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Mr. O'Neill: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a change has occurred since he previously had some ministerial interest in the matter? There has been a major breakthrough in sorting technology, but the Royal Mail has not been able to take full advantage of it, partly because of industrial relations but mainly through lack of money. The Conservative Government had to filch money in excessive dividends from the Post Office over the years to staunch the flow of the public finances. That, and failure to invest in the kit, meant that the achievements of the Royal Mail are even greater because it does not have the advantage of the same sorting equipment that its European counterparts enjoy.

Mr. Page: We shall consider the relative generosity of respective Chancellors when the current Chancellor takes action on the dividend. He will have a strong point if he waives it. However, when the Conservative Government

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were in control, the Royal Mail made a profit and did not lose money. The worries are caused by its losing money. Investment in letter-reading equipment has improved immensely in the past few years. The modern readers have greater speed; hand sorting was almost as quick as the work of those of 10 or 15 years ago.

The hon. Member for Ochil should not have tempted me to follow that route, but I should like to see a postcode box on every envelope. Postcodes can thus be read automatically by machines. That happens in France and other countries; why not here? Perhaps that will provide the substance for a ten-minute Bill entitled the "Envelope Marking Bill". Whoever promotes it will get the Royal Mail's seal of approval.

Mr. McLoughlin: Even more regulation.

Mr. Page: As my hon. Friend says, it will lead to more regulation, but in the cause of speed and efficiency.

As we know, competition is emerging and the new regulator has issued specific licences to competitors such as TNT. Doing nothing is therefore not an option. However, we must ensure that we give Consignia the opportunity to operate on a level playing field. That is a terrible phrase, but we all know what it means. We must ensure that Consignia has the same access to European markets as its European counterparts have here so that our companies are not frozen out of competing on the continent. I appreciate that TNT, through its relationship with the Dutch post office, already has an opportunity in this country. I have to say to the Minister that Consignia faces a bit of a hybrid situation and there are worries about whether it will be resolved before complete liberalisation. I wonder whether the Government have caused more problems than they envisaged by taking a dual approach to the introduction of competition between Europe and ourselves.

There are a lot of worried people out there in the Post Office services, whether they work in Royal Mail or serve in local sub-post offices. It behoves the Government to come forward and make some clear statements on their policies. They should tell us what they are going to do, what levels of support they will provide and how it will all work. At the moment, there is a dispirited and very worried group of workers out there—and they deserve better.

7.10 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): This debate continues to roll on and it needs resolving. There are a lot of questions that we all need to ask about the future of the Post Office. First, I congratulate postal workers on delivering a quality service. Chorley does very well and benefits from an excellent service. The mail arrives at people's homes very early in the morning. In rain or snow, whatever the weather, the mail is always delivered. We should remember that the issue is the quality of service that is given to us. We should all congratulate those who are responsible, as it is easy to forget that, day after day, they are loyal people who provide a quality service.

I want now to deal with some of the issues. As a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, I was present when it heard about the possible loss of 30,000 jobs. That information came as a shock to members of the Committee and to everyone else, and the

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newspapers have been reminding us of it ever since. We should get people around the table. We must ensure that high-level discussions are held about the future of the Post Office, because whatever we do, we must remember that it is a universal, quality service. It does not matter whether people live in urban or rural areas or whether they use the Post Office on business or privately—the service must always be provided. We must be aware of that.

It is easy for competition to result in cherry-picking. We cannot allow the cherry-picking of services at the expense of remote areas and services that nobody wants to deliver. It is the quality of the universal service that we must protect. The service that is provided in remote rural areas is subsidised by that in urban areas. That cross-subsidy is easily forgotten but should not be. A remote rural service cannot be provided without finding the money, which the urban service provides. To keep the service in remote areas, the service as a whole must be combined and work together. It is important that we get that right.

