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Universal Postal Service Order: Rhondda

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 8 May 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the universal postal service order in Rhondda constituency.

It is a delight to see you in the Chair for the first time, Mr Henderson. Congratulations on your elevation—some have greatness thrust upon them. I should say that I am here as a Back Bencher, although I am quite often up against the Minister from the Front Bench. It is a different kind of arrangement today.

The universal service obligation, which is an essential part of delivering many public services up and down the land, says that there should be letter delivery six days a week, next-day delivery for first-class letters—which we all know are now quite expensive—and delivery within three days for second-class letters. I fully understand that recent years have been tough for Royal Mail. Letters are down from 14.3 billion in 2011-12 to 7.3 billion in 2022-23, and parcels are up from 2.6 billion in 2018-19 to 3.6 billion in 2022-23. It would be very easy for Royal Mail to conclude that its future lies in parcels, not in letters, but I want to say on behalf of my constituents in the Rhondda—I suspect that MPs from every constituency in the land would say the same—that the service they are getting at the moment does not meet the universal service obligation. That is a problem for individuals, our public services and our economy.

Let me talk through some of the issues that my constituents have faced. In the past three years, my office has dealt with a vast number of cases that have come in by email, letter and phone. We have created more than 100 individual pieces of casework relating to Royal Mail issues. All those cases share some very specific issues: sporadic arrival of mail, sometimes no mail at all received for weeks, and large bundles arriving at once. These are not people complaining that they are not getting any letters from anybody because nobody loves them; they are people saying they know a letter is due and it does not arrive, even when it has a first-class stamp on it. The most common complaint is late delivery, resulting in missed hospital appointments and fines.

These are not isolated locations in the Rhondda; the issue affects the whole of the constituency. It is a persistent problem that residents have been reporting since 2019. I have tried regularly to get to the nub of these issues with local managers. I am endlessly promised that they will be sorted, and they never are.

Of course, all my constituents are full of praise for their local postal workers, who deliver in rain and sunshine—I worry about sunshine because I have had melanoma and I know the dangers of skin cancer, so I want to make sure there is proper protection for postal workers. Many of the issues that postal workers face are the same ones that my constituents complain about.

Postal workers have told us about the following issues. There are not enough base staff to cover all rounds. Staff holidays and staff sickness come at peak times, making it impossible to maintain the USO. Management prioritises parcels over post—I know the Business and Trade Committee has looked at that closely. There is clear evidence that that is still happening, and it is problematic. Rounds are far too big and undeliverable. Vans are not large enough for parcels and the post, so postal workers have to go back to the sorting office and make multiple trips, and no overtime is offered for that.

I have met the Royal Mail management team at the sorting offices multiple times, and they always say that it is a matter of staff sicknesses and that it is all going to be sorted next time, but it never is. I have also been told anonymously that staff are paid overtime to clear the mail before I get there so that when I arrive at the sorting office, it is all perfect and there is no mail waiting to go out, but once I have gone somebody gets back in the van and it goes back into the sorting office. If that is true, it is obviously a deliberate attempt to mislead the Member of Parliament, and I am sure the Minister would want to condemn it.

I will just go through some of the specific cases we have had—

Absolutely. I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this issue; he is right. Does he agree that there must be a greater obligation under the universal postal service order for availability in rural areas? I understand that that is an issue for him too. There is no substitute for a full-service post office, and those obligations should be clearly defined in law. I think the hon. Gentleman is pushing for that. If it were in law, that would be to his advantage and to everybody else’s too.

To be honest, I just want to get it sorted in my constituency. I want Royal Mail to do the job that it is required to do by law already, and I just do not think that that is happening. I suspect that 650 MPs could give exactly the same story.

Let me give one instance. Nicola Thomas wrote to me about the delivery of letters from the local health board:

“I received an invite to book an appointment, a reminder of that invitation, and a letter saying ‘we’ve removed you from the list because we haven’t heard from you’ all in the same delivery.”

That is clearly a nonsense.

Another resident told me that all her mail takes over three weeks to arrive. She received a letter on 15 April that was dated 19 March. She is disabled. She has had numerous hospital appointment notifications that have not arrived on time. When she called the hospital to apologise for not attending, they say everyone is having the same problem, and I can confirm that. She has tried to call the clinic and sorting office. Nobody ever answers. She has tried calling the main headquarters. Nobody ever answers. Her postie told her that his boss at Clydach said that parcels take priority over letters. That is manifestly wrong. Her partner, who lives in Porth, where I also live, paid £70 to have their mail redirected, but the new tenant is still bringing letters to him. They have also tried to complain, but they can never speak to a human.

