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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 June 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Postal Services

1. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): If she will make a statement on the reform of postal services in Scotland. [57379]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scotland Office (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The operation of postal services in Scotland is a matter for the board of Consignia, subject to the conditions determined by the postal regulator, Postcomm.

Mr. Gray: Perhaps I can be the first to welcome the Under-Secretary to her new post among the matriarchy on the Government Front Bench. She represents the town of Stirling, as her constituency name indicates, but she also represents my home town of Dunblane; it is a shame that the constituency name does not show that. I am sure that she will do a fine job in her new post.

Since the Labour party came to power, a total of 135 post offices have closed across Scotland. If the Government continue to do what they have done up until recently—paying pensions directly into people's bank accounts—that rate of closure will continue apace. Before the Under-Secretary says that that is not part of her plans, will she explain why the Ministry of Defence has recently written to all MOD pensioners in Scotland to tell them that their pensions will be paid compulsorily into bank accounts and that they may not draw them from post offices? Does she not fear that that will lead to a further loss of post offices across Scotland?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I was worried that when I rose to speak today the House would empty, given that I normally move the Adjournment.

I crave the indulgence of the House for a second to put on record my sincere thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) for the generosity of his comments during the transfer of his portfolio, particularly when he mentioned making room for younger Members. I was mightily impressed by that.

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I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) for his comments, which are particularly welcome because of his strong family connections with the ecclesiastical city, not town, as he said, of Dunblane—he will be in trouble when he goes home. I have known the hon. Gentleman for some time, and we attended the same university, but in spite of the fact that I kent his faither, so to speak, I have to say that his question is disingenuous. He talks to us about post office closures, but we were the first party specifically to protect rural post offices until 2006. He comments on the number of closures over the last few months, but that number has fallen, whereas under the Conservative Government some 3,500 post offices closed across the UK. I do not think that the Conservatives have a leg to stand on.

The hon. Gentleman is aware that there are ongoing discussions about the collection of pensions and the move towards direct payment of pensions through post offices. That proposal will enhance the services of post offices and enhance the services given to customers.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I welcome my hon. Friend to her new post.

The burning issue at this time is the universal service, especially in rural areas. While Postcomm's backtracking must be welcomed, I regret to say that I am not convinced that it will be sufficient to ensure that we have a continued universal service delivery right into the heart of rural areas. Will my hon. Friend assure me that if it looks as though that is not to continue, she and those at the sharp end will step in to ensure that we continue to receive the service to which we have all grown used, need and deserve?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I welcome the change from Postcomm and a great deal of credit for that has to go to hon. Members across the House, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, who met Postcomm and the trade unions.

I share the philosophy of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) about the importance of the universal delivery and I was pleased that, for the first time ever, the Government enshrined within legislation that there will be a universal delivery across the UK at an affordable tariff.

Consignia's licence specifically states that it has to honour that universal service delivery. I give my hon. Friend the assurance that my right hon. Friend the Secretary for State and I will ensure that rural communities, and all communities across Scotland, continue to receive a universal service. Rowland Hill would have been proud of us.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I, too, congratulate the Minister, and I welcome her to her post on behalf of my party. I also associate myself with her remarks concerning her predecessor.

In respect of the universal service obligation, notwithstanding the welcome reversal by Consignia, is not she aware that great concern was caused in rural communities by the threat of the withdrawal of that service in certain areas? Will she ensure, as far as possible, that the current level of services enjoyed in remote areas is maintained, and at an affordable cost, and that the

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Postcomm privatisation proposals do not lead to an inexorable abandonment of those services in those important communities?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous comments.

Postwatch has identified some of the exclusions that are currently in place. To avoid spreading panic across rural Scotland, let me identify clearly what those exclusions relate to, which is normally relative inaccessibility by road—for example, difficulties with transport; non- existence of daily ferry services; and second home owners requesting a non-delivery. I am sure that many people have holiday homes in the hon. Gentleman's part of the world and that many addresses are often unoccupied. The exclusions relate only to specific circumstances.

The Government are committed to the universal service obligation, which has been written into Consignia's licence and confirmed in legislation this year. We are committed to honouring it and ensuring that individuals and communities throughout the country get the daily delivery wherever possible. I take on board the hon. Gentleman's comment about ensuring that rural communities feel secure in the knowledge that they will continue to get that daily service.

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): As one who shared a Capstan Full Strength office with her father for several years, I join in the expressions of pleasure at my hon. Friend's appointment.

The performance and innovation unit's report published some time ago contained some good ideas on how extra business could be brought to the Post Office. The idea of its acting as a kind of general practitioner, offering advice and services, was particularly good. Will my hon. Friend give an undertaking to do all that she can to promote those ideas, because they could be very valuable but do not seem to have been put into effect so far?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. In the interests of health, I should say that Capstan Full Strength do not do one any good, and my father paid a penalty for smoking them over a long period. I know that he is sitting on a cloud somewhere laughing at that comment.

On the one-stop shop, there have been pilots in Leicestershire and Rutland, which are currently being evaluated. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it would have been foolish to push ahead with that development before seeing how it operated. We hope that the results will be out soon and we can start to make progress and ensure that the Post Office offers an enhanced service for both rural and urban communities throughout Scotland.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): I, too, congratulate the new Minister on her elevation, and I hope that she will add to the honourable tradition of Members for Stirling in ministerial office. She talked about rural communities feeling secure about their postal services. Perhaps she has not yet had time to read of the petition signed by 500 residents of Newton Stewart expressing concern about their postal services. Has she made any assessment of the effect of closing post offices in rural communities? Does it accord with the remarks of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee

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that there would be "severe adverse consequences"? Will the Government's half-baked reforms and the consequent suppression of competition continue to centralise postal services in Scotland?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. I trust that he is talking about Lord Ewing when he refers to predecessors in the Scotland Office. I assure him that I am not seeking to emulate the fate of my immediate predecessor in the constituency.

It is incumbent on Members of Parliament, regardless of their political persuasion, not to scaremonger about what is happening to the rural post office network, which has been protected by the Government up to 2006. We see a lot of crocodile tears from the Opposition. For 18 years, they walked away from rural communities when shops and banks withdrew from them, and it was this Government who piled in with support to protect rural post offices.

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