Department has been at fault. I would be the last to criticise any man for making an error. I appreciate that the Department has many problems to solve in dealing with letters going through the post morning, noon and night. I can accept that, but I cannot, on the other hand, accept the argument which the Postmaster-General advances, that he has no obligation. I feel that he has a moral obligation. I agree that he cannot, according to the Statute, admit a financial obligation.

I am making my personal appeal to him on behalf of my constituent. But it is more than that. One can readily understand that many of these mistakes are made. As the hon. Gentleman will know, I am sure, my mail has been quite formidable since it was reported in the Press that I was taking up this case. But, I submit, no case sent to me has been so glaring or so worthy of some compensation as this.

I can anticipate the reply of the Assistant Postmaster-General. He will say that to accept my request would be to open the door. I have had a lot to do with the hon. Gentleman and, if I may say so, I have got on with him fairly well. Although I have a lot to say about the Tory Party at times, I should not like to think too badly of the Post Office, and I am sure that he can get round the difficulty quite easily, as we have done in industry for years. If I were in a position of responsibility, I should do exactly as I am suggesting now to the Assistant Postmaster-General. Without violating any principle whatever, he could make a token payment to this lady. It would not prejudice the issue. It has been done in thousands of cases, not only in industry but in Government Departments as well. If one Government Department can do it, another Government Department can do it.

I do not want to weary the House, but I do not want it to be thought that a lack of words indicates any lack of importance in this case. Many hon. Members sometimes make long speeches on matters which, on the merits of the case and the sincerity of their views, would call for fewer words than I shall speak tonight. But I submit that it is not only a matter of what I feel about this case. It has had very wide publicity in the national Press. There was a reference to it in yesterday's Sunday Express.

I should not like to accuse the hon. Gentleman the Assistant Postmaster-General of anything, but I should be prepared to accuse some of his confrères opposite sometimes. What is said here is typical of the Sunday Express, as it is perhaps of many national newspapers. In its leading article, it said: What a wonderful spring this could have been for Mrs. Bower, celebrating a win of £3,500"— and it would have been a wonderful spring for her, too— on the football pools instead of receiving her 5s. back, She is the victim of a G.P.O. mistake, the Post Office, admits. The strength of the case is there, but the weakness comes next—typical of a lot of Tory tactics. The Sunday Express goes on to say that whilst the G.P.O. admits what has happened Mrs. Bower is thinking of suing the Post Office. That, however, is an error. I assure the Assistant Postmaster-General that it is far from true, because she has not sufficient money even to see a solicitor, let alone sue the Post Office.

It then asks why the pools company does not give her the cash. In the same way as the Post Office attempts to do, however, the pools company must have rules to save itself from any malpractice. The Sunday Express goes on to say that the pools can well afford to pay, but the money would come not from the pools but out of the money of the punters. Some 85 or 90 per cent. of the money that is put into pools is put in by working-class people. In other words, the Sunday Express was saying "Let the pools pay it, or let the working people pay it."

Even if there is no financial obligation, I hope that the Minister will at least open his heart and give this poor, unfortunate woman some financial consideration.

11.37 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. D. Griffiths) for raising this matter tonight. It is full of emotional content as well as concern for the well-being of ordinary people who engage in what has now become a common, almost nationwide, weekly activity, and none the less respectable for that.

I wonder whether I might draw the attention of the House to the part that the Post Office plays in all this. The Post Office is engaged in what is nothing more than a monumental daily task. We gather together every day from 100,000 letter-boxes all over the country between 25 and 30 million pieces of mail—cards, letters, packets and parcels—of all kinds, addressed to what may well be every address in the land. We transport them in thousands of vehicles. They are handled by 114,000 men, most of them not less than seven times and many of them much more than seven times. We carry them criss-cross across the country in 46 different travelling post offices, using several thousand motor vehicles in the process, and by the first post next morning we manage to get them all delivered to the address, often badly and sometimes wrongly, written on the envelope. Occasionally, in the middle of this fantastically complicated operation one or a few go wrong.

I hope the House will feel that it is justified in complimenting the thousands of people engaged in this operation on the unbelievable skill and remarkable accuracy with which the task is performed. Indeed, I am sure from what I have heard in the House on many occasions that that is precisely the sentiment of all Members of the House and most of the public.

