HC Deb 24 July 1979 vol 971 cc351-60

3.37 p.m.

Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to end the exclusive privilege of the Post Office with respect to the conveyance etc. of letters. You may well recall, Mr. Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) endeavoured to introduce a similar Bill three and a half years ago. It was on 4 February 1976, the very first day on which you presided over our affairs.

Support on that occasion was given not only by half the present Government Front Bench but by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party and, I believe, all Members of the Liberal Party who voted on that occasion, and also by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Scottish National Party. Coming, as he does, from the Western Isles, I should have thought that that would deal with any suggestion that there is satisfaction with the postal system at present in the remotest parts of Britain.

If we consider what has happened since the House last debated this matter three years ago, we see that the performance of the Post Office has continued to decline. The system has deteriorated, so that the same number of postmen as before now deliver billions fewer letters, and those take longer than ever to arrive.

The Carter report on the Post Office in 1977 pointed out that productivity had declined, despite the Post Office reducing its targets of service and despite mechanisation. At the same time, the Carter report referred to substantial increases in administrative costs. The service has got worse, and is now worse than it was 40 or 50 years ago, despite modern technology.

Apologists for the Post Office refer to the increasing spread of towns and the resulting additional distance, but that factor applied also between the wars, when productivity in the Post Office increased instead of declining.

On four occasions this year the Post Office has begged customers not to use its services. On one occasion five ladies at the same time refused to issue the bulk stock of stamps. That would certainly seem to be one way of preventing the Post Office being bothered by letters.

It is surely ironic that one Post Office department actually issued printed letters asking its customers to be co-operative by keeping correspondence to it down to a minimum. Someone, somewhere, may indeed have been hoping for a letter, but it certainly was not the Post Office.

I base my arguments not so much on the recent highlighting of the postal services as on the unprecedented criticisms made of it by its watchdog, the Post Office Users National Council. Research has shown that every day over 1 million first-class letters arrive late and 1 million second-class letters cannot even reach their destination by the third day. One first-class letter in 10 is now late. With overseas mail there can be delays of weeks.

The combined result of the withdrawal of Sunday collections, and the extension of second-class mail from second- to third-day delivery, means that a second-class letter posted on Saturday afternoon or Sunday is not expected to reach its destination before the following Thursday, if all goes well—as it often does not. Naturally, the rural areas particularly suffer because of this deterioration in service. It is no wonder that the Post Office ignores the weekend when computing its official figures.

The Post Office wishes to reintroduce a second-day delivery for second-class mail and Sunday collections, worked by voluntary labour, but both have been prevented because of the attitude of the unions. In a recent report, the Post Office Users National Council chairman referred to the appalling and unacceptable quality of the postal service … and the apparent lack of initiative and effect by the management to secure staff agreement to changes that would benefit the customer and be in the long-term interest of the business. The report is quite damning in its criticisms. It refers to the continuing decline in productivity and goes on: customers are entitled to expect value for money and what they want most of all is a reliable service. It cannot be said that they are getting either … even against the Post Office's reduced standards, there has been a serious deterioration … in the reliability and delivery performance has fallen lamentably short of targets. The managing director has said that service has declined to an unacceptable level: It is the disastrous failure of working relationships between management and staff which has led to the unacceptable deterioration in the postal service. The customer is expected to pay more for less and to pick up the tab for the consequences of problems which it is the job of management and unions to resolve. Those are very strident criticisms indeed from any watchdog body.

I remind the House that this is the industry into which the last Government saw fit to introduce an attempt at industrial democracy with worker directors. So much for the success of that experiment. The individual postman rightly remains as popular and well respected as ever. The public appreciate that the fault lies not with the postman but with the monolithic system. The Post Office and the unions between them have failed the postman as much as they have failed the customer. The Post Office chairman has admitted that he has been unable to convince union membership to accept change in return for the opportunity to get more pay. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) pointed out on 2 July that it would be possible to serve the public better, at lower cost and with better conditions for the postmen if there were cooperation to improve productivity. I believe that quite simple steps could lead to dramatic improvements.

