HL Deb 11 February 1969 vol 299 cc377-408

6.26 p.m.

EARL FERRERS rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they intend to take to improve the present two-tier postal system. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I rise to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question which stands on the Order Paper for one reason: that I have for a long time been an admirer of the postal service. It has worked efficiently and quickly, and relatively inexpensively, but since the introduction of the two-tier system on September 16 last year the postal service appears to have gone to pieces. I do not wish to "knock" the Post Office in any way—that is not my intention. What I am concerned with is seeing that the postal service which we have continues to be of the outstanding quality to which we have been accustomed.

I appreciate the arguments of the right honourable gentleman the Postmaster General—and doubtless the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, will recite them again this evening: that the mail is increasing at a tremendous rate and that something had to be done to take the pressure off the peak period of 4 to 6 o'clock in the evening; and hence the introduction of the two-tier system. Then in the next breath the Government say that they had to put up postal charges in order to raise revenue. The Government cannot have it both ways. If the object was to raise revenue then they have diverted so much of the mail to the secoad-class service that they have failed in their object. If the object was to deflect first-class mail into second-class why then, when the numbers of first-class mail are so much smaller, is the service less good?

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, will produce a whole lot of statistics showing how much mail now reaches its destination the next day, as compared with the position previously; and he will try to convince your Lordships—and, indeed, even to convince himself—that the service offered by the Post Office is better now than it was before. I would only say, in advance, and with great respect to the noble Lord opposite, "Fiddlesticks to the statistics!" The noble Lord knows, and everyone in the country knows, that in fact the service offered now is less good than it was before, and I ask the noble Lord: "What do the Government intend to do to improve it?" The Postmaster General has shown himself to be a man of great individuality by being prepared to recognise bad schemes when they are put up to him, and to dispose of them, as indeed he did when it was proposed that the London Telephone Directory should be split up into 36 books. The public clamour was so great that he dispensed with the idea. He was not despised for this, but was respected for recognising that in fact the most well-intentioned schemes can be proved to be wrong, and I hope that the right honourable gentleman, through the noble Lord this evening, will stop trying to shore up a scheme which has proved to be unsuccessful. In another place on January 27 the Postmaster General said We have been able to give a better guaranteed reliability for the first class service than applied before two-tier."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 27/1/69, col. 1062.1 Whatever the statistics may say, with respect, every person knows this to be manifestly not so.

On what does the Postmaster General base this assertion? That under the old system 93 per cent. of the first-class mail was delivered the day after posting, and the proportion is now 94 per cent.—an improvement, I suppose, by statistics, until one realises that previously 60 per cent. of the mail went first-class and now only 30 per cent. does. If one takes 36 million letters a day as being the average number posted, the fact is that, before two-tier, some 20 million letters arrived the day after they were posted; and now only 10 million do. Hardly an improvement. I am bound to say, my Lords, that it is surprising how many of the 6 per cent. that do not reach their destination the day after posting seem to be ones that are posted to me. Under the old system I frequently used to get letters posted from Hurst-pierpoint, a little town in Sussex, at 7.40 in the evening, delivered to my house in the country in Norfolk at 6.45 the next morning.


My Lords, may I intervene? The noble Earl wrote me a letter dated February 7 which was posted in Bungay at 11.15 on the 8th and it arrived the first post to-day. He had not addressed it properly; he put W.1. instead of S.W.1.


My Lords, I was perhaps "doing the noble Lord a little prouder" than I should have done, and I apologise. But the letters previously addressed to me correctly used to arrive by the next post. The noble Lord may have been unfortunate in having a letter addressed incorrectly. I had a letter to-day addressed correctly with a 5d. stamp, posted on February 7 and it arrived to-day, February 11—that is, four days after it was posted.

My Lords, I am not alone in this. The noble Lord, Lord Hawke, on November 12 asked Her Majesty's Government what they were going to do to ensure that letters with a 5d. stamp posted on one side of Lincoln's Inn Fields reached their destination on the other side of Lincoln's Inn Fields the next day. Recently there was a report in the Evening Standard which said: My colleague, Robert Carvel has just received a letter from the Liberal Party Headquarters. It was posted a week ago from their new offices close to the Strand. Using my ruler on a map of London, I calculated that the distance travelled by the letter was about 1½ miles. Allowing for certain factors like wind resistance, the letter travelled approximately 1/112th of a mile per hour or 16 yards per hour. Is this a record for a letter with a 5d. stamp? My Lords, I can beat that. A fortnight ago (this was after I had tabled my Question) I wished to contact a Member of another place who I knew was not in London, because he was ill. I did not know his address in the country, so I decided to send the letter to the House of Commons with a 5d. stamp, saying, "Please forward". It so happened, after I had written my letter, that your Lordships' House had risen early that day, and there were no Doorkeepers here. So I posted my letter in the box outside the Prince's Chamber in the full knowledge that it would of course reach the House of Commons the following morning. I posted it on Tuesday, January 28, and it arrived the following Monday, February 3. It took six days to go down the passage to the House of Commons, and I calculated that I could have walked it there and back in four minutes.


Why didn't you?


Because I did not want to; I was relying on the noble Lord's postal services. I did some arithmetic and I discovered that in the time it took I could have walked there and back 2,010 times. It worked out at 1/1179th of a mile per hour, which is 5 feet per hour—and all that with a 5d. stamp.

What about the 4d. post? That does not seem to be much better. We are told that there is no deliberate delay at all. Before this debate I asked to see over the sorting office in Norwich; and a fascinating experience it was. The head postmaster could not have been more kind or more courteous. He showed me exactly what happened and answered all my questions. He also assured me that there was no deliberate delay of 4d. mail; it was merely that the 5d. mail was dealt with first, and after that the 4d. mail. And I of course entirely accepted this. But is this so everywhere? The Western Mail on January 31 carried an article by Peter Tinniswood in which he interviewed various postal workers, and one said referring to the 11.30 despatch to the North of England: Before two-tier we used to send as much as we could on that 11.30. Now we do not even look at the 4d. mail. We stick this to one side until the afternoon. What I am telling you is true. We could send all the mail off on the 11.30 if we were not instructed to keep back the 4d. Again my information is that in Havant the Post Office delivers 4d. and 5d. mail in separate bags to the railway station at the same time. The 5d. mail is despatched on the quick train to London; the 4d. mail is sent to Portsmouth. It is double-labelled. When it gets to Portsmouth the top label is removed, revealing the London label, and it is then put on the London train and goes to London. I gather that, in true British tradition, a committee is now considering the matter. I wondered why somebody could not take the simple decision and decide to put both lots on the quick train to London. Then there was the famous case in Lincolnshire of the postmen who collected the mail out of the box, sorted the 4d. and 5d. and reposted the 4d. I am glad that the Postmaster General has now issued a directive saying that this practice should stop.

