HC Deb 17 October 1968 vol 770 cc729-38

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

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

I am glad to have been granted the opportunity to raise the question of the new two-tier postal system, and in the first week after the Summer Recess, because it is imperative that the Postmaster-General should tonight make a statement of the Government's intentions.

The new postal system which is now operated seriously affects the North of Scotland and my constituents, but it also is the cause of urgent concern and great exasperation in every part of the country. There is as much uncertainty and delay now as there was in the first days. In the history of this country since the introduction of the penny post there has been no single month in peace or in war in which so much confusion and irritation have been caused to the public by the postal service. How has this been allowed to happen in 1968, in the technological revolution? The Postmaster-General has some explaining to do tonight, and I assure him that I will leave him plenty of time in which to do so.

The present situation is not the fault of the Post Office staffs or the postmen: they are doing their best, and no doubt obeying instructions. The most significant shortcoming has been that the 5d. post has been almost as inefficient and unreliable as the 4d. post. The Postmaster-General cannot conceal that the new system has so far dismally failed. For how long will he regard the uncertainty and chaos as mere teething troubles?

Hon. Members and their constituents are only too familiar with what has been going wrong, but I will rehearse it briefly. First, there was a public relations campaign of unexampled ineptitude, considering what was later, in the event, to happen. The Postmaster-General himself is reported as saying on Monday that the advertising campaign was a disaster. It is harsh of him to blame the public relations advisers: he has still to prove that the system itself will not be a disaster.

The two-tier system has had a very bad start. It tried to do two things at once without adequate preparation or evidence that it would work. The first was a clear attempt, and a clumsy one, to disguise a price increase in the hope that the public would be forced into increasing use of a 5d. rate. This I have described in a letter to the Postmaster-General as blackmail. The second objective appears to have been to have new sorting arrangements aimed to meet the fact that most letters are posted in the evening, and to do this by creating a priority class. On the second point, there is a challenge to be met—there is room for improvement—but this two-tier system is, in fact, causing serious deterioration in the efficiency of the service leading to uncertainty and inefficiency in the post generally, and there is the danger that the public will be left permanently with a worse service for which they are required to pay more.

The House will be familiar with many of the cases that have been reported in the Press or have been brought to hon. Member's notice, and I have sent to the Postmaster-General some of the worst examples I have had. Examples are the delaying of the second class, which the Postmaster-General's Department euphemistically describes as "deferring" the post, by which 4d. letters which are ready for delivery are apparently left lying in post offices. Then there are the 4d. letters for local addresses which are sent to local centres overnight many miles away and returned for delivery on the following day. Then there are the second journeys which country postmen have to make to farms with 4d. letters after they have been on the previous journey with the 5d. letters when the 4d. letters were available for delivery.

The worst feature has been that the confusion has also been in the 5d. so-called first-class post. I have sent the right hon. Gentleman an example of a letter bearing a 5d. stamp which took from Tuesday to Monday to go from Basingstoke to Forres in my constituency. I have two letters here which are another good example: they were sent by the same firm in Aberdeen to a constituent of mine. They arrived on the same day. One bore a 5d. stamp, the other a 4d. stamp. The letter bearing a 5d. stamp was posted two days before that bearing the 4d. stamp. I have sent the Postmaster-General photostat copies of those two letters.

There are many such incidents which are causing great inconvenience and loss of confidence throughout the country. It is the unreliability of the first-class mail which is so disquieting. Today in the Press the Postmaster-General is reported as making what is described as a pre-debate statement. I know that the right hon. Gentleman was not responsible for this post. There have been so many Postmaster-Generals. I am glad to see that one of the previous ones has turned up for this debate. However, the right hon. Gentleman is responsible as the Minister in charge while it has been introduced and for its early weeks.

In this statement the right hon. Gentleman is reported as saying—this is more worrying than anything: "The system has been going better than we expected." He must have been joking, because otherwise that is the most alarming statement of today. The statement goes on to compare percentages of first-class and second-class post which are reaching their destinations on the first or second day after delivery. The right hon. Gentleman compares these with the previous system.

There is an immense flaw in this argument, because it is a false analogy with the former first and second-class mail. The second-class mail in that system consisted only of unsealed letters—circulars, postcards, and so on. That was a different and inferior category from the 4d. mail as now presented. The volumes of the second-class mail are quite different. The present second-class mail includes the whole of the earlier second-class mail which went for 3d., but it also includes the greater part of ordinary letters being sent by people one to another. Therefore, that analogy of percentages, to which no doubt we shall be treated later this evening, will hold no water, because it does not compare like with like.

Then we come to the question of franking by firms. There are complaints from some areas that franked letters have to be handed in at post offices and can no longer be posted at letter boxes. There is also the question of sorting between 4d. and 5d. franked letters. In a Written Answer to me yesterday the Postmaster-General indicated that there were only six offices in the whole country with the new machines for mechanical sorting that tell the difference between a 5d. and a 4d. stamp and that by the end of 1968 only 15 more centres will have them. Until this machinery is available, it may be impossible to work this system without serious loss of efficiency and reduction of the previous speeds of delivery. This is owing to the amount of extra sorting compared with what was needed before 16th September which is now necessary.

