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23 Jun 2009 : Column 217WH—continued

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Pembrokeshire (Royal Mail Database)

12.30 pm

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I am grateful that I have secured this short debate on a subject that has fallen on my desk regularly in the past five years: Royal Mail’s ongoing refusal to recognise the county of Pembrokeshire in its postcode address file, which is the key database that underpins the national postal system. Some of my constituents are merely puzzled about why their county name appears incorrectly on much of the mail coming through their letterboxes, while others find that quite offensive. In Pembrokeshire, there is a widespread and deep attachment to the county’s name, history and culture, which is becoming quite rare in modern Britain. Pembrokeshire is so much more than a place name; it carries with it a particular identity and a wonderful heritage. For local people to continue to receive mail that is incorrectly marked with the county name Dyfed—the old county name, which disappeared 13 years ago—is both annoying and demeaning.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I assure the hon. Gentleman that the concerns he is expressing on behalf of the people of Preseli Pembrokeshire are shared by my constituents north of the River Dyfi in Ceredigion. It is not north or west Dyfed, or part of north-west Dyfed, but Ceredigion. My constituents cannot believe that we are still in the same situation 13 years after the end of Dyfed, when people made a conscious decision to call the area Ceredigion.

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Gentleman fights like a tiger for his constituency and makes his point very well. Not only Pembrokeshire is affected. Two other old counties—Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire, which is now Ceredigion—were affected by the abolition of Dyfed and suffer because of the usage of the old county name on the Royal Mail database.

Other people in my constituency, especially those who run small businesses, find that the incorrect Royal Mail database creates practical problems and gets in the way of effective listing and marketing. I have corresponded about that matter with the chief executive of Royal Mail and Ministers, unfortunately without making much progress. The purpose of the debate is to find out whether we can, at long last, achieve a solution, and whether I can convince the Minister to recognise the strength of feeling in Pembrokeshire and persuade him to take up the matter more directly with Royal Mail so that it can be resolved once and for all. I recognise that this is by no means the most important or pressing issue facing Royal Mail in 2009, but the fact that it maintains an incorrect, out-of-date database should be a cause of embarrassment and ought to be remedied.

It is tempting to think that the issue goes back only 13 years to 1996, when the old administrative county of Dyfed, which covered a large area of west Wales comprising Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire, disappeared as an entity. The Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 abolished Dyfed as a local authority and it became a so-called preserved county for the ceremonial purposes of lieutenancy and shrievalty. Statutes such as the Sheriffs Act 1887 and the Defence Act 1842 were
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duly amended to take account of the preserved county status, but for administrative, political and many other purposes, Dyfed ceased to have any meaning whatever. The restoration of the county of Pembrokeshire as a unitary local authority in 1996 was a proud moment for the people of the county. It followed many years of campaigning by local people who never really felt comfortable as part of Dyfed.

The key complaint is that since 1996 and the great reorganisation of local government, Royal Mail has continued to maintain a database that uses Dyfed as the county name for postcodes associated with the old county. However, the issue goes back 35 years to the creation of Dyfed by the Local Government Act 1972. A great many people who were active on the issue at that time understood that the creation of Dyfed as a local authority area should have no real impact on the addresses used in the old three counties’ areas that were amalgamated by the reorganisation. At the time, many were led to believe that just as Middlesex would continue to be used by Royal Mail long after the London Government Act 1963 abolished the administrative county of Middlesex, Pembrokeshire would be retained for postal address purposes, even after it was subsumed within the new county of Dyfed under the 1972 Act.

At this point, I should pay tribute to the work of Councillor Peter Stock, an independent Pembrokeshire county councillor and a former mayor of my hometown of Haverfordwest—the county town of Pembrokeshire—who has worked harder on this issue than anyone I know. He has fought tirelessly for his community—not just for Pembrokeshire’s symbols and identity, but for real public services, which have taken a hammering over the decades as the juggernaut of Government centralisation has rolled through west Wales. Councillor Stock is typical of many people in Pembrokeshire who have a huge affection and loyalty for our county.