My Lords, what has gone wrong? First, in my view, the whole postal charge should have gone up by 1d. Of course, it is true that, had that been done, all Hell would have been let loose. That would have continued for about a month, and then everyone would have accepted the increase in cost. Such an increase, incidentally, would also have given the Postmaster General an extra £15 million per year. "Ah", says the Postmaster General, "but this would not have solved the problem of rush-hour peaks". This is perfectly true. But I wonder whether we do not perhaps make too much of rush-hour peaks". This problem is not something that has suddenly come upon us and taken us by surprise. It has always been with us, and over the years we have coped with the rush-hour peaks and coped with the increased mail that has appeared. I do not deny that this is a problem, but I wonder whether we have done, and are doing, enough mechanisation to cope with this problem. I told your Lordships that I went to see the sorting office in Norwich. Perhaps it was not the most representative place to go to, because I believe that it is one of the most efficient in the country: and the degree of mechanisation was astonishing. By machine letters were checked, they were stamped, they were turned over, they were sorted into first-class and second-class streams. They were carried about by conveyor belts and shot automatically into the correct boxes for their destination. This is very impressive, but does this happen everywhere? Is mechanisation anywhere near what it should be and could be?

Here I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, a few specific questions of which I have given him notice. I should like to know how many sorting offices there are under the Postmaster General's control? Of those, how many have automatic letter-facing machines, commonly known in the Post Office as "Alf", which sort the first-class from the second-class mail? How many have single position letter sorting machines which automatically sort the mail into the appropriate destination boxes? How many have coding desks and high speed automatic coding machines? Are the people who use these machines specially trained high-speed operators, or are they just ordinary sorters given another job? We lead the world Post Office sorting equipment. People from all over the world come to Norwich to see it in operation, and this is something of which we can be proud. But do they equally come to Brighton and Birmingham, to Manchester, Leeds and Coventry? Or is Norwich about the only place which has this very sophisticated equipment? Indeed, Norwich has operated the postal code for, I think, some seven years. If this has been so successful, which I do not doubt, why has its use not spread more widely and more quickly?

I believe that the psychology of the change to two-tier was wrong. The old two-tier system should have remained, because, after all, the second tier was mostly mail that one did not notice or, if one did notice it, one did not want because it was mainly circulars or bills. The budgeting was wrong, in that part of the objective of the new system was to reduce overtime, and yet in practice it has resulted in even more overtime being done than was done before—22,000 hours more in October and 33,000 hours more in November than in the same months twelve months previously.

The forecasting by the Post Office was also lacking, as they had anticipated a drop in traffic of 2 per cent., which is normal after a price increase. In fact, it was 4 per cent., an error in calculation of 100 per cent. The Christmas mail also dropped by 11 per cent. So that, all in all, the Post Office is down and the public has suffered. The only person to have benefited is, of course, the Postmaster General under his other hat, as being in charge of telecommunications, because the only way one can get an answer to one's letter is to ring up and find out whether it has arrived.

I repeat what I said at the beginning. We in this country have been used to and expect, and rightly expect, a first-class postal service. If we are to have two tiers, at least the first-class tier must be first-class. The fact is that since the introduction of the new system the standard in both tiers has deteriorated, and I ask the noble Lord, Lord Bowles: what steps do the Government intend to take to see that there is an improvement?

6.43 p.m.


My Lords, in introducing this Question the noble Earl referred—at least, I thought he did, and I apologise if I misunderstood him—to the two-tier system which was introduced in September last year. I agree that subsequently he referred to the previous two-tier system. I think it is absolutely necessary that we should clearly understand, as the noble Earl undoubtedly knows, that the present concept of the two-tier system has been in force in the Post Office for 100 years. The present concept is precisely the same as the one that has always been there, which is that you have two services, one for which you pay a little more and get a better service, and one for which you pay less and get not so good a service. This is precisely what has happened.

I entirely agree with the noble Earl that what was really necessary was merely an increase in price, the 3d. to become 4d. and the 4d. to become 5d., because this was completely justified. I agree that when one is dealing with statistics—and if I may for a moment disgress, the noble Earl discouraged all statistics that were likely to come from the Minister, and then proceeded to produce a string of selected incidents which were statistical in order to prove his case—you can always prove a case if you select your statistics; and in an enormous organisation like the Post Office, dealing, as noble Lords know, with millions of letters and other things a year, of course you have what is known as the unlucky letter or telephone call. Even if noble Lords opposite were running the Post Office they could not avoid this. I can assure them of that. So that if you select a number of what I call unlucky letters and say that this condemns the whole system, I suggest, with respect, that that condemnation is completely unjustifiable.

When we come to the question of price, it is true that the price has gone up, but, I repeat, on precisely the same system as hitherto held good—a better service for the higher price, and not quite so good a service for the lower price. This completely ignores the quite considerable concessions that were made by the Postmaster General when he increased the price. I would submit to noble Lords opposite that when they increase prices in their business, they do not make concessions as well; they just put up the price: because they believe that nationalised industries should be run on business lines, and "business lines" means that when costs go up prices go up, because profits have to be maintained.

The Postmaster General made considerable concessions. It is true that the 2 oz. letter costs 25 per cent. more, but the 4 oz. letter is 17 per cent. cheaper. Who send most of the letters between 2 and 4 oz? Without any question whatsoever it is industry. This was a considerable concession to industry. In order, as it were, to relieve the burden of the extra cost from 4d. to 5d., when it came to the heavy letter they were going to get it cheaper than before. It cost 6d. before; it costs only 5d. now. Surely nobody will deny that this was a considerable concession.

