I am conscious of the topicality of this motion as Christmas draws near and increasing demands are put on the employees of the Royal Mail. I must begin by paying tribute to the servants of the Royal Mail and to Post Office workers not only in my constituency but throughout north Wales and all parts of the United Kingdom. They work hard in sometimes difficult circumstances to provide what has been, on the whole, an excellent service.
I also pay tribute to those members of the Royal Mail and the Post Office group who work in this House for the benefit of hon. Members. As a new Member, I have found the service that they provide here to be of a high standard and I commend them for their courtesy and efficiency. I am sure that the Minister and other hon. Members would endorse those sentiments.
On the subject of Christmas, a wise man once said that to err is human but to really foul things up requires a computer. There is a strong grain of truth in that statement, which goes to the heart of the subject of this debate: which can serve us best—humans or machines?
The Royal Mail prides itself on its ability to collect a letter anywhere in Britain and deliver it the next day, charging a flat rate across the United Kingdom. It has succeeded in doing that through its commitment to maintaining a network of sorting offices throughout Britain, including—this is of specific interest in north Wales—in rural communities. However, that important network and the vital service that it provides now seem to be under threat, especially in north Wales.
As part of its strategic plan for the region announced on 5 June this year, the Post Office has said that it will close all sorting operations in north Wales and centralise sorting functions in Chester. Offices in Colwyn Bay, Bangor, Rhyl and Wrexham will cease all sorting operations, known in the business as "outward vouching".
I raise this subject in an Adjournment debate because I am far from convinced by the Royal Mail management's assurances that those changes will not deleteriously affect the quality of the service that we have come to expect from the Royal Mail. I am particularly concerned about the effect that the changes will have on first class letter delivery within north Wales. Although there may be a case for saying that the speed with which letters can be delivered from north Wales to London or other big conurbations in England will not be affected, there must be a question mark—given that mail will have to be delivered to Chester—over whether mail to be delivered from one end of north Wales to the other will arrive the same day. That concern has been expressed by many members of the business community.
The effect on services in rural areas particularly concerns me. May I give one example? If a customer mails a letter from Llanddulas to Betws-yn-Rhos, or from Rhyd-y-foel to Abergele, the letter goes to the Colwyn Bay sorting office, where it is sorted and delivered. However, under the Post Office's proposals, mail from the village of Rhyd-y-foel will not go to Colwyn Bay but will have to go first to Chester, where it will enter the new-fangled integrated mail processing unit, known as IMP to its friends. The letter will enter the IMP and come out the other end, only to be sent all the way back to Colwyn Bay, the local delivery office.
The Minister who is to reply to this debate is familiar with the geography of north Wales and will know that it makes little sense to many people in Wales to take mail from Llanddulas to Chester and then back to Colwyn Bay. Even the Post Office accepts that there may be what it rather euphemistically describes as "local anomalies". I believe that there are serious and justifiable concerns about the efficiency of the services to be provided under the new proposals.
There is also likely to be an effect on the rural communities of my constituency. I will name a few to give an indication of the Welsh nature as well as the rural dimension of my constituency. Those communities include Llangernyw, Llansannan, Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr, Cerrigydrudion, Llanrhaedr yng Nghinmeirch, not forgetting Llanarmon yn Ial.
The Post Office has argued that its investments will improve services across the entire north Wales north-west division. That strategy is linked to similar plans to improve and mechanise the service in the north-west England. The difficulty is that, although those improvements may make some sense in the more populated north-west England, they will not work in north Wales.
There is every likelihood that collection times will have to be brought forward, in some cases to the mid-afternoon. That will greatly affect the business operations of small and medium-sized enterprises across the region. Hon. Members may be aware that there is a great need to boost that particular sector of the economy in Wales. Furthermore, in the event of severe weather conditions—I am not doing a disservice to Wales by saying that the weather can sometimes be inclement and unpredictable—there is an increased chance that mail will be delayed on its epic journey across Offa's Dyke.
It may interest the House to learn that a similar scheme was attempted by the Royal Mail in 1982, when a mechanised sorting system was centralised in Chester. Following a barrage of complaints from customers, the system was scrapped. Again, to use the jargon of the Post Office, it was felt necessary to de-concentrate mail services back where they belonged, in the local communities.
