HC Deb 12 July 1967 vol 750 cc774-85

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

12.30 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gilmour (Norfolk, Central)

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the difficulties facing sub-postmasters. I am only sorry that the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) is not here this morning, since I understand from the leaks which appeared in the Press last year that he served as a sub-postmaster for a time and is well aware of the difficulties which they face.

Usually, when we discuss Post Office affairs, the indispensable sub-postmasters and mistresses who do so much of the work do not receive a great deal of attention. That is quite wrong, because the 23,000 sub-postmasters handle more than 60 per cent. of all Post Office counter business and, wherever possible the Post Office appears to favour sub-postmasters kindling its business instead of Crown offices. I think that that is on the advice of McKinseys. In fact, the Assistant Controller of the South-Western Region told the Ilminster Urban District Council recently that a proposal to down-grade the Ilminster Crown Office would save £3,062 a year in staff costs and £700 a year in overheads. Sub-post offices, therefore, save money, but the savings should not be at the expense of the sub-postmasters, and as they are at present.

I do not believe that sub-postmasters are getting a proper rate for the job which they do. Although the gross average salary is just over £1,000, this is because there are a few offices with a high turnover carrying a high salary which makes the general position seem much better than it is. The mean of the salaries paid is approximately £750. That is a gross salary and, after deducting expenses for such services as lighting, heating, and so on, the man with a gross salary of £750 has a net salary of about £520 a year, or £10 a week. That, of course, is before tax. According to the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, its 15,000 members have a net income of less than £14 a week.

I expect that the Assistant Postmaster-General will say that it is wrong to differentiate between gross salary and net salary because sub-postmasters have other sources of income and will incur expenses in any event whether or not they have the income from a sub-post office. In some cases, that is true, but more than 5,000 sub-postmasters have no private business other than the Post Office, and the Post Office pays the employer's share of the National Insurance contribution for 17,000 sub-postmasters, which proves that the Post Office is their main livelihood.

The existing scale payments system was devised by the Hobhouse Committee as long ago as 1908. At that time, the majority of sub-postmasters ran their businesses as appendages to their other business activities. The Committee started off with that assumption, and that seems still to dominate Post Office thinking, although conditions have altered radically. Today, in the majority of cases, the sub-post office is no longer an appendage but forms the main part of the sub-postmaster's business undertaking. They find that their Post Office activities have increased while their retail trade has declined for the well-known reasons of the growing number of supermarkets, the increase in mail order business and the wider ownership of cars resulting in people doing less village shopping and going instead into the towns. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will not attempt to argue that the sub-postmaster's salary can be treated in any other way than as his main source of income.

What does the £10 a week sub-postmaster do for the Post Office? He handles about £250,000 worth of business a year for it. That is about £5,000 a week, and it is a lot of money and a great deal of responsibility in return for £10 a week. The sub-postmaster is responsible for all losses incurred by his assistants, and they can be considerable. Only last week I heard of a case where an assistant paid out too many stamps, costing the sub-postmaster £12 which he had to pay. Responsible assistants are very difficult to recruit at the rates of pay which the sub-postmaster can afford. It is well known that there have been substantial losses, and they are very frequent.

Probably one of the greatest worries for the sub-postmaster is the risk of physical injury by criminals attracted by the large sums of money known to be held at sub-post offices. Many offices are in relatively isolated places and, as such, are extremely vulnerable. Last year, there were 87 incidents involving violence or the threat of violence, including the murder of a sub-post office assistant at Leeds and a number of cases of serious injury. In some cases, sub-postmasters or mistresses have been attacked in their bedrooms by intruders seeking the keys to Post Office safes. They have a nagging fear of that kind of thing which they live with all the time.

