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7.29 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which is of great interest to my constituents. During the Ceredigion by-election that sent me to the House, the future of rural post offices weighed heavily on the minds of the voters and it was one of the issues that was raised most often on the doorsteps. As I visited nearly all the sub-post offices in my constituency, I was approached several times to sign the petition to save our post offices. I can assure the Minister, who may receive the petition, that I signed it only once.

As this is my first address to the House, I should like to take a few moments to explain why the Bill is so vital to us in Ceredigion. Hon. Members will know that the constituency is rural; indeed, only three towns have a population of more than 2,000. Given that Ceredigion's

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total population is more than 70,000, hon. Members will appreciate not only the rural nature of the constituency, but the extreme sparsity of the population.

Ceredigion is, however, one of the most dynamic, changing areas in Wales. We have the fastest growing population of any Welsh county and are second only to Cardiff in gross, rather than percentage, population growth. That growth is realised, on the whole, by net in-migration. As many as 1,200 people move into our county each year. They bring energy, fresh ideas and often a vision of how they want to live their lives. I claim to know that because I am one of them. One in three of the electorate were born outside Ceredigion, which is notable for a rural area.

That leaves us with a rather unbalanced population. It is older than average for Wales, due to the number of people who retire into the area and the number of young people who leave in search of more productive pastures. Although the large number of in-migrants invigorates many small rural communities, it has affected the position of the Welsh language. Even so, 60 per cent. of my constituents are Welsh speaking and the language can be heard on every high street and in every school, mart and workplace.

The small family farm remains the cornerstone of the economic and social bulwark of Welsh culture in Ceredigion. I hope that the House is already familiar with and sympathetic to the current farming crisis. If not, the by-election results should serve as a reminder. I emphasise only that low farming incomes have fallen three years in succession to as little as £4,500 a year, which must support two or three generations on one farm. The strong pound means that farming and tourism in Ceredigion are under siege. That economic context has given us objective 1 status.

That situation is a real threat to our future because traditional farmers and the increasing number of organic farmers are the main guardians of our environment, which is tremendously captivating and beautiful and gives the county a huge advantage, albeit yet not fully realised, in tourism. Much of our coastline is a heritage coast and we have numerous sites of special scientific interest, particularly wetlands, as one might expect in Wales. Perhaps the most singular environment is Cardigan bay itself, much of which is now designated a special area of conservation and is home to Britain's only resident population of the bottle-nosed porpoise. I know that hon. Members will be interested in that, given that we have been discussing jet skis.

The final part of the Ceredigion jigsaw is the public sector, which consists of local government, our two universities and an excellent general hospital at Bronglais, which we are all determined to retain and enhance. In an economy that is more dependent than the UK average on the public sector, the current policy of keeping public spending below 40 per cent. of gross domestic product has a disproportionate effect. It leads to frustration in our schools, hospitals and universities. Despite that, I am pleased to say that our local education authority achieved the best GCSE and A-level results in Wales last year.

Such a diverse and dynamic mix of people demanded a very special Member. I am delighted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Cynog Dafis. Hon. Members may recall that Mr. Dafis was elected with the biggest swing in the 1992 election as a

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joint Plaid Cymru-Green MP. Until last year, he was the only Member elected on a Green ticket to a UK legislative body.

Cynog Dafis quickly became respected in the House for his work on green and rural issues. He held office in Praseg--the all-party group on renewable and sustainable energy--and Globe UK. He was awarded the title of greenest MP, and I like to think that having been here for one week, I too hold that title, albeit in a different sense. Cynog Dafis also promoted three important Bills: the Home Energy Conservation Act 1997, the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997 and the Road Traffic Reduction (United Kingdom Targets) Act 1998--targets still to be met, of course.

In Ceredigion, Cynog Dafis was seen as having helped to create a vision of a sustainable future which a wide spectrum of opinion could share. I am sure that hon. Members will want to join me in wishing Cynog "lwc dda" in our National Assembly. His greatest accolade must be the affection and respect in which he was and still is held in Ceredigion. His leadership and personal qualities endeared not only himself but Plaid Cymru, the party that he represented, to the people of Ceredigion. If I cannot fill his shoes, I can at least try to walk in his footsteps.

It is that context that makes the Bill important to my constituency. Eighteen years of free market economic policies has done little for rural services. Shops, surgeries, buses, pubs, dentists and banks have gone. It is unfortunate that policies have not substantially changed. The Bill, and attendant policies such as automated credit transfer, could undermine our last strong rural service: the post office. Nevertheless, I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister on trying to find a way forward for the Post Office that will allow it to remain in public ownership and to compete internationally. The drawback is that this brave new world of commercial freedom seems to have few safeguards for the rural post office.

The introduction of ACT is of particular concern. Some 44 of the 73 post offices in my constituency derive over 40 per cent. of their direct income from benefit payments, so that does not account for the income that they derive from people coming into the shop. A Government-driven move to impose ACT would be highly injurious to those post offices and would have a huge knock-on effect on the services that they provide.

