14,185 complaints and £123,927…

by Stephen Tall on October 7, 2006

… that’s the cost of Royal Mail’s mistakes in Oxfordshire.

On 20th August, I applied to Royal Mail under the Freedom of Information Act for some information about how they handle complaints made against them:
– how many are made in Oxford,
– what’s the cause,
– how many are upheld, and
– what is the cost?

A mere 31 days later – 11 days longer than by law they are obliged to respond – I’ve got an answer. (Even if the e-mail reply does refer, rather oddly, to my having requested information for Mole Valley.)

Or, to be precise, I’ve been pointed to one of the documents, Number of complaints handled by postcode area 2005-06 (2.7mb), available on the Royal Mail website. I’ve gone through it myself and done the math.

In the OX postcode (which is Oxfordshire, rather than Oxford – let alone the areas within the city), there were:
* 14,185 complaints made against Royal Mail in the last year.
* Of these 14,185 complaints, 5,778 (41%) were upheld.
* The total cost of compensation paid out was £123,927.

(I don’t know how this compares with previous years because that information is not available.)

Which is all very interesting, but tells me nothing about the situation in Oxford. That’s no accident, of course, as my Royal Mail correspondent informed me:

“The information is not broken down to show the areas within Oxford and we would consider this more detailed unpublished performance information to be commercially sensitive and therefore exempt under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act (prejudice to commercial interests). It is our view that the release of unpublished, local performance data could be presented out of context by business competitors (who are not themselves required to publish such information), and therefore used to prejudice the commercial interests of Royal Mail in a competitive market.

“This provision is subject to the public interest test. Although there is public interest in the level of customer satisfaction with Royal Mail’s performance, we believe this interest is satisfied through reporting to Postwatch (our independent consumer watchdog) and the publication of our performance against nationally agreed targets. Further, Royal Mail Group is a publicly owned company and there is a real and direct public interest in its commercial performance and financial well-being. Therefore in our view the public interest clearly lies in maintaining this exemption.”

Fair enough? No, not really.

The local sorting office in my Oxford city council ward of Headington was closed last year. This was Royal Mail’s justification:

“It is true to say that some customers will be disadvantaged by the relocation of the Delivery Office to the East Oxford site. However, we believe that the benefits of the new operation including most importantly, far more efficient mail handling outweigh this.”

How to test whether this efficiency has been delivered? Well, one way is to find out whether the number of complaints made by the public has increased since the sorting office was closed.

But, of course, any increase (or – let’s be fair and objective – decrease) in complaints caused by the loss of the sorting office will be masked by looking across-the-board at the OX postcode figures.

Which leaves only one route open to me. Yes, an appeal to the Royal Mail’s Head of Information Compliance asking for a review of the non-disclosure.

How empowered do I feel right now?