The county of Pembrokeshire is an ancient one. It was first formed as a territorial entity in 1138 and its historical significance stretches back almost 900 years. It is home to 200 miles of the UK’s most spectacular coastline, which is now part of the Pembrokeshire Coast national park. It is the birthplace of the most important royal dynasty that this country has enjoyed—the turbulent but talented family of the Tudors, who transformed this nation. Henry Tudor, who later became Henry VII, was born in Pembroke castle in January 1457.

It might interest the Minister to know that Pembrokeshire has its own flag: the gold cross of St. David on a blue background with the Tudor rose at its centre. St. David was a hugely important figure in the early Welsh and English Church and established the outstandingly beautiful city and cathedral that now bear his name in north-west Pembrokeshire.

Pembrokeshire’s history, culture, symbols and beauty mean that Pembrokeshire people are rightly proud of their county—it is unique. However, on 1 April 1974, it was amalgamated, along with Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire, into the newly created super-county of Dyfed, where it remained until 1996, when Dyfed was broken up into three counties.

Thirteen years later, Royal Mail has still not caught up. The postcode address file still bears no mention of Pembrokeshire or, for that matter, of Cardiganshire—Ceredigion as it is now known—and Carmarthenshire.
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Instead, a quick search of the database shows that, according to Royal Mail, Dyfed is still the administrative county, more then 13 years after the change.

Since I was elected in 2005, numerous constituents and representatives of local businesses have raised this issue time and again. What is involved is not just the important issue of civic pride, which we should not underestimate, but the practical day-to-day consequences for many of my constituents, who face difficulty in getting their addresses properly recognised.

The postcode address file is the most widely used and widely available source of all UK addresses. It is used in the public and private sectors. It is widely used as a tool for geographical referencing. It is the formal database on which Google mapping is based. It is a crucial device in direct marketing. It provides postcodes for satellite navigation systems and it underpins the system that ensures the daily delivery of 80 million or so letters and other items every day. We should make no mistake about it—this is a serious issue.

Only yesterday, I spoke to the chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses in Pembrokeshire, Stephen Cole, who described some of the difficulties that the database creates. He said:

He gave the example of a small business applying for a trade business credit account. The small business will supply its own correct Pembrokeshire address only to be contacted later by the accounts section, which will ask why it used Pembrokeshire when the Post Office database says Dyfed. That wastes a lot of time and effort. This unnecessary hassle arises from Royal Mail’s refusal to recognise the county of Pembrokeshire.

Mark Williams: The hon. Gentleman has taken us on an historical journey. Does he acknowledge that although there could have been legitimate concern and confusion at the time of the change, particularly among small businesses, some 13 years on—that is the crucial point—most of that will have dissipated? That is why it is important that the Post Office looks at the matter again.

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Gentleman expresses the point extremely well. There is no excuse for us still to be discussing this issue in 2009—it should have been sorted out long ago.

Another problem arises in the tourism sector. As I said, Pembrokeshire is well known for its outstanding natural beauty, and it attracts many tourists from across the United Kingdom, as well as from other countries. A significant number of tourism websites use the Royal Mail postal address file as their database. Therefore those websites still use the former county of Dyfed in their search facilities. Holidaymakers who use the websites and search for Pembrokeshire might not be able to find exactly what they are looking for. Perhaps they are unaware that Pembrokeshire was formerly part of Dyfed. If they do not readily find what they are looking for, they could, at worst, take their business elsewhere. That would be an injustice arising from an inaccuracy in the database that could easily be rectified.

My constituent, Robert Smith, runs a bed and breakfast in Fishguard, which is a beautiful harbour town and home to an excellent ferry service to Rosslare in Ireland.
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Just a few weeks ago, he told me that many of the websites that he uses to advertise his holiday rental accommodation use the Royal Mail database and thus have Dyfed listed as the area. He argues that that is very confusing for potential customers, particularly those from overseas. He now does not even bother to advertise on some websites because he knows what confusion would be caused. Mr. Smith has been told that he can contact the companies operating the websites if he wishes the database to be changed, but how demeaning it is for Pembrokeshire people, or people from Ceredigion represented by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), to have to take the time and trouble politely to ask large companies using the postal address file database to change the reference from Dyfed to Pembrokeshire. In 2009, we should not have to do that.

