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Sub-postmasters

Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:43 pm on 6th February 1992.

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

Photo of Mr Anthony Grant Mr Anthony Grant , Cambridge South West 10:14 pm, 6th February 1992

In raising this subject on the Adjournment, I want to say that it concerns not only myself as Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West but my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Sir R. Rhodes James). Like me, he has raised the matter at Post Office and ministerial level.

On the night of 18 November, the Hills road post office in Cambridge was broken into and approximately £21,000 and valuables were stolen. The sub-postmaster, Mr. Habib Khokhar, my constituent, has been charged with the offence of robbery by the police. The case has yet to be heard. I shall not refer to it as it is sub judice, except to make the general observation that everyone is innocent until proved guilty.

Mr. Khokhar's son, Mr. Naeem Khokhar, was sub-postmaster of another post office at St. Johns road, Cambridge. Both sub-post offices were closed by the Post Office authorities, and both the Khokhars' contracts were terminated—despite the fact that all charges against Mr. Naeem Khokhar have been withdrawn.

The result has been intolerable inconvenience to many of my constituents—particularly to pensioners—who regularly use those post offices, and particularly over the Christmas period. In a busy area like Cambridge, that is not good enough. There is no reason why those post offices could not have been kept open, with alternative or temporary staff, while the matter was clarified. Both the Khokhars were willing to make all papers available and stay away from the post office while the matter was investigated and clarified.

The Post Office authorities' treatment of Mr. Naeem Khokhar, against whom no charges have been preferred, has been arbitrary and unjust in the extreme. The only reason that they gave for terminating his contract was what they called "loss of confidence". I believe that they are usurping the role of the courts in deciding a case without proper presentation of the evidence. What is worse, they are treating a man as guilty until he is proved innocent. They have not given him a fair hearing. They say that he can appeal, but that will take weeks. Meanwhile, he is likely to become destitute for want of money. The Post Office's attitude is contrary to all the rules of natural justice.

Ironically, a similar break-in took place at a nearby post office three weeks earlier, but the Post Office did not terminate that sub-postmaster's contract. No reason has been given for this inconsistent and discriminatory treatment. The Post Office failed to take into consideration the valuable service to the local community and the adverse effect on those who rely on the sub-post office, in particular pensioners and those on benefits.

I tackled the chairman of the Post Office as soon as the matter was brought to my attention and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge has done the same on behalf of his constituents. The chairman replied that in criminal courts a higher standard of proof—beyond reasonable doubt—applies, but that it does not apply to the Post Office's treatment of its sub-postmasters. He says that an employer is not obliged to await the outcome of a criminal prosecution. That may be good law, but the important words are "not obliged". Surely good employers would not prejudge a case without considering all the consequences.

What is more, in the case of Mr. Naeem Khokhar there is no criminal prosecution. He is not being charged with anything, yet he is being treated as a criminal by the Post Office on the way that it is conducting the case. Because there is no criminal charge against him, that is all the more reason why the Post Office should have refrained from taking hasty and arbitrary action.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I know nothing of the circumstances, save as they have been outlined by the hon. Gentleman. In relation to the person against whom no criminal charge has been laid, will he accept that I regard the account which he has given as monstrous and reflecting extremely badly upon the Post Office?

Photo of Mr Anthony Grant Mr Anthony Grant , Cambridge South West

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for saying that, because he is far more distinguished in the law than I am. I appreciate his support and his view.

The National Federation of Sub-postmasters has backed my constituent in the affair and wholly condemned the inconvenience caused to the public by the high-handed behaviour of the postal authorities.

I appreciate that Ministers must leave the day-to-day running of the Post Office to its managers, but I want Ministers to be aware that all is not well. My hon. Friend the Minister should be aware, too, that the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, of which I and the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) are members, has prepared reports on the Post Office which include criticism of treatment by the Post Office of sub-postmasters, who are an important body in the community. I shall be urging the Select Committee to press the matter further. Matters are being made worse for sub-postmasters by the Post Office's policy of engaging supermarkets like the Co-op and others to undertake its work.

Sub-postmasters have an important role to play, especially in rural communities. I ask for two things—a better service for my frustrated constituents and justice for Mr. Naeem Khokhar.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the agreement of the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) and of the Minister to speak?

Photo of Mr Robert Rhodes James Mr Robert Rhodes James , Cambridge

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be very brief. I have been very much involved in the case for several months, and I entirely support my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant). I know the case and the individuals. Obviously I cannot comment on the case, which is sub judice, although I have grave doubts about the way in which the matter has been handled. I resent the implication, through the closure of the post offices and the removal of the employment of my constituent and the constituent of my hon. Friend, that the presumption of innocence has been ignored. That strikes me as deeply serious and important.

