I raise a subject today that is not much talked about. In recent weeks and months, we have become used to our armed forces making the news. Much focus is given, and rightly so, to what is happening in our theatres of operation. Today, however, I want to concentrate on something that will affect many military families—the proposed changes to some of the postal services. I also wish to talk about postal services to Afghanistan.
I know from personal experience that the British Forces Post Office has for many years provided a vital link between forces personnel and their immediate families, and wider friends and families. The service was cheap, and it was certainly efficient; I assume that nothing has changed. It was always highly valued by those who sometimes felt a long way from home. It is worth noting a little of its history.
In 1808, during the peninsular war, the first Army post office was put into operation. It was followed during the first Chinese war in 1840 with another Army post office. In 1882, Queen Victoria authorised the formation of the Army Post Office Corps to serve during the Egyptian and Sudanese campaigns. A number of reorganisations took place—it is not a modern fad, as we often think—but eventually the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) was formed.
That organisation served during the first world war in France, Belgium, the Dardanelles, Egypt, Palestine, east Africa, Greece, Italy and north Russia. The ingenuity of the personnel was unlimited. As well as being transported by conventional means, mail was transported by mule, sleigh, trawler, minesweeper—in fact, by any form of available transport. That is an example of the resourcefulness of the organisation, which has always given high priority to getting messages to the troops.
In March 1919, the first regular airmail service from Folkestone to Cologne was set up to provide British troops in Germany with a fast mail service. It was the world’s first scheduled airmail service. Due to its success, the model was adopted by civil post offices worldwide. I could spend 15 minutes recounting the development of the forces postal service. The organisation’s history of resourcefulness and its ability to adapt over the years to ensure that our troops had access to the biggest morale booster of all—mail from home—is second to none. However, it was with some consternation that I learned of plans to close 12 of the forces post offices. The offices destined for closure are those providing support—[Interruption.]
Order. There is a Division in the House. I am in your hands. You may prefer to come back after you have voted, so that we can move straight away, so that when the three of us are back here we can recommence. We will adjourn for an appropriate time.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I want to congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a very important debate. Quite rightly, she spelled out the importance of boosting morale, and the morale-booster is getting the mail there, never more so than getting mail to the front line of theatre. I think that she would agree with me that what we need from the Minister, when he gives his winding-up speech, is confirmation that the theatre will not be affected and that that vital link between families, friends, sweethearts or whatever they may be will continue, that mail will always get there and that we always ought to see if we can get more. Does she agree?
I could not possibly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I know that he has to rush off, but if he stayed to hear the end of my speech he would hear me return to that issue very forcefully. As I probably hinted in my historical comments, this issue was very important and it remains so to this day; it may even be more important now, so I thank him for his intervention.
My small interest in this area centres on the fact that one of the BFPO numbers that will be affected—well, the number will exist, but the post office will close—is BFPO 28, which serves Brunssum in the Netherlands. For a couple of years, that was my number and my address, so that I could keep in touch with my teenage friends back in England. The service was effectively subsidised, so it was cheap to use and, as I said earlier, it was efficient.
Teenagers today probably use a home personal computer, and the art of letter-writing is dying out somewhat. However, when I was a teenager, I had to write to my granny—well, I wanted to write to my granny. As we all know, granny is less likely to have a computer, so we should not lose sight of the range of people with whom a forces family will want to keep in touch. The postal mechanisms are not just available to the forces themselves, but to those responding to the letters.
The forces have always tried to adapt to changing times. There is now a system for something known as the e-bluey. Letters are e-mailed directly to the BFPO, which then dispatches them via the traditional postal system. Obviously, such developments are welcome. My understanding is that the BPFO numbers themselves will be retained, but the forces post offices will be closed and only a limited postal receipt and dispatch facility will be left. There will no longer be a facility to send parcels to the UK, although it will still be possible to receive parcels.
One of the biggest drawbacks of the proposed system is that the over-the-counter post office services will cease and for services outside basic mail provision, forces personnel and their dependants will use the relevant international mail system. That will invariably mean that people will have to pay more to send parcels and they will also have to depend on the vagaries of less efficient postal systems. We sometimes knock the British postal system, but in comparison with other systems it is very good. Currently, for example, someone at BFPO 8 in Naples can send a BFPO letter weighing up to 100 grams for 39p; hopefully, the Minister can confirm that that will continue. However, if they want to send a small letter-type package of just over 100 grams, the picture changes. The current BFPO cost is 90p, but the cost of sending a similarly sized package through the Italian premium mail service—I do not think that anyone with experience of the Italian postal service would risk paying less for the slower service—ranges from just over £1 to more than £1.50. To some, that might not seem like a huge difference, but costs mount up over the course of a year. In Norway, at BFPO 50, the costs are even higher: it costs about £4 to send a letter of just over 100 grams to the UK. Costs are even higher for personnel based in the USA. The situation gets worse when applied to parcels, as the cost of sending some of them will double.
