HC Deb 17 June 1966 vol 729 cc1964-76

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

3.57 p.m.

Sir William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

I wish that the post office in Brighton could get its letters through as quickly as in the last few minutes we completed the final stage of the Ministry of Social Security Bill.

I raise the subject of the Brighton Post Office because it covers not only Brighton but a large part of the South Coast. In the 22 years I have had experience of these problems, including the war period, never have there been so many complaints and never have things seemed so bad as they do now. I have not consulted the postmaster in Brighton on this subject because I did not want to embarrass him too much. There are strong rumours that he is having very great difficulties with the Union of Post Office Workers, and I do not see why I should put him in an embarrassing position. I would prefer that to be dealt with by the headquarters in London. Furthermore, my fellow colleague in Brighton, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Hobden), is closely connected with the Union of Post Office Workers and I have not wanted to drag him into this either. I prefer to take all the knocks, if there are any knocks coming, and to say what I think is wrong with the present position.

The Assistant Postmaster-General will recall that a few weeks ago I started asking Questions on this subject. I was greatly surprised to be told in one Answer I received, when I asked that the Postmaster-General should go to Brighton to see what was going on, that he had already been and was quite satisfied that the conditions prevailing there were very good. How can they be very good in view of all the complaints that are being made? The fact that the quite young Postmaster-General should feel so certain that everything——

It being Four 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. Lawson.]

Sir W. Teeling

I felt that perhaps he did not have enough experience to know when things were going right or wrong in the post office. If the Assistant Postmaster-General, who is to reply to this debate, tells me that something like 35 million letters have to be dealt with and mistakes naturally occur, will he tell me why such a large proportion of them have to occur in this South Coast area?

Obviously, after I had sent him several more letters of complaint, the hon. Gentleman thought a bit about it again, because a week later he informed us that he would bring a public relations officer into the area to see whether the matter could not be sorted out. A little more feebly than previously, he said: I have no reason to think that the Brighton post office is not in general giving a good service, but as part of an experiment I am going tc do this. That was not quite as strong as his previous statement. I gather, therefore, that we are now to get the first step forward n the improvement and that we are to have a public relations officer.

That proposal met with considerable cynicism down in Brighton. I want the Assistant Postmaster-General to give us more details about this gentleman who is to be appointed. Will he be a person who is connected with the Post Office, who has been connected with it for a long time and who knows what all the problems are, or will he be somebody from outside? Many of my constituents have written to say that they would far prefer to have somebody like an ombudsman who would have power to do something about all these problems. If all that this gentleman does is to discover that certain trade union rules and regulations would be crossed if the unfortunate people who write their letters were to get what they wanted, will he have authority or power to do anything about it, or will he simply report to his postmaster, so that the whole matter merely ends up, as it has done so far, with letters of deep regret from the post- master that people should have been so troubled and inconvenienced.

Does this gentleman know anything about the subject? I would very much like to know to whom he will speak when he has found out the problems. Will we hear anything more about them in Parliament, or will a report go simply into the Post Office files? If this new appointment is not a success, I should like to see a public inquiry into conditions in the area. I hope to justify why this suggestion is necessary.

I suppose that I have had at least 50 complaints. I shall not bother either the House or the Post Office with too many of them. Some have not been particularly serious, and some have been from angry people who have become tired of protesting. Nevertheless, I can well see their point of view when everything goes wrong for them. They are inclined to think, too, that the equipment is by no means up to date.

I find that in 1934, for example, the Wall's ice cream organisation which sold ice cream from its "Stop-me-and-buy-one" tricycles decided to become up to date and to use mechanical methods and advertised its tricycles for sale. The Brighton post office decided that it was a very good idea to buy them all up. That was in 1934. In parts of the Brighton area, especially in Shoreham, one can still see some postmen going round on their tricycles of the "Stop-me-and-buy-one" variety. That is the way the letters are delivered. It is no wonder that they are delivered somewhat late. There are also box-like arrangements—I do not know how to describe them accurately—in which the postmen take parcels round. Everything arrives late. Everybody gets annoyed.

