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11.8 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I welcome this opportunity to speak in this debate, even if I am able to do so only briefly.

I note that not one Conservative Member chose to demur from the Trade and Industry Select Committee's decision, at paragraph (f), on page xxi, to ask the Government to think again about reducing the monopoly levy. One can but surmise that Conservative Members support the Committee's recommendation and concede the logic of the Government's position. Even if the Government have changed their mind, what is wrong with that?

We often argue in this place that insufficient attention is paid to Select Committees' decisions. I therefore very much welcome the opportunity that we have on Thursday afternoons, tomorrow included, to debate either Select Committee reports or Government White Papers. The Government have listened and acted, but the Conservatives are churlishly trying to find ways to attack the Government, making cheap political points that are undesirable and could have adverse effects.

Our decisions on the future of the Post Office will have major consequences. The White Paper in the summer contained four key points that the Post Office had to look at in evolving its performance: it had to face up to a liberalisation agenda; it had to keep its universality; it had to consider how it could increase investment; and it had to be brought up to date. Those four points may seem easy to take together, but there is some conflict between them and we are considering how that conflict could break out.

The performance and innovation unit is looking at the impact on sub-post offices of the Benefits Agency's decision to seek the introduction of ACT at the earliest opportunity. I shall concentrate on the implications of that, because, if we do not get it right, we shall lose many sub-post offices. I see the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) nodding. He knows that the Western Daily Press has been running a vigorous campaign to draw attention to the impact on sub-post offices if ACT is introduced without an understanding of how we can reinvest in them. The hon. Gentleman said that the post offices would lose the benefits trade. If they can get their act together and provide a thoughtful and careful way of doing the business properly they will keep it.

Earlier this week, I went to ICL to look at the Horizon project. I advise anyone who has time to do so. I found it fascinating. Information technology poses some threats, but there are also many opportunities. It can help tobring about an enhanced postal service and better communications. There is also an opportunity to break into banking, or at least to work with the high street

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banks, which have nowhere near as many branches as there are sub-post offices in many villages and high streets. Thirdly, but by no means least--I am sure that this will be mentioned tomorrow--there is the opportunity of modernising government.

Those three issues provide opportunities for the whole postal network, but particularly for sub-post offices to show that they have a future and can provide for all people--including the poorest, people drawing benefit and people living in rural areas--the services that they have provided best in the past. Those opportunities can be enhanced if we get it right. That is why it is important that the Government have listened. The issue cannot be treated in isolation. If they got this wrong, the implications of ACT would almost certainly increase. That would inevitably mean closure for some sub-post offices and others would fail to realise their opportunities.

The Government are right to have rethought the issue. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister was able to argue in the Western Daily Press a couple of weeks ago about what he, as a former postie, wants. I am sure that he will be able to provide an effective refutation of what the Opposition have come up with. They have failed to understand the importance of getting our postal services right.

11.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alan Johnson): I listened with great interest to the informed and erudite comments that were made tonight. I also listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) said that humbug sprang to mind. I would add hyperbole and hypocrisy.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. The Minister would not suggest that any hon. Member would be involved in hypocrisy.

Mr. Johnson: I withdraw that immediately. Perhaps I should have said hysteria.

We should be grateful to the Opposition for giving us the opportunity to expose yet again their ineptitude in dealing with Britain's essential public services. Of all the issues that they have fumbled over the past 10 years, the Post Office must be the best example of that.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton did not once address the issues in the debate. He accused the Government of saying one thing and doing another.

Mr. Fabricant : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has admitted to being a member of the Communication Workers Union. According to the Register of Members' Interests, which may now be out of date, he has been loaned equipment by that union. Should he not at least declare an interest, if indeed he should be allowed to speak in this debate?

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: The Minister has declared his interest. I understood the hon. Gentleman to have said that the Minister had admitted to being a member of a trade union.

Mr. Fabricant: The Minister did not say that he received goods from that trade union and, as is the convention, he should have declared an interest before making his speech.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It has been known for Ministers and Back Benchers to declare an interest during the course of a speech. Perhaps we should wait and see.

Mr. Johnson: Like his policy on the Post Office, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) is out of date. I wrote to the Register of Members' Interests as soon as I was appointed to this position and gave back the mobile phone and the two computers, so I have nothing to declare in that respect.

I would like to declare, however, that in two and a half years the Government have sorted out the previous Government's mess on Horizon and we are on course for having the entire network on line by 2001. We have ensured that the business is allowed to keep more of the finance that it generates and we have legislation on the stocks to enhance the commercial freedoms that we have already provided to the Post Office and the regulator will be appointed in a few months' time. That is all in line with our manifest commitments.

Mr. Chope: When will the regulator be appointed? The Select Committee recommendations were premised on the basis that the regulator would be appointed in the autumn. Of course that did not happen. The Minister is now talking about an appointment many months hence.

Mr. Johnson: As the White Paper made clear, the regulator will be appointed from 1 April.

In two and a half years, we have stuck to our manifesto commitments on the Post Office. I did some research today. I found a document filed under "Documents of absolutely no political relevance whatsoever". It was the 1992 Conservative party manifesto. It was next to a poster saying, "Vote Archer for London".

The manifesto on which the Conservative party fought the 1992 election and was then in government for the following five years says:

So, in five years in government, the Conservatives did not a single thing about the recommendations and the policy contained in their own manifesto. Instead, they set off on a wild piece of adventurism that was not in the manifesto--to break up and privatise the Post Office.

When they found that they could not privatise it, they attempted to plunder it--saying one thing and doing another. In May 1995, when he was the President of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) told the House that the Government would reduce the amount of money that they took from the Post Office to 40 per cent. of the post-tax profits. That would have reduced the money paid back to the Treasury to about £175 million. Later that year, the Chancellor of

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the Exchequer hyped that up in the Red Book to£360 million, and they took £1 billion off the Post Office in three years--saying one thing and doing another.

The situation could have been so different if only the Conservatives had stopped to listen. If only they had listened to that august body, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which, under a Conservative Administration--and with a Conservative majority--said in 1995:

That was the recommendation. This is the policy that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said was sound when we announced it in July.

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