HC Deb 10 February 1978 vol 943 cc1927-38

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

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I start by apologising to the Under-Secretary, who must be feeling that the problems of my constituency are his personal preserve and private ministerial responsibility. For that he should blame his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who, despite repeated requests from all parts of the House, including two from myself, has still not found time for us to debate the Carter Report, which was published in July.

I can anticipate the sort of reply that I shall get from the Minister. He will probably say that the Post Office is now a separate corporation and that complaints of the sort that I am about to describe should be referred to the chairman, Sir William Barlow, the regional director or the local consumers' advisory committee. But these avenues have all been explored already and we are not satisfied with the responses that have been received.

It is to their Member of Parliament that my constituents look when all else has failed and, unless I am lucky enough to win a place in a Ballot or the official Opposition gives up a Supply Day, I have no other course open to me than to seek to raise these matters on the Adjournment.

Throughout the country, the Post Office is moving towards mechanised and centralised sorting. I have no great objection to that, but we on the Isle of Wight take exception to the size and situation of these establishments.

Sorting on the island has already been centralised in the county market town of Newport and, within the next two years, it is scheduled to be moved to Portsmouth. Unless there is a change of heart, even our internal mail will be taken by boat to Portsmouth, postmarked and returned—an unnecessary and complicated procedure which is liable to run into difficulties since boats do not always cross the Solent on time.

Within the last new weeks the idea that we should have special post boxes in our main post offices to deal with local mail has been mooted as a possible alternative, but this is a poor and unnecessarily costly exercise, which will inevitably mean greater inconvenience for my constituents, nearly 25 per cent. of whom are retired. People should not have to face long walks in bad weather to go to the nearest main post office. The Carter Report, which was set up by the Secretary of State for Industry, has something important to say on this matter. I quote from column 28 on page 125. Dealing with letter mechanisation, it says: we conclude that the Post Office may have a proper financial case for continuing with its programme on the basis of the facts which it is using. We are not convinced, however, that all the relevant facts which need to be taken into account have been considered, and in particular we doubt whether enough thought has been given to the effect of mechanisation on the efficiency of labour utilisation in the whole system. We therefore recommend that the Post Office should submit for the consideration of the Secretary of State and his Council a proper systems study of the effect of mechanisation on the entire postal operation which should include consideration of having more mechanised sorting offices of smaller average size. That report was published last July.

I draw attention to the words "smaller average size". Therefore, what is wrong with leaving matters as they are in Newport, which is in the centre of the island, bringing in more modern equipment as and when required?

The second item to which we take the greatest exception is the loss of our postmark. Until recently each town on the island had its own postmark. That has now all been centralised and there is one mark "Isle of Wight". We are prepared to accept that, but we as an island fought long and hard against the Consertive Government to maintain our local government independence. Already we have lost our unique identity in too many ways by the over-centralisation of various processes on the mainland. Water is a typical example of a service for which we now pay dearly. It used to be much cheaper, but we now have to accept from the Southern Water Authority the fact that our charges go to pay for other parts of the region.

There has been the recent loss of our cream and butter factory, and I could give other examples. We produce a great quantity of milk on the island, more than we can consume locally, except in the summer. However, cream and butter are now being brought in from Yeovil and London. Furthermore, the retention of brand names in commerce or in services is of great importance to us in maintaining and improving our local economy. We need to sell our image to a much greater extent, so that the loss of our postmark is not acceptable.

Correspondence on this matter has been raging in the local Press, in local authority committees and elsewhere, since it became known that in future we were likely to be submerged with Portsmouth, Chichester and Fareham under the title "Spithead Coast". I know of nobody who favours such a move, which to a community so dependent on the holiday trade would be a very serious blow and would also, I suggest, lose useful income to the Post Office if we were no longer able to add a suitable slogan to our mail, such as "Come to Sunny Shanklin".

I am indebted to "RMS" of Shalfleet, who put our case very succinctly in a ditty which appeared in last week's local newspaper. Incidentally, the newspaper contained on its front page a photograph of the Minister. The ditty runs: Our postal service it seems, Is subject to Government schemes, They don't think it's right, To be done on the Wight, By the Island's own Post Office teams. So nightly the ferry from Ryde, If it happens to catch the right tide, For worse or for better, Will transport your letter. Across to the other side. There, Portsmouth will frank all your post. With the mystical 'Spithead Coast', And later next night, It'll come back to the Wight, Taking only three days at the most. But that's not the end of the tale, We must see that our wishes prevail, And fight for the right For the name of the WIGHT To be stamped on all Islander's mail. So let us all stand side by side, And broadcast the facts far and wide, We're not a nonentity, But have an identity We treasure and cherish with pride". I thought that that was a good effort, and I am grateful to the author.

