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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): It is a pleasure to joust with the Minister this evening. First, I should explain my presence and the absence of my hon. Friends the Members for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) and for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page). Both my hon. Friends have been indisposed and have experienced hospital treatment. The House will be pleased to know that both are making a full and rapid recovery and will return to active service 'ere long.

I have been posted--if I may use that term without being accused of a pun--on a free one-day transfer to the shadow Trade and Industry Front-Bench team. I have discovered that it is en route to the shadow Home Office team shortly thereafter. I wondered why the Opposition Whip's Office chose me to deputise for my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton. The only explanation at which I could arrive was that they were looking for someone of a similar size and shape to my hon. Friend. The House will understand, therefore, that necessarily there was in more ways than one a very short shortlist.

I have a simple query on Lords amendment No. 2 for the Minister, with which I feel sure he will be able to deal speedily. In what circumstances would the amendment apply? That is not entirely clear to me. The amendment specifies the circumstance in which there would be no "obligation to notify" the European Commission of the identity of the universal service provider. Although I read the amendment and re-read it, as I was duty to bound to do, it became none the clearer. However, with the great talents that the Minister brings to bear in debates in the House, I feel sure that he will be able to put my mind at rest and tell me that the amendment has a good purpose.

Briefly on amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 133, my noble Friend Baroness Miller of Hendon flagged up this issue in another place some time ago. She took up the cudgels on the matter on 8 June--if I remember rightly, it was in an amendment No. 19. We are concerned about the power that exists under the amendment to alter the designation of a letter box or a universal postal service pouch box in a street.

Paragraph (2)(b) of Lords amendment No. 133 refers to

We could legitimately debate a number of those matters, but my concern is the reference to the entitlement to alter. This is no trifling matter. I hope that the Minister will accept that many people in local communities--especially

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in rural areas and small villages--can be considerably exercised about the location of post boxes and what they may in some cases consider to be any unjustified changes to them.

Mr. Jack: I am following my hon. Friend's argument keenly. Does the existing law as it applies to the Post Office, give the facility for moving, changing or altering, which are his causes of concern about these new universal providers?

Mr. Bercow: I am not sure that my right hon. Friend has it right. Until now, I have not had a particular concern, but I am concerned in the context of the amendment. My right hon. Friend is a patient chap. If he will hold on a moment, he will find out why.

The reason for our concern is that the amendment did not occur to the Government at an early stage of the Bill; it made a late entrance. That prompts me to ask the Minister--although I have looked at the record, I cannot find it anywhere--when the idea occurred to Ministers, whom did they consult and why did they decide at such a late stage to insert so apparently substantial an amendment? I wait with eager anticipation, bated breath and beads of sweat upon my brown to learn the hon. Gentleman's response.

Mr. Alan Johnson: We are delighted to see the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on the Opposition Front Bench. He has been recruited as a type of Christmas casual to the post office team in the shadow Department of Trade and Industry, while the hon. Members for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) and for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan)--who made important contributions to the Bill in Committee--are both indisposed. We wish them a speedy recovery. I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham does not catch whatever is going around the Opposition DTI team.

Mr. Bercow: I would not want there to be any confusion, so I should explain that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page), who is still in considerable pain--although making a good recovery--is suffering that pain because he fell off his horse.

Mr. Johnson: I hear that the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire was trying to use his mobile phone at the same time, but that is probably a vicious rumour.

I was asked about the reference to determining universal service providers. That attaches to a European directive whose life itself stretches until 2004. It is almost inconceivable that there will not be a replacement provision in that directive after 2004. However, we need to be wary and to ensure that, if that European provision should be subsumed or disappear, there will be provision in the Bill so that universal service providers can be properly listed and put on record. That is the reason for Lords amendment No. 1.

On amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 133, the hon. Member for Buckingham referred to pouch boxes. They are a source of considerable concern, although not so much in rural areas, where postal staff use vans for deliveries and are thus able to deal with the extraordinary increase of mail that has occurred during the past 10 to

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15 years. Postmen or postwomen in urban areas, who have to deliver, on cycle or on foot, by 9.30 am, have an increasing amount of mail. That is why pouch boxes have crept on to the scene during the past 20 years.

The hon. Gentleman asked at what stage we considered the matter. We addressed it after Committee stage when it was realised that there was no provision to deal with it. There have been provisions on pillar boxes for more than 100 years, but pouch boxes are different. The only change that we are making is to a costly and bureaucratic system under which providers have to apply for street works licences to cover alterations to postal apparatus, although they are exempt from that requirement when they inspect, maintain, adjust, repair or renew such apparatus.