Now let me come to the 4d. rate, which was 3d. This has been completely revolutionised to the advantage of the user. It was said some years ago in another place that only two people in the Post Office understood the regulations governing the cheap rate, and that they did not agree. This is the position. Under the old cheap rate system there were complex regulations governing the procedure, and if you were going to use it you ought to consult, although you did not always do so, a complicated list to know whether or not you could send your letter by the cheap rate.

What is the position now? Wisely, the Postmaster General, from an administrative point of view as well, has abolished the whole of these regulations and the same regulations apply to the cheaper rate as to the higher rate. This means that instead of having to consult your list of "Do's" and "Don'ts" and of what you may or may not send, you have only one decision to make when you are considering whether you are going to use the 4d. or the 5d. post. The one decision is: "Do I want the faster service, or do I want the slower service?" Not, "Can I do this" or, "Cannot I do this", but "Which one do I want?" Then you make the decision. It is quite simple. Hitherto, if you used the cheaper rate in the majority of cases you had to post your letter at 3.30 or before. Now you can post it at any time and it will get the same treatment. If you post it at 12 it does not mean that it will get the same treatment as if you post it at 6, but it will get the same treatment as all other mail posted at the lower rate.

When we come to the question of the vital difference in procedure—it is only a difference in procedure—the major difference is this, as I understand it. Previously the separation took place at the delivery stage; in other words, it was sorted and then the time came when the postman had to decide from the amount he had to deliver whether he was going to take the cheap rate out with him or not, and he made this decision subject to the superviser. He said: "I will not take that out because I have a lot of first-rate mail". The decision was made at that point. Under the new system it is done at the sorting point. You now sort it out and deal only with the top rate.

The effect of this is that you have materially improved the conditions of the workers. This is a perfectly justifiable thing to do. Whereas previously a large number of duties were finishing at 9 o'clock and 10 o'clock at night—unsocial duties, sometimes after 10 o'clock at night—many of these have now been eliminated, and the postman higher grade, instead of getting home at 9, 10 or 11 and sometimes at 12 o'clock at night now gets an early duty. This is one result of the introduction of the new system. I submit to the noble Earl that this is an advantage of the new system.

When we come to consider this question, what is really happening? It is that the business and the postal users are making a choice; the choice is before them. It happens that business people, generally speaking, because they object to the increased price (which the noble Earl admitted—at least I think he admitted—was justified) have decided that they are not going to pay it. The result is that instead of sending their mail, as they did before, at full rate, they are now sending a much larger amount at the cheaper rate, with the inevitable result, and one that no Post Office could have foreseen, that the cheap rate is being overloaded. Because of that you are not getting the service from the cheap rate that could have been had if people had carried on in the same way that they did before the charges went up.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? I quite see that if one overloads the cheap rate that rate will suffer; but why should the expensive rate suffer also?


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it should not suffer. In so far as lie has quoted examples where it has, I must give way to them, but my understanding is that the full rate has not suffered; in fact, by and large, it is better. You can always destroy that argument by saying, "This letter was posted here and it took five days". Before this change we had reports in the newspapers of somebody who got a Christmas card, or a postcard, that was posted ten years before. It is not very difficult to understand, because when being sorted into a frame it is quite easy for one to get stuck in the frame and it is not always possible to see it. However, that is beside the point. The fact is that the user, not the Post Office, has decided how this new procedure—not new system—shall work.

I put it to the noble Earl that there are many commodities that you can buy at a different price and of a different quality. For example, if I want to buy tea I can make up my mind whether I shall pay a good price for a good quality, or a cheaper price for not so good a quality. If I decide to buy the cheaper tea, I am not justified in going to the shopkeeper and saying, "Look, you have put up the price of your tea. I am not going to pay the higher price. I am going to buy your cheaper tea, but you must make the quality of the cheaper tea as good as it was when it was dear". You cannot do that; it is impossible. But that is what the public, and particularly business, is doing. It is saying—and the noble Earl has practically said this—"We are going to have nothing to do, or very little to do, with your full rate. We are going to concentrate on the cheap rate, but you must make the cheap rate as good as the full rate".


My Lords, I must interrupt the noble Lord. I never said anything of the sort, and if he studies what I said in Hansard he will see I never said anything remotely appertaining to that.


My Lords, I withdraw the suggestion that the noble Earl said that. What I say is that, in view of what is happening, it is a sound inference that this is what business people are saying. When you criticise the system, that is, in effect, what you are saying. My submission to the House is that it is a question not of the Post Office improving the system so much as of the users using it properly, using it in the same way that they did before, accepting the increased price as being completely justified, as being required, as being a businesslike act, and then coming to the conclusion that they will use one system or the other. It is their choice—it is not the Post Office's choice—whether they will use the higher rate or the lower rate, but they cannot expect, and nobody can expect, to get the same service for the lower rate as they do for the higher rate.

6.55 p.m.


My Lords, I should first like to thank my noble friend Lord Ferrers for putting down this question and giving us such an interesting debate. I would very briefly outline the situation as it was and as it is now, as the last two speakers have already done, and I hope I shall not repeat too much of what has already been said. As we all know, the reason for the present two-tier system was that the old system was becoming overloaded and the Post Office were unable to deal with 5 per cent. of their commitments. Moreover, the greater percentage of the mail was being concentrated into the period from 4.30 to 5 o'clock and later. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Geddes of Epsom, state that the postmen were getting home much earlier than the higher grade sorters, but I have a suggestion to make later in my speech that I hope will get them home even earlier.

It has been said that previously 80 per cent. of all mail was delivered by the first post the following morning. Personally, I think that percentage is rather high. I believe it would be reasonable to submit that it was round about 60 per cent., and allowing for the 5 per cent. which they could not manage it was, let us call it, 55 per cent.

To move on now to the present two-tier system, I believe I am right in saying that the Postmaster General recently announced in another place that the ratio between first-class and second-class post was 70 to 30. On top of this 30 per cent. of first-class mail we can allow a further 10 per cent. for second-class local mail being delivered the following morning. If your Lordships' have done your sums correctly—and I hope I have—that means that 15 per cent. less mail is being delivered by first post on the two-tier system than was the case before. What is happening to that 15 per cent.? Arising out of these figures I should like to ask the noble Lord the following question; namely, has the Post Office made a saving on this 15 per cent. on overtime, or are they in fact spending more money in implementing and administering the two-tier system? There is no doubt, as my noble friend Lord Ferrers has said and I am sure other people will say, that the G.P.O.s reputation for reliability was much higher before than it is now. The suggestion I should like to put forward to get round this crush is that if the 4d. or second-class mail is posted, as I am sure some businesses could do, before 2 p.m.—the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, said that previously some mail had to be posted before 3.30 p.m.—it should be treated as first-class mail. That would cut out the peak and also cut out some of these anomalies.

