HC Deb 25 July 1991 vol 195 cc1342-8

2 pm

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The matter that I wish to raise might best be seen as a constituency case with several important implications. These may emerge as I present the case and suggest the need for consistency of standards and their relationship to general decision making. Although the debate is concerned primarily with the closure of a local sub-post office, it touches on the future of the whole postal and Post Office service. I shall suggest that there is a need for the role of the sub-post office to be adequately perceived and more fully appreciated.

Sub-post offices provide an important social service. They are a point of contact, and the best of our sub-post offices, and their staff, can be providers of information, advice and assistance to those who are most often in need of that support. That fact needs to be fully recognised and that service needs to be adequately valued and maintained. This point is a timely one to make shortly after the Prime Minister sought public favour through his citizens charter. Apparently, this charter is not to be accompanied by any adequate allocation of public resources. Without an acceptance that improved services and helpful approaches may require that the operation involved is a little more costly, and that profit motives may need to be a little less dominant, the concept of the charter will not be adequately fulfilled. Words may be fine, but actions are something else.

If the Post Office determines that there shall be fewer sub-post offices, individual citizens, perhaps many of them, will face extra cost and greater inconvenience and maybe comparatively severe extra costs or significantly increased personal inconvenience. The Post Office may benefit financially, but the individual and the affected community will gain nothing. If the individual counts, then, when such a decision is made, it should be seen as serious and the approach to such a decision should require greater consideration and care. That has not been our experience in regard to the loss of the Newhill sub-post office.

As I hope to explain, I have been unable to reach the conclusion that the closure of Newhill sub-post office received the care that one would have thought necessary. On 23 February, I received a letter from a Mr. D. Skipworth, one of the management staff of Post Office Counters Ltd. in Sheffield. It informed me that the Newhill sub-post office was to close. The letter read: The closure has been brought about by the decision of the Co-operative Retail Society, in whose store the Post Office is situated, to close down their operation in Cemetery Road with effect from this date"— that is, 23 March. There are no other suitable retail outlets in the Newhill area to which we could consider relocating. Therefore, the service is to end.

I think that I replied by return to inform Mr. Skipworth that I much regretted the loss of the facility, not least because it would be unhelpful to my constituents residing in the Newhill area. I added that the additional use of the Wath upon Dearne post office that would follow would mean greater inconvenience for my constituents. That is already a busy post office. I wrote that, if an alternative opportunity arose that would allow Post Office facilities to be re-established in the locality, it should be considered as a matter of emergency.

Local concern became acute. I was kept informed by a Mr. J. Robinson, who was acting as the ad hoc secretary of an action group that had been formed to contest the closure. I met some constituents with Mr. Robinson and ward councillors at the Crown inn at Newhill on 17 March. There I met another shopkeeper whose premises, in my view, are adaptable for the purpose of establishing a sub-post office service, and whose personal record was certainly such as to qualify him for the position.

On 18 March I wrote again to Mr. Skipworth at Sheffield. I referred to the meeting that had taken place on 17 March and to the strong support that had been expressed within the community for the retention of the service. I referred also to the commendation of the representatives of the community who were present at the meeting for the transfer of the business to 189, Cemetery road, which is virtually adjacent to the location of the former sub-post office. I referred to the deep local anxiety, not least because many pensioners live in close proximity to the sub-post office. They had told me most firmly that the closure of the Newhill sub-post office meant additional 40p bus fares to use the alternative service. That may not matter to the Post Office, but it matters to my constituents.

The local action group had a meeting with the district general manager, Mr. Marsden. Its members were advised—I was not—that Wath upon Dearne was over-provided with sub-post offices. At that meeting Mr. Marsden and his colleagues were left in no doubt that there was deep and bitter resentment about the closure.

I wrote again to Mr. Skipworth on 18 April, and did not receive a reply. I wrote again and asked whether those involved with the matter would concern themselves with my correspondence and favour me with a reply to my letters. I did not receive a reply. I tabled four parliamentary questions on 8 May. I hoped that the fact that questions had been tabled would stimulate Post Office Counters Ltd. to respond. I wrote to Sir Bryan Nicholson, the chairman of the Post Office, on 4 May. I received a swift acknowledgement from Sir Bryan's office, which told me that inquiries would be made. That led to a little flurry of action. I received a call to say that my letters had not been received by Post Office Counters Ltd. in Sheffield, although they were clearly addressed.

