HL Deb 16 April 2002 vol 633 cc822-4

2.58 p.m.

Earl Russell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Department for Work and Pensions will abandon the assumption that communications to claimants have been received two days after posting.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, in practice 97 per cent of benefit cheques are received within two working days of posting and other urgent communications to clients are posted in good time. For example, notification of work-focused interviews are sent by first-class post at least four days before the interview date and, if necessary, clients are given three opportunities to attend over and beyond good cause.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the ability to communicate with claimants by post is a vital part of the work of her department? Does she also agree that despite those few encouraging statistics, the assumption that communications are received within two working days, as a result of changes in the Post Office, is degenerating from the optative into a legal fiction? Will she attempt to ensure that in any discussions on the future of the Post Office her department is involved in putting the case for it to remain a genuinely universal service?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I certainly agree with the last point made by the noble Earl. The position of the Government is clear; we are committed to the postal service remaining a universal service. However, I wonder whether the noble Earl can help me because I do not understand where he has identified the problem. As I have said, although 97 per cent of all correspondence arrives within two days, urgent notifications such as interview details, are posted four days ahead. Furthermore, if the letter fails to arrive, another opportunity is given. If that letter fails to arrive, then a third opportunity is offered. Furthermore, most such notifications are in fact made by telephone and then followed up with a letter. I do not fully understand the problem identified by the noble Earl.

I agree that if 97 per cent of all correspondence arrives within two days, then 3 per cent does not. However, I am not sure what the noble Earl thinks may hinge on that.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, if the Post Office had been given the commercial freedom promised in the last Labour Party manifesto and if it was properly funded and free of political interference, then it would be safe to assume that the once great Post Office could be relied on to deliver within two days?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I would hope that that was the case. However, that would be what is called a counterfactual; that is, if and only if. It is the case that most of the department's communications with people, including pensioners, are conducted on the telephone. Those calls are followed up by letter. Perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has evidence to suggest that people have been seriously inconvenienced by the failure of key letters to arrive when they should have and, as a result, suffered hardship. I do not have any such evidence.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the problem may not lie entirely with the Post Office? In exchanges yesterday in another place, it was pointed out that the Secretary of State, in writing to his opposite number concerning pensions, addressed his letter to: Mr David Willetts, Member of Parliament, Labour Party, Regent Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire".—[Official Report, Commons, 15/4/02; col. 351.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Lord has persuaded me that Mr Willetts is all things to all people.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that those of us who have lived in other countries still find the postal service in this country remarkably good in comparison? Can she also comment on the problems that arise when a letter is misaddressed? Usually there is quite a time lag before the letter that has been wrongly addressed is returned to the sender. Does this situation present any problems in her department?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. The one area where a problem can arise is not so much within the department but when local authorities send out housing benefit cheques to a tenant who has moved on. On occasion the landlord will then collar the cheque or giro. Housing benefit is the one area which so far as I am aware has a problem. As a result, around a year ago the Government encouraged local authorities to insist that the Post Office does not redirect giro cheques; that is, if the letter cannot be delivered to the individual, it should be sent back to the department. I am pleased to say that around three-quarters of all local authorities have now incorporated that condition in respect of their correspondence.

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