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Village Post Offices

Volume 465: debated on Friday 27 May 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

3.56 p.m.

After the wide range of subject matter of the two discussions we have had today, the topic I am raising, which is that of village post offices, seems rather modest. However, I hope the House will not feel that I am taking up time unduly because there are points to which attention ought to be drawn in relation to this subject.

In the recent local government elections a constituent of mine in Norfolk regained his seat on the county council. On the following morning he received this letter from one of his supporters:
"Congratulations. Now we expect a post office in the village. Otherwise, out you go again."
I received at almost the same time a letter from an old age pensioner in the village of Swannington. She said:
"The village post office is being given up. There are more than 30 old age pensioners, some of them more than 80 years, and we have now had the order to go to Attlebridge. The vacancy was offered to a resident but, as he is a disabled ex-Serviceman, he would have had to employ someone to deliver the telegrams, but the General Post Office will not pay sufficient money."
That is another example of what is possibly happening on an increasing scale. I am anxious not to exaggerate the extent of this problem. I am not suggesting that sub-post offices are closing down all over the country, but a certain number have been closed down in recent years and it may be that this is a symptom of some trouble which may grow unless it is tackled at an early stage.

At this point I would say that as soon as the case of Swannington was brought to the notice of the Post Office, the Postmaster-General acted with great promptitude and made arrangements under which a clerk attends from Norwich on one day a week to transact the more urgent business, such as the payment of pensions and allowances, but that can be little more than a palliative, and it does not make up for the loss of the village post office.

Following upon the intimation of those cases, I made other inquiries and the Postmaster-General told me, in reply to a Question, that in the County of Norfolk there are 19 villages where sub-post offices have been closed down in recent years and not re-opened. They include Burlingham, Great Fransham, Weston, Upper Sheringham, White Horse Common and Old Walsingham. The names of those villages alone are such that they deserve more attention than they are now getting. I believe Norfolk is not exceptional in this matter. I understand that three sub-post offices were closed in the County of Dorset last year.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

The post office at Rainton, near Thirsk, in Scotland, is being closed, I understand that, nearer London, there has not been a post office at Fortis Green in North London since the old one was bombed during the war and that an important sub-postoffice in the district of Hendon may also close at the end of this year. I give these instances as illustrations that there is a problem which ought to be looked into.

I think the time is ripe for a little fresh thinking as to the true basis on which sub-post offices should operate. When they first came into being, their duties were limited to the receipt and despatch of letters and the sale of postage stamps. It was quite proper and a very commonsense, homely, arrangement that the post office should be run as an adjunct to the village grocery shop, or newsagent's store. But the situation has vastly changed over the last half century and the village post office, as is the case with all kinds of post offices, has become a very important place in the life of the community. The wide range of pensions and allowances that now pass through post offices speaks for itself. There is the Savings Bank work, the despatch and collection of telegrams, the issue of dog licences, driving licences and tobacco tokens, the great volume of registered letters and parcels and the issue of postal orders, even though many of these are associated with football pool interests.

Last, but by no means least, the post office has become a very important centre of information. A vast amount of knowledge has to be communicated to the members of the public these days and the post office is a most valuable place for that. It is a great deprivation in remote villages if that centre of information is closed to them. In the cases which have been brought to the notice of the Postmaster-General, he has done his best to meet the difficulty, but in some cases he has only been able to do so by referring villagers to facilities available in the next village. I cannot too strongly emphasise that in the country, apart from all questions of mileage, the next village is always a long way off. There is a great deal of what I might call civic pride or affection for the village in which one lives, and it is not good enough to suggest that important facilities can be obtained from a village several miles, or even a mile or two, away. The village has its own church, its own cricket team and its own facilities of one kind and another and villagers like to have their own post office.

In some of the cases brought to my notice I understand that the difficulty with which the Post Office are faced is that of finding what they call suitable candidates for the work of carrying on the sub-post office. Perhaps "suitable" is not the right word; the difficulty is to find willing candidates. I believe that there are numbers of people available, but they are not always willing to work under existing conditions. One is entitled to ask whether the remuneration now payable to sub-postmasters—and sub-postmistresses, who are included in this matter in a very special way—is sufficient, and whether the general conditions under which our sub-post offices operate are such as to attract people to operate them.