Let us consider the required technology and machinery. I have made inquiries of the Communication Workers Union and I pay tribute to the excellent work done not only by Welsh postal workers in Colwyn bay and other areas, but by Mr. Ken Hanbury, Mr. Ken Moxham and Mr. Terry Hughes. They are excellent servants of the CWU and the Post Office. They tell me that there are grounds for being sceptical about the ability of the new IMPs to do their job. The jam rate—the number of breakdowns—can be high: 11 jams an hour compared with the target of seven. Let us not forget that machines are made by humans and not averse to fouling up.
As a matter of interest, perhaps the Post Office, when it realised that I intended to initiate this debate, felt that it should fire a warning shot across my bow, because I received an important item in the post this week and it had been shredded. I hasten to add that that is not the norm, and I am extremely pleased with the level of service that the Royal Mail provides. I understand that the complete destruction of that letter—I received its contents in a plastic bag—was caused by an automated machine, so it does happen.
The environmental impact of the proposals are also worth mentioning. Grave concern has been expressed by the local councils in my area, including Denbighshire and Conwy county council, which are working on the local agenda 21. Let us look objectively at what will happen as a result of the increased traffic caused by the proposals. Surely we should be using the roads less. Local agenda 21 puts an emphasis on local sustainable economic activity. What about the national air quality strategies, which aim for full compliance with the World Health Organisation's health-based guidelines for transport-related pollutants by 2005? What about the integrated transport strategy, which aims to reduce traffic congestion? In many respects, the Royal Mail's proposals run counter to the trend of opinion and Government policy.
I reject the logic of the Post Office's view:
Overall, throughout the North Wales and North West Division as a whole …we confidently expect to achieve a substantial reduction in miles travelled.
In my view, the plan might reduce road traffic in north-west England, but it is obvious that road miles will increase across north Wales as a result of these plans.
One statistic illustrates that point: the community of Mochdre is three miles from the nearest sorting office in Colwyn Bay, but it is 60 miles from Chester. One needs only simple arithmetic to work out the impact of the proposals. I note the presence in the Chamber of the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and I am sure that he would agree that this problem is accentuated in respect of communities on the north-west periphery of north Wales—for example, Trefor, with which I have strong family links, and Aberdaron on the tip of the Lleyn peninsula. To suggest that mail can go from Aberdaron to Chester and back to Aberdaron while still giving us the quality of service we have come to expect is sheer nonsense.
In terms of economic impact, the plans will have a deleterious effect on jobs: this is a case of putting technology before people. I was astounded to learn today from a telephone conversation with the Post Office Users Council of Wales that it has been told that all mail from north Wales must be sorted in Chester, simply to justify the expenditure on the new machinery—a remarkable admission. The human side of the communications industry has been forgotten. One IMP takes the work of 25 people, and many who understand the system well and have experience of the expert task of sorting mail believe that the imposition of IMPs will lead to jobs being lost.
I do not wish to sound like some latter-day General Ludd, exhorting the workers to rage against the machines. I recognise the need for automation, as does the Communication Workers Union, but for the good of the north Wales economy and mail customers across the region, the Post Office should continue automated and manual sorting in the Chester and north Wales offices. Colwyn Bay, Rhyl, Bangor and Wrexham are all towns that currently suffer economic problems. Colwyn Bay in particular requires economic regeneration—and figures published last week showed that Conway county council area had the lowest average wage in Britain. It is no use the Post Office saying that there will be no compulsory redundancies; the fact is that employment opportunities in north Wales will suffer greatly.
The issue of regional identity causes concern to many people. It might seem a small thing to lose the postmark that shows that the letter one has sent or received originates in a distinct community in north Wales, whether Rhyl, Wrexham or Colwyn Bay. Under the plans, those individual postmarks will go and a generic Chester and north Wales postmark will be substituted in their place. I appreciate and pay tribute to the Royal Mail's good work in fostering the Welsh language, but the fact remains that a momentous decision was taken in Wales this year—the Welsh people endorsed the Government's vision of decentralised and democratic government in the form of a Welsh Assembly—so it jars somewhat that the Post Office should be introducing these changes at this point in Welsh history.
Hon. Members may be aware that Aldous Huxley once said:
Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means of going backwards.
The case of the Post Office's plans for north Wales seems to prove the point. As a result of the installation of integrated mail processing units at Chester, mail services across north Wales, especially in rural areas, will undoubtedly suffer. Earlier collection times and later deliveries can be expected. The region's economy, already under pressure, will suffer another blow as jobs are taken away and the area's profile suffers.
