Post Office (Mistakes)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd October 1967.

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12.29 p.m.

Mr. John Taney:

Having been drawn No. 43 in the Ballot for debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill, I count myself lucky today to be able to raise the question of the need to protect the public from the mistakes of the Post Office.

Many will have read the Daily Mail's recent headline slogan: Fast or slow, it is the same by G.P.O Proportionately, the Daily Mail, in its 28 tests, was luckier than I have been. Last Monday, my secretary sent me two envelopes addressed to Liverpool from London. I wanted them particularly before our party conference. My secretary paid 3s. 4d. on each of them for special delivery, but only one turned up by first post. I got no rebate and I had to telephone to London to find whether the two envelopes had been sent. This was confirmed. I telephoned the local sorting office. There was no sign of the second envelope. It did not come by second post.

Almost at that moment, I had a courteous telephone call from the Postmaster-General's private office to say that I had been lucky in the Ballot for this morning and asking what subject I intended to raise. I mentioned my annoyance that a special delivery was not special. I should add that the missing envelope turned up the following day at Brighton.

That experience of mine hardly bears out what is said on page 76 of the Post Office Guide, which states: The packet is despatched from the office of posting by the next ordinary mail and is specially picked out from the rest of the mail both at the delivery office and at any intermediate office through which it may have to pass. I have been fortunate enough to be Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Postmaster-General and I yield to no one in my admiration for the majority of the postmen, who bear heavy loads in all weathers. They are not fully mechanised and they bring our mail to our doors. I think that possibly in the future we may have to be content with gate delivery and we will have to pay extra for door delivery.

No country, however, can be efficient if its communications are poor. What is more important than anything else is the certainty of arrival. If only the Postmaster-General spent more time arresting the deterioration of the postal service and less time on the new issues of stamps, which remind me of the issues from Central American States in my youth, the whole economy of the country might well improve.

In the last four months, I have had considerable correspondence with the Postmaster-General concerning mistakes to the detriment of my constituents and various businesses on Merseyside. There was the case of the Liverpool Youth Music Committee, a registered charity, which sent 50 tickets by recorded delivery to an address in Muirhead Avenue East, Liverpool. Those tickets could have been sold for £9 and I am told that if it had been cash, the envelope would certainly have been registered. But how many people sending tickets through the post register them?

The Liverpool Youth Music Committee was put to great expense in having to substitute for the lost tickets, which intrinsically were of no value. The organisers received the following communication from the officer in charge of the returned letter branch, Victoria Street, Liverpool: As indicated in the enclosed leaflet, articles with a market value of over £2 are inadmissible in the recorded delivery post. I am sorry, therefore, that we cannot meet the claim for compensation. I enclose stamps for 1s. 11d. to repay the postage and the fee which you paid for the advice of delivery. The pamphlet, however, states that This service is specially suitable for sending documents and papers of little or no monetary value. It all depends what the Postmaster-General means by "little". A document can be of great value to one person and of virtually no value to others.

Therefore, I am not surprised to have received from the organiser of the Liverpool Youth Music Committee a letter which states: The customer pays extra for a letter to be recorded on delivery, the letter has no value. If the G.P.O. fails in this duty to the public it cannot pay compensation because there is no value involved, but were the word 'penalty' substituted for 'compensation' and the penalty £2, then there would be some measure of justice in the service. Another case is that of a business, in which I have a small interest, which on 14th April sent a document air mail to Australia. It was correctly stamped 1s. 9d. for the half ounce plus 9d. recorded delivery. It was accepted by the Exchange branch post office in Liverpool. Because there is no recorded delivery service in Australia, however, although the document was rightly stamped "air mail", the Post Office decided to send it by sea. It arrived on 6th June and the firm lost £86 8s. through the mistake of the Post Office. One got a courteous reply from the Postmaster-General, who said: we hope that the action taken will prevent a similar occurrence. A more expensive loss occurred later. On 6th June, documents were sent recorded delivery from Liverpool to Kettering, where they had to arrive by 3 o'clock on 8th June. They did not arrive until the 9th. That cost £350 or so. Again, one received a courteous reply from the Postmaster-General: Despite extensive inquiries, we have been unable to find out what caused the long delay. I am sorry that the delay in these two cases should have resulted in financial loss to the senders, but we do not pay compensation for consequential loss. I agree that in the last case Railex could have been used, but how many businesses know that for 20s. a packet not exceeding 1 1b. in weight can be sent between two railway stations? The Postmaster-General writes: … it is important to maintain a sense of proportion about this. Railex traffic is only about 15,000 items a year". It might be many more than that if more people knew about it. The Postmaster-General goes on to say that: the best way of advertising it is through the Post Office Guide … we encourage business people to buy a personal copy by charging only 2s. 6d. … No post room should be without one. It is hardly bedside reading.

