We pass from the Companies Bill to the deterioration of the postal services. Every Member of Parliament knows, and I am sure the Government will not deny, that the service given by the Post Office since the war is far inferior to what it was before the war, and even, in some respects, to what it was during the war. This week there has been a further big deterioration with the complete withdrawal of afternoon deliveries all over the country, except a delivery at 3 p.m. in Inner London. In the last few days, I have had a great deal of evidence of public dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. Before the war, our postal service was the best in the world. As I want to be brief, I will take only Inner London as an example. Before the war, one could post letters in Inner London up to 5.30 p.m. for delivery the same evening in any part of London, up to 7.30 p.m. for delivery by the first post next morning everywhere in England and Wales, and up to midnight for delivery by the first post in Greater London, in a large part of the home counties, and even as far away as Taunton and Cheltenham. All this was a spur to business and a boon to the public.
Today, both collections and deliveries cease about six hours earlier. The last delivery—again, I take Inner London—is 3 p.m. and the last collection 6.30 p.m., which is too late for most people who want to do their correspondence after business hours, including a number of small business men. The result is that no letter posted in London at, say, 7 o'clock in the evening is delivered even in Greater London for 38 hours, or, if it is posted on Friday, for 62 hours. The depth to which the internal postal service in this country has sunk is shown by the fact that many letters posted in London take longer to be delivered in a London suburb than in New York or Johannesburg. What makes the situation still worse is the later hour of the first morning delivery. Most people leave their homes before the post has arrived.
The Government have given various reasons or excuses for the inadequacy of the collections and deliveries, and the fact that the reasons have changed is evidence, to my mind, that the true reason has not always been given. In March last year, it was announced that, in the summer of last year, in London, the 7.30 and 9 p.m. pre-war collections would be resumed, and that there would be a 7 p.m delivery, except on Saturdays. That improvement, which was announced for last summer, was subsequently postponed until January of this year. I want to know what happened in the meantime. What was the cause of the delay? Was the delay due to protests by postal workers? I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General—to whose courtesy in answering the many questions which I have put to him I would like to pay tribute—to answer that question. On lath February, he admitted in this House that protests have been received. The later collections and deliveries were introduced in January, but after a few weeks they were withdrawn. The fuel crisis was blamed for that. I suppose the absence of light in the streets was meant. Was that really the reason? If collections and deliveries could be made during the war when the streets were blacked out at night, why should they not be made in peacetime? I suggest that the Government clutched at the fuel crisis as an excuse. If the Press can be believed, great pressure was brought to bear on the Government against the new hours by the Union of Postal Workers. I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether he will confirm or deny that statement which appeared in the Press?
Today the streets are still unlit, but now we are told that the reason for maintaining the cuts, and this week for extending them, is not fuel but manpower. If that is so, what has happened to the manpower that has been saved? If it has been diverted elsewhere, could he tell us where? Has it been used to shorten the postal hours? I put that question to the Assistant Postmaster-General Three weeks ago, and he could not give me a direct answer. He said, "Not necessarily." Is the surplus being so used or not? Or is it being used exclusively for the examination of Conservative slogans on letters? Apparently there is no gain in manpower yet, because the number of postmen, according to the latest figures that we have, has actually risen since the cuts were made. When the later collections and deliveries began, for their brief spell of life, in January, there were 85,178 postmen, and on 1st April, many weeks after the improvements had been withdrawn, there were 700 more postmen. I should like the Assistant Postmaster-General to explain that.
In conclusion, I am sure everyone in this House has the greatest admiration for the devotion and hard work of the individual postman. Everybody like Members of Parliament, who have a large correspondence are under a great debt to them. But if the public interest requires it they ought not to be exempt from evening work. After all, railwaymen lorry-men, dairy men, newspaper men, and even Members of Parliament toil far into the night for the common good, and members of an essential public service such as the Post Office ought to take their share. Besides the more letters are delayed the greater the burden on the night telephone operators. When I raised this question before I was told by the General Secretary of the Postal Workers' Union, in a letter to "The Times," that in prewar days some postmen worked 50 per cent. of their time on night duty. To me that indicates bad organisation, and I suggest that by better organisation and perhaps more mechanical sortings such a high percentage could be avoided. Anyhow that figure has no relation to today's conditions because the pre-war service included a midnight collection, which we were told by the Assistant Postmaster-General is never to be restored. In fact, he told us that people ought not to sit up at night and write letters. But what about the 7.30 and 9 o'clock collections and what about the 7 o'clock deliveries in London? What is the Postmaster-General's attitude to that, apart from the question of manpower? Does he think it reasonable or does he think it unreasonable that postmen should collect and deliver at those hours in the evening? I cannot believe that postal workers themselves think it right that a country so dependent on commerce as ours and with such a good postal record in the past, should be deprived, not only of any evening delivery, but everywhere, except in inner London of any afternoon delivery, or that in this great capital city the last collection should be at 6 or 6.30 in the evening.