I believe I am right in saying that in the rural areas the vast majority of post offices are what are known as scale payment offices, that is the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress depends entirely on the turnover for his or her remuneration. We should not dream of paying a policeman by the number of arrests he makes, or a stationmaster in accordance with the number of passengers who pass through his station. Although, as I said just now, these arrangements may have been all right in the early stages, I venture to suggest that the sub-postmaster, because of the extra burdens and responsibilities which we have put upon him, has now become an official of some importance, and that the time has arrived when we ought to give consideration to remunerating him by a fixed salary plus some increment dependent upon his turnover.

I agree that this is not an easy matter with which to deal. There are some 23,000 sub-post offices in the country, and the moment one is dealing with a figure like that, the expense becomes considerable. Even if we were only to suggest increasing the remuneration of each sub-postmaster by £1 a week—I give that figure merely as an illustration—it would cost over £1 million a year, and our habit of thinking in terms of millions is one which may lead us into difficulties if we do not hold it in check.

I wish at this stage to give an illustration which I think has been widely read, which it is not unfair to mention on this subject. I refer to a letter which appeared in the "Western Mail" on 12th February in relation to a sub-post office in Pembrokeshire where this trouble has arisen of a closing down and an inability to find some one to take the place of the retiring officer. There, the remuneration works out at £159 per annum, and for this, the letter goes on to say:
"the sub-postmaster must provide suitable premises and pay full rent and rates for same. He must provide heating, lighting and cleaning and in addition, ink, pens and blotting paper for the use of the public … He must make good all counter losses. His hours of duty are: weekdays, 9 am. to 7 p.m.; Sundays, 9 a.m. to 10.30 a.m.; Bank Holidays 8.45 a.m. to 10.45 a.m. He can close his private business whenever he likes but the post office must go on during the hours laid down. There is perhaps one good point. He keeps what is left of his pay because he is so tied up that he is unable to get out to spend it."
The last is an advantage of doubtful value. I realise that this is not a good moment to advocate anything substantial in the way of increased remuneration. We are all conscious of the importance of trying to stabilise wages, but we are here dealing with an important public service, and if it is the case that these signs show that there is likely to be a further falling away in the number of village post offices, some increased remuneration is justified in order to maintain a flow of people willing to maintain this service. I understand that there are others who may wish to say a word on this matter and therefore I shall summarise the remainder of my remarks.

I wish to quote what was said by one trader in the Hendon district who was approached with a view to his operating a local sub-post office. He said:
"The remuneration hardly makes it worth while to do such work. The responsibility and the huge amount of form filling done in post offices these days would give any ordinary shopkeeper a perpetual headache. As it is, after closing time we have enough forms of our own to deal with."
I would suggest that the Post Office should consider, not necessarily for immediate action—because one appreciates it cannot possibly come about overnight—but in due course the possibility of providing the accommodation needed for these sub-post offices, together with the cost of heating and lighting. There should be a minimum salary, together with additional amounts based on unit turnover.

I would suggest also that every sub-post office should be provided with a telephone. I understand that if there is a telephone installed at present, the Postmaster-General pays a quarter of the cost of the rent. It would be a great advantage if in due time every sub-post office could be put on the telephone. I do not think it is always realised how cut off are many country villages. There is often no police station available, and many times it would be a great help to people, on occasions of illness or bereavement, to be able to have that extra contact with the friendly voice in the post office. I also hope the time will soon come when every village post office will have an automatic stamp machine, and above all a stamp machine that will always have stamps in it.

I do not think this is a matter about which there is any serious controversy. I would pay a tribute to the work done by the sub-postmasters and postmistresses throughout the country. They do a great deal outside the ordinary duties of their office. They are the source not only of information, but very often of guidance and counsel to the people of the village. They help to provide, with the backing of the Postmaster-General, a service of which we can well be proud. But there are gaps, and I hope that the Postmaster-General will be able to fill those gaps in the not too distant future.

4.13 p.m.

The House will agree that the hon. and gallant Member for East Norfolk (Brigadier Medlicott) has made a number of very valuable suggestions with regard to rural sub-post offices. They have become a national institution and have served the country very well. But this subject is one which is of concern not merely to those who represent rural areas, but also to those who, like myself, represent urban areas.

I have had a substantial amount of correspondence with regard to post office facilities in Islington and I wish to take this opportunity of asking the Postmaster-General what is his policy with regard to the substitution of Crown post offices for sub-post offices in London. Whether it is right or wrong I am not disputing at the moment, but a fear exists that it is the policy of the Postmaster-General to substitute Crown post offices for all the existing sub-post offices in the London area over the course of time. Will he please tell the House whether that is so? The House may not realise that even in a congested area like London there are far more sub-post offices than Crown post offices. For example, in Islington, we have 45 sub-post offices, but only five or six Crown post offices.

