Orders of the Day — Post Office

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd July 1947.

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Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham 12:00 am, 2nd July 1947

I found the Postmaster-General's speech extremely interesting, and if he will allow me I should like to congratulate him on the grasp which he has obtained of his vast Department in the very few weeks during which he has been in charge of it. I should also like to thank him for two assurances which he gave. One was that there would be a reduction in air-mail charges, and the other, which came at the end of his speech, was that he was not complacent about the Post Office. At the same time, he did not answer, though, perhaps, the Assistant Postmaster-General will answer, the numerous criticisms which have been made during the last few weeks at Question Time by my hon. Friends, by the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) in his speech, and in the Debate less than a month ago. That Debate was very brief, but it aroused a good deal of attention in the Press, and in no paper more than in the "Economist," which cannot be accused of Tory bias. The "Economist" first of all, has its own grievance. It said: There is no room for doubt that the efficiency of the postal distribution of periodicals is disastrously lower at the present time than ever before. Then it went on to make it clear that this criticism was not confined to periodicals, but applied to the postal services generally, and I would like to read to the Committee a further extract from what the "Economist" said in its issue for the second Saturday in June: None of those who know why this deterioration in efficiency has occurred—not during the war. but two years after the war ended—seemed to be very anxious to give a candid explanation. At one time, the fuel crisis was the excuse;"— —and, by the way, we have never had an explanation of how the fuel crisis affected the Post Office— now it is the need to reduce the Civil Service, though enthusiasm in that cause is not very noticeable elsewhere. The truth is, as Mr. Burke should have been man enough to admit, that the Postmaster-General is beating a steady retreat before the demands of the Union of Post Office Workers, whose objectives are a 40- hour week and no night work if it can possibly be avoided. The Union, of course, is fully entitled to make such claims—that is its reason for existence. But it would be less hypocritical of the Assistant Postmaster-General if he abandoned the pretence that the public interest is being defended against these claims. In the present combination of trade union Government and full employment, the public interest is defenceless, and the Post Office is being run in the interests of its staff rather than for the service of the public. That will change later, when circumstances change; but that it is so at present hardly admits of doubt. These are grave words, and I think that we ought to have an answer to them this afternoon. In the Adjournment Debate a few weeks ago, attention was drawn primarily to the cuts in the postal services recently announced, and I would remind the Committee that not only the evening but the afternoon delivery has been abolished all over the country, except in a small area of Inner London; that the morning delivery, in many parts of the country, is so late that people have left for work before it comes; and that when they get home in the evening the last collection has gone. The result is that, even if the reduced collections and deliveries were functioning properly, which I shall explain in a moment is not at all the case, no letter posted in London after 6.30 p.m., except at half-a-dozen head post offices, will reach any part of the Provinces or even Greater London, for 38 hours, or. if posted on a Friday for 62 hours; and this is also true of letters coming to London from the Provinces and between many provincial towns, even if they are close together.

The Postmaster-General gave impressive figures about the speed of the airmail service, and, in doing so, really confirmed the statement which I made in the Adjournment Debate that it is quicker on some days to send a letter from London to New York or Johannesburg than it is send one from London to Twickenham. I suggest that this is a deplorable standard of efficiency, and I want to put these questions to the Postmaster-General: when last, in time of peace before 1939, was there no general collection of letters after 6.30 p.m. and when last was there no afternoon or evening delivery of letters anywhere in the country, except in Inner London?

This cancellation of collections and deliveries means that a very considerable part of the life of the country, industrial, commercial and social, is slowed down, and it is all the more serious because of the inefficiency of the telephone service and of the fact that so many people— the Postmaster-General said 400,000— cannot get telephones. The inefficiency of the postal service reacts on the telephone service and increases its congestion. I have had many complaints about the cancellation of collections and deliveries, and I am sure that other hon. Members have also had them. One of the most striking, I think, was a letter from the United Kingdom Commercial Travellers' Association, in which they say that, all over the country, a commercial traveller, returning to his hotel at the end of his day's work, is now unable to despatch to his firm the orders taken that day. What becomes of the Postmaster-General's suggestion just now that the new restrictions do not seriously affect commerce? That example could be multiplied in many directions, and clearly the effect on business is very considerable.