That operation, however, in all its tortuous complications, carries a good many undertones which contain among themselves the reply to the case by the hon. Member for Rother Valley for special treatment in this instance. It would not be possible to handle these millions of separate pieces of mail on their unknown and often quite uncharted journeys if we were to accept at the same time a complete responsibility for everything that might happen to these pieces of mail or for all the consequences that might follow from any misfortune that befell each individual piece of mail.

Therefore, in the statutes governing the operation of the Post Office there are exceptions and absolutions which make it clear that the Post Office, however willing it might be to accept responsibility for all that might follow, cannot be responsible for all of the possible misfortunes which lie about its path. We do not deny, and in fact we have admitted in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman, that we were responsible for the misfortune which befell this particular piece of mail.

This lady posted it in Rotherham on the afternoon of 7th December last. We do not deny that this piece of mail passed wrongly to Doncaster. We do not deny that had it gone properly to Liverpool it would have reached the pools promoter's office in time to have been a valid bet.

What would have been the normal course for this piece of mail? Let us remember the vicissitudes which might be in its path. It was posted in Rotherham before two o'clock and would have been collected into a bag after initial sorting in Rotherham it would have been taken to the Central Station, which it would have left at 2.38 p.m. From there it would have gone to Sheffield, Victoria Station, arriving at 2.52 p.m., and transferred to another train departing at 3.27 p.m. for Manchester, London Road Station. It would have arrived there at 4.27 p.m., transferred to another Manchester station, a mile away, that is, Manchester, Central, and it would have left there at 6.30 p.m., arriving at Liverpool at 7.18 p.m. It would have been taken across Liverpool to the Post Office, arriving at 8 p.m., and from there it would have been delivered to the office of the pools promoter.

In every part of that journey, made by one part of the 10 million pieces of mail handled for the pools that week by the Post Office, something might have gone wrong. It would be beyond the bounds of reason to suppose that the Post Office could absolve itself from, or insure against, the worst happening, with consequent misfortunes for the owner of that particular piece of mail. So, we are rightly protected by Statute against the consequences of something happening that may throw out of gear this curiously complicated machine during a complicated journey.

It is surely not a casual approach to the responsibilities of the Post Office which compels it to say that there is nothing which it can do in the circumstances which have been mentioned to the House tonight. Consider the possibility for a moment of somebody, knowing the complications of this journey—or of the journeys of 25 million to 30 million other pieces of mail—doing something to distort the passage of that piece of mail so that the result would not be what it normally is. The Post Office would be in a position where it was completely unable to defend itself. Many charges and many complications and many expenses would be loaded on to the Post Office which, however ingenious its operators might be, it could not defend itself against. So, we have to rely on the exceptions and the exemptions given us by Statute.

I want to endorse what has already been said to the hon. Member and to the lady herself, namely, that we are very sorry that this happened and for the consequences which flowed from whatever error we may have been responsible for. I am sorry that we could under no circumstances accept responsibility for the consequential happenings of that error, and I hope the hon. Member will believe that there was no wilful neglect or any casual approach to our responsibilities in the carriage of mail which led to this occurrence. Rather was it just one of those human failings which have resulted for this lady in the serious and sorrowful consequences to which the hon. Member had drawn attention.

I am sorry that, coming from Yorkshire—a great cricketing county—the hon. Member should have thought it appropriate to open his remarks with a reference to the behaviour of a referee. I should have thought that he would rather have had in mind the story of the umpire officiating at a Yorkshire cricket match who had watched a number of balls being bowled which were not altogether what they might have been. In the end, however, the highly successful batsman got his leg a little near the line of the ball and the stump and the Yorkshire umpire, in a loud and enthusiastic voice, gave him, "Out." The bowler said to him, "My word, I. think that judgment was a bit near, wasn't it?" "Aye," said the umpire, "but that is the first chance I have had to have a go at him." The hon. Member took the earliest chance he had to have a go at us. He did so fairly and reasonably, and I am sorry that I cannot give him a more satisfactory answer to the complaint that he made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.