§ Mr. Ward
I beg to move Amendment No. 45, in page 17, leave out lines 24 to 27 and insert—'Section 55A.Section 61(6).In section 62(1) the definition of "contract for the international sale of goodsThis is a purely technical amendment to ensure that the sections of the Sale of Goods Act 1893 not now needed because of the Bill are repealed.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Mr. Ward
I beg to move Amendment No. 46, in page 17, line 28, at end insert—'1967 c. 45.Uniform Laws on International Sales Act 1967.In section 1(4), the words "55 and 55AIn this amendment we come to a redundant reference in the Uniform Law on International Sales Act 1967 and to Sections 55 and 55(a) of the 1893 Act. The sections are repealed by the amendment.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Mr. John Fraser
I beg to move Amendment No. 47, in page 17, leave out line 29.
The amendment removes the provision added to the Bill in Committee which would have repealed Sections 29 and 30 of the Post Office Act 1969. Section 29 excludes the Post Office from liability in tort in connection with its postal and telecommunications services. Section 30 limits its liability in respect of registered postal packets.
For the attention of the House and those who comment in The Times on these matters, the Post Office is not exempt from liability for its contract services—for instance, certain bulk mail deliveries—or for every item of 851 negligence. For example, if a mail van driver negligently collides with another vehicle, or with a pedestrian, the Post Office is liable for damages. Another example of exclusion of liability that was given by Mr. Bernard Levin in an article in The Times was total rubbish. The Post Office would have been liable under those circumstances.
The choice before the House is either to reinstate the exemptions with the improvements that I shall mention or allow them to be repealed. In order to make such a decision, the House will wish to consider the consequences if the Post Office lost its exemptions.
The nature of its activities is unique and I shall give a few statistics. The Post Office handles about 30 million letters each day. They are collected from 125,000 separate points, most of them pillar boxes. The nature of its business, not just the size of its business, means that there are 30 million documents going into the custody of the Post Office each day without any evidence that they have been received into its custody.
Likewise, 15 milion telephone calls are made. Most of them are dialled automatically. There is no evidence that someone has made a telephone call to a specific destination although there is evidence in terms of charging. In the directories there are about 12 million to 15 million separate entries. The operation of the Post Office is not only of great magnitude but of a rather different nature from other operations. It is also unique in that many of the services are not provided by contract and, therefore, are beyond the scope of what was originally envisaged in the Bill.
I am not here to defend the Post Office and to say that it is immaculate. Like any other business, the Post Office on occasions fails to provide the standard of service that can be expected by the consumer. Where problems are brought to its attention it will do its best to find a solution. For instance, redirection at the exchange may solve the problem of a wrongly-entered number in a directory. Where a service has not been given or some damage has been sustained, it is a matter of policy for the Post Office to make ex gratia payments. In the past year, average payments of over £8 were 852 made in compensation for lost and damaged unregistered parcels. If a user wishes to insure a letter or a parcel, he may do so through the registered letter and parcel compensation fee schemes. The services are available to all those who wish to use them.
There is a substantial difference in the cost of sending a registered letter or paying a parcel compensation fee and paying the ordinary charge. The difference illustrates the potential cost not only to the Post Office but, at the end of the day, to the consumer of imposing an across-the-board liability for the operations of the Post Office.
If the amendment that I seek to delete is retained, we shall fundamentally alter the nature of the Post Office and its operations. It has been suggested in relation to the postal services that in practice it would be so difficult for the postal user to prove that the Post Office had been negligent that loss of its exemption would still leave the Post Office in a very strong position to resist claims for loss However, I understand from my legal advisers that that may not be so and that a court might, in the absence of statutory protection, take the view that proof of posting was sufficient to put the onus on the Post Office to show that it had not been negligent. The administrative effort involved in establishing the position on the part of the Post Office could have serious consequences for its costs and, at the end of the day, for consumers' costs. Ultimately those costs would be reflected in postal charges.
Indeed, to verify claims it would have to record every item posted and, presumably, take note of the contents in case of subsequent claims. Claims would not merely be limited to the cost of the relevant service but would be made for any consequential loss. But the Post Office does not know what goods or messages it is handling and thus cannot know the extent of its possible liability.
An alternative would be for the Post Office to insure against claims. I am sure that hon. Members will realise the costs that would be involved in either case. The current cost of a registered letter gives some idea of the charges necessary. In my view it is not in the consumers' interests greatly to increase costs where alternative means of protection are available. A few people, perhaps, would 853 receive large sums of compensation, though at a cost to a great many.