Now, trade and industry. The complaint here is that little of the daily post is being delivered by the first morning post. This is a serious handicap to many business firms. Doctors and hospitals are complaining, too. Hospital administrations in some areas I now—perhaps in all—have given guidance that the 4d. post should be used except for packets being sent to pathology laboratories or for other urgent business. Doctors and others are complaining that letters making arrangements between hospitals, doctors and patients for appointments and other matters are taking as long as three days in the post.

Now, the legal point. Under Section 58 of the Post Office Act, 1953, it is an offence for any officer of the Post Office, contrary to his duty, to detain or delay or to procure or suffer to be delayed any postal packet, and someone guilty of such an offence is liable to fine or imprisonment. I hope that the Government will find time to explain the position of officials and postmen who are responsible for "deferring", as the word is, 4d. letters by leaving them for a later delivery although they are available for earlier delivery. Again, I say, it is not their fault; they are, no doubt, operating under instructions. But the principle of the Act has clearly been infringed.

The Government must act now to retrieve the situation. Is the Cabinet urgently considering an emergency operation to regain at least the former standards of delivery? It is essential to restore confidence in our postal services. If the Government are at a loss to know what to do, I make this suggestion for immediate action. [An HON. MEMBER: "Resign."] One of my hon. Friends says "Resign". That is an obvious course. But they could announce a moratorium for an indefinite period during which the 5d. rate will be cancelled. With a uniform 4d. rate, the need for the present cumbersome sorting arrangements would disappear. Financially, the Post Office would benefit from the increase from the previous 3d. rate and from the reduction of the overtime now being worked.

I put this forward as a personal suggestion; it is entirely my own proposal. The 4d. rate could operate till the whole project of a two-tier post had been thought out again properly—and postponed or discarded if it could not be worked efficiently.

In the past month, we have had the astonishing spectacle of postmen working long hours of overtime on a system the effect of which is to cause delay and uncertainty. "Somewhere someone is waiting for a letter from you" was never more true.

As an industrial and exporting nation, we cannot afford to let our postal system deteriorate so that it is unreliable for all the offices and businesses which have to use it. To let letters lie for extra time in post offices when they are available for deilvery and men are there to deliver them, and already delivering other letters, is a misuse of our resources. It means a loss of efficiency throughout the country. The Government should treat this as an urgent matter of national importance.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Paul Bryan (Howden)

I intervene to make one point and one only—to protect against the failure of the Postmaster-General to make a statement about the two-tier system and thus give hon. Members the opportunity to question him about it.

This is the latest chapter of what is becoming a very shady story. Chapter I was the "phoney" presentation of the system, the highlighting of choice and the obscuring of the increase in price. Chapter two is even shadier. When the nation erupted as a man against this trick, the Postmaster-General tried to dodge the fury by ostentatiously dismissing or sacking the advertising agency, presumably signifying that that was where the fault lay. The fact was that he did not take the agency's advice, for otherwise we should not have had the presentation that we had. Finally, as Parliament reassembles just as his Department is under fire and his staff are ashamed of what is being done in their name, he indulges in dodging worthy of the Prime Minister. Instead of making a statement here and facing the music, he settles for an Adjournment debate at a late hour, when he knows that he cannot be questioned. This can only appear as just an escape, which indeed it is.

We on this side of the House have been extremely restrained. During the first four weeks of the service, not a word did I utter, as the Front Bench spokesman on this subject. We let it have a go. From now on we shall be less restrained. The Postmaster-General knows, as no one else does, how genuinely concerned Members on both sides are about this system. They are concerned now, not in 10 days' or two weeks' time. Will he tell us what opportunity he means to give the House to put questions and express that concern?

10.42 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. John Stonehouse)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) for his rather extended point. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will also take note of his request.

I am also very grateful, as is the whole House, to the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell), who initiated the debate, because it is extremely useful to have this early opportunity to explain the operation of the two-tier system after one month. I am sure that the many people in the country who have been watching the development of the system will be delighted that in the first week after our return from the Recess we are devoting some time to it. The system is exciting a great deal of interest.

Good communications are absolutely essential for this country, and the Post Office intends to play its part in ensuring good communications. I remind right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite who are trying to make political points out of this that the postal service in this country is second to none in the world, both in terms of price charged for post delivered and reliability of service. The Government intend to keep it that way.

