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Mr. McLoughlin : I do not know how the hon. Gentleman has the cheek to refer to the Government as mealy-mouthed. He should remember how he tried to scoot away from answering the clear point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth).

When the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) appeared on the "Today" programme, he was constantly pushed by Peter Hobday to say whether he would renationalise the Post Office. Finally, the hon. Gentleman said :

"No. Hang on, hang on. Let me answer your question. At the moment the Post Office is in the public sector. We want to keep in there. If it is put in the private sector we will consider that question when and if the time arrives. I must say that I personally would not rule out bringing it back."

Of course, the hon. Gentleman has to get his new orders from whoever is chosen to lead his party, whether it is a moderniser or someone else.

Column 924

The Labour party's policies change at each general election. Its 1992 manifesto said :

"The provision of water is so fundamental that it is a priority for return to public control . . . We will restore public control of the National Grid and give it new duties and powers to ensure the long-term security of electricity supplies. They"--

that is the Conservatives

"would, if they won power again, privatise water, electricity, steel and other services, and the industries built up from the public investment over past years . . . We shall extend social ownership by a variety of means, as set out in Labour's detailed proposals. In particular, we will set up British Enterprise, to take a socially owned stake in high-tech industries and other concerns where public funds are used to strengthen investment . . . Social ownership of basic utilities like gas and water is vital to ensure that every individual has access to their use and that the companies contribute to Britain's industrial recovery, for instance, by buying British. We shall start by using the existing 49 per cent. holding in British Telecom to ensure proper influence in their decisions.".

They do not say what is proper.

If any party is blinded by dogma, it is the Labour party and its dogma of constantly believing in the public sector. They have been repeating the dogma of public good, private bad at length today. We are the only party addressing the serious and wide-ranging issues to ensure that the Post Office survives and expands its business into the next century.

I was asked a number of questions to which I shall try to respond. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) asked about pensions. The Government are well aware of the importance of protecting pension rights of past and present employees. That is why we have given an undertaking, expressed in the Green Paper, that such rights will be safeguarded. The precise mechanism for dealing with pension arrangements in any legislation will have to be worked out with the companies concerned and we will take into account the representations of pensioners, but I give the House an assurance that employees and pensioners will continue to enjoy pension rights that are at least as good as they have at present.

The hon. Member for Gordon and, in an intervention, the hon. Member for Neath asked about Sunday collections. Perhaps they were a little unwise to raise that subject. A number of services, such as the second daily delivery of mail and Sunday collections, are not currently part of Royal Mail's social commitment, but it is an operational matter to ensure that quality targets, such as the percentage of first-class letters delivered the next working day, are not only met but improved. If, for example, the second delivery did not exist in the vast majority of places, Royal Mail could not deliver 92 per cent. of first-class mail the next working day--a figure that has made it the highest quality postal administration in Europe.

If we proceed with the Government's preferred option, we will write specific safeguards into the terms of their appointment. The targets are demanding and could well cover issues such as Sunday collections and the timing of daily deliveries. They will be subject to the scrutiny of the regulator, who will ensure that the service received by the public goes from strength to strength.

It is interesting to ask when Sunday collections were suspended. When did Royal Mail do away with Sunday collections ? It will come as no surprise to the House that Sunday collections were suspended in 1976, no doubt with the agreement of the then Secretary of State or the person then responsible for the Post Office. So the improved efficiencies have been achieved and encouraged under a Conservative Government. We shall not privatise an

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industry to see it give a worse service to the public ; we shall want a better service to the public, as we have seen with every single privatisation we have pursued through the House. When the hon. Gentleman asked about the Sunday collection, he hit on a very poor point. It is interesting to see that somebody who usually jumps to his feet every time he is challenged on any subject is stuck to his seat as if he were stuck there with Loctite glue--perhaps that would be a favour to us all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton- Brown) echoed a point made by a number of my hon. Friends about the importance of the post offices in their constituencies. That was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East who spoke about nationwide collection.

