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7.58 pm

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): My constituency, like that of the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), is large and rural. Approximately half my constituents live in the market town of King's Lynn, and the others are divided between some 64 parishes. Much of my constituency is sparsely populated, and in many villages my constituents depend on access to the village post office.

I have a long-standing interest in village post offices. My grandmother ran a rural post office in a village of a few hundred people. As well as bringing up her nine children, she worked hard in the post office. I also appreciated from an early age the benefits that the rural post office can bring to a village community. In those days, a village of a few hundred people had two or three shops, two pubs and a post office. Today, such villages have no shops, no post office and no pubs.

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In my 30 years in Norfolk, I have seen an undramatic but steady decline in the rural post office network's ability to deliver. Despite the public regularly expressing their support for post offices and regularly protesting when one closes, no Government in recent decades have taken the actions necessary to halt that decline. I believe that the Bill offers that very opportunity, which is why it has my strong support.

My local newspaper, the Lynn News and Citizen, is proud of its campaigning on behalf of its readers and has chosen today to launch its campaign to save our post offices. I hope that all its readers will not only sign the petition to show their support for the post offices in north-west Norfolk but will do more than that--use their local post offices. It is not enough for people to wear their hearts on their sleeves and say that they support post offices if they drive past them in their cars and do not take advantage of the services that they provide. I hope and understand from the assurances that have been given from the Front Bench that pensioners will feel reassured that they will be able to continue to congregate in post offices to collect their money in cash and experience the social intercourse that post offices provide in many villages.

My fear is that if those who seek to protect post offices frighten the public, they will take other action even though there is no need to do so. People should not be frightened into opening bank accounts if they do not want to. In the absence of Government action, however, about 50 per cent. of new pensioners and those who receive child benefit are taking that option. We simply cannot sit there like Canute and try to hold back the tide of progress. The Bill's strength is that it seeks to protect by modernising and looking ahead rather than by turning back the clock.

If we are to make progress, we must recognise not only the strength of public support for post offices, but the post offices' weaknesses. My grandmother has been dead for 35 years, but if she was able to go into many of the rural post offices in my constituency, she would feel at home almost immediately. She would probably recognise the paperwork--and certainly its style--and that very fact speaks volumes about lack of investment, which is one of the major problems of today's Post Office Counters. Governments of all colours are to blame for that, but we must recognise in particular that, although the previous Government talked about investment, which was needed desperately, they never delivered. I welcome the present Government's clear intention to ensure that substantial sums are invested in every post office in my constituency and throughout the United Kingdom so that they have the base not only to deliver the services that they currently deliver but to move into providing Government services and to take over the provision of services from which the commercial sector has run away.

I recently complained in the House about the closure of the last bank in Heacham, which has 5,000 inhabitants and is the largest village in my constituency. Why did it close? There was a clear failure of the commercial marketplace. None of the banks had enough customers, they argued, to justify their presence, but hon. Members should remember that 5,000 people live in Heacham and that pensioners want access to cash and counter facilities. That represents a clear opportunity for a rejuvenated post office in Heacham to take custom and provide a service. I was sad that the local post office was not proactive in

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advertising its services when the banks in Heacham were closing, but I understand that Ministers are seeking such opportunities through the policy unit and hope that they will be delivered in the months ahead.

Post offices are crying out for investment, and I hope that it is delivered. Having used them most of my life, I know that the model of my childhood--which involved a friendly face, a helping hand with the paperwork if necessary and guidance from those who ran the post office--is not always what we find in the public sector. Over the years, I found that an element of the Post Office, mainly on the Royal Mail side, sometimes displayed the worst aspects of the public service. The attitude was, "We're doing you a great favour by being here. You should take what service we deliver and be grateful for it," but that encourages those who see "privatise, privatise, privatise" as a solution.

Unless we face up to the problem, we shall strengthen that voice so it is important to address the ills of the monopoly. That is why I welcome the clear commitment to put into law a standard of access to postal services and access to post office counters. If we set up a regulatory system that looks not only to the maintenance of services but to their improvement--both are included in the Bill--we shall be doing more than merely paying lip service to making such improvements, and my constituents will be truly grateful for what the Bill delivers.

Delivery is important. In my one of my villages, for example, Mr. Pitcher, who runs a small transport operation in Walpole St. Andrew, employs 16 people, but does not receive his one delivery until the afternoon. Next door to him, Mr. Atkin employs nine people in a business of the size that hon. Members would expect to find in a small village. He has 80 customers to serve, but the times of his deliveries vary from 10.30 am and 2.40 pm. When we talked about the Post Office, he said to me, "If I ran my business like they do I would be out of business within a week."

Those issues need to be addressed and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will assure me that the standard of service that my rural constituents can expect will certainly not deteriorate and that they will have a substantial opportunity to see them improved. That improvement will be achieved by the Bill.