I read in today's paper that Brighton Post Office is to buy up an area in Hove in an effort to make itself more modern and more up to date. I hope that the Post Office will scrap some of its old equipment and will also think of trying to make its postmen look a little smarter. If postmen are properly in uniform and look smart, it adds to efficiency. At present there is a great deal of complaint about the slovenliness of those who deliver the post and, generally, about the bad manners of those behind the counters in post offices in Brighton.

Then there are telephone problems. I want to read a little piece which appeared a few weeks ago in the Brighton Herald referring to the telephone system: That useful instrument has surely never been more perverse, more obdurate, wayward, sullen, obstinate. On a fairly average day this week we checked the behaviour of our own black and efficient-looking instrument. At first, suffering from an attack of some early-morning telemalaise, it responded with a shriek to every attempt to dial 9 for an outside line. Recovering, it then declined to accept the responsibility of connecting us with the exchange, employing the trick of pretending that every operator there was engaged. Later it became even more cunning, and it did connect us to a number—only to cut us off with a sound like a demented buzz-saw as soon as the conversation began. In this way it repaid us for our earlier anger by making us pay three times over for a single call. During the day it proved impossible to dial any number which began with a 4 … and twice it displayed a sense of humour by cutting in on somebody else's conversation. It also got sevesral wrong numbers, but by then our hand was shaking and it might be unfair to blame the telephone. This was what happened on one day in the Hove area when this newspaper tried out the telephone.

I got a certain amount of publicity from bringing these questions forward. The net result was that I received a letter at my home in Brighton. My home is not listed in the telephone directory and, presumably, is to be found only by people who really know where I live. This letter comes from the Post Office, London, S.E.2, and says: Dear Mr. Teeling, In reply to your inquiry about employment as a telephonist, I have pleasure in forwarding a copy of the conditions of service for telephonists in London. The vacancies for which we are recruiting are in several districts in London but our training schools are situated in the City and Central London Areas and it will be necessary for you to live in London and find your own accommodation. If you wish"— the next part is underlined in red ink— to be considered for employment in London please let me know your date of birth and I will arrange for you to be interviewed as near to your home as possible. This is not much use to me, because I gather that I am over the age they would take.

All these little complaints are possibly not too serious. I have received many more serious complaints. People are suggesting that there is a considerable shortage of staff. The Question I put to the Assistant Postmaster-General elicited the information that the staff is practically the same—in fact, just a few fewer—as it was three or four years ago, yet the population in the area has increased considerably.

The Brighton population is not only a population of elderly people. There is also a very considerable population of business people—business people who commute to London and business people who come down at the weekends to their homes by the sea for a rest. They can still do quite a lot of business while they are at home in the country.

The worst periods for the post office is the delivery at weekends. One important and very well known business man who has asked not to be named has since 1961 been complaining that when stuff is sent down from his office in London on a Friday, or even from his offices near Brighton, it never arrives until Monday. Sometimes if letters are posted at about 5.15 p.m. on Friday in or around Brighton they will arrive at his home on Saturday morning. Equally often they do not. Then he has to send down to the Portslade Post Office and try to get them out.

On one occasion there was something that he particularly wanted. It was not in the two bags which had been opened for Saturday morning but was in a third one which I gather, for trade union reasons, was not ready by the time the postal workers stopped opening them on Friday night, and although it was sitting there and he knew it was there, nobody would open it till Monday. On one occasion he was going abroad on the Sunday. I can think of many occasions like that when a lot of business has been lost to this country.

Then there are many people who go up to London on business early in the morning and they cannot get their letters delivered before their trains leave. That is supposed to be because of lack of staff. But again one asks, why cannot the Post Office get the staff? It only seems to take male staff. Why cannot women be brought in? Women are working very well in the Post Office in many parts of the country. One cannot see why far more women are not brought in.

