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Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I am pleased to speak in this important debate, which has a bearing on the lives of all our constituents. I have spoken before about Post Office closures in my constituency and I do not intend to repeat my argument today, other than to say that I am extremely dissatisfied with the way in
 
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which the process has been handled. I remain convinced that the so-called "consultation process" on closures, even in its amended form, is little more than a sham. I shall concentrate instead on the failures in the Royal Mail's delivery network. I have raised the issue in business questions, both before and after the Whitsun recess, and am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the matter in greater detail today.

The changeover to the single delivery system has clearly not been a success. In May 2004, Royal Mail admitted that it had not met any of its 15 delivery targets in the year to March, and had failed to achieve its core objectives on the minimum delivery targets for first and second class post. In the year to March 2004, 90.1 per cent. of first class mail was delivered the next day, compared with a target of 92.5 per cent; 97.8 per cent. of second class mail was delivered on time, as opposed to a target of 98.5 per cent. In addition, while some first class mail may technically be delivered the next day, it now arrives so late that it is difficult to take practical action on it in normal working hours. In effect, traditional first class post has been virtually abolished, and in many areas the time of delivery is largely a matter of pot luck, regardless of the class of postage.

Anyone who thought that these problems were exaggerated needed only to watch the recent "Panorama" programme to be disabused of that notion. The BBC painted a truly shocking picture of life at a major London sorting office, with poor or indifferent management, sometimes militant staff and generally very low morale at all ranks. Royal Mail attempted to cope with changes in its system by recruiting large numbers of temporary staff, some of whom, to be frank, had difficulty reading and writing and finding even the most obvious addresses, leading to one near-farcical scene that was secretly filmed in a block of flats. Mail was frequently abandoned in delivery rounds or lost at the sorting depot. The worst cases exposed by the programme were of systematic fraud and theft, and it secretly filmed some members of organised gangs—not ordinary postal workers, I hasten to add—infiltrating the delivery network to steal high-value items such as credit cards and cheque books.

Some of those problems have been replicated in other parts of the country, including my own county of Essex, where the changeover was rolled out in the first half of 2004. Those problems were amply demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), and I should like to expand the argument with examples from my constituency and neighbouring areas, many of which are similar to the problems in London highlighted by "Panorama".

In the spring of 2004 a young female reporter from the Evening Echo, Anita Patterson, went undercover and took a job as a temporary postal worker for Royal Mail. She was based at the Basildon sorting office for about a week, although the experiences that she described are indicative of problems across south Essex, including my own constituency. She described the situation on the ground in a major article entitled, "We expose mail chaos"—I have brought it for the Minister to see, in case he thinks I am exaggerating—and her account is extremely depressing.
 
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The changeover led to a large backlog of undelivered mail. At one stage more than half a million items were piled up at the Basildon sorting office awaiting delivery—a fantastic number of items waiting to go out. In addition, a large number of experienced postmen who knew their rounds well began leaving, with large numbers of inexperienced casual staff desperately being recruited to try to fill the gap. At one stage there were more than 40 casuals operating from the Basildon office alone. While some of the newcomers were reportedly keen and wanted to do their best, they often did not know the areas in question and had to work from maps, so deliveries took much longer than when undertaken by experienced personnel with good local knowledge, who knew exactly where they were going.

Many of the individual delivery rounds had been significantly expanded as part of the changeover process, so that customers at the back end of a round, so to speak, were receiving their mail very late in the day, with many letters and parcels not being delivered until the early evening. One Royal Mail manager quoted in the subsequent Evening Echo report stated that the previous system had run like clockwork compared with the new system, which he described as "a bloody mess".

Even brief hindsight reveals that the exercise was badly planned. The entire process should have been much more thoroughly prepared for and the subsequent execution of the changeover should have been much better thought through. The staffing implications of the change were obviously not considered properly, and neither were the potential impact on morale and the related impact on the retention or otherwise of experienced staff. The dramatic alteration in the well established delivery rounds persuaded many experienced postmen to leave, which had a detrimental effect on those who were left. It also meant that more casuals were employed, and they had to work harder to make up. The system became a vicious circle. Royal Mail appears to have had scant regard for the effect on its customers, who were effectively taken for granted throughout the process, and in many parts of Essex still are.

I shall conclude, as I know there is one other hon. Member who is anxious to speak and I want to give him his chance. I, for one, have little remaining confidence in the senior management of Royal Mail. From the people who brought us Consignia and then the post office closure programme, we now have a service that cannot even deliver letters properly and that sets 15 performance targets and then proceeds to miss every single one of them. If anybody ever wants to organise a party in a brewery, I suggest they do not go and ask the management of Royal Mail how to do it.