As a public corporation, the Post Office's first duty is to ensure the continued provision of a reliable service throughout every region of our land. Its plans for north Wales put its commitment in serious doubt, and I call on my hon. Friend the Minister to seek assurances from the Royal Mail, through the Department of Trade and Industry, that services in north Wales will not suffer. I also call on my hon. Friend the Minister to support a review of the decision, which was taken without proper consultation and without proper advice from the people on the ground, including the Communication Workers Union. May I exhort my hon. Friend to put pressure on the Royal Mail to carry out proper consultation with the unions and with the Post Office Users Council and local councils, which are all very concerned about the proposals, so that we can receive assurances that services will not suffer?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) on introducing the debate. As it started a little earlier than expected, perhaps I may take a couple of minutes to make some comments in support of his speech. The argument advanced by the hon. Gentleman affects my constituency as well as his. It affects north-west Wales, the county of Gwynedd, Ynys Môn and the counties of the old area of Clwyd, and I have received representations from constituents who are extremely concerned.
It is an irony that I was attending meetings relating to the Kyoto conference in Japan earlier this week and we are now taking specific action that will mean carrying pieces of paper, envelopes and parcels from all parts of north Wales to Chester, only to send them back again to the villages of north Wales. The unnecessary double handling of first class mail is something that we can do without. If there is to be any coherence in public policy, clearly there must be a better strategic approach than has so far been suggested.
As the hon. Gentleman said, there has not been adequate discussion of the subject. There has not been adequate discussion with those involved in the tourist industry. The identity of the areas in north Wales is important. The postcards that are sent from those areas allow friends to see the enjoyable time that the holidaymakers are having; they project the area's identity, which is vital for the tourist industry.
As the assembly is shortly to be set up, there may be pressure to ensure the full bilingualisation of the frank marks on envelopes throughout north Wales. I assume that Chester is willing to have its franking systems bilingualised—or perhaps, as is more likely, the subject has not even been thought about.
When the postal code was set up, the postal code area for most of north Wales was designated LL, based on Llandudno. There was an expectation then that any central sorting facility for north Wales would be based somewhere in the Llandudno, Colwyn Bay, Conwy area to serve the whole of north Wales. We are seeing the sucking of jobs away from north Wales to Chester. I am concerned that up to 10 jobs may be lost in Bangor as a result; although it is not in my constituency, it certainly affects my constituents and the service available.
As the hon. Member for Clwyd, West has said, the possibility of earlier collection of first class mail will greatly affect small businesses that operate in scattered rural areas, whose number is growing because in other walks of life services are improving, for instance through the use of e-mail. The danger is that by reducing the service and having earlier collections the Royal Mail is playing into the hands of the new technology that will take work away from it and undermine its services.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, West mentioned Aberdaron in my constituency. As he knows, there is a posting box even further away at Uwchmynydd at the tip of the peninsula. I wonder whether people in Chester have the faintest idea where it is. We already get complaints about letters being lost. I suspect that many more will be lost between Trevor in my constituency and Trevor in Llangollen, between Nebo in one part of north Wales and the other Nebo, and between Dinas, Dinas and Dinas. How many towns and villages are there? We know where they are, but a centralised conglomerate in Chester may not.
I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the Welsh Office has a responsibility to ensure that our identity in Wales is protected, that the services needed by the people of Wales will be developed in a coherent and environmentally friendly manner, and that, when the Assembly comes into being, its hands will not be tied by this mindless centralisation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) on securing this opportunity to debate postal services in north Wales, and the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) on taking the opportunity to say a few words on behalf of his constituents and the wider region of north Wales. The points raised are of keen interest and concern not only in my hon. Friend's constituency, but in neighbouring constituencies. For example, my hon. Friends the Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) and for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) have raised these matters with the Welsh Office or with the Department of Trade and Industry, as have Denbighshire and Anglesey county councils.
Postal services, whether in the form of mail services or services provided through the Post Office network, are an important element in all our daily lives, at either a personal or a business level. As my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West pointed out, they are especially important at Christmas time, and Members of Parliament find the postal service that is provided by House of Commons staff of immense importance. I should like to endorse everything he said about those issues.
My hon. Friend recognised the valuable service that is provided by the Post Office. Nevertheless, it is still natural that any plans for change cause concern. When the plans centre on a proposal for a major investment in automation and the introduction of new technology, there is concern about the loss of local employment, local identity and the quality of service, which is closely tied to local postmen and postwomen.