There are two other minor points—I hope noble Lords will not mind my mentioning them. The first is the way the public showed utter contempt for this system last Christmas. I think I am right in saying that it was the lowest Christmas mail we have had for some years. Many more casual staff were employed than was necessary, and many people were taking their own local cards round by hand and were putting, where they could, perhaps three cards in one envelope. That just shows the public's feeling in this matter. The second point is this. Your Lordships will remember that the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, asked a question about the "stickability", the adhesiveness, of postage stamps. In case the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, thinks the view expressed was the opinion of a few eccentric noble Lords, I can assure him it is not. People are going into post offices all day, complaining that the "stickability" is not what it was. That is a very minor point, but I ask the noble Lord to look into the matter again.

I hope the noble Lord will not think me impertinent, but I believe that if the Postmaster General wants to make economies he can do so with impunity by saving on advertising. The general public are getting fed up with their money being spent on half-page advertisements in newspapers telling them how to dial and how splendid are those "yellow pages". In The Times only to-day there was a half-page presentation of rather seedy looking gentlemen in white collars and bowler hats saying how splendid are the yellow pages. Surely those advertisements cannot be justified. Therefore, I urge the Government to take immediate steps to restore the good name of the Post Office in this country—it was, and still is, incidentally, the cheapest service—and to make it again the best in the world.

7.0 p.m.


My Lords, my favourite anecdote about the operation of the new first-class 5d. mail service is the one which was set out in a letter to The Times on January 2, about a very important document which was posted in the City of London addressed to Portsmouth bearing a shilling stamp to secure the first-class service. It was posted on the day that astronauts Borman, Lovell and Anders left for the moon, and it reached Portsmouth 17 hours after splashdown. However, I was not proposing to follow that up, but to deal with one rather narrow aspect of this matter, about which I have given the Minister notice, otherwise I should not have expected to receive a reply this evening.

This matter relates to the treatment of newspapers since last September under the new two-tier system. I put down a Starred Question on this subject about a month ago and we had an exchange across the Floor of the House, but did not get very far. The position, as I understand it, is that before last September a newspaper—it did not matter who posted it—was given the first-class service, although it had to be stamped only at the second-class rate. I understand that this still applies to newspaper proprietors and news agents; they pay the second-class postage rate but get the first-class service. But for ordinary, humble citizens who post newspapers, if they pay the second-class postage rate they get second-class service; and if they want the first-class service they must pay the first-class postage rate. In the exchange at Question Time we got bogged down in a discussion about the bulk posting rate. That is not what I am talking about at all. What I am talking about is the fact that if a newsagent posts one copy of one newspaper, he gets first-class treatment at the second-class postage rate. But if an ordinary citizen posts one copy of one newspaper, he gets only second-class service unless he pays the extra for the first-class postage rate.

The other ground on which my Question was criticised from the Government Benches was that an exception should be made in the case of newspapers because there was an urgency about them since they contain "hot" news, and if they were not transmitted rapidly they lost their value. I entirely agree that sonic newspapers sometimes contain "hot" news, but one should remember that from the point of view of the Post Office "newspapers" includes practically all the weekly magazines. It includes children's comics, women's weeklies, weekly magazines about hobbies or sports, political weeklies, literary supplements, educational supplements, and so on, and it cannot be said that in the case of these newspapers there is any tremendous urgency about the moment at which they are received. I do not believe there is anything in it for the Post Office as a result of its having made this change since last September. I do not believe, for instance, that the number of newspapers posted by ordinary people is so great that it would keep sorters up later at night sorting them; and I do not believe the Post Office will get any greater revenue from people being willing to pay the first-class rate for newspapers, because I do not believe they will.

I regard this as a nasty piece of work on the part of a State monopoly which is refusing to treat people the same and is denying to all citizens alike its facilities upon equal terms. I have nothing against newspaper proprietors or their agents, but I do not see why they should get better treatment when they pay the same postage rate as ordinary people. I say that if a newsagent sends a gardening magazine to somebody and if by the same post I send a gardening magazine to somebody and we both pay the same rate, we ought to be entitled to expect both copies to arrive at the same time.

If this were a bigger matter and affected more people more seriously, I do not believe the Post Office would have attempted to "put it over" on us. It is simply because it is a rather small matter that the Government have got away with it up to now. I believe that it is quite wrong to treat people in this discriminatory manner, and I hope that the Post Office will think very seriously about this matter and restore the position to what it was before last September. It does not matter who posts a newspaper—if they pay the same rate of postage they should get the same treatment in delivery.

7.5 p.m.


My Lords, in preparation for this debate, I tried a small experiment which, whatever had happened, would have been statistically useless. I posted to myself three letters. On one I put a 5d. stamp, on the next I put a 4d. stamp, and on the third no stamp at all. The one with the 5d. stamp reached me first post the next morning, as did the one with no stamp at all; but the one with the 4d. stamp on it took two days to come to me. There may be a moral in this somewhere. I cannot support my noble friend Lord Ferrers all the way in agreeing that the two-tier system is of itself bad, but I can support him in criticising Her Majesty's Government's handling of it.


My Lords, could I get one thing clear from the noble Lord? Did he have to pay a surcharge on the letter which was not stamped, or how did he get the letter? Secondly, may I ask him whether the stamp might have been knocked off in the course of delivery, and, if it had been a 5d. stamp, might that not be the explanation?


No, my Lords, I did not have to pay a surcharge; but I am not going to tell the noble Lord at which address I posted it to myself. There definitely was not a 5d. stamp on it beforehand.