The Post Office Users National Council is against breaking the Post Office monopoly but it must admit that its strident criticisms have proved quite ineffective in securing improvement. Of course, a monopoly has made sense in the past, but now we must doubt whether it remains in the public interest for the Post Office to have a monopoly. It was put in this way at page 71 of the Carter report: If the service became much worse than the public expects it would become impossible to defend the monopoly against those who might offer a better service. That is the crux of the matter, and I believe that we have now reached that situation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East said, with regard to the Post Office, that it is unacceptable for a nationalised industry to use its monopoly to cloak inefficiency. That is a view with which I entirely agree, and so, I believe, do the public—the customer. No discipline could be more satisfactory than that of competition. If the House supports the Bill this afternoon, I believe that such an expression of opinion could, of itself, provide the stimulus to improve working relationships within the Post Office. It could, indeed, in a short time lead to a dramatic improvement in service.

I therefore ask that leave be given for me to bring in this Bill in the best interests of the Post Office, its staff and, above all, its customers—the public.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris) gave me notice that he wished to oppose this application.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

In opposing the Bill, it is my duty to declare an interest as a former member of the national executive of the Union of Post Office Workers. I listened very carefully to the speech made by the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter). At the outset, I would say that I do not seek to defend the deterioration that has taken place in Post Office services in recent months. That is a matter of concern for my union, the Post Office management and myself.

The role of this House is not merely to identify a problem but at times to understand the problem. We cannot have an efficient Post Office service when there are vacancies which at present are touching 10,000. The Post Office is short of 7,000 postmen and 3,000 postmen higher grade. In contemporary Britain there is not a queue of people who want to get up at 4 o'clock in the morning to be at the Post Office sorting offices to sort out the mail and deliver it in all weathers. Given any sort of choice, people do not opt for that task.

As so many other people have done, the hon. Member for Tynemouth referred to the Mount Pleasant sorting office. It has been said that it is the largest postal sorting office in the world, which, indeed, it is. At present the staff establishment at that office is 3,500. Currently there are 900 vacancies. Because of the antisocial hours of attendance, great difficulty is caused in recruiting staff to fill vacancies in the Post Office. This Bill, by breaching the monopoly, will not solve that problem.

I have rarely listened to such a superficial speech as that which we have just heard. Quite frankly, breaching the monopoly will do a number of things. It will allow the postal pirates to cream off the profitable areas of postal deliveries and leave the rural areas, the geographically isolated and unprofitable areas, to the Post Office. Those areas have already lost rail transport, are now losing buses, and would find that their postal services were at risk if this Bill were to go through.

Another consequence would be that postal rates would rocket and we would see a further deterioration in postal services. That is not fear or speculation. We need go back only to 1971 to see what happened when the Post Office monopoly was breached. I have here a copy of the London Evening News for 17 February 1971. Hon. Members will be able to see the headline from where they are sitting. It reads: London Storm as Pirate Post goes Haywire". Under the heading it reads: Ex-public schoolboy Tim Randall admitted today that his pirate postal service had gone 'haywire.' Hundreds of complaints have poured into his Chelsea headquarters since he began his delivery service five weeks ago. Urgent letters posted to central London at the beginning of the month have still not arrived. If anybody wants to know what happened when we introduced alternative mail services and breached the monopoly, he needs only to refer to the Daily Tele

graph of 12 March 1971. It was indicated there that private mail, at 15p a time, was unloaded back on to the Post Office. The report said: About 5,000 letters were dumped at Luton Post Office, Beds, yesterday by a man driving an unmarked van. Each carried the name Randall's Mail Service, Chelsea'. When I said that the cost of the post would rocket, the charges then were from 15p to 75p. That would be the consequence of supporting this Bill.

Supporters of the Bill remind me of the Bourbons. They remember nothing and learn nothing. It amazes me that the hon. Gentleman had the temerity to quote from the reports of the Carter committee and the Post Office Users National Council. He did not point out that both had gone on record as opposing the break-up of the Post Office monopoly. He did not say that in 1967 the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries was equally firmly opposed to the break-up of the monopoly. Not only is POUNC opposed to the breaking of the monopoly, but so is the Post Office Board and the Council of Post Office Unions. The hon. Gentleman and those who support the Bill can delude themselves, but frankly they are not entitled to delude this great public service and the country. I totally oppose the Bill, and invite the House to oppose it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided:— Ayes 187, Noes 210.