The Government are fully committed to the continuing provision of comprehensive and efficient postal services. In line with our manifesto commitment, we have initiated a Post Office review to identify practical proposals for introducing greater commercial freedom and to take advantage of the new challenges and opportunities for the benefit of all its customers.
The Royal Mail's overall strategy programme conforms with its strategy of improving further on service standards that are already among the highest in the world. The overall investment programme also accords with the policy advocated by the Communication Workers Union, which, in its recent consultative document, called for a substantial increase in the Post Office's capital investment programme.
New investment is an essential part of the inevitable process of change to which the Post Office must adapt in the face of continuing liberalisation of European postal services. There is a trend towards the globalisation of postal markets, and foreign post office administrations such as those of the Dutch, the Swiss and the Danes are already establishing pilot operations in the United Kingdom. There is also the factor of the higher quality of service standards that customers increasingly demand.
The Royal Mail's planned £64 million investment in the north Wales and north-west region has, of course, to be seen in the context of its progressive national programme of developing a network of automated processing centres and distribution centres to accommodate the new technology to handle the increasing volumes of mail more speedily and accurately so as to improve quality of service for customers and maintain its competitive position in the communications market.
In formulating its future investment plans. the Royal Mail assessed its locations for new automated processing centres and took into account the national network and the need for speedy and efficient transport links. The choice of Chester reflects its geographical advantages in terms of its position in relation to transport links and the Royal Mail network.
There are clearly negative features in employment terms for some areas, but it is important to recognise the scale of the Royal Mail's long-term commitment to the north Wales and north-west region, which is underpinned by this major investment programme. Decisions relating to the operational arrangements for postal businesses are and must remain the responsibility of the Post Office board and management, and it would be wrong for the Government to seek to intervene in such matters unless the Royal Mail's general policy for automating and developing the mail's infrastructure was judged to be flawed.
In the Government's view the Royal Mail is pursuing the best alternative. Its strategy of introducing the most up-to-date technology to mail processing operations to increase efficiency and improve the quality of service to its customers is essential to its longer-term competitiveness against other communications media and, therefore, to the long-term job security prospects of its staff in the region.
The Royal Mail is facing increasing competition from electronic alternatives, such as fax or e-mail, and, in the case of direct mail advertising, for example, there are other channels, such as press, radio and television, through which advertisers may choose to promote their products or services.
On concerns about the Royal Mail's future operations in north Wales, I understand that the Royal Mail has given a commitment that there will be no compulsory redundancies among permanent, full-time or part-time staff, and that any reductions in the number of north Wales staff will be achieved by natural wastage. I also understand that there will be discussions with staff on an individual basis about any changes to the composition of duties as the detailed operational planning evolves over the next two years, and that the quality of mail services in north Wales will be improved as a result of the new technology and faster processing of mail.
The transfer of the limited mail processing that is carried out at Bangor, Colwyn Bay, Rhyl and Wrexham will alleviate the severe space shortages at those offices and enable investment in the installation of large, modern delivery fittings, thereby improving both the accuracy of mail sorting and working conditions for the staff who work in those offices. Overall, the quality of mail services in north Wales will be significantly improved as a result of the new technology and faster processing of mail.
Over the past two years, the Royal Mail has invested £2.5 million in its operations in north Wales, with new delivery office facilities introduced in Holyhead, Flint, Tywyn, Rhyl, Prestatyn, Bangor, Caernarfon, Deeside and Mold. A new office for Llandudno is planned for next year, as part of the Royal Mail's plan to invest another £3.5 million over the next two years.
The Royal Mail acknowledges that a previous attempt, 10 years ago—which my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West mentioned—to concentrate mail sorting for north Wales in Chester was unsuccessful, and had to be abandoned because of the adverse impact on service quality. The Royal Mail attributes the project's failure to the relatively undeveloped road infrastructure linking north Wales and Chester and an over-optimistic—
Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that, 10 years ago, transport and communication links in north Wales were wonderful? I do not think so, because I heard him often enough complaining about the need to improve them. The links have been improved along the north Wales coastal belt, and there are plans to improve them further.
The Royal Mail was over-optimistic, 10 years ago, in its assessment of the Chester sorting office's mail handling capacity. The three key factors that have changed since, making the Royal Mail confident that the new project will succeed, are the greatly improved road links provided by the A55 north Wales expressway, construction of a new purpose-built automated processing centre—concentrating current mail volumes and catering for future growth—and installation of new state-of-the-art, high-speed, integrated mail processing machinery.
