HC Deb 29 June 1984 vol 62 cc1332-40

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

For about eight months the W12 area of London, which is in my constituency, has had a serious problem in that it has had no normal delivery of letters or other postal services. The service had been grossly disrupted and during the strike before Christmas no mail was collected. Other parts of London are also affected. The number of offices with similar problems is not fully recognised. The effects are becoming worse all the time.

In the past few days there has been a slight improvement in the quality of service in W12, but people are still receiving a third-class service for a first-class stamp. It is inexcusable that we should have allowed the postal service in the area to deteriorate to such an appalling state for so long.

The Post Office's attitude has been poor. The kindest remark that I can make is that it has been complacent. At worst the Post Office is guilty of gross inefficiency and incompetence. That is how its attitude is seen by an increasing number of constituents.

Before Christmas the Post Office attempted to abolish night sorting at the Lofthouse road sorting office and other offices and to introduce instead a new system which involved bringing in the staff at 6 am to do the sorting and delivering. The staff at Lofthouse road objected to the suggestion because they believed that it would not work. Events have proved them right. The management decided to go ahead and impose the new policy. Industrial action was taken and eventually there was a strike. I shall not go into the details of the strike because they are not directly relevant to the present position, although there is an indirect connection.

I had to intervene just before Christmas to get negotiations going. That reflects badly on the Post Office management. One of the issues was settled and it was agreed that other matters should go to arbitration. The postmen won the arbitration case—another sign that the Post Office had badly misjudged the policy that it wanted to introduce.

After the strike the day staff were expected to start at 6 am, to sort the mail and to take it out. If any mail was not sorted, it was left until later in the day. It could wait as long as 24 hours. A weight limit has been imposed generally. Postmen cannot now carry more than 35 lb. The limit was enforced by postal workers, perhaps not surprisingly.

The extent of the problem can hardly be overemphasised. The height of the strike was especially devastating for many individuals and organisations. People are still suffering from the delays, and especially those who rely on the regular receipt of benefits through the post. The money arrives late, and if those people are managing on a low income that makes life infinitely more difficult for them. People who have been sent bills by the gas and electricity services are finding that, because they have not arrived or have arrived late, the boards want to disconnect their supplies.

The postal delays have caused acute problems to companies in my constituency. They have faced cash flow difficulties because orders have not been received on time and payment has been confused and irregular. In addition, professional services have been hit especially badly. Solicitors have been among the first to emphasise the effect on contracts and the way in which they deal with clients, especially those in prison.

Hospitals have been badly hit in trying to send out appointments to patients. Prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs have had letters delayed, and that can affect their legal rights. The disabled and the elderly, who always rely more than others on the postal service and the telephone, have also suffered.

The problems have been especially severe since the strike, and I wish to give some examples of that. I have a letter posted in Brentwood, Essex on 4 April to a Mr. Sheppard of Kelmscott gardens which did not arrive until 10 April. Another letter posted in Woking on the morning of 12 April, to a Mr. Anderson in Emlyn gardens, arrived on 25 April. A letter to Judith Lang of Godolphin road, postmarked 15 March, arrived on 27 March. Another letter posted in south-west London on 17 April to Mrs. Harrison arrived on 24 April. A letter posted in Hammersmith to someone in Emlyn road—only a short distance away—on 3 May arrived on 8 May. That is intolerable. First-class stamps were used in almost all the examples.

Organisations similarly have been badly hit. ADA Engineering of Willow vale has, at times, received no postal deliveries. It has been told that its post is too heavy to carry. It goes to collect its post from time to time, but complains that some of it is missing. It is not the only company to complain about that. Many individuals and organisations have said that they have evidence that an individual or organisation has posted them a letter or parcel which has never been received.

The difficulties have caused ADA Engineering acute cash flow problems. It cannot rely on orders being delivered, so it cannot insist on payment. It is facing increasing problems. Letters have regularly arrived three or four days late.

Marian Cohen, a solicitor in Uxbridge road, told me of two deliveries a day at times—sometimes there was only one delivery. On one occasion the first delivery brought in four letters while the second brought in 104. She effectively made the point that at times the first post does not arrive until 12.30 pm. I can vouch for that because on many occasions I have not received my letters until late in the morning. Her problem as a solicitor is that contracts and other documents that must be signed before 1 o'clock cannot always be signed. She told me of a letter posted on 25 May which arrived on 25 June—a one-month delay.

Frances Goodman, another solicitor, told me that her first post arrives at 3 pm. That means that she does not receive details of court cases and that there are delays in conveyancing and contracts. She says that it delays the cases of those who have been remanded in custody, which affects their freedom and liberty.

Hammersmith hospital, which was complaining bitterly about the situation during the industrial dispute, emphasised that recently a second-class letter was sent to a patient asking him to come into the hospital for an investigation and that the letter took two weeks to arrive. Again, that is totally unacceptable.

I emphasise that it should not have been necessary for me to intervene prior to Christmas to get negotiations on the dispute moving again. I had long talks with Ron Dearing, chairman of the Post Office Corporation, and Allan Tuffin, general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers. I attempted to keep an open mind on the situation because I felt that I did not have sufficient detail about the original causes. However, everything that happened at the time and has happened since confirms my belief that the management of the Post Office has the primary blame to bear in the dispute and in events since then.

On 2 March—well after the dispute was supposed to have been settled; I had been told that the postal service was supposed to be returning to normal—I received a letter from Ron Dearing saying: I am happy to report however that an agreement has now been reached, which we hope will result in a long term resolution of the problem. I hope that they"—— my constituents— will now again receive the service they are entitled to expect. I had to write again, shortly after receiving that letter, about another problem. Back came a letter on 12 March from Ron Dearing saying: The dispute has now been settled and I hope that she"— my constituent— will have no further cause for complaint. I had to write yet again, and on 28 March I received a letter from Ron Dearing saying: As you may know, there is a maximum weight which postmen should carry, and unfortunately a number of deliveries in the W12 area receive a much greater volume of mail than this maximum limit. That said a lot about the management decision in the first place to abolish all-night working. Obviously there would be a problem if the postmen were constrained by sorting at the last minute in the morning instead of doing it overnight. The letter went on: Before the dispute at Shepherds Bush, our postmen would have in fact carried all the mail for their delivery, even when this was over the weight limit. One of the problems that remains after the settlement of the dispute is that on occasions postmen have left a quantity of mail behind at the sorting office because of excess weight. Management have taken steps to deal with this problem on a temporary basis while a joint review of duties between union and management has been carried out. This is now nearing completion and we hope to introduce new, working arrangements to ensure a regular delivery system very shortly. If I hear those last words much longer, I shall have them put to music and I am sure that they will soon get into the Top Ten. They are nonsense. This has been going on for eight months and I keep being told, "Normal service will be resumed shortly." I had to write again, and on 25 April I received an interesting letter, this time from Mr. Wilson, the district postmaster, who told me: I have just reviewed staffing levels at Hammersmith Sorting Office and arrangements are being made to recruit some additional people. I hope this will result in an improved service. In other words, having abolished the all-night service, they start recruiting additional people to do the work that was being done perfectly satisfactorily in the past. It is nonsense and it is clearly a system that is not working. He went on in his letter: Please convey my apologies to those constituents who may be so affected and assure them that every effort will be made to minimize this type of inconvenience. I wrote again and received a holding letter on 21 May. I wrote yet again, and on 25 May I received the final letter from Ron Dearing saying: A little time will be needed for the postmen to become accustomed to the new duties. We expect that a gradual but significant improvement will be evident and we will closely monitor the working of the new duties to ensure that this is maintained. I again offer apologies for all the problems caused to your constituents over the past few months and I hope that we can achieve and maintain a good and reliable service from now on. That is still not being achieved, and that is affecting myself as much as any of my constituents, so I am in a good position to report on the situation.

Given these problems and the closure of other Crown post offices in London, the position has steadily become worse. Some of my constituents, especially those who are running companies, are saying, "We shall have to turn to private services for we cannot rely on the Post Office." I cannot remember a time when people have said that they cannot rely on the Post Office to deliver their mail within a reasonable time.

There has been appalling labour relations management by the Post Office. It is trying to make economies which do not make sense and which will not work. It has destroyed the quality of service that previously existed. Postmen and postwomen are not careless and thoughtless about the needs of those to whom they deliver. They think carefully about the needs of their customers. It is absurd to lay the blame at their door. The system worked adequately, but it is clear that it is no longer working.

I ask the Minister to use his authority to ensure that this disgraceful state of affairs is brought to a rapid conclusion. It is no longer sufficient for me to continue writing letters to Ron Dearing and to continue to act as a go-between when my constituents have a postal service which I am sure the Minister will have to agree is unacceptable. There is talk of increasing postal charges in September, but my constituents are not getting a service which would have been acceptable in the 19th century. I find that unacceptable, as do my constituents. I can say categorically that this issue has caused more intensity of feeling and a greater burden of mail to me than any other issue since I was elected in 1979. People feel strongly about it, and quite rightly.

