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6 Dec 2005 : Column 241WH—continued

Post Codes and Post Towns

1.30 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate on a subject that causes a great deal of grief to many of my constituents and, I am sure, to many others across the country. It is not a conventional political issue, but none the less it causes a great deal of local concern and there is an element of ministerial responsibility. There are two related problems: the issue of post codes and post towns, which, under the current system, is not open to change, and that of the postal address files—the so-called PAFs—which, in theory, can enjoy some flexibility but in practice enjoy little.

Looking back over the Hansard reports, I have discovered a long history of local concerns about addresses. It reached a peak in 2002, so much so that there was an exchange between Postcomm, the post office regulator, and the Post Office, which was persuaded to introduce a more flexible system—a code of conduct—for changing the postal address file at least. I have some feedback on how that system is or is not working.

From the outset, I want to say that I fully understand the need for a standardised system. We have 28 million or 30 million homes in this country, with hundreds of millions of letters flying backwards and forwards. It is obviously important for the efficiency of sorting and distribution that there is a standardised system of post codes that can be read by machine. I fully understand that and why there need to be rules and an element of inflexibility. My basic concern is that the way in which the system operates is wholly inflexible and I want to ask the Minister whether there is anything that he can do. He is indirectly accountable for the Post Office and one stage removed from the regulator. Can the Government do anything to help deal with the problem?

It might be helpful if I split the problem into two halves. The first is the issue of post codes and post towns, which are the inflexible part of the framework. The Post Office and the Royal Mail are clear that only in the most extreme circumstances can those be changed. That presents some serious practical problems, and I will enumerate a few that arise in my constituency.

One cluster of houses—about 250 homes—was transferred to my borough of Richmond and my constituency about 12 years ago. The address of those homes is Twickenham road, Twickenham. However, the Post Office requires the post code to be TW13. That requires the homes to be referred to as Hanworth, Feltham—the post town of Feltham is in another constituency and another borough, Hounslow. That causes a great deal of confusion. Delivery people—both postmen and delivery companies—see the road signs for Twickenham, but they have a letter addressed to Feltham so they do not know what to do with it. A great many letters and deliveries go astray, leading to confusion and inefficiency.

Feelings were sufficiently strong for residents to petition and they involved me in the process. We took the matter up with the Royal Mail and invoked the support of the consumer watchdog, Postwatch, which was strongly supportive. We received an unequivocal
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negative from the Royal Mail. All we were doing was asking it to update the post town system to reflect the change of administrative boundaries; it would not do it.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I want to mention a specific point about the regulations that apply to Postwatch, and in my case to Postwatch Scotland, which arose when I was taking up an individual case. The residents in the upper Tweed part of my constituency have an ML12 post code, which relates to the post town of Biggar, and although there have been no issues such as those set out by the hon. Gentleman about delivery problems, there have been numerous other problems such as identification with the wrong local authority region, being omitted from telephone directories and the effect on insurance costs. Postwatch is unable to support a referendum among local residents if it does not solely relate to the quality of the postal service. That is a deficiency in the regulations.

Dr. Cable : The hon. Gentleman is right. I entirely recognise the problem that he describes. I am, perhaps, somewhat more fortunate than him in that the consumer watchdog took up an identical case in my constituency and Postwatch was severely ticked off by the Royal Mail, which wrote:

The Post Office consumer watchdog was very firmly put in its place by the producers on that occasion. However, that is just one example; there are others.

In my constituency, there is a cluster of homes around the historic palace of Hampton Court. The residents live in the borough of Richmond, in the Twickenham area, but they are regarded by the Post Office as belonging to a Kingston post code—KT8—and are assigned the post town of East Molesey, which is a different community across the river in a different county, having no historical connection whatever. That causes great confusion. There is also part of a community named Whitton on the fringes of my constituency that has been allocated the post town of Hounslow, causing many comparable problems.

What are the problems? The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) listed some of them. First, a great deal of mail and delivery goes astray. Residents such as those involved in the Twickenham road case cited examples of crucial legal documents, bank statements and bills being returned to sender because the postmen did not know what to do with them. Several residents have described being offered books of stamps by way of compensation. That is ironic because the whole justification for the Post Office maintaining its inflexible system is to maintain efficiency. This is an inefficiency for which there is, apparently, no redress.

As the intervention of the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale suggested, post codes are often linked to commercial services with the result that references in the Thomson directory are misleading. Insurance is often based on post codes. In one area of my constituency, the crime rate is quite low due to good, safe neighbourhood policing, but residents are given home and car insurance quotations on the
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basis of their post code, which is in a different borough that has a much higher level of crime. Therefore, they pay a direct financial penalty as a result of the arbitrary allocation of a post code.

