Letter (Misdelivery)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th April 1968.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Armstrong.]

11.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Anthony Royle Mr Anthony Royle , Richmond (Surrey)

I welcome this opportunity to raise the case of one of my constituents, and I apologise to the Assistant Postmaster-General for dragging him here at this late hour, although I fear that he has not had the pleasure that I have had of listening to Members from North of the Border talking for the past few hours. I would also like to apologise to him for the short notice given, as it only became apparent after luncheon today that it was possible for me to obtain the Adjournment debate.

I wish to raise the case of one of my constituents, Mrs. Parker, who lives at 9 Taylor Avenue, in Kew, in my constituency of Richmond. She has suffered a personal loss totalling approximately £114. This is entirely due to two reasons, both of which are based on Government incompetence. One is the inefficiency of the Post Office and the second is devaluation of the £.

The story briefly is as follows. Mrs. Parker had a friend in Germany and she wished to repay to that friend the sum of £783 13s. 3d. She applied to the Bank of England, through her own bank, for clearance for this money to be paid to her German friend, and in due course a letter came from the Westminster Bank, postmarked 3rd November, 1967. It was wrongly delivered by the Post Office to No. 7 Taylor Avenue, Kew. Unfortunately, and this is a chanter of misfortunes, the neighbour who lived there was away on holiday. Immediately he returned from holiday, on 18th November, 1967, he handed the letter over to Mrs. Parker. But before she received the letter giving her permission to transfer the money the £ had been devalued.

As the £ had been devalued, the cost to Mrs. Parker to send the money out to Germany to repay the loan cost her £114 extra, out of her own pocket. This was entirely due to the misdelivery of the letter and the devaluation of the £. Ever since that time I have been trying to obtain repayment for my constituent. On 29th November, 1967, her husband received a letter from the Head Postmaster in Richmond which admitted the error. Mr. Burgess, Assistant Head Postmaster there, said: I have had a full enquiry made into the misdelivery, and the postman at fault, a new entrant to the Post Office, has been identified and suitable disciplinary action taken against him. He has also been told of the need to exercise greater care in future when carrying out delivery duties. A further letter was received by Mr. Parker from G.P.O. Headquarters dated 5th December, signed by a Mrs. Hollington. It said: I am very sorry to learn about the misdelivery of your letter to 7 Taylor Avenue. This type of error can only be attributed to carelessness and, as you are aware from the Assistant Head Postmaster's letter, the postman at fault has been suitably taken to task. As a result I hope you will have no further reason to complain. There was good reason for further complaint. My constituent had still lost £114. Following this I raised the matter with the then Postmaster-General. In a letter to me written by the right hon. Gentleman and dated 29th December, he said: I was very sorry to hear that Mr. Parker had suffered such a heavy financial loss due to devaluation "— admitting here that it was partly due to devaluation— but I regret that I cannot alter the decisions already advised by the Director of the London Postal Region. The Post Office does not pay compensation for the loss, damage, delay or misdelivery of anything sent in the unregistered post; nor do we pay compensation for consequential loss.I appreciate that this may seem unreasonable to Mr. Parker. But we handle about 35 million unregistered letters daily; if we were to depart from the principle of not paying compensation it would impose an impossible liability on us. Thirty-five million unregistered letters daily! How many of these letters were sent prior to devaluation and delivered after devaluation, and how many of these letters during that time were sent or delivered to the wrong address?

Following this letter, which, of course, was very unsatisfactory, I raised the matter with the Parliamentary Commissioner, Sir Edmund Compton, but he replied that he was not empowered to investigate such a case. I therefore tabled Parliamentary Questions on 25th January, 1968, and 7th March, 1968. I asked the Assistant Postmaster-General, who is here this evening, if he would seek to make an ex gratia payment to Mrs. Parker.

He replied No, Sir. To do so would open the door to an unlimited compensation liability which we could not possibly take on."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th March, 1968; Vol. 750, c. 632.] Again I would ask how many other letters went astray like this at the time of devaluation? How many other people lost £114 or some similar sum as a result of devaluation and misdelivery?

I raised the matter personally with the last Postmaster-General, and it was passed on to the new Postmaster-General who took office recently. Again, I asked the new Postmaster-General if an ex gratia payment could be made, and again this was turned down. Why will not the Post Office pay this money out? The continual excuse made in all this correspondence and in the exchanges in the House has been "we are not going to pay compensation for consequential loss—we never do", or "we cannot set aside a principle", or "it would impose an impossible liability on us."