Again, the Postmaster-General says: The vast majority of Railex items would be delivered within 48 hours". What about the residual minority? If there is a risk of being in the small percentage that is delayed more than 48 hours, that is a risk which many private enterprise companies cannot take. Therefore, individual private couriers stride the land. By law, they are allowed to carry only their own mail. What an economic waste this is.

The losses of that Liverpool firm are, however, minimal compared with those of a national civil engineering firm which posted a registered packet in New Ferry for a tender of over £100,000 in time, one would have thought, for delivery to the Runcorn Development Corporation by 12 noon on the following Monday but it was delivered late. It was only one of three tenders which, I am told, were delivered late.

I have a mass of other complaints. I understand the difficulties of the Post Office, which I do not believe could ever be completely cured. Therefore, why does not the Postmaster-General allow the public to insure against potential loss through delay?

On 20th July I wrote to the Postmaster-General saying: I still cannot see why it is beyond the wit of the Post Office to undertake a profitable insurance scheme whereby those of the public who want to make certain of delivery within 48 hours can buy a special, say, half-a-crown stamp, and if delivery does not take place within the specified time, would then be able to claim up to, say, £100 per stamp, provided that the loss can be substantiated. Back came the right hon. Gentleman's reply: … compensation for delay, whatever the premium, cannot be limited in the way that compensation for loss can be. The market value for an item can readily be identified, but delay can involve the sender in some form of consequential loss. The most dramatic example that springs to mind is the would-be winner of £200,000 on the pools whose coupon did not arrive in time". I again wrote stating: The example of a loss of £200,000 on the pools would really not have been apposite to my scheme of insurance as the sender of the coupon would have to have insured himself before sending off the coupon and the rate of premium would have stopped him doing so as, at the time of sending, the odds against winning such a sum would have been astronomical. The Postmaster-General said in his letter: I should like to make it perfectly clear that we would raise no obstacle if any private insurance firm wished to take on the job of providing such insurance against delay. How can a private enterprise firm insure against inefficiency when it has no power to make the Post Office more efficient? Under Section 9(1) of the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947, I am told that … no proceedings in tort shall lie against the Crown for anything done or omitted to be done in relation to a postal packet by any person while employed as a servant or agent of the Crown … When the Post Office becomes a public corporation will the public be able to sue that corporation if it fails to carry out what it has said it will do? If the answer is "No", why does not the Post Office copy the B.B.C. and B.E.A., both of which have given the public the benefit of allowing competition against those organisations? Why should not private enterprise offer a courier service in competition with the Post Office?

12.43 p.m.

Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) on having the privilege of making two speeches just an hour or so after the House resumed following the Summer Recess. He referred to having held office as P.P.S. to a P.M.G. Both that post and his remarks today show that he knows something about the intricacies of the operations in the Post Office and of the complications that can arise.

Before dealing in detail with the points the hon. Gentleman raised, I will comment on the subject of Post Office efficiency and, in particular, the efficiency of the postal services. Hon. Members have been reminded more than once in the past of the size of the task which the postal service undertakes daily.

Every day we collect, sort, despatch and deliver 35 million letters and three quarters of a million parcels. The bulk of these letters are posted during the period of about two hours in the early evening and the vast majority are delivered between 7 o'clock and 9.30 the following morning. We collect from well over 100,000 collecting points and provide a daily delivery service to almost every point, of which there are 17 million in the United Kingdom.

Our customers should never forget that to give this service many postmen have to work late in the evening, during the night and in the early hours of the morning. It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that we have staff shortages at certain key places. Nevertheless, we are now delivering more than 93 per cent of fully paid letters by the next weekday after posting. This, I am glad to say, is a significant improvement on last year, when the figure was 90 per cent. It must also be remembered that some letters to and from remoter places cannot, in any case, be delivered the next day.

