May 12, 2004
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this important and timely debate. From the Minister’s point of view it will perhaps be a difficult debate to respond to, as many of the issues raised will be operational. However, we hope for guidance from his perspective on the strategic importance of Royal Mail and on ensuring rapid improvement.
As my hon. Friend said, there has been a catastrophic catalogue of continuing financial calamity in Royal Mail in recent years, many instances of which, it may be churlish of me to point out, have happened since 1997, and the Minister will expect me to concentrate on that, but it cannot be a coincidence that to many of its commercial and residential customers Royal Mail appears recently to have rapidly lost its way. I hope that the Minister will set out a timetable for its improvement in the years ahead.
I represent a central London seat and residential customers are of particular importance to me. Every day, about a million people come to work in my constituency, in hundreds of thousands of businesses, both large and small, that have suffered as a result of the Royal Mail service. I suspect that there is a particular problem in London. My hon. Friend made it clear that there has been a London bias in most of the national press coverage of the issue, although I appreciate that there are problems in the Isle of Wight and across the Solent in Southampton.
The "Dispatches" programme was shocking; all hon. Members appreciate that investigative journalism ensures that we see only the worst, and I often remark to friends who are asked to go on fly-on-the-wall documentaries that for every 30 or 40 hours of footage that is filmed, only a few minutes actually appears on the television screen. Much of the "Dispatches" programme was fairly shocking, though.
I shall mention some anecdotal evidence shortly, but it was apparent to me from the day that I was elected that there was a big problem with post in central London. In my constituency there are many depots, and there were some ongoing cases from my predecessor, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, from constituents who had expressed great concerns about postal services. Those complaints, which have run on for several years, continue. My hon. Friend mentioned Kay Dixon, who does a sterling job as the director of Postwatch in London; I have regular correspondence with her, not only on day-to-day matters, such as those under discussion now, but on the urban reinvention programme.
My constituency has been relatively unscathed by that programme, although there were a number of closures during the latter part of the 1990s, following commercial reorganisations, particularly in the City of London, and in the more commercial areas of my constituency. However, it is fair to say that, in the course of urban reinvention, some post office closures in the countryside have caused great pains to many Members of Parliament of all parties. However, in my constituency, there has been only one closure, on Vauxhall Bridge road. Inevitably, many constituents felt that having a post office so close to hand was very much part of the day-to-day glue of their lives, and wrote in dismay at the closure of that long-standing post office.
My hon. Friend also rightly pointed out that there has been concern about fraud: the Post Office and Royal Mail have clearly been unable correctly to address that, and there is little doubt that a small minority of employees are abusing their position and stealing credit cards and various other items of value. Although most individuals are insured and most banks take the view that that is part and parcel of the problem that they must face, it is clear that it is a multi-million pound problem, which I fear has worsened, rather than improved, in recent years.
I should like to put on the record a few examples, although I appreciate that other hon. Members who wish to speak will present their own anecdotal evidence, and, I hope, some projected solutions. There is a large delivery office?probably the nearest large delivery office to the House?a fairly long stone’s throw away, in the direction of Victoria in Howick place, about half a mile from here. It is a large depot, and most residents of south Westminster needing to get hold of parcels or recorded deliveries, when they are not at home, will go to Howick place, because it is a major sorting centre. I understand that there are problems there, and I am indebted to a number of local residents, particularly Mr. Martin Shaw, who has been in touch with me on this matter.
Only last week, some 18 postmen from Howick place depot failed to turn up to deliver because of a works do the previous night. We probably all understand that, after Christmas parties in our own offices, attendance is not perhaps what it might be, but apparently that was not a one-off affair. As a result, casuals were called in, many of whom had not delivered in the area before, so they were dismissed immediately; only casuals who had delivered before were used. Many people in the immediate vicinity of Buckingham gate and Artillery row did not have post delivered that day. Many residents in the Ashley gardens area have not had post for several days, and residents are now making special arrangements with the local post office to pick up their mail directly from the sorting office in Howick place. It is obviously a major problem, which underlines the concerns that were set out in the Channel 4 programme to which I referred.
Some of the more major problems involve businesses. All Members of Parliament know that an increasing, and often perhaps a distressing and irritating amount of our mail arrives electronically rather than through the post. It is fair to say that many businesses can run on that basis. I suspect that a significant number of businesses in my constituency that are in the media industry rely very much on virtual and electronic delivery of messages and the like, so they have less of a day-to-day concern about the operation of Royal Mail. However, that is not always the case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight referred to an accountancy firm in his constituency. This morning, I received a letter from a constituent, Mr. Franks, who is a partner in a small Mayfair-based accountancy firm called Badger Hakim. With your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall quote in full one of his concerns. He says that his business and doubtless the business of other companies operating in the area is being jeopardised by the "appalling service" of the Royal Mail. He says that accountancy firms such as his
"are required to deal with numerous regulatory deadlines, not least, the payment of VAT on time, the payment of PAYE on time, the payment of personal and corporate taxes on time, the delivery of documents according to specific time scales set by law or other regulations. In all of these matters, our business in common with every other business in the UK, and every resident in the UK relies completely upon the Royal Mail to deliver documents. These documents include payments . . . official forms and other important correspondence."
As a result, there is a feeling that the failure of Royal Mail is completely unacceptable. I understand that one client of the firm received an incorrect determination from the Inland Revenue?and we all know the importance of getting things right with the Inland Revenue, or indeed Customs and Excise. The Inland Revenue has entered a county court summons for the collection of approximately £1 million of tax against the taxpayer, whose real liability is no more than £10,000. He has paid the proper amount of tax and, without getting into the intricacies of the case, I understand that forms that were sent from the accountants’ office a week ago have still not arrived. The problem, as my hon. Friend said, is not only with arrival but with the delivery of documents from certain parts of central London. The client cannot enter a defence against the county court summons without the forms being submitted to the Inland Revenue.
The Minister will see that that is a grave problem for anyone in the business community. I hope that he will give considerable thought to the concerns that are being set out. I appreciate that many of them relate to day-to-day operations, but he has made a statement in the House on Post Office matters in recent weeks or months. As my hon. Friend said, Adam Crozier, the Royal Mail chief executive, has made a pledge to take much more day-to-day control of the situation. However, I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the longer-term future. Where does he see Royal Mail going in the years ahead?
In the mid-1990s, when my party was in government, there were proposals for privatisation, but the actions of many Back Benchers in the Conservative party ensured that we did not take that route. There is a grave danger because, in essence, the past 10 years have been entirely wasted. There is no sense of a strategy on what the organisation should be doing, other than trying jealously to protect its monopoly. Inevitably, there are commercial pressures in relation to many parcel deliveries and the all-embracing threat to the letters market from electronic mail.
Where does the Minister believe that the Royal Mail will be in 20 or 30 years’ time? What sort of market must it appeal to? How will its profitability be affected? Those are strategic decisions. Inevitably, it would be wrong of the Minister to step on the toes of those who have been charged with fulfilling the responsibilities, but I hope that he, too, has at least some vision of where the service should go.
It is a great tragedy that 164 years after the beginning of a universal postal service in this country, many individuals and businesses needing letters and parcels urgently delivered are turning to pre-1840 solutions. They have to organise for delivery privately because they cannot rely on a service of which we should be and have been rightly proud. There is little doubt that our mail service has been a template for those that have developed in other countries, but I fear that many of those nations have a more reliable service than we currently do.
I hope that the Minister will give some thought to my words and those of other hon. Members present, to ensure that we have the rectification required, so that we can be proud of our mail service in the years ahead.