So much for the restrictions imposed by the Government a few weeks ago. I now have an even more serious complaint to make. I shall prove that even these miserably restricted services are not performed, and that the delays are much longer than has been announced. I have evidence that letters duly collected have been lying in post offices, either at the place of dispatch or the place of delivery—I do not know which—for a day and night on end. It seems that something approaching a breakdown of the service has taken place in some post offices. I will give a few specific instances. At Question Time today, the Postmaster-General referred to some covers which I had sent him, and which had been received by a Regent Street firm, which showed that it was the common practice, day after day, for letters, even many posted in London, to take two days to reach them. The Postmaster-General, when asked about it in my supplementary question today, could give no explanation of the cause.

I submit that there is only one explanation which fits the facts, and that is that bags of letters arrive one day and are not sorted until the next. The Postmaster-General assured me that he hoped, in the case of this firm, which collects its letters two or three times a day from the W.1 district office, that the difficulties had been overcome. But since this Debate opened, I have had further covers sent to me by the firm which prove that the difficulty has not been overcome. I believe that, in some of these places, the post office is slower today than it was in the reign of Charles I, to which my hon. Friend referred. By the by, I understand the reason why Charles I nationalised the post office was because he wanted to have a look at what his subjects were writing, and the six days which it took for a courier to get to Holyhead and back included time for censorship.

I will give two or three more facts to support my contention that, in some post offices, even the reduced services are not functioning. A large firm in the W.C.2 district has given me particulars of letters received each morning for the last five days. Last Friday, of 49 letters received, 11 were postmarked in England, some of them in London, at least two days earlier. Last Saturday, of 47 letters, five were similarly delayed. On Monday, of 56 letters, 14 were posted on Friday or earlier, and yesterday afternoon and this morning the Post Office touched low water mark because of 43 letters received, 20, or nearly half, had been delayed. Another even more remarkable experience is that of a firm in the W.1 district, which has sent me today over 300 covers received over the last four days—about one-fifth of its total mail—which were posted two days or more before delivery.

I submit that these figures are conclusive proof that we can have no faith in the assurance given by the Assistant Postmaster-General less than a month ago, that if letters catch the evening collections they will be delivered the next morning. I am quite sure that many other hon. Members could confirm what I have said. It is not a question of the millionth letter, to which the Postmaster-General referred. Everybody knows that delay to single letters is understandable and inevitable in a system dependent on human beings; it would be unreasonable to expect anything else. But my evidence is that whole batches are being delayed. When a firm can prove that 20 or 100 letters duly posted to it on a single day are not delivered until the third day, there is something really wrong. In the past, everybody in this country, whether in business or in private life, used to rely on a letter which was posted one afternoon, or even in the evening, being delivered the next day. People arranged their business and their engagements on that basis. But all that seems to be a thing of the past. There can be no reliance on the Post Office today, and, in the words of the "Economist", The efficiency of postal distribution is disastrously lower than ever before. During the war, my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), in addressing some words to the Civil Service, said: Not a day, not an hour must be lost. The Post Office today is causing the loss of two or three days on a nation-wide scale, and when we make complaints, all we get is an extremely polite letter or answer in the House that the Postmaster-General is sorry for the inconvenience caused. I suggest to the Government— not in any hostile spirit, but because I think that these delays must, in their own interests, receive attention, that these complaints are so widespread, so well authenticated, and so serious, that there ought to be an impartial inquiry into the whole matter.

I can summarise the points which ought to be inquired into under four heads. Firstly, is the small saving of manpower which the cuts in the service have made possible worth while, in view of the slowing down of business and the general dissatisfaction caused? Secondly, even if the present reduction of staff were maintained, could there be a reorganisation, either by mechanisation or some other method, which would prevent the serious delays which are occurring? Thirdly, to what extent, if at all—I do not desire to prejudice the matter in any way—is the breakdown of the present services due to the unreasonable behaviour of the staff? Is there any truth in the statement of the "Economist" that the Post Office is run in the interests of the staff? Fourthly, and lastly, have the postal staff any just grievances, and, if so, what is going to be done to redress them? Are there any difficulties in staffing, and, if so, what is going to be done to overcome them? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury that we all have an affection for the individual postman or postmen who deliver letters at our door. We do not deny for one moment the splendid service which the whole of the Post Office renders to us. But I suggest there is a powerful case for an inquiry into these evidences of inefficiency.