Integrated mail processing machines have already been successfully introduced into Royal Mail service. The Royal Mail is fully confident that, once the equipment is installed in the new Chester facility in two years, it will enable substantial improvements in processing accuracy and times.
The Royal Mail has assured me that investment in mail processing in Chester will not result in earlier collection or later delivery times. It believes that the new equipment's high-speed processing rates will mean that there will be no changes in mail collection or delivery times, even in rural areas. I can only pass on that commitment by the Royal Mail to hon. Members.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that smacks of a rather unrealistic expectation? Given the geography of north Wales, with which he is well familiar, what does he have to say about mail delivery to rural communities? North Wales has widely scattered communities that are very far away from Chester.
I fully appreciate the issues of geography, and realise that mail from the west and south-west of Colwyn Bay that is internal to north Wales may ultimately travel further before being delivered. I can say only—perhaps I should have heads on a plate if it does not transpire—that the Royal Mail has assured me that it will be able to provide a better service, and that there will be no need for changes in delivery or collection times.
I am about to turn to Welsh language issues—the right hon. Gentleman has anticipated the speech writer.
I am aware of concerns in north Wales that there may be problems with letters addressed in Welsh, for example. My hon. Friend illustrated that point by reciting a litany of Welsh place names. I am surprised that neither my hon. Friend nor the right hon. Gentleman took the opportunity of mentioning Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—but perhaps everyone in the world knows where that is.
The Royal Mail has assured me that Welsh addresses and place names will not cause it any significant problems when processing the mail in Chester. A bilingual guide is currently available if necessary. For the future, the new technology integrated processing machines of the kind that it is planned to install at the new Chester facility can be programmed to read addresses in both Welsh and English. I am sure that my hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman will be gratified and relieved to hear that.
That will complement the Welsh language policy that was introduced earlier this year which, over the next three years, will fulfil the commitment to provide a bilingual service in Wales. It includes recognition of addresses in Welsh; bilingual stationery, forms, leaflets, signs, notices and publications; responses in Welsh to all letters received in Welsh; and provision of a Welsh speaker at public meetings if a member of the public requests it. A Welsh language customer inquiry and telephone helpline centre is scheduled to open in Bangor next January.
As to a new postmark, the Post Office fully recognises the need to continue to reflect and to respond to the particular identity of north Wales. I shall ensure that the views expressed today are passed on to the Post Office.
I am sorry to press the Minister on this point, but this seems to be the central weakness in the consultation process—or lack thereof. No assurance has been given that bilingual franking will be possible for the whole area. If letters from throughout Cheshire and north Wales are collected in one place and there is one franking for that whole area, either there will be Welsh language franking for Cheshire—which is clearly not acceptable to the people of Cheshire—or the people of north Wales will not receive the bilingual franking that they expect. The Government must resolve that point before the Royal Mail is allowed to go ahead with centralisation.
I appreciate that that is an important point, which I shall take up with the Royal Mail. However, I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman is so confident that the people of Chester will not accept bilingual franking on their letters. That issue must be examined. I remind the right hon. Gentleman of the commitment to reflect and to respond to the particular identity of north Wales. Given the fact that the Post Office has already fully met the demands of the Welsh Language Act, we should proceed in that spirit. We have a little time to talk about those issues, and we should do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West and the right hon. Member for Caernarfon have asked about the environmental impact of the concentration of the mail processing operations at the new automated processing centre in Chester. The Royal Mail has advised me that more than 75 per cent. of the mail in the Clwyd area is already processed at Chester and that it does not anticipate a significant increase in the overall road transport of mail to or from north Wales.
Throughout its north Wales and north-west region, the Royal Mail expects a reduction of 500,000 miles a year as a result of the investment programme. Not all that will be in north Wales; but, rather than talking about just the Colwyn Bay office or other parts of north Wales, we should consider the operation of the whole mail service. Bearing in mind our strategic commitments to reducing atmospheric pollution, I am confident that the Royal Mail will achieve the cuts in road transport that it has told us about.
People in north Wales will get a better service. I am confident that the Royal Mail will agree to reconsider any significant points raised about the adverse impact of its plans. I believe that the strategy will lead to better services for people in north Wales and a reduction in atmospheric pollution, because of the Royal Mail's overall targets. If the Royal Mail fails to meet its commitments, serious questions will need to be asked about the suitability for employment of those who have made the plans to which I have given my imprimatur.