The provision was introduced after discussion with the Post Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions--because there is an environmental aspect. The discussions continued for some time and it was not until the Bill had gone to the Lords that we could table the amendment.

People are understandably concerned when pouch boxes are erected at the end of their street. The boxes are usually free-standing. We have not changed any provisions that relate to planning applications. The right of the public to oppose such an application remains. The problem with the Opposition amendment is that the removal of the word "altering" might prevent the postal service provider from undertaking sensible work; for example, changing the metal plates that inform the public of clearing times for the pouch boxes. If the pouch box is attached to a pillar box--which would also be covered by the provision--that could create unwarranted interference to improvements to the service to the public.

The provision could prevent the Post Office from blocking up pillar boxes when there is a terrorist attack or a postal strike. That would be an alteration. Nothing horrendous would result from alteration that could not also be caused when such an appliance was replaced, renewed or adjusted. Therefore we believe that the amendment may prevent innovations of a type that may result from a more competitive marketplace. We cannot see that the schedule as it stands would be improved in any way by removing the word "altering", and we are very anxious to ensure that the public still have the right to oppose planning permission for pouch boxes, because that is an essential safeguard for communities throughout the country.

On that basis, I hope that the Opposition will see fit not to press amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 133.

7.45 pm

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): I shall be brief. I believe that I am the only Member on the Conservative Benches who served on the Standing Committee of the Bill and is also a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which has several times considered the working of Post Office services.

I believe that it would be in order for me to put my argument on practically any group of amendments to the Bill, so I shall make it briefly on this group and make it relevant.

Under the Bill, Ministers are giving themselves powers to introduce social and environmental guidance to the Post Office that will give Ministers the power to direct the

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Postal Services Commission to do various things, but that guidance will not be issued until the Bill receives Royal Assent. In other words, until that happens, we have no idea what the guidance will say.

We have some indication of that guidance, however, because it was issued in draft in February. Rather presumptuously, it describes itself as draft guidance to the Postal Services Act 2000, and in paragraph 4.9, under the heading "Access to the Universal Postal Services", it says that the commission has a duty to ensure that sufficient access points are provided to facilitate the universal postal service. It also states that the commission will wish to consider, as part of its duty to ensure the provision of a universal postal service, the number, type and distribution of access points necessary as a minimum to ensure that the licence holder so required for providing a universal postal service can operate. It makes it clear that access points are considered to be pillar boxes and post offices and other places and points clearly marked as such, provided for users to deposit postal items for collection by UPS providers.

On Monday, when the Minister gave evidence to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, he said that until the Bill receives Royal Assent, there is no social and environmental guidance to tag it on to. Ministers have, however, promulgated draft guidance which, once the Bill comes into being, they will impose by way of policy. That guidance could say anything. The draft guidance is totally relevant and germane to the points that the House is now considering, but it is otiose for the House to consider those points if, irrespective of the Government's ability to drive the Bill through with their majority and regardless of what is said in that legislation, they have an all-embracing clause that says that they are enabled to issue environmental and social guidance. What is more, under that guidance they can then promulgate any policy that they wish, which has never been considered by the House but which, regardless, will have statutory force.

If that is so, one really wonders what the House is doing. Why are we here if, effectively, somewhere in the Bill, there are powers for Ministers to issue guidance that will never be considered by the House, but which will have far-reaching effects on everything from the provision of postal boxes to how many post offices are allowed to stay open?

My argument, which I can put succinctly, having sat through the Committee proceedings and having considered the Bill on the Trade and Industry Select Committee, is that this is a rottenly drafted Bill, and that it simply gives Ministers, through so-called social and environmental guidance, almost unlimited powers, which will never be subject to any parliamentary scrutiny. It is a sad but appropriate note that the last Bill to be considered on the last day before the recess treats the House with such contempt that, effectively, Ministers are taking unto themselves universal powers to impose policy on the universal postal providers and others by way of a device called guidance. If such a device was introduced in any and every Bill, Ministers would easily be able to bypass Parliament. I would not wish the House to accept the amendment without noting what is happening here. We are giving the Government a blank cheque to issue any further policy. I suspect that few hon. Members have heard of the social and environmental guidance. The consultation period ends on the 31st of this month.

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This is a rotten Bill that is rottenly drafted, and it is contemptuous of the House and the scrutiny of Parliament.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 2 agreed to.

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