There are more serious matters. After I had secured this debate, I received an e-mail from a Leeds councillor whom I had never met, but who had a very informative point. He wrote:

Quite apart from the matters of commercial service, postal delivery and emergency services, there is the subtle psychological issue of identity. I do not represent an area where that is a powerful concern, but I believe that the Isle of Wight, for example, is not recognised by the Post Office, which regards it as part of Southampton. There are parts of Wales and, no doubt, Scotland that have English post codes and post towns. People in those areas value their identities and are disconcerted by that discrepancy. There are all sorts of reasons why a degree of flexibility should be introduced into the system governing post codes and post towns, while recognising the need for standardisation. A better balance should be struck.

The second problem relates to an area where there should be more give in the system but, in practice, there is not. That is the system of Post Office address files under which a geographical identity can be added or subtracted. Subject to the rules suggested by the Post Office regulator, the Royal Mail will add those extra details, subject to a referendum. A change can be accepted if 50 per cent. of people vote in favour of it. Indeed, there is now a negative procedure in which a change that the Post Office recommends will be accepted if no more than 20 people object to it.

Despite the fact that there is now a democratic way of changing people's postal address file names, it does not work at all well in practice. There are some happy examples, however. A small town near Barnsley in Yorkshire managed to change its postal address file name as a result of a campaign led by the umpire Dickie Bird, an example that is often cited to me as a model of what is possible. A counter example from Whitton, a town in my area, has aroused very strong feelings and has given rise to a petition of several thousand signatures, which I shall deliver to the Minister and the Royal Mail.

My constituency is made up of many urban villages and towns. Whitton has a very strong sense of identity and history. It has five schools, four churches and a railway station. Ordnance survey maps going back 150 years refer to it. At its centre is the famous Kneller hall, the home of the Royal Military School of Music. There is a very powerful community association and a very active business association. There are also annual carnivals and much else. Its name, however, has been removed from the postal address file, which has had very serious consequences.
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The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Alun Michael) : Such is the logic of the hon. Gentleman's remarks that I hesitate to intervene, but does he accept that Whitton has never been on the Royal Mail's postal address file and so has never been eliminated, as he says it has been in his rather dramatic press release? Does he also accept that correspondence advising the citizens of Whitton how to petition and allow the change to be implemented has never been pursued, and that it would be more sensible to use the process rather than to petition?

Dr. Cable : The right hon. Gentleman is wrong about several facts, but we shall return to them. We used the process, but the Post Office refused us support for the change. That is why the democratic election choice was impossible, although we would be very happy to use it. The local council supports it, the MP supports it, which is one of the conditions, the chamber of commerce supports it, and the local community very much wants to have a ballot, as the code requires.

The Minister is right to suggest that I used slightly colourful language in saying that Whitton was "eliminated", and that it was probably never included in the first place, but the situation has become more serious in that increasing numbers of commercial vehicles are using the postal address file while Thomson directories' maps, for example, no longer refer to Whitton. The telephone directory gives Twickenham, a town four miles away, as the address. Local atlases do not refer to Whitton at all.

Some of the practical problems that arise as a result are quite serious. Delivery vans often turn up in the borough looking for, say, Kneller road in Whitton, but all the directories refer to it as Kneller road in Twickenham, so they look in Twickenham, which is four miles away. Deliveries very often go astray, and a great deal of inconvenience is caused to businesses and individuals. Associated with that is a very strong sense that the identity of a community is being lost, and all the community groups are now pressing for a change.

The Minister said that the local communities have not used the appropriate methods, but there has been extensive correspondence, which I can show him, in which the local community associations and I have pressed the Royal Mail to hold a ballot to make the necessary change. The Royal Mail has simply refused to support the change. The reasons that it has given, which the consumer watchdog describes as inflexible, bear no relationship to the standard arguments that it advances about the need for a sophisticated computer-based sorting system. It refers to the confusion that could arise among the manual sorters. It is difficult to understand the arguments. Indeed, the Post Office consumer body, which has no axe to grind—there is no reason for it to support us—takes much the same view. However, if the Minister thinks that all that is required is for the local community to activate the process, we shall be delighted to do that. The key bodies, the council, the chamber of commerce and I are all in favour and anxious to achieve the necessary change.