It could be argued that gift vouchers and so on can be used, but people like to receive personal gifts. There is another side to it as well. Despite the best efforts of the NAAFI, there is always something from home that people living in another country yearn for. UK-based families often make up packages of such sought-after items and post them. That, too, will cost more in future, and even if a small adjustment is made to the cost-of-living allowance for those based abroad, it will not be extended to families in the UK who send things to our forces.
There are also broader concerns. It is now widely accepted that there will be less money in future to spend on public services and that all organisations will look for efficiency savings. The UK has other overseas postings, and many personnel are still based in Germany. Will the Minister give me an assurance today that there will be no further slash and burn of BFPO services? Currently, 23,000 personnel are based in Germany, and they could be looking at NATO’s savings with some trepidation.
I also want to use this opportunity to mention those who send cards, gifts and letters to our troops in Afghanistan. Military personnel at the sharp end acknowledge that troops on the ground appreciate support from back home, but mountains of well-intentioned mail can cause difficulties that outweigh the benefits. Mail from friends and family—the packages that have the greatest effect on morale—can be delayed significantly. If someone does not receive something from their family, they might become concerned that something is wrong, which could obviously detract from their day job.
The onward delivery of good-will parcels to forward operating bases necessitates additional supply flights and convoys, which the Ministry of Defence says puts our personnel at greater risk every time an extra convoy is added. I am sure that nobody sending a parcel would want the troops to be put at greater risk. The MOD is keen to ensure that members of the public who wish to support British service personnel can do so, and I understand that a list of recommended service charities has been drawn up.
The standard advice seems to be that if someone wants to help, they should donate to one of the charities. The preferred charity appears to be the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which has a long record of work in supporting our troops. I do not wish to deter people from sending money to that worthwhile charity, but it is important for some people to feel that they are making or doing something practical. They might not have huge amounts of money and might think that what little they have is best given in the form of a personalised gift. There are also troops who are not in touch with their families and do not receive anything from loved ones. For them, a parcel must be a morale booster, whoever it is from. Many members of the public who want to do something might not be aware of the warning not to send parcels.
I decided to google the subject. Typing in the keywords “parcels”, “soldiers” and “Afghanistan” produced the following results. The top link was to a charity called Support our Soldiers, which—guess what—sends parcels to troops, except that it now says that it cannot accept more gifts, only money. The second link was to a story about Joanne Goody-Orris and her partner Maurice Benton, two pensioners who have been sending parcels for some time and have received many letters of thanks from grateful service personnel. The third hit mentioned a scheme in Otley, and the fourth a woman named Maria Wood, described as Father Christmas to the troops. The fifth concerned Karen Brittle from Orford, a similarly public-spirited individual. The sixth described a campaign last summer by the Dorset Echo, the seventh was a Yahoo! discussion of what to include in parcels and the eighth was a link to the Birmingham Mail.
I could go on, but I think that the Minister gets the gist. The information available is not terribly relevant to what is happening on the ground. No helpful guidance exists on the best way to help our troops. It is probably too late to make a difference this year, but in all likelihood, our troops will be in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. An interested and engaged public will continue to want to help and show their support in the most practical and personal way possible.
My plea is this. It should not be beyond the wit of the MOD to ensure that the first Google hit gives official advice, tells people the best way to help and directs them to approved charities. I urge the Minister to do so in order to help people make the most of their efforts. My second suggestion might require a little more work. I hope that the MOD will like it; it could work with a charity to see whether the idea can be developed. When people support Oxfam, for example, they can make a donation to buy mosquito nets or a goat. I am not suggesting that we send goats to our troops in Afghanistan, but in preparing for this debate, I became aware that many of them find certain small pieces of gadgetry useful, such as a wind-up torch. A member of the public could go to a website and decide whether to fund a wind-up torch or another gift, and their name could become associated with that gift. They could also name a recipient or group of recipients, because one reason why people want to give tangible things is that they want the soldiers to know that they are in their thoughts. A physical gift makes that knowledge much more real, and such a gift could be seen to benefit a real person instead of being swallowed up by an anonymous charity pot. People are not always sure where the money goes.
It seems to be a relatively simple idea that could work. It would relieve the strain on the system while making people feel that they were giving something tangible, and the soldier would receive a real gift. I hope that the Minister will want to do it. It would usefully channel the efforts of the many people who want to do their bit to help. I shall end my remarks by thanking all those who will be away from their families this Christmas doing their duty for our country, but I feel somehow that that is insufficient, and I want to do more. That is exactly how many people feel who have sent or want to send parcels to our troops.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) on securing this debate. The British Forces Post Office provides official and private mail services for Her Majesty’s forces and their dependants worldwide and within the establishment in the UK. I am aware that mail is a major contributor to morale, as she suggests, and ensuring that mail gets to our servicemen and women is a key priority.