I have noticed that when my letters arrive in Hove from London they are tied in a bundle and, as every hon. Member knows, those bundles are so well tied that it is absolute agony to try to untie them unless one has a knife handy. On the other hand, at the Hove Post Office, for some reason or other, the letters almost always seem to be untied and get scattered about. One gets some of them the following Monday when people have looked through different parts of the Post Office where odd letters have perhaps fallen out of the bundle. I now have an arrangement so that all my letters arrive in one large envelope.

I promised that I would read a few extracts from letters to show that I am not exaggerating. Here is a letter from Preston Park Avenue: I wish to bring to your notice the appalling service we have received from the Post Office during the last six months. We despatched an average of thirty to forty packets per day during the last six months. At least eight of these packets have not reached their destination. Three of these have been sent Recorded Delivery. Due to these losses, we have made claims to our insurance company, his resulting in larger premiums. To add to this we feel our business name is in jeopardy. We do feel this should be brought to your notice as the local post office seem unable to give an assurance that this will not happen again". The Brighton Girls' Club, which is a well-known organisation, has sent me the Mowing copy of a letter which the organisation's warden originally sent to the postmaster at Brighton: Dear Sir, I heard with interest this morning on the sews that our Member of Parliament, Mr. William Teeling, had complained of the postal services in the Brighton and Hove district, and in reply; Mr. Wedgwood Benn had said there was no justification for this. I can assure you that he is totally incorrect in making this statement. The postal service in Brighton is deplorable and I hear complaints on all sides from both business and private concerns. We do not have a very large post here, but delays and lost letters are not infrequent … A letter posted by Messrs. Parsons Son and 13asley, of Queen's Road, Brighton, on 21st March, did not arrive until 24th March. A letter from Parks and Gardens"— that is, the Corporation Parks and Gardens Department— sent to us early in April never arrived at all and this was not discovered until we telephoned at the end of April to inquire why the matter had not been attended to. Forms sent to the Education Department of the Brighton Youth and Community Service, in December, never arrived at all and we had to send duplicates. This incident caused some considerable inconvenience to a number of people as they were concerned with the payment of instructors. A letter from us dated 10th February to Messrs. Alpha Coaches, in Ditchling Road, Brighton, did not arrive at all. We have had a Recorded Delivery letter delivered here, the address of which had no connection with this area at all. Frequently, second-class mail containing information about youth activities in Brighton sent out by the Youth and Community Office of Brighton does not reach us. You may wonder why we have not registered a complaint before, but the fact is the postal service is so consistently bad and has been for so long that it seems pointless and a waste of time to be continually drawing attention to it. I think you will find that a number of people in Brighton and Hove feel the same way about it, which may perhaps have given rise to the complacent attitude of the Postmaster-General. In the first letter I read there was a reference to insurance. It has been pointed out to me in one of the Answers that the Postmaster-General does not use any insurance because the Post Office is not liable for anything which happens to lost letters. Yet for parcels it is liable. There was the case of the Dolphin Press Ltd. In his Answer, the hon. Gentleman said that the Post Office regretted the inconvenience caused by the serious delay to this parcel. The senders have been paid £5, which is the maximum compensation payable on an inland unregistered parcel. To cover compensation for loss or damage exceeding this amount, parcels must be registered; the maximum compensation which can be covered in this way is £400".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th January, 1966; Vol. 723, c. 72.] If £5 to cover damage in respect of parcels can be paid, why not compensation if anything goes wrong with letters?

The hon. Gentleman will remember the question I put to him about the telegram which was sent from the President of Gabon, who was in Paris, to the Mayor of Brighton's brother, telling him about the non-arrival of his two sons. It was not delivered at the right time. It was very seriously delayed because the Post Office looked up and rang the wrong number and got the wrong people. In the end, a car had been sent—it was too late to stop it—to London Airport to collect the boys. They were not there, of course, and the Mayor's brother claimed for his loss. But he was refused because no compensation is given for that sort of thing, for some reason or other.

