Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.50 pm

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): This debate on the future of post offices has been useful, and it has opened up the discussion of our White Paper and its reforms.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who spoke from the Front Bench, was not a Member of the House under the previous Government, and it may have slipped his mind, or perhaps he was not aware, that that Government held back the Post Office from modernising Parcelforce. That denied the Post Office the investment that it needed. Before the hon. Gentleman started haranguing us across the Dispatch Box, perhaps he should have reflected on the contributions of hon. Members sitting behind him who were Ministers in the previous Administration.

I shall tackle the concerns that were common ground in the debate. The Post Office network needs to have a positive future, and we must recognise the vital role of post offices, particularly in local communities, whether in rural villages or our towns and cities. That concern is shared across the Chamber.

I was interested to hear Conservative Members express concerns for the poor and those on benefits who currently have no access to a bank account. After 13 years in the House, that is the first time I have heard such remarks from Conservative Members, although I welcome them. Under our proposals, there will for the first time be access criteria. With the new regulatory structure and the five-year strategic plan, that will mean that there is potential to protect and enhance the network, using new technologies to make post offices more attractive and enable the Post Office to realise its potential at home and internationally.

Interestingly, Opposition Members who were Ministers in the previous Administration, and who were known for their impeccable new right credentials, complain that we are not privatising the Post Office. They are free to set out their stall, and they are right to say that we are not privatising the Post Office.

I was surprised that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) even mentioned the Horizon project, Questions need to be asked about the roots of that project, which were established under his authority, and he is in the best position to answer those questions. We have had no answers so far, however.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, welcomed the White Paper and urged us to get on with it so that new opportunities will not be missed. He asked whether the regulatory system will be operated by a board rather than an individual. I can tell him that it will be run by a commission, and I hope that he welcomes that.

My hon. Friend also reminded us of the important fact that 60 per cent. of rural parishes have a post office while less than 10 per cent. have a bank or building society. Some of the comments made by Conservative Members need to viewed in that context, and we should not be beguiled by the scaremongering in which they have tried to indulge tonight.

15 Jul 1999 : Column 672

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) reminded us that Conservative Members scarcely raised a finger when 3,300 post offices closed. I remember that when I was in opposition, the post office in Huntingdon, the constituency of the then Prime Minister, closed, but I do not remember those on the Benches around the right hon. Gentleman jumping up and protesting about that. For years afterwards they said that there was nothing they could do.

The accounts published yesterday confirm that there is pressure on the Post Office, and greater commercial freedom is needed to enable it to invest more, to internationalise its business and to reinforce the network. The hon. Member for Eastleigh suggested that there is a potential for the Post Office and banks to build new relationships. That idea was powerfully and imaginatively reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who made positive proposals. He suggested that post offices could act as banks in local communities. Why not? Let us explore that suggestion as part of the consideration of the White Paper.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) asked for reassurance that there is no intention to sell shares in the future. There is no such intention. As my hon. Friend reminded us, that would require primary legislation. We have no intention of introducing that primary legislation.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the Conservative ideologues who, trapped in an out-of-date ideology, are failing to get to grips with the potential of the new communication technologies that could transform post offices for the 21st century. Our approach to the Post Office is not driven by ideological dogma, or by the burnt-out traditional neo-liberal economic agendas still peddled by Conservative Members, who would privatise anything that moved, regardless of whether it was beneficial.

Interestingly, the Opposition motion does not even take a passing glance at the detailed challenges, here and now and globally, that the Post Office faces. Where is the challenge of global competition from postal services worldwide? There is not a reference to it in the motion. Where are the references to the challenges of being allowed to compete with other services in countries, such as Germany and Sweden, that are opening up their markets? Where are the references to the challenges of new forms of technology and communication? We believe that the Post Office needs to take a step change into the future as customers demand change, as technology advances and as new players--courier services, e-mail providers and so on--come on line. The Opposition motion is evidence of a tired old agenda. The Conservatives are locked into the "privatise regardless" attitude. Our proposals, set out in the White Paper--

Mr. Lilley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Battle: I will. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us about the roots of what went wrong with Horizon.

Mr. Lilley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Several of my colleagues and I have given chapter and verse a direct contradiction between what Ministers have been saying today and assurances that they

15 Jul 1999 : Column 673

gave the House on five occasions over the past 18 months. This is a very serious matter. The hon. Gentleman is noted for his personal integrity. I am sorry that he has not thought fit to try to restore the integrity of the Government Front Bench. Either the Government knew all along that there were problems--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order.

