HC Deb 01 March 1967 vol 742 cc464-75

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

12.30 p.m.

Mr. Adam Hunter (Dunfermline Burghs)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a matter of great interest to many of my constituents. I am dealing with a purely constituency matter and not complaining about the new national standard hours for Post Office counter services.

To state my case in a reasonable way I must first outline the background of the area concerned. I am talking about the two small burghs of Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath, two towns in central West Fife. The population of Lochgelly is about 9,000 and that of Cowdenbeath is about 12,000. They are separated by a little less than one mile and in that distance a small part of the landward area of Fife county intervenes in the form of a village called Lumphinnans. Therefore, the whole area—the two towns and the intervening part—is totally built-up.

For several generations the area has completely relied on the coal mining industry. Only one small pit is left, and that is near Lochgelly. Therefore, more and more people must travel outwith the town and burgh boundaries. The rundown in the coal-mining industry in 1958 drastically affected the area. Since 1958 14 pits and mines closed in the area and what was once the industrial heart of central West Fife is now almost denuded of industry.

The result has been that miners' jobs are no longer available in the area, and those miners who found jobs must travel much further away from the two towns. There is a little more heartening news now because in Cowdenbeath we have the establishment of a little more industry. But there is no industry in Lochgelly and almost the whole working population must move out of the burgh every morning to work.

In May, 1966, the Postmaster-General announced changes and new standard hours of business on a national basis. The changes were communicated to the town clerks of the burgh on 13th December and were to become operative from 16th January. Christmas and the New Year come in the intervening period, and the town clerk's complaint was that insufficient time had been given to make objections.

The Head Postmaster of Dunfermline was contacted with the object of postponing the operation of the new hours on 16th January. He had not the power or control to do that. I spoke to him about the matter over Christmas, but this being a national change he could not make any variation in the hours to be operated from 16th January. I also wrote to my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General, asking him to consider postponing the operative date. He refused to do that, and great disappointment was created in the burghs.

The civic heads in those two towns are in the main ordinary working people, councillors who have their ear to the ground and know exactly what the inhabitants require. I think that they reflect the views of the inhabitants. I also wrote to my right hon. Friend asking him to reconsider the hours for the Post Office counter services in the towns, pointing out the adverse effects they had on many of my constituents. That appeal was turned down.

The reaction of the councils was to ask me to impress upon the Postmaster-General the need for revision of the hours, and also to point out their complete dissatisfaction and consequent desire that I should raise the matter in the House. I assure my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General that we are not complaining for complaining's sake. This is a sincere effort by the local councillors, because they have the people's interests first and foremost. They are interested in the well-being of those who rely on an efficient and adequate Post Office service.

We realise that economies must be made, but they should not have the effect of restricting a long-standing public service. It was recently suggested to me that progress in some spheres of social and economic life brings deterioration in others. It has also been said to me that delivery of mail and certain other aspects of the postal services are poorer today than they were 50 or 100 years ago.

A Rotary Club in my constituency recently mentioned that 100 years ago there was a mail delivery four times a day. While I would not advocate that postmen should be asked to return to late afternoon or early evening deliveries, it seems to me that there is a valid reason for adjusting Post Office counter services to suit local conditions. When mining was the main industry of Lochgelly, which now has no industry, men worked on a shift basis and they had ample opportunity to obtain Post Office services because they could go to the Post Office either in the morning or in the afternoon. Many of those men must now go to work outside the town at about 8 a.m. and they do not arrive home until 5.30 p.m.

When I said that many dockyard workers in Rosyth were not getting this facility, my right hon. Friend pointed out that the area of Rosyth, which is part of Dunfermline, had three Crown post offices and a sub-post office. But the dockyard is a mile and more away from Rosyth, which means that only one sub-post office is available for these workers. It is outside the gates of the dockyard and the men are in too much of a hurry for their transport to go to that sub-post office.

Miners' wives also have taken on a new social way of life. For various reasons, they have to work. Miners who left the pits found other jobs with lower earnings, while miners who went to other pits further away from home also found that they had to accept lower earnings. This compelled miners' wives to seek work and they travel as far as Edinburgh and other places, about 10 or 12 miles from home. Cowdenbeath is in a similar position. Although there are some industrial jobs there, the great majority of the working population have to travel far from the town. It means that many are being denied a post office counter service.

Another aspect is that of the lunchtime closing. We feel that the hours during lunch time could be staggered and that this would cause no hardship to counter staff. People employed in shops and businesses sometimes are able to visit the Post Office only during their lunch hour. My hon. Friend may say that it is not practicable to stagger the hours due to the variety of purchases made in a post office, but these are not large post offices and I am sure that most of the staff can do a comprehensive job—that they can deal with almost any purchase that can be made in a post office.

