HC Deb 28 October 1959 vol 612 cc364-74

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

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I take this opportunity of congratulating the hon. Member for Melton (Miss Pike) on having been chosen to occupy the important office which has been entrusted to her. I am looking forward to hearing her maiden speech at the Dispatch Box with considerable interest. I sincerely trust that she will grasp with both hands this opportunity to make her speech one which will redound to her credit and to the benefit of those on whose behalf I speak tonight.

The hon. Lady has several advantages to assist her. First, as a woman her instinct will no doubt help her to realise that the problem that I am asking her to solve is essentially one in which the humane and family approach plays a very great rôle. Secondly, her own constituency borders so closely on the scene in which the subject matter of the problem is set that she should have no difficulty in understanding the misery and frustration of the residents—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Janner

The hon. Lady should have no difficulty in understanding the misery and frustration of the residents of Mowmacre Hill Estate arising from the refusal by the former Postmaster-General over a period of more than 12 months to permit a sub-office to be opened on this new and thriving estate.

The bitterness and depth of feeling may be realised from the fact that only today I have received another petition requesting the provision of a post office from residents there. This petition was opened only a few days ago and was rushed to me so that I might have the list—which is preliminary, albeit a formidable one—ready for this evening. As soon as residents heard that this Adjournment debate was to take place they proceeded with this petition, and already it has been signed by no fewer than 530 people. I have no doubt that in due course the vast majority of the residents will sign such a petition, judging by the feeling which prevails on the estate in favour of the provision of this essential service.

This may appear a small matter in itself, but in fact it is a great matter from the point of view of the residents. The first petition I received was from old-age pensioners, and it was signed by nearly all the pensioners who live on the estate. At that time there were about 150 of them. The issue I am raising goes very much further than might appear from the subject of the debate. The refusal of the former Minister to permit a sub-office to be opened at Mowmacre Hill, Leicester, displays a glaring failure to consider a human problem with humane understanding. It has been persistently contended from the commencement by the former Postmaster-General—I do not blame the hon. Lady for this; I hope she will bring a fresh mind to the situation and deal with it in the way I suggest—that the present regulations do not permit the opening of a new sub-office normally—I emphasise that word—within one mile of an existing office. In this case the former Minister stubbornly refused to consider the position as being other than normal. I tried to show him the absurdity of this contention, but he stuck firmly to the slogan "A mile's a mile for a that" and overlooked the true formula which he should have used, and which I hope the hon. Lady will use, that: A man's a man for a that. The facts are simple. A new estate has been built at Mowmacre Hill. It is at the top of a steep hill. Some eleven hundred houses have already been erected, including bungalows which are occupied by old-age pensioners. Wisely, the local authority has made, and is continuing to make, this estate a large and important portion of the city for the purpose of housing some of its population. It has provided a school for the children. Shops are being built to supply the needs of the inhabitants. Other amenities for the development of the small townlet are there, but if a person has to buy a postal order, if an old-age pensioner has to collect his or her meagre allowance, or if a mother has to get her Family Allowance, a journey is entailed down a long, steep hill with a gradient of about one in six with the hardship of the return journey uphill.

The Postmaster-General said that there are bus services available giving a thirty-two minutes service between the arrival of the bus at the bottom of the hill and its return journey, and that therefore it is not necessary to have a post office at the top of the hill. I am informed that there were periods last winter when even the buses could not use the hills because of the perilous condition of the road. There is a distance of four-fifths of a mile from some parts of the estate to the nearest post office. An aged pensioner has either to walk to the bus stop and wait for a bus, take a bus—if it comes—and in the kind of weather I have described it sometimes does not even run—and walk back from the bus stop. Alternatively, he has to walk both ways, rain, snow or winter winds notwithstanding.

Most of these houses are occupied by families with young children. As the hon. Lady knows, the provision of these houses is to a large extent for the purpose of accommodating such families, and it is often laid down that they must have at least two children. Therefore, the question of family allowances arises and a young housewife has to do this journey and drag her tiny children with her. Yet the Minister said, "A mile's a mile for a' that". A mile as the crow flies is in my view not a good enough answer for human beings, particularly for old-age pensioners. They have no wings and have very little opportunity of obtaining any kind of assistance in their visits.

Other important considerations which I put to the right hon. Gentleman were just brushed aside with equally specious excuses. Amongst these, I pointed out that a pensioner wants to meet his friends at the shops just the same as other people do and to have a little gossip. That is part of the ordinary amenities of life which everyone enjoys, particularly a housewife. Shops are available as they would be in other estates, but the old-age pensioner is not allowed to do this because of the conditions which prevail at Mowmacre Hill. The Postmaster-General says, "Let them go down to the bottom of the hill and shop there". I do not know whether he realises that an old-age pensioner can ill afford to pay bus fares. They find it difficult enough to make both ends meet as things are at present.

Some old-age pensioners who knew they could not afford the fare went down and up that hill last year. A number of them sustained very serious accidents. Some had to go to hospital, and some were detained in their own homes for a considerable period. Not only did they have to suffer the pain and agony of the injuries but, owing to the beneficent Government's refusal to remove the fee, they had to pay for prescriptions. The Postmaster-General said, "Let them send someone else to collect the pension". I am giving his answers. I am sure the hon. Lady will realise as much as I do how ridiculous they were. It is very difficult for anyone, especially an old person, to bother other people to collect allowances. Of course, one can get a decent neighbour occasionally to collect the allowance, but who on earth can make a commitment for the regular collection of these pensions in all kinds of weather and at all times? I did not understand the contentions that were being put forward by the then Postmaster-General, and I doubt whether the House will understand them. As many new hon. Members will realise, on these occasions when one raises a matter on the Adjournment it is not necessarily a party matter; indeed, it is very frequently not a matter for party consideration at all but for the general consideration of the House.

A shopkeeper on the estate said that he was quite prepared to have his shop used as a sub-office. He already supplies other commodities to his customers and he is quite prepared to have a sub-office there. "Ah," says the Minister," you cannot do that on this land. He will never make a living." I am paraphrasing what he said, because in one place, as I shall read out in a minute or two, he suggests that this does not pay and in another place he says, "We cannot afford it." Now that things are so good, why cannot he afford it? Why cannot he afford even a sub-office—a little place at the top of a hill—for people who need it desperately? He cannot afford it although things are so good!

I had a little rhyme handed to me a few minutes ago which indicates in a cynical way what the position is: Jack and Jill went down Mowmacre Hill To fetch their old-age pension; Jill fell down and broke her crown But the Minister paid no attention. I think it would be a very useful little ditty for the former Postmaster-General. Unfortunately, he has gone on the roads. He has gone from the position of Postmaster-General, and in his place has come the man who was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who knows very well that when houses are put up on an estate they should not be a collection of soulless houses. One should not have a soulless estate. It is no use putting up houses without giving the people who have to live in them homes and a communal life. Perhaps he will have a talk with the hon. Lady who is to reply this evening to see what can be done.

May I, in conclusion, show him in words the kind of thing that strikes me as being absurd in answer to the request: As you will understand "— this is from the former Minister, himself—this is in prose and not in poetry— new offices simply divert business from existing offices and thus add to our costs without bringing in extra revenue. At a time when things are so good, that was hardly a consideration. In the absence of some general standard on which to base the provision of a new office, we would soon have, over the country as a whole, a multitude of small offices. So if you are at the top of Snowdon its still a mile's a mile for a' that. We must not have a post office for 1,000 houses because we might have to have them all over the country. I want hon. Members sitting here to realise that this is the commencement perhaps of an opportunity for them to see that when houses are erected inhabitants have the proper communal amenities. Also, the offices would tend to do so little business that the remuneration, which is based on the work done, would be unlikely to attract suitable people to act as sub-Postmasters. In fact, there is a man prepared to take the special risk. He does not think it so. The Minister also writes: You may indeed remember that it was largely because of the hills in this area that we agreed, in response to your representations in 1954, to provide what is now the Stocking Farm Sub-Office, despite the fact that it was less than a mile from an existing office. If the House only knew the amount of trouble I had in trying to persuade the Postmaster-General at that time to give us an office there, it would understand how cynical is the reference in this letter to the ultimate result.

