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Postal Privilege (Amendment)

4.15 pm

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove the exclusivity of the postal privilege.

My Bill would amend the British Telecommunications Act 1981 by deleting the clauses that give the Post Office the exclusive privilege of conveying letters. It would provide for the licensing of firms that sought to offer an alternative postal service to the public and thus would bring letters into line with parcels. There has already been a step in this direction with the suspension of the exclusivity until 2006 of items costing £1 or more. But, frankly, this is not much of an incentive for firms to provide an alternative service ; nor is it much of an incentive for the public to use it.

I put the Bill forward in a spirit which is in no sense doctrinaire, unless it is doctrinaire to believe in providing a better service for the public. However, I do put it forward by way of representing the frustration, disappointment and anger of many of my constituents. For them, in common with many other residents of south-west London, the Post Office has signally and abysmally failed to provide a service that comes anywhere near its boasts this Christmas. Indeed, Christmas cards and letters are still trickling through to their destinations.

Nevertheless, let me say that I am conscious of the many postal workers and managers who work hard at their job, day in and day out, come rain, come shine, in London and in the even more physically demanding areas of remoter Britain. Nothing in my Bill threatens those who work hard for the Post Office. Indeed, it will help those within the Post Office who want to provide a better service to the public. The only people who will be threatened will be those who seek to use their monopoly position to hide their inability to cope with competition. I have to say that I am a little surprised that the Post Office management should be so panicked by this proposal as to put on a rather partisan political hat in its six pages of selective quotations and wishful thinking that were sent to hon. Members as a briefing for this debate.

In recent years the Post Office has sometimes appeared to make some improvements but its dramatic claims have never seemed to add up to the less than well-served public. The reality is that in the 1980s the Post Office repaired some of the declining service of the 1970s, but that is all it has done. Many of its claims are achieved by either an extraordinary ability to move the goal posts or by a degree of optimism that would have put Mr. Micawber in the shade. Indeed, Mr. Micawber's experience of expecting something to turn up is not a bad analogy for the Post Office. First class mail is supposed to be delivered the next day. The Post Office regularly claims that 90 per cent. does so turn up. The Post Office Users National Council, on the other hand, showed in its 1987 surveys that less than two thirds of first class mail arrived on the following day. That, I think, matches much more nearly the public's perception of the service ; Micawber-like, some 35 per cent. of letters are waiting to turn up.

Where second class mail is concerned, the only thing that seems to move with any sense of urgency is the goal posts. I suspect that most people think that second class mail is supposed to be delivered on the second day after

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posting, but that was changed in 1975 to the third day after posting, and then in 1978 to the third day after collection. Each time the target was relaxed a surprised and bemused British people was informed that its service was getting better.

The reality is that the Post Office needs the spur of competition, and the consumer needs the safety net of an available alternative. It worked with parcels and it can work with letters.

Before competition arrived, Post Office parcels regularly made a loss, but since then it has regularly made a profit--and so have its competitors. If the Post Office gets its act together, with its long experience it should have a reasonable chance of seeing off the competition. If it does so, it will be because it provides a service that meets the public's needs and expectations. If the Post Office does not meet those needs it will see at least some of its business lost to its competitors.

The question of rural postal services must be considered to see whether they should be protected by legislation. One can argue that dwellers in rural areas do not subsidise the cost of higher house prices in urban areas and therefore--swings and roundabouts--there is no need for urban dwellers to subsidise rural postal services. However, I am not saying that. One could also examine other social needs, which we seem able to provide without a monopoly of supply. We do not require a monopoly to ensure, for example, that milk or newspapers are delivered in rural areas. Our practice is rather to identify a need and then to think about helping the needy to meet its cost. We could subsidise rural posts courtesy of the taxpayer, but I do not propose that either. I am very much aware of the potential for endless arguments as to what can be classified as a rural area--and anomalies will abound.

My preference is for the proposals in the London School of Economic's report for a levy of 5p, say, on every item carried by an independent firm, which would be paid to the Post Office as a specific contribution to its costs in providing a service to remote areas. Such an arrangement would remove the creaming off arguments and the last justification for a monopoly. We would then have a fair and competitive service, with all the excuses for a monopoly removed.

The Socialist French Government have just announced a comparable measure, which will allow free competition in the collection and delivery of letters. I cannot believe that that is right for France but not for our country. If we do not like our butcher, we can shop around. If we do not like our doctor, we can hunt for another. Food and health are two basic needs and services where there is competition--but if we do not like our postal service, and unless we are rich enough to pay £1 per letter, we must lump it.

I call in aid of my arguments the views of a man who advocated abolition of the Post Office monopoly many years ago. He said of such a proposal :

"It implies the removal of an offence from our Statute Book and the probable rise of a wholesome competition wherever the service is performed with less than the greatest efficiency and cheapness." That advocate was Rowland Hill--the father of the penny post. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the penny post, perhaps the House will salute Rowland Hill's memory by heeding his advice and supporting the Bill.