I accept that in the normal case it is perhaps not possible for the General Post Office to take on the burden of paying claims for consequential loss. This is understandable, and I accept it. I can also see that they would not be willing to set aside this principle if it could result in a flood of similar claims. But I find quite incredible this statement that this case might impose an impossible liability on the Post Office. This case is not a normal case. As I have indicated, I think it is very much an exceptional one.

In the letter sent to me by his right hon. Friend the last Postmaster-General his right hon. Friend said …we handle about 35 million unregistered letters daily; if we were to depart from the principle of not paying compensation it would impose an impossible liability on us. The only thing I can presume from that—unless there have been a large number of claims resulting from devaluation and misdirection—and I would be grateful if the Assistant Postmaster-General would answer this specifically—is that perhaps in the future there might be another devaluation with a spate of claims. I am sure the Assistant Postmaster-General would not wish to imply this, and nor would the right hon. Gentleman the last Postmaster-General.

This large loss to my constituent has been caused by the admitted incompetence of the General Post Office. They have admitted that the original letter from my constituent's bank was misdelivered to the wrong house and have admitted that they were at fault by dealing firmly with the postman who was at fault by disciplinary measures. The Government are also at fault in that this loss would not have occurred if the economy had not been mismanaged so badly during the past three years. Mismanagement that resulted in devaluation. Now is obviously not the time and place to go into that, but it is part of the two-pronged blame the Government must accept—firstly, the inefficiency of the postal service, and secondly the devaluation of the £.

Finally—and I thank the Assistant Postmaster-General for listening to my plea so patiently—my constituent, Mrs. Parker, cannot sue. She cannot go to court and sue the Post Office. How many other cases has the hon. Gentleman received like this one? I should be very interested to hear his reply to that. It seems to me that it is only common justice that the Assistant Postmaster-General should think again. I know that he is a decent and reasonable man. I am sure that he would not like to lose the large sum of £114 and receive nothing but sympathy. He would not like to find it quite impossible, through the courts of law, through the Parliamentary Commissioner or, indeed, through the House of Commons, to be able to get justice for his case.

Therefore, I ask and beg the Assistant Postmaster-General please to think again, to ignore the official advice which has been pouring into his ears over the last three months and to make a generous ex gratia payment to my constituent.

11.51 p.m.

Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield

The hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) has been most persistent in raising this matter on behalf of his constituent. He is a very good advocate for his constituent, and I certainly do not complain about that. Although the hon. Member has mentioned many of the facts of his case, it is my responsibility to put the Post Office point of view on record.

It is true, as the hon. Member has stated, that Mrs. Parker, who lives at No. 9 Taylor Avenue, Kew, received an unregistered letter containing the authority of the Bank of England to remit sterling abroad and that it had been posted to her on 3rd November, 1967, by the Westminster Bank. There is no question that the letter was not correctly addressed to No. 9 Taylor Avenue but, unfortunately—the hon. Member has brought this out, and this is the mistake from which the whole sorry tale has sprung—the postman who was responsible for delivery on the occasion in question delivered the letter to No. 7 Taylor Avenue instead of to No. 9.

It so happened that No. 7 was empty at the time, as the occupants were away on holiday, and they did not discover it until a fortnight later when they returned when, naturally, they handed it over to Mrs. Parker. In the meantime, as the hon. Member has cited, the £ had been devalued, and Mrs. Parker says that as a result of the delay in the delivery of the letter to her, the sum of £783 13s. 3d., which she was due to remit to someone in Germany, needed to be increased by approximately £114 to meet her liability in German currency. Mrs. Parker is claiming that the Post Office should pay her this additional £114.

The hon. Member for Richmond, as he has stated tonight, has had replies from my right hon. Friend and his predecessor to letters about this matter. He has also raised it in Questions and I can assure him, as he already knows, that this has had the most thorough examination. Nevertheless, I have to tell him that our answer is still the same: that we cannot pay Mrs. Parker the money which she is claiming.

Let me explain why this is so. The Post Office has no legal or statutory liability for the loss of an unregistered letter nor for any damage or delay to it. Nor, and this is the crux of the matter, have we any liability for any loss consequential to these events, that is, a loss not of the contents of the letter itself, but arising from its going astray or being delayed. This principle is of fundamental importance and applies not just to unregistered letters but also to registered letters.

I should like the House to appreciate why we could not possibly accept any liability for consequential loss. The postal service can never be fully automated or mechanised. It is one which depends in the ultimate on the postman in the street delivering letters. Like all human beings he is liable to make an occasional mistake. The postman on delivery is working very much on his own. He has no supervisor to watch what he is doing and although misdelivery of clearly addressed letters is inexcusable it is understandable, particularly when considered against the bulk of the mail we handle, that lapses such as this do occur. More often than not misdelivery is rectified within an hour or so by the recipient delivering the letter himself either to the proper address or by dropping it in a post box for further treatment by the Post Office.

