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Lord Clarke of Hampstead: Almost every point made by the noble Baroness in moving the amendment is absolutely right. I am also sure that all postal workers, men and women, will be delighted by her comments on the efforts made by them in their day-to-day work. I offer my general support to the amendment and I welcome the fact that both Amendments Nos. 4 and 7 are probing amendments. That gives us a chance to get matters right because, as pointed out by the noble Baroness, it will not be practicable to deliver twice a day all over the United Kingdom. Reference has been made to pre-decimalisation. I can remember back to before the Post Office cuts. We used to undertake 18 deliveries a week and in certain areas of London we made six collections a day. That of course is no longer possible.
As regards the proposal for a second delivery, only yesterday I heard the regulator addressing a large audience. He stated that he was going to obey the law. Here we are discussing the law, not the wishes of a commission or the hopes of the Post Office
I also welcome the reference to "collections" in Amendment No. 7. It is not good enough merely to say that there should be one delivery a day. A good number of businesses depend on several collections a day. In my time we had to work collections in with other jobs to ensure a constant flow of mail throughout the day, not just during a specified time when the streets were full and sorting offices blocked up. Additional thought should be given to this part of the Bill. I suggest that the Minister takes this matter away and looks at it again.
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: I entirely support the principle of my noble friend's amendments. To talk about improving the service assumes that the service is at present acceptable. It is not. At this stage I do not refer to postal workers but to management. Consumers have little or no relevant access to any complaints procedure. I live in a block of flats in central London. On some days of the week that block of flats does not receive any postal delivery whatever, never mind two, and that may go on for two or three days. Therefore, first-class mail takes five days to arrive. A person who has purchased a first-class stamp is entitled to expect his mail to be delivered within that period.
I have more resources and background knowledge than the average consumer to deal with this problem. When it happens I ring up the customer services department of the Post Office and speak to some extremely polite people. They say that the situation is awful and that they will respond immediately. Two days go by but nothing happens. I then ask for the telephone number of the manager who is responsible for deliveries. Finally, I manage to contact that individual and tell him that the whole block of flats has not had a delivery for three days. I also explain that I have spoken to the customer services department, which produces a laugh. Having been asked exactly what the problem is, I tell him that we have not received any mail. His response is that he must ask the postman. I ask what is the point of that because I or anybody can ask the postman. He then asks what kind of investigation I want him to carry out. I point out that he has the means to investigate.
Late one evening I received a telephone call. A small, tired voice said that the Post Office was having trouble with its deliveries and did not know what to do about it. A package of mail for my block of flats had been found and it was intended to send it round by special van. However, he said that he did not know what was happening. He was so despairing that I felt sorry for him and, having thanked him, put down the telephone. However, that was not the end of the story. Three days later I received a call from the users' committee and was told that, following my inquiry of two weeks ago, the Post Office had been contacted and it had been discovered that there was a problem with Saturday deliveries. Why? The Post Office had decided to pay its postmen only half-wages for delivering on a Saturday. I expressed surprise that there were any deliveries at all on Saturday and said that if I was a postman I would not bother.
I seek to illustrate to the Committee the difficulties experienced by the average consumer who is faced with a faulty delivery service which does not keep to its contract and ignores its liabilities. For a number of people late mail means all kinds of financial consequences: cheques do not arrive and bills are not paid. Therefore, I heartily support my noble friend's amendments on the basis that they seek to ensure a better service. I hope that the whole of the Bill is aimed at giving consumers greater access and making the Post Office more accountable.
Lord Monson: I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that in an ideal world there should be two deliveries a day. However, to echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, it is no use having two, three or even four deliveries a day if the letters do not arrive on time. Is the Minister aware--of course he cannot be--that yesterday I received at my home in Kensington an official parliamentary communication with the facsimile signature of the Chief Whip in an A4 envelope post-marked 31st May? In other words, it had taken seven days for that communication to travel less than four miles as the crow flies. That is not by any means an isolated incident. The year before last I received in one batch on about 19th September 31 letters, most of which were first class, which had been forwarded from London just before August bank holiday. Therefore, they took 21 days to arrive. One hears of such incidents the whole time. Surely, although frequency of delivery is a good idea the need for punctuality is a priority.
Viscount Goschen: Further to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, does the Minister believe it is appropriate that some definition of time performance should be included on the face of the Bill? Does he believe that guidance should be given to the commission on this matter? I agree with the point already made that merely to specify frequency of
Lord Swinfen: Perhaps the Minister can enlarge on the expression "geographical conditions" in Clause 4(1)(a). I realise that someone who lives on the Isle of Sheppey or the Isle of Skye will probably receive only one delivery a day because of the very great distances. I live in the country about seven miles from the main sorting office and one and a half miles from the village post office--I am fortunate still to have one--that delivers my mail. First, what distance from the main sorting office is being considered? At the main sorting office the mail is sorted electronically if it bears the proper post code, which I know is of assistance. Secondly, what is meant in Clause 4(1)(a)(ii) by "from each access point"?
Baroness Strange: I should like to make one brief intervention which is not wholly relevant to the point but is not entirely irrelevant either. I quote the following poem written by my father for a pantomime some years ago:
The effect of Amendment No. 4 would be to require, as a matter of law and in all but exceptional circumstances, that the universal service is only provided if there are at least two deliveries of relevant postal packets every working day. Amendment No. 7 makes the same requirement for at least two collections every day from each "access point"--which, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, is, broadly speaking, a pillar box. As this is the first of a number of amendments dealing with Clause 4 and as
Before turning to the detail of the standards laid down in the clause, I should say that the Government are, and always have been, fully committed to a universal postal service and a uniform tariff. We were the first United Kingdom government to make this a statutory commitment. We did so through the postal services regulations in 1999. Before that, believe it or not, throughout the history of postal services in this country, there was no statutory backing at all for the quality of service provided by the Post Office. Our regulations last year transposed the European Union postal services directive into European law, and it is that directive which is reflected in Clause 4.
The meaning of "universal service" as set out in the Bill is in line with the United Kingdom's obligations under the European Union directive. There is no need for us to change the directive unilaterally. It represents the minimum service that customers in the United Kingdom can expect.
I say that it reflects the minimum level of service. It does not, of course, reflect the level of service which we expect from the Post Office company. Nothing in the Bill will undermine the current levels of service enjoyed by Post Office customers. I say that with due respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes and the noble Lord, Lord Monson, who are clearly receiving a service that is well below the acceptable standard.
The European Union directive requires the Post Office company, through its licence, to agree and observe the quality of service standards. These will be published, and they will be monitored by the postal services commission and by the consumer council. The commission will have the power to take enforcement action, and to fine the Post Office or the other licence holder for having failed to meet its agreed service standards without reasonable excuse. That provision is new: it had never been the case until last year and the further provision in the Bill. There have never been sanctions against the universal service provider; there has never been any possibility of fines or penalties for failure to perform. That is a real advance and should be recognised as such.
We are setting up the postal services commission in order to establish the terms of the licence with the Post Office company, the universal service provider. I suggest that it is not for the Government to set the new service standards but for the independent regulator. It is certainly the Government's expectation that the standards set in the licence will be at least as demanding as the current quality service targets. I give way to the noble Baroness.
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