I have no wish to over-defend the Post Office. In my view, both the Committee and the House rightly conducted a re-examination of its immunity. Since the Committee looked into the matter and decided to pass the amendment, I have examined the position of post office services in two Commonwealth countries and made inquiries about the situation in Europe and in the United States. All these postal services, like ours, run a large-scale, low-cost postal business, and none is shackled by the sort of liability proposed in the amendment passed by the Committee.
That is not just the view of the Post Office or the view taken by other countries with similar postal services, some of them great free enterprise countries such as the United States. It is the view also of the Post Office Users' National Council, which considers that exposure of the Post Office to general liability would be to the disadvantage of the consumer.
If the Post Office exemptions are swept away in a bald manner, there will be a number of consequences which, I am sure, are not intended. Let me give just two examples. Because it does not operate its main services under contract, the Post Office could not invoke the "reasonable provision" open to contracts. Further, Section 28(1) of the Post Office Act specifically prevents the Post Office from including anything in its schemes to limit its liability. Thus, the balance would swing very much the other way.
Moreover, the loss of Post Office exemptions would flow through to other carriers of mail, for instance, airlines, ships and railways, which would be unable to protect themselves from totally unforeseen and unforeseeable losses, except by insurance, which could be rather expensive.
I suggest, therefore, that we shall have to look at the matter again in much more detail and on some other occasion consider the general liability of the Post Office. I hope that the House will agree that it is desirable that the Post Office should deal with the undoubted problems which exist in a logical and consistent and as generous a manner as possible. I have had discussions with my colleagues 854 in the Department of Industry as well as with the Post Office Users' National Council, and I have had correspondence with the Post Office too. I hope that something has been achieved which will commend itself to the House.
The Post Office and the POUNC are about to hold discussions on the relations between the Post Office and its consumers with a view to drawing up a code of practice to which, without increasing the cost to the consumer, the Post Office could work. I claim no great credit for that, but I feel that some credit is due to members of the Committee and to those who have agitated both inside and outside the House for re-examination of the problems of compensation.
I understand that the Post Office has already agreed in principle to the adoption of such a code. These moves are wholly welcomed and encouraged by the Government. We feel that they would improve the consumer's position in matters such as telephone rental rebates, directory errors and damage to or loss of unregistered parcels. There is no limit on the range of discussions on the code of practice. They could include compensation scales in respect of the registered mail services, for example.
I assure the House that the Government will consider any proposals arising from these talks, together with any relevant observations made by the Carter Committee. These also will be taken very seriously, although, of course, the Carter Committee's deliberations will have a range far wider than the matter which we are presently discussing.
Hon. Members may wish to reserve their position generally on the Post Office immunity, but I suggest that, in view of its scale, the matter will have to be considered on some other occasion, and certainly in the light of the report of the Carter Committee.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim
Before leaving the question of the code of practice to be initiated between the POUNC and the Post Office, could the Minister say who will finally advise on the drawing up of the code? Will it be somebody independent?
§ Mr. Fraser
I cannot give the hon. Lady a definite answer, but my Department has said that it would certainly be 855 willing to offer the services of the Director General of Fair Trading, who has long experience in drawing up codes of conduct. The fact that that help is available has been made known to the Post Office and the Post Office Users' National Council, and I hope that they will be able to call on that assistance as well as any assistance which will be available from my Department.
I realise that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members consider it important that Post Office consumers should get a fair deal. However, I consider at present that to expose the Post Office to legal liability for its services would be a way of vastly increasing its costs, perhaps to the advantage of a few but certainly to the general disadvantage of most of its users. I am sure that that is not the intention of the hon. Lady or of any other hon. Member.
I feel that what the Committee wanted will be best fulfilled by the talks which are to be held between the Post Office and representatives of its users. In the circumstances, I hope that the House will feel that an advance has been achieved. There will be other occasions on which one can look at the report of the Carter Committee and the general organisation of the Post Office, and I hope that the House will be content with what has so far been achieved as a result of the discussions in Committee and the comments which have come from outside the House.
§ Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)
My hon. Friend said that he had consulted the Post Office and the POUNC. Has he also consulted the trade unions involved in the Post Office, or does he intend to do so?
§ Mr. Fraser
I have received representations from the Post Office unions which were concerned about the amendment. However, there is no earthly reason why the trade union view should not be expressed to the POUNC. I cannot at the moment recall the full membership of the council, but I am sure that there are representatives on it with a trade union background. I recall that there is a representative on the POUNC who has not a background but a foreground in the Conservative Party, in the person of the hon. Member 856 for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg). I am sure that the trade union view can be put forward.