In this case it was doubly unfortunate that the occupiers of No. 7 Taylor Avenue were away for a period and that the contents of the letter turned out to be of such monetary importance as they were. Although inquiry was made immediately the complaint came to our notice and it is impossible to say precisely how the misdelivery occurred. In some cases letters have been known to stick to others; in other cases they have been caught in the flap of envelopes It may be that in this case the postman concerned—he was comparatively inexperienced—simply mistook the number. Whatever the cause, it was a failure which is greatly to be regretted.

We have always maintained that the delay of letters in the post, whether through mis-sorting, mis-sending or wrong delivery, or through failure in train connections, is a normal risk of transit.

Photo of Mr Anthony Royle Mr Anthony Royle , Richmond (Surrey)

I quite accept, and I am sure that every person who uses the postal service in this country accepts, that a normal risk of transit must be the risk of misdelivery, but would the hon. Gentleman say that devaluation was also part of that normal risk?

Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield

Although we take all possible care to see that letters are correctly handled in our sorting offices, there is always the risk of error, particularly when in peak periods our staff are working against time. We are responsible for a postal administration handling 35 million to 40 million letters each working day. One can be faced with the late running of air services, trains or our own motor vehicles due to bad weather conditions or mechanical defect. All may contribute towards delay. To admit that delay is a fault for the consequences of which, however costly, the Post Office should accept responsibility, would require us to accept an impossible liability.

I have answered Adjournment debates in this House regarding business people who have claimed that because of lack of proper service from the Post Office they have been unable to achieve contracts amounting ultimately to many thousands of pounds. Individuals could miss important appointments and winning pools coupons and bets could fail to arrive in time. Therefore, our liabilities would be very heavy. We would have to have increased funds to meet the resulting increased charges. Apart from genuine cases such as that of Mrs. Parker, acceptance of the principle of payment of consequential loss would, in our experience, lead to many fraudulent claims.

Both my right hon. Friend and myself when dealing with the previous correspondence and Questions about this matter—and the officials concerned in the Post Office—have regarded this claim very sympathetically indeed, and we have done all we can to see whether any form of payment, either ex gratia, on the basis of the application from the hon. Gentleman, or otherwise, could be made to Mrs. Parker. We have great sympathy for her, but to make a payment of this kind would not simply be most unfair to people whose claims in the past we have refused, but it would also, as I have pointed out, open the door to an unlimited compensation liability which the Post Office could not possibly accept.

I appreciate the great interest that the hon. Gentleman has shown on behalf of his constituent. I appreciate that the reaction of his constituent to my reply on behalf of the Post Office will not be very favourably disposed to myself as the one responsible for having to make it. I would have failed in my duty if I had not stated the reasons why we have not been able to accede to the request so reasonably made by the hon. Gentleman. Neither my right hon. Friend nor I get any pleasure from having to turn down this type of application. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that every consideration has been given to his application on behalf of his constituent, although it cannot be successful, for the reasons that I have given.

Photo of Mr Anthony Royle Mr Anthony Royle , Richmond (Surrey)

I feel I cannot possibly accept that—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

The hon. Gentleman cannot speak again.

Photo of Mr Anthony Royle Mr Anthony Royle , Richmond (Surrey)

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, I really cannot accept that full consideration and sympathy, which is all that has been given to this case, is enough. In his reply, the hon. Gentleman never mentioned devaluation. He did not answer the question that I asked him. How many other cases involving devaluation has he received which have entailed a claim for compensation as a result of misdelivery by the Post Office? The Assistant Postmaster-General has treated my constituent most unfairly, and she will rightly feel extremely bitter, as I do, at the cavalier reply that I have received.

Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield

I had already sat down. The hon. Gentleman talks about a cavalier reply, but I have endeavoured to be most courteous to the hon. Gentleman because of the interest that he has shown in the case. He talks about devaluation. I endeavoured in my reply to tell him of the number of cases that I have replied to in Adjournment debates on a similar basis—

Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield

On devaluation, loss of export orders because mail has not been delivered on time and so on. I have endeavoured to give answers and to put the case as clearly as possible. The hon. Gentleman may feel disappointed in my reply, but anyone who accepts responsibility within a Department cannot seek to give preferential treatment to one specific case and rule out other cases as if they had never happened. I am very sorry that I am unable to accede to the hon. Gentleman's request, and I am surprised that he should have said that I have given a cavalier reply to his application.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Twelve o'clock.