The Post Office, as we see it, is recognised as a public service and I do not think that it is too much to ask that a similar attitude should be adopted by the postal authorities. The town council of Cowdenbeath gives a full service to its residents. Anyone who has a query or a complaint or business to transact can do so at the council offices during lunch time and surely a similar service could be granted by the Post Office.

This is simply a constituency matter. The town council has no wish to broaden out a complaint in order to question the national standard hours of post office workers, who should certainly enjoy revised hours. It is the opinion of the local authorities concerned that the hours should be revised. But surely it is not outwith the power and ability of the Postmaster-General to devise an arrangement whereby the post offices could be kept open for half an hour at the end of the day and during the lunch hour.

We feel in Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly that we have a special problem, that local circumstances are entirely different from any other part of the country, and I hope that my hon. Friend will consider impressing upon the Postmaster-General the need for some revision of the hours of post office counter service in Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly with the possibility that another half-hour could be put at the end of the day and that the counter-service could be kept open during lunch time.

12.45 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Mr. Hunter) for giving me this opportunity of discussing the question of Post Office hours of business. It is not, of course, the first time the matter has been raised in the House, but in raising the question in this way my hon. Friend has given me the chance of explaining the background to our policy in rather more detail than has been possible before. I have listened very carefully to what my hon. Friend has said, and I should like to congratulate him on the very fair and courteous way in which he has made his points.

Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly are not, of course, standing alone in this matter of changed hours of Post Office business. As hon. Members will know, we announced as long ago as last May that we should have to make some general changes throughout the country in the times for which post offices were open. Since then we have been busy introducing the new hours and we have almost completed our task. It may help the House if I first explain briefly why we are making the changes.

First, in common with many other employers we have been plagued by recruitment difficulties at many of our offices; and, where counter staff is concerned, these difficulties have been accentuated by the long hours of attendance which our clerks have had to put in as compared with workers in many other fields. In other words, under the old arrangements we were not competing for staff on anything like equal terms with other employers.

Secondly, the postal services are labour-intensive, and we must economise on staff as much as we possibly can if we are going to keep down costs and charges. We are satisfied that the changes in hours of business now being made will be of very great help in dealing with both of these problems.

I might add that our efforts to keep down costs and charges are not confined to the changes we are discussing today. In co-operation with a firm of consultants—McKinsey and Co.—we have been making a thorough-going study of the work at counters and we have high hopes that improvements in procedures and working methods which are coming out of this study will produce substantial dividends.

As hon. Members will know, many different kinds of service are provided at Post Office counters; some of them are simple but by no means all of them are. The more complicated transactions do not readily lend themselves to mechanisation but here again we are making an intensive study of various possibilities.

Perhaps I might now say a word or two about the changes in hours we are actually making. Up to last year, most of our main post offices, and many sub-post offices, stayed open from 8.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later every day of the week except Sunday. Our opening hours were longer than those of the great majority of shops—and considerably longer than those of the banks, local council offices, and many other organisations. These long hours involved late finishing times and a high proportion of Saturday attendances and, as I have said, accentuated our recruitment problems.

We realised, of course, that any curtailment of hours of business would be bound to cause some inconvenience to some people and I should like to make it clear, therefore, that the changes have not been made without a great deal of careful thought. Our aim throughout has been to reduce costs and help recruitment while, at the same time, causing a minimum of inconvenience to our customers.

We found that, generally, business was relatively light at the beginning and at the end of the day—before 9 a.m. and after 5.30 p.m. Moreover, many of our customers who visited post offices before or after these times wanted postage stamps, which can, of course, be obtained from the stamp-selling machines which are to be found outside all main and many of the smaller post offices.

In the event, we came to the conclusion that we could best meet our main objectives—reduced costs and improved staff attendances with a minimum of inconvenience to our customers—by aiming to introduce new standard hours of 9 a.m. 5.30 p.m., Monday to Friday. These new hours have, in fact, now been introduced at the great majority of post offices, including those at Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly.

Before dealing in detail with the situation in Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly, I should like to say a word about the hours of business on Saturday. I realise that in many places Saturday is a busy shopping day; but most other businesses are closed, at least in the afternoon, and I think it true to say that the great majority of people can get to a post office before 4.30 p.m. without much inconvenience. In our review of the arrangements, we found that most customers in fact visited the post office early on Saturday and that in most offices business was very light in the late afternoon. We decided, therefore, that it would be reasonable and sensible to close most offices at 4.30 p.m.

