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Post Office (Opening Of Letters)

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 21 December 1965

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mrs. Harriet Slater.]

12.24 a.m.

For the past two days the House has been discussing matters which have held the attention not only of the vast majority of the people in this country but of the world. A few minutes ago these benches were crowded with Members, most of whom have now gone about their various duties. It now falls to me to address you, Mr. Speaker, on a matter which I consider a duty, a duty which I do not relish, for the reason that it implies of criticism of those I know to be hard working and those who have always been kind and helpful to me personally. Nevertheless, I have a duty to perform on behalf of a constituent of mine, Miss Robinson, of 58, Hyland Close, Horn-church, the Midland Bank, and the public in general.

I spent considerable time and thought before deciding to seek this opportunity for raising this subject, which falls into three categories—the interests of Miss Robinson, the security of the Midland Bank, and the safeguarding of the public in general. Miss Robinson had a letter sent to her on 7th October, 1965, but because of a typing error on the envelope it was addressed to 50, Hyland Close instead of to number 58. It was quite properly refused by the occupant of that house and taken away by the postman, who also correctly returned it to the "Return Letter Branch", having endorsed it, "Name not known as addressed".

So far, so good; but the letter in question, the envelope of which I hold photographic copies, had on the front in bold, black print, the word "Private, The Midland Bank Executor and Trustee Company", and, on the back of the envelope, "Private, if undelivered, return to the Midland Bank Ltd.". This is heavily underlined. The stuck-down flap of the envelope was covered by a seal of the Midland Bank, but, despite these clear instructions, the letter was opened by the postal authorities and, from the contents, which were most confidential, Miss Robinson's address was obtained, and the Midland Bank letter taken to her home. The time taken from the first delivery at 50, Hyland Close to its delivery at No. 58 was twelve days; twelve whole days.

The letter contained a bank statement, salary warrant and cheques, all of which were highly confidential to Miss Robinson, and my constituent is understandably concerned that such an action had been taken. She then referred the matter to me. I made inquiries at a local level, expecting a complete apology and perhaps regrets, together with an assurance that steps would be taken to see that this would not occur again; but, to my surprise, what happened was far from this. In point of fact, I received an official letter, which I will now read to the House, and I feel sure that it will cause some great uneasiness. This is an official letter, dated 10th November, 1965, stating,
"I am replying to your letter dated 28th October. The envelope was incorrectly addressed to Miss Robinson. Because the postman on this walk did not know Miss Robinson's address, he rightly endorsed the envelope 'Name not known as addressed' and the item was returned to the local Returned Letter Branch. Printed on the back of the envelope are the words, 'Private—if undelivered please return to Midland Bank, Ltd.' There were no instructions on the envelope indicating to what branch of the Bank the item should be returned, and, as there are four branches in the W.C.1 area, it would appear to me that there was no alternative but to open the item in order that it could be returned to the branch from whom it was sent.
The officer who opened the item noticed from its contents …"
and here I would interpose to say that he noticed a cheque,
"… that it was wrongly addressed, and forwarded it to the correct address. I would have thought that Miss Robinson might have commended, rather than cricitised, the Post Office, and I resent Miss Robinson's assumption that 'idle curiosity prompted the opening of the envelope'. I think that Miss Robinson should have complained to her Bank Manager about the wrongly addressed envelope rather than have a go at the Post Office.
We do not open letters on which the sender's name and address appear on the outside, letters from a British Commonwealth or foreign country, letters addressed to a titled person or a Member of Parliament, a letter sent from a Royal residence, a Consulate or an Embassy, a letter bearing outside the signature of a Peer, a Bishop, or other person of eminence, or a letter bearing the seal of the House of Commons.
The contents of a returnable letter should not be examined in the hope of ascertaining its correct address, yet, if it is observed that the address of the addressee appears at the head or the foot of the letter and that it differs from the address on the cover then the letter must be issued to the correct address. Miss Robinson's letter did not come in the category of letters which should not be opened. Her main complaint seems to be …"
The letter continues.

