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6.9 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I beg to move, To leave out from 'That' to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:


Last July, following the Secretary of State's statement on the Post Office White Paper, we debated many of the issues that have been raised again tonight. It is extraordinary that, seven months later, we should be presented with a Bill to which, we are already informed, there could be as many as 200 Government amendments. A pattern is emerging. A couple of weeks ago we gave a Second Reading to the Utilities Bill, which also came from the Department of Trade and Industry. It is an affront to the democratic process that the Government--particularly the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry--cannot arrange for the Bills announced in the Queen's Speech to be properly and thoroughly drafted before the House has an opportunity to debate and scrutinise them. The Secretary of State has told the House that he knows how many amendments he intends to table. If the right hon. Gentleman will not return to the Dispatch Box, I hope that the Minister for Competitiveness will tell the House the number. We have to judge the Government's proposals not by relying on the Bill that is printed, but by second-guessing errors and omissions that occur as a result of the way in which the Government bring their legislation before the House.

In July, the Secretary of State told us with great pride that the postal privilege was to be reduced from £1 to 50p. Indeed, he laid a statutory instrument to that effect,

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only to remove it after pressure from the Post Office unions in the run-up to the Labour party conference. The Bill has been surrounded by muddle and confusion from the time when the Government announced at least some of the detail that we might expect to find in it. Perhaps the Minister for Competitiveness was instrumental in that U-turn. Confusion helps no one, particularly the sub-post office network.

We have had three debates on the Post Office since then, focusing particularly on sub-post offices. There has been muddle and confusion in much of what the Government have said. They have produced a hybrid structure of a Government-owned plc with a regulator and a consumer body. Despite all the cant and the language of competition, we know that the Government's proposal is a compromise. I have no doubt that the Secretary of State would have liked to privatise the Post Office, not least because the Government have shown that they are willing to accept the concept of privatisation. We expect the privatisation of the National Air Traffic Services shortly, and I am sure that that will not be the Government's only privatisation. Given that they have accepted the principle, it is extraordinary that, rather than proposing the confused structure that we are considering tonight, they have not grasped the opportunity to release the Post Office--particularly the postal services--to competition and allow it to compete and raise money on the open market.

The Bill is ill prepared and sloppily drafted because the Government want to rush it through. A measure of such importance requires much more attention than that. Let me deal with some of the issues on which I hope the Secretary of State will be able to reassure us that he already has some details.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): Did I discern a policy among all the muddle? Was the hon. Lady saying that the Conservatives would privatise the postal services?

Mrs. Browning: We shall look at the mess that we inherit from the Government. We support the principle and the need for the Post Office to compete globally, but we are dealing with a hybrid structure and we have no relevant experience to allow us to judge how it will proceed. Interestingly, the Secretary of State has tried, as ever, to allay Labour Members' fears by saying that the Government are not going to privatise fully because they do not intend to dispose of shares at this stage. He has said that primary legislation would be required to do that, but he has never given a guarantee that the Government have ruled it out. The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) might intervene on the Minister when he winds up to ask whether the Government intend to make it clear tonight that they will never dispose of shares in the new structure. We should be interested in that.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Some of us have spent the best years of our lives, in and out of government, trying to privatise the Post Office. Will my hon. Friend confirm that it was the policy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) when he was the President of the Board of Trade--and that it is still the policy of those on the Conservative Front Bench--to privatise the Royal Mail?

Mrs. Browning: We shall be very enthusiastic to do so, but we shall give the Post Office full freedom while

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setting minimum standards for universal delivery of letters and support for the sub-post office network. We already have a good track record on privatisation. We have protected services but freed up industries to the marketplace. I am pleased that the Government seek to emulate that, although they are being a little timid. That formula has been advocated and copied around the world.

Mrs. Gilroy: If such protection was offered, why did one in five sub-post offices in the network close while the Conservatives were in government?

Mrs. Browning: I do not know how many sub-post offices the hon. Lady has in her constituency. I have about 60. There are many reasons why sub-post offices have closed. Some that were combined with the general store in a village have closed because of competition from supermarkets. If the hon. Lady was aware of what happens in rural communities--a subject on which the Labour party is not knowledgeable--she would know that many factors have affected the viability of post offices, including demographic changes. People tend to go away from villages to work, so they are not always there during post office opening hours. That has also affected post offices that rely for their income on the trade of the general village store or the sale of other goods. There has been a natural decline in post offices as a result of social changes. When the Conservatives left office in 1997, we left in place a system which recognised that post offices would need to be automated with computers to improve their income. Having said that they will produce the computers, the Government are now saying that post offices must depend solely on computers to make up the loss of the £400 million-worth of income that they currently receive from benefits.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that, to brief herself adequately, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) need do no more than consult her hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) who is sitting next to her, who has eloquently denounced the Government's proposals for compulsory payments into bank accounts? Is it not important that we should hear the hon. Lady's criticisms of the Government during the debate?

Mrs. Browning: As usual, my hon. Friend is correct. I recall visiting one of the excellent sub-post offices in his constituency in September. The same concerns were voiced there as in the two dozen other sub-post offices around the country that I have visited. Sub-postmasters are concerned because the Government have taken a significant amount of the income that they previously enjoyed and told them that they must not only catch up with the competition from supermarkets and elsewhere but find the means to make up the drop in income. That is why many have told stories similar to that which I heard from the sub-postmistress to whom I spoke in Liverton, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) last Friday. Having looked at the projected income for the next three or four years, her bank manager has advised her not to risk borrowing another £15,000 to expand the shop by opening up what was once a store room. That is how fragile sub-post offices are as a result of the Government's policies.

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Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): Does my hon. Friend agree that what she has just described is likely to put between 9,000 and 10,000 sub-post offices on the margin financially?

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend has struck on the right amount, because some 50 per cent. of the sub-post offices will be affected--all of them private businesses. Many of them are owned by people who have sunk retirement capital from other jobs into them only to find that--at a time in their lives when they thought they were building up a nest egg for retirement--the bank managers see them as risky business.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): If advances in technology mean that the payment of benefits is cheaper and more efficient through the automated credit transfer system, and if that leaves post offices vulnerable, is maintaining an antiquated system the best way to subsidise post offices, or should it be done through a direct clearly accountable subsidy, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggests?


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