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Post Office: Public Service Role

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2001

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2.52 p.m.

When they last discussed the public service role of the Post Office with the senior management of the Post Office and what was the outcome of any such discussion.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry
(Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, Alan Johnson, the Minister of State, met the chairman of the Post Office on 19th February 2001 to discuss the Post Office's proposed strategic plan for the period 2001–06. The meeting was part of an established process for government, as shareholder, to monitor and discuss the performance and future strategy of the Post Office. The process includes quarterly reviews of the Post Office's performance against its plans. Public service issues are taken fully into account throughout the process.

When the Postal Services Act is implemented later this month, the Post Office will continue to have public service obligations imposed by the Postal Services Commission through licence.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does He agree that public services are first and foremost just that? While we all want to see efficiency and cost-effectiveness, the quality of the service they provide to society is related to the commitment and the morale of those working for them. That is invariably true. Does my noble friend further agree that some of the difficulties encountered of late in the Post Office are perhaps because undue weight has been given to the business dimensions of the Post Office and not enough to its dependence on the well-being of staff for an effective service, not least in rural areas? Can He assure us that in future the Government will emphasise the crucial importance of that aspect of the Post Office's activities?

My Lords, I am happy to agree with my noble friend that the Post Office provides more of a service to the community than just a narrow business service. En many isolated parts of the country, the Post Office bus is the only kind of public transport. In many cases the postman or indeed the sub-postmaster is a lifeline for the elderly and infirm. It is important that that part of the service should continue. It is also necessary that the Post Office should have a firm economic and financial basis so that those services can be properly delivered, which is what I think the staff want to do.

My Lords, was the abysmal industrial relations record of the Post Office discussed at the meeting that recently took place? Does the noble Lord agree that, apart from the Prison Service, the industrial relations record of the Post Office is one of the worst in this country? Does He further agree that until that problem is solved, there will be great public dissatisfaction in the areas affected?

My Lords, the purpose of the meetings is to discuss the service performance of the Post Office. The noble Lord asked about the service level. The reason for discussing the service level is that it varies hugely across the country. In many places, people have an extremely good service; but in others, that is not the case. Clearly, it is important to try to deal with those very poor areas of performance.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the stubborn and bureaucratic refusal of the Post Office to correct errors on the postal address file? I declare an interest in that the large village in which I live appears from the file not to exist, although it has been there for 1,000 years. This increasingly matters as more people are consulting the postal address file, especially on the Internet. Will the Government ensure that when the licence for Consignia is agreed—it is now under discussion—it will contain provisions requiring errors to be corrected?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises two different issues. The first is the exact address and the second is the code that is used for transmitting letters to the right place. The second is fundamental because if it is not right the letters will not reach the right place. There are other areas where there is disagreement over what exactly should appear on the envelope. Clearly, the actual code that allocates the letter is important. If it is not correct, the letter will not reach the right place. If there are any such cases, the Post Office will be very keen to hear of them.

My Lords, I declare my usual interest in these matters. I accept that my noble friend does not have responsibility for the day-to-day running of the Post Office—that is a matter for the Post Office management. In the last few days of the great British Post Office, before it sinks into oblivion and Consignia later this month, will He look into what is happening in the Watford area at the moment? The impasse is about management insisting on rigid rostering or, as it is called in our industry, duty attendance, as opposed to the flexible rostering that staff have been looking for. Some of us have spent 20 years of our lives getting the staff to agree to that. Will my noble friend agree to have a look at that point?

My Lords, having been involved in looking at the Post Office for 40 years, it is my considered view that we should get Ministers away from dealing with detailed questions of industrial relations in individual post offices. That is not the way to deal with these issues. I hope that the Postal Services Commission will be able to review these issues in more detail and more effectively. What my noble friend suggests is not the way to deal with these matters. They should be dealt with by management and the Postal Services Commission.

My Lords, given that over the past few years the Post Office has acquired about 20 companies, mostly in Europe, for tens of millions of pounds, can the Minister inform the House of the rate of return on the capital employed in those acquisitions?

My Lords, I do not have that information at my fingertips. I shall happily write to the noble Baroness and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

My Lords, in regard to the meeting to which the Minister referred in his first Answer, was the future of small, village sub-post offices and improvements to their viability considered?

My Lords, I cannot give a specific yes, but I would assume so because it is a matter of great concern to the DTI and indeed to the Post Office that we do not continue to see a decline. That is why in November we set a clear formal requirement on the Post Office to prevent any avoidable closures taking place. It is encouraging that, as a result of that procedure, some 100 sub-post offices reopened last year.