If it be in order, perhaps I might now congratulate the Committee on achieving an advance here. I am sure that it will be welcomed by consumers and in the country generally. This is probably the last major debate that we shall have on the Bill—there is no motion down for Third Reading—and I think that it would be inappropriate if I did not end by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward), the promoter of the Bill, on the achievements which he has brought about and by thanking members of the Committee and hon. Members who have taken part in our debates on the Floor for their co-operative and constructive attitude during the passage of the Bill thus far.
I am sure that the Bill will be widely welcomed not just by consumers but by business men, especially small business men. I feel that we can be proud of ourselves for the way we have been able to achieve not a modest but a substantial reform in the law.
§ Mr. Neubert
After those generous words from the Minister of State, I hope that he will forgive my first observation, namely, that his arguments had a familiar ring. Indeed, so familiar were they that I could have sworn that I was advancing them myself not half an hour ago on my earlier amendment.
The hon. Gentleman pleaded a special case for the Post Office on the ground of the specific and special nature of its operations, and he said that unlimited liability for its operations could involve it in extremely expensive insurance, the cost of which would have to be passed on in charges to its customers. Similarly for the voluntary code of practice agreed by ABTA with the Director General of Fair Trading, there is to be a code of conduct agreed by the Post Office. This is to be done, apparently, in order to cover the points which have been raised, though without bringing it within the context of the Bill.
I hope, therefore, that the problems of the travel trade also will be borne in mind since it provides a comparable service to consumers in certain respects. I cannot but point out that the case which the 857 Minister has just advanced on this amendment was very much along the lines of the case which I made earlier, and there is considerable similarity between the two issues involved.
Having said that, however, I have to add that inevitably I have some sympathy with the Minister in the case which he put. In some circumstances, it is proper to take account of the special nature of certain services provided to the public by the Post Office. However, I shall limit what I have to say to a point of concern for airlines such as British Airways and British Caledonian and shippers such as those represented by the General Council of British Shipping regarding how they will be affected once this amendment has been passed.
These carriers are required by law to carry the mails, and they face the same general prospect as does the Post Office. As things stand at the moment, they could be required to carry packages of unknown value, with unlimited liability, against which they would have to seek insurance for the risks. Since the value is unknown, the insurance premium would inevitably have to be rather high to cover the potential liability. Therefore, once again they would be involved in avoidable expense. I hope that the Minister will comment a little more fully on these matters than he did in passing earlier.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
I have only limited knowledge of ABTA, its membership and organisation, but I know sufficient about the situation to realise that the scale and scope of its operations do not in any way compare with those of the Post Office.
The House knows of my interest in the Post Office as a former employee and of my involvement with one of the unions which has members in the Post Office. I would like to think that this proposal, which was accepted in Committee but which we are now seeking to remove from the Bill, was put forward out of naivety or facile understanding of the activities of the Post Office. However, I fear that that may not be the case. It may be an attempt to provide the consumer with jam today—or certainly an attempt to persuade him to believe that he will be given jam today regardless of the indigestion that might follow tomorrow. The proposal misleads the public and consumers 858 of Post Office services—and, indeed, if this provision remains in the Bill, those services may ultimately be destroyed.
The facts are simple. Since there are no individual records of ordinary letters or telephone calls, it follows that it is physically impossible for the Post Office to establish beyond reasonable doubt whether an alleged failure has occurred. On the other hand, if new systems of recording were introduced to identify every postal item or every telephone call, costs would be fantastic. Such costs would have to be passed on to the customer.
If I may use the postal side of the business as an example, it takes only a moment's reflection to realise that if the Post Office operated without protection from liability, as the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) proposed, every letter posted would have to be recorded, and it would never again be possible to post a letter in a box. It would be necessary to queue at a Post Office counter for each letter to be receipted. The delivery postman would never be able to drop mail through a letterbox. Somebody would have to be summoned to the door each time to give a receipt for the item.
In an operation involving on every working day an average of 33 million letters, each of which is sorted four or five times, and nearly 600,000 parcels, it is easy to see that, if this proposal is agreed, we shall see the end of a quick and efficient postal service. It would certainly mean the end of a relatively cheap postal service. The impossibility of running a similar service on the telephone side of the Post Office's business, with all the recording of calls that is involved, becomes equally apparent.
The provisions of Sections 29 and 30 of the Post Office Act are necessary if the Post Office is to continue to handle the enormous quantities of mail cheaply and with speed. Because of the scale of the operation to which I have already referred, there are inevitably failures, often for reasons outside the control of the Post Office—or example, incorrect, incomplete or indecipherable addresses, adverse weather conditions, transport failures and other reasons. Notwithstanding this, the service given by the Post Office is of the highest order.