I asked my secretary to send copies of my letters to Mr. Marsden at the district office and then I telephoned Mr. Marsden, to be told that a careful check had been made and that none of my letters had been received. I was rather angry about that. The implication was that my secretary had not posted the letters. I made it extremely clear to Mr. Marsden that my secretary, who has worked with me for a long time, is of irreproachable character and that when she assured me that the letters had been posted, I knew that they had been.

There was further evidence to justify the claim. When my secretary sent the letters to Post Office Counters Ltd. in Sheffield, she sent copies to Mr. Robinson, to the ward councillors and to the local press. All of them received the copies without delay. The ones that apparently went astray were those sent to Post Office Counters Ltd.

I sent copies of the letters that were said to be missing and received a further reply. I should have said that I was told by Post Office Counters Ltd. that it would ask Royal Mail to investigate. I could not see Royal Mail being able to identify the location of the letters that Post Office Counters Ltd. said had gone astray. I am not critical of Royal Mail for not being able to find that correspondence. I received a letter, dated 20 May, from Mr. A. J. Roberts, the managing director of Post Office Counters Ltd. He said that he was replying to my letter to the chairman. I would have thought it only courteous had the chairman replied himself. Mr. Roberts made it clear that the original notification to me of the proposed closure was not entirely accurate. He said: I am told that it was the initial decision by the Co-operative Retail Society to cease operations, allied with the over-provision of counter services in Wath, which led to the decision to close the Newhill office. In February, I was told that the reason for the closure was entirely due to the Co-operative Retail Society, but by April Post Office Counters Ltd. has widened the cause.

The letter contained another interesting development. Mr. Roberts confirmed that the petition you mention was presented to Mr. Marsden at the Public Meeting held on 23 April. My initial letter to the chairman of the Post Office asked him to receive a petition. I still have that petition. I was assured by the chairman of Post Office Counters Ltd. that it had already been received. That suggests a degree of carelessness—something to which I referred earlier. I was not happy about the letter from Mr. Roberts, especially as he suggested that I saw the regional manager and the district manager—the people responsible for the muddle and confusion in the first place.

I decided that the best thing to do would be to write once again to the chairman of the Post Office saying that I was not happy about the muddle and confusion and that I still wanted to present the petition. The Minister will understand that petitions of that sort are rarely in the legal condition that would allow me to present them in this Chamber. I wanted to present that petition to the man who bears responsibility for the Post Office. I thought that, at least, he would receive me briefly and graciously, and allow me to express the deep concern of my constituents and my irritation at the way that the matter had been handled. Instead, I received another letter from Sir Bryan—which was extremely courteous—saying that Post Office business was so divided or parcelled out between the Royal Mail, Parcelforce and Post Office Counters Ltd. that such matters would be better dealt with within those departments, and not by himself.

Sir Bryan was courteous, and so he should be. However, he would not see me. I shall be blunt, and say that Sir Bryan receives emoluments of £149,195 a year to lead his industry. When a Member of this House—it does not matter from which side—needs to see the leader of an industry because of gross incompetence and confused actions within it, he should surely receive him. If what Sir Bryan says is correct, and his industry is now so well organised that he has no responsibilities, why does he retain his job? Many of our constituents have been made redundant for far less marked a change. If Sir Bryan does not have a role that allows him to meet Members of Parliament with a justified cause, is not that role superfluous? Either the man has a job to do and does it, or he does not have a job, in which case he should not be paid.

The Post Office may not be particularly concerned because old-age pensioners have to find an extra 40p to meet the additional cost of going to an alternative post office——

Mr. Terry Patchett (Barnsley, East)

It does not care.

Mr. Hardy

This morning I received a delightful communication from the Post Office, as all hon. Members will have done, telling me how much it supports and welcomes the Prime Minister's initiative on the citizens charter. I hope that the Minister will look at the delightful comments in that. It welcomes the proposals for improved service. Those proposals would add impetus to improving the quality of service. It is proud of its achievements. That pride is not shared in Newhill. It is putting its customers first. It has not put my constituents in the Newhill area first. It will test the service at selected sub-post offices. It will not be able to test it at the Newhill sub-post office because it has gone, and that is not satisfactory. The experience is distressing.