As I was saying, I feel that I cannot support my noble friend Lord Ferrers in feeling that the system is wrong, but I think that the method of introducing it was wrong. From the moment the new postal system was brought in, in the way that it was introduced, it was bound to end in tears. Her Majesty's Government wrecked the start of what was basically a sound idea by making two fundamental mistakes. The first was that they confused the issue by introducing the new two-tier system concurrently with, and mixed up with, a 25 per cent. price rise. The second, which springs from the first, was that they let the country get the idea that they were being offered, as an alternative to the existing service, a better one at the new price, whereas in fact they were being offered as an alternative a worse one at the old price.

If Her Majesty's Government had put up the price of the letter post to 5d. and then, after a period, introduced the new second-tier service at 4d. as an alternative, the public might well have complained at the first but subsequently they would have welcomed the second. Even with the change in price and the change in system being brought in together, things could have been managed better. If people had been told, "We are sorry, but if the postal service is to be kept at its present standard, the price will have to go up to 5d.; but for those who are prepared to put up with a slower service, we will run a secondary one for 4d.", this could have been generally understood. As it is, the method of presentation muddied the Post Office, and it muddled the general public.

Lack of communication within the Post Office has led to the sort of case to which my noble friend Lord Ferrers and the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, have referred, and of which one heard of hundreds of examples in the early days, where the second-class post was purposely delayed. Lack of preparation within the Post Office led to the situation where more overtime had to be paid to get less work done. And now, as we see from the latest figures (and I have slightly different and slightly more accurate figures than my noble friend Lord Teviot) a smaller percentage of all mail is getting first-class treatment than before the introduction of the new system.

Previously, 80 per cent. of all mail had first-class treatment, whereas now, of the 32 per cent. of the total post which is sent first-class, 94 per cent. actually gets quick delivery and, of the 68 per cent. which is sent second-class, 41 per cent. gets quick delivery. To save your Lordships working it out for yourselves, that means that, irrespective of the postage paid, 57.96 per cent. of all mail gets first-class treatment—which is quite a drop on the previous 80 per cent. All this can be, and no doubt, is being sorted out. It is only a pity that better planning did not prevent these muddles from happening in the first place.

But the effect on the public is even more serious. The noble Lord, Lord Geddes of Epsom, said that it was not so much a matter of the Post Office running the system wrongly as of the public using the system wrongly: and this may well be so. But the reason the public are using the system wrongly is that the idea of the new system was presented to them so badly in the first place. Previous experience has shown that putting up the cost of postage usually leads to a 2 per cent. drop in the amount of mail posted. This time the drop has been 4 per cent.—exactly double. With the small margins on which the Post Office works, this could be disastrous. In the past, the 2 per cent. loss has been made up after a month or two, but in the present instance, with the general sense of confusion in the country to-day about the post, how soon can we expect the 4 per cent. loss to be made up?

The two-tier post has divided the posting public in a rather odd way. The very reasonable intention was that everybody should send important or urgent letters by first-class mail, and other items by second-class mail. But what has actually happened is this. On the one hand, there are people who make it a point of honour to deny the extra penny to the Post Office, and they send everything, no matter what its importance, by second-class mail. On the other hand, there are people who feel that it is somehow a breach of manners to the recipient to use a 4d. stamp, and they are inclined to send most things by first-class mail. This may, in a way, carry out the wishes of the Post Office to divide mail into two classes, but surely it is the letters and not the senders that should be divided into the sheep and the goats.

But, my Lords, the worst effect of the lot is the complete loss of public confidence in the Post Office. The public feel, perhaps wrongly, that there has been an attempt to pull the wool over their eyes. They thought they were being offered something better for the extra 1d. They did not believe at the time that they would get it, and they now feel that they were right.

My noble friend Lord Ferrers is asking what steps Her Majesty's Government intend to take. I should like to ask Her Majesty's Government to do three things. The first is to admit, if not in public at least to themselves, that they have made a fundamental nonsense of the introduction of this new system. As my noble friend said, the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, will no doubt produce figures in abundance to prove that the two-tier system is a success. He may well tell your Lordships that 94 per cent. of all first-class mail is being delivered quickly now, compared with 93 per cent. before. But against this we must put the 4 per cent. drop in the quantity of mail and the large drop in the quick delivery of all mail. The essential point is that, although the system may be right, the method of introducing it was wrong. If you are to learn from mistakes, to put right the effects of mistakes and to avoid repeating the same mistakes, you must first recognise them as mistakes. Secondly, I ask Her Majesty's Government to do at they can to increase the flexibility and efficiency of the new system. Lastly, and most important of all, there must be an all-out effort by the Postmaster General and the Post Office, at all levels, to regain the confidence of the public which they have lost.

7.15 p.m.


My Lords, I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Denham, said, and would add the suggestion that his first point might be thought over carefully. It might be worth while actually admitting to the public that the scheme was badly presented. It was badly presented, and many people feel that they have been "had". But in regard to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Geddes of Epsom, one can appreciate that they have not been "had" all along the line.

That brings me to my real point. I have heard all the speeches except the opening passages of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and I have heard no word said about the humble postcard. It just so happens that in my pocket I have a postcard. It is absolutely fortuitous. It was written to my club barber and posted at Biggar, in Lanarkshire, on Friday, making an appointment for this morning. But I arrived before the postcard so I said to the barber, "Let me have it. I will take it back to the Post Office in Lanarkshire": because our Post Office there is very well run—there is no question about that.

So I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, to urge his right honourable friend to give another thought to the humble postcard. The other day I found among my father's papers, in an old writing case, a postcard with a halfpenny stamp embossed on it. Admittedly, it was a King Edward VII stamp, and it was unused but my mind went back to the days when you could go into a post office, put down ld., get a post card, scribble, "Arriving by so-and-so-train", post it, and know that it would get there the next day. Here I come back to my opening remarks. Is it possible, as a step towards convincing people that they have not been "had" (and I refer particularly to Scotsmen), for the postcard to go as first-class mail for 4d., because to many people—and far more humble people than those in industry or anything else—the postcard has always been a most convenient, highly economical article by which to send a message in this country? Of course, with modern sorting machinery and so on, this suggestion may not work out. I do not know. But the sole object of my taking part in this debate is to say a word for the humble postcard, and to ask whether it could go as first-class mail for a penny less than the full 5d. stamp.