859 One would never guess that this was the case if one were to judge only by the constant criticisms which, I fear, are part of the current English disease of self-denigration. I believe that the Post Office services are unmatched anywhere else in the world. Although there may be one or two other countries which can claim next-day delivery for first-class mail of the order of 92 or 93 per cent., no country can claim delivery of mail in the main before breakfast time. I repeat that the Post Office suffers from that curious disease of self-denigration in the media, which tend to concentrate on bad news rather than on achievement.
The present high standard of service could not possibly be maintained if unreasonable demands were made upon the Post Office. There is not, and could not be, a record of the posting and delivery of each letter and parcel. The means to undertake that work simply do not exist and, as it is impossible in present circumstances to deny a claim that an ordinary letter or parcel was posted or was not delivered, there would be unlimited scope for fraudulent claims.
In a public opinion survey it was found that 21 per cent. of the firms and 11 per cent. of the private individuals who responded to questions admitted that they had blamed the Post Office when they themselves had failed to post something. Hon. Members are not unused to such claims being made by organisations and individuals when correspondence is awaited.
There are people who, because it suits a party political line or a news editor's policy, treat the Post Office as if it were a football the kicking of which helps to make the player's reputation. It is time that we defended the Post Office from this kind of treatment, and we certainly should not try to make its job more difficult.
The Post Office, as has been demonstrated by its willingness to adopt the code mentioned by the Minister, is ever ready to admit faults and criticisms when they are fair. The hon. Member for Gloucester in Committee referred to the dumping of mail by postmen. If she has evidence on that score, she must make it known to the Post Office and not make general attacks on a fine body of public servants, men and women who deliver the mail day in and day out.
860 The Union of Post Office Workers has made it clear to me that it holds no brief for those who do not do their job correctly and would willingly help to stamp out any practice of the kind she has described. Indeed, it has co-operated constantly with management in ensuring that activities of that sort are met with the strongest disciplinary action in the Post Office.
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
No doubt the hon. Gentleman noticed the discussion in Committee on this point when I mentioned the action taken by the Union of Post Office Workers in withholding mail supplies from a firm called Grunwick. On that occasion the Post Office failed to take any action. What concerned me was that the Post Office should be liable for its negligence in that matter, because the consumer had been gravely damaged. That was one of the reasons that guided my hon. Friends to table the amendment.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is quite different from the one with which I was dealing in the hon. Lady's speech. In Committee she referred to a postman who had been seen dumping the residue of his mail bag instead of delivering it. That was the general accusation that was made, and it was not substantiated. If the hon. Lady has such evidence it is her duty to bring it to the attention of the Post Office. I have already said that the union is anxious to co-operate in stamping out such practices if they occur. However, that was a different point from the one that the hon. Gentleman sought to make.
§ Mr. Ward
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that, whilst there is no general criticism here of postmen, there are undoubtedly cases of this sort which have been quoted in newspaper reports. To my knowledge such an incident occurred in my home area on the eastern side of London, and it was therefore legitimate for the hon. Lady to raise that point.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
My hon. Friend has raised a specific case which was mentioned in the Press and where disciplinary action was taken. The hon. Lady's comments were of a general 861 nature and did not refer to specific instances. The Union of Post Office Workers took the view that her comments maligned many of its members, who work solidly throughout the year and who would never dream of doing anything of that sort.
The House will realise that records of posting and delivery are at present limited to registered and recorded delivery items. These services demand special handling. The combined number per year is the equivalent of less than two days' postings of ordinary letters. The cost of sending a registered letter, most of which is to provide for special handling and not for compensation, is more than six times the ordinary charge for postage. Nevertheless, those services are still run at a loss.
On the telecommunications side the existing exemptions from liability are made necessary by the sheer scale and nature of the telecommunications business. The Minister referred to 50 million telephone calls handled daily. There are more than 20 million entries in the normal alphabet telephone directories, with 2½ million entries in Yellow Pages and commercial classified directories. Some 3.7 million telegrams are handled annually. Clearly, with an operation of that size failures will arise for a whole host of reasons, many of them outside the control of the Post Office.
If the Post Office were to be open to claims of negligence for failures of its telecommunications services, it would be exposed to challenge before the courts on a substantial scale. Not all the charges against the Post Office would be fair or true. That accusations would be made on a very large scale is beyond doubt. Telephone charges would have to be increased substantially to cover the additional costs of meeting claims in which the Post Office was proved to be at fault and to cover the administrative and legal expenses of all the cases brought against it.
Although in percentage terms failures in the Post Office's services are now—only 2 per cent. of all telephone calls fail at the first attempt because of the system, and errors in the telephone directory average out at less than 0.1 per cent. per annum—nevertheless the consequential 862 damage could be very expensive for the Post Office and, in turn, for its customers.
§ Mr. Gorst
Will the hon. Gentleman address himself to why the Post Office should not be treated on all fours with the whole of the private sector? The same argument about the number of claims that may be made under the Bill applies to the whole of the private sector and numerically in aggregate would probably be greater than the total of claims that might be made against the Post Office.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
If the customers are willing to pay the extra charges necessary as a result of meeting claims brought against the Post Office—and I stress the figures of 50 million telephone calls daily, 3.7 million telegrams annually, and 20 million entries in the telephone directories—that would be fine. However, I do not believe that the customers would be willing to put up with the enormous costs involved in recording and monitoring calls, as will be necessary if the Post Office is made liable in the way suggested.
It must be borne in mind that this procedure would be expensive not only in terms of money but in terms of time. Further costs would have to be incurred in introducing procedures to protect the Post Office against fraudulent claims. At the moment it is not possible on the STD system to establish whether a particular telephone call was made. If the Post Office were to become liable for damages for failed calls, each call would have to be recorded and its satisfactory completion or failure noted. Services could not be maintained in their present form under such circumstances, and the cost would be prohibitive even if the resources were available.
It is not economically practicable to provide postal and telecommunications services which can be guaranteed to be free from failure. Without the protection of Sections 29 and 30 of the Act the Post Office would be open to challenge before the courts on a very substantial scale. Despite the relatively few cases of failure in an operation of this immense size, the actual numbers are considerable and the cost of defending legal actions, which would have to be passed on to the public, would be substantial.
863 Without exemption, the Post Office's liability for consequential loss would be almost limitless—consider the loss or late delivery of a "winning" football pool coupon, or a failure resulting in the collapse of a multi-million pound contract. Furthermore, the potential losses are unrelated to the charges for the services in question. The repeal of Section 29 of the 1969 Act would destroy the current reasonably cheap, fast and reliable postal and telecommunications services, and in the end the customer would have to pay considerably more for, perhaps, a worse service.
§ Mr. Gorst
I apologise to the hon. Member for interrupting him yet again, but he has overlooked one important point. The Post Office would be liable not for failures but for failures in which there was negligence, and that negligence would have to be proved. That cuts down the number of incidents about which the hon. Gentleman is talking.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
It might cut down the number of cases in which the Post Office was found guilty, but not the number of cases in which action was taken against the Post Office. Nor would it cut down the precautions which the Post Office would have to take were it to be made liable in the way that the hon. Gentleman wants. The position would be precisely that recognised by the Law Commissions. It would cost the Post Office more to cover the risk of loss or damage than the loss would cost the customer, and the Post Office's costs would have to be passed on to the customer.
The position in other countries is broadly the same as in the United Kingdom and is reflected in the Universal Postal Convention, which exempts postal administrations from liability in respect of letters not registered. So no other administration would pay compensation if it lost or delayed an ordinary letter to or from the United Kingdom.
Alternative services providing for compensation are available for those who want them and who are prepared to pay additional fees—registered letters, compensation fee parcels, recorded delivery letters. Evidence suggests that the average user prefers to accept the present very low risk at low cost to the alternatives 864 at even low risk but vastly higher cost and greater inconvenience. Why should he be forced into paying higher prices? On the telecommunications side premium services as such are not available to the average customer, but services can be tailored to the customer's needs to offer extra protection at extra cost, and there is no evidence of any general demand for a general service parallel to the registered post.
Despite the Post Office's exemptions from liability, its reliance on these exemptions is in fact open to scrutiny. An aggrieved person can complain to the Post Office direct. He can also appeal to one of the four statutory users' councils—the Post Office Users' National Council or the users' councils for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They are probably the most vociferous of all the consumer councils in the nationalised industries. He can also, of course, take up the matter with his Member of Parliament, as many of us can testify.
§ 1.0 p.m.
§ Mr. John Fraser
I hope that my hon. Friend will not go so far as to suggest that we have at present a state of perfection. What he is saying is getting precious close to that. I hope that he will recognise that there are areas of concern which should be explored in the consumer councils and the Post Office. I hope that he will not paint too white a picture of the present situation.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
If my hon. Friend had been listening earlier, he would have heard me acknowledge that there had been failures and that there would be failures. I do not think that a defence of the Post Office comes amiss in this day and age. The public are made well aware of the criticisms that are made loudly and clearly by hon. Members and in the Press by journalists and others. I do not think that one person putting the other side of the argument, pointing out some of the positive achievements of the Post Office, comes amiss.
The Post Office's policy has always been to make amends, as far as it is able, to a consumer who has a genuine grievance. It can and does make ex gratia payments. On the postal side, regional directors have authority to make ex gratia payments where loss or damage 865 was due to causes entirely outside the normal risks of transit or to some gross dereliction of duty by Post Office staff.
If a mistake has been made over a telephone number, for example, it is the general policy to offer changed number cards, or to pay for over-printing of stationery. In some instances Press advertising may be paid for to help rectify the fault. Similarly, rental rebates may be made when lines are out of order.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
From my experience of working in the Post Office for three and a half years, I do not have to have any sources for information of this sort. Compensation is paid to people for failures on a fairly regular basis throughout the country. Obviously, people who obtain redress for failures of service where a failure has been made on the part of the Post Office do not come to the hon. Gentleman or his association to complain against the Post Office.
In conclusion I return to a point made by the Minister. If the Bill is enacted as it stands, the Post Office will face a major difficulty. Under Section 28 of the Post Office Act the Post Office cannot include in its scheme any clause which limits liability in negligence for the majority of its services, although all other suppliers will be able to do so, provided of course, that their exclusion clause is reasonable. The Post Office will then be in a worse position than any other supplier of services and will be unfairly and exclusively discriminated against by the Bill.
The adoption of the code to which my hon. Friend has referred shows the willingness of the Post Office to respond to criticism and to help redress customers' complaints. For that reason, and for the others that I have outlined, I hope that the House will support my hon. Friend's proposed amendment.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim
There is perhaps some irony in the coincidence that in the same week as the Government propose to reinstate in this Bill sections of the Post Office Act which are perhaps adverse to the interests of the 866 Consumers—in other words, to repeal the amendments passed in Committee—they are proposing, in another piece of legislation, to put consumers on the Post Office Board.
But if the position of the Government is ironical, the position of the Liberal Parliament is even more so, because it is said that it has urged this measure on the Government. The one hon. Member from the Liberal Party who sat in Committee voted against the amendments that the Conservatives moved. In fairness, I must say that the sponsor of the Bill did not do so. Yet those amendments were designed to give the consumer more protection. I hope that throughout the country consumers will have noted the double standards of the Liberal Party as far as they are concerned.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
It is very hard to find Liberals anywhere today.
I listened carefully to what the Minister of State said. Despite what he and the hon. Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth) and other respresentatives of the Post Office have said—I am not including the Minister as a representative of the Post Office—I do not believe that the Post Office would be as vulnerable under our amendments as hon. Members have suggested.
The hon. Member for Thornaby claimed that we are trying to gain jam for the consumers today. I say to him that we are not trying to obtain jam for them but merely to get for them the services for which they pay the Post Office. We are not trying to provide any blanket exclusion of limitation of liability in the case of the Post Office. The hon. Gentleman was rather selective in his quotations from what I said in Committee. I explained there that all that the Post Office would have to do, if our amendments were allowed to stand, was merely redraft its existing exclusion clauses so that they were fair and reasonable, just as other undertakings will have to do once the Bill becomes law.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
I noted that the hon. Gentleman had said that, but I thought that it was only in relation to contracts and not in relation to schemes. This is because it had, at least before our amendments were made, exclusion clauses, and these limited its liability under schemes and not under contracts. All I am saying is that these exclusion clauses could have been modified without our amendments. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me there.
It is for this reason that the Law Commission did not recommend the exclusion of the Post Office from this measure. The Law Commission sat for a long time considering this measure. However, there have been hints that, if the amendments were to stay in the Bill, the Bill might be lost altogether. It is a useful consumer measure, and I would not like that to happen, although I deplore the fact that such hints should have been dropped, because I do not think that it is the function of the Department of Industry—if that is where the hints came from—to tell anyone in another Department that he cannot have a piece of consumer legislation because something in it does not suit the particular interest of the Department of Industry.
But at least, as a result of carrying our amendments in Committee, we have forced the Post Office and the Minister to recognise the need for reform, and that is a very important point. We have gained very considerably for the consumer by way of the alternative that the Minister of State has offered today. As far as I understand it, as a result of what he has said, a code of practice is to be drawn up, with the help of the Director General of Fair Trading, which would not have been drawn up or consented to by the Post Office if we had not carried our amendments.
Credit is due also to the Minister of State for recognising this situation and for initiating such an agreement. I have been told that, for years, the Post Office has refused even to discuss the question of the adverse effect on consumers of exclusion clauses that it has. Yet, in the very short period of weeks, after our amendment was carried the Post Office, having refused for years to discuss the question of exclusion clauses, has negotiated with the Minister the possibility of a code of practice.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
What does the Lady mean by "refused to discuss"? I recall that the Post Office Users' National Council has raised this issue on previous occasions and that there have been discussions with the Post Office. I remember also that during the passage of the Post Office Act there were also considerable discussions about this matter.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
If what the hon. Gentleman says is correct, I must have been misinformed. But it is certainly very noticeable that since our amendment was carried the attitude of the Post Office has considerably changed. This is the first occasion that it has offered to discuss a voluntary code. Only today, six weeks after our amendment was carried, I have received a letter from Sir William Ryland.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
I am horrified to hear of that. It is a measure of the arrogance for which the Post Office has been criticised in the past that on the very day that the Bill has come before the House I should have received a letter from the Chairman of the Post Office Corporation at the bottom of my pile of post which was opened less than an hour before my coming into the debate.
§ Mr. Gorst
It may be of interest to my hon. Friend to know that when the Post Office Bill was going through Standing Committee in 1969 the then Minister, who of course is now in prison, when challenged to explain the monopoly situation of the Post Office, gave the immortal historical justification that—as can be read in Hansard—The monopoly is the monopoly is the monopoly."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 13th February 1969; c. 754.]
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention because it sums up beautifully the situation that I was trying less successfully to describe.
Having congratulated the Minister on negotiating this compromise with the Post Offices I would say to the House that we shall want to scrutinise this code of practice very carefully indeed. The need for reform is very great, as I knew 869 when I moved our amendment in the first place. However necessary I may have thought that amendment was, my resolve has been strengthened one hundredfold by the many hundreds of letters that I have received from consumers all over the country with justified complaints about the Post Office.
The hon. Member for Thornaby declared his interest in that he was representing the case of the Post Office and a Post Office union. I hope that he is also representing the interest of the consumers in his constituency, who are having very great difficulty on many occasions, like many other consumers, with regard to Post Office services.
The hon. Gentleman particularly referred to the question of paying extra for recorded delivery or insurance and that this was an insurance for consumers. I would read one of the many letters that I have received from a lady who used the recorded delivery service. She said:My daughter's passport/visa and airline ticket to Lagos Nigeria were posted to her from London on Tuesday 12.4.77 by recorded delivery. She is still waiting for them to arrive at her home.That was on 21st April—and I understand that these documents were carefully and correctly addressed—I am taking this opportunity to write to you on behalf of my daughter and myself in view of your concern over matters such as these. My daughter was due to take up a post as lecturer at Lagos University on Mon-day 18.4.77, and I was going out for a holiday. Consequently we have had to cancel the flight, lost out on coach fares to London, I can't claim a penny refund. We've had a tremendous expense".Our amendment is not concerned with vast sums of money. It is not concerned with the person who has not sent his football pools coupon or a substantial cheque. It is concerned with these cases of minor expense which are of great importance to consumers and may involve only the cost of a stamp.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady again. I assume that the person concerned is taking the matter up with the Post Office. But at the moment we cannot even assume that it is at fault. The hon. Lady has not told us whether any investigation has been carried out. I am sure that the Post Office would be prepared to compensate that lady for the loss which has occurred. 870 But at this stage it is not clear that the Post Office is at fault.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
The hon. Gentleman is right in his supposition. I took this particular case up with Sir William Ryland, and that was the matter to which he was replying in the letter which, incidentally, included his other remarks about our amendments. I wrote to Sir William on 29th April and he has written back to me to say that he is still investigating. The outcome of this case is not known. But even if we are successful in gaining recompense for that lady, I wonder whether she herself would have gained recompense had she applied as an ordinary member of the public.
§ Mr. Neubert
My hon. Friend may be interested in a constituent of mine who sent a letter from Romford to the City of London which took five days to arrive and which as a result has involved him in extra liability for tax to the tune of £170.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because Post Office consumers are among the most dissatisfied consumers in the country with regard to both postal and telephone services. Naturally the vast majority of Post Office employees work diligently and are not negligent. Many of them work above and beyond the call of duty. However, there are too many examples of negligence, albeit on the part of a minority of workers. For example, there can be no excuse whatever for the misdelivery of a perfectly clearly addressed letter. There is no question of that at all.