Their Lordships in the other place have debated the Carter Report and in an informative introductory speech the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, drew attention to the fact that even the most efficient of mechanised sorting systems would not save more than 6,000 jobs out of a total of 175,000 countrywide. Does the nation really want to cut out all those extra jobs when we have 1½ million out of work and the Post Office has just made a profit of more than £300 million? This is a matter that the House should discuss in greater detail. We have surely gone barmy in recent years in our attitude to the service industries. Here is one more example. We should think again.

Even if only a handful of jobs is lost, when there are 9.1 per cent. unemployed in my constituency it is a severe blow. Not only is it intended to remove our mail sorting to the mainland; we shall lose our last manually operated telephone exchange in Ryde. There are 50 to 60 jobs at stake there. Apparently, the work is to be moved to Gosport, and a substantial number of full-time and part-time jobs will be lost as a consequence.

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to an important Written Answer, relevant to our unemployment situation, that I received on Wednesday. I asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will list in the Official Report those counties or parts of counties with a current rate of unemployment of 9 per cent. or more that are not classified as development areas, intermediate development areas or special development areas."—[Official Report, 8th February 1978; Vol. 943, c. 570.] I was told that only one county, the Isle of Wight, was receiving none of that financial assistance. There were only 16 towns and three travel-to-work areas in a similar position. We are not receiving the financial assistance to which I thing we could lay claim. These matters are vital to us. We are seeking not charity but common sense and just a little help. In such areas we are entitled to look for the Government's support on issues such as I have described.

I could complain about the length of time that mail takes to reach London. Some of mine seems to take more than four or five days. I could also complain about the Post Office attitude to the closure of the Crown Office in Shanklin. But I hope that these matters can be dealt with direct with the Post Office. I do not want to niggle the Minister about them now.

I have, unfortunately, reached the conclusion that the advisory committees do not have enough teeth. They seem far too secretive in their dealings with the public. We have had an open row about this in our local Press. They also acquiesce too easily with Post Office proposals and are too ready to agree to compromises which are second-best solutions. I fear that that will happen here.

As I do not know when we shall debate the Carter Report, I draw the Minister's attention to some other aspects raised by it. In paragraph 6.16 we read: Whatever may happen to the structure of the Post Office and to the formal consumer machinery, we think there is scope for the Post Office itself to set up an identifiable consumer-related presence in the Post Office. We are reinforced in this view by the evidence presented in the National Consumer Council's (NCC) report on its complaints survey. Of the respondents who had problems or complaints with postal services, 84 per cent did nothing about getting their complaint or problem resolved and 74 per cent of those who did nothing said that they did not do so because it would not have been worthwhile. People still look to their Member of Parliament to raise these matters for them. That point is emphasised in one of many letters that I have received. Mr. Arthur Pinder of Niton, Isle of Wight, sets out the objections that I have been making and concludes: Can nothing be done? I appeal to you as an ordinary citizen, ratepayer, taxpayer and small businessman to take some action. I am prepared to attend any consultation to put my views. I finish by referring the Minister to his powers of direction to the Post Office under Statutory Instrument No. 691 of 1974. He may, for instance, give directions of a general nature in the national interest. He may remedy any defect in the Post Office's general plans and arrangements. He may also—here I come to the point—give directions on particular matters in the interests of national security or overseas relations. I emphasise "overseas relations". The Post Office's overseas relations with the Isle of Wight badly need to be improved. We look for a directive from the Minister to that effect.

4.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Les Huckfield)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) for raising a subject on behalf of his constituency which obviously must be the concern of other areas as well. I am particularly grateful to him because it gives me a chance of saying a few more general words about my relationship, and my Department's relationship, with the Post Office and the way in which we see these matters.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that the Post Office is a major industry with a vast extent of capital investment and a large number of employees. It is useful at times like this for us to take a close interest in the way in which it conducts its affairs and how that affects people such as the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

As the hon. Gentleman recognised in some of his remarks, my power, and my Department's power, of intervention is somewhat curtailed by the 1969 Post Office Act in that the day-to-day operational aspects of nationalised industries, particularly the Post Office, should not be a subject for parliamentary scrutiny or ministerial answerability. That is the general principle on which the 1969 Act was passed. I believe that this principle is generally correct and that the interests of the whole country, including the hon. Gentleman's constituency, are best served by not inhibiting the Post Office in using its operational expertise and commercial judgment freely within the boundaries of legislation which govern it. In other words, I do not think that it is a good idea to have Ministers intervening in every day-to-day matter.