Following a recent survey which showed that about 40 per cent. of all such incidents in sub-post offices occurred over and round the counter, Post Office engineers designed an anti-bandit screen suitable for sub-post offices. They cost about £100 each, and the Post Office wants the sub-postmasters to pay £60 towards the cost. This is an inexcusable piece of meanness on the part of the Postmaster-General. A Government who give away vast sums of money to industry are not prepared to make a once and-for-all payment to protect sub-postmasters and their assistants from criminals. I urge the Postmaster-General to waive the £60 payment, which is the only decent thing for him to do, and get on with the job of installing sub-post office counter screens as quickly as possible.

Most people are aware of the long hours that a sub-postmaster works. For many it is a nine to six day for six days a week. About 8,000 sub-post offices are concerned with the delivery of mail and telegrams which involve anything from two to four hours' work in the early morning, between 4.30 a.m. and 9 a.m. The sub-postmaster can, of course, have time off, but even if he is sick or on holiday he remains responsible for the good conduct of the office and for the security of the cash and stock in that office. He has to provide his own substitutes and because often substitutes of sufficient calibre cannot be found thousands of sub-postmasters are quite unable to go away on holiday. They receive a substitution allowance of £1 7s. a day for two weeks and three days each year if they actually take a holiday, but there is no substitution allowance during sickness. They get nothing if they are ill and have to employ substitutes.

A few years ago the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters entered into an agreement with the Unicorn Trust that sub-postmasters should sell units of that trust to the public as part of their ancillary business. More recently they entered into negotiations to sell single payment assurance bonds in conjunction with Hambro's Bank. The Post Office refused to allow sub-postmasters to do either of these things because such activities would have competed with investment facilities sold on behalf of the Government.

The Assistant Postmaster-General should recognise that by restrictions of this sort the Post Office limits the opportunities of sub-postmasters to supplement their incomes. Sub-postmasters feel very strongly that the Post Office is enforcing a restrictive practice upon them, yet the Post Office is not prepared to take account of the enforcement of that restrictive practice in their payment to sub-postmasters. I ask the Postmaster-General to look at this matter again and to reverse his decision, not only because such a reversal would help sub-postmasters, but because it would also help the public. The enforcement of this restrictive practice is undesirable in itself.

I am aware that the sub-postmasters have recently had a salary rise—a very small one. A man earning about £750 a year—£10 a week net—was given £16 a year, or 6s. a week, more, which was not exactly a bonanza. I hope that the Postmaster-General will give most generous consideration to any further pay claim made by the sub-postmasters, particularly as I think it could be claimed that they come within the criteria of lowly-paid workers as laid down in the White Paper. Such a criterion is so cloudy and uninelligible that it is difficult to be quite certain, but I think they do come in that category.

I do not consider that a sub-postmaster's other income should be considered as a reason for not giving him a reasonable wage. I do not think that is a cogent or defensible argument. At present the Post Office is doing more than 60 per cent. of its business on the cheap. That is wrong for an organisation such as the Post Office. The sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses give excellent service to the public and deserve a far better deal than they are given at present.

12.45 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Ian Gilmour) for introducing this Adjournment debate. His case is based on three points: the proper rate for the job; the risk of injuries through violence; counter services and the long hours that sub-postmasters work.

The sub-postmasters' organisation and sub-postmasters play a very important part in our administration. As the hon. Member said, there are 23,000 sub-post offices accommodated mainly in shops, where about half the counter business of the Post Office is transacted. They enable service to be given in remoter areas as well as in the towns, and the sub-post office has gained for itself a special place both in town and village life.

The amount of business handled in these offices varies enormously. At the smallest there may be only a few transactions a day. But these transactions are of course of great significance to the local residents. A few of the largest offices handle as much business as Post Office counters manned by Post Office staff. We do not deny this. I hope that we shall see their valuable service to the community continuing for very many years to come.

When considering the general conditions under which sub-postmasters are employed, it is important to remember that they are not civil servants or employees in the usual sense. They provide certain services on an agency basis, and are paid according to the amount they do. Because, as I have said, very little work is in fact handled at some offices there is a guaranteed minimum payment however small the Post Office business actually done in the office.