Nevertheless, we are in no way complacent about the postal service. Much new thinking has been going on in the Post Office lately with a view to improving the standard of service we give our customers. This thinking has been especially directed towards giving a greater degree of consumer choice to those who use our services.

As my right hon. Friend announced earlier this month, we are proposing to reorganise the letter service on a new "two-tier" pattern in the autumn of 1968. The main purpose will be to allow the sender of any inland letter or packet, whatever its contents, to choose between two speeds of service and to pay postage according to his choice. This change will be the most fundament piece of postal reorganisation since Rowland Hill.

The proposal found favour with the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, which conducted an exhaustive examination of the activities of the Post Office last year. It also has the support of the Post Office Users' Council. In two market surveys which the Post Office conducted we found that the majority of people were in favour of the change.

The hon. Gentleman has on a number of occasions complained of delays in the post and has asked why we do not introduce some form of insurance against delay—a form of guaranteed delivery. What I believe the hon. Gentleman had in mind was that the Post Office should, on payment of, say, an extra 2s. 6d., guarantee delivery during a specified period and undertake to pay compensation if a letter was not delivered within that time. The hon. Gentleman also asked whether, if the Post Office was not prepared to do this, private enterprise could be allowed to do it.

My right hon. Friend has already written to the hon. Gentleman to explain why we cannot do exacly what he suggests. The hon. Gentleman quoted from that letter. There are three basic reasons. First, the system would be nothing like as simple as he suggested. He represents a Liverpool constituency and might wish to post mail for delivery in all parts of the United Kingdom. Clearly, it is more reasonable to expect delivery on the following day of mail for Manchester than mail for, say, the North of Scotland.

On the other hand, for someone living in Inverness, which I recently visited, the situation would be different. We would, therefore, have to provide a different grade and scale of service, perhaps with different rates of premium and compensation, for nearly every town in the country. This would be almost impossible to administer.

Photo of Mr John Tilney Mr John Tilney , Liverpool Wavertree

Would not that difficulty be overcome if 48 hours, or even longer, was the limit from the point of view of insurance cover?

Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield

I do not know. Since the hon. Gentleman raised this matter we have gone into the subject most thoroughly. I assure him that we have not brushed it aside. He suggested that something of this type should be introduced. I assure him that every consideration has been given to the suggestion.

Secondly, we cannot provide the same safeguards against delay to the mail as we can against loss. When someone posts a registered letter he is, in effect, accepting the Post Office's guarantee that that letter will be given special treatment; and if it is lost we will pay compensation. But delay is a different matter.

I have no wish to dodge the Post Offices's responsibility for everything that happens to the mail in transit, but it is a fact that some cases of delay, such as sudden unexpected surges of traffic or transport difficulties, are impossible for us to predict and are beyond our control.

There is a third reason. It is one thing to pay compensation for a lost article, but delay is a different matter. Delay could involve the sender in some form of consequential loss, so that either the premium would have to be absurdly high to cover all the possible consequences or the various forms of consequential loss which were admissible would have to be drawn so narrowly as to defeat the whole purpose of the scheme. These are our reasons for not introducing any form of guarantee against delay, but I repeat the assurance given by my right hon. Friend to the hon. Member that we would raise no obstacle if any private insurance firm wished to provide such insurance.

The problem of special delivery has also been mentioned. I did not quite get all the details of the letters which the hon. Member said were posted by his secretary, but if he will let me have full details I will gladly investigate this. I would, however, point out that merely because a letter which is posted by special delivery arrives with the morning mail this does not mean that the Post Office has failed. These letters, as the hon. Gentleman himself said, travel with the ordinary mail, and it is only at the delivery office that they are picked out. If they arrive as the postmen are preparing for the morning delivery they go out with the postmen on the morning delivery and, when this happens, the recipient has only to apply to the head postmaster and we will refund the special delivery fee. This seems to me to be very fair indeed.

The hon. Gentleman has expressed interest in the Railex service which we provide with the help of British Rail and it might be helpful if I described briefly what that service is. Essentially, it boils down to this: the Post Office will accept over the counter a letter from a member of the public, take it by special messenger to the nearest railway station, arrange for it to be put on the appropriate train, collect it at the station nearest to its destination and deliver it by special messenger to the addressee. That, in essence, is what it involves. For this we charge a fee of £1 per packet. If this sounds a lot to pay for one packet, I would ask hon. Members to bear in mind the very special and, indeed, V.I.P. treatment which such packets get.