I hope that the House will note the nature of this letter, which states that the Post Office do not open letters to persons of eminence. Who, I wonder, decides who are persons of eminence, apart from Members of Parliament, bishops, etc.? The House will also notice that, according to the Post Office letter, the top and bottom of any letter is all that should be examined in an attempt to find the correct address and that in this case the contents were thoroughly examined. Why was this rule broken? The reason given by the Post Office for not returning the envelope to the bank was that it did not state the branch of the Midland Bank. Surely this is the most pathetic excuse and one which which appears to insult the intelligence of those hearing it. The Midland Bank has 1,000 branches. Thousands of letters go out daily from banks all over Britain in envelopes bearing a request to return them to the Midland or other bank—a quest which in most cases, if not all, is complied with. Why this exception? Perhaps the Postmaster-General will tell us.

The House will realise that a considerable security risk is involved here. If a bank, writing under strict private cover, and having specially printed envelopes carrying a request printed on the back and underlined, cannot rely on this request being respected, then it is not necessary for me to explain to the Postmaster-General the security risk which can be incurred. All sorts of possibilities fly to one's mind. There is the ordinary investment advice which may be given in confidence. A letter may reveal to people opening it such knowledge as who is paying for the support of a child, and that may lead to considerable embarrassment. There was a Midland Bank within a very short distance of this sorting office.

I am sure that the Postmaster-General feels it incumbent upon him to apologise to my constituent and to give an assurance to the bank that in the public interest the bank will have the same privileges as those granted to the list of persons I mentioned, particularly the persons of eminence. I submit that people are entitled to feel that when a bank sends letters to them in these special envelopes, with the heavily printed instruction on them, this instruction will not be disregarded. Hon. Members will also agree that the general public are entitled to expect that when they lodge a complaint to their Member of Parliament, at least some form of apology will be made. Had that happened it would not have been necessary for me to bring this matter to the House tonight. I stress again that it has not been raised by me for any petty personal reasons. I have always valued the close co-operation which I have received from the postal authorities and the postmaster in my area. I must ask the Postmaster-General to give an assurance that this sort of thing will be seriously looked into and instructions given.

In case the right hon. Gentleman may think of saying that this is an exceptional case, I will say that after I made a few remarks concerning this debate to the B.B.C. at midday, I received a considerable number of telephone messages to say that this sort of thing does happen. One gentleman took the trouble to come to the House and leave with me an envelope. His name is F. T. Faulkner, Esq., 2, Selhurst Road, London, S.E.25. He has been receiving his payments from St. Anne's Post Office for a number of years. On this occasion, the payment did not arrive and inquiries had to be made. I will not weary the House beyond giving the brief facts. One of the Post Office's own envelopes was correctly addressed to this gentleman at the house which he has occupied for years, but somebody took it upon himself to cross out "S.E.25" and substitute "S.E.23", whereupon the letter could not be delivered, because "S.E.25" was correct and "S.E.23" was not. On inquiry, St. Anne's Post Office wrote a letter, one paragraph of which said:
"I am afraid that I am at loss to understand either why the dividend should have been delivered late, or why it should have been opened. …"
Here is a branch of the Post Office saying that this should not have been done.

All I ask is that the right hon. Gentleman will give an assurance that he will look thoroughly into this matter and give an apology to the persons whom I have mentioned.

12.36 a.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Lagden) for raising this subject tonight, and particularly for the tone with which he did so. I underline what he said—that it is the duty of a Member of Parliament to raise the grievance of a constituent, and he is quite right to have brought it to the House as he did.

I listened very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman had to say. So far as we can find out, this is probably the first time that the issue of wrongly or incompletely addressed mail has been brought to the attention of the House, at any rate for some long time, and the debate gives me the opportunity to say something about the considerable efforts which the Post Office makes to get such mail delivered. Whatever may be said about the methods which we used in this instance, to which I shall return later, I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that their sole aim was to get the letter delivered to the person for whom it was intended and, as we know, in this case we were successful.

The general position is that when a letter is incompletely or incorrectly addressed, the delivery postman uses all his own ingenuity and common sense to find out where it should go. I am sure that, as I have had, the hon. Gentleman has had letters saying "Try No. 12" or "Try No. 48", in the hope that this can be done. When he is unsuccessful—and this sometimes happens—the Post Office searches street and telephone directories to try to find out the correct address. This is a very time-consuming task, but we do it because we work on the basis that our first and over-riding obligation is to deliver mail to the man or woman to whom it is addressed whenever that is humanly possible. I do not have statistics with me this evening, but I am glad to say that the methods we use are frequently successful and hon. Gentleman will no doubt have seen references in the Press from time to time of some extra- ordinary examples of mail being delivered when the address is quite inadequate.