Furthermore, we recognise that over the past month, as we have had the biggest change in the operation of the postal system in Britain for 100 years, there was bound to be a great deal of interest in that change, particularly as the Post Office is very intimate to the lives of all our population. I have been following the correspondence in the Press with very great interest. One of the contributions to The Times that most interested me was from Mr. G. A. Boston, who said: My first-class mail is reaching me promptly and my second-class mail is not unduly delayed. My telephone service is efficient and courteous. What am I doing wrong?". The most interesting contribution that I have had in my postbag is an extract from a letter which The Times did not publish. This explains why a great many complaints are being raised about the two-tier system. I hope that hon. Gentlemen opposite will pay attention to this communication from Mr. L. Snow, 84 Ealing Road, Wembley.

Sir Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

He is a Socialist alderman.

Mr. Stonehouse

Mr. Snow writes: Many complaints about the postal service are being published in your and other newspapers. They probably represent only a proportion of the total received. They give the impression of a vast area of dissatisfaction.

Hon. Members


Mr. Stonehouse

Wait for it.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove) rose—

Mr. Stonehouse

It goes on: Yet if only 1 per cent. of mail delivered daily went adrift, and if only 1 per cent. of the recipients felt obliged to write a complaint about it, this would amount to 3,500 complaints a day. That is the measure of the problem.

We are achieving in this country a more reliable service than any other country achieves. We are the envy of the world in this respect. In a few moments I shall give the House some figures about this reliability of service, but I will, first, say why the two-tier system was introduced.

The system has been considered in the Post Office for 10 years, and it has been planned for the last three or four years, and it has been introduced because it is logical and reasonable that tariff charges should be related to the quality of service and not to the contents of the envelope. This makes absolute sense not only for the Post Office, but for the poster, because the person posting an envelope under a two-tier system can decide what priority he gives to the envelope, and if he is prepared to pay an extra penny for a speedier service then he can make his choice, but if he is satisfied with the slower service it is open to him to pay a smaller amount.

The Post Office has certain financial objectives to reach. It is significant that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite ran away from these responsibilities when they were in office. They failed to make a profit in the postal services during the last years when they were in power because they did not have the courage to put up the tariffs. We, however, are conscious not only of our responsibilities to the customers, but of our responsibilities to the taxpayers as a whole.

Mr. Dance rose—

Mr. Stonehouse

That is why we are determined that the Post Office shall meet its financial objectives while giving the best possible efficient service to the nation and maintaining the lowest possible prices. As the House knows, any fair comparison with countries overseas demonstrates beyond any shadow of doubt that our postal rates are less than those in almost any other country in the world even at the new rates, and, although our prices are less, we are still making a profit, whereas most other administrations in the world make a loss.

Mr. Dance rose—

Mr. Stonehouse

I have little time at my disposal and cannot give way.

The two-tier system was, therefore, a sensible move in order to give the poster the opportunity of choice. It is also a sensible move for the Post Office itself, because it enables the Post Office to spread the work load. The problem within the Post Office has been dealing with the peaks of mail that have been coming in in the late evening. The two-tier system enables us to put the less urgent mail on one side so that it can be sorted during the next day when staff are available.

The two-tier system has been in operation for just a month. Nobody expected that all the teething troubles would be sorted out within a few weeks, but I stick by the statement that I made yesterday. We are delighted by the progress that this system has made considering that hon. Gentlemen opposite were talking about a boycott just over four weeks ago. We hear little talk about that now, and the percentage of first-class traffic that was predicted by the Post Office in its planning before two-tier came into operation is almost achieved.

When two-tier began we had a percentage of first-class traffic of 25 per cent. That has been climbing, and I am able to announce to the House that it has now reached 30 per cent. Furthermore, the division of traffic is producing the income that we had anticipated in order to meet our financial objectives.

I would now like to say a word about reliability of service. Though I accept that there have been many genuine complaints because of the 1 per cent. failure rate that we have had—I do not diminish the importance of this failure rate and we will do our best to eliminate it—the hon. Gentleman must give credit to the Post Office for achieving a lower failure rate than any other administration in the world. Indeed, most industries would be delighted if their failure rate, particularly in the public services, were as low as 1 per cent.

The first-class service that we aim to give to our customers is delivery the next day in most places. We are already achieving a 94 per cent. delivery the day after posting for first-class mails. This is a very remarkable achievement. There is 5 per cent. of the mail which cannot be delivered the next day either because of bad addressing or the physical problems involved. We have a failure rate of only 1 per cent., that is to say, mail which is delayed for three or more days.

I would like to assure the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn that there is no question of any deliberate or unnecessary delays with second-class mail. As we have explained, there is a separate scheduling for the second-class mail so that it can be dealt with less expensively than first-class mail, and that first-class mail can be given the requisite priority, which we guarantee.

The advertised service for the second-class mail is that it should normally arrive on day C, which is the day after first-class mail would arrive, and we are already achieving this for 93 per cent. of the second-class mail.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite read the Financial Times. I was interested to see today in that newspaper a result of a survey conducted by the C.B.I. The C.B.I, posted 302 envelopes as first-class mail—[An HON. MEMBER: "Read the headline."]—I do not read the headline, I read the facts, and if the hon. Gentleman will follow me and take a serious—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes to Eleven o'clock.