I believe that it is the proper role of Parliament, and of Ministers of the Crown, to look instead at the broader financial and social implications of Post Office strategy. To be absolutely fair and square with the hon. Gentleman, as I have tried to be in my new incarnation as Minister for the Isle of Wight, I believe that within its framework the Post Office's efforts to provide a more efficient and economic service for its customers ought to be endorsed. That is what I believe about the direction in which the Post Office has been moving.

Nevertheless, I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in saying that efforts at modernisation, rationalisation and achieving economies in services are bound to have implications for local community feeling. Where developments which are in the interests of the nation as a whole may have such local effects as the hon. Gentleman described, I believe it right that the Post Office—in consultation with the Post Office Users' National Council, the Post Office advisory committees and other interested parties—should have regard to those local problems and do its best to resolve them.

As I found out from my own personal experience when I visited the hon. Gentleman's constituency a couple of weeks ago, islands such as the Isle of Wight present particular operational problems of transportation to and from the mainland. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman's constituency has a proud and valuable sense of its independent identity. I do not believe we can ignore these factors and I am satisfied that the Post Office does not ignore them.

Nevertheless, I must reaffirm my belief in the importance of integrated and modern postal and telecommunication systems which are capable of meeting the changing needs of all Post Office customers. It is against this background that I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the particular needs of his constituency.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the proposal to concentrate the sorting of letters from the Isle of Wight and from Chichester, Fareham and other towns at the mechanised letter office in Portsmouth. This proposed change flows from a decision taken by the Post Office many years ago to mechanise its operations wherever possible so as to control costs and improve the efficiency of the mails service.

The Post Office has informed me that no final decision has yet been taken about the Isle of Wight's mail and that the situation will be looked at again before the proposals are implemented towards the end of 1979 and early 1980. It has pointed out that sorting at Portsmouth will not lead to delays in the mail. The boat between the mainland and the island has been delayed only three times in the last 18 months and on each occasion second delivery to the Isle of Wight was possible.

Again, for mail posted on the island to addresses on the island the Post Office has said that it will make special provision for it to continue to be sorted there, where it is economical and easy to do so, and to bear the Isle of Wight postmark. The Post Office has also told me—I hope that the hon. Gentleman can reassure his constituents on this—that no redundancies should follow from this change in outward mail sorting procedures.

Mr. Stephen Ross

The question of internal mail being sorted on the island has only just arisen. But I believe that the Post Office has told people that they will have to go to the Post Office to make sure that their letters are franked in order that they may be delivered on time. This proposal will not operate through the ordinary post box, because it would be costly.

Secondly, I understand that redundancies will be met through natural wastage. However, there will be redundancies and there will be vacancies that people could be filling.

Mr. Huckfield

I do not know precisely how many island mail boxes, as they might come to be called, the Post Office will have. Nevertheless, the Isle of Wight postmark will not disappear. I recognise the point made by the hon. Gentleman about the significance of postmarks. However, I hope that will not inhibit him from recognising that all the possible changes about which I have been speaking do not involve practical problems. I hope that I have been able to reassure him that most of the practical problems do not exist.

I recognise that it is not so much the practical problems as the status of the postmark about which the hon. Gentleman is most concerned. The Post Office recognises that areas attach particular value to their own postmarks. It was in recognition of these local feelings that the appropriate Post Office advisory committees, local authorities and other interested parties, including Members of Parliament, were informed and consulted about the proposed changes. The Post Office is not railroading these changes through. It believes in consulting people.

I should make it quite clear that the changes will not involve the disappearance of the Isle of Wight's postmark. That postmark will continue to be used for certain local mail posted on the island, as well as metered mail and parcels. I take to heart what the hon. Gentleman said about the number of boxes which will be able to take such mail.

