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Political Parties (Donations)

36. Martin Linton (Battersea): Whether it has asked the Electoral Commission to report on the desirability of an upper limit on donations from private individuals to political parties. [43179]

Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): The Committee is not responsible for determining the Electoral Commission's work programme. Accordingly, we have made no request to the commission to report on the desirability of an upper limit on donations from private individuals to political parties, nor do we have any plans to do so. However, in its 2001 report on the general election, the commission stated its intention to look at the case for introducing a cap on party donations as part of a wider examination of state funding

Martin Linton: In welcoming that reply, may I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the problems created by large donations, even when the motives of donor and recipient are pure? Such donations often create the perception that parties will feel beholden to donors. Will he ask the Electoral Commission to examine the early-day motion on that subject, through which many hon. Members have expressed support for a limit of £100,000? Indeed, some have amended the figure to £20,000. Will he also ask the commission to consider the experience of Quebec, which has had a donations limit of 3,000 dollars for many years?

Mr. Beith: I shall certainly draw the commission's attention to that early-day motion and to that experience. Of course, measures have so far concentrated on transparency and disclosure and the regular reporting of donations by parties.

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The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Clergy Poverty

39. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): If he will make a statement on poverty among clergy members. [43182]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): A survey of stipendiary clergy, which considered their financial circumstances, among other matters, was undertaken by the Archbishops Council in 1999. A copy of it and its results is available in the Commons Library.

Mr. Hoyle: My hon. Friend is doubtless well aware of the poverty that affects the clergy throughout this country. A modern society ought to ensure that we pay the clergy, who should not be so dependent on the Church. Can we look forward to their being paid proper salaries with regular increases?

Mr. Bell: About one third of clergy said that they had debts, excluding mortgages, car loans or interest-free credit arrangements. Very few clergy—about 5 per cent.—had applied for, or were intending to apply for, working families tax credit. Fewer than 4 per cent. received any other state benefits, excluding child allowance. However, we of course take on board my hon. Friend's point.

Stipends and Pensions

41. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): If he will make a statement on the contribution made by the Church Commissioners to clergy stipends and pensions. [43184]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): I am pleased to see that the hon. Gentleman is again present for Church Commissioners' questions.

For the year ending 31 December 2001, the commissioners contributed £22 million to the stipends of parish clergy, and met bishops and cathedral clergy stipends totalling £7.1 million, of which £900,000 was pensions contributions.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I am grateful to the Second Church Estates Commissioner for that information, but could he also give that answer in percentages of the total? In any case, will he confirm that those figures underline the Church Commissioners' important contribution to clergy stipends and pensions, and that the real lesson is that—within ethical restraints—we should encourage the commissioners to maximise their assets, because they are doing a worthwhile job in a noble way?

Mr. Bell: On percentages and the pensionable stipend, in line with actuarial advice, the contribution rate will rise from 21.9 per cent. to 29.1 per cent. with effect from 1 April, and to 29.5 per cent. from 1 January. The hon. Gentleman's other points are valuable and will certainly be heard in other quarters.

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The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voting Arrangements

43. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): What reviews the Commission has undertaken into allowing electors to vote at any polling station. [43186]

Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): The Commission is examining the matter. It has not undertaken a formal review of the principle of allowing electors to choose any polling station at which to vote, but it has declared its intention to press forward an agenda for making voting easier and more user-friendly. As part of that agenda, it will evaluate several pilot schemes during the May 2002 local elections, including a scheme to allow voters to choose from among a number of polling station locations the one at which they want to vote.

Simon Hughes: If I may link my right hon. Friend's answer to the issue of younger voters, will the commission

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consider locating polling stations in schools with sixth forms and sixth form centres, and in colleges and universities? If we are to get young people to vote, it is much more likely that they will vote if the voting place is somewhere that they have to go during that day.

Mr. Beith: I shall pass on my hon. Friend's interesting suggestions to the Commission.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Will the commission also consider electoral abuse at polling stations, and study my Adjournment debate on 4 July last year about intimidation in polling stations in my constituency at the general election? Will it also consider other abuses, including introducing stricter requirements for enforcing the law on leaflets distributed without imprints and those that tell people not to vote for sitting MPs and that are distributed months before the election?

Mr. Beith: The commission has studied the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate, as have I, and I believe that he has met or communicated with the chairman of the commission on those matters. Although the commission is not the prosecuting authority in such matters—it is a matter for the police if an offence has been committed—it reviews the effectiveness of the law and whether any changes are required. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's efforts are being carefully considered.

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Consignia (Restructuring)

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I should like to draw the attention of the House to my declaration of interests contained in the register.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the announcement that Consignia made this morning about its restructuring plan for Parcelforce and the outcome of its review of its distribution systems.

That announcement, although it comes as a blow to many hard-working employees and their families, is the first of several necessary steps that will lead to the renewal of postal services in Britain. As is well known, Consignia plc—the company running the post office network, the Royal Mail and Parcelforce—has been losing money. Its costs have risen at a time when the rate of growth in mail volumes has slowed, with competition from fax, e-mail and the internet affecting demand. The company is losing more than £1.5 million every day and Parcelforce Worldwide alone is losing £15 million a month.

In the 10 years of its existence, Parcelforce has never made a profit and has now amassed losses of close to £400 million. Parcelforce's business model has failed and repeated attempts to make it work over the past 10 years have not succeeded. The losses on parcels have drained investment from the rest of the Post Office. For the sake of the company as a whole, Parcelforce now needs to be restructured and restored to profitability.