Again, on the subject of parcels, I have here another complaint which reads: In Mr. Wedgwood Benn's White Paper on the postal services, a loss of £6 million is forecast for the parcels service alone. I informed our Brighton Postmaster that, like the sender of a non-delivered parcel in February (one of two which failed to arrive that month) and that I would boycott the parcels service entirely, and send only by the ever-reliable Southdown Bus Parcels service in Sussex, which I and many of my friends now do with complete safety and satisfaction. Mr. Benn should make his parcel post more trustworthy. No wonder he is losing Ed million if people are let down by high charges and (brushed-off) pilfering. There is then the case of Mr. Norris, about which the hon. Gentleman and I have already corresponded. He will recall that I sent him this extremely ugly looking letter which had managed to get into that condition within one day of being posted from Brighton. It has written on it: The Postmaster is very sorry that this packet has been accidentally damaged in the post. Not only had it been damaged, but it had been sliced open, and, when it reached me, I found that the writer had a series of complaints. He said: Every three months or so I am informed that a letter has been sent to me—but it has never arrived! Last December a letter from Scotland went astray. It turned up (with the Brighton postmark franked over the Scottish postmark) just before Easter. That same week I received a letter marked Tiverton, Devon, about February 25th. Again, it had been refranked with the Brighton postmark. In March, I received a confidential letter from my solicitors in Hove after it had been around Brighton for a few days. Although it was a self-sealing envelope with the solicitor's name and address clearly printed, it did not deter an inquisitive individual from slitting the envelope surreptitiously (doubtless to read the contents) before re-posting in Brighton. I shall not bore the House with all these letters, of which I have had so many. It is an intensely worrying situation. I just mention the case of the cripple in Montreal Road, Brighton, whose letters were turned away, it being said that he was not there. He has lived there for 20 years. Nothing seems to be done about these things, and no one seems to want to do anything.

I think that we ought to see whether there are not perhaps too many old people operating this organisation. I have been told that to become a postmaster at Brighton, or have a job closely connected with it, is rather nice and easy just before one retires. The question must be asked whether it is not time for us to ascertain whether we cannot get more young people at the head of affairs.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell us a little about the powers that his public relations officer will have. He has not told us that in his answers to me. If he is not successful, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would then be so good as to see whether we cannot have a public inquiry into the situation in the whole of the South Coast area.

4.20 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Sir W. Teeling) has not given me very much time to answer all the points that he has introduced into the debate. However, I am glad to have the opportunity of replying to the criticism which he has ventilated against the Post Office services in Brighton on a general basis.

I would say, first of all, that I think, it quite understandable that any Member of Parliament should be concerned with the services of the Post Office in his constituency. It is right that hon. Members should wish to ensure that these services are as efficiently provided as possible, and where faults appear to be occurring it is clearly the duty of every hon. Member to make inquiries and, if need be, ask for matters to be set right.

Nevertheless, in this instance, I am sure that the hon. Member's complaints do not provide a fair picture of the quality of service which the Post Office is giving in Brighton as a whole. Just before this debate began, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Chapman) who lives at Rottingdean, said "I am quite happy with the type of service which has been meted out to me in Brighton. I have no complaints."

Brighton Post Office handles more traffic than any other office on the south coast from Dover to Lands End and is one of the 20 largest provincial offices in the country. Three million letters are dealt with every week, and about 170 million letters are handled annually. In addition, 60,000 parcels are dealt with every week, or about 3½ million every year.

Approximately 85 million letters are delivered annually and about 500 of the 586 postmen perform letter delivery, some permanently, some in rotation. On an average, therefore, a postman delivers about 170,000 letters a year. If every postman mis-delivered four letters a year there would be 2,000 sources of complaint solely on the grounds of mis-delivery. This would be a mis-delivery rate of only one in every 42,500 letters, and, having regard to the often illegible handwriting, the dark mornings, the weather and all the difficulties with which postmen have to contend, a rate of error of one to 42,500 is hardly serious inefficiency.

But there are not 2,000 complaints of mis-delivery every year. From January to May inclusive this year there have been 231 complaints, not all of which proved to be due to postmen's errors. Admittedly, not every mis-delivery will have inspired a complaint, but even if there were three mis-deliveries to every actual complaint, this would only amount to 1,663 mis-deliveries out of 85 million letters delivered annually, a rate of one in every 50,000 letters delivered.