8.8 pm

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): I have a degree of sympathy for the poor Minister for Competitiveness, who has to sum up tonight and deal with the Bill in Committee. I say that because this is a sad and miserable little Bill. It is badly drafted, as has already been admitted, and will be subject to thousands of amendments. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may think I am joking, but I am prepared to bet that we get into four figures before the Committee stage is out.

The Minister has an unenviable job, as he has to face two ways at once. He snaps his head to the left, turns to the neanderthals of old Labour and says, "Don't worry comrades." They still like to be called comrades. They are nodding their heads in agreement; that is what I like to see. The hon. Gentleman says, "The Post Office will still be under state control; we'll own 100 per cent; don't worry--the lunchtime directive is alive and well and living in government."

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Then, quick as a flash, he will turn to the right and say "Don't worry. This is a golden opportunity to set the Post Office free to get out into those markets and to succeed in world competition. Look at the borrowing abilities that we are pushing into the Post Office."

The reality is that it is a poor and staggering, faltering step, instead of a bold stride towards commercial freedom.

I have noticed in this debate an enthusiasm by Government supporters to try to rewrite history. When we were in government we wanted to do a BT on the Post Office. I remember all the comments that were made when we set BT free--about the telephone boxes that would be closed, about the cherry picking that would happen. We were told that prices would go up. What was the truth? The telephone boxes are more accessible and more operative than ever before. Prices have come down and a welter of new services has become available.

We wanted to do that for the Post Office, but when we suggested it the Labour party did not say, "We should like to see some form of liberalisation": instead, it went into a flat spin and opposed everything that we suggested.

This is why I have only partial sympathy for the Under-Secretary: a very clever campaign was run; a public relations company put forward a number of messages and persuaded 12 to 15 alleged Government supporters, most of whom have now lost their seats, to say that the proposals would ruin the rural post offices.

It was only later that I discovered from a television documentary that the union itself was the funder behind the campaign, though it kept a very low profile. It was very well done. I congratulate the Under-Secretary. He did it brilliantly. He undoubtedly had an involvement in his previous life. If he wishes to deny it, I should be only too delighted to hear him do it at the Dispatch Box.

One thing that must be said from the Conservative Benches is that it is marvellous that the Government are taking the first step towards privatisation with the establishment of a plc. As someone who has moved an organisation from the public sector into the private sector, I regard this as one of the main hurdles to overcome. Therefore, I must say thank you to the Government for it.

The neanderthals may look at the proposals with alarm, and in the debate so far one or two have put down markers about the possible sale or swapping of shares. That is only to be expected.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made a very powerful speech in the 10 minutes available. He rightly called the Secretary of State's speech a poor performance. It was policy being made on the hoof--so typical of this Government. It comes under the heading of, "It seemed a good idea at the time".

What is wrong is to lay huge worries and concerns on the whole of our sub-post office network by talking about ACT without looking at the other side of the equation. Now the Secretary of State is scrambling around trying to fill the financial black hole created for the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, when that work should have been done first. I hope that the Under-Secretary will say that the Government are undertaking an in-depth study to see just how the new equipment can be used to generate revenue for the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. The quicker that is done, the better.

There must be more than lovely words. The proposals must be costed. It must be possible to tell the sub- postmasters and sub-postmistresses, "It will mean a

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revenue of X to compensate for what you will lose." As a number of hon. Members have commented--and not only from the Conservative Benches--that worry is being created in the minds of the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, whose livelihoods are at stake. Not everybody grasps the fact that the sub-post offices are privately owned, and as they are privately owned they could go down.

The Government are destroying the value of the sub-post offices. Who wants to buy a sub-post office when he or she can see perhaps 40 per cent. of its revenue disappearing out of the window? The quicker the Under-Secretary, who understands these matters, says, "We have calculated that there will be an increase to every sub-postmaster through using this new equipment," the better.

Most of these matters will be raised in Committee, and that is only right. But I must express slight concern about the amount of money that the Post Office is allowed to borrow in its own right. We have only to see the sums of money that it has been necessary for post offices throughout the world to expend in order to consolidate their networks to see what the real world is about. It is not a matter of £75 million or even hundreds of millions: I think that we are into the billions.

When TNT was bought by the Dutch post office the cost was 2 billion Australian dollars. That was quite a few years ago, and I wonder what the figure would be if it were inflation-counted.

What did Deutsche Post pay for a quarter of DHL? It did not get that for £75 million. As we know, although it is terribly secret, and we must not say anything about it, the Post Office was given permission to expend some £300 million to buy German Parcel. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, when we see how much money is made available by this Government in order for our Post Office to stand a chance against huge and savage competition.

I should have liked to move into the whole area of possible subsidies for sub-post offices, where the Secretary of State seemed again to be making policy on the hoof. I can only say that the Committee stage should be interesting. It will be a very long slog. As all Oppositions should, we look to clean up the Government's act and ultimately to produce a viable Bill for the future of the Post Office.

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