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate. I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for initiating it and all the other noble Lords who have taken part, as well as those who have stayed behind to hear the Answer. It is important that we should have the most efficient postal service for our commerce, our industry and the community as a whole. Therefore it is just as well that the whole subject should be adequately discussed.

It is not underrating the position—and this has been brought out this evening—to say that before the new system was introduced in September last year there was general acceptance of the standard and reliability of the service given. That is not to say that everything was perfect, but there was no general complaint against the service as a whole, such as those which have been voiced over the last few months. It may well be the case that the publicity associated with the new venture has brought the service very much more into the limelight, and certainly a great deal has been said, both in this House and elsewhere, about its shortcomings. This has given rise, I am sorry to say, to an atmosphere of misunderstanding and, indeed, of mistrust of the new service which is entirely unwarranted.

I shall of necessity repeat things which have already been said, but I hope your Lordships will feel that I can best serve the House if, in replying to the debate, I bring into proper perspective the situation leading up to the introduction of the two-tier letter service. The postal side of the Post Office is, to use a modern phrase, a labour intensive industry, and its finances are particularly vulnerable to increases in staff costs, which account for almost 75 per cent. of all expenditure. When faced with the prospect of a deficit arising from increased costs, Her Majesty's Government decided against any worsening in the services given, and faced up squarely to the need for increased postal charges, unpopular though such a step was bound to be. Even so, the new tariffs were not introduced until justification for the increased charges had been the subject of searching examination by the National Board for Prices and Incomes. My Lords, I told the House previously that our prices represent very good value in comparison with postal charges elsewhere, as has been admitted to-night, and that remains true to-day. From the point of view of revenue alone, it would have been sufficient to put a penny on ordinary letters and a penny on printed papers, and to leave the services as they were. This would have had the merit of simplicity and, although unwelcome, it would have been comprehended by everybody. But there was much more to the problem which faced the Post Office than that.

The ideal, as the House will know, is to sort and dispatch the same evening all letters posted by the end of the normal working day and deliver them, save in some very remote areas, next day, and preferably early the next morning. It has long been recognised, however, that this ideal could not be attained in practice because of the bulk of letters to be handled. For many years before the present system was introduced postings had been divided, as has now been understood, into two main streams with fully paid letters in one and printed papers at a lower rate of postage in the other. As my noble friend Lord Geddes of Epsom pointed out, it was only by deferring treatment of printed papers until later that the post offices were able to ensure that fully paid letters received priority for inclusion in mails giving, for the most part, delivery the next day. The principle of segregating and deferring lower-paid mail is not, I must emphasise, a new one.

One of the operational problems over the years has been that too much mail reaches sorting offices after 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and, in spite of publicity campaigns for earlier posting, the peaks of traffic received during the evening have become more acute. At some offices evening postings account for 75 to 80 per cent. of the total postings for the day, and, even though printed papers were put on one side, it was becoming increasingly difficult to sort and dispatch the fully paid letters within the time available. These letters had to be processed within an hour or two of receipt to catch the night trains and air services to all parts of the United Kingdom, and it was clear that, with their number increasing year by year, an almost impossible operational problem would develop. Something had to be done to prevent the serious undermining of the vital overnight service given to fully paid letters. Experience over the years showed that appeals to post early in the day were unlikely to have anything more than very marginal effect, and other means had to be sought to reduce the peaks of work.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one question at this stage? Is there any reason why everybody posting a letter before noon (shall we say?) should not pay 4d. and everybody posting a letter after noon pay 5d.? In that way you give an incentive to post early, rather than just asking them to do it.


My Lords, I answered a Starred Question on this point in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, before the last Recess. My right honourable friend also answered a Question the other day in another place. What he said was: No. The increase in postage was necessary to enable the Post Office to meet its financial target. We have for many years encouraged the early posting of printed papers by despatching on the same day those posted before an advertised time, but the quantity posted early remained very small. If we arranged that letters posted after a fixed time would be delivered next day at an extra charge, there would be serious practical difficulties in preventing posting of lower-rate items after the prescribed time and in handling them. A better way of meeting customers' posting needs, and of assisting postal operations, is to give the customer a choice of service throughout the day …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 17/10/68, col. 160.] If the noble Lord would be good enough to look up the debate on the Starred Question in this House—he can find it through the Library—I am sure he will find that the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, was quite satisfied that, even if he posted his letters in Carlisle, where I think he lives, before 11 o'clock or 12 o'clock, or whatever time the noble Lord thinks, they still would not get to Manchester before 5 or 6 o'clock, which is the peak time there. That is really the answer. It was a sensible thought on the part of the noble Lord. I had it myself once, but I have since given it up.

My Lords, it may be argued that one way out of the dilemma would be to recruit more staff, but this has its difficulties. I would ask noble Lords to think for a moment about the conditions in which many of our postal staff have to operate. Some are regularly on late night duties, missing the normal social intercourse with their families and friends taken for granted in many other walks of life; and some come on duty at 5 a.m. or earlier and go out on delivery by 7 a.m. in all weathers. Some work at these hours is inevitable, but surely the Post Office was right in endeavouring to ease the burden placed on its staff by seeking other means to reduce the peaks of work.

It was known that many letters sent by ordinary post were not urgent, and that senders would have been content for them to go by the slower printed paper post had they been admissible in that service. My noble friend Lord Geddes pointed out the difficulty of this. The illogicality of the old system was simply that senders could choose the cheaper and slower service only if their mail happened to fall into certain categories, as he pointed out. These categories bore no relation to handling costs or other operational requirements. Moreover, the alignment of lower price with contents meant that all printed paper mail had to be in envelopes left open for inspection. This was a nuisance to many business houses, and was becoming increasingly a nuisance to the Post Office because such letters could not easily be handled by the mechanised sorting equipment which the noble Earl. Lord Ferrers, must have seen at Norwich. I was very glad that he went there. He seemed very surprised that I knew he had been there, but we are a communications Department. He said that people came from all over the world to admire the sorting office there because it was the best in the world, and then went on to run it down and say that it was much less satisfactory. How can he contradict even himself so much as that without noticing it?


My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord, I think he has taken the thing slightly out of context. I did not denigrate the Norwich sorting office. I said that it was the best in the world. All I was asking was: Why are the others not like it?