I think we want more Crown post offices in London, but I am also concerned to know how that will effect people who use the facilities at the existing sub-post offices. I hope the Postmaster-General will agree that the overriding consideration must be the convenience of the public, and that, in an area like London, it is necessary, as it is in the rural areas, that there should be a post office, if not literally round the corner, at any rate within very easy access, because of the frequency with which old people and disabled people have to visit them. In present circumstances, with a large number of sub-post offices, it is only here and there that complaints arise, but I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that, if it is his policy to eliminate a number of sub-post offices and substitute a fewer number of Crown post offices, they will still be placed in such a way that all members of the community are within a radius of a quarter of a mile, or whatever it may be, of the nearest post office.

4.16 p.m.

I am sure the House is grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for East Norfolk Brigadier Medlicott) for raising this important subject, which concerns not only those hon. Members who sit for wholly or partially rural areas, but those who sit for other areas as well. I sent the Postmaster-General not long ago a letter I had received from the Berkshire branch of the Rural District Councils' Association dealing with substantially the same points as those raised by the hon. and gallant Member for East Norfolk, and I do not need to repeat the arguments which he has used.

The Assistant Postmaster-General will be aware that today the post office plays an increasingly important part in the life of any rural community, and where the nearest post office is a matter of four or five miles away, which might entail a round journey of 10 miles for an old age pensioner or crippled individual, real hardship is caused to those people. Where those who are more able-bodied are concerned, it is not so much a question of hardship as of substantial inconvenience, if much time is to be wasted and long journeys undertaken before some quite simple but none the less necessary operation, such as the cashing of a postal order, dealing with a pension book or buying stamps, can be conducted.

I hope the hon. Gentleman who is to reply will be frank with the House and will tell us exactly what the difficulties are, and why it is impossible to re-open those sub-post offices which have recently been closed, and why in some areas, where the need is very urgent, it has not yet been found possible to open new sub-post offices. Is it a difficulty of manpower, of accommodation, of materials, or what? We all sympathise with the Minister in his task, but if he can address himself to these problems which are of some urgency and can use some ingenuity towards their solution, he will earn the gratitude of hon. Members on all sides in dealing with the problem which is a genuinely urgent one.

4.19 p.m.

I welcome this opportunity of dealing with this problem—the problem of the sub-post offices. I want to thank the hon. and gallant Member for East Norfolk (Brigadier Medlicott) for his letter, in which he stated very precisely the points which he intended to raise in the discussion. I hope I am in a position to answer them, and, if I cannot, it means that I have not been attending to my duties in the manner which is expected of me. I notice that the hon. and gallant Gentleman said that there had been an election fought on the question of the opening of a sub-post office. I do not know whether to congratulate the successful candidate or not, because the hon. and gallant Member was very careful not to say to which party he belonged. It is all very well to fight an election on the opening or closing of a sub-post office, but our difficulty is that of getting a sub-postmaster, and that brings me to the first point raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman.

As far as Swannington is concerned, that sub-post office closed because the sub-postmaster resigned. We made every endeavour to get another person to take the position, and I am very happy to say we have at last succeeded. But during the period that office has been closed, there has been no question of the Post Office just allowing the position to rest. We sent down a clerk on Fridays, from 9.30 to 11 a.m., to deal with old age pensioners. I think that shows that the regional officers, the people dealing with the matter on the spot, are aware of the problems arising, and have no desire to cause people any inconvenience whatever.

In the case of Earsham, that sub-post office has been closed since 1944, and we are endeavouring to get an applicant for the position of sub-postmaster. It is true that 19 sub-post offices have been closed in Norfolk. There have been 4 per cent. more closures in Norfolk than in any other part of the country, and I think that is a reflection of Norfolk's prosperity. It is not so easy to get people for these jobs these days for reasons with which I will deal. Out of the 19 sub-post offices that have been closed in the county, there are five where a restricted service of two to three hours a week is maintained. I do not wish to enumerate them, but we are dealing with the problem.