A resident in William Street in Ystrad said:

“We only get mail every 3/4 weeks, this has been an ongoing issue since last November. They’ve now stopped delivering parcels too. Royal mail have said there isn’t enough time for the post person to deliver to William street at all, with no plans to resolve the issue. I have to go to the sorting office in Ferndale if I want to receive any mail which is sometimes difficult with the restrictive opening hours.”

I agree about the restricted opening hours. We all know the saga: one of those little notes has been put through the door saying that they tried to deliver a parcel and but no one was there. Sometimes it feels as if it is the five minutes that no one was in the house that they managed to find that moment to put it through, but now they have restricted the hours when parcels can be picked up from the sorting office as well. This is not a proper service that is effective or efficient for my community.

Ethan Jenkins says:

“Postmen are now delivering for Amazon and Yodel as well as their own. They are delivering stuff daily that can be picked up at your local store still delivering toilet rolls, crates of alcohol, crates of pop. What they’re delivering shouldn’t be delivered by Royal Mail but a courier whose only job is parcels.”

This is a real issue for Royal Mail. They must ensure that letters get through.

Gaynor Harvey said:

“I think that most of us are having difficulty getting our mail delivered. I’m not sure that there’s any difference between a first class or second class stamp anymore except for the price of the stamp. Mail locally can take up to a week to get where it’s supposed to.”

Nita Bianca from Trealaw said:

“We’re lucky to get post once every 2 or 3 weeks in Trealaw. I’ve missed numerous hospital appointments due to this, and I probably would have missed a lot more if I didn’t have the NHS text reminder to tell me I have an upcoming appointment”.

Letters will always be important for the local health board, for the simple reason that lots of people in my constituency do not have internet access at home. Because of GDPR, it is difficult to send appointment invitations via email, as it cannot be guaranteed that the only person who will open that email is the person to whom it is directed. Many people simply do not have smartphones, particular the elderly who rely on NHS services in my constituency, which makes it all the more important that we ensure that letters can get through.

Significant numbers of my constituents have been caught speeding. Whether the speed limit is 20 mph, 30 mph, 40 mph or 50 mph, it does not matter; people get caught speeding or get caught in a yellow box, and they are sent a notice by the local police force or safety team. Often these notices arrive three or four weeks late, long after the date before which it is possible simply to fess up and pay half the fine. That adds to the administrative burden and the cost to individuals, and sometimes these letters get completely lost, which is problematic for public services, local government and my constituents.

My colleague, Senedd Member for the Rhondda Buffy Williams, did a report on this a few weeks ago. It emphasised two things. First, this is a significant problem for a large number of my constituents—26% of the people who responded to her survey said that they had missed NHS appointments. I do not need to underline the issue because we all know that there is a problem across the whole United Kingdom with the backlog in the NHS. If the NHS is sending out invitations to appointments and people do not get them in time, and then do not turn up, that is a hideous waste of resources in the NHS. Ensuring that Royal Mail performs its function properly is part of ensuring that we get the NHS back on—

I think I am meant to take only one intervention in these short debates, if the hon. Member does not mind. I am not quite sure of my timing. Mr Henderson, you may want to remind me how much longer I should go on for—the Minister will always say, “Stop now”, but—[Laughter.] I heard that laughter over there.

Post matters. Letters matter. It is not just about appointments and fines but about banks. Quite often, they send out material that needs to get to the person in a timely fashion, including credit cards, bank cards and so on. That is all the more important now, because we do not have a single bank left in the Rhondda constituency, and several of the banks are now closing in Pontypridd. Any kind of physical contact with a bank might mean going down into Cardiff, which would be a considerable journey for many people in my constituency. Yet again, it is all the more important that we have a proper system.

Birthday cards also matter. It would be really nice if everybody in the Rhondda who was sent a birthday card with a first-class stamp got it on their birthday, rather than two or three weeks after. I cannot tell you how many constituents have told me how upset they have felt when no birthday cards have arrived at all, when they know that their family would always want to ensure that they arrived on time.