2.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry(Mr. David Trippier)

I am pleased to be able to respond to this debate and to have the opportunity to express my regret that since at least November last year those who live and work in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) have not received the postal service which the Post Office would wish to provide and which the hon. Member's constituents may quite reasonably expect to enjoy. For only limited periods since last November has the service been provided on a basis that might be regarded as normal because for much of that time the service has been affected either by industrial action or by measures to recover from industrial action.

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, while the particular problems in the W12 area are the primary cause of concern to him and to his constituents there are wider implications that I would like to consider shortly when I have responded to the points that the hon. Member has raised on the situation in W12.

First, I should underline that while shortcomings in the postal service are, of course, of concern to the Government, it must be recognised that they are problems for the Post Office to tackle. The Government do not run the postal service; the Post Office does.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Post Office ceased to be a Government Department in 1969. The Post Office Act 1969 gave the Post Office the status of a public corporation with its own board and chairman. With that changed status came the large element of autonomy in managing its day-to-day affairs that has marked the relationship of successive Governments to all nationalised industries.

The Government's role focuses on setting the framework of long-term objectives and shorter-term financial and performance targets within which the corporation is left as free as possible to run the business. The Government do not have the power to intervene in the type of detailed operational and industrial relations questions involved in the problems in W12, nor do they have the desire to do so. It would be quite wrong for the Government to appoint a chairman of any public corporation and then tell him how to run every aspect of his business.

Although the Government cannot and would not wish to intervene in the day-to-day operations of the business or questions about the quality of service provided in particular areas, it is nevertheless a matter of concern to the Government that there should be disruption to Her Majesty's mail or that the Post Office, in exercising its monopoly powers, is not providing a reasonable standard of service.

My Department is therefore informed about cases of disruption when they occur. In the context of the regular monitoring discussions which officials had with the Post Office, the question of performance against the agreed quality of service targets for the letter post service is considered, together with action which the Post Office proposes to take to achieve consistent performance to target. Those discussions cover also the Post Office's plans and progress on improving its productivity and efficiency, and it is mainly its efforts in these areas which form the background to many of the recent problems in W12. Approximately three quarters of the postal business costs are spent on staff provision. Improvements in productivity largely depend upon reducing the staff hours used to undertake the work or reducing the costs of those hours.

One aspect of the Post Office's determination to improve productivity has been to reduce the number of hours worked by postal staff during the night. The hon. Gentleman was right in referring to that. Night work has been used at offices like W12 to help advance the sorting of mail in preparation for the bulk of staff attending at 6 am. However, the same results can be achieved by performing the work undertaken by night staff in the early morning instead.

The change can lead both to reduced staff costs, because not only may fewer hours be used but the hours saved are night hours which are obviously paid at a premium, and reduced overhead costs, because offices may be closed at night. The Post Office has, therefore, been running a programme aimed at eliminating night working at a number of smaller offices. In London the elimination of night working was proposed for 97 offices and this was successfully negotiated at 71 of these offices by the autumn of last year.

At the W12 office at Shepherds Bush the Post Office first made proposals in October 1982 to replace night working, on which seven men were engaged, by early morning attendance. While negotiations through the following 12 months led to agreement being reached with some of the staff, no agreement was possible with the bulk of the staff. In accordance with Post Office procedures, the staff were warned of the intention to introduce the proposed new arrangements by executive action on 24 October 1983. The postmen involved did not follow the agreed conciliation procedures but instituted unofficial industrial action in the form of an overtime ban.

Over the next two weeks further negotiations were undertaken, but with a backlog of mail building up the Post Office warned that letter boxes would have to be sealed in the absence of overtime working to clear the backlog. With no agreement for ending the action, letter boxes in W12 were sealed on 16 November. Further initiatives were undertaken by the district postmaster in the following two weeks but these were rejected by the staff, who walked out on 1 December.

Further attempts at a negotiated settlement were unsuccessful during the weeks leading up to Christmas, and the point at issue shifted from the original issue of night working to questions about the impact of unofficial action on productivity arrangements. On 20 December the Union of Communication Workers made the dispute official. With further escalation of the dispute a real possibility, agreement was finally reached to refer the bonus question to arbitration by ACAS. As part of the arrangements, staff at the Shepherds Bush office agreed to return to normal working and to accept the elimination of night working once the backlog of mail had been cleared. Given that the dispute took place during the Post Office's busiest time of year, the period reaching up to Christmas, the backlog of mail was substantial and was not finally cleared until the middle of January.

