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Royal Mail: South-east London

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Royal Mail service in south-east London.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I start by paying tribute to our postal workers. During the coronavirus pandemic, they have been a lifeline for people across the country who have been unable to leave their homes; they have been delivering parcels to people unable to get to the shops and letters from loved ones who are unable to visit. As we enter a second phase of lockdown, the importance of their role is set only to continue. Postal workers have also been a vital source of human contact for people living alone at this time. They are spotting people who are struggling physically or emotionally, and often going the extra mile to offer support or raise concerns.

As frontline workers, our postal workers have faced additional risks. Many have contracted coronavirus. Some have, tragically, lost their lives. All have had to live with the additional anxiety experienced in a line of work that involves handling many thousands of individual items every day. While touching post boxes, knocking on doors and handing items across a threshold, they may come into contact with a deadly disease. I pay tribute to all of them. I know how hard they have worked to maintain collections and deliveries and serve our communities.

There is no doubt that, despite the best efforts of postal workers, coronavirus has brought challenges for Royal Mail, particularly in terms of staff sickness, and there has been a great deal of forbearance among members of the public for frontline workers doing their very best to keep going at an extraordinarily difficult time. However, in the East Dulwich part of my constituency, covered by the SE22 postcode, patience has run out.

In 2017, Royal Mail announced its intention to close the East Dulwich delivery office on Silvester Road in SE22 and merge it with the already busy SE15 delivery office in Peckham. The East Dulwich delivery office was clearly not fit for purpose at the time. Specifically, it was not big enough for the volume of mail being processed there at busy times of the year. But moving that workload to an already busy office in Peckham made no sense then and has continued to make no sense ever since.

I worked with local councillors and the community at the time of Royal Mail’s announcement in order to warn that the closure would result in a failure of service to my constituents in East Dulwich. Specifically, we warned that parts of East Dulwich were a very long way from the Peckham delivery office, which would make it difficult for postal workers to complete a round on foot within their shift; that the topography of East Dulwich, parts of which are very hilly, would further add to the difficulties; that public transport links to Peckham from parts of East Dulwich are difficult; and that there is no convenient parking near the Peckham office. We urged Royal Mail again and again not to close the East Dulwich delivery office without providing a fit-for-purpose replacement delivery office in the SE22 postcode area.

Nevertheless, Royal Mail management went ahead with the closure two years ago, just before the peak Christmas period in 2018. The result was total chaos, with delayed and missing post. Residents were left completely bewildered after Royal Mail continued to deliver “Sorry we missed you” cards with details of the closed East Dulwich delivery office and thousands of letters informing residents of the closure went undelivered. Royal Mail claimed at the time that it was not compulsory to tell local residents that their local delivery office had closed.

Services improved a little after that difficult Christmas, although many of my constituents continued to struggle to pick up post and parcels from the Peckham delivery office, due to its inaccessibility from large parts of East Dulwich. It is also clear that there is very little resilience in the arrangements for East Dulwich deliveries, so staff sickness and annual leave have continued to lead quite quickly to unreliable service.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has tested East Dulwich delivery services beyond breaking point. Since the start of the pandemic in March, constituents across the SE22 postcode area have reported that their postal deliveries are entirely unreliable. On many streets, residents report not receiving deliveries for days and sometimes weeks at a time.

Residents across East Dulwich have been inconvenienced, but many individual constituents have suffered consequences that are far more serious than being inconvenienced. Among the constituents suffering the most serious outcomes of this collapse in service are those who have missed important hospital appointments for critical health conditions, those whose relatives’ death certificates went missing and those required to shield who did not receive the Government’s advice on how to keep themselves safe.

In addition, dozens of replacement bank cards went missing, leaving some constituents unable to buy food online at a time when they were unable to leave their homes. Cheques went missing, including one for £4,000. One constituent now has to attend court for no other reason than that the letter informing her of a speeding fine arrived after the deadline for paying the fine had passed. Parcels for students leaving home for university have not been delivered before the start of term, and there are many cases of legal documents relating to power of attorney, care arrangements or conveyancing being lost or greatly delayed.

Royal Mail announced at the start of the pandemic that it was suspending Saturday deliveries. Also, Ofcom has confirmed that it considers the coronavirus pandemic to constitute an emergency and that Royal Mail is not required to sustain services without interruption in the event of an emergency. However, there is a huge difference between dropping Saturday deliveries and leaving my constituents without any deliveries at all for two or three weeks at a time. I believe that there is a serious gap in regulation, because if Royal Mail is not currently required to meet the universal service obligation, my constituents effectively have no way to hold it to account.

