|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Lab): I welcome this opportunity to speak, I promise very briefly, about three important constituency matters: the proposed closure of more post offices, the troublesome state of postal deliveries and the new arm's-length management organisation that will in future be responsible for the majority of public housing in the area.
Approximately 18 months ago I raised in the House the matter of the closure of a Crown post office in North End road in Fulham. I predicted that it would be a disaster for the community and said that I had no confidence in the public consultations that Royal Mail would purportedly carry out. Despite the strongest possible objections from the local council, the community at large, Postwatch and myself, the closure went ahead. Sure enough, we have been proved right and the closure has been appalling for the area. The queues at the so-called alternative post offices in the area are unacceptably long, and pensioners have not been signing up for direct debit. It is hard to imagine what has been gained by the venture, except for a poorer service in the area and a deeply sceptical attitude among local people towards Royal Mail and the Post Office.
There has also been the closure of the Richmond Way branch, also in my constituency, in August 2003, the implementation of which was nothing less than a farce. I wish that I could say that I am astonished that the Post Office is doing that all over again, but I am afraid that I am not at all surprised. That will not, however, keep me from registering my continued grave concern for its actions in my constituency and pointing out the huge number of representations that I have received from local people who are very angry about it.
There are now proposals for the closure of a further two branches, in Brackenbury road and Fulham Palace road. Although I understand that those two branches are not in the same league as the North End road branch, being sub-post offices rather than Crown post offices, there seems to be a wanton disregard on the part of the Post Office for the local communities that these closures necessarily hurt. If the proposals do go through, and I fear that they most certainly will as they are effectively a fait accompli, that will amount to the closure of five post offices in my constituency in less than two years. Although the Post Office continues to assure us that there are easily accessible alternative post offices for individuals to use, it consistently fails to acknowledge that the closures have been carried out in some of the most deprived and vulnerable areas of London.
Another matter of concern for my constituency is also, unfortunately, related to Royal Mail and the Post Office. Royal Mail's recent restructuring, which involves the merging of the two mail deliveries into a single daily delivery, has been ruinous and caused untold grief and chaos for individuals and businesses in Hammersmith. Those cost-cutting measures resulted in almost 20 per cent. of the work force at the Hammersmith sorting office being made redundant, and
27 May 2004 : Column 1748
the use of temporary workers has added to the general confusion and negligence. That is supposedly all an effort to boost productivity, increase efficiency and cut costs. To add insult to injury, I have now been advised that the local sorting office will have to hire another eight staff.
I have already had two meetings with the relevant local managers, who have done their best to be helpful. They have advised me that they are sure that the situation will get better, and I have to say that services are improving. However, I am advised that a similar scheme will be introduced in Fulham in the near future, and I have little confidence that it will be pulled off smoothly. The failure to implement the scheme efficiently in Hammersmith was partly due to a general disregard for the specifics of the area, such as productivity, targets, staffing and the like, and that seems to be an endemic failure in Royal Mail at large. Whereas each community has particular needs and requirements, Royal Mail has a tendency to favour the one-size-fits-all method. The only logical explanation for the new arrangements is that they are an attempt to save money and stuff the consequences for what, after all, is supposed to be a public service. The reality, though, is that extra resources have been spent on redundancy costs and the employment of many casual staff, whose productivity and quality of service has understandably and inevitably been extremely poor. As with post office closures, we must continue to be very wary of further geographical extension of these changes, and I strongly urge the management of the Post Office promptly to review the new arrangements before we have yet another debacle on our hands in other local postal districts.
I would just like to say a few words about the new arm's-length management organisation that will in future be responsible for providing housing services for 14,000 tenants and 4,650 leaseholders in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.
In the past, I have expressed disappointment in the Chamber at the Government's insistence that the local authority set up an ALMO. Hammersmith and Fulham has an excellent housing department that was recognised by the Audit Commission in a comprehensive audit assessment of the service. It awarded the department a three-star rating and, in the light of that award, the Government should not insist on the setting up of an ALMO before they have provided the necessary investment to meet their own decent housing standard.
The council set up its own housing commission, composed of tenants and leaseholders, under an independent chair, and it carried out a detailed investigation of the housing department. The commission's unanimous view was that the council should be allowed to remain as the landlord and that the normal routes of stock transfers or ALMOs should not be compulsory for Hammersmith and Fulham. It also took the view that if change was essential to secure money from the Government, the ALMO route was preferable to a stock transfer or any other option. Eventually, the council agreed to an independent ballot of all leaseholders and tenants, and there was an overwhelming majority in favour of setting up an ALMO.
27 May 2004 : Column 1749
Next week, on 1 June, the ALMO goes live, and 410 staff will be transferred from the council's employment to the new company, which is wholly owned by the council and governed by a board. A legislative framework is in place to establish the relationship with the council and the company's business objectives. The company will be able to access funds from the Government's ALMO programme, and it has submitted a bid for £190 million. It anticipates receiving additional funding of £100 million between 2004 and 2010, so a total programme worth £300 million will be delivered for local housing if the bid is approved in full.
A number of other hurdles need to be successfully negotiated. We expect to hear in September 2004 the funding allocation for 200405, following the outcome of the Government's comprehensive spending review. There will also be an inspection of the new arrangements in November, and the new company must be awarded a two or three-star rating for funding to be triggered. I wish to put on record my thanks and congratulations to all the tenants and leaseholders, the members of the ALMO board, and all the staff who have worked so hard. In the ballot, 81 per cent. voted in favour of the ALMO and, like me, they look forward to the new funding, which will bring new windows, kitchens, bathrooms and many other improvements to local people, who have waited for those upgrades for far too long. In conclusion, I urge the Government to make a speedy decision to fund in full the ALMO's excellent bid to meet the decent housing standard for tenants and leaseholders in Hammersmith and Fulham.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I am pleased to be able to contribute to our debate. I very much appreciate the fact that the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons will secure a ministerial response to issues raised in these Adjournment debates, which are among the most useful parliamentary occasions, as regulars in the Chamber today will agree. We can raise constituency matters and more general concerns in the knowledge that we will get a thoughtful response. If that were always the case, the electorate might hold the House in more respect.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this occasion allows us to raise issues that are relevant to our constituents, and helps us to re-engage them with the democratic process? God knows, that is very much needed.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates something that I was going to deal with a little later. First, however, I want to use the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) as a case in point. Although he spoke about his constituency, I suspect that every hon. Member can identify with the points that he made about, for example, urban post offices. I am sure that, like me, hon. Members on both sides of the House have precisely the same experience of the way in which a Government-owned companythe Government still have the majority holding in the Post Officetreats them as
27 May 2004 : Column 1750
representatives of the community and the general public. Post Office Counters Ltd. has an important responsibility to consult, which it does not always fulfil.
To take up the hon. Gentleman's point about the Royal Mail, we heard today that the group has made profits again. Surely, this is the moment to expect better quality and standards of service. A few minutes ago, however, we heard that such is the Government's respect for the Royal Mail in one area of the country that they do not even trust it to deliver ballot papers in the north-east. The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), did not respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), but in his statement he said that in the north-east ballot packs have been passed to the Royal Mail and other deliverers. This must be the first time ever that the Government have had to go outwith the Royal Mail network because they simply cannot trust it to do the job adequately. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham is right to be concerned about the reliability of Royal Mail deliveries in his local area, and we are all entitled to know how it will improve its service to the public.
There are important issues that we need to address before we adjourn for the recess. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), this week, the constitution unit, led by Professor John Curtis, published research demonstrating that the collapse of public respect for politics and politicians owed more to perceptions of artificiality, politicians' mixed motives and alleged sleaze than disappointment with Government delivery. It also suggested that there was not a great collapse of trust in all institutions, so we cannot use that as an alibi for lack of respect for Parliament. It also dispelled the notion that that lack of respect can be ascribed to the prejudices of the tabloid press. To misquote Shakespeare, the fault is not in our stars, let alone The Sun, but in ourselves.
Contributing to the perception of expensive, self-serving irrelevance is the way in which the House has failed to represent the true state of the body politic in Britain. For example, despite the decisions made in 1997 and 2001 by the electoratethe people who send us here and give this institution the reason for its existencethe House of Commons still operates as if it is a bipartisan body politic. It is not. The "Buggin's turn" approach to political debate and decision making has one last hiding place: the Chamber. Such an approach is not necessarily taken throughout Parliament, but it is certainly taken here. For example, there is an extraordinary arrangement whereby a large sum of state funding is awarded to the so-called official Oppositionit is not as if there are only two parties in the House. The leader of the larger Opposition party and his colleagues receive £0.5 million of state funding. The latest Library briefing shows that the Leader of the official Opposition received a salary of £124,277 per annum. I make no comment about whether he is worth that or not; that is what he receives. In an interesting comparison, the Speaker receives only slightly more, as do Cabinet Ministers. The Opposition Chief Whip, who is not here this afternoon, receives £95,281 per annum, and the Deputy Chief Whip and the Assistant Chief Whip each receive £81,809. The total package is worth more than £0.5 million of taxpayers' money. Let us imagine that, after the general
27 May 2004 : Column 1751
election, Opposition party B has 150 Members and Opposition party C has 149. During the Parliament, a Member from party B decides to change party. They will carry on their back £0.5 million.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|