I will start by distinguishing between the operational theatre, which is what the hon. Lady was referring to, and overseas permanent bases. Operational theatres are supported by our Enduring Free mail service. I would like to put it on record that, contrary to what appears on some websites, the changes that we are making to the BFPO will not affect the Enduring Free mail service to our troops on operations. There will be no change to that service at all. It is a top priority for the Ministry of Defence to ensure that our servicemen and women in Afghanistan get the mail and support that they need from their families. We recognise how important it is for them to get messages from home.
We have made great strides, as the hon. Lady suggests. One of the most popular ways to communicate now is the e-bluey, which is used increasingly to send not just letters but photographs and, as I saw a few weeks ago in Afghanistan, items such as a five-year-old’s paintings from school. It is a big morale booster for soldiers to receive personalised mail, and service usage has gone from 30,000 items a month less than three years ago to well over 100,000.
On the changes we are making, I do not recognise the description of the slash and burn of our overseas post offices, although I recognise that the Liberal Democrats are prone to using emotive language. We are changing 10 locations in Europe and one in the US NATO headquarters: at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, Brussels, Brunssum, Ramstein, Stavanger, Karup, Rome, Milan, Lisbon and Valencia; and Norfolk, Virginia in the United States. Clearly, those are not operational locations, but are in first-world countries that have sophisticated and modern postal services.
As a result of the proposed changes, a limited postal receipt and dispatch facility will be maintained, but the over-the-counter postal service will end. There will no longer be a facility to send parcels back to the UK, but it will be possible for people to receive them. That will save about £1.3 million a year. As the hon. Lady knows, we are trying to free up as much money as possible for the front line. I think that we can introduce this efficiency without adversely affecting the service. We have consulted the three armed forces federations and I put on record my thanks to them for their input into the review. Although the over-the-counter services will cease, people at the sites will retain their BFPO numbers, which is important in banking, applying for credit, internet shopping and voter registration.
For services outside BFPO provision, the international mail system that is used by business and the public to send letters in Europe and the US will be available. The hon. Lady mentioned the increased cost of sending mail using the international postal service, but the overseas allowance will change to cover that increase. I do not see the changes as draconian, but as maintaining the service in an efficient way.
On operational post, the Enduring Free mail service has been popular and it is important for morale to ensure that servicemen and women receive regular packages of mail from home. I was in Afghanistan two weeks ago and know the importance that our servicemen and women—especially those at forward operating bases—place on receiving mail from home.
Like the hon. Lady, I do not want to discourage the generosity of the British public in supporting our servicemen and women. However, there is a problem of unsolicited mail. I was in the post office in Kandahar two weeks ago. The lady who ran it said that up to 30 per cent. of the packages received were unsolicited mail. Her concern was that at Christmas, when it is important that mail from home gets to people’s loved ones, the unsolicited mail was clogging up the system. Some of the items that people send are a little inappropriate, to say the least. For example, our search dogs do not need dog food and the soldiers do not need cat food for local cats in the villages in which they are stationed. I accept that people send such things out of the best of intentions.
If people wish to support our servicemen and women, we ask them to support SSAFA Forces Help and the operational welfare fund. The operational welfare fund does not work exactly as the hon. Lady described, but it does provide electronic kit for people in theatre. For example, laptop projectors were recently provided at one of the FOBs, so that people could watch films. Therefore, there are examples of the cash that is given being turned into direct help and providing benefits that people welcome.
I was suggesting an extension of that scheme, which is the right method. A link should be created between the giver and the recipient so that one can acknowledge the other. That would help to humanise the process. The fundamental point is that the Ministry of Defence produced this advice, but it is difficult to access. Not everybody would have heard the news on the particular day that it was announced. A lot of people are still not aware of the message that there are more appropriate ways of giving.
I accept the hon. Lady’s good intentions, but if the system is overcomplicated, it will be difficult to get the information out. I think that getting the money in and deciding on a case-by-case basis what people require, through talking to local commanders, is a better way of doing it. If people want to make donations, they can do so by visiting www.bmycharity.com. I urge everyone who wants to support our troops to give money rather than send parcels.
The hon. Lady referred to servicemen and women who might not have family sending parcels to them. We support—and encourage others to support—Support Our Soldiers and Thank The Forces. Last week, I launched this year’s uk4u Thanks! Christmas boxes, which contain some of the practical equipment that she mentioned. That is manageable and should be supported. There are ways to give. I use this debate to get the message out again not to send unsolicited mail to our servicemen and women. If people can give, please will they give generously to the charities that support our servicemen and women?
The changes are practical and will ensure that we have a cost-effective system of providing for and supporting our servicemen and women, whether they are on operations or in non-operational bases across the world. I urge people to look in detail at what we are doing, rather than just reading the headlines that have been written on certain websites in the last few months.
Question put and agreed to.