I am concerned that the Government want the majority of benefit payments to be made by ACT after 2003. I therefore urge the Minister to read the performance and innovation unit's forthcoming study on the future of the network and consider how post offices could contribute to the Government's laudable aims of combating social exclusion and achieving joined-up government. It may well transpire that rural post offices can demonstrate the need for cross-subsidisation in recognition of the other services that they perform. The only warning that I would sound is that local government should not be expected to pick up the tab and savings from ACT should be utilised. I welcome the Secretary of State's earlier remarks on that.

These days a west Wales post office is like a corn store in the wild west. It sells everything and performs vital tasks such as delivering coal, gas and prescriptions to older people. It often sells many locally produced goods, and my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) is looking particularly well on the

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honey that he has consumed as part of the campaign. That pattern of social support builds local communities, helps to reduce reliance on private cars and keeps resources in the local economy. I ask the House to consider whether the Bill and ACT will help or hinder the performance of that valuable service.

I ask the Minister to look again at certain elements of the Bill. Will he give the House an assurance that the £1 monopoly will remain? Will he make it crystal clear that the Government are not seeking to privatise the service by the back door? I suggest that the way to do so is to reconsider clause 56 and to set a limit for share disposal. The Bill should make provision for the National Assembly of Wales to appoint a representative to the Postal Services Commission, because there would then be a far better balance on the commission. The Bill should make similar provision for the so-called regional committee of the Consumer Council for Postal Services to have devolved responsibilities in Wales and to report to the National Assembly on Welsh matters. The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) made a similar point in an intervention.

Those are some of the safeguards that could at least ensure that rural interests are represented in the new-look postal services, and I ask the House to support my suggestions to show that it does consider rural and Welsh interests.

7.38 pm

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): I very much enjoyed the maiden speech by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), which was splendid in content and extremely well delivered. I was particularly attracted by his description of his constituency. I have travelled extensively in Wales, and as a youngster I spent many a day there climbing. It is a country to which I have always returned with affection. The hon. Gentleman is fortunate to represent such a fine part of the British isles.

I was also pleased by the hon. Gentleman's remarks about his predecessor. I worked with Cynog Dafis in Committees in the House. We did not take similar views, but his were always respected and given with honesty and decency. I know that the hon. Gentleman will continue with that tradition, and I am sure that he will become as much of an asset to the House as his predecessor was.

I also enjoyed the speech of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). I could see the pain of a man who has been a Minister and gone through many agonising considerations during the daily grind of decision making. The only problem is that he got the decisions wrong, especially in respect of ACT, which appears to be the focus of the debate.

The right hon. Gentleman also got wrong the compliments he paid to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). It is not that she made a bad speech--she made her usual sparky start, but her speech deteriorated into one more suited to Committee than to Second Reading. The especially bad part of her speech was the beginning, when she railed, ranted and raved about the Government having to make amendments to the Bill, which she appears to believe is disgraceful. The hon. Lady is trying to rewrite history. She and other Conservative Members will remember Bills introduced by the Conservative Government to which not several

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amendments, but page after page of amendments had to be made, not only in Committee but in the other place and on Report. We would end up with a Bill that was completely different from the one with which we had started. Let us have no more hypocrisy on that subject.

The hon. Lady also criticised the Bill for being, in her words, a hybrid Bill. I happen to think that one of the Bill's strengths is that it enshrines the value of partnership, whereby the efficiency and effectiveness of the private sector is merged with the true values and relationships of the public sector. If we create a true public-private partnership, we and all our constituents will get a much better system and much better provision of service.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), I pay tribute to those who have worked in the various branches of this nation's postal service, especially those who look after me locally--not merely through the service they provide to my house and my constituency, but through the consideration and the time that they have given to me. I want those people and their values, and the service that they provide to me and many others, to be maintained. The Bill is the way to achieve that.

The position of the people I have described would be threatened by a decision to maintain the status quo--that cannot be the way forward. Like all of us, they know that the world is changing and that we cannot pretend that progress does not exist. Such an attitude would pose a threat both to postal workers and to sub-post offices--a subject I shall come to shortly. We are witnessing many changes--e-commerce, e-mail, globalisation and interaction between sectors--even in small matters: for example, I notice how many things that once came to me via the Post Office are now brought by other service providers. The notion that the Post Office cannot compete in such services threatens the whole ethos of the Post Office.

We should not be afraid of change, and we must not pretend that we can hold it back. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that he bore the scars of trying to make changes in the public sector; I bear a few of those myself. Resistance is always dressed up in some sort of pretence, always false--for example, that profits will be put before patients, or that safety standards will be compromised. We should not stand against the tide that is approaching the Post Office, otherwise we shall again be proved wrong.

We must embrace change and modernise. We must stop talking about the producer, the system and the structure and start to talk about the service provided and the outputs produced by those who are involved in the work. That is what service is all about, and the great advantage of the Bill is that, by marrying the values of the public sector with the efficiency and effectiveness of the private sector, we can deliver a much better service.

I understand the reason why many of us are concerned about sub-post offices. Sub-post offices fall into two categories: urban, like those familiar to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) and many others, and rural.

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