There are a few perhaps obvious points that I should also make about this service. In the first place, there must be a railway station. There would be little point in the hon. Gentleman walking into a post office in rural Wales and asking to send a Railex letter to the north of Scotland and expecting the Post Office to deliver this the same day. We are not magicians in the Post Office—we are charged with lots of things, but not as yet with that.

It will also be obvious that the greater the number of times the packet has to change trains, especially if transfers between termini in a place like London are involved, the longer the letter will take. It is where there is a direct rail route or a through train between points that the Railex would offer most advantage; for instance, between, shall we say, Liverpool and London, where it was essential that the letter should be delivered the same day.

The other obvious comment I should make is that there is no point in spending £1 for something when one can get the same service for 4d. The vast majority of people are content to pay their 4d. and have their letters delivered by the Post Office in the normal way—and, as I have said, we deliver over 93 per cent. of such letters by the day following collection.

The hon. Member has suggested that the great majority of businessmen are unaware of the existence of the Railex service; that if it were better known much greater use would be made of it than is made now, and that the Post Office should, therefore, publicise it a lot more than we now do. I think, however, that he may be getting this matter a little out of proportion. As I said, this is a very special sort of service: letters get V.I.P. treatment, they are very important packets, and it is therefore a service for which one pays accordingly. It meets a highly specialised need—for instance, where it is important to get a document from one city to another on the same day, and where the cost is, relatively speaking, unimportant.

As a point of interest, we checked on the number of items posted at the post office in Liverpool nearest to the hon. Member's business address. We found that three items had been dispatched by Railex from this office during the last three months—all for addresses in the London area. In fact, the number posted all over the country amounts to no more than 15,000 a year, compared with 11,000 million a year by the ordinary post—

Photo of Mr John Tilney Mr John Tilney , Liverpool Wavertree

But that bears out my point that many businesses are relying on special couriers because they do not know of the Railex service.

Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield

Well, I have given the hon. Member that information.

The point I make is that we do publicise this service in what we regard as the most sensible and economic medium of publicity for such a service, namely, the Post Office Guide. I say, "sensible", because I take it for granted that most business firms that use the postal services a lot will get hold of a copy of the Post Office Guide. There is a copy available for reference at every post office, and it can be bought for a mere 2s. 6d.—which is far less than the cost of production. It contains all the information about Railex and every other service which any business firm needs to know. If hon. Members with businesses to run were to make sure that their post rooms had a copy of the Post Office Guide, I am sure that there would be less reason for them to write to me or to my right hon. Friend.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the position when the Post Office becomes a public corporation. As the House knows, the Government have announced that they will be bringing forward legislation to convert the Post Office from a Department of State to a public corporation. I do not think that it would he appropriate for me to say anything more about that aspect this morning. The hon. Member will have to await the Bill, and the deliberations upon it.

As to monopoly, the hon. Member suggested that private enterprise ought to be allowed to provide some service in competition with us. It is fairly clear that private enterprise would concentrate on those services which are profitable, and would disregard those services—to outlying areas, for instance—which the Post Office now provides as part of its social obligations to the community. I may say that I have seen how our people have to work there, and what they have to encounter during the course of postal deliveries. Moreover, the Post Office, with its 23,000 offices and over 100,000 collecting points—not to mention its expertise in the carriage of mails—is properly equipped to provide this service to the community. I think that would be a wasteful use of national resources if this vast infrastructure were to be duplicated on the lines indicated by the hon. Member.

Photo of Mr John Tilney Mr John Tilney , Liverpool Wavertree

I did not really suggest that, if I may just intervene before the Assistant Postmaster-General sits down. What I suggested was that private enterprise might be allowed to compete on the special services—special delivery, Railex and things of that kind—whereas, at present, the ordinary private company has to take only its own mail and not mail from the company next door.

Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield

I know that the hon. Gentleman has given careful study to this matter because of his great interest in Post Office operations, but I do not think that even if that were to happen it would ever achieve what he would like to achieve. The Post Office, with all the progress that has taken place within the postal service by the new methods that have been introduced, is giving the general public and the business interests a level of service which in my opinion private enterprise operating hived-off parts of the service could not give. It would not come up to the standards now maintained by the Post Office.

The debate having been concluded, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the Sitting until half-past Two o'clock, pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.