The Postmaster-General has gone not to another place but to a higher place. His assistant has gone. The former Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is now Postmaster-General. A fresh mind has come to deal with these problems—a mind which knows the district well and which is in the head of a person who would not like very much to walk up that hill very often and certainly, I think, not in certain wintry conditions, and in spite of her sprightly appearance and excellent condition would not find it easy to walk even down the hill.

In that spirit I ask her to forget what they have failed to do in the past—for this is an act of omission not of commission—and to consider the facts anew. It is not a trivial matter or a matter only of one mile. It is a human problem. It is not a question of granting an unreasonable request. We are dealing with members of our own family. These are our old people and our young people, members of the group to which we all belong, irrespective of parties. I ask the hon. Lady to give them a chance and to give the old-age pensioner his right to enjoy some of the amenities of life. It is difficult enough for the old-age pensioner as it is.

The Leicester Council has given very careful and constant consideration to the provision of accommodation for its people. I ask the hon. Lady that Leicester should be given the opportunity not only to build the houses but also to have assistance from other Government Departments in making the inhabitants of those houses happy and enabling them to use the district as a centre of town life. Let these people be happy. Many of them have been moved from very bad housing conditions, but they have warm hearts and there was much friendly feeling among the neighbours in the districts from which they came I ask that they be given similar amenities in their new surroundings.

10.18 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Miss Mervyn Pike)

I am sure that the House appreciates that I rise with considerable diffidence but equally with great personal interest in this problem because, as the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) said, this district is situated on the dividing line between my constituency of Melton and his constituency in the City of Leicester. I know the problem intimately and I have heard a great deal about it in the last few weeks. The hon. Member also said that I have an interest in regarding the problem sympathetically. I have, because, like him, I have always taken considerable interest in the problems of the elderly and in the problems of ensuring that they have not only the welfare benefits adequate for their needs but also the kind of consideration in administering those benefits which has prompted him to bring forward this request tonight.

I have walked over the ground myself. I did so again last Sunday to make certain that I knew the terrain about which I was speaking. I know the difficulties of the problem. I have had the same problems in the adjoining housing estates which the City of Leicester has built in my constituency. There has been a great deal of slum clearance, as a result of which the Scraptoft and Thurnby Lodge Estates have been built. I, as their Member of Parliament, have had the same sort of difficulty. Therefore, I have a very real interest in this problem, apart from the general application of the principle as a whole. Equally, I have a very real and natural desire to fall in with the hon. Member's wishes. I read the Leicester Mercury as well as the hon. Gentleman, and I know how much attention is being focussed on this problem at present.

This problem does not only apply to us in Leicester The hon. Gentleman said that this was a small matter itself, but a matter of great importance to the people concerned. I say that it is a great matter to the Government Department concerned, because new housing estates and new housing developments are springing up all over the country. It is a problem which is causing us considerable concern. We have already 23,000 sub-offices and 1,800 main post offices. The expenses of administration are borne by the community as a whole. Therefore, in looking at this problem we must realise that it is not merely a small problem concerning us in Leicester. It is a part of a very great problem throughout the country as a whole.

We believe that slum clearance will gather in momentum. I believe that at this Department I shall have many more requests of this type from hon. Members. That is why in looking at the problem we have had to look at the general principle.

We have a twofold duty in the Post Office. One is to make certain that we give facilities to the community as a whole. On the other hand, we must ensure that we are running on an economic basis, because the charges of the Post Office are borne by the community as a whole. There is no doubt that, if the number of sub-offices goes on increasing, the administrative and overhead expenses increase.

The hon. Gentleman brushed aside the argument that, if the number of sub-offices is increased, the income of the agents running the sub-offices decreases. That is a very real problem, because it is not easy to find the right sort of agent to run the sort of sub-office which we want. The hon. Member knows this estate and knows that in the initial talks when we were trying to get a sub-office on the Stocking Farm we wanted it to be in Appleton Avenue. If we had been able to site it in Appleton Avenue at that time this problem would not have arisen, but we could not find anyone willing to take on the sub-office in the shops in Appleton Avenue. Therefore, the Stocking Farm Post Office was eventually sited in Marwood Road, which is some distance away from the new estate at Mowmacre Hill.

