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Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): This has been a timely debate. We have heard much about the problems that beset our postal services, but another theme that has come through loud and clear is the considerable affection in which ordinary postmen and women are held by the British public. Despite the problems, the Post Office is a strong brand. It is thus all the more puzzling that it was thought clever to spend £2 million on changing its name to Consigniaa point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham).
The Post Office is yet another example of a great British public service in trouble. In some ways, it has a greater impact on the public than the national health service because almost everyone in the land uses the Post Office for one reason or another every dayeven if they only receive a delivery of mail. It matters very much to all of us if our Post Office is failing.
As we have heard from several hon. Members, a record number of 547 sub-post offices closed last year. Those closures continue week in, week out, up and down the land. The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters says that sub-post offices are still closing at the rate of two a day.
Then there is the growing mystery of the UBS Warburg report on the strategy for Consignia. In Standing Committee, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), said that there was no such report. This afternoon, the Secretary of State said that she had not seen it. In an answer only today to my request that the report be placed in the Library, the right hon. Lady replied that it was subject to commercial confidentiality rules. We still want to know whether the report exists. If the Secretary of State has not seen it, who at the DTI has seen it?
The chief executive of Consignia has admitted in evidence to the Select Committee that up to half the network could be uneconomic. The only certainty in life for the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress is that, from April next year, the payment of benefits through post offices will cease, removing more than £400 million of their business.
I hope that, in responding to the debate, the Minister will not forget the specific question that was asked about Paymaster's recent letter to war pensioners that referred to payments by payable order books being withdrawn from April this year, not April next year. We would like to hear a clear answer to that, please.
All Members know from our constituency experience the very real worries that arise when local post offices are threatened with closure. They are often the heart of the community, and their closure impacts most on the vulnerable, the poor and the elderlypoints made by my hon. Friends the Members for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger).
I had the benefit yesterday of visiting the demonstration of the "Your Guide" pilot scheme in Portcullis House. I recommend it to all hon. Members; it is very impressive and has been very well received. Only today, I received a copy of the interim evaluation report on the "Your Guide" pilot scheme in Leicestershire, which, I understand, has already been sent to Ministers. The conclusions in the interim report are clear:
It is ironic that the Office for National Statistics has only just proposed to stop collating statistics on strikes, when we are witnessing a resurgence in militant union activity. The commuters who use South West Trains need no reminding of that. The Post Office is already responsible for half of all the days lost in Britain through industrial action, and the union is currently balloting for a national postal strike. We know the sort of power that the union wields over such matters.
For example, the former Secretary of State's proposed phasing out the Post Office's monopoly over letters costing less than £1 in December 1998. A statutory instrument was laid before the House, followed closely by another to revoke the first because the Government had to back off from their proposal to reduce the monopoly to 50p to avoid defeat on a CWU-backed motion at the 1999 Labour party conference in Bournemouth. That is the sort of political clout to which the regulator referred in the quote that I gave earlier.
We have tonight seen some more examples of the CWU's reach. We heard some rather ill-advised interventions from CWU-sponsored Members, including the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton), who happens to be a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the very Department involved in the debate. Labour Members should be very careful because I read in the Evening Standard today that the RMT is now threatening to withdraw sponsorship from Labour Members, including no less a figure than the Deputy Prime Minister, who have been less than helpful in relation to the recent industrial action. Nor should the British people expect any help from the Government.
There was a time when a large part of new Labour's electoral appeal was its willingness to stand up to the so-called forces of conservatism in the public sector. That is no longer the case. In his speech on the national health service a few days ago, the Prime Minister signalled that Labour was returning to its uncritical support for the producers and public sector unions. That does not bode well for users of postal services.
The plain truth is that, when it comes to the Post Office, this Government are not part of the solution, but part of the problem. Consignia may have only one shareholder, but it is the shareholder from hell. It is not a little old lady checking the value of her investments over tea and biscuits, and perhaps attending the annual general meeting. The Secretary of State, who is not in her place, is, I guess, a sort of ultimate Postman Pat.
Ministers glibly say that they have given the Post Office commercial freedom. They have done nothing of the sort. They interfere in the running of the Post Office at all levels almost daily. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) said, they will simply not allow management to manage. As in every other field, they are an interfering, nannying, finger-wagging, hectoring, lecturing bunch of know-alls who have never run a commercial organisation in their lives. [Hon. Members: "Here she is."] Here she is; the Secretary of State has arrived.
That culture of interference reached its nadir when the Secretary of State informed the House in Trade and Industry questions a few weeks ago that she was, in effect, sacking the then chairman of Consigniawhat power for one shareholder to wield. The headhunters have now embarked on the search for a new chairman. In the meantime, Mr. Allan Leighton is kindly standing in as interim chairman for one day a week. The union commented:
What are those challenges? They include a consistent failure to meet basic delivery targets; the scrapping of the first collection and the second delivery; plans to deliver first-class mail to private addresses in the afternoon; mounting financial losses; appalling industrial relations and a looming national strike; a million items of mail lost
However, the new chairmanwhoever he or she iswill not be short of advice from Ministers. In answer to a recent written question, I was informed by the Secretary of State that, in a six-month period, she and the Minister for ECommerce and Competitiveness had had five meetings with executives of Consignia, that 12 items of correspondence had been sent and that there had been a number of telephone conversationsI wonder how many.
In typically guarded language, the recent National Audit Office report is damning about the relationship between Consignia and its sole shareholder. That point was made by hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). The report says:
I am indebted to Mr. Tim Row for providing evidence of the Secretary of State's real views. He is with an organisation called Action for Solidarity and is the Leicestershire CWU political officer. He says: