HL Deb 29 March 1976 vol 369 cc855-60

2.45 p.m.


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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether their approval is required before the Post Office adopts different methods of separating and treating first and second class letters.


My Lords, no.


My Lords, while the day-to-day running is clearly a matter for the Post Office, are not the Government bound to be concerned with the general efficiency or otherwise of the citizens' ordinary postal services? Can the noble Lord state whether there are any machines in use or in prospect which identify only the 6½p stamp, so that a first class letter, one bearing also a 2p stamp, is classified as second class? Is the noble Lord aware that there are many complaints from the public about late deliveries of both first and second class mail, and that this may be one explanation?


My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right to say that day-to-day operational matters in the Post Office are not the concern of the Government, but at the same time we are, of course, concerned about the general efficiency of the service provided. As to the question of distinguishing between first and second class stamps, when I visited Mount Pleasant at Christmastime the machinery there was operated by hand, the envelopes were then marked as to whether they were first or second class, and from that point on the letters went through with the mark put on them by that machine; they could then be sorted by machine. I imagine that that is the system used in other sorting offices, though I personally am not familiar with them.


My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether the Carter Committee is to look into the present system of first and second class mail? Is he further aware that a great many people, myself included, believe, and have found to be true, the fact that delivery of mail has consistently got worse ever since the two-tier system was introduced?


My Lords, this matter would certainly be within the terms of reference of the Carter Committee, and it is a matter for them whether they look into it or not. My noble friend might be interested in some figures which I have been given on the quality of the service provided by the Post Office. On a rolling average, for the twelve months of 1975, the quantity of first class mail delivered the next working day after posting rose consistently: from January, 88.9 per cent., to December, 91.6 per cent. The similar percentage for second class mail rose, from January 1975, when it was 84 per cent., to 88.8 per cent. in December. That is the percentage of second class mail delivered on the second working day after posting. Again the rise was constant and steady. Those are both monthly rolling averages. My understanding is that the two months, January and February, this year have again seen substantial increases.


My Lords, could the noble Lord tell us what is a rolling average?


My Lords, my understanding is that the rolling average is not the average for that particular month, but the average up to that month for that year; in other words, you start at the beginning of the year, and if I give the figure for June it will be the average from January to June rather than for the month of June itself.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that these figures do not accord with the experience of anyone I have spoken to who has a large post bag? Is it true that, following the last postal increase, the volume of first and second class mail dropped to such an extent that the Post Office would have no difficulty in handling the whole of the post as if it was first class, and special and unusual measures have had to be taken to lengthen the time that second class mail takes to deliver? If that is true, will the Minister consider making a grant to the job creation programme of the Post Office to cover the cost?


My Lords, I am not aware of any comprehensive evidence which shows whether the figures I have given accord with personal experience of Post Office users. As to the second part of the noble Lord's supplementary question, the information which I have seen shows that while there has been a substantial drop in traffic, the Post Office has received increased revenue from the various price increases that have taken place. My understanding is that this new measure, by which second class mail will be delivered a day later than it has been in the past, will save £3 million in a full year, and that is a useful saving.


My Lords, is my noble friend in a position to state when the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications will be able to arrive at a decision which will enable it to educate people who are protesting against the Post Office on the subject of first and second class mail? Is my noble friend aware that ever since the Post Office came into being there has always been first and second class mail, the only difference being that, in its last form of introduction, second class mail became a sealed envelope instead of the open envelope which had hitherto been classified as second class mail?


My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend that there has been a two-tier system for at least 50 years. As the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries said, it seems sensible that the system should continue. As to the point my noble friend makes about educating the public, I have always felt that as Ministers are not responsible for the day-to-day running of the Post Office, it is for the Post Office, and not Ministers, to deal with these matters.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I initiated the first immediate debate in another place when the two-tier system was introduced by the then Postmaster-General, Mr. Stonehouse, and that, in subsequent cost and general operation, this has always been accepted as a matter for the Government? The noble Lord spoke of having observed—

The LORD PRIVY SEAL: (Lord Shepherd)

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord would allow me to intervene. I think that he is reading his supplementary question. I would remind him that two other noble Lords and the noble Baroness Lady Seear, were trying to get in before he intervened.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, in view of the fact that the figures which the Minister has given are highly optimistic and do not concur with the experience of a good many people—and the trend seems to be such that it will shortly be more than 100 per cent. satisfactory—may I ask him to tell us how the rolling average was calculated? What was the scale of the research in order to produce the figures, and how was the sampling undertaken?


And how big a sample was it, my Lords?


My Lords, I gave the figures in an attempt to be helpful and, of course, that has landed me in trouble. This is a matter for the day-to-day management of the Post Office and not something about which Government Ministers should intervene. If the noble Baroness wishes to disregard the figures which I have been given by the Post Office, or if she wishes to take up the matter of the figures with the Post Office, that, of course, is a matter for her. This is a matter for the day-to-day management of the Post Office.


My Lords, that is extremely unfair on my noble friend Baroness Seear. She asked how big was the sample and how reliable was the survey. May we have an answer?


My Lords, I will look into the matter and see whether I can find out from the Post Office.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, as recently as last Friday, of three letters, all fully stamped first class, posted from London to my home address, which is only 30 miles away, two, posted at 5.30 p.m., got there properly on the Saturday morning and that the third, which was posted at midday and had the postal code on it, did not arrive until this morning? What does the Minister intend to do about it?


My Lords, I was not aware of the facts as outlined by the noble Lord.


My Lords, I am sorry that I had not observed that other noble Lords were rising. The reason why I was looking at a note was because I had noted what the Minister had said in his reply to me. If I may just look at his words again, he spoke of having observed a hand operated system. May I ask whether he is aware that there is a rumour to the effect that a mechanical system is being introduced? Can he categorically dispel the current rumour that the new machines will identify only a phosphorus spot on a 6½p stamp and that, therefore, a letter will be passed as first class if it bears only a single Green Shield stamp?


My Lords, if the noble Lord would care to put down a Question on that, I will endeavour to answer it.


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to intervene. I was conscious last week of some pressure from certain noble Lords about the length of Question Time. The House may have noticed that my noble friends, both last Thursday and again today, have sought to shorten their Answers. We have now spent 19 minutes on three Questions. I hope the House would feel that this is unduly long and that noble Lords ought to respond to the restraint that I have pressed upon my noble friends in regard to Question Time.

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