There is a misunderstanding which I should like to clear up at this point. In some quarters it has been assumed that the shorter hours of business and improved staff attendances mean a shorter working week for our counter clerks. This is not so. They are still working the same number of hours, although it is true they can now get home a little earlier in the evening and on Saturday. But to make up for the earlier finishing times, the clerks will either be putting in time at the counter at other hours of the day, and so enabling us to strengthen the staff where it is needed at busy periods, or, where this is not necessary, they will be doing other work and so enabling us to reduce costs.

I turn now to the particular cases of Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly, on whose behalf my hon. Friend has spoken so persuasively. The hours of counter business in these towns were reviewed towards the end of last year. At that time, the post offices in Cowdenbeath were open from 8.30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Saturday. The Lochgelly office had the same hours of business, except on Saturday, when it closed at 5 o'clock. In these towns, as in so many other places, these long hours were not really justified by the amount of business done; and, after going into the matter in some detail, we felt that the new standard hours could be introduced without inflicting undue hardship on local residents.

The Head Postmaster of Dunfermline wrote to each of the town councils on 13th December, telling them about our proposal to introduce the new standard hours of business. He also told them that we proposed to close the offices at lunch time—I shall say a word about this a little later.

The Cowdenbeath Council made representations about lunch-time closing, and the Lochgelly Council told the Head Postmaster that it was opposed to the suggested changes generally. In the light of the councils' comments, the matter was very carefully reviewed, but we came to the conclusion that we should not be justified in making an exception to the new standard hours in either town; the councils were informed accordingly by the Head Postmaster and the new hours were introduced on 16th January. I am sorry that there should have been some feeling that the councils had insufficient time to consider our proposals; however, we wrote to them some five weeks before the date on which we proposed to make the changes.

We looked carefully at one problem which the Lochgelly Council raised, when it made the point that most of the working population travelled to other places, outside the town, for their daily work; leaving Lochgelly before 9 a.m., the proposed post office opening time, and returning after 5.30 p.m., when it was proposed to close the office. As my hon. Friend emphasised, many of these people work in Rosyth, where there are four post offices, one of which is quite close to the dockyard and which, to meet the needs of the dockyard workers, stays open at lunch time. Other Lochgelly people, I believe, work in Dunfermline—where there are also a number of post offices. Dunfermline is larger and busier than Lochgelly, and because of the amount of business transacted, the main post office is staying open throughout the midday period.

My hon. Friend made special mention of the lunch-time closing. I should explain that, except in the central areas of the larger towns, we have found that business tends to be light at lunch time. This is particularly true when the main shops close for lunch, as they do in Cowdenbeth and Lochgelly; indeed, in both towns many of the shops close for longer than an hour.

As business at both main post offices was relatively light between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., we felt that lunch-time closing, in line with the main local shops, was not an unreasonable step to take. By closing for an hour, we have enabled the staff to take their lunch at the same time and this means that a better service can be given in the periods before and after the lunch break. Most people combine their post office business with their shopping, and we think that few if any of our customers will be greatly inconvenienced by the lunch time closing. Some shop assistants may find it a little more difficult to visit the post office, and that is why my right hon. Friend has offered to adjust the time of closing, if either the Cowdenbeath or Lochgelly councils thinks that this would help. If, for example, a closing hour of 12.30 p.m. to 1.30 p.m. would help these people by enabling them to visit the post office before returning to work at 2 o'clock, we should be glad to adjust the closing hour in this way. We should not, however, feel justified in doing away with the lunch-time closing.

We have considered very carefully the request that the post offices should stay open until 6 p.m., but I am sorry to have to say that we should not feel justified in meeting it. As I have already mentioned, stamp selling machines are available outside both the main post offices. To help firms with large postings who use postage meters, we have made special arrangements for their mail to be accepted at the postal sorting offices, in both Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly after the counters have closed. In addition, by arrangement with the Head Postmaster, these firms can also post a limited amount of meter franked mail in street posting boxes. The mail has to be enclosed in a special "late posting" cover. We are at present considering whether we can do any more to help our customers in this direction.

I hope that from what I have said hon. Members will be better able to understand the problems which have faced us, and will realise that we have done what we can to keep to an absolute minimum any inconvenience to our customers. This was a reluctant step which was not taken lightly, but it was essential if we were to contain our costs and compete on anything like equal terms for staff.

The main post offices in Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly are remaining open for 44 hours a week, and I think that it is true to say that we are still giving a very good service. So far as hours of business are concerned, we still compare favourably with other organisations serving the public. We in the Post Office are anxious to give as good a service as possible, but we have to balance the reasonable needs of the public against costs. It has always been our aim, in doing this, to strike a fair balance, and I think that we have been reasonably successful.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to put the case in answer to the application which he has made and for the reasonable manner in which he has presented it.

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

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.