I want to draw attention to the context in which my constituents are suffering such serious consequences. While postal workers across the country have been serving on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, Royal Mail’s chief operating officer and outgoing chief executive were both working from home, in Germany and Switzerland respectively. The outgoing chief executive, whose abrupt departure was announced in May, had received a golden hello of £5.8 million, a sum that could have been used to hire 252 postmen and postwomen, just a few of whom would have been able to sustain reliable services for my constituents in SE22. The SE22 Royal Mail delivery office on Silvester Road in East Dulwich was sold for £7.5 million and is currently being developed for luxury flats, carefully designed to fall just below the threshold requiring any affordable housing.

Royal Mail has announced a suspension of delivery of dividend payments for the current financial year. There is no doubt that the organisation faces some serious challenges, but it is also clear that a privatised model for delivering this vital public service has not worked. The twin objectives of delivering the universal service obligation and a return to shareholders are not compatible. As a consequence, we see an organisation that, despite cuts and asset-stripping, is failing my constituents.

I have been in regular contact with Royal Mail since the start of the pandemic and I recently visited the Peckham delivery office. It is clear that staff there are working very hard, but they are being failed because their work environment is not fit for purpose. Voluntary van-sharing, which would compromise the safety of postal workers just as we enter the second wave of coronavirus, is not the answer either.

Also, although I receive replies from Royal Mail on behalf of my constituents regarding each individual failure, Royal Mail has never acknowledged the cumulative failure of its services in SE22 or the seriousness of the problems caused for so many of my constituents.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. Will he join me in raising the catastrophic failure of Royal Mail in the SE22 postcode area in East Dulwich at the most senior levels in Royal Mail and Ofcom, and in calling on Royal Mail to reinstate a delivery office in SE22? Does he agree that a regulatory system that does not allow for any accountability when the universal service obligation is suspended is not fit for purpose? Will he commit to a review of the regulation of Royal Mail? Will he take action to ensure that Royal Mail can no longer unilaterally close and sell off delivery offices without clearly demonstrating that it will not result in repeated failures to deliver the universal service obligation, as has often happened to the residents I represent in East Dulwich? Does he agree that Royal Mail should not be run by absentee, arm’s length executives domiciled overseas? Does he agree that the payments to Royal Mail executives are excessive and should be used instead to fund additional postal workers in areas of staff shortage? Finally, does he agree that privatisation is failing to deliver the services my constituents need, and that it is vital to bring this vital public service back into common ownership so that it can be run for the benefit of people, not profit?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing this important debate and standing up for her constituents, who have clearly suffered through the teething issues of the change to the sorting office and from the impact of coronavirus, which has affected other users and customers across the country.

Before addressing the specific concern about disrupted delivery services in south-east London, I will provide a bit of context and outline the performance of, and pressures on, postal services in the current times. I agree with the hon. Lady, and I recognise the important role that postal workers have played and continue to play in serving customers and supporting local communities across the UK. We should never forget the social and economic impact of Royal Mail, the Post Office and postal services in general in connecting people. Their willingness to maintain deliveries during the coronavirus pandemic, at a time of increased social isolation, when many people cannot leave their homes, is vital. The Government are relying on the postal service’s continued operation to keep people connected across the country, and deliver the letters and parcels that are so important to everyday life and supporting the economy in these unprecedented times. It is therefore vital that normal services are maintained as far as possible.

Royal Mail’s well-established contingency plans to mitigate disruption to postal services are overseen by Ofcom, the independent regulator. It has reassured the Government, and I continue to monitor it and press it to ensure it is doing everything it can to maintain service levels during this period and that it continues to keep Ofcom informed. Specific changes to Royal Mail’s services are an operational matter for Royal Mail. Any reduction of services by it in exceptional circumstances will be temporary and are undertaken only when absolutely necessary. It is for Ofcom to monitor service levels in the first instance.

The regulatory conditions that require Royal Mail to deliver letters six days a week as part of the universal postal service also provide that it is not required to sustain those services without interruption, suspension or restriction in the event of an emergency. Ofcom has acknowledged that the covid-19 pandemic is such an emergency. It published a statement on its website on 29 April clarifying the regulatory framework that supported Royal Mail’s actions. It also confirmed that Royal Mail’s delivery obligations remain important elements of the universal service, and that it will keep the temporary change under review.

The regulatory framework is clear that emergency conditions allow Royal Mail to modify its operations, which includes reducing the frequency of the delivery of letters without formal authorisation if that is considered necessary to respond to the challenges it faces in sustaining the wider universal postal service during the pandemic. Royal Mail temporarily suspended Saturday letter deliveries for six weeks from 2 May to 13 June 2020 in the light of pressures on its staff during the height of the pandemic. Saturday deliveries of parcels continued through the six-week period.

