HL Deb 20 May 1976 vol 370 cc1458-63

3.7 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 they accept that the public interest is served by the Post Office's organising weekend collections so that often there is no outgoing mail from 9.30 a.m. Saturday until early on Monday morning.


My Lords, I believe that the public interest is best served by an economically viable postal service. This may sometimes entail changes which reduce the quality of service; in this case the change is subject to review after a year.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this change was made against the advice of the Post Office Users' National Council, that it was against the advice of the Union of Post Office Workers and that it was against the advice of British industry? Is this symptomatic of open government? Is the noble Lord confident that the Post Office have correctly assessed the financial consequences?—because recently they have not been very clever about getting their figures right. Have the Post Office worked out just how many people will not now be able to send letters and buy postage stamps because this valuable service has been withdrawn?


My Lords, the answer to the first part of the noble Lord's supplementary question is that this has nothing to do with open government. As the noble Lord knows, this is a matter for decision by the Post Office management. The answer to the second part of the noble Lord's question is that any calculations are a matter for the Post Office.


My Lords, since the Post Office appears to have made a profit of £100 million, what is the use of making such a profit and then taking this measure? Does it mean that, if the Post Office make a profit of £200 million, we shall post a letter on Saturday morning and it will not arrive until the following Friday?


My Lords, my noble friend will know that the figure of, I think, £150 million is speculation in the Press. No figure has yet been announced by the Post Office. My noble friend may care to note that, whatever profit is made, the speculation is about the telecommunications business, not about the postal business with which this Question is concerned. Therefore it bears no relevance to this Question. In any event, whatever profit is earned will be earned on assets of approximately £5 billion and a turnover of £2.5 billion. Against this, a figure of £150 million does not seem to me to be at all unreasonable.


My Lords, could the noble Lord explain whether official mail despatched from Select Committees of this House travels first class and, if so, why such a communication mailed from this House last Friday, the 14th, was not delivered in Edinburgh until Tuesday the 18th?


My Lords, as the noble Earl will know, this is a matter for the Post Office. I know that the Post Office management are anxious to investigate any instances of delayed delivery and, if the noble Earl cares to let me have the envelope of the communication, I will ask the Post Office to look into the matter.


My Lords, will not the noble Lord agree that many people have time to answer a great deal of their mail only at the weekend? I live in Chelsea and on the letter boxes there is a notice stating that there will be no collections on Sunday. If the Post Office have to save money, would it not be better to cancel the Saturday collection and have a Sunday collection instead so that the mail would be delivered on Monday morning?


My Lords, as the noble Lord may know, the Post Office have said that, per unit of mail collected, the costs of collecting mail on Sunday are six times higher than the costs of collecting mail on Saturday. That is the Post Office figure, not mine. I merely give it to the noble Lord for his information. The noble Lord may also like to know that I understand from the Post Office that approximately 5 million letters are normally collected on Sundays as opposed to 185 million letters collected in an average week, Monday to Saturday.


My Lords, when my noble friend asks for details of some fault to be submitted to him, is he not contradicting what he said earlier, incorrectly, that this has nothing to do with Her Majesty's Government? Does not the noble Lord know that all the affairs of nationalised industries—the Post Office, et cetera—can be debated in another place and, presumably, in your Lordships' House? Would he please reconsider this matter?


My Lords, I do not think I ever said that your Lordships' House is not able to debate any matter that your Lordships see fit to debate. What I said was that matters which are the day-to-day responsibility of nationalised industries—in this case the management of the Post Office—are not matters for which Government Ministers are responsible or in which the Government see fit to interfere. I believe that if the nationalised industries are to be run sensibly by reasonable people they must be given a decent measure of commercial freedom by Governments of both Parties.


My Lords, while the day-to-day management of the business of the Post Office may be the responsibility of the Post Office, have the Government inquired for their own information whether the Post Office is satisfied that any savings made as a result of the withdrawal of these services will not be less than the loss of revenue to be expected?


My Lords, I confess that there are times when it seems to me that noble Lords opposite apply two standards: one to private industry and the other to the nationalised industries. The Government are under constant attack from noble Lords opposite for placing too great a burden on private industry in terms of form filling and requests for information, and yet here we have a decision which is clearly within the management responsibility of the Post Office and the noble Lord is asking me whether I have asked for extra information which would increase their burdens. As has been made clear already in this exchange, before these changes were made the Post Office consulted the Post Office Users' National Council and other bodies which they are under a duty to consult. It is true that the Post Office Users' National Council did not recommend that this particular change should be made, but consultation does not mean dictation.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell this House how much money the Post Office thinks it is saving by not having a Sunday collection?


The saving is £8 million, my Lords.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that while no one would deny that the management have the right to make the ultimate decision, where the unanimous view outside is against what is done they ought at any rate to try to meet what is suggested? For example, could they not have a collection box at each sorting office where people could take their own letters and avoid the six-fold cost of collection? "Do it yourself is the general mode nowadays and if we could do that we could save money and at the same time have the service.


My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware from my original Answer, this particular saving is to be reviewed after one year and no doubt the many representations which will be made to the Post Office Users' National Council—which is the right body to which representations should be made, and not myself—will be considered by the Post Office and by the Post Office Users' National Council after the one year period.


My Lords, can my noble friend say to what extent these restricted week-end services will impose additional burdens on the telephone service?


No, my Lords; I am afraid I do not have that information.


My Lords, in consideration of this exercise and the costs involved, can the noble Lord give any indication of the importance given to the loss of national effort by the inconvenience of letters written on a Sunday not being collected? And does he remember—but he does not, of course—the objections to the abolition of a Sunday delivery, which many of us will remember, when those who cared to work hard could work on Sundays (after they had been to church), deal with their mail and have it delivered next day, and so the national effort as a whole gained a lot from that which it now loses?


My Lords, if the noble Lord can produce any figures showing the effect on the national effort involved by this reduction of service—after the reduction of service has had some effect on the national effort—I am sure that I and the Post Office will be interested to see them.


My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that the Government cannot entirely opt out from the efficiency of monopolies such as the Post Office, which is part of the essential infrastructure of a civilised and industrial society? Does it not seem high-handed, against all the advice, just to close down this service? As has been suggested, there are some compromises which could be made, such as the gathering and the taking of letters to the Crown post offices, which would save some money and would still provide a skeleton service for those who are deeply anxious to continue to use a week-end service.


My Lords, I am very interested in what the noble Lord has to say but these are matters for the Post Office and not for the Government. The Government do not opt out of responsibility for the nationalised industries, but as I have said already, we believe that if they are to be run efficiently the management of the Post Office and other nationalised industries must be given a chance to do just that. I know that the noble Lord enjoys taking every opportunity in this House of making Party political points against the nationalised industries, but I would remind him that in doing so he is attacking a large proportion of the workers, the top management and middle management of this country. If that is what he wants to do he is of course at liberty to do so, but I believe he does this country no good at all by doing so.


My Lords, I am prepared to take lessons in patriotism from the noble Lord when he is a little maturer.


My Lords, will it encourage the noble Lord to know that he has at least one friend in this House who welcomes the change because he now no longer has a guilt complex for not writing letters on a Sunday? Will the noble Lord also be encouraged that many of my parishioners assert that the reason why they regret the passing of the Sunday post is that now their wives expect them to do a little more housework in the kitchen on Sundays?

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shepherd)

My Lords, we have spent ten minutes on this Question. However interesting and however partisan the exchanges may have been, I would suggest that we move to the next Question.