We must have regard to the problem of expenditure, both in the context of the general expenditure of the Post Office as a whole and the influence it will have on the revenue of the people in charge of sub-offices. The general standard laid down is that there should not be more than one post office within a mile in a town and within two miles in the countryside. Those of us representing mainly country constituencies realise that to a great extent country people are at a great disadvantage compared with people in the town.

We do not administer that rule rigidly. As far as the general principle is concerned, there was no case for another post office at Stocking Farm, but because of this very steep hill one was opened. The hon. Gentleman said that the hill is 1 in 6. The experts say that it is 1 in 10. I can tell the House that it is a very steep hill. I walked up the hill on Saturday and Sunday, and I agree that it is very steep and very difficult to climb. It was because of the gradient that we opened a sub-office at Stocking Farm. As far as Mowmacre is concerned, the majority of the people prefer to draw their pensions from Belgrave Boulevard Post Office. That is borne out by the amount of business done as between the two sub-offices.

Mr. Janner

I thought that I had made it clear that within a few days 530 people had signed a petition for a post office. If the hon. Lady desires to see the list, I will hand it to her in the hope that it will cause her to review her statement.

Miss Pike

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman understands me. What I was saying was that we have the two post offices, one situated at the top of a hill and the other at the bottom of the hill; Stocking Farm Post Office, a thousand yards from the furthest bungalow on the Mowmacre Estate—as I have checked for myself—and the other 880 yards from the place where the people want it in Bewcastle Grove—and the majority of the people are using the post office in the Belgrave Boulevard. I would say that, on the whole, the reason is—and I have gone into this question pretty thoroughly- that a great many of the people like to combine the picking up of their pension with taking the bus down to the Boulevard and then on into Leicester—

Mr. Janner

indicated dissent.

Miss Pike

Yes, they want to make it a day. The hon. Gentleman himself said that to some extent it was a social affair, and to some extent the one time when these people can get some sort of community life. Luckily, Stocking Farm Post Office is very near to the community centre—almost opposite to it, I think. Therefore, from that point of view as well, it is strategically placed.

However, the point is that we have these two post offices serving this housing estate. One is at the top of the hill, 1,000 yards from the furthest bungalow, and the other is at the bottom of the hill—a steep walk down, and a 2d. bus ride if one has to take a bus. That is a difficult road in bad weather, and why they are building the garages for the estate on that road I will never know, because if buses cannot go up I do not know how cars will be able to.

In bad or difficult weather these pensions can be picked up by friends and relations, and I would say to the hon. Gentleman that he underestimates the community spirit in that part of the country.

Mr. Janner

I know it well.

Miss Pike

In this housing estate we have the Lonely Hearts Club, which is a very thriving, good club for these old people. These bungalows are mixed in the estate in a way that I think is good. They are not segregated in one part but are mixed with the other types of housing so that the people living in them feel that they are a real part of the community. I believe that in bad weather, when they themselves cannot take the bus down to Belgrave Boulevard there are good friends and neighbours to see that these old people do not have to negotiate the difficult hill and the difficult roads.

Mr. Janner

Does the hon. Lady really think that in bad weather, when a bus cannot go up the hill, people ought to walk it? Is not her speech one that illustrates plus ça change—?

Miss Pike

With great respect, although in bad weather the bus cannot go down, young people can go down, and do go down to their work and, of course, the post does, and always will get through to the Stocking Farm Post Office.

Therefore, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that although one has the greatest sympathy, although one's whole interest and instinct is to try to make certain that one can accede to this request to have a sub-office in the right part of the housing estate, near a shopping centre where there are good shops—and there is a self-service shop in Bewcastle Grove—we have to be fair to other estates that are coming along. We are spending money wisely in the administration of the service, and we cannot give more weight than has already been given to the arguments put forward by the hon. Gentleman. I know the place well, and for personal reasons I am sorry that we cannot accede to the hon. Gentleman's request, but I can assure him that every possible consideration has been given to this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.