We heard the usual scare stories from the Scottish nationalists. The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) could not have read the Green Paper because its assurances go a long way to meeting the concerns that he expressed.

Mr. Welsh : If there is genuine consultation and the majority of people oppose the Government's plans, will they withdraw their plans--or is it a case of the usual sham ?

Mr. McLoughlin : I made it clear, as did my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry, that there will be consultation. At the end of the day, when the Government bring forward legislation, it will be for Parliament to take a view. There will be wide consultation with all the people involved. We have not embarked on consultation to ignore what emerges from that exercise.

We have heard many scare stories from Opposition parties about every privatisation. In 1985, the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) said that there was no evidence that the gas privatisation Bill would improve efficiency, provide a better service, produce cheaper gas or release or create competition. The hon. Member for Gordon said that 16 million gas consumers could expect only one result--to pay increased gas prices, higher than the rate of inflation, for years to come. As those remarks illustrate, the privatisation and subsequent regulation of British Gas provided an early example of what Labour and the Liberal Democrats repeatedly called privatisations too far.

The privatisation of British Gas was a great success for consumers. Their experience before and since privatisation could hardly have been more different. In the early 1980s, domestic gas prices rose more than one third in real terms. Since privatisation in 1986, real-term prices have fallen below their January 1979 level. In July 1992, real-term prices were cut by an average 3 per cent., and a further 2 per cent. reduction occurred in October. Inflation was running at about 4 per cent. The number of disconnections also substantially reduced--something that I thought Opposition parties would welcome.

We heard then all the scare stories that we heard today. That is all that the Opposition can live off and fight with. When we take privatisation forward, their scare stories are knocked out and disproved. We will bear that important point in mind as we go through the consultation process.

Opposition Members have approached this privatisation with the closed minds that we have come to expect of them.

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From the start, they ruled out the option of privatisation, even though some of the most successful companies in Britain today were privatised. The Opposition have resorted to the scare stories that they trotted out in the past. In the Second Reading debate on the Telecommunications Bill, the right hon. Member for Salford, East said :

"Despite the Minister's assurances, we remain unconvinced that the level and range of services available will be continued. We maintain that market forces will demand that a privately owned BT cuts those services that incur a loss or make little profit. Rural services, emergency services, call boxes and provision for the blind and the disabled have an uncertain future."--[ Official Report , 18 July 1994 ; Vol. 46, c. 41.]

The Opposition said that when we privatised British Telecom, but look what happened. The number of BT call boxes has risen from 77,000 in 1984 to more than 100,000 today, and 96 per cent. of them work at any one time--up from only 75 per cent. six or seven years ago. The service is improving all the time. BT completes 95 per cent. of customer installations within the agreed time. Its main tariffs have fallen more than 30 per cent. in real terms since privatisation and will continue to fall at a rate of retail price index minus 7.5 per cent.

The leopards on the Benches opposite have not changed their spots. For all their talk of modernisation, their diet is still public sector ownership, Government control and clause 4 socialism. The Opposition want to give Royal Mail all the commercial freedoms of the private sector but none of the financial disciplines, with all the security of being in the public sector. So much for control of public expenditure. They want to do something that no Labour Government found a way of doing in the past.

What we have heard today has been the irresponsible attack of an Opposition. What is more, despite the fine-sounding promises from Opposition Members about the far-reaching changes that they want, the Labour party has shown itself today to be convinced of the merits of public ownership, and has promised to take Royal Mail back into the public sector if the Government's preferred option is implemented. What would be next ? British Telecom ? British Gas ? Electricity ? We await the answers with great interest. In the meantime, I commend the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister to my hon. Friends. Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question :--

The House divided : Ayes 273, Noes 305.

Division No. 292] [9.59 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Adams, Mrs Irene

Ainger, Nick

Allen, Graham

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy

Ashton, Joe

Austin-Walker, John

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Barnes, Harry

Barron, Kevin

Battle, John

Bayley, Hugh

Beith, Rt Hon A. J.