A flexible approach to regulation under emergency conditions has supported Royal Mail and its hard-working employees. It has enabled the delivery of above-usual volumes of parcels, while managing high levels of coronavirus-related absences and necessary social distancing measures, keeping the country moving. Throughout the pandemic Royal Mail has been transparent with the public about changes to its services, with service update information published on its website.

Saturday deliveries were temporarily suspended nationwide, but I should like to address the specific concerns about services in south-east London. Royal Mail informs me that service levels have been affected owing to necessary changes to business operations and increased staff absence during the pandemic.

I shall address each of those issues in turn, because as the hon. Lady said there have clearly been teething problems and the changes have affected people, sometimes severely. I acknowledge the difficulties her constituents have experienced with those teething problems and during the coronavirus outbreak.

The safety of workers is a key priority of the Government. It is essential that Royal Mail workers are, and feel, safe in their working environment, which is why Royal Mail took significant steps to ensure its staff work in a safe environment in line with Government guidelines.

Royal Mail advises colleagues that good hand hygiene is the first and most important line of defence and promotes regular handwashing with soap and water. Other protective items such as hand sanitiser, disposable gloves and face coverings are available to all staff.

Royal Mail has implemented social distancing measures to ensure the safety of its staff and customers. For example, it introduced the “thumbs up” campaign during the height of the pandemic to make the public aware of the need to keep a safe distance while deliveries are made. In addition, Royal Mail reduced the number of staff in delivery vans from two to one. These measures have understandably had an impact on service levels.

As with businesses across many sectors, staff absence at Royal Mail increased during the pandemic and remains higher than usual, and that has clearly had an impact on service delivery. South-east London covers 28 postcode areas serviced by 20 Royal Mail delivery offices, and these combined postcode areas are served by Croydon mail centre. In the south-east London postcode area, sickness absence peaked at above 20% in May and is still higher than Royal Mail would normally expect at this time of year. Postmen and women who served the area throughout the pandemic continue to dedicate themselves to providing a public service in Dulwich and West Norwood and in all south-east London parliamentary constituencies.

Royal Mail employees have done their utmost to deliver as much mail and as many parcels as possible in difficult circumstances. In the East Dulwich area specifically there are 23 delivery rounds a day. At the peak of the coronavirus, Royal Mail partially failed to deliver in an average of 12 delivery rounds a day. That means there may have been a failure to deliver some products in each of those 12 rounds, and we have heard about the impact on the hon. Lady’s constituents. Those partial failures are now down to two or three delivery rounds.

Where business operations have been adjusted to deal with the pressures of the pandemic, Royal Mail has been transparent about the changes in services. It acknowledges there have been some reductions in service delivery, but given the pandemic, that is really no fault of its own, notwithstanding the teething problems with the changes to delivery offices.

The covid-19 pandemic continues to present challenging conditions, not just in the south-east but across the United Kingdom, Europe and globally. Royal Mail has done its level best to maintain service levels throughout a situation outside its control. To try to keep on top of the ongoing epidemic conditions, which might see rising staff absence alongside higher-still parcel volumes, in the run-up to Christmas, Royal Mail intends to recruit an additional 33,000 temporary workers, 10,000 more than usual, to help to manage the increase in online shopping caused by the coronavirus.

The Royal Mail’s universal service obligation is clearly a challenge. The changes that have been made are temporary, but services across a number of sectors have clearly been affected. Postal services affect so many people, which is why it is so important that we keep their social value and keep people connected.

The Government continue to push to keep Royal Mail to as high a standard as possible. Any permanent change would need to go first through a process with Ofcom before being decided in Parliament. It is important that we assess the impact on the hon. Lady’s constituents, and on people across the country—how they are being affected and how they use postal services.

The hon. Lady talked about absentee executives. As she said, there has been a change at the top, and I think that it is a better reflection of people’s expectations of what is required in Royal Mail at a particularly challenging time, even beyond covid. As to privatisation, there are some fundamental changes, not necessarily on ownership, that Royal Mail recognises and must address. It has a universal service obligation to keep six-day delivery right across the UK at a single price, but it also faces a challenge with the reduction in the number of letters being sent and the increase in the number of parcels, which as yet it has been unable to capitalise on as much as some of its competitors. A lot of functions need to be changed.

I said that operational matters are a matter for Royal Mail, so I will not comment about reinstating the service office in Silvester Road, but on behalf of the Government, I again take the opportunity to thank Royal Mail and to thank the hon. Lady for raising concerns for her constituents. It is important to focus on this and get it right, and not just in relation to the temporary nature of the pandemic, hopefully, as we learn to live with the virus—we do not know how temporary it is. Clearly, we need to get things right for those constituents who still rely on letters. Yes, people want their parcels, and people can use email, but some people like—and, as we have heard, need—a connection through letters, so thank you to the postal workers who continue to serve the nation, keeping us connected during these unprecedented times.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.