Postal Recognition of Cheam

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:19 pm on 31st October 2006.

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Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Employment Relations & Postal Services) 10:19 pm, 31st October 2006

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I am happy to give way to him because this is his Adjournment debate, but obviously I may not be able to respond to all his points. If I do not, I shall write to him.

From the briefings that I received in preparation for this evening's debate, it seems to me that the first step, and the obvious way forward, is to secure the appropriate consultation on adding "Cheam" to the postal address. That would at least half meet the hon. Gentleman's aspirations, because then Cheam could be added to the acknowledged postal address—that is, the address recognised by Royal Mail for residents in his area. If they wish to drop Sutton from their address—I am not suggesting for a second that they ought to do so, because that may result in a delay in delivery—and include Cheam, there is a mechanism to achieve that, provided that the hon. Gentleman can demonstrate his support, as well as that of Postwatch, the local council and the chamber of commerce. Given the support that he has demonstrated in his local area, that would be a positive first step in the recognition of Cheam as a distinct postal area in Royal Mail's acknowledged address systems. I am happy to discuss that informally with him after our debate.

If 20 per cent. of people affected by the change raise objections, Royal Mail carries out a poll of all affected households. It is a requirement that 50 per cent. of those households reply for a simple majority in favour to secure the proposed change. Royal Mail aims to conclude such polls and implement any address changes within two months of the ballot being initiated, and it is not averse to making changes to its postal address file. In fact, few requests are turned down for operational reasons. In most cases in which the proposed changes do not progress, the individual requesting the change has chosen not to progress it. Until the end of 2005, of the 154 locality requests received by Royal Mail, 50 related to single postcodes, which were changed after 100 per cent. agreement by residents; 20 covered multi-postcodes that were changed after full consultation; in the remaining cases, Royal Mail offered a change, depending on the necessary support from local representatives and the outcome of the consultation.

I understand that Royal Mail has agreed to consult on the inclusion of Cheam in the locality information in the postal address, but it will not consider removing Sutton as the post town from the postal address. Changes to post towns obviously affect a large number of addresses and have widespread implications not only for Royal Mail delivery operations but for many householders and businesses. A post town acts as a clearing point for a particular district: it is the basic unit of the postal delivery system and is the place where the delivery office is situated. Cheam has never been a post town. Sutton is, and always has been, the post town. It is where the local delivery office is situated, so it is the post town according to Royal Mail's system of operations. That does not mean that Royal Mail does not recognise Cheam's existence—clearly it does so—and it does not take anything away from Cheam's history or the splendid heritage outlined by the hon. Gentleman. It simply means that it is not a post town as recognised by Royal Mail operations. Royal Mail will consider requests for changes to post towns only if an area is recoded to meet an operational need, as clearly elaborated in the agreed code of practice.

The postcode forms the basis of Royal Mail's distribution network. Any change to postcodes, which are based on post towns, could compromise Royal Mail operations, resulting in poorer service to customers. Royal Mail will consider making changes to the last two characters of a postcode in exceptional circumstances, but its primary concern is to ensure that it can deliver mail efficiently to its customers. It will not, therefore, consider making changes to postal addresses that materially impact on the efficiency of its operations. All of that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is set out in the code of practice agreed with Postwatch and Postcomm.

The code of practice provides for consultation on any changes to postcodes, as I have outlined. In conclusion, Postcomm—the regulator—and Postwatch—the consumer council—have responsibility for overseeing Royal Mail services. If anyone is concerned about the way in which a request for a change to their postal address has been handled under the code, they should initially pursue clarification with Royal Mail. If they remain unsatisfied, they can pursue the matter with Postwatch, the consumer watchdog, which will consider the case against the code and consult Postcomm if it believes that the code has not been adhered to.

Royal Mail will consider changes to locality information and, as I have explained, it is willing to do so in relation to Cheam. It does not, however, consider requests for changes to post towns unless an area is recoded to meet an operational need. That is in addition to criteria that must be met before additional locality information can be included in a postal address. Overall, we believe that the code of practice governing changes to postal addresses works. Most importantly, we believe that Royal Mail's postcode system works and is fit for purpose. Postcodes do the job for which they were designed—that is, getting post from A to B.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.