It is important to consider how the company got into this position. The British Post Office used to be admired across Europe for its high standards of performance. But in the 1980s and 1990s—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should just listen. During those years, other postal services across Europe began to modernise and invest so that they could deliver better services in a rapidly changing market. But successive Conservative Governments did not care about improving delivery. [Interruption.] They allowed the Post Office to stagnate and starved it of investment. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members must allow the Secretary of State to be heard.

Ms Hewitt: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It must be all that sea air in Harrogate. [Laughter.] Oh go away; they are pathetic. While new technologies and changing markets were transforming the communications sector, our postal services were allowed to drift and decline. [Interruption.] I meant bracing air, okay? It must have been the Conservative party leader's speech that over-excited them.

Since 1997, the Government have given the Post Office the greater commercial freedom to meet those challenges that management and unions had long called for. Greater freedom within the public sector has meant freedom for the company to make more commercial choices. But with freedom comes responsibility. The company will be responsible for controlling costs, organising itself to meet the needs of customers and modernising the way in which it works. The Government have a responsibility too—to ensure that the company has the best possible management and the resources needed for investment. In this way we ensure that public and business customers will get the best quality service.

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We have already taken several steps to strengthen the management, and today I have announced that Allan Leighton has been appointed the new chair of Consignia, a role that he has been playing on an interim basis since January. He will be responsible for getting a grip on the situation that the company faces, and that involves stemming the losses, reforming the company's industrial relations and developing a new vision and strategy for the future.

Allan Leighton has a proven track record of success in business. I believe that he has the determination, drive and energy needed to transform the Post Office's performance. As the interim chair and as a non-executive director of the company, he has seen at first hand both the problems that exist in the company and the tremendous potential that it has. He has already spent considerable time in sorting offices, post offices and delivery offices around the country and he was out there again this morning, talking to some of the work force about the changes that the company announced today.

The changes are as follows. The first is the integration of the universal parcels service into the Royal Mail itself. Under the universal service obligation, which we have enshrined in legislation, the company is responsible for delivering parcels of up to 20 kg to every part of the country. By giving this responsibility to the Royal Mail, the company will create a more efficient service, safeguarding the 30 million parcels sent by the general public every year so that people will still be able to send parcels from their local post office just as they do now.

Secondly, there will be a radical reshaping of the remaining Parcelforce business, which will in future concentrate on high-value, time-guaranteed express services. Thirdly, there will be changes to the mail distribution system. The existing network of road, rail and air has developed on a piecemeal basis. It has been causing delays, imposing excessive costs and reducing the quality of service to customers. The necessary rationalisation will increase the volume of mail carried by rail. Although the practice of sorting mail on trains will be phased out, bulk mail will be carried by rail during the day. The total number of road journeys undertaken by Royal Mail will be reduced, as will the number of vehicles used, cutting pollution as well as costs. [Interruption.] Conservative Members do not care about that, either. Fourthly, the company is stripping out layers of management and jobs in its operations and support services that are no longer needed as a result of the other changes.

The company expects that, together, these changes will mean the loss of 13,000 jobs over the next three years with a further 2,000 jobs going through natural wastage. The company has also made it clear that there will be further unavoidable job losses over the next three years. I will, of course, continue to inform the House as the restructuring of the company is taken forward.

As a contribution towards supporting the company as it restructures, I can also announce that the Government will forgo a dividend for this financial year, releasing an additional £64 million for the company.

I understand the very deep disappointment that postal workers will be feeling at this news today. This is not a decision that the company has taken easily or lightly, but it is unavoidable if we are to create a high-quality postal service that will offer good and secure jobs. I know that

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the whole House will welcome the fact that the company will offer as many of those affected as possible the option of continued employment in a different part of the business or a voluntary redundancy package. The company is, of course, in discussion with the trade unions. We will do everything that we can through the Employment Service and other agencies to provide support, assistance and new opportunities to those who lose their jobs.

These are difficult times for the company as management and work force grapple with the legacy of underinvestment and poor industrial relations and undertake the changes that are necessary to face the competitive postal markets of the 2lst century. I have made it clear to the new chairman that there needs to be a better partnership relationship between the management and the unions if they are to deliver this. That was recommended by Lord Sawyer in his report published last year, and he believes that there is a genuine commitment to change from all sides in the Post Office and Royal Mail to achieve this. The benefits of that relationship have already been demonstrated since his report was published. Compared with more than 43,000 days lost to unofficial action between April and June last year—that figure itself considerably lower than in the last year of the previous Conservative Government—only 1,352 days were lost to unofficial action in the three months from October to December. That is a tremendous improvement and the whole House will want to see it maintained.

I am confident that the path that we are pursuing is the right one. Greater commercial freedom; strengthened management; universal service enshrined in primary legislation—in other words, a delivery every working day to every address in every part of the country.

Today marks a turning point for the company. In the words of the new chairman, the measures announced today

Central to Allan Leighton and the company's task will be the relationship with the regulator. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, the postal regulator recently announced an extension of the consultation period; a welcome response, in no small part, to the concerns expressed in this House. In the coming weeks, Allan Leighton, the company and the regulator must have further talks and reach a shared analysis, both of the company's financial position and of the postal services market.

I know that today's news will come as a blow to many workers. But these changes, painful as they are, are unavoidable. Today must be the first step towards renewal, and towards creating a postal service that justifies the pride, and lives up to the expectations, of the millions of people in Britain who depend upon it every day.

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