I deeply regret that my letters should have been lost; that my request that the petition should be received should be so lightly dismissed; that when I requested the chairman of the Post Office to receive the petition I was advised to hand it to the person who said that he received the original one and who must have inadequately advised Mr. Roberts, the managing director, in the first place when Mr. Roberts assured me that he had already received the petition. I do not believe that there has been the care that is required, and I illustrate that with one further example.

One of the letters that I received from Post Office Counters Ltd. referred to the meeting in Newhill, and the senior official of the post office responsible wrote to me to say that it had been suggested that the London road sub-post office should close rather than the Newhill one. But I do not have a London road sub-post office in my constituency. There is no London road in my constituency. If the Post Office cannot get the names of the roads right when Members of Parliament write to it, it is little wonder that this Member of Parliament is so concerned.

The matter is serious. I hope that the Minister will confirm that I am entirely justified in expressing anxiety on behalf of my constituents and that I was entirely justified in seeking to pass the petition, and to express the concern of my constituents, to Sir Bryan Nicholson, the chairman of the Post Office. I hope that he will share my concern that the conduct that I have experienced is not satisfactory in a parliamentary democracy. If those standards are to continue, the Prime Minister will be a disappointed man, and many of my constituents further afield than Newhill will have cause for irritation and anger, as well as the prospect of inconvenience and additional cost, as my constituents have had.

2.18 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Edward Leigh)

I take up straight away the comments that the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) made at the end of his speech. I confirm my view that he is entirely justified in raising the matter on this Adjournment debate. From what he has said this afternoon and in discussions with those who advise me, he is entirely justified in everything that he has done in the matter during the past few months.

The debate is particularly timely because in it the hon. Gentleman has referred to two areas to which the Government attach considerable importance. First, the future of Newhill post office raises the question of the adequate provision of post office services—an important subject that needs to be debated in the House. Secondly, there is the question of the quality of service provided by public sector organisations such as the Post Office—and the Government have, with the publication of the citizens charter this week, expressed in concrete terms their determination to raise those standards. During the speech of the hon. Member for Wentworth, I referred to that part of the citizens charter that deals with the Post Office. It states: The objective of our reforms is to improve the range, choice, reliability and value for money of postal services. We also plan to increase the power of the customer to take action when the service provided falls below a reasonable standard. There follows, rightly, the statement that the Post Office has already raised its standards and can certainly lay claim to be the most efficient organisation of its kind in Europe.

However, the charter adds: There is, however, further scope for increasing efficiency, reducing costs and improving standards of service. That is why this debate is so timely. As the hon. Member for Wentworth said, a citizens charter must embrace not just words but actions, and we should ensure that public utilities such as the Post Office show—in the words of the hon. Gentleman—consideration and care to all members of the public and to those who represent them.

I know that the hon. Gentleman would not have drawn attention to the issue if he did not feel considerable concern, and I hope that he will not mind me saying that he has gained an enviable reputation in the House, during his long service of more than 20 years, as an exemplary constituency Member of Parliament. Today's debate is another example of his determination, which we have all noted over the years, to stand up for his constituents, and to speak up for them. The Adjournment debate procedure provides an ideal format in which to do that.

The Post Office provides a service on which we all rely at some time.

Mr. Patchett

In what way will the citizens charter assist the customers of Newhill post office?

Mr. Leigh

I have another nine minutes in which to finish my contribution to this debate, and, having given considerable thought to the matter, I hope that I will be able to respond positively. If the hon. Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett) will be a little patient, I will outline what we consider to be the advantages accruing to the citizen from the charter and what can be done in the particular case of Newhill.

Although we can usually rely on Post Office services with confidence, it is unfortunately inevitable, given the size of the organisation, that, from time to time, difficulties of the kind that were described earlier would arise. I accept absolutely the genuine concern expressed by the hon. Member for Wentworth about the need for proper provision of Post Office services for his constituents, and for efficient and helpful handling of representations to the Post Office. I shall return to those specific aspects.

Let me make it clear at once that I agree with the hon. Member for Wentworth that aspects of the case that he raised should and could have been handled with greater sensitivity by the Post Office. It has a statutory duty to have regard to the social—I lay special emphasis on the word "social", and in that respect I hope that my response will be helpful to the hon. Member for Barnsley, East—industrial, and commercial needs of the United Kingdom in exercising its powers. It is important to set the difficulties that the hon. Member for Wentworth described against the background of the corporation's statutory duties and the many positive steps that it has taken to reorganise its business, and to improve its accountability and quality of service.