Mr. Battle: The hon. Gentleman has the nerve to question my integrity. I seem to remember that he belonged--[Interruption.] Okay. He belonged to the previous Government and he spoke eloquently tonight about the needs for banking and post office provision for people in poverty. He may like to reflect upon the social loan fund that he introduced, offering loans which no one could take up because they could not afford to repay them--yet he then asks us to do joined-up thinking. He may now have found a new role in life on the Back Benches, and part of that new role may help us if he will explain what went wrong some of the time, because it seems that we are still picking up the pieces after what went wrong under the previous Administration.

Mrs. Browning: On what date were Ministers advised by officials that the Horizon project should be abandoned?

Mr. Battle: The hon. Lady will remember that, in this debate, two hon. Members--one my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil, the Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee, and the other a member of the Conservative party--said that they thought that perhaps the Public Accounts Committee should trawl over this whole business. That would be very interesting for all Members of the House.

Our proposals in the White Paper will ensure that the universal service obligation continues to be supported. They will set out arrangements for a new independent regulator, with a duty to ensure that the Post Office holds to that universal service obligation. The regulator's job will be to keep the network of post offices, and the Post Office will move in the direction of new electronic platforms to transform it.

For the first time, the Government are setting access criteria which will ensure that specific areas of population must have access to a post office, and the regulator will have a duty to police that. Therefore, for the first time in history, deliveries to every address in the country and collections every working day will be set out in law. That is an improvement. The Government propose to strengthen the Post Office Users National Council. We will give the Post Office commercial freedom for the future.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:--

The House divided: Ayes 126, Noes 328.

Division No. 247
[6.59 pm


Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)
Amess, David
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baldry, Tony
Beggs, Roy
Bercow, John
Beresford, Sir Paul
Blunt, Crispin
Body, Sir Richard
Boswell, Tim
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia
Brazier, Julian
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Browning, Mrs Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Burns, Simon
Butterfill, John
Cash, William
Chapman, Sir Sydney
(Chipping Barnet)
Chope, Christopher
Clappison, James
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth
Collins, Tim
Colvin, Michael
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Curry, Rt Hon David
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Day, Stephen
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Duncan, Alan
Duncan Smith, Iain
Faber, David
Fabricant, Michael
Fallon, Michael
Flight, Howard
Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Fox, Dr Liam
Gale, Roger
Gibb, Nick
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Gray, James
Green, Damian
Greenway, John
Grieve, Dominic
Gummer, Rt Hon John
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Hammond, Philip
Hawkins, Nick
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Horam, John
Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Hunter, Andrew
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Jenkin, Bernard
Johnson Smith,
Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Key, Robert
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Leigh, Edward
Letwin, Oliver
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Lidington, David
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Loughton, Tim
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Maclean, Rt Hon David
McLoughlin, Patrick
Madel, Sir David
Malins, Humfrey
Maples, John
Mates, Michael
May, Mrs Theresa
Moss, Malcolm
Norman, Archie
Ottaway, Richard
Page, Richard
Pickles, Eric
Prior, David
Randall, John
Redwood, Rt Hon John
Robathan, Andrew
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Ruffley, David
St Aubyn, Nick
Sayeed, Jonathan
Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Shepherd, Richard
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Spicer, Sir Michael
Spring, Richard
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Steen, Anthony
Streeter, Gary
Swayne, Desmond
Syms, Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Townend, John
Tredinnick, David
Trend, Michael
Tyrie, Andrew
Viggers, Peter
Walter, Robert
Wardle, Charles
Waterson, Nigel
Wells, Bowen
Whitney, Sir Raymond
Whittingdale, John
Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Wilkinson, John
Willetts, David
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Woodward, Shaun
Yeo, Tim

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Keith Simpson and
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.


Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)
Ainger, Nick
Alexander, Douglas
Allan, Richard
Allen, Graham
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)
Atherton, Ms Candy
Atkins, Charlotte
Austin, John
Baker, Norman
Banks, Tony
Barron, Kevin
Battle, John
Bayley, Hugh
Beard, Nigel
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)
Bennett, Andrew F
Benton, Joe
Bermingham, Gerald
Berry, Roger
Best, Harold
Betts, Clive
Blackman, Liz
Blair, Rt Hon Tony
Blears, Ms Hazel
Bradley, Keith (Withington)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Bradshaw, Ben
Brake, Tom
Brand, Dr Peter
Brinton, Mrs Helen
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)
Browne, Desmond
Buck, Ms Karen
Burden, Richard
Burgon, Colin
Burnett, John
Burstow, Paul
Butler, Mrs Christine
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen
Cable, Dr Vincent
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies
(NE Fife)
Cann, Jamie
Caplin, Ivor
Casale, Roger
Caton, Martin
Cawsey, Ian
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Chaytor, David
Chidgey, David
Chisholm, Malcolm
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Clark, Dr Lynda
(Edinburgh Pentlands)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Clelland, David
Clwyd, Ann
Coaker, Vernon
Coffey, Ms Ann
Cohen, Harry
Coleman, Iain
Colman, Tony
Connarty, Michael
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Corbett, Robin
Corbyn, Jeremy
Corston, Ms Jean
Cotter, Brian
Cousins, Jim
Cox, Tom
Cranston, Ross
Crausby, David
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Cunliffe, Lawrence
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Dalyell, Tam
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Darvill, Keith
Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Davidson, Ian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Dawson, Hilton
Dean, Mrs Janet
Denham, John
Dismore, Andrew
Dobbin, Jim
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Donohoe, Brian H
Doran, Frank
Dowd, Jim
Drown, Ms Julia
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Edwards, Huw
Ellman, Mrs Louise
Ennis, Jeff
Etherington, Bill
Fearn, Ronnie
Field, Rt Hon Frank
Fisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Fitzsimons, Lorna
Flint, Caroline
Flynn, Paul
Foulkes, George
Fyfe, Maria
Galloway, George
Gapes, Mike
George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Gerrard, Neil
Gibson, Dr Ian
Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Godman, Dr Norman A
Godsiff, Roger
Goggins, Paul
Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Gorrie, Donald
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Grocott, Bruce
Gunnell, John
Hain, Peter
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Hancock, Mike
Hanson, David
Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Harris, Dr Evan
Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Healey, John
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Hill, Keith
Hinchliffe, David
Hodge, Ms Margaret
Hoey, Kate
Hood, Jimmy
Hopkins, Kelvin
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Hoyle, Lindsay
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Humble, Mrs Joan
Hurst, Alan
Hutton, John
Iddon, Dr Brian
Illsley, Eric
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Jenkins, Brian
Johnson, Miss Melanie
(Welwyn Hatfield)
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Jones, Ms Jenny
(Wolverh'ton SW)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Kelly, Ms Ruth
Kemp, Fraser
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Khabra, Piara S
Kidney, David
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Laxton, Bob
Leslie, Christopher
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Linton, Martin
Livingstone, Ken
Livsey, Richard
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Lock, David
Love, Andrew
McAvoy, Thomas
McCafferty, Ms Chris
McDonagh, Siobhain
Macdonald, Calum
McDonnell, John
McIsaac, Shona
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Mackinlay, Andrew
McNamara, Kevin
McNulty, Tony
MacShane, Denis
Mactaggart, Fiona
McWalter, Tony
McWilliam, John
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Mallaber, Judy
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Martlew, Eric
Maxton, John
Merron, Gillian
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Mitchell, Austin
Moran, Ms Margaret
Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Morley, Elliot
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Naysmith, Dr Doug
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
O'Hara, Eddie
Olner, Bill
O'Neill, Martin
Öpik, Lembit
Osborne, Ms Sandra
Palmer, Dr Nick
Pearson, Ian
Pendry, Tom
Perham, Ms Linda
Pickthall, Colin
Pike, Peter L
Plaskitt, James
Pollard, Kerry
Pond, Chris
Pound, Stephen
Powell, Sir Raymond
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Primarolo, Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Ken
Quinn, Lawrie
Radice, Rt Hon Giles
Rammell, Bill
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Rendel, David
Robertson, Rt Hon George
(Hamilton S)
Rooker, Jeff
Rooney, Terry
Rowlands, Ted
Roy, Frank
Ruane, Chris
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Salter, Martin
Sarwar, Mohammad
Savidge, Malcolm
Sawford, Phil
Sedgemore, Brian
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Shipley, Ms Debra
Short, Rt Hon Clare
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Singh, Marsha
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Smith, Miss Geraldine
(Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Soley, Clive
Southworth, Ms Helen
Spellar, John
Squire, Ms Rachel
Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Steinberg, Gerry
Stevenson, George
Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Stinchcombe, Paul
Stoate, Dr Howard
Stott, Roger
Stringer, Graham
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Stunell, Andrew
Sutcliffe, Gerry
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Temple-Morris, Peter
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Timms, Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Todd, Mark
Tonge, Dr Jenny
Touhig, Don
Trickett, Jon
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Vaz, Keith
Vis, Dr Rudi
Walley, Ms Joan
Wareing, Robert N
White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr Alan
Wicks, Malcolm
Williams, Rt Hon Alan
(Swansea W)
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Wills, Michael
Wise, Audrey
Wood, Mike
Worthington, Tony
Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Wyatt, Derek

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Greg Pope and
Mr. Robert Ainsworth.

Question accordingly negatived.

15 Jul 1999 : Column 677

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):--

The House divided: Ayes 293, Noes 140.

Next Section

IndexHome Page