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Mr. Drew: On that point--

Mr. Lilley: I am sorry, I cannot give way, but doubtless the hon. Gentleman will confirm that point when he speaks.

Can the Minister confirm that the announcement that has already been made has caused many sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to sell up and get out? Can he confirm the estimate of the Post Office National Users Council that the rate of closures has almost trebled since that announcement, and will reach 500 in the year due to finish in a month's time? Can he confirm, too, the figures which show that it is not just rural but urban post offices that are among the most vulnerable?

After today's extraordinary performance, we are left with a confused and confusing response to the key questions about how the new proposals will work. Above all, what will happen to those who do not have bank accounts at present--up to 20 per cent. of the recipients of benefits? Will banks be forced to set up shadow accounts for them, through which the money will be paid in order to get it to the sub-post office and then to them? How much will that cost the taxpayer? Certainly not a penny each--apparently, more like 17 times that sum on the figures given, but one suspects even more than that.

Will people who have to open a new account--for example, mothers who want to have child benefit paid into it--be forced to pay bank charges? Will they receive any compensation for that? Can the Minister guarantee that there will be no withdrawal charges imposed by banks in future for the use of access machines? Where the access criteria show that there is more than a minimal provision of post offices in an area, will the Post Office be free to close those that the access criteria show to be superfluous?

In short, the Bill shows that the Government are determined to exclude private enterprise from the part of the Post Office's operations where it could do most good, and to undermine private enterprise in the area where it already--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

6.55 pm

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I am grateful to be called in this important debate. This is a positive day for the Post Office and postal services.

I listened in amazement to some of the contributions from the Opposition. It seems to have passed them by that many of their Front-Bench colleagues in the previous Government were swept out of office and out of this place with the assistance of the Stand By Your Post campaign. They were so blatantly determined to privatise the Post Office that even petitions signed by 10,000, 12,000 or 15,000 people in their own constituencies were ignored, because of the dogma and ideology that drove them on. If they continue with the commitment that they gave from the Front Bench to be the party of privatisation on the terms that they previously put to the British people, they will remain on the Opposition Benches for a long time.

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Alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith) and the person who is now the Minister for Competitiveness, my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson), I took part with pride in the Stand By Your Post campaign. People were angered by the Conservatives' attempt to privatise the Post Office, clearly for the profit of some of their friends in the City, and no doubt some of their friends who thought that they would be senior management in the privatised Post Office. The Conservatives ignored the fact that people did not want the Post Office privatised. People still do not want the Post Office privatised, and they will oppose any future moves towards privatisation.

The people stood by their Post. This Government, in opposition and now, have stood by the Post. The Bill underlines the depth of their commitment to an integrated Post Office Counters and Post Office distribution service. The service will be modernised by the Bill, which will give the Post Office a chance to invest its hard-earned profits.

I remind the House that the previous Government took £1 billion over three years from the Post Office through the external financing limit--a way of robbing the Post Office's efforts in order to finance the Government's poor policies, which were costing the country so much.

The Bill will allow the Post Office to compete, but the Post Office would probably be better able to compete if it did not have such a low capital borrowing limit-- £75 million. That limit should be reconsidered, as it may not allow the Post Office to compete at the right level. The Post Office will be able to compete externally and within the United Kingdom. I look forward to it becoming a worldwide and world-class distribution company.

The Bill will benefit the consumer. Universal provision is frequently taken for granted, but if the Conservatives had had their way in government, universal provision would have gone. Scotland always invents "west" questions. There was a West Lothian question in connection with devolution, and a Western Isles question in connection with postal services, which was never answered by the Conservatives while they were in government.

It was obvious that, with a privatised postal service, it would never be possible to have the same standard of first-class post delivery to the Western Isles as to West Bromwich or some parts of west London. That is dealt with by the Bill, which states that there will be universal provision in all the glens, valleys, islands and the mainland of this country. That is important.

Another notable aspect of the Bill is clause 30, which guarantees the service for the blind. I remember the trauma experienced by those who provided books for the blind. Being in large print, such books obviously make very large parcels. They used to go free, and still do, through the postal services, but that was threatened by the Conservatives' privatisation policies. Now it is guaranteed that the books will be delivered as a free service to people who are blind or partially sighted.

There will be a consumer council for postal services. I am glad that the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) referred to the provision of a

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Scottish committee in a universal UK service council, because that underlines what we are doing. This is a British Bill in a British Parliament for everyone in Britain.

The Bill should not be interfered with by people who want to break up the UK and deliver parochial services in Scotland. That would not be good enough--if they ever had the power to do so--because an independent Scotland would not have the finances to provide a proper service for the people of Scotland. Every economist knows that. The only people who are deluded enough not to believe it are members of the Scottish National party, who attend the Chamber sporadically--one a day. [Interruption.] I think that the First Minister is running Scotland--the Opposition in the Scottish Parliament are not.

Mr. Letwin rose--

Mr. Connarty: I am sorry, but none of us has time to take interventions.

I look forward to the debates in Committee on licences, penalties and access criteria. I hope that those debates will clearly define access criteria and how they are to be applied. It is important that there are good definitions so that the public know what type of service they will receive. Such definitions were not provided during 19 years of Conservative Government.

We need to discuss the use and scale of the proposed penalties. It is important that people know how they are to be applied. At present, there is no limit on penalties--according to the clauses that I have read--and that is a problem.

The measure offers a real opportunity to put computers into the sub-post office network. I am a member of the Select Committee on Information. I make visits throughout Europe and hear people talking about the information age and its services to democracy. I have an image of Conservative Members walking along like the man with the red flag--a blue one in their case--in front of the first internal combustion vehicle. They are walking in front of the information age waving their flag, saying "We want to take political advantage of this--go as fast as we go." It is about time that they realised that this modern Labour Government are about to run them over.

The post office network will be changed into a modern, technological part of e-commerce. That will make the service viable. If postmasters are not capable of making those changes, they will miss the best opportunity that they will ever be given--£500 million to put computers into post offices. That will give them the chance to move up and move on--to leave behind the old rubber stamp and wooden grille image of the sub-post office. It is time to put that aside.

I welcome the possibility of subsidy for social reasons. In my constituency, we have lost a sub-post office in a village that is so small that little is viable. However, if the post office gets its act together, it can reconnect with the commuter society that has left it behind. People often live in large villages--as I do--and commute to the towns. It is time that sub-post offices showed that they can be of use to that commuter society--those people who live in dormitory villages outside the major conurbations. It is important that post offices develop new services.

What level of computer training will be given? We must make our sub-postmasters competent and capable to enter the information age, in the same way as we are making our children computer literate.

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I support the Bill for what it is not--and for what it is and will be. It is not privatisation. If we are to sell shares, it is important to hold debates in the House and to take into account the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale. It is good that the business will be viable, but there is more to the matter than that. We need to consider how it will affect the public interest.

The Bill is good for the postal business; it is good for the consumers, users, distributors and recipients of the service. I support the Bill for what it could be; I hope to discuss that, if I am selected to serve on the Standing Committee. The Bill will be good for the staff--the stakeholders who work in the enterprise. They stood side by side with Labour Members and put the Conservatives out of government. The fact that postal workers realised that their contribution provided the Treasury with £1 billion--through the external financing limit--was a major factor in the loss of many Conservative seats. Their contribution should be respected in the eventual formation of the new company.

I look forward to clarification, and even to amendments, so that we can create an empowered and motivated postal service--from the bottom to the top; from the post worker, to the manager and to the consumer. I look forward to the Bill being passed.


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