Everyone has rightly mentioned rural post offices, but I want to mention urban post offices as well. We have two sorts of post office whose future remains uncertain, and it is that uncertainty that puts pressure on the postmasters, rural and urban, who operate the service. They wonder what the future holds for them. We must help and support them. If we relaxed the £70 million dividend that is taken by the Treasury, we could begin to ease those problems. We could help with computerisation in rural post offices. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today announced financial support for these post offices, but we need an earlier commitment on that finance. The sooner that that commitment is made, the better it will be for the rural and urban post offices over which a cloud hangs. There are difficulties when such post offices are put on the market. Who wants to take over a post office in such circumstances? We need to provide help, support and clarity to ensure that post offices, whether urban or rural, know where the future lies. I want to see that commitment. I am sure that it can be made and hope that the Minister will make it in his reply and say where the Government support will come from.

We talk about the uniform tariff, but if we want to be realistic and ensure that the universal postal service continues, we need to allow the price of postage to rise. We cannot expect a service to continue throughout the country and between rural and urban areas at the price that we currently pay. I do not want the price to rise out of all proportion, but I believe that it is necessary to consider allowing an increase in the price of stamps. If people want the service, they will, unfortunately, have to pay a little more for it, especially on first-class, next-day delivery.

It is easy to forget just what happens when we open things up to liberalisation but we can see what has happened in other countries. It is the cherry-picking that worries me. Hon. Members have rightly mentioned Sweden. Since 1993, there has been a 52 per cent. reduction in the number of post offices in Sweden, where the price of a letter has risen by 60 per cent. in real terms. The Swedish post office organisation is in financial crisis and lost 1 million kronor in the first quarter of 2001, so it is not all good news. New Zealand liberalised in 1998. People in smaller towns now wait an extra one or two full days to receive their mail. Spain went for full

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liberalisation in 1960, but less than 70 per cent. of letters were delivered on target there in 2000. The mail service in Spain is beginning to collapse and is an absolute disaster.

That is not the liberalisation that many people talk about. We can pick out particular countries as good examples, but I can pick bad examples as well. The issue is about balance and asking what we really want. Do we want to look after the few or everyone? I believe that we need to look after everyone in the country. Without doubt, it is people who live in remote areas who should especially be considered. I look across at Opposition Members who represent rural areas. Do they believe that their constituents expect, and should expect, a quality service? I believe that my constituents should have a good-quality service with next-day deliveries, but we will not achieve that by allowing cherry-picking of the services that are provided.

A quality service can be provided only if it is a universal service with the cross-subsidies that I mentioned. That is the only way to proceed. We should be proud of the postal service in this country. We should all recognise that the problems of the Post Office are those of the Treasury. We all know about the previous Conservative Government, 18 years of draining finances from post offices and the lack of investment. The problem is that we cannot keep looking back. We should begin to look forward by saying, "Stop draining that money, put the investment in, make sure that the Post Office can be re-equipped, fully support the people who work there, get the management managing correctly and get away from those old practices that still exist."

We must make this a postal service that we can be proud of and support the people who turn out in all weathers to ensure that our mail drops through the letter box day after day. It is those people who ensure that our constituents receive the mail on time and we must continue to support them. The danger is that we will lose that service. Liberalisation means competition, but competition does not mean that things get better. It means that something drops off the edge—in this case, it is the people who live in remote, rural areas. They will not get the service that we get, but they should be able to expect the quality of service that is achieved in London. I am here five days a week and it is very nice that the mailbag comes through without a problem. At home in Chorley, we do very well and the mail is delivered, but I know that remote parts of my constituency will not receive the same quality of service.

I plead with the Minister to take on board those views and to ensure that we get the message across to the chief executive and the new acting chairman. We must get it across to the management that they must remember the people who deliver and remember that our constituents, the people who use that service, expect a quality service. We should be able to deliver such a service and it should be something of which we can all be proud.

We should be proud of the Royal Mail. It was easy to change the name and pretend that it no longer belonged to us, but we are still the only shareholder in the Post Office. We must ensure that the message is heard. Trade unions and management must discuss the future of a service that is provided for us all, and not only for the few.

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I look forward to the Minister's reply. I know that he will take my points on board. The Government listen and recognise the need—

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