Moreover, the great majority of offices are combined with a private business and do not provide the sole means of livelihood. While many sub-postmasters—and that includes sub-postmistresses too—are well-known friends to the people who do Post Office business with them, the sub-postmaster does not have to serve personally in his office. He is simply responsible for seeing that the work gets done.

It follows that the conditions of service of full-time salaried employees are not applicable to the sub-postmaster. But we try to behave as enlightened employers even if we are not really employers in quite the usual sense of the word. For example, if they do a substantial amount of work themselves, they are paid gratuities according to their length of service on retirement. On the whole, I believe this special relationship has worked well, and has been to the mutual benefit of both parties.

I turn now to the question of pay. I have already said that sub-postmasters are paid according to the volume of Post Office business done in their offices. The broad principles involved can be traced back to the work of the Hobhouse Committee which reported in 1908, and it must be seen as a tribute to the work which was done then, that the system has lasted so long. Many changes of detail have of course been incorporated since to take account of changing conditions and new types of work, and we are always ready to consider further improvements. Hon. Members may be interested to know that the system involves evaluating the work of an office in terms of units which take account of the time it takes to complete the different types of transaction. The units are read off against a monetary scale which covers reimbursement to the sub-postmaster of expenses incurred in the performance of Post Office work and a profit element for the sub-postmaster. Both these elements are reviewed from time to time, and the scale revised accordingly.

We have just reached agreement with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters for a revision of the scale to take account of the movement of expenses during 1965 and 1966, covering such items as rent, rates and the wages of assistants. My right hon. Friend has also recently made special arrangements for a new element in expenses, the reimbursement to sub-postmasters of Selective Employment Tax paid on assistants employed on Post Office work. The last improvement in the whole scale, that is, including the money paid to sub-postmasters over and above expenses, took effect from 1st January, 1966, also by negotiation with the Federation and in accordance with the general agreement we have with them for the treatment of sub-postmasters' pay.

I have given the House only the broadest outline of a system which is a fairly detailed one to cater for the variety of circumstances which can affect the work of sub-postmasters. In such a system matters are constantly arising for discussion between my Department and the Federation. My Department spends about £25 million a year in payments to sub-postmasters, and I am sure we must all agree, that, when we consider the part they play, this is money well earned and well spent.

We have in the last 12 months been introducing revised hours of business at Post Offices throughout the country. The great majority of post offices, and virtually all sub-post offices, now open at 9 o'clock. They close at 5.30 p.m. from Monday to Friday, and at 4.30 p.m. or earlier on Saturdays. This is because we found that, in general, business was relatively light outside these times. As far as Crown offices are concerned, we also had to consider our serious recruitment problems. We recognised that many sub-postmasters had similar problems in obtaining assistants, and we asked head postmasters to revise sub-office hours at the same time as they revised those at Crown offices.

In general, sub-post offices have shorter opening hours than Crown offices. Most of them have an early closing day; many of them close for an hour at lunch-time; and some close earlier than 4.30 p.m. on Saturdays—provided that business has been negligible and that they also close their private business. When a sub-postmaster applies to have his hours of opening changed, we aim to give the most sympathetic consideration to his case—but it goes without saying that the needs of our customers have to be taken fully into account.

I should like to say a word on sub-postmasters' holidays. We have been asked by their Federation to allow town sub-post offices to close for one week each year so that sub-postmasters can arrange a holiday more easily.

In some few places where virtually the whole town goes on holiday at the same time, sub-post offices have for many years closed for one week. But in the great majority of places we could not allow sub-post offices to close even on a staggered basis without seriously inconveniencing our customers.

We know that in some cases sub-postmasters find it difficult to arrange for substitution during holiday periods. While this difficulty often involves their private business as much as their postal work, we none the less sympathise and have done what we can to help, including giving some financial assistance.

But the fact remains that the sub-postmaster agrees to provide Post Office counter services throughout the year. He does not have to give personal service, and in most cases those sub-postmasters who want a holiday are able to make suitable arrangements for the running of their offices during their absence. Head postmasters are always willing to help where they can, and wherever possible they have—with the help of local subpostmasters—compiled lists of people who are known to be willing to substitute sub-postmasters away on holiday.