There are important things that Royal Mail needs to do. First, if it is true that it has been trying to obscure the problems it has locally, it should apologise, make it clear that it has done that, and not do it again. Secondly, it needs to employ enough staff to do the job properly, and it needs to value those staff, so that they feel enthused about coming into work, rather than feeling constantly battered into submission by a system that simply does not allow them the room to do their job properly. Thirdly, it needs to ensure that letters are prioritised and not treat them like second-rate citizens compared with parcels. Whatever Royal Mail’s future aspirations for the USO may be, I am not here to talk about that today. I simply want it to adhere to the USO today. That means first-class letters being delivered the next day.

I also want Royal Mail to have a proper process for complaints, so that it can log the issues that arise. If a customer cannot speak to an individual when they ring about not having any post for three weeks, and they are worried about whether there is a letter coming from the NHS, surely to goodness there must be a proper system of logging that and ensuring that it happens. Finally, I would dearly love for Royal Mail in the Rhondda to get back to the system we had maybe 10 years ago, when all of that functioned much more efficiently. That is in the interest of our public services, our constituents and our community. It would just be nice if it were easy to pick up a parcel. I note, Mr Henderson, that you are encouraging me to shut up. I shall shut up now.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Henderson. Would you mind indicating what time we are due to conclude? I am a little bit lost.

I am very grateful, Mr Henderson.

I thank the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) —I could not believe he is not a right hon. Member— for securing today’s important debate. I will touch on the specific situation in the Rhondda, as well as the wider situation. If I may, I will talk about the wider situation first.

Clearly, we recognise the points that the hon. Gentleman made. Mail is very important to our constituents for all kinds of different reasons, ranging from hospital appointments to cards and letters, which are very important to our constituents and will remain so. In the last financial year, all postal operators delivered around 3.6 billion parcels across the UK, and Royal Mail delivered 7.3 billion addressed letters—I will come to the point about prioritisation shortly. The hon. Gentleman did not directly refer to any changes in the universal service obligation; he wants to leave that for another day.

Order. The sitting is suspended for 15 minutes for a Division in the House. I will allow 10 minutes for each subsequent Division.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

Thank you, Mr Henderson. On the universal service obligation, I know the general obligation was not something that the hon. Member for Rhondda focused too much on, but it is important to say that we believe the six-days-a-week service should remain. We have been very clear about that. Ofcom has the primary duty to secure its provision. Despite the fact that letter volumes have halved in the last decade, which has put further pressure on making the service viable, it is right that the Prime Minister and I make it clear that the importance of maintaining a Saturday delivery service is that it provides flexibility and convenience. We will not countenance scrapping it, not least because of the impact that would have on the greeting card, magazine and similar industries.

I will come to Rhondda specifically, but on the main point the hon. Member for Rhondda raised about the general quality of service, we understand that we have had a number of complaints. It is one of the most frequent items that comes across my desk in correspondence or meetings with fellow Members of Parliament. Ofcom obviously has the powers to investigate and take enforcement action where failures are identified. It did so when it fined Royal Mail £5.6 million earlier this year for its contravention of conditions in 2022-23. Ofcom is obviously monitoring this to make sure that the service improves.

The latest published quality of service results for quarter 3 of 2023-24 showed that Royal Mail continues to fail to meet its first and second class delivery targets. It is quite clear that the service is not at the level we want to see. I met Martin Seidenberg, chief executive of the parent group, and made that point to him clearly. He accepted that this was the case, and that things need to improve. One thing about prioritisation, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, is that—

To be clear, the hon. Gentleman was referring to whether Royal Mail is prioritising parcels over letters. Ofcom looked at that to see whether it was a feature of some of the problems behind the service level, and it did not identify any suggestion that Royal Mail’s senior management had directed the prioritisation of parcels. Nevertheless, I think we are all concerned about anecdotal stories at a local level that suggest it may be the case. We absolutely do not want to see that happen.

The strategy for Royal Mail that Martin Seidenberg set out gave me some comfort, although it is actions not words that we want to see. It included accelerated recruitment of permanent workers, reinforced operational management at regional and local levels, and tackling sickness and absence. Three thousand additional postal workers have been recruited, and Royal Mail has introduced new sickness and attendance policies, which it claims are playing a significant part in reducing absence.