Whether they concern civic and local pride or the costs and burdens on small Pembrokeshire businesses, the arguments for a change in the database are overwhelming. However, the response from Royal Mail has been disappointing so far. After writing to it on more than one occasion, I received a reply offering its position on the matter. It claims that its database is simply a set of routeing instructions, with the emphasis being on enabling Royal Mail to provide the most efficient service possible, rather than reflecting geographical location. It also claims that the county name does not form part of the postal address and is on the database only because external users of the database objected to its complete removal on the basis that that would make address matching more difficult.

I understand Royal Mail’s position, but I do not accept it. It may well be that, for Royal Mail alone, the main aim is to provide the most efficient postal service. However, by commercialising its database and selling it on at a profit for external companies to use for different purposes, Royal Mail places on itself a burden of responsibility. It is irresponsible and short-sighted for it not to accept responsibility for what third parties may do with the database. It has an overarching duty to act in the public interest. It should recognise the ways in which third parties may use the database and amend it accordingly to ensure that it reflects accurate place names in 2009.

I recognise, as I said, that many significant problems and challenges face Royal Mail at present, and this is perhaps not one of the most pressing. However, it does not require a long, expensive solution. There is surely an easy fix that could quickly resolve the issues that we have been discussing. There is a precedent for action. I understand that in 2007, after a long struggle, Royal Mail agreed to create a postal county of Rutland. I strongly urge the Minister to encourage it to do the same in this regard and finally recognise the great county of Pembrokeshire on its database. The continued refusals to recognise Pembrokeshire can only do harm and cause more confusion. It is an easy thing to rectify, and rectifying it would yield great results.

The Minister has a reputation for being a good Minister—I genuinely mean that. He could have a reputation, after today, for being a truly great Minister as far as the people of Pembrokeshire are concerned. Will he, on behalf of me and my constituents in Pembrokeshire, approach Royal Mail and help it to give us our county back?

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12.43 pm

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr. Pat McFadden): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing the debate. He should not be too apologetic in saying that this may not be the most urgent issue. It might be fair of him to say that, but my predecessor before I came into the House taught me something, which is, “If it’s important to your constituents, it’s important to you as the MP,” so it is entirely fair to raise these issues. I appreciate completely the passion that he showed for the county of Pembrokeshire. He is fortunate to represent one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom. I have visited it many times and have had many an enjoyable lunch in Fishguard. There is a Celtic magic about Pembrokeshire that touches every visitor. I appreciate well the fondness that he has for his constituency and the county.

The hon. Gentleman asks a number of significant questions. One issue I must confront at the outset is the role of Ministers in telling Royal Mail what to do—if I can put it in its most colloquial way. On what he said about the urgent issues facing Royal Mail, after being involved with such matters for a couple of years, my reflection is that perhaps that organisation has suffered from too much rather than too little political interference from Ministers over the years. It has been part of Royal Mail’s history that what it does is often second guessed by politicians—often for laudable reasons—but we should get away from that rather than do more of it. Such an approach is in the interests of our constituents for the necessary modernisation of Royal Mail.

Let me return to the issue before us: the postcode address file, its purposes and so on. Royal Mail delivers around 80 million postal items every day to businesses and residential addresses throughout the UK. Unfortunately, as technology changes, the amount of mail is declining, but dealing with it is still a substantial job, which involves more than 28 million addresses. As I said, I understand that community, identity and affinity with place are all things about which people care deeply. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, the purpose of the postcode address file is the delivery of mail.

The critical point of the debate is to establish the purpose of the postcode address file. A postal address can be made up of a number of elements—the name of the addressee, the name of the company or organisation, the number of the building and so on—but the critical part is the postcode. County information—whether it is Pembrokeshire or Dyfed—is not a required part of the postal address. The issue comes up time after time with regard to Royal Mail when, for example, people want their postcode changed for house insurance purposes because postcodes can be used by insurance companies. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that postcode information is used in the tourism industry, but it is used in a number of industries. Although Royal Mail recognises that, it cannot change the postcode information on an ad hoc basis because of all those other uses. Royal Mail has to keep focused on the purpose of the postcode address file, which is the efficient delivery of mail. Whatever passions surround the issue, it is important to recognise that. Others may use the database, but its purpose is to ensure the efficient delivery of mail.