I cannot comment on the justice or otherwise of the charge levelled against Mr. Khokhar, but I can comment upon the extreme inconvenience caused to my constituents and those of my hon. Friend, and the fact that our constituents have been deprived of their livelihood while the case is pending. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) described the action as outrageous. That is exactly the adjective that I would use.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Trade and Industry) 10:23 pm, 6th February 1992

My hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Sir R. Rhodes James) and for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) have raised an important issue. It would clearly not be in order for me to comment on the details of the case which they have described because of the sub judice rule. Moreover, it would not be right for the Government to interfere in what is essentially an operational matter for the Post Office. As I am sure my hon. Friends are aware, our role in Post Office matters is confined to general policy issues and to overall financial control.

I shall, of course, draw the remarks of my hon. Friends to the attention of the chairman of the Post Office. I am sure that he will notice the force with which they put their arguments, but I cannot, as a Minister, comment on the cases because of the sub judice rule.

I am, however, grateful to my hon. Friend for inviting the House to consider sub-postmasters. I know that he has done so because of the very high priority that he gives to the interests of his constituents. In this case, these constituents are, of course, not only the particular sub-postmasters involved. They are also those members of the public who have been customers of the St. Johns and Hills road post offices in Cambridge which are at present closed as a result of the dismissal of the sub-postmasters.

I am aware that Sir Bryan Nicholson, the chairman of the Post Office, has written to my hon. Friend assuring him that efforts are being made to minimise the inconvenience to his constituents as a result of the closure of the two Cambridge sub-post offices. I understand that the closures are only temporary, and that the offices will be reopened as soon as possible. It is in the Post Office's interests, as well as those of the local community, to get these offices reopened quickly. Might I urge my hon. Friend to encourage any of his constituents who may be interested in running a sub-post office to make their interest known to the Post Office without delay.

The Post Office as a whole provides a service on which we all rely. I hardly need say that this service must be delivered to the very highest standards. This is true in two important respects: the public's needs must be met in full, and these needs must be met by a service whose integrity is above question. These have been critically important requirements throughout the Post Office's life both as a Government Department and over the past 20 years as a public corporation. The Post Office's efforts to meet these standards go hand in hand with its drive to transform itself into a profitable organisation run in a commercial manner.

As I have said, the Post Office and its businesses seek to maintain a high standard of service. The contract conditions for sub-postmasters are designed to ensure that those occupying these responsible positions exercise their duties with the utmost integrity. It is, of course, a matter for the Post Office to set the type of contract conditions under which it requires sub-postmasters to operate. The Government do not get involved in this process in any way. However, the National Federation of Sub-postmasters, which represents the interests of the sub-postmasters, negotiates contract terms with Post Office Counters Ltd.

There is no time tonight to go into many details about what is included in the contract. It is a lengthy document covering every aspect of business conducted at sub-post offices. However, I should like to highlight a few points. The contract is explicit on the responsibilities of sub-postmasters to ensure that post office assets in their charge are maintained securely, and to report loss, theft or fraud immediately on discovery. There is also a statement of the circumstances in which sub-postmasters may be suspended from office. These include instances in which investigations of irregularities are suspected or are in progress.

In such situations, the Post Office investigations division would carry out a careful appraisal of the matter. If there were to be a suspension or dismissal, it would take place only as a result of such an investigation. The Post Office is very aware of the need to protect individual sub-postmasters' livelihoods wherever possible. The Post Office is, however, equally mindful of its duty to protect the interests of the customer.

I should like to take this opportunity to say something generally about the Post Office's activities in crime prevention. The general public using post offices need to be assured that the Post Office takes crime and fraud prevention very seriously—as it must, in view of the type of business it undertakes. It is continuing to invest in resources to deter fraud and crime in its various businesses. In Post Office Counters, the emphasis has been twofold. New security equipment safeguards both customers and employees in post offices where large amounts of money are regularly handled—typically offices in large urban centres. In parallel, staff are trained in ways of identifying and preventing crime, particularly fraud.

I know that Post Office staff have on occasions displayed considerable personal courage in the course of their service to the public. I was greatly honoured to be asked to present bravery awards to a number of Post Office staff on 6 November last year. The majority of these were sub-postmaters or sub-office assistants. Without exception, all those honoured on that day demonstrated a great deal of personal courage, to which I wish to pay tribute.

To sum up, I have taken the opportunity to mention the Post Office's crime prevention activities and the entirely laudable way in which it recognises the bravery of individual staff because I want to make it clear that the public can be confident of two things. First, they can expect, when they go to a post office, to have their business conducted in a safe and secure manner.

Secondly, they can be sure that the Post Office values the contribution of its sub-postmasters—and, of course, of its sub-postmistresses as well—very highly. They are the backbone of the counters network—the figures that I quoted earlier speak for themselves. It is thanks to the sub-postmasters that a high standard of service is delivered to the public throughout the country.

It is unfortunate that the situation in Cambridge described by my hon. Friend has occurred, but, as I have said, I am confident that the Post Office is handling the matter with all due propriety, and with due regard both to the circumstances of the sub-postmasters involved, and to the interests of the public who use the two sub-post offices in Cambridge which have had to be temporarily closed.

I know that my hon. Friends take a different view. As I have already said, I shall certainly ensure that their views are conveyed to the chairman of the Post Office, who is, of course, in operational control.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.