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Postal Disruption

Volume 620: debated on Thursday 21 December 2000

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11.26 a.m.

What arrangements they are making to meet representatives of the Post Office management to discuss the current disruption of mail services.

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

My Lords, there have been two reasons for recent disruption to mail services—industrial action, both official and unofficial, by mail and counters staff and the effects of disruption on the railways, which has caused mail trains to miss vital connections. The delivery of the mail services is a matter for the Post Office management, which has been keeping my department informed about these recent problems.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. Does he not agree that this is now becoming a matter of significant public concern? Long before the Hatfield rail accident and the ensuing disruption of rail services there were significant delays in postal services as a result of official and unofficial strike action. Does he agree that there has been a conspiracy of silence in terms of not informing the public about the disruption? What do the Government intend to do about it?

My Lords, the main problem has undoubtedly been rail disruption, which was bound to have an impact on services. Some 20 million letters are carried on an ordinary day and as many as 60 million at other times. The Post Office has been working extremely hard to use air and road transport to compensate for the problem of rail disruption. There have also been minor unofficial walk-outs, but those have been dealt with. I do not think that there has been a conspiracy of silence. On the contrary, in a number of press releases the Post Office has drawn attention to the situation and asked the public to help by posting early. The public have responded to that.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a former postman. Does my noble friend agree that no one is happy about industrial action? Does he further agree that what is required are meaningful discussions between the representatives of the people who work in the Post Office and the management to overcome some of the difficulties that have been apparent for some time? Should we not pay tribute to those men and women who over the past few weeks have done a tremendous job in delivering the mail through flooded areas and in clearing the record backlog of mail caused by the rail disruption? Is this not a time for us to be grateful to people who get up in the early hours of the morning or who work all night to make sure that we get a wonderful postal service which is still the envy of the world?

My Lords, I agree that the Post Office should not be criticised heavily for the low level of service due to rail disruption. I believe that their workers have tried extremely hard to cope with that. Furthermore, I agree that, at this time of year and in these circumstances, enormous pressures are put on Post Office workers. Something in the order of 150 million items are passing through sorting offices each day. However, in terms of industrial relations, I have to say that that is a matter for which the Post Office management and the workers must take some blame.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether he was satisfied with the press release sent out yesterday by his department concerning the high street banks? I understand that they are now prepared to fund the universal bank. Because no further information was given on the matter, can the Minister tell the House for how much, for how long and on what terms this has been agreed?

My Lords, I do not think that the question put by the noble Baroness has a great deal to do with the delivery of mail, but I am happy to respond to it. It is clear that, because we put out the press release, we are happy that an agreement in principle has been reached with the banks on the universal bank, in spite of the scepticism which has been voiced about it. I have also made it clear on previous occasions that negotiations are continuing. When those are finalised, we shall give details as regards exactly what contribution will be made by the banks and the services to be provided.

My Lords, further to the question put by my noble friend, does the Minister accept that it is important for those of us who live in rural areas to pay a special tribute to the quality of service maintained by the Post Office in such areas, and indeed to show appreciation for the way in which those workers maintain it? We should acknowledge the key role played by many Post Office workers in sustaining contact with isolated people, in particular the elderly. As we come up to Christmas, this is an appropriate time to extend our special thanks to those postal workers.

My noble friend referred to the pressure being put on the Post Office to use road services. Does he agree that, in the context of strategic environmental policy, it would be a disaster if the Post Office were to be forced to use the roads rather than the railways? Does he further agree that there is a tremendous need for the Government to bring together the Post Office and the railway companies to ensure that an effective and strategic service will be maintained in the future?

My Lords, my noble friend has put two questions to me. I am happy to join him in paying tribute to those who provide postal services in rural areas. Not only do they provide a good service, but they also make a real contribution to the community.

As regards the use of road services, this is simply a response to the current situation. I believe that the Post Office has been quite right to make every effort to ensure deliveries to customers. If that means that it is necessary to use alternative methods of transport., that is surely right. However, I do not think that that is relevant to the fundamental question; namely, that for environmental reasons we all wish to see as much mail carried by rail and public transport as is possible.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that none of us would wish to understate the significance of the problems faced by the Post Office following the Hatfield rail disaster? However, is he also aware that what is going on in some parts of the Post Office at present rather reminds one of some of the industrial relations problems of the late 1970s and early 1980s? Industrial relations in the Post Office are now among the worst in this country. Does the Minister believe that the Post Office management now recognises that it has a major problem with which it must deal? Let us hope that that view will be shared by the trade unions. They appear to walk away from problems of this kind and pretend that they are exclusively the responsibility of management.

My Lords, I hope that I have made it clear that, while the matter of rail disruption is not something for which the Post Office should be heavily criticised, the question of industrial relations, which are certainly not good, is a matter for which the whole of the Post Office—I repeat, the whole of the Post Office—has to accept responsibility.

My Lords, further to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the Minister stated that this problem has been "dealt with". Can he explain that curious phrase, which seems to resemble the "final solution"?

My Lords, that comment was made in the context that the official walkout and demonstrations which took place in a number of areas—Coventry, Kensington, Westminster and Romford—have now come to an end, with the exception of an overtime ban in Romford. My comment had no greater significance than that of confirming that those situations have now been resolved, with the single exception of the Romford overtime ban.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, while postal services in the countryside continue at a high level, the reverse is now the case in many city centres, even leaving aside the current difficulties? Can the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have put in place to address those difficulties? Furthermore, can he ensure that, when the Government are re-elected, this will be made a priority in the order of events?

my Lords, these are matters for the Post Office. We have put in place the Postal Services Commission. It will take a great interest in the level of service provided both in rural areas and in city centres. It will be for the commission to put pressure on the Post Office to achieve its targets.