HL Deb 21 April 1975 vol 359 cc596-9

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether in view of the problem of the national postal service in paying its way without increasing charges which impose severe burdens on business and domestic users they will appoint a committee of inquiry or a Royal Commission to inquire into the administration of the service and associated matters.


My Lords, high inflation and prolonged price restraint made substantial increases essential for the postal service to get nearer the point of paying their way. The case for them was thus compelling, and was accepted as such by the Post Office Users' National Council and the Price Commission after detailed examination. The Government do not feel that a further inquiry at this stage would serve any useful purpose.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I think the Government are wrong, and that the Answer is most unsatisfactory? Is he also aware that there is considerable frustration in the country among postal users, because every now and again there are increases in costs? Surely the consumers and everybody else are entitled to know something about the inner administration of the postal services, in order to ensure that everything is all right. Why do the Government object to some kind of inquiry? Even if the matter were sent to the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries it would be valuable. After all, there have been inquiries into nationalised industries, so why not an inquiry into this one?


My Lords, the Government do not object to some kind of inquiry. In fact, there was a very deep inquiry by the Post Office Users' National Council, which is a most active body with a splendid chairman. Possibly, I might suggest that my noble friend reads the document in question when he will discover the detail into which it went.


My Lords, may I assure my noble friend that I have read the document over and over again and it is completely inadequate. It is quite impossible for members of the Post Office Users' National Council to devote sufficient time to deal adequately with this subject. I do not in the least blame them for this inadequate document. However, I put this question to my noble friend and I mean what I say. Is it not time that we ensured that in the nationalised industries—and I have had something to do with them—everything is all right? An investigation now and again cannot possibly do any harm.


My Lords, if my noble friend is not persuaded by this red document, he might then pick up a blue document, which is the First Report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, which I read with great interest, and which on page 208 says: In the opinion of Your Committee the standard of postal services that the Post Office aim to provide is remarkably high, and compares well with that provided in many other countries". They go on to say elsewhere that it is a question of maintaining those services and keeping costs down.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in the past three or four years the tempo of British postal services, and therefore their effect on business efficiency, has deteriorated considerably? It has not only gone higher in costs but has become slower and is a great disincentive to efficiency.


My Lords, I know that the noble Lord is always impressed by statistics. I can give him the figures of delivery times and, although there has been some deterioration, it is not as great as the noble Lord appears to suggest. In the main, those delays were due to lack of staff, which in turn was due to the fact that wages were lower; and I am afraid my noble friend must accept in this labour-intensive industry that if wages go up prices must rise as well.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that his remarks prove to the House that the Post Office is a labour-intensive industry? Is he further aware that when the Labour Government came to Office they were faced with the position that the Post Office had received instructions from the previous Government that their positive returns from postal charges, et cetera, must not increase by more than 8 to 9 per cent. Applications for wage increases had been lodged by various trade unions and the Post Office was not in a position to meet those demands. Is my noble friend further aware that we took the wrong step— and this is my opinion speaking as an ex-Minister of that Department—when we introduced the second tier system, and instead of having the envelope closed we should have left it open. That would have meant more money coming into the coffers of the Post Office than it is receiving today.


My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble friend. What he said at the beginning of his supplementary question confirms what I said about the prolonged price restraint that has been imposed over the past few years.


My Lords, may I ask whether my noble friend could invite the Post Office Users' National Council, at the end of, say, a year, to examine the position of the postal service in respect of publications of learned societies? In the light of that suggestion, will the Government consider whether some additional support is necessary, in view of the very serious impact which these charges are having, however unavoidable they may be?


Yes, my Lords. I will examine what my noble friend said, and see whether this matter can be brought to the attention of the Post Office. But I think the frustration which is apparent here is not limited to the postal services.


My Lords, would my noble friend indicate whether further consideration can be given to the abolition of the second postal delivery, bearing in mind the economies which could be made in Post Office costs and, also, that the abolition of the second delivery would not cause all that much inconvenience to most people?


My Lords, I will certainly see that what has been said is brought to the attention of the Post Office Board.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have been thinking very much along the lines of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and that, in my view, some of the less important customers of the Post Office would prefer to have fewer collections and deliveries and to pay a little less?


My Lords, that is a point of view that is expressed by some people, but there are many others who wish to retain the present level of service, and if we are to maintain it then we have to pay for it.

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