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Tuesday, 20 March, 2001, 13:55 GMT
Where do missing letters go?
Missing letter
As the UK's postal service prepares for the open market, the new Post Office watchdog says sorting office standards continue to slide. What happens to all the letters that go undelivered?

Ever since the Penny Black first came into circulation, lost letters have been a fact of life. What is increasingly disputed, though, is how much mail goes astray in the UK.

Postwatch, the new consumer watchdog, has reiterated a finding by the Post Office Users National Council (POUNC), that one million letters a week go missing.

Letter writing kit
Handwritten addresses can be difficult to read
POUNC came to the figure after it posted 15,000 correctly typed and addressed letters, 17 of which "disappeared". It then multiplied the figure to reflect the 77 million letters sent every day over a six-day week.

Using a statistician who introduced a margin of error, the group doubled this total to account for mistakes that would arise from handwritten envelopes and those sent without a postcode.

The Royal Mail dismisses the claim, which would amount to 50 million letters lost each year - almost one for every man, woman and child in the UK. It says the true figure is more like 500,000 lost letters every year - a figure based on the number of complaints it receives each month.

Tonne of mail

The million claim is certainly bewildering, not least because it would be hard to "lose" such a mass of envelopes and parcels. Royal Mail spokeswoman Christine Gregory says it would amount to a tonne of mail every week, which would fill "several articulated trucks".

Post official
77m letters sent a day in UK
There are a total of 26m addresses
19,000 post offices used by 28m people a week
But much of the responsibility rests with the public itself, says the Royal Mail.

Poorly addressed envelopes account for a significant proportion of lost mail, it says. Handwriting can be illegible and some letters are just woefully addressed, eg: Mr McFee, Glasgow. Some are even posted without an address at all.

Another serious culprit is the out-of-date address book and postmen also come across internal office post which is mistakenly dropped in the external mail.

Dead letter office

All "undeliverable" post should end up at the "dead letter office" - a warehouse in Belfast where 300 postal workers sort through 60 million items a year, forwarding them to the correct address or returning them to sender.

Letters that still cannot be delivered are usually held for three months before being recycled "in an appropriate manner".

Postman Pat and Jess the cat
"You see Jess, it's just not clearly addressed"
Then there is the "lost" mail that was never lost at all, says Ms Gregory, who insists that "some people just forget they have received a letter".

The growing number of multiple-occupancy households, and apartment blocks that share a single letterbox, also complicate the picture. In these cases it is easy for mail to be picked up mistakenly or, indeed, stolen.

But our incompetence is only half the story. The Royal Mail must take some responsibility itself. We've all mistakenly received letters that were addressed to the house next door, across the road or another town entirely.

Feel the pinch

Pilfering postmen are also a problem. Already this year there have been a handful of cases, including a West Country postman who was found with 3,215 undelivered cards in his attic. He pocketed 1,777 of cash sent through the post.

Wish you were here ... in the 19th century
Three years ago, a postman from Daventry was jailed after he was found to be hiding 15,000 letters and parcels.

And then there are the unexplainable cases where a lost letter gets delivered years after it was first posted. Last month a postcard turned up at its destination in Aberdeen more than a century late. The card had been sent from Queensland, Australia, in 1889.

At least, the Royal Mail cannot be blamed for that late delivery - the card arrived in Britain having spent 112 years lost in the Australian postal system.

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See also:

19 Mar 01 | Business
Post Office 'failing to deliver'
21 Feb 01 | Scotland
Postcard arrives 112 years late
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