However, in many other cases where such information is not available—and this is frequently the case—we cannot just let matters rest there. The sender of a letter clearly wants it to reach his correspondent and it seems obvious to us that if, despite our best efforts, we cannot fulfil the sender's wishes, the least we can do is to let him know this and return the letter to him. In many cases, particularly where business mail is concerned, the senders put their names and addresses on the outside together with the request that undelivered mail should be returned to them. This arrangement has a double advantage for the sender and the Post Office. We can dispose of an undeliverable letter with the minimum of delay and the sender can get it back unopened, also with the minimum of delay. I hope that this debate will be instrumental in persuading more people to show a full return address on the outside of their mail.

However, when neither the name nor the address of the sender is on the outside of an undeliverable letter—and this unfortunately happens all too often—we have only two effective choices—to destroy the letter or to open it in the hope that we shall be able to find either the name and address of the sender or that of the addressee. It clearly would not be sensible to destroy such letters If we were to do this we might be destroying documents or some other contents of great value. We therefore open these letters, even if, as in the instance to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn my attention, they are marked "Private and Confidential". There are circumstances where the only alternative is to open a letter marked "Private and Confidential" or to destroy it.

I must stress that the letters are opened under very close supervision. The staff concerned all know and act on the strict instructions that they are to do no more than to look for a name and address at the head and foot of the letter, and that they are not in any circumstances, on pain of dismissal, to divulge any other information which may come to their knowledge while doing this work. It is clear from our experience that these rules are well understood and observed.

The letter with which we are concerned falls into none of these categories which I have described. It could not be delivered as it was addressed, but it was not completely without information. As the hon. Gentleman said, it carried the name of the bank which had sent it, but it did not carry enough information about the address of the branch to which it should be returned. With the very best of intentions, the local staff decided to open the letter, in the hope that they could obtain the information about the branch concerned. I must emphasise that this letter was opened for this reason only. This was a matter of local judgment, taken locally. I would like to reaffirm what was said in correspondence, that it would not be done out of idle curiosity. The hon. Member may not know, but 70 million letters a year are incorrectly addressed and undeliverable. That is over a million letters a week. I assure him that with the pressure of work in Post Offices, there is no idle curiosity encouraging Post Office workers to open letters which are not properly addressed.

This letter had the address printed very clearly on the back of it —the right hon. Gentleman can probably read it from here—"If undelivered return to Midland Bank". If Post Office workers are so hard-pressed, how much easier it would have been for them to do what they were asked to do, instead of opening it and searching it. If they had taken the trouble to look through the telephone directory, as the right hon. Gentleman says is done, they would have found the address.

It is true, and I must apologise for this, that it took a longer time than we would have liked to complete the task. But the lady in question got the letter, and I am told that in the office in question there were a large number of undeliverable letters at that time.

Although our instructions for dealing with this kind of mail are very full, they do not at the moment bear specifically on the kind of letter with which we are concerned—where one large and well-known organisation asks for an undeliverable letter to be returned to it but does not say to which of their many offices it should be sent. I think that in such cases it would be best to send the letter to the headquarters of the organisation, and if that cannot readily be done, and it would be acceptable to the organisation concerned, to send it to the manager of one of the local branches so that he can decide what to do with it and we are now considering how we can deal with this problem. It would be better still if large organisations, including banks, would have their stationery printed to show which particular branch the letter came from. This would eliminate any difficulties.

By raising this matter the hon. Gentleman has pointed to an area where changes might be made. I gather that the present regulations, which I had not seen until this case came up, covers persons of eminence and peers and all that sort of nonsense, and that only indicates that as a general rule the office will send the letter on to any person who can be identified. This is all that it meant. It is not always, however, that on the postal side we can do something which will both help our customers and, at the same time, cut down our own work. I repeat again my thanks to the hon. Member for drawing attention to this case.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to One o'clock.