January 12th 2011
First, let us thank the postmen and women of Herne Bay, and their local Manager, for the herculean effort that they made, under what can best be described as “challenging circumstances”, to ensure that at the very least most Christmas presents were delivered in time for the event even if many letters and cards remained in racks until after the bank holiday weekend.
My understanding is that there were men and women working up until the last possible time on Christmas Eve in order to ensure that all of the packets held at the Herne Bay sorting office were either delivered or, where householders were not at home, at the very least cards indicating packages for collection were left. They had, of course, no control over items left stranded en route from other destinations that simply did not reach the Bay in time for Christmas.
The undertaking given to me to the effect that all mail would be delivered in time for Christmas was made before a second fall of snow that exacerbated an already desperately difficult situation and under those conditions I believe that the decision to concentrate on the delivery of parcels and to leave, if necessary, letters and cards was the right one.
None of that, though, can or should be allowed to deflect attention from the fact that a decision was taken to introduce a completely new delivery system immediately prior to the busiest time of the year. Christmas has, after all, been in the diary for more than two thousand years!
The resulting chaos – there is no other word for it – has been generating more reaction and complaint over a short period of time than any other issue that has arisen during my very many years in Parliament and has led, rightly, to very real concerns about the whole future of our postal service.
Since Christmas I have met with Royal Mail`s Area Director, Tom Willis, together with our local Manager, Marie Apps, to determine what lessons may be learned from this debacle and, as important, to seek to ensure that proposals for the future of the sorting and delivery of mail destined for Herne Bay take into account local geography and travelling conditions.
We have in the Bay, for example, a purpose-built and relatively modern sorting office and mail van yard. Just before we scrap and dispose of this in favour of a fleet of ecologically unfriendly vans travelling from Canterbury to Herne Bay to deliver the daily post we need to remember that for much of the day the Sturry Road is heavy with traffic in both directions. Postal staff sitting for hours in traffic jams are unlikely to enhance the delivery reputation of the Royal Mail!
I accept that modernisation is long overdue. I accept that the nature of mail has changed, that many letter-communications are now carried electronically and that the shift to on-line shopping has created a new, welcome but bulky business for the postal service. In that context it is also plain that a heavy car part, for example, or a box of books, are difficult if not impossible for a “traditional” postman to deliver on a bicycle. A van has, clearly, to be used.
In taking the Royal Mail forward, though, it is vital that we protect the universal delivery of post at a fair and affordable price. It is vital that we protect the physical security of the mail and those charged with the duty of delivering it. And it is vital that we protect the reliability of a service upon which many small businesses and private households depend for their livelihoods and, sometimes, even for life. Notice of an appointment at the hospital, arriving late, has not to my knowledge yet led to a fatality but under some circumstances it could do so. We must proceed and progress, but we must do so with very great care. Change ill thought through and for the sake of change is a very dangerous game.