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The allocation of a postcode is linked to Royal Mail’s network of sorting and delivery offices. Postcodes were never intended to signify a geographically definitive address by local authority, other administrative boundary or community identity. I have had the same issue in my constituency. There was a reorganisation of local government in the black country in 1966, part of which was the incorporation of the town of Bilston into Wolverhampton. People in my constituency in Bilston still have as strong a sense of identity today as they had prior to 1966, but for administrative purposes they are part of the city of Wolverhampton—they have a Wolverhampton postcode and so on. I am sure there are other examples around the country about which we could say the same thing. I understand the issue, but the purpose of the postcode is to ensure the efficient delivery of mail; it is not designed to give us an absolutely accurate description of community identity.

Mr. Crabb: I am following the Minister’s argument. However, surely the crucial difference with his example is that Wolverhampton still exists. The county of Dyfed does not exist in a meaningful sense at all and therefore it is entirely unhelpful to have it on the Royal Mail database.

Mr. McFadden: Let me come to the Royal Mail database because I think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about a slightly different thing from me. Delivery offices may be in different counties and so on. The postcode system was developed in the 1960s as a tool to help sort mail more efficiently. County names were dropped from essential information in 1996, when the Conservative party was in power. That is the root of the issue, because from that day—it is not just about Dyfed or Pembrokeshire; I suspect that other places are similarly affected—Royal Mail has not used the county name as an essential part of a postal address. There is nothing to prevent someone from using it in the address if they wish, but it is not essential for mail delivery. The postcode system has been very successful and serves its essential purpose well. Routes taken by postmen across the country are devised on the basis of the postcode address file.

Can the situation be changed, or is it set in stone for ever and a day? The system can be changed. I have a suggestion that I hope will be constructive. In December 2001, Postcomm, the industry regulator, issued a consultation document seeking views on a code of practice to govern changes to Royal Mail’s postcode address file. The code of practice was issued in March 2002 and was subject to a further review on its working a year later.

In March 2004, Postcomm published its review, in which the code of practice was further amended to account for things such as customer-initiated changes to locality information. I understand that in recent months, Royal Mail, Postcomm and Consumer Focus, which took over Postwatch’s job, have been revisiting
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the code’s operation. They are considering what further changes are required to clarify the code of practice and bring it up to date. Royal Mail does not believe that significant changes are required. I am not saying that there will be extensive changes to postcode information—as I said, the system works pretty well—but Royal Mail believes that the code of practice would benefit from being clearer in a number of ways. One area not currently covered by the code of practice is county information, because county information is not required for postal purposes. The county does not form part of an official postal address, and changes to it are therefore not covered by the code of practice on changes to the postcode address file.

The name “Dyfed” appears because the database still lists historical county details for customer reference. Those can include the formal postal county, the traditional county, the administrative county and so on. It is what is called an alias database, which can be used by third parties, but because Royal Mail does not use that information itself, it has not been changed since 1996.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman takes part in the new consultation on the code of practice for changing the postcode address file. I do not promise that the county names will be changed in the way that he would like, but he is open to make that suggestion. I do not promise it because Royal Mail, understandably, focuses on the efficiency of mail delivery and does not see it as its purpose to consider every secondary use of the postcode address file for things such as insurance, tourism and the other examples that he mentioned.

Royal Mail acknowledges that county information is important to some customers and would like to find out more about the perceived importance of including it in postal addresses. That is why the issue is included in the current consultation on the code of practice. Along with other hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman has until 28 July to take part in the consultation that is being carried out by Postcomm. I encourage him to do so. It provides an opportunity to explore the relationship between Royal Mail’s primary purpose for the postcode address file and the other purposes to which he referred.

In conclusion, the question before us is what is the job of the postcode address file. From the point of view of the hon. Gentleman and some of his constituents, its job is to define accurately the county of Pembrokeshire. However, Royal Mail has not used the county name since 1996. I understand from my constituency experience why that might cause frustration locally. I suggest that he takes part in the consultation and argues his corner on the use of county names. Royal Mail will then have to decide whether to change from using the postcode address file purely as a tool for the delivery of mail to using it for other purposes.

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