Unfortunately, that did not mean a complete return to a normal service in W12. Further problems remained, and in particular postmen began strictly to adhere to the agreed weight which they should carry and left surplus mail at the sorting office. Before the dispute, postmen would have carried all the mail for a delivery, even though the distribution of deliveries in W12 meant that some deliveries in the area received a volume of mail greater than the agreed weight.

In April a review of the delivery arrangements was carried out, which involved the union representatives, and new arrangements were implemented on 21 May. However, before the Post Office was able to monitor the outcome of the changes under normal conditions the situation was upset by widespread unofficial industrial action in the London area and more particularly in the Paddington district in support of this year's UCW pay claim. Negotiations between the Post Office and UCW produced agreement on 6 June on the terms of a settlement which the union membership has now voted to accept, but the knock-on effect of the unofficial action in districts in west London, including W12, lasted until 17 June. Normal working resumed in the week beginning 18 June and I understand that regular deliveries have now been restored in W12, where the position is being closely monitored by the Post Office to ensure that a satisfactory service is maintained.

Although I understand that postal staff are now working normally in that area, I am aware that sporadic industrial relations problems connected with changes in working and attendance patterns are still occurring in the London area. It is possible, therefore, that, despite the Post Office's efforts, there may continue to be some problems from time to time in W12 because of action elsewhere. I am well aware that the hon. Gentleman has been in touch with the chairman of the Post Office on a number of occasions about the problems in his constituency and he will be aware of the Post Office's determination to provide its customers with an efficient and reliable service. The disputes in W12 have arisen out of the desire of the Post Office to reduce unnecessary costs—an objective that the Government fully support as, I am sure, do the Post Office's customers.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is currently looking at the letter post service in Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff as well as reviewing implementation of the recommendations of its 1980 report on the inner London letter post. The commission is due to complete its report in about a month's time and it would be inappropriate for me at this stage to speculate on its findings.

The findings of the 1980 report, however, are relevant. Very briefly, the MMC found that the postal service in London had suffered a clear decline. While external factors such as the performance of British Rail had been part of the reason, in greater part the decline was due to the state of industrial relations. Among its more detailed findings the commission commented on the tendency for management to be too often and too easily diverted by the need to tackle short-term operational and industrial relations problems. There was a need for strenuous efforts to improve productivity and to this end among other things to tackle a number of restrictive working practices.

The Post Office and its work force deserve credit for what has been achieved on productivity. Following the MMC report, the Government agreed with the Post Office a target of a 15 per cent. improvement in productivity in London in the three years to March 1983. The actual achievement was 22 per cent., showing that the Post Office considered the commission's recommendations very carefully and seriously and has rightly continued to aim for further improvements.

The Post Office and its work force also deserve credit for the strenuous and increasingly successful efforts which were made in late 1982 and in 1983 to recover from the adverse effects on postal performance of the 1982 industrial action on the railways.

Mr. Soley

The gist of the hon. Gentleman's comments seems to be that the productivity deal is leading to cuts which are undermining the quality of service to an extent that not previously seen or expected this century. Is that what he is saying?

Mr. Trippier

I think that the hon. Gentleman is being unfair and I am anxious to avoid indulging in the inflammatory language that he has used so far. The situation must be very carefully and tactfully handled, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate when I come to that point in my speech.

In 1983, the quality of service performance edged closer and closer to target. It was, therefore, with a feeling of great disappointment and no little concern to my Department that performance results fell away badly towards the end of last year and have shown little sign of improvement so far this year. While performance was adversely affected by factors outside the Post Office's control such as bad weather during the winter with consequent transport problems, the major cause of the decline is the kind of sporadic industrial action that has bedevilled the service in W12. It is particularly disappointing that it, has been in London that we have seen so many unofficial disputes.

The Post Office Board fully recognises the need to pursue its efforts to increase the efficiency and productivity of the business while securing and maintaining the high quality of service that it believes that the customers have a right to expect. In pursuing measures to improve efficiency and productivity the Post Office has fully involved its unions and, in the great majority of cases, changes such as night closures have taken place with the agreement of the staff. Only in a minority of cases have industrial relations problems been encountered. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will agree that it is deeply to be regretted that, as is so often the case, it is the ordinary member of the public who has been most affected.

These limited industrial relations problems are matters which the Post Office will have to continue to handle carefully, without the inflammatory language used by the hon. Gentleman if it is to secure the operational improvements essential to the provision of an efficient and high quality service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.