I am coming to that point when I deal with the noble Earl's speech in a little more detail. The fact is that he said that people come from all over the world to see it, and then went on to contradict himself in his next sentence. The noble Earl will see when he reads his own speech to-morrow, as I hope and am sure he will, that I am not misrepresenting what he said.

As has been said, prior to the introduction of the two-tier system postings were roughly in the proportion of 60 per cent. fully paid mail to 40 per cent. at the printed paper rate. To put it sharply and simply, the Post Office wanted to have a minority of the mail fully paid instead of vice versa. This could be achieved only by the movement, through exercise of consumer choice, of a great mass of mail from the more expensive into the slower and cheaper service. This the two-tier system was designed to achieve, and the forecast made before it was introduced, of 32 per cent. in the first-class and 68 per cent. in the second, was in practice very near the mark. At present, 33 per cent. of all postings are first-class; so that estimate was not too bad.

I think it will be agreed that action was necessary to safeguard the overnight service for higher-paid letters, and I believe that the course adopted was the only one open to my right honourable friend the Postmaster General. My Lords, I can say quite categorically that the new arrangements have not brought about any deterioration in the service given to the higher-paid letters. Routine sampling undertaken at Post Offices up and down the country shows that 94 per cent. of 5d. stamped letters are delivered the day after posting. This compares more favourably with 92 per cent. of fully paid letters during the year preceding the change.

The Post Office was not content to rely on these samples alone, and there are many facts to support the figure I have quoted. There have been special examinations, both at postal delivery offices and upon receipt of the mail at the premises of business houses and commercial undertakings. I do not propose to burden your Lordships with too many examples; but those that I give will, I am sure, impress the House and perhaps will make certain noble Lords feel a little sorry for what they have said. At Oxford and Cambridge, Post Office representatives visiting a number of large business firms found that 97 per cent. of the first-class mail received from all over the country was delivered by the day following.

Two large mail order firms at Bradford advised the Post Office that they had received 95 per cent. and 97 per cent. respectively of their mail the day after it was posted. Examinations of mail for firms in the North-West of England showed that, in the main, at least 94 per cent.—in some cases as much as 97 per cent. and 98 per cent.—was received the next day. In South-West England special examinations at six large Post Offices showed the figure as 97 per cent.

In Wales. checks at customers' premises showed the position at both Cardiff and Swansea to be 96 per cent. At Chester a similar check revealed 94 per cent.

In Sheffield visits to major firms showed that 99 per cent. of first-class mail secured next-day delivery.

Support for the good standards of service comes not from noble Lords in this House, but from the Chairman of the Sheffield Post Office Advisory Committee. At a Post Office Users' Council meeting with Chairmen of Post Office Advisory Committees in North East England he said: Sheffield Post Office Advisory Committee has conducted independent inquiries into the quality of service since the two tier system was introduced. The evidence shows that in Sheffield 97 per cent. of the first-class mail is being delivered by first post the next morning and has convinced us that nearly all the delays for which the Post Office is blamed originate with the senders, particularly post-room staff misdating meter franks or posting at places remote from the place of origin and later than they are supposed to. Then my right honourable friend Mr. Stonehouse, in a speech on November 4 last said: I have a number of examples here: for instance, 12,000 items between 10th and 20th October, from leading firms in the City, with a whole number of irregularities, mail sometimes being posted with the date on the envelope six or seven days before the actual date of posting."—[OFFICIAL., REPORT, Commons, Col. 613; 4/11/68.] You get this and you make up your mind that this is really what is happening. It is not done by the Post Office; but by people who are careless or perhaps trying to obstruct the general acceptance of this scheme by the public as a whole. My right honourable friend continued: There are these irregularities, and the failure rate on the part of some of these business firms in posting their mail is far greater than the one per cent. failure rate for which the Post Office itself may be responsible. I have here a whole bundle of irregularities committed by business firms which then complain because their mail appears to be delivered late. Last Friday, for example, in Central London, 2,700 items were handed in with Thursday's date, 31st October, on the envelopes. I could cite many other examples. I warn my noble friends on both sides of the House to go easy on this.

Again, at a recent meeting members of the London Chamber of Commerce (perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, if he had been here might have made some comment on this), major users of the post, commented favourably on our arrangements. Elsewhere the Post Office Advisory Committees in Aberdeen and Edinburgh and the Chamber of Commerce in Aberdeen have all expressed satisfaction with the service given.

I agree that these results have been achieved against the background of a smaller volume of first class mail (33 per cent. of total postings) as compared with the fully paid mail prior to September (60 per cent. of all mail posted). But even so, they are encouraging. During the early days of the new service, there was considerable criticism of the treatment of second-class mail and many complaints about unnecessary delay. At that time full priority was given to first-class mail and the locally posted second-class mail was not then included in first deliveries the next day. This was because we did not know what the proportions of first and second-class mail were likely to be. My right honourable friend decided however, after the Post Office had experience of the division, that some relaxation could be made. In full co-operation with the union concerned it was arranged that first deliveries should be filled up with second-class mail when this could be done without prejudice to first-class mail. Since then the quality of service of second-class mail has improved and routine sampling shows that 94 per cent. of letters stamped 4d. are delivered within two days of posting. This is borne out by special examination at Birmingham where the figure was 95 per cent. At Sheffield it was 96 per cent; at a mail order firm in Bradford 96 per cent. also. At Cardiff, Swansea and Chester checks at customers' premises showed 98, 95, and 96 per cent. respectively. Examinations made in the North-West of England, including Liverpool and Manchester, revealed that in some instances 98 per cent. was delivered within two days of posting.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, may feel very suspicious of statistics. These are not from the Post Office. Some are from their soundings but others are from very responsible bodies. If he can disbelieve these figures and believe the handful of five or six letters that he showed us, then he must be easily convinced. I do not think this is like him. I know him well. I have no ill feelings about this whatever.

I trust, my Lords, that there is no misunderstanding about the quality of service for second-class letters. About 41 per cent. of letters with 4d. stamps are delivered with first-class mail by the next day and about 53 per cent. the following day. The decision taken by my right honourable friend which I have already mentioned means that many letters for local delivery get first-class treatment for 4d. But a service of this sort cannot be guaranteed or advertised, for the principle of priority for 5d. mail is inviolate and we must look to the occasions when 4d. local letters have to take second place to first-class mail. The period of very heavy postings before Christmas is always an anxious time for the Post Office, but it was decided that to give the maximum benefit possible to 5d. mail the segregation of first and second-class letters would continue throughout the period. This was a cal- culated risk, but I am happy to say that the result was an appreciably better service for higher paid mail than in previous years. At times of pressure such as Christmas the routine records of quality of service cannot be maintained, but it is known that in some parts of the country around 90 per cent. was delivered within two days of posting. A service of this kind at this time of year was particularly appreciated by commerce and industry, and it is fair to say that it could not have been achieved but for the two-tier system.

At the beginning of November my right honourable friend the Postmaster General arranged for one of the postal regional directors to conduct a full survey of the two-tier system and to report at the end of six months. One of the matters the survey is covering is the identification, with a view to their elimination, of weak points in the mail handling and transport systems which can lead to failures in service. Already certain improvements have been made and others found to be possible will be implemented without awaiting publication of the report. In the meantime, the issue of the new 4d. definitive stamp, red in colour, on January 6 should lead to improved segregation of first-class and second-class letters at the first handling stage. This in turn should reduce the risk of first-class letters receiving second-class treatment.

The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, was kind enough to write me a letter, and this is the reply that I should like to give him. The noble Lord suggested that the Post Office had not saved much money by confining to newly published newspapers the concession of being given first-class service at second-class rates. He feels that this concession should be extended also to people who are sending old newspapers to their friends. In reply to his point I would ask the House to recall what is one of the main reasons for the introduction of the two-tier service; namely, the need to reduce the volume of mail being handled during the expensive evening peak of work in sorting offices. If someone wants to have a newspaper, or any other letter or package, handled urgently during the peak period, he can choose to do so by paying the first-class rate. If he does not mind desperately about its being delivered a day later, he can freely decide to post it at second-class mail rate. Naturally, many people who are sending on newspapers which are already old choose the latter alternative, since speed is no longer of the essence, and I see little reason or justification for giving these old newspapers any preferential treatment over ordinary correspondence.

When it comes to new newspapers, however, there is some reason for a concession. The simple fact is that many new newspapers have to go first-class if they are to go by post at all. People do not like to pay for newly published newspapers that arrive a day late. Thus, if there had been no concession, publishers of newspapers, or perhaps their subscribers, would have been more or less obliged last year to take on a double increase in postage, from 3d., the old printed paper and newspaper rate, to 5d., the new first-class letter rate. In addition, newspapers are generally posted in bulk, so that they are simpler for the Post Office to handle than those posted singly. Finally, I would stress to the noble Lord that the concession extends only to newspapers registered at the Post Office. The qualifications for this are fairly strict. For example, all fortnightly or monthly periodicals are excluded, but a local weekly newspaper, if registered, may be sent under the terms of the concession if it is posted by the publisher or the newsagent.

The noble Lord, Lord Denham, referred to the introduction of the scheme, and I am authorised to say that if he cares to read the Report of the debate in the House of Commons last week he will find that the Postmaster General said all this quite clearly. But just to have it on the Record here I would say this. It was in some ways a pity (we are admitting the mistake as he asked us to do; and we do not mind) that the new service was introduced concurrently with the tariff increase. Had it been possible to have a straight price increase, followed six or nine months later by the introduction of the two-tier system, it would have been acknowledged as a worth-while concession. As it is, the two-tier system is fulfilling the purpose for which it was designed; that is. to reduce the traffic peaks and safeguard the priority of higher-paid letters.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, asked about Havant. I hope that by now the noble Earl understands what the answer is going to be—though I do not know: he could not have learned very much from his visit. Let me try to explain again. The noble Earl referred to the treatment of first-class and second-class letters posted at Havant, Hampshire. The House is aware that the aim is to get all the first-class letters away by the key night trains for delivery next day. For example, the first-class letter posted at the main post office at Havant by 6.30 p.m. should catch the mail train serving the Western, North-Eastern and North-Western parts of the country; and a first-class letter for London should be delivered next day if posted as late as 8.30 p.m. But the Post Office cannot deal with second-class letters at this speed, and the course adopted is to get the 5d. letters on their way as early as possible and to let the 4d. letters follow later. Most of the second-class mail is, in fact, despatched from Havant to all parts of the country by 8.30 p.m., but where direct mails to distant parts are not warranted, the remaining correspondence is sent to Portsmouth at the same time for inclusion in mails front that office. Generally the 4d. mail is delivered as advertised by the next but one working day.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord has missed the point altogether. My information is that both 4d. and 5d. mail goes to Havant station. The 5d. mail goes in one direction and the 4d. mail goes in the opposite direction, although they are both designed to go to London. Does the noble Lord say that this does not happen?


No, my Lords, I say that it does happen.


Then is not that a very odd thing?


My Lords, the noble Earl does not seem to follow very much of what is going on in this debate. The whole point is exactly that. We give priority to letters that are stamped 5d. and do not give priority, or the same priority, to those not stamped so much.


My Lords, I really must interrupt the noble Lord. if the 5d. letter goes on the fast train to London, does he say that, because the 4d. letter gets a lesser priority, it therefore has to go in the opposite direction to Portsmouth?


My Lords, it gets on the Portsmouth train which is not getting in the way of the first-class mail from Havant.


Why cannot it go on the train to London?


I do not think that the noble Earl will ever understand.


I do not think the noble Lord opposite does, for he has not answered the question.


Yes I have: five or ten times.

Now, my Lords, we have had a lot of talk about the Post Office. We admit— some of us— that it is the best in the world. I do not know whether any of your Lordships have ever been to the United States. People do not talk very highly of the post there. I should like to tell the House, and the country, and the B.B.C. and everybody else, that the United States Post Office runs with a large deficit. The deficit is of the order of over £400 million a year. This loss is greater than the total postal income of the British Post Office, which, for the year ended March, 1968, was a little under £360 million. So the United States Post Office is losing each year more than the whole of our postal revenue.

My Lords, I remember having a very amusing conversation with the noble Earl a little while ago. He said that an ancestor of his on the way to his execution wore the same clothes as he did on his wedding day. He was asked why this was so and he said, "Well, these are the two unhappiest days of my life." I hope that after this debate the noble Earl will not feel so depressed.