To conclude, I ask two things of the Minister. First, is it possible to have some flexibility in relation to post codes and post towns, rather than the current rigid refusal to contemplate change? I understand about economies of scale and the need for standardisation, but
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surely some kind of cost-benefit analysis must be made. There are severe costs in some cases—the 250 homes in Twickenham road that I cited make a good example. Can we not have some mechanism by which the Royal Mail is required to evaluate costs and benefits, and to allow a process of change?

Secondly, we seem to have run into the buffers in relation to the PAFs—I mentioned the example of Whitton. There is a process for change, but if the Post Office refuses to contemplate it, it is difficult to use it. Can the Minister help by finding a way around that obstacle?

1.46 pm

The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Alun Michael) : I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate, and I shall try to address all the points raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). However, I urge him to be more accurate in future press releases, rather than chasing the quick headline.

I share instinctively his view of the importance of place, and his feeling that identity as a community and as a society depends largely on having a sense of place. It follows that, as community animals, we will want any post code to reflect both place and community. However, let us reflect on purpose: what is the post code for? What is the point of a post town?

As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, the Royal Mail manages a massive operation that extends to every house and business in the United Kingdom. Its operational success is based on the efficient use of postal addresses, particularly post codes. Some 84 million postal items are delivered every day, and more than 950 million parcels every year. To meet its obligation to provide a universal postal service, Royal Mail has given every house and business in the UK a postal address. There are 27.5 million addresses and 1.7 million post codes, one for every 15 UK addresses.

Why has Royal Mail specified a correct way of addressing post to help its operations? Every delivery point in the UK has a postal address. Customers are encouraged to use the correct postal address, for the simple purpose of avoiding delays. A minimum amount of information is required by Royal Mail for accurate sorting and delivery: the addressee's name, the house number or name, the locality name, the town and the post code. The post code enables small numbers of adjacent properties—sometimes a single property—to be identified. The Royal Mail's postal address file—the PAF, to which the hon. Gentleman referred—also includes other information relevant to a postal address, such as the names of businesses. The file is subject to continuous updating to reflect changes in postal address information such as new housing developments and the renumbering of buildings or renaming of roads.

A post code is not a definition of personal or communal identity, it is a sorting and routing instruction. Its sole purpose in the postal context is to help to identify the most efficient route for delivering
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mail to customers. Society might use it in a variety of other ways, but that is what it is for, and why it was designed in the first place.

David Mundell : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Alun Michael : No. The hon. Gentleman really ought to check protocol before he seeks to intervene in an Adjournment debate.

The post code allocated to each district and address is linked to Royal Mail's network of sorting and delivery offices. It was never intended to signify a geographically definitive address by local authority or other administrative boundary. Indeed, it is not a geographically accurate description of where a property is located, which explains some of the examples given by the hon. Member for Twickenham. It might include the name of the town where the delivery office is situated, which might be several miles away, or even in a different county.

I said that I instinctively shared the hon. Gentleman's affection for the identity of place, and the situation can be even worse, in that the town referred to by the post code might even be in a different country. Places such as Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant have what appears to be an Oswestry post code and address. That can be a bit disconcerting, unless one accepts Owain Glyndwr's world view, in which case not only Oswestry, but Exeter, Gloucester and Leicester as well, are in Wales. However, the post code is not about perception or community, or even national identity; it is about delivery.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the use of the name Whitton, but that has never been a post town, as used by Royal Mail under the postal address file; it is used as a locality in the Twickenham post town area, so it follows that it has not been "eliminated" as such. Currently, it is used only it is if required to identify similarly named streets in the Twickenham area, such High street, Whitton, Twickenham.

Royal Mail received a request from a resident of the Whitton area in November 2004 asking for Whitton to be reinstated in the addresses of the area. It was explained that Whitton was not required as part of the postal address for the efficient delivery of mail, but that the code of practice allowed for its inclusion if certain criteria determined in the code were met. The three criteria are that inclusion of the name would not have an adverse affect on Royal Mail services—in other words, that the primary purpose of using names was met—that support for the change is obtained from customer representatives for the area, and that a clearly defined set of geographical boundary data are provided.

That would have allowed Royal Mail to undertake a consultation with affected residents, and if less than 20 per cent. objected, Whitton would have been included as a locality in the Twickenham post town area. Royal Mail never received a response to its letter. The residents of Whitton still have that option available to them. The hon. Member for Twickenham might feel that he gets a good deal of publicity locally by drawing up a petition, but as I have said, there is an avenue open to him to achieve the change, if it has the support that he claims.