Bell, Stuart

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Bennett, Andrew F.

Bermingham, Gerald

Berry, Roger

Blunkett, David

Boateng, Paul

Boyes, Roland

Bradley, Keith

Bray, Dr Jeremy

Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)

Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)

Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)

Burden, Richard

Byers, Stephen

Caborn, Richard

Callaghan, Jim

Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)

Campbell-Savours, D. N.

Canavan, Dennis

Cann, Jamie

Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)

Chidgey, David

Chisholm, Malcolm

Church, Judith

Clapham, Michael

Column 927

Clark, Dr David (South Shields)

Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)

Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)

Clelland, David

Clwyd, Mrs Ann

Coffey, Ann

Cohen, Harry

Connarty, Michael

Cook, Frank (Stockton N)

Cook, Robin (Livingston)

Corbett, Robin

Corbyn, Jeremy

Corston, Ms Jean

Cousins, Jim

Cox, Tom

Cunliffe, Lawrence

Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)

Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John

Darling, Alistair

Davidson, Ian

Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)

Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)

Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)

Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)

Denham, John

Dewar, Donald

Dixon, Don

Dobson, Frank

Donohoe, Brian H.

Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth

Eastham, Ken

Enright, Derek

Evans, John (St Helens N)

Ewing, Mrs Margaret

Fatchett, Derek

Faulds, Andrew

Field, Frank (Birkenhead)

Fisher, Mark

Flynn, Paul

Foster, Rt Hon Derek

Foster, Don (Bath)

Foulkes, George

Fraser, John

Fyfe, Maria

Galloway, George

Gapes, Mike

Garrett, John

George, Bruce

Gerrard, Neil

Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John

Godman, Dr Norman A.

Godsiff, Roger

Golding, Mrs Llin

Gordon, Mildred

Graham, Thomas

Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)

Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)

Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)

Grocott, Bruce

Gunnell, John

Hain, Peter

Hall, Mike

Hanson, David

Hardy, Peter

Harman, Ms Harriet

Harvey, Nick

Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy

Henderson, Doug

Hendron, Dr Joe

Heppell, John

Hill, Keith (Streatham)

Hinchliffe, David

Hodge, Margaret

Hoey, Kate

Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)

Home Robertson, John

Hood, Jimmy

Hoon, Geoffrey

Howarth, George (Knowsley N)

Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)

Hoyle, Doug

Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)

Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)

Hughes, Roy (Newport E)

Hughes, Simon (Southwark)

Hutton, John

Illsley, Eric

Ingram, Adam

Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)

Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)

Jamieson, David

Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)

Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)

Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)

Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)

Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)

Jowell, Tessa

Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald

Keen, Alan

Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)

Khabra, Piara S.

Kilfedder, Sir James

Kilfoyle, Peter

Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn)

Kirkwood, Archy

Lestor, Joan (Eccles)

Lewis, Terry

Litherland, Robert

Livingstone, Ken

Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)

Llwyd, Elfyn

Loyden, Eddie

Lynne, Ms Liz

McAllion, John

McAvoy, Thomas

McCartney, Ian

Macdonald, Calum

McFall, John

McKelvey, William

Mackinlay, Andrew

McLeish, Henry

Maclennan, Robert

McMaster, Gordon

McNamara, Kevin

MacShane, Denis

Madden, Max

Maddock, Mrs Diana

Mahon, Alice

Mandelson, Peter

Marek, Dr John

Marshall, David (Shettleston)

Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)

Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)

Martlew, Eric

Maxton, John

Meacher, Michael

Meale, Alan

Michael, Alun

Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)

Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)

Milburn, Alan

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)

Moonie, Dr Lewis

Morgan, Rhodri

Morley, Elliot

Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)

Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)

Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)

Mowlam, Marjorie

Mudie, George

Mullin, Chris

Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon

O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire)

O'Brien, William (Normanton)

O'Hara, Edward

Olner, William

O'Neill, Martin

Orme, Rt Hon Stanley

Parry, Robert

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