HL Deb 08 May 1986 vol 474 cc819-22

3.11 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will ask the Post Office to devise means of reducing the queues in Post Offices particularly for those collecting pensions and other state benefits.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Lucas of Chilworth)

My Lords, the question of reducing queues in post offices is an operational matter for the Post Office Board. However, I am aware that the Post Office is continually looking for ways to improve the quality of the service that it offers to its customers in post offices.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I suppose that I must thank the noble Lord for his reply; but, really, does he not think that when there is a Question a week on the Post Office and its service to the community—or nearly a Question a week; he may pull me up on that—the Government might press them to improve the service? On my particular Question, is he aware that our local supermarkets in Scotland are able to guess and to know from experience when there will be a crowd and to engage extra people at the check-outs? As part of his duty, can he not tell the Post Office to do this?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the Post Office has made a number of changes to alleviate the problem which the noble Lord raises. For example, from October 1984 pensioners have been given Monday in addition to Thursday as a payment day. Child benefits are paid on Tuesdays and the bulk of unemployment benefit payments are made on Fridays and Saturdays. The Post Office has put to the Post Office unions a package of measures to improve the flexibility of both full-time and part-time staff. These matters are under discussion.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that those affected, particularly those in the pension queues, are some of the least able in the community to be able to stand waiting for long periods? As my noble friend has said that the Post Office are continually looking for ways of solving this problem, will the Government suggest to the Post Office that it institutes a competition to solve it, with perhaps the special issue of a commemorative stamp to honour the winner who produces the effective solution?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, as your Lordships also will be aware, the Post Office has to deal with some 8½ million pensioners each week throughout their 22,500 post offices. Suggestions as to how the perceived queueing time can be reduced are continually given consideration. I have told the House what is in progress between the board and the unions, and I look forward, as noble Lords look forward, to a successful outcome of those negotiations.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, would it not help if encouragement were given for stamps to be sold at other outlets? Is the noble Lord aware that last Saturday afternoon I heard a tourist being told at Victoria Station by someone in a bookstall that he could not buy a stamp until Tuesday because the post office closed at midday, the next day was Sunday and the day following that was the bank holiday? How is this going to help tourism?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, while the subject of postage stamps is very wide of the Question that the noble Lord has put down on the Order Paper, may I remind the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, of the answer that I gave to your Lordships on 14th April (at col. 409 of Hansard) when I said: there are some 12,000 shops and hotels which currently sell stamps in addition to the network of 21,000 post offices that are supplemented by 8,000 stamp vending machines. I should think that that was a reasonable number of stamp outlets even over a holiday period.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend who asked this Question will forgive me if I ask the Minister whether he is aware that the present counter system used by the Post Office is that which was recommended by me when I had the honour to be chairman of the Post Office Board's Quality of Service Committee? Is the Minister also aware that that system was only recommended after detailed research? It was found much better to have generic counter clerks doing everything rather than to have separate queues for pensioners and others. It was the best system and it has in fact been followed by many banks. Is the Minister further aware that if there are now queues, that can only mean either that there are not sufficient people serving at the counter, that the Post Office is not open for long enough or that it is not open at the right times?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am not quite sure how I should answer the noble Lord in response to his first supplementary question other than to say that what he introduced into the Post Office has been adapted as conditions have changed. The second question that he raises I cannot accept because what he is saying does not follow. What we have to make sure of and what the Post Office is trying to do is to ensure that there is the highest possible standard among those who serve behind the counters, that as many people are able to be dealt with as possible, and that the negotiations which are now in place with the Post Office unions with regard to the flexibility of existing staff and with the employment of part-time staff to even out the peaks and the troughs, remain one of the best chances that the Post Office has of meeting the surges in demand.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that it is not the length of the queue but the length of the time in the queue that is important, and that in some post offices where a single queueing system has been introduced the queue itself might be quite lengthy but the service really quite quick?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that observation. She is of course quite right. Matters are devolved to the local management to achieve the best possible service in each locality. There can be no overall system imposed because conditions vary quite considerably.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, may I ask the Minister this question? Would he be prepared to ask the Post Office Board whether on those days when pensioners in some parts of the country have to queue and wait, the post office should anticipate the queue, apologise and explain that that is the result of shortage of staff.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, it is not a question of shortage of staff at all. I have said on three occasions this afternoon that the Post Office are in negotiation with the unions to employ more flexibly their existing staff, and to employ part-time staff to even out the peaks. It is the wish of all those involved in serving the Post Office's customers to give a good and adequate service as it is equally the responsibility of the board to do so.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, will my noble friend be relentless in pursuing the Post Office to see that it carries out the suggestion from the other side of the House that the solution to this problem is adequate staff? If one postman in a rural area has influenza it means that the whole area gets its letters late. There are lots of people looking for jobs. Why does not the Post Office use spare men to supplement the services which are short?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I do not wish to be unkind to my noble friend, but the question of deliveries is a little different from the original Question. I repeat that the Post Office management are trying to secure with the unions agreements which will ensure greater flexibility in the use of existing staff in various duties and the addition of part-time staff. I look forward to the Post Office and the unions coming to a satisfactory agreement on these matters which I have little doubt will alleviate the conditions which noble Lords have described to me this afternoon.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Post Office performs a number of duties and functions on behalf of the state, at some considerable cost in terms of wages, space and so on, and more particularly in relation to pensions? Is the noble Lord quite sure that the state remunerates the Post Office adequately for the performance of such services, which involve it in very heavy expense?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I think your Lordships should be aware that the Post Office offers throughout its 22,500 offices some 150 different product transactions. Pensions, though accounting for payments to some 8,500,000 people, are just one of the 150. The Government have certain overall duties in regard to the Post Office, which itself has a statutory duty to provide its services economically and efficiently, while having regard to the social needs of the United Kingdom. It is for the management of the Post Office to deal with wages and other attendant costs.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that one of the problems posed in the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, is the closing of too many sub-post offices, which has increased the pressure on others?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, that is not true.