Royal Mail recently delivered its best-performing Christmas period in four years, with more than 99% of items posted before the last recommended posting dates arriving by Christmas eve. It is encouraging that following an agreement with the Communication Workers Union, results are beginning to improve, with sickness absence reportedly down by about 25% by the end of December compared with 2022, and only 0.2% of the daily 54,000 walks could not be resourced on any given day by the end of December. Royal Mail advises that its most recent performance data from the start of 2024 is much stronger, particularly the service levels for first class mail, reflecting some of the changes that have been made.

As I say, it is actions we want, not words. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not be satisfied until he sees changes on the ground.

I wonder whether the Minister could do me a favour. Could he ask Royal Mail to provide data for my area every month on how they are doing with the USO and how much they are meeting? I have tried to get that information myself, but I find it difficult. I am sure it would be more effective if he asked.

I will take that away, and I am very happy to look at it, because I believe in holding Royal Mail’s feet to the fire. There may be an advantage if we look at that at constituency level.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s point that mail is sporadic and there is often no mail or it arrives late, resulting in missed appointments or fines and all those things. These are very serious issues, so I can understand his frustration. He said that he has had considerable contact with Royal Mail about those service issues, as is right—he is a very diligent Member of Parliament, and we urge other colleagues to do the same. Royal Mail reports that service in the area was disrupted due to sickness absence in some parts of his area being higher than average, and it was not a good picture across the board anyway. The time taken to recruit staff has also contributed to gaps in the service.

Royal Mail has acknowledged that it has not been able to deliver a consistently high level of service to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I understand that the issues have centred around the Ferndale and Mid Rhondda delivery offices. In Ferndale I understand that last month there were six members of staff absent and that some customers may have experienced disruption to their deliveries. Royal Mail has now advised that absence levels have since been reduced, with fewer members of staff currently absent through sickness. In Mid Rhondda, there are currently three staff absent on sick leave and Royal Mail is currently recruiting an additional postal worker.

Royal Mail reports that it is currently delivering to all addresses served by both delivery offices six days a week when there is mail to deliver, and if postal workers cannot deliver on a given day, mail will be prioritised the next working day. We are assured that it is actively working on measures to restore service levels, and while it tries to tackle the local service issues, no address will go without a mail delivery for more than two days. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will update me regularly if that proves not to be the case.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman was due to visit one or both of those delivery offices in March, but that was postponed. He is looking at me very quizzically; maybe that was not the case. Royal Mail will be in touch with him to try to arrange a new date, if he would like to visit again. We would definitely urge Royal Mail to do that when constituency Members of Parliament are not happy.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about complaints. If he googles the Royal Mail customer service centre, which I am sure he has, there is a phone number and an online form to fill in. There is also an independent dispute resolution service—the postal redress service—which can try to resolve disputes. Citizens Advice can also provide assistance to constituents and constituency Members of Parliament to resolve these issues. He could also write to Ofcom to ensure that it is aware of the service difficulties he is experiencing. On his point about whether Royal Mail is obscuring the level of service, moving mail to a van outside and bringing it back in, that would be totally unacceptable. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of that, will he please raise it with me or directly with Royal Mail?

The hon. Gentleman raised a point about the lack of banks and available cash on high streets. We have legislated for that, and post offices play an important part. I also look after them, as he will be aware. Banking hubs might feature in the towns and villages in his constituency in the coming months and years. I have also just replied to his letter on counterfeit stamps, which he should receive. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman acknowledges that he has received a copy.

It suddenly occurred to me that there might be a general election later this year. One part of what the Post Office is required to provide is the freepost delivery. How confident is the Minister that the Royal Mail will be able to deliver that in a timely fashion to the right constituents in the right places across the whole of the country?

That is a matter close to both our hearts and those of others in the room today. Speaking from my own perspective, as someone who is not easily convinced or easily has the wool pulled over his eyes with reassurances, I was impressed by Martin Seidenberg, but people will be convinced only when services improve. I have set out some of the ways that they should improve. There is a personnel issue, as well as some management ones. There have been some steps forward, as I set out earlier. That should help to secure the improvements that the hon. Gentleman and I want to see.

As I said before, it is not words but actions that we want to see. I am happy to hear from Members across the House to ensure that service levels are where we want them to be. We are committed to ensuring that we have a financially sustainable and efficient universal postal service for all users in all constituencies. I would like to ensure that Members of this House are able to bring concerns to me whenever they or their constituents are disappointed with local services. I ask the hon. Gentleman please to ensure that I am aware of the difficulties that he sees on an ongoing basis. With that, I will conclude my remarks.

Question put and agreed to.