Division No. 77] AYES [13.51 p.m.
Adley, Robert Bruce-Gardyne, John Dodsworth, Geoffrey
Alexander, Richard Bryan, Sir Paul Dorrell, Stephen
Ancram, Michael Budgen, Nick Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Aspinwall, Jack Butcher, John Dover, Denshore
Atkins, Robert (Preston North) Cadbury, Jocelyn Dunn, Robert (Dartford)
Atkinson, David (B'mouth East) Carlisle, John (Luton West) Durant, Tony
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Edwards, Rt Hon N. (Pembroke)
Banks, Robert Chalker, Mrs. Lynda Eggar, Timothy
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Chapman, Sydney Elliott, Sir William
Benyon, Thomas (Abingdon) Clark, Hon Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Emery, Peter
Berry, Hon Anthony Clark, William (Croydon South) Fairbairn, Nicholas
Best, Keith Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Fairgrieve, Russell
Bevan, David Gilroy Cockeram, Eric Faith, Mrs. Sheila
Biggs-Davison, John Colvin, Michael Farr, John
Blackburn, John Cope, John Fell, Anthony
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Cormack, Patrick Fletcher, Alexander (Edinburgh N)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Corrie, John Fookes, Miss Janet
Bottomley, Peter (Woolwich West) Costain, A. P. Forman, Nigel
Braine, Sir Bernard Cranborne, Viscount Fraser, Peter (South Angus)
Bright, Graham Crouch, David Fry, Peter
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'thorpe) Dean, Paul (North Somerset) Gardner, Edward (South Fylde)
Garel-Jones, Tristan Mackay, John (Argyll) Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge-Br'hills)
Glyn, Dr Alan McNair-Wilson, Michael (Newbury) Silvester, Fred
Goodhew, Victor McQuarrie, Albert Sims, Roger
Goodlad, Alastair Major, John Smith, Dudley (War. and Leam'ton)
Gow, Ian Marland, Paul Speller, Tony
Gower, Sir Raymond Marlow, Antony Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)
Grant, Anthony (Harrow C) Marten, Neil (Banbury) Spicer, Michael (S Worcestershire)
Greenway, Harry Mather, Carol Sproat, Iain
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Maude, Rt Hon Angus Squire, Robin
Grist, Ian Mawby, Ray Stainton, Keith
Grylls, Michael Mawhinney, Dr Brian Stanbrook, Ivor
Gummer, John Selwyn Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Stevens, Martin
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove & Redditch) Stewart, John (East Renfrewshire)
Hampson, Dr. Keith Mills, Peter (West Devon) Stokes, John
Hayhoe, Barney Molyneaux, James Stradling Thomas J.
Heddle, John Morris, Michael (Northampton, Sth) Thompson, Donald
Hicks, Robert Morrison, Hon Peter (City of Chester) Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)
Higgins, Terence L. Myles, David Thornton, George
Hill, James Neale, Gerrard Townend, John (Bridlington)
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Grantham) Needham, Richard Trippier, David
Holland, Philip (Carlton) Nelson, Anthony Trotter, Neville
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) Newton, Tony Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Hunt, David (Wirral) Normanton, Tom Viggers, Peter
Jessel, Toby Osborn, John Waddington, David
Jopling, Rt Hon. Michael Page, John (Harrow, West) Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Waldegrave, Hon William
Kilfedder, James A. Parris, Matthew Walker, Bill (Perth & E Perthshire)
Kimball, Marcus Patten, Christopher (Bath) Wall, Patrick
King, Rt Hon Tom Patten, John (Oxford) Waller, Gary
Kitson, Sir Timothy Pawsey, James Ward, John
Knight, Mrs Jill Pollock, Alexander Watson, John
Lang, Ian Porter, George Wells, John (Maidstone)
Langford-Holt, Sir John Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch (S Down) Wells, P. Bowen (Hert'fd&Stev'nage)
Lawrence, Ivan Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Wheeler, John
Lee, John Price, David (Eastleigh) Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Le Marchant, Spencer Proctor, K. Harvey Whitney, Raymond
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Rathbone, Tim Wilkinson, John
Lloyd, Ian (Havant & Waterloo) Rhodes James, Robert Younger, Rt Hon George
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
McAdden, Sir Stephen Robinson, Peter (Belfast East) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
McCrindle, Robert Ross, Wm. (Londonderry) Mr. George Gardiner and
Macfarlane, Neil St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon Norman Mr. Christopher Murphy.
MacGregor, John Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Abse, Leo Cryer, Bob Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)
Adams, Allen Cunliffe, Lawrence George, Bruce
Alton, David Cunningham, George (Islington S) Golding, John
Anderson, Donald Cunningham, Dr John (Whitehaven) Gourlay, Harry
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Dalyell, Tam Graham, Ted
Armstrong, Ernest Davidson, Arthur Grant, George (Morpeth)
Ashton, Joe Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Hamilton, James (Bothwell)
Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham) Davies, E. Hudson (Caerphilly) Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Davies, Ifor (Gower) Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Davis, Clinton (Hackney Central) Hattersley, Rt. Hon Roy
Beith, A. J. Davis, Terry (B'rm'ham, Stechford) Haynes, David
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Heffer, Eric S.
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Dempsey, James Hogg, Norman (E Dunbartonshire)
Bidwell, Sydney Dixon, Donald Holland, Stuart (L'beth, Vauxhall)
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Dobson, Frank Home Robertson, John
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Dormand, J. D. Homewood, William
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur (M'brough) Dubs, Alfred Hooley, Frank
Bray, Dr Jeremy Duffy, A. E. P. Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Dunn, James A. (Liverpool, Kirkdale) Huckfield, Les
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Eadie, Alex Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen North)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh, Leith) Eastham, Ken Janner, Hon G[...]eville
Buchan, Norman Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Ellis, Raymond (NE Derbyshire) John, Brynmor
Campbell-Savours, Dale Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Johnson, James (Hull West)
Cant, R. B. English, Michael Johnston, Russell (Inverness)
Carmichael, Neil Ennals, Rt Hon David Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) Jones, Dan (Burnley)
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Evans, John (Newton) Kerr, Russell
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Faulds, Andrew Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Cohen, Stanley Field, Frank Kinnock, Neil
Coleman, Donald Flannery, Martin Lambie, David
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Lamborn, Harry
Conlan, Bernard Foot, Rt Hon Michael Lamond, James
Cook, Robin F. Forrester, John Leadbitter, Ted
Cowans, Harry Foulkes, George Leighton, Ronald
Cox, Tom (Wandsworth, Tooting) Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)
Craigen, J. M. (Glasgow, Maryhill) Freud, Clement Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Crowther, J. S. Garrett, John (Norwich S) Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J Dickson Park, George Straw, Jack
McCartney, Hugh Parry, Robert Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Penhaligon, David Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton West)
McElhone, Frank Powell, Raymond (Ogmore) Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Prescott, John Thomas, Dr Roger (Carmarthen)
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Price, Christopher (Lewisham West) Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Maclennan, Robert Race, Reg Tilley, John
McMahon, Andrew Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds South) Tinn, James
McNally, Thomas Richardson, Miss Jo Torney, Tom
McNamara, Kevin Roberts, Ernest (Hackney North) Urwin, Rt Hon Tom
Marks, Kenneth Robertson, George Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Marshall, David (Gl'sgow,Shettles'n) Rodgers, Rt Hon William Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)
Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Rooker, J. w. Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester South) Ross, Ernest (Dundee West) Weetch, Ken
Martin, Michael (Gl'gow, Springb'n) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Wellbeloved, James
Maynard, Miss Joan Rowlands, Ted Welsh, Michael
Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Sever, John White, Frank R. (Bury & Radcliffe)
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Sheerman, Barry Whitehead, Phillip
Miller, Dr M S (East Kilbride) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert (A'ton-u-L) Whitlock, William
Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby) Shore, Rt Hon Peter (Step and Pop) Wigley, Dafydd
Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen) Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford) Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wythenshawe) Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W>
Morris, Rt Hon Charles (Openshaw) Silverman, Julius Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Skinner, Dennis Winnick, David
Morton, George Smith, Cyril (Rochdale) Woodall, Alec
Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Smith, Rt Hon J. (North Lanarkshire) Woolmer, Kenneth
Newens, Stanley Snape, Peter Wrigglesworth, Ian
Oakes, Gordon Soley, Clive Wright, Miss Sheila
Ogden, Eric Spriggs, Leslie Young, David (Bolton East)
O'Halloran, Michael Stallard, A. W.
O'Neill, Martin Steel, Rt Hon David TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Stoddart, David Mr. Harry Ewing and
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David Strang, Gavin Mr. Roger Stott.
Palmer, Arthur