The new postmark will apply to the remaining mail which will be concentrated with the mail from other areas involved on the mainland. The Post Office has asked me to assure the hon. Gentleman that no one has any commitment to the designation "Spithead Coast". It will happily accept any other designation which is generally preferred by the area to be served by the Portsmouth mechanised sorting office. But, apart from the special arrangements for mail between island addresses which I have mentioned, it must be a designation acceptable to the whole area.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the use which holiday areas in particular like to make of their own special postmarks. The Isle of Wight does not seem to have taken advantage of stamps similar to those which other holiday areas use. The service does not cost much. I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises that many other holiday areas have taken up this service. I invite him to look into that aspect a little more carefully.

I turn now to some of the other services that the hon. Gentleman said had deteriorated. I recognise that there has been some concern about Sunday arrangements on the Isle of Wight. If the hon. Gentleman considers Sunday collections, he will recognise that letters can be posted at Crown Offices and that these will be delivered in the local area on Monday. I can well understand the concern of the hon. Gentleman's constituents and, indeed, others about the withdrawal of this service. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the statement by Sir William Barlow, the new chairman of the Post Office, that he is prepared to look again at the possibility of restoring this service.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I welcome that statement about the possible return of the Sunday collection as a step in the right direction. Will the Minister go deeper into the suggestion that the Isle of Wight postmark will still appear on letters? I understood that it would appear only on internal letters on the island. That is no help at all. We want the Isle of Wight stamp on letters which go to London or Timbuctoo. We do not want "Portsmouth" or "Spithead Coast".

Mr. Huckfield

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said. I think that I had better write to him giving more details of the proposals for the number of boxes involved and the percentage of post which might be covered by that arrangement.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the future of the Ryde telephone exchange is an operational matter for the Post Office and that it would not be appropriate for me to intervene. I understand that this closure will in no way affect the service that subscribers on the Isle of Wight receive. The Post Office has told me that the running of the service from Portsmouth will be cheaper and more efficient. The Post Office has also told me that the Ryde exchange is reaching the end of its useful life and that a new building would be needed to meet present and anticipated needs on the island. I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises that that would be expensive and, when the Portsmouth exchange has spare capacity, most difficult to justify. I assure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that the service will not be changed. They will have the Ryde exchange designation, and I hope that the service will improve.

In response to what the hon. Gentleman said about the Post Office Users' National Council I have consulted my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection because he is more directly concerned than is my Department with the operations of that Council—POUNC as it is called. I think the hon. Gentleman should know that POUNC has been approached about only one of the issues that concern postal service users on the Isle of Wight. POUNC was asked to intervene in the matter of bringing forward the last collection at Shanklin.

The general policy of POUNC is to encourage the network of 200 or so voluntary Post Office advisory committees, which have unrivalled local knowledge, to handle such matters of local concern. In this instance of Shanklin, POUNC approached the head office in Newport and was assured that consultation with many local interests, including that of the Isle of Wight Post Office Advisory Committee, had taken place before the decision was made. The hon. Gentleman's constituents have a unique advantage in this context, because the chairman of the Isle of Wight Post Office Advisory Committee is a member of POUNC, so there is no reason why POUNC should not be aware of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I know that when the hon. Gentleman talks about these problems he realises that these are issues concerned with the transfer of the Isle of Wight sorting office to the Portsmouth mechanised letter office, but I am sure he will recognise that the move is part of the Post Office's national programme of letter mechanisation, the principle of which POUNC has consistently supported. In saying that, I assure the hon. Gentleman that POUNC recognises that the implementation of this scheme can cause local difficulties occasionally, and it has urged the Post Office to do all that it can to minimise them. I assure him that POUNC considers that the benefit of the programme to consumers is great enough to justify implementation as quickly as possible.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said about the Carter Committee, but I am sure he will appreciate that its report is a rather complicated document, and it is still being considered by my right hon. Friend.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is a worthwhile serviceable consultative mechanism within the Post Office, which I have outlined, and I hope that he and his constituents will make as much use of it as they can.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that on the postal side no decision has finally been taken, particularly about the title that might appear on the postmark. I assure his constituents, too, that on the telephone side nothing will be changed, except that the Ryde exchange in future would not be on the island.

My having said that, I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Post Office is, after all, only trying to modify and adapt the service that it provides to meet the changing needs of our society. We have been able to discuss only a few of those changes today. I am satisfied, as I am sure are many hon. Members, that in making these necessary changes, which are designed to improve the quality and the cost of services the Post Office does, overall, pay proper and full regard to the views of its customers.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising these matters today, and I hope that he will take note of and derive encouragement from what I have said.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.