It may be a momentary aberration, but there are too many cases where the Post Office seems to be complacent. The intervention of the hon. Member for Thornaby was a singularly complacent one on behalf of the Post Office Corporation. Numerous examples have been given to me in the letters that I have received from Post Office users where they have been excluded from taking justified action which they could have taken if the Post Office did not have the protection that it will have when our amendments are repealed. Many of these situations could, and I hope will, be remedied by a fair and effective code of practice such as the Minister has described.
871 I learned today that managers have discretionary powers to make amends in many cases, but most consumers do not know of these discretionary powers. Why does not the Post Office publish this more widely so that consumers can be aware of the fact that managers have discretionary powers to make amends in order to make sure that they themselves can regain compensation along these lines? That is an important point, and it is important that it has been raised in the House today. I hope that the Post Office will use the opportunity to make it more widely known that this service is available. After all, why should the Post Office be able to exclude itself from the responsibility for the service that it is selling, in a way in which no other member of the private sector will be able to exclude itself after the passage of this Bill?
The Minister of State has helpfully told us some of the areas in which the voluntary code may operate. I am entirely in agreement with the areas that he has proposed. But there are many other ways in which the Post Office should operate, such as when there are wrong insertions in the telephone directory where wrong numbers are given. All that has to be done is for the number to be blocked by the operator and intercepted and rerouted to the right number. This service should be automatically offered to those consumers who have wrong numbers inserted in telephone directories.
I shall not go into great detail. But the amusing article by Bernard Levin in The Times summed up the whole situation particularly well. I also read with great interest the defence put forward by 'the Post Office in a letter the following lay. That defence only partly answered the argument put forward by Mr. Levin. It correctly pointed out that Mr. Levin had gone too far in saying that death or injury would not be recompensed. But it did not deal with his other points. If there is a problem over the burden of proof, it is equally difficult for consumers to prove that they have actually posted the letter or made a phone call. The burden of proof is equal to both sides.
The question of death and injury is in any case not affected by this amendment because the Bill does not exclude under 872 any circumstances compensation in the case of death and injury. I fear that Mr. Levin would not be satisfied with the compromise that we shall settle for today. However, I believe that we have gained a great deal by means of the alternative that the Minister has offered. We have perhaps gained even more by the helpful attitude of the Minister in recognising that the Post Office is far from perfect.
I shall now give a positive undertaking on behalf of the Conservative Opposition that as far as we are concerned this compromise, while welcome, is conditional, The Post Office is on trial. We shall wait to see the contents of the code of practice and how faithfully it is carried out, and we shall study consumer reaction very carefully. If we remain dissatisfied, once again we shall move an amendment to repeal Sections 29 and 30 of the Post Office Act when Post Office legislation is introduced, as it is likely to be following the report of the Carter Committee. I am sure that, in moving such an amendment in these circumstances, we shall have the support of the overwhelming majority of right hon. and hon. Members.
Finally, may I join the Minister of State in congratulating the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward) on the way in which he conducted the Bill through Committee and also for having the good sense to introduce such a useful and welcome consumer measure in the first place? I also congratulate all those hon. Members concerned on what was a very constructive Committee stage. We are grateful to the Minister of State for having allowed us to keep many of the substantial amendments that we won in Committee which, in our view, render this a very much more useful consumer measure than it was when originally it began its passage through the House.
§ Mr. Gorst
Along with Mr. Bernard Levin, I am not in the least happy about the compromise which has been made. However, I accept the leadership and guidance of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim), although I predict that it is almost certain that we shall have to reimpose this amendment when the Carter Committee has reported and new legislation is introduced.
I might add that, in my view, the reply by the Post Office Secretary to Mr. Bernard Levin was quite inadequate. It 873 answered his arguments but failed totally to meet the substantive point which he made.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Mr. Ward
I beg to move Amendment No. 48, in page 17, line 29, at end insert—'1972 c.33.In section 1(1), the words from "and shall have" onwards.'The repeal of part of Section 1(1) of the Carriage by Railway Act 1972 is necessary because it refers to Section 43(7) of the Transport Act 1962, which is being repealed.
§ Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made: No. 49, in line 30, c. 3, at beginning insert—
In section 7(1), the words from "contract for the international sale of goods" onwards.'
No. 50, in line 31, at end insert—
In Section 15(1), the definition of "consumer sale".'
No. 51, in line 31, at end insert—
The repeals in sections 12 and 15 of the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act 1973 shall have effect in relation to those sections as originally enacted and as substituted by the Consumer Credit Act 1974'.—[Mr. Ward.]