In fact, the public also make mistakes. In the matter of letters alone, five staff are employed at Brighton doing nothing else but return letters to the public, many of which are undeliverable because of incorrect or inadequate addressing by the public. Far too often the Post Office is blamed for non-delivery of letters which could neither be delivered nor returned to the sender or which have been delayed because they were carried around in a pocket or a handbag before being put into a letterbox.

It should not be overlooked by those who criticise the efficiency of the postal service that most of the work of sorting and delivering letters is done by staff who are on duty when the great majority of the population are either enjoying their recreation or are in bed. Over 70 per cent. of all the letters delivered in the Brighton area have to be sorted between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. More than 50 men work throughout the night, and over 300 more rise between 4 a.m. and 4.30 a.m. on six mornings in the week in order to be on duty at 5 a.m. or 5.30 a.m.

Many of these men walk to work because there is no public transport and they do so in all seasons and all weathers. They have completed their sorting and the preparation of their letters and are out on the streets by 7 a.m. By the time most people are arriving to begin their work, the postmen have completed four hours' work and are still waiting for their breakfasts. The conditions under which the mail is delivered are by no means easy.

I should now like to deal with some of the particular points which the hon. Gentleman made about the postal service representative. The hon. Member touched on that appointment. As I informed him recently, this is something that we have done as an experiment not only in Brighton, but also in many towns and cities of a similar or larger size. These officers will discuss with the users of the postal services, and particularly those who make considerable use of our facilities, how they can use our services to their best advantage. I feel sure that this is a very useful development and one which hon. Members will be able to welcome wholeheartedly.

The hon. Gentleman talked about a delayed telegram. Let me give him the facts. My right hon. Friend answered the point fully on the 20th May, but I can add that the telegram was delivered in spite of the mistakes that were made, about 4½ hours after being handed in. Under the International Telegraph Regulations, we can only consider a refund because of late delivery if 6 hours have elapsed before the telegram is delivered.

Let me come to the shortage of day telephone operators. In Brighton Exchange, there are 13 vacancies out of a staff of 278. There is also a shortage in the area of 81. As for the facilities available to Brighton telephone subscribers, those connected to the Brighton system can dial local calls direct to each other and to subscribers on 52 other exchanges. Subscriber Trunk Dialling is available to about half the subscribers at Brighton. New connections are being added to the system at the rate of about 10 per cent. per annum while trunk traffic is growing at about 14 per cent. per annum.

I should remind the hon. Gentleman that when he talks about bad and old equipment, that is not the fault of my right hon. Friend and myself. It is an inheritance from the years before the Post Office gained its financial independence in 1961.

The hon. Member has been quoted in the Press as inviting suggestions to improve the efficiency of Brighton Post Office. Yet my information is that it is a long time since he visited this office, and the head postmaster would be glad to arrange not only for him to see the Post Office at work on its varied tasks at any time of the day or night, but, if he can pay an early morning visit, he could accompany a postman round part of his own constituency and see for himself the task at which many of his criticisms have been levelled. He will have an opportunity to meet 100 or more of his own constituents who are also Post Office servants and will be able to get their points of view after he has seen what the job entails.

The head postmaster will also be glad to explain to him the design for the future. Plans have already been completed for the installation of one of the first and most modern parcel sorting machines in the country. He will describe the progress already made towards the introduction of electronic letter sorting machines and the allocation of a postal code to every address in the district. He will explain all that is being done to improve both efficiency and economy in a service which still relies largely upon human beings who can never be perfect. He will demonstrate all the steps which are taken to eliminate errors and train the staff, and show that the Post Office at Brighton does not lag behind private organisations where quality control is concerned.

In conclusion, I assure the hon. Member that the Post Office services in Brighton would be only too glad for him to come to see them at closer quarters. They have nothing to hide.

I have read some of the reports in the Press. But, so long as I hold my present position, I shall defend the postal services in Brighton——

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.