HC Deb 30 June 1966 vol 730 cc2218-22

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Paul Bryan (Howden)

We on this side have no intention to divide on the Clause, and the Government will not be surprised at that. In principle, we agree with the Clause, because it carries further the policy of a Conservative Postmaster-General who, in 1960, liberalised the licence system for the sale of stamps, with the intention of increasing the number of outlets.

But even a good Clause is liable to harm someone, and the someone who is harmed here is an important and valuable member of the community, the sub-postmaster. The sub-postmaster is not an employee of the Postmaster-General, but the conditions of his trade depend entirely on decisions made by the Postmaster-General. For this reason, I should have liked to see the Postmaster-General here to explain the Clause which, although not attracting a large audience in the House of Commons today, raises questions about which the words of Government spokesmen today will be studied very carefully by the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, representing about 23,000 people.

Prior to 1960, traders could sell postage stamps only if they were licensed to do so by the Postmaster-General. Licensed vendors were required to enter into an undertaking, under a £100 bond, not to offer for sale any stamps other than those which they had purchased at the post office specified in the licence. Licences were not issued to persons whose premises were less than 150 yards from the nearest place where stamps could be purchased. The licensed vendor did not receive any reward for the sale of stamps, and he was not required to pay a fee for the grant of a licence.

Up to 1960, therefore, the sub-postmaster had a local monopoly—very local indeed. He received no reward for selling stamps. His stamps were, as it were, a loss-leader or, if not a loss-leader, they were a no profit-leader which brought people into his shop. In 1960, the then Postmaster-General decided to liberalise the issue of stamp licences, and, under the Post Office Act, 1961, a bond was no longer required. Also, the Act cancelled the requirement that a licence should not be given to anyone with premises within 150 yards of a place where stamps could already be purchased. At that time, indeed, head postmasters were instructed to take positive steps to encourage shopkeepers and others to take out licences.

Following this liberalised policy, as one would expect, there was an increase in the number of outlets. This had two effects on the members of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. First, they lost a considerable amount of trade. But what seems to worry them almost as much is the outbreak or, at least, the increase—one could almost call it an outbreak—in the number of thefts and crimes of violence which have occurred. Not only have their sales of stamps been reduced, because of their retail trade com- petitors tend to purchase their stamps from a Crown office, but disreputable traders can purchase stolen stamps obtained by unlawful access to sub-post office premises. Thus, the emoluments of existing sub-postmasters have gone down—these material considerations are important—and, even more serious, there is the fear that a wider market for the purchase of stolen stamps has already encouraged an increase of robberies at sub-post offices. Robberies with violence have already become an everyday risk and occupational hazard for sub-postmasters. Within the last 13 months, there have been three deaths among sub-post office personnel following criminal assault. On average, at least two sub-postmasters every week are subject to attack or the threat of violence. All the figures I am now giving the Committeee come from the Federation. The Federation complains that the post office does not insure either sub-postmasters or their assistants against attack. While the police are helpful, the Post Office, they say, refuses to spend money in implementing recommendations made by the police. Therefore, because of the increase in crime, sub-postmasters have been compelled to spend a good deal of money in security precautions. Many sub-postmistresses at small offices retain the services of an assistant, mainly for purposes of protection.

I understand that an assurance has come from the Post Office recently, in an official document dated 22nd June, in which it is said that the Assistant Postmaster-General—we are glad to see the hon. Gentleman here now—is urgently looking into the question of the security of sub-post office personnel. I should be grateful if something could be said about that.

There are 23,000 sub-post offices but only 2,000 Crown offices staffed by Post Office personnel, so the proportion of work done by these sub-post offices is very large. I understand that they do a good deal more than half the total business going over the counter in post offices in general. So the Post Office has the services of these sub-postmasters at bargain rates. They do not do very well. The Assistant Postmaster-General knows of the difficulty we are having now in recruiting sub-postmasters. They handle more than half of all the transactions over the counter, as I have said, and they are absolutely essential to the administration of the Welfare State. After going into the figures showing the amount of money they earn, one wonders why more do not resign. I think that the reason is that, in many cases, they have already put their life savings into the shops.

With these considerations in mind, remembering the valuable work which sub-postmasters do and how essential they are in the administration of the Welfare State, I look for comfort from the hon. and learned Gentleman for the benefit of this admirable and indispensable section of the community.

Mr. MacDermot

The hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) invited me to explain the Clause, but he has already done that, in essence, very clearly, at the same time as giving us an interesting historical background. As he says, it is common ground on both sides of the Committee to wish to increase the number of outlets for the sale of postage stamps to the public. The Clause abolishes the necessity for a licence to deal in postage stamps. This is being done purely for the convenience of the public. The present licensing system does not involve any payment of fee or the giving of a security by way of bond as was required before.

But the fact remains that the existence of a licence and the need to apply for it still appears to be some deterrent, and it is hoped that after its abolition more people, for example, those who sell picture postcards and greetings cards, will be ready to sell stamps as well, to the greater convenience of the public.

The hon. Gentleman referred to certain fears which have been expressed about the Clause by the sub-postmasters' association. I was sorry that he stated so emphatically that the Clause would harm sub-postmasters, because I hope and believe that it will do no such thing. However, I know that fears have existed and have been expressed that it may harm them, so I shall try to deal with those.

The first basis of protest was the fear that extending the market in this way might extend the market for stealing stamps also and increase the number of thefts from sub-offices. I am advised that there is no evidence at all that the licensing system has acted in any way as a deterrent to theft or that its abolition would increase it. Of course, we know that all forms of larceny have been increasing, disconcertingly, in recent years

The hon. Gentleman referred to the impact which this has had on sub-postmasters. As he has rightly said, this is a matter which my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General has in hand and talks are going on at the moment with the Federation on the matters to which he refers. Although it has not been voiced or put in the forefront, there may also be an underlying fear among some of the sub-postmasters that the effect of these bulk purchases by retailers who are prepared to sell the stamps may be that, in future, bulk purchases will be made more frequently at Crown offices, to the detriment of sub-postmasters.

It is true that, under the licensing system, it is a condition of the licence that the stamps must be bought from a specified post office, which generally is the nearest post office, which may and, in many cases, will, be the sub-post office. This will, of course, no longer apply if we abolish the licensing system. But, if we are to be realistic, we must face the fact that, despite that condition in the licence, there has been no way of ensuring that licensees purchase their stamps from the specified post office.

We would accept that the normal practice, for reasons both of convenience and of safety, would be for any retailer to purchase his stamps from his nearest office. We therefore see no reason why the abolition of licences should affect the sub-postmasters adversely or cause them to lose income. To the extent that, in any locality, there may be more sales in bulk from the sub-post office, they would stand to gain, because the sub-postmaster is paid on a value basis and not on a transaction basis.

My right hon. Friend feels that the views expressed are not well founded. In view of the greater convenience to the general public, I hope that they and hon. Members on both sides will welcome the introduction of the Clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.