Since the Post Office ceased to be a public department and became a public corporation 20 years ago, it has transformed itself into a profitable organisation run on commercial lines, with a clear priority given to serving the customer. In the past, the Post Office operated as a monolithic single business but in practice it often covered a number of distinct activities—letters, parcels, counters and Girobank. The last few years have seen increasing separation of the different businesses, leaving them to deal at arm's length with other parts of the Post Office. That has given each not only more commercial incentive to make the best use of its assets and develop its own business, but an opportunity to take a more responsive approach to the needs of its different customers. That is why, in the particular circumstances raised by the hon. Member, there was a wish to resolve the issue within the counters business rather than at the chairman's level, and furthermore on a regional basis rather than centrally, to allow local knowledge of customer requirements to inform the decision-making process.

I will draw the attention of the Post Office chairman to the issues raised in this afternoon's debate, and I will personally ask him to reconsider his decision not to meet the hon. Gentleman. Despite the heavy responsibilities laid upon the chairman of the Post Office, if requested courteously to meet a Member of Parliament to discuss a matter of some importance, he should do so, and I shall write him a letter. Of course, this is entirely a matter for the chairman of the Post Office as he has operational independence from the Government, but I shall write to him in those terms and perhaps that will offer a suitable opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to present his petition in person to Sir Bryan.

Post Office Counters Ltd. was incorporated in 1987 as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Post Office. Since then, it has consistently made a small operating profit on its turnover, which was last year about £950 million. We all have an interest in seeing that it continues to operate efficiently, effectively and profitably. It will not be in anyone's long-term interests if the Post Office is not able to generate the funds to maintain and improve its service.

The task is not an easy one. Traditional Post Office services are increasingly subject to competition. Stamps are now sold in some 40,000 other retail outlets. Automated funds transfer directly into bank and building society accounts already provides an alternative means of delivering pension and benefit payments and for the payment of bills. The option for doing that is to be extended under the provisions of the citizens charter to provide greater customer choice. The Post Office therefore needs to look to costs and efficiency if it is to remain competitive and retain business, but it clearly recognises that economic considerations are only one part of a wider equation; it must earn and retain a reputation among its customers for meeting their requirements if it is to keep their loyalty.

It is worth pointing out that it currently has the largest retail network in the country consisting of more than 20,000 post offices throughout the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is considerably larger than that of any bank or building society, and it is worth pointing out that it has more outlets per head of population than the post office networks in France, Germany, Japan or the USA. In the United Kingdom, post offices are therefore generally easily accessible to all but those in the very remotest areas. So post offices are very much local institutions, a point made by the hon. Gentleman, and I would be the first to acknowledge that. Particularly—but by no means exclusively—in rural areas, they often serve an important social function in their local communities. Again, the hon. Gentleman referred to that, especially in regard to pensioners. That fact was, as I have said, clearly recognised in the Act establishing the Post Office as a public corporation.

We have repeatedly made clear our commitment—and I am more than happy to do so again today—to the maintenance of a network of post offices adequate to enable the Post Office to fulfil its statutory duties. I know that the Post Office has also made clear its own commitment to the maintenance of its network.

However, I must emphasise that that does not always leave the Post Office with comfortable decisions about individual offices. In the case of the Newhill office, the Post Office was placed in an unusual position, following the decision of the existing retailer to close its store. I understand that immediate initial inquiries suggested that there were no suitable alternative retail sites. I know that the hon. Gentleman has done a lot of work on that, and no doubt it is an operational matter that he could discuss with the chairman when he meets him.

The Post Office must, however, consider a number of criteria when taking decisions on the level of provision of post office services. There is, of course, the important consideration of the extent of local demand and the nature of that demand. We are all conscious of the difficulties faced by the elderly and handicapped in reaching their nearest facilities. That is why Post Office Counters, in deciding that the Newhill office could not be reopened, took account of the high level of provision in the area.

I hope that it is clear from what I have said that the Post Office has put considerable effort into maintaining an appropriate and efficient network. Although specific decisions about the running of post offices must be left to the Post Office, I recognise the anxieties raised by the hon. Gentleman. I share his considerable surprise that three letters could fail to arrive at Post Office Counters, despite the fact that copies were made. But, of course, there are other instances of letters being lost, so we do not know what the real reason was. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman that I take the matter seriously. I trust that the meeting can be arranged and that the matter will be satisfactorily resolved.