Dr. Cable : May I point out for the record that there was extensive correspondence with Royal Mail in 2003,
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the year before that letter was sent? It explored all the options, but Royal Mail specifically refused to allow a democratic ballot.

Alun Michael : I have given the hon. Gentleman the reply, and I think that he is wriggling. I suggest that he use the process, rather than asking for it to be changed. It would make provision for Whitton to be included, if such a change had the support that he suggests.

As I said, I instinctively accept that there can be problems with other uses, or the sense of location, if the purpose of the post code is misunderstood. That can sometimes affect the perceptions of an area. If other organisations—whether private or public, or in central or local government—decide to use post codes for other purposes, they must recognise and take account of the limitations of the PAF and post codes. Postcomm's 2003 consultation on the issue concluded that it was not reasonable to hold Royal Mail responsible for the use to which other bodies put the information that it provided. If there is evidence of a problem caused by the way in which the PAF is used by third parties, it should be brought to the attention of the authority with responsibility for the service in question.

The UK post code system was developed by Royal Mail in the 1960s to sort mail more efficiently, and to cope with population growth and increasing mail volumes. Efficiency is achieved by using the one-line post code as a shortcut for the full postal address. In an electronic age, the advantages of that must be manifest to everybody. If other organisations use the post code system for other purposes, they need to understand properly the way in which the post code system is constructed. They also need to understand that although flexibility seems attractive, it would result in a large number of complaints if it led to confusion in the delivery of mail. Mail with a post code can be sorted more quickly, accurately and efficiently. The alphanumeric combination used in the UK post code structure has proved robust, resilient and easy for mail users and the public to remember. That is why the UK has one of the highest levels of post code use in the world.

Royal Mail continues to develop and maintain high standards of post code compliance. That has a direct influence on its mail processing efficiency. Its automated sorting systems, address interpretation and optical character recognition machinery function by matching addresses against the postal address file. The routes taken by the men and women who deliver our post throughout the country are similarly devised on the basis of the postal address file.

The code of practice was adopted by Postcomm in 2001 to govern changes to Royal Mail's post code address file. It was reviewed in 2004 and adopted by Royal Mail. Under that code of practice, changes can be made for two reasons: first, to maintain or improve the service offered by Royal Mail—I am sure that that would have the support of everybody in this Chamber—and secondly, to reflect consumer demand. In the first case, Royal Mail can review the way in which it routes its mail to provide a better service. That may happen as a result of the siting of a new delivery office, new housing or business development, or the renumbering of buildings or renaming of roads by local authorities. In such cases, Royal Mail reviews existing post codes or addresses to maintain efficient handling and delivery.

Under the code of practice, Royal Mail will also consider requests from customers for changes to postal addresses. Locality information can be changed if the request is widely supported by customer representatives, such as Postwatch, local authorities, parish or district councils and Members of Parliament. An acceptable and clearly defined set of geographical boundary data must be available and there should be no significant level of objection from those affected by the proposed change of address.

In that event, Royal Mail writes to all affected addresses to advise them of the proposed change, giving customers who are likely to be affected the opportunity to register concerns or objections. As I have already indicated, if fewer than 20 per cent. of those affected register objections, the change can be made with immediate effect under the fast track system introduced in the code in 2004. If 20 per cent. or more of those affected raise objections, Royal Mail will carry out a poll of all households affected by the change. The decision on the change is based on a simple majority ruling. Royal Mail aims to conclude such polls and implement any address changes within two months of the ballot.

Changes to post towns affect a large number of addresses and have widespread implications. A post town acts as a clearing point for a particular district, so it is the basic unit of the postal delivery system. However, as I have indicated, that has implications for the perceptions of identification of localities, which sometimes go across not only local authority boundaries but even national boundaries. Royal Mail will consider requests for changes to post towns only when an area is being recoded to meet an operational need.

The post code forms the basis of Royal Mail's distribution network. Any change to post codes could compromise Royal Mail's operations, resulting in a poorer service to customers. We should be hesitant about introducing anything that would undermine the consistency of the service. Royal Mail will consider making changes to the last two characters of a post code in exceptional circumstances, but before it does, it requires evidence that all those affected by the change are in favour of it.

It is for the individual initiating such a request to obtain the necessary support. That is because Royal Mail's primary concern is to ensure that it can deliver mail efficiently to its customers. It will not consider making changes to the postal addresses that do not serve to improve its operational efficiency. I am sure that the hon. Member for Twickenham and others will, if they consider that process, accept that the first and most important consideration must be that Royal Mail is able to deliver an effective service in undertaking its responsibilities to deliver to all properties throughout the country.

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