We can well understand the wishes of our sub-postmasters to be able to lock up and get away quickly in the evening, and we aim to make the final collection from our sub-offices as soon as possible after the counters are closed for business. The earlier closing of counters at the end of the day has posed special problems, of course, and the trips made b} our vans to make the evening collections have needed a great deal of reorganising to take account of these earlier closing hours. In some places the rescheduling required has taken a little longer than some of our sub-postmasters might have hoped, but nevertheless their attendances for mail work long after counters have closed are now being steadily eliminated.

The serious increase in crime during the post-war years has created special problems for sub-postmasters, both as shopkeepers and in the discharge of their Post Office agency business. As shopkeepers, they are faced with the fact that shopbreaking offences have more than doubled in the last decade. This has called for prompt preventative measures, and it is perhaps significant that the rate of increase in sub-post office breakings during this period has been considerably less. This gives us no cause for complacency. Nevertheless it demonstrates that sub-postmasters, with Post Office help, have tackled their crime prevention problems effectively and kept them within reasonable bounds during a most difficult period.

Under the scale payment system, sub-postmasters are responsible for providing the accommodation and equipment needed to safeguard Post Office cash and stock entrusted to them. However, the Post Office bears the full loss of any cash and stock stolen, save in isolated instances where the sub-postmaster may be called upon for a small contribution towards the loss if he has failed to take reasonable precautions. So we take a close interest in what he does about security of his premises. We do not just tell him that crime prevention measures are up to him and leave it at that. We give him a great deal of expert advice which is designed to encourage high standards of security.

We follow this up with a good deal of practical help, particularly in crime-prone areas where the expense of providing free devices to protect property can be justified as insurance costs against the losses we bear. But we do not rely on insurance costing when it comes to protecting sub-post office people from crimes of violence against the person.

The upsurge of robbery accompanied by personal violence against people is one of the most serious crime problems facing the country today. The impact on sub-postmasters or sub-postmistresses and their staff is brought home to me all too often when my right hon. Friend and I meet many of them to present awards for acts of bravery when they have been attacked by thieves trying to steal Post Office cash. It is always a pleasure to meet these courageous people. But it is also alarming to hear at first hand the accounts of the frightening experiences, sometimes the suffering, that they have been through. Prevention of robbery is not an easy matter. When we have listened to many of these people, my right hon. Friend and I have recognised the great risk that they take.

In the last 12 months, our security advisers have held regular consultations with representatives of the sub-postmasters on ways and means of improving existing safeguards against robbery, development and trial of new devices, including a specially designed anti-bandit screen for sub-post office counters. We are discussing with the Federation what part of the cost will be met by the Post Office. I can pay no better tribute to the excellent work of this committee than to quote the General Secretary of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. In an article published a few days ago in Security Gazette he wrote: This body has done a great deal to improve protection and reduce the incidence of robberies. Staff consultations are normally painfully slow, but the Post Office has responded to this particular problem with unprecedented speed and purpose. He went on to mention certain encouraging signs that the increase in the scope of advice and practical help resulting from these joint consultations, and by no means least the sharpened security consciousness, the bravery and resourcefulness of sub-postmasters and their assistants, all these have contributed to a 24 per cent. reduction in the incidence of robberies with violence at scale payment post offices during the 12 months ended March, 1967.

I should like to take this opportunity to add to this tribute that we shall not fall into the trap of relaxing our efforts. On the contrary, we intend to continue to do all that we reasonably can to prevent sub-postmasters and their staff from getting hurt.

I ought perhaps to end as I began, by emphasising the most important rôle that sub-postmasters play in giving friendly service to the community. Whatever shape the Post Office takes in the foreseeable future, their vital function will remain, as I see it, for this service.

The debate having been concluded, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the Sitting until half-past Two o'clock, pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.

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