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Point of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Given that defence is the first charge on any Government, and given that there are now more troops on operations overseas than at any time since the 1950s, are you aware that the Secretary of State for Defence will come to the House on Friday 16   July—a private Members' day—to announce substantial cuts in both manpower and capabilities in the armed forces? Do you agree that such an important announcement should not be made to Parliament on a Friday, and that to bury bad news in such a way the day after two by-elections is hopelessly unacceptable and serves to compound the Government's endless felonies in that regard?

Mr. Speaker: There will be at least one session of business questions before 16 July when the hon. Member and others may be able to raise that matter, and there are the usual channels. If there is deep concern about the matter, I urge the hon. Member to seek to have it negotiated through the usual channels.

Mr. Soames: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I shall indeed pursue the action you suggest, but may I ask you to make a general point that announcements of such importance should not be made on a Friday, when many Members are unable to be present in the House because of duties elsewhere? It is quite wrong that such an important announcement, touching on the security of the country and the future of our armed forces, should be made on such a day.

Mr. Speaker: It is difficult for me from the Chair to make a judgment about which statements are important and which statements are less important. It is not for me to be drawn into that argument.


Foundation for Unclaimed Assets

Mr. Frank Field, supported by Mr. Jon Owen Jones, Mr. Derek Wyatt, Kevin Brennan, Mr. David Willetts, Mr. Nigel Waterson, Mr. Steve Webb, Annabelle Ewing, Sandra Osborne, Rev. Martin Smyth, Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson and Adam Price presented a Bill to establish the Foundation for Unclaimed Assets and make provision as to its functions: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 October, and to be printed. [Bill 131].

5 Jul 2004 : Column 550

Opposition Day

[15th Allotted Day]

Postal Services

Mr. Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.33 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I beg to move,

That this House notes the failure of Royal Mail plc to deliver first and second class mail reliably and on time and regrets the damage this is doing to businesses and private customers alike; notes with particular dismay the threatened closure in Leicester of the Knighton Church Road Post Office, Knighton, and the East Park Road Post Office, Spinney Hills; calls on the Government to end the uncertainty facing the future of rural post offices as a result of the Government's refusal to announce further funding until after 2006; deplores the inadequate consultation procedure of the Urban Reinvention Programme despite the Government's recent announcement to review urgently the arrangements for the consultation currently employed; expresses continued concern about the Government's implementation of the different Direct Payment options which has caused significant problems particularly for elderly and disabled customers in Stechford, Shard End and Hodge Hill in Birmingham; condemns the Government for its failure adequately to promote the take-up of Post Office Card Accounts; and further calls on the Government to provide more details on the implementation of the Exceptions Service.

You will have heard of the Midas touch, Mr. Speaker. Unfortunately, the Government seem to have the Frank Spencer or Del Boy touch. No matter how much taxpayers' money they throw at a problem, it all goes horribly wrong. No wonder, then, that so many people feel let down by Labour—and so it is with our postal services, which we must never forget the Government own. Too many aspects of Royal Mail's operations are failing, and that is a matter of grave concern to both sides of the House. Of course, many thousands of postal workers and management take their job seriously and are highly professional, but a minority are not.

On 6 May this year, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry apologised to the House and to the people of this country for Royal Mail's failings. She accepts that the buck stops with her, and I give her full credit for that. However, it is not unreasonable to say that an apology is not enough. The Government have a duty to ensure that standards rise.

In 2001, the Royal Mail Group recorded a huge loss of £1.1 billion. I might add that that was £1.1 billion of taxpayers' money. With fresh management, that has been turned around to some extent, to a profit of £220   million in 2003. That is without question a considerable achievement, and a welcome one at that. It came, however, at considerable cost.

In order to prevent the company from haemorrhaging money at an alarming rate, a tough restructuring process was announced by the Secretary of State in March 2002. I am not here today to argue that many of the tough decisions that have been made were not necessary: they were, but their implementation and the methods employed have been immensely damaging.

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Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the ways in which the Post Office has cut its costs is by getting rid of two deliveries in a day? Is he aware of the problem that some businesses, especially in rural areas, are facing, which is that the single delivery is now coming too late for the banks' cut-off time for same-day cheque crediting? For small, growing businesses in constituencies such as mine, that is calamitous and it needs to be sorted out. If we are to have one delivery a day, it needs to be made in good time.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend, who is an assiduous Member and constituency MP, raises an important point. The problem to which he refers is creating difficulties not only for growing businesses, but for well-established mail order firms, as I shall mention later. The biggest problem of all, which I shall also mention later, is uncertainty. People could plan ahead if they knew precisely when the delivery was going to be made, but in so many areas—not only rural areas, which he mentioned, but urban areas—the time of the first delivery seems to differ from day to day.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) mentioned the problems caused for businesses by a single delivery postal service. Will he comment on the extraordinary case of 49 packages sent to East Anglian MPs labelled "Postwatch misdelivery campaign" and posted on 13 May, none of which was delivered to Members of this House? It is indeed a mysterious occurrence, on which the chairman of the Post Office can throw no light, save to ask me what the turnaround time is for letters in my office. Does my hon. Friend have any points to make about that?

Michael Fabricant: If the issue were not so serious, it would almost be a laughing matter. I wonder whether the problem arose because of unreliability in the postal service or whether it could be connected—perhaps the Minister will expand on this when he replies—with the question of deliveries during the general election, when some items of mail were not delivered. It is not for Post Office workers to decide whether a Post Office item should be delivered, so the question is whether it was incompetence or deliberate action by Post Office workers that prevented what was issued by Postwatch from being delivered.

Mrs. Shephard: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. The chairman of the Post Office, to whom I obviously wrote, replied:

Michael Fabricant: My right hon. Friend makes a serious point. If the Post Office and the Minister have doubts themselves about the service of Post Office Counters Ltd., it is a clear indication of how far standards have fallen in the past few years.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil) (Lab) rose—

Michael Fabricant: If I may, I shall move on, but I shall give way later.
5 Jul 2004 : Column 552

First, I shall examine post office closures. As urban and rural post offices continue to close across the country, the needs of our local communities and the vulnerable people within them are not being adequately met. In urban areas, the urban reinvention programme—in truth, the urban post office closure programme—is occurring at breakneck speed. Of the 9,000 urban post offices operating at the start of the programme, 1,211 have already closed, and that figure is set to rise to 3,000 by the end of this year.

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