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Richard Hooper’s independent report into the future of Royal Mail is being considered by ministers ahead of publication later this week, and he’s likely to recommend radical action to preserve our postal service.  Lynn Hawthorn offers a punter’s eye view.

Written all your Christmas cards yet? Posted all those awkward-shaped parcels? No, me neither! But even if I had, could I be guaranteed that everything will arrive in time for the Big Day?

I came across something that I thought was odd in my local post office the other day. I had an urgent document to arrive by Friday, so at 5.20pm on Wednesday, I rushed into the post office to make the 5.30 collection. To ensure the document’s safety, I asked for recorded delivery. Once the transaction had been completed, more as a throw-away comment than anything else, I asked if it would go that evening.

I was taken aback by the answer. “Oh no, this won’t go until 12 o’clock tomorrow.” When I asked why, I was told that because of the delivery system I had chosen, it had to be collected from the office, because that was the regulation.

"But the post box states clearly that the collection is at 5.30," I insisted. And then ensued a tortuous conversation. The post box belongs to the Royal Mail and has a different collection time to the Post Office, which is another organisation entirely. The post office has a different, earlier collection time, even though the mail is collected by the same person in the same van in the same mail sack. Apparently, paperwork must be completed and so there is a cut-off period 15 minutes before closing time.

Did you know that? No, me neither. So my urgent document was stuck behind the counter and couldn’t be handed back to me because of the regulations. Apparently.

I phoned the Complaints Line. There are two complaints lines, one for the Royal Mail and one for the Post Office. It took time (and money) to distinguish which one I needed. I enquired why the information about collection times was not displayed in any post office. “It is the customer’s duty to ask, “ came the reply. “But how did I know I needed to ask when I didn’t know there was a cut-off time?” I continued. “Why didn’t the person behind the counter tell me?” “How did she know you didn’t know?” was the response.

This circular argument didn’t get us anywhere. Then came the bombshell. I asked what the likelihood was of my document reaching its destination in time. It turns out that Recorded Delivery is guaranteed to arrive within 4 days of posting and that the tracking system only operates 5 days after posting. So if I’d just stuck a first class stamp on the envelope and shoved it in the box, it would have had a better chance of arriving in time!

What annoyed me most, I think, was that the post office was devoid of customers when I rushed in, breathless, ten minutes before closing. Asking for recorded delivery suggested that the envelope I had in my hot, sticky paw was important, but the woman behind the counter was too busy celebrating with her colleague that they both had the following day off to be interested in me.

Before you rush to point out that I should have been better organised, I rejoinder with the fact that the document I needed to return had only just arrived with me and was turned round in less than a day. Which is more than you can say for recorded delivery.

So if you haven’t got yourself organised with your Christmas posting, may I suggest you ask lots of awkward questions when you get to the counter about the most effective method of despatching your items and what time it will be collected and from where. If enough people irritate the post office, perhaps the powers-that-be will actually display the information we need to enable us to make informed choices instead of needing to develop psychic abilities.

Remember the advertising tag line, It’s your post office ? Well, not the bits that belong to the Royal Mail, obviously! Let’s get this problem… er …sorted, guys.


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