HL Deb 15 June 1954 vol 187 cc1180-4

5.28 p.m.

LORD SALTOUN rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, if the Post Office is to be regarded as a business, whose staffs are expected to share in the local life on even terms with the staffs of other businesses, it would not be possible to provide houses for local postmasters in appropriate cases as is done by banks, insurance companies, et cetera, especially seeing that postmasters as such have no claim for special concession upon the housing authority. The noble Lord said: My Lords. I must apologise to my noble friend Lord De La Warr for keeping him so long in the House. After this afternoon I shall have the sense to put down such matters as this as Starred Questions. In the meantime, this is a matter which I have been pursuing for a long time, for almost a dozen years in fact.

My attention was drawn to it by a postmaster who asked me if I did not think he had been hardly treated by the local authority because they had done nothing to provide a house for him, who was such an important public servant. He painted the hardship of a postmaster being compelled to house his family in such lodgings as were available, very often insufficient for a growing family, and very expensive. Of course, when a man reaches the degree of postmaster he is likely to have a growing family. My reply was very simple. I pointed out that the local authority were straining their whole resources in providing houses for the people who were natives to the place and passed their whole lives there, and they had great difficulty in doing so. I said that I thought they were under no obligation to provide a house for one who might be moved away from it in the course of two or three months. That, I think, was quite a fair answer, and it is certainly the way in which the local housing authority looked on the matter.

In a small municipality—and my remarks apply equally to England and Scotland, although this is particularly so in Scotland where municipal life is so much more closely knit—a man's standing is determined very little by his wealth. I have known cases, sometimes rather funny cases, where a man has been at pains to disguise his wealth in order not to put himself outside the general community of his friends. A man's standing is determined very much more by his own personal character, and still more by the estimation in which he is held by his employers, which I believe to be the vital fact. Those who manage businesses, nation-wide concerns like our banks, almost invariably provide houses, not only for their local branch managers but also even for their accountants; and one concern with which I am connected takes a particular pride in the way in which it does this. What, in any community, can be thought of a business of nationwide scope, which is not altogether unconnected with banking, where the employers have no concern whatever about these matters, and whose representatives are in difficulties over their families—difficulties which are patent to the whole community? It must affect the standing of the Post Office in any locality, and to my own personal knowledge it does so affect it. Most of these well-established local bank branches have a great deal of goodwill attached to them; but the Post Office, so far as I can see, has no goodwill, or very little, and what good will it has is due entirely to the personal character of any particular postmaster and his staff.

As I have no right of reply, I must to some extent anticipate what my noble friend may say. He may say that postmasters are given a choice of district, and are sent only to places where they can find houses for their families. If that is so, I submit that the public are worse served than they ought to be, because if a man proves unsuitable—and quite a good man may prove unsuitable in a particular locality—the Post Office is in this quandary: it can either keep him on, injuring his own prospects and not benefiting the locality to which it has sent him, or it can compel him to sell the house he may have had to buy because he is moving from that locality. The only other answer that I can anticipate is that the Post Office is not strictly a business but a branch of the Civil Service, and that it is the dark policy of the powers-that-be so to order thing; that there is a division between the Service and the general population. I certainly hope that that is not the case. With those few remarks, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

5.34 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for raising this Question and for the manner in which he has raised it. I know that he has been pursuing this matter for a long time, and he has certainly been pursuing me for a long time with regard to it; I cannot help but feel a certain amount of relief that he has now got it off his chest. I naturally appreciate the interest of the noble Lord in members of the Post Office staff, and particularly such valued members as postmasters. I would say straight away that certainly in the past the provision of houses has not been entirely ruled out, but we have provided them only in exceptional cases. I believe the last case was in 1947, when in the isolated community of Stornoway we did purchase a house for the postmaster. That was an exceptional case, and I must say that, in my view, it should be done only in exceptional cases.

The noble Lord asked whether we are a business, or merely part of the Civil Service. The answer, of course is that even though we are part of the Civil Service technically, the Post Office must be run as a business. It is my duty to provide not only the best but the cheapest postal service possible, and therefore my answer is that we do run the Post Office as a business. I feel that the noble Lord would be the first to admit that the purchase of houses on the basis he suggests could not be recommended on business grounds; I do not think that any of us who own house property would say that it is one of the best investments that can be visualised. But that is not really the point, because the sum in question with regard to the Post Office is not an enormous one.

We are part of the Civil Service, in the sense that we have to realise that what we do has wide repercussions, and not only throughout the whole of our staff. Undoubtedly, if we bought houses for our postmasters there would be a strong case for providing houses for many of the rest of the staff. How can we draw a distinction? I have to speak as a member of the Government and not merely as a Departmental Minister. There are many other civil servants who might be affected: there are a number of Government Departments with their regional and local officers; there are Customs men, Inland Revenue men, and Ministry of Labour men. Therefore, I confess with a considerable amount of regret—because looking at this as an isolated question I cannot but feel sympathy with what the noble Lord wants—and again saying that I appreciate deeply that the noble Lord's suggestion is made only because of his extremely friendly interest in and sympathy with valued members of my staff, I should find it hard to make a case to my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the additional expenditure.


Before the noble Earl sits down, would he be willing to say why what is businesslike for banks is not businesslike for the Post Office?


That would take in a wide subject. I can certainly think of one difference between private and public enterprise—namely, that we do not pay income tax, and do not get the benefit of tax concessions.

5.38 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has just sat down, in answering the Question took refuge in the fact that only one voice had been raised on this matter, and apparently concluded from that that there was little support for the idea of housing postmasters. I do not think he should run away with that idea, because I am certain that there would be a great deal of support for putting a postmaster in the same position as a bank manager, a gas manager, someone in charge of an electricity station, the police and many other public servants. There would be a great deal of support for that suggestion, particularly in these days when it is so difficult for individuals going to new positions in other parts of the country to secure houses for themselves and their families. In many cases they have to purchase a house in order to get the accommodation which they require. The noble Earl, in making his reply, claimed that house property was not a very lucrative or remunerative property in which to be interested. That is perfectly true, but what he is doing by his attitude is saying that the Post Office will not take any responsibility in providing the individual postmaster with a house, and it is left for the postmaster himself—it may be in difficult circumstances—to incur the responsibility and carry the burden that he has so lightly refused to consider.