To come to the question of our difficulties, I think that, in the first place, it is the problem of the rural areas, and that the present position is a justification of the Government's policy with regard to agriculture. The fact is that there is full employment and that for the first time in history, the agricultural workers are today enjoying prosperity and higher wages. Before the war, the proposition of having a sub-post office was an attractive one. I do not think hours have much to do with it at all, because the hours for sub-post offices are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with one hour's break and one half day off a week. As to the case of the office quoted by the hon. and gallant Member, that would probably be one where telegraph work is done or where postal deliveries are actually sent out from the office. Of course, I need hardly add that in that case, more remuneration would be paid to the holder of the office of sub-postmaster.

As regards the difficulty of getting acommodation, I agree that that difficulty exists, but it is not only a difficulty in the rural areas of Norfolk; it is common to the whole country, arising out of conditions which are not relevant to this discussion. The local and regional officials of the Post Office do everything they can to assist people who want to open a sub-post office to acquire the necessary accommodation and it is only fair to say that in some cases we have had the co-operation, which we welcome, of the various local authorities.

Now I come to the vexed question of remuneration. This agency system of sub-post offices is no new thing; indeed, it has been in existence since the end of the 18th century. Certain recommendations of the Hobhouse Committee of 1908 were endorsed, and it was never intended that the agency of the sub-post office should be the sole means of livelihood for the person occupying the post of sub-postmaster. But, so far as the conditions of sub-postmasters are concerned, I want to say at once that they are very well looked after by the National Federation of Sub-postmasters, and that we are on very cordial terms with that organisation. I do not think it would be amiss if I said that there has been a complete overhaul of the pay of sub-postmasters since the war.

Here I want to make it perfectly clear, so that there can be no doubt about it, that there is a minimum salary of £85 a year irrespective of the work that is done in the office, even in the case of a small sub-post office in a hamlet where the work may involve only a few shillings turnover a day.

As to the total number of offices in the country, there are 6,000 where the salary is between £85 and £130 a year. There are, of course, large variations in the pay. At a sub-post office in London, particularly in a bombed area in the East End, where we have not yet been able to build a Crown post office, the salary might run to between £500 and £600. The increases in the last revision of payment to sub-postmasters cost the Post Office £1,100,000 a year and the annual remuneration of sub-postmasters at the present time is just over £8 million compared with £3 million in the years 1938 and 1939.

I agree that much of the counter work at post offices—I think the figure of 40 per cent, was mentioned—is on behalf of various services for other Government Departments. It is certainly on behalf of organisations other than the Post Office. If we allow for increased work amounting to £1,800,000, the sum total of improvements in sub-postmasters' pay since 1938–39 amounts to £3,200,000, or an increase of 67 per cent., which, when compared with other industries, is very fair and reasonable and shows that we deal with those people who contract to do service with the Post Office with fairness and perhaps, on certain occasions, with generosity.

A question was raised about Fortis Green. I know nothing of that, but if the hon. and gallant Member will send me details I will look into it. I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) what was the policy of the Postmaster-General with regard to Crown offices. Let me give this categorical assurance. It is not the intention of my right hon. Friend to close down every sub-post office in the country and replace it by a Crown office. That would be totally impracticable. It would be costly and, in any case, there are not the capital investments or the raw materials available. Our general policy is precisely the same as has been carried out since before the war by previous Governments. It is, that when the annual turnover of an office reaches a certain figure, we say that there is a prima facie case for the establishment of a Crown office. Obviously, there are advantages to the public in having a Crown office as opposed to a sub-post office, but I should not like it to go forth—and I know that there seems to be a tendency in certain quarters to spread the canard—that it is the intention of my right hon. Friend to close down all sub-post offices. I take this opportunity of denying that suggestion categorically.

The question of telephones was also raised. We endeavour to place kiosks outside post offices in the rural areas wherever possible. There again, the extent to which we can do so is limited by circumstances which are not within the control of my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General. As to stamps and stamp machines, that is an old complaint which keeps coming up from time to time. But we are not quite as inefficient as all that. I know the machines do run out of stamps occasionally. Automatic machines other than those used by the Post Office are occasionally empty. I cannot accept these wild allegations of inefficiency in the Post Office. If there is a case where there has been some slight slackness in a particular area, let us have the details and we shall deal with it promptly, because it is the intention of my right hon. Friend, of the regional directors and the Director of Postal Services that we should be efficient, and we do not want any slackening.

I have endeavoured in the few minutes that were at my disposal to answer the points that have been raised very fairly by the hon. and gallant Member for East Norfolk and the hon. Member for East Islington. As for the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Mott-Radclyffe), I appreciate the difficulties, and I think he will agree that my remarks have been——

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order,

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.