The Government cannot escape responsibility in the matter. It is important to remember, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) at the start of his speech from the Front Bench, that it is the Government who ultimately own the Post Office and Royal Mail. However they try to spin it—I admit that in opening the debate for the Government, the Minister valiantly tried—these problems have occurred on their watch. They are ultimately responsible for the chaos on the ground. The buck therefore stops with Ministers. They need to take
 
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a firm grip on the situation and do something about it, or get out of the way and allow others to do so who are more confident to perform.

6.33 pm

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): I was intrigued by the Minister's description of the reinvention programme in his opening remarks. I am sure that if it worked in the way that the Minister set out for us, it would indeed be a wonderful thing, but in my experience the reinvention programme is neither consistent nor systematic. Despite the promises that we received in the Minister's statement earlier in the year, I can see no practical difference between the consultation process undertaken now and that which was undertaken before, apart from the fact that we now get a letter from the Post Office with a printout and lovely coloured maps. The process is as bad as it ever was.

Let me give an example. Just before the Minister's statement, the Post Office announced that it was changing the way in which consultation was carried out. There was no longer to be a piecemeal process, post office by post office; it would look at a constituency as a whole. I was intrigued by that and wondered how it would be done in a rural constituency, but I hoped there might be a systematic examination of post office provision. A few days later I got a letter saying that one of the post offices in my constituency was closing. I asked what had happened to the constituency-wide appraisal, and was told that that had not started yet. That post office duly closed, despite widespread local opposition.

In April I received a wonderful letter from the Post Office giving me the grandly titled Post Office area plan for Angus. As I said, it was accompanied by a nice printout and brightly coloured maps. What it lacked was any sort of strategic thinking about the post office provision needed in a constituency such as mine. I shall give an example of the level of strategic thinking that it contains. As part of the customer profile for one of the post offices, it states:

and

So where were those mainly elderly customers to go? They were expected to go to another post office that is just under a mile away. So far, so good, but how are those mainly elderly customers supposed to get there, as many do not have their own transport? Under the heading "Bus routes", the same wonderful printout states:

In other words, customers cannot get to the alternative post office by bus, and in any event it is situated on a busy road adjacent to traffic lights where there is often a heavy build-up of traffic.

I approached the Post Office with the concerns expressed to me by my constituents and I made observations to the company regarding that closure and the difficulties with bus transport to alternative offices. The response was that buses are a matter for the bus company. So much for consultation. Surely it is a matter for the Post Office, which is—or at least used to be—a public service.
 
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The consultation process is seriously flawed and is no more than window-dressing for decisions that have already been made. The motion, for obvious reasons, specifically mentions post offices in Leicester and Birmingham. As someone who has no intention of going to south Leicester or Birmingham, I can say that it affects all parts of the United Kingdom, including my constituency. Will the Minister please tell us the strategic thinking behind the post office reinvention programme?

Under the latest proposals there are to be three closures in Angus—one in Montrose, one in Arbroath and one in Forfar. The result is that there would be one post office left in the town of Montrose, no post offices in the west side of Arbroath, the largest town in the county, and in Forfar, the county town, two post offices close together, with nothing for the majority of the town. We were told again by the Minister today that the programme is meant to stabilise and modernise the provision of postal services. Instead, it seems to be completely haphazard and dependent on which sub-postmasters want to or can be persuaded to retire. All too often it seems as though the management approach local postmasters, saying, "We've a tub of money. Who wants to go?"

Surely the proper way to deal with the matter, as the Minister told us, although it is not what is happening in practice, is that there should be a genuine look at the entire area—constituency, local authority or whatever—mapping out the post offices required properly to serve the needs of the population. In my constituency that is not happening. We have a haphazard and unbalanced system, and I am sure that that is the experience of many other hon. Members.

As I mentioned in an intervention on the Minister, despite the fact that he said there should be a post office within a mile of where people live, the Post Office says that under its agreement with the regulator there should be a post office within three miles. As I pointed out, in any small or medium-sized town that could easily be achieved by having one sub-post office in the centre of the town. It occurs to me that the real strategy behind the reinvention programme might be to cut down the number to one in each town. This is a matter of real importance, as the programme has been funded entirely by taxpayers' money. In effect, we are paying for the reduction in our own services, and no one believes that the current round will be the last.

The situation is worse than that. When the Post Office proposed the closures, I asked it what would happen if we found someone who was willing to take over a post office at which the current postmaster wanted to leave or could not make a living. I received this response:

So the Post Office will not look at an alternative for a post office until it decides whether it wants to close it. That does not fill me with confidence that it will look seriously at alternatives.
 
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Mention has been made of the rural post office network, but time is running short so I shall not speak about it in any great detail. Obviously there are serious things to come, and we expect many closures when the money runs out in 2006.

I shall stop there, as I am being signalled that time is indeed short, but I have serious concerns about this whole process.

6.41 pm


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