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4.22 pm

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East) : I wish to oppose the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis). I must declare my interest in postal matters, because I am a Member of Parliament sponsored by the Union of Communication Workers. There is no question of financial gain to myself, but I have spent a great many years in the posts and telecommunications industry.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Battersea in presenting a Bill of the type that he has on this day of all days, when, during Prime Minister's Questions, the right hon. Lady struggled like mad to justify increased water charges by private water companies resulting from privatisation of the water industry. That example of something that could also happen in the postal service was eloquently cited today by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and is there for all to see.

With respect to the hon. Member for Battersea, I have never heard such patronising remarks about people living in rural areas. His right hon. and hon. Friends representing constituencies in Cornwall, Devon, the Highlands and Islands and in other rural and remote areas will not accept the patronising argument that private carriers should collect 5p per item to subsidise mail deliveries in rural areas of England, Wales and Scotland, but will see it for what it is worth. As to the proposal itself, the Post Office is not afraid of competition. The parcels sector already has it, and it is very successful. Also, the trade union idea of Girobank has provided competition in the banking sector for several years. It has been so successful that the Government now want to move Girobank out of the public and into the private banking sector. Neither those who work in the Post Office nor those who manage it are afraid of competition. With the exclusivity that the Post Office enjoys there also goes responsibility. The hon. Member for Battersea obviously does not understand that that responsibility is to deliver letters and other mail to every part of the country at the same price. If exclusivity is removed, the hon. Gentleman, as a former researcher at Conservative Central Office, must know that the cost of sending a letter to the outer islands of Scotland, Cornwall or Devon will be about £1.50, compared with the 19p charge for first class mail that is currently made.

The hon. Gentleman's proposals would also place at risk the future of rural sub-post offices, which are inextricably linked with the postal delivery service. They stock the stamps, cash and all the other items that are required for a rural sub-office to function. It is the postman who delivers those items, and, as sure as night follows day, rural sub-offices would close under the system that the hon. Gentleman proposes. That is why his hon. Friend's Bill was defeated last year, and why the hon. Gentleman's Bill will also be defeated. If he does not understand, as a Member of Parliament representing an inner-city constituency, the obligations that the Post Office has, and must discharge, to people living in remote areas, his right hon. and hon. Friends representing rural constituencies must do so.

I went through the 1971 postal strike, which started on 20 January and continued until 11 March that year. During that strike, private letter carriers were established, particularly in the Manchester area. They charged 2s 6d. per item, which at today's values is equivalent to £2. When the strike ended, nearly every one of the items for which

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private carriers had charged the equivalent of £2 each to deliver were put into the postal system with a cheap first class stamp on them for the postmen whom the hon. Member for Battersea criticises to deliver. There was no question of private companies being able to deliver that mail. It was absorbed into the postal service for the Post Office to deliver.

We have seen this hardy annual appear for the past two or three years. I ask that, in the time-honoured tradition, this hardy annual also should be buried at the end of its season. I oppose the Bill. Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business) :

The House divided : Ayes 100, Noes 174.

Division No. 78] [4.28 pm


Adley, Robert

Alexander, Richard

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Aspinwall, Jack

Atkinson, David

Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)

Beaumont-Dark, Anthony

Beggs, Roy

Bendall, Vivian

Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)

Bevan, David Gilroy

Body, Sir Richard

Boswell, Tim

Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)

Bowis, John

Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard

Brazier, Julian

Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)

Browne, John (Winchester)

Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)

Budgen, Nicholas

Burns, Simon

Carrington, Matthew

Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)

Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)

Cran, James

Dicks, Terry

Evennett, David

Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas

Fenner, Dame Peggy

Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey

Fishburn, John Dudley

Fookes, Dame Janet

Franks, Cecil

Fry, Peter

Goodhart, Sir Philip

Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles

Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)

Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)

Greenway, John (Ryedale)

Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)

Grylls, Michael

Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)

Hannam, John

Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)

Hayes, Jerry

Hill, James

Holt, Richard

Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)

Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)

Irvine, Michael

Janman, Tim

Jessel, Toby

Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)

Jones, Robert B (Herts W)

Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine

Kilfedder, James

Knapman, Roger

Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)

Lawrence, Ivan

Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)

Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)

McCrindle, Robert

Mans, Keith

Marlow, Tony

Marshall, John (Hendon S)

Martin, David (Portsmouth S)

Mates, Michael

Moate, Roger

Molyneaux, Rt Hon James

Montgomery, Sir Fergus

Moss, Malcolm

Nicholson, David (Taunton)

Norris, Steve

Pawsey, James

Porter, Barry (Wirral S)

Porter, David (Waveney)

Raison, Rt Hon Timothy

Redwood, John

Rossi, Sir Hugh

Rost, Peter

Shaw, David (Dover)

Shelton, Sir William (Str'm)

Sims, Roger

Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)

Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)

Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)

Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John

Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)

Summerson, Hugo

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Tredinnick, David

Walker, Bill (T'side North)

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Warren, Kenneth

Watts, John

Wheeler, John

Whitney, Ray

Wilshire, David

Woodcock, Mike

Tellers for the Ayes :

Miss Ann Widdecombe and

Mr. Graham Riddick.


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