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The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): The Coal Authority, a DTI-sponsored non-departmental public body, has provided £5 million of support to the Mines Rescue Service over the last two years, using unexpected gains from the sale of property assets inherited from British Coal. It appears unlikely at this stage, however, that further gains will emerge to enable such funding this year or in future.
Colin Burgon: That is precisely why I am asking the Government to step in. We are talking about peanuts£2.5 million. We have fewer than 10 deep mines in this country, and that is a real problem. I know that the Minister is extremely perceptive and intelligent[Hon. Mems: "Hear, hear!"] I am not after a job. The Minister knows that we must keep a range of choices open to us in the energy market, and we should be supporting the deep-mine coal industry. That £2.5 million, when set alongside what I have read this week we are giving to privatised British Energy£184 million this year and every year until 2086; I never did the numeracy
The mines rescue scheme provided by MRS Ltd. is a statutory requirement. In the absence of Government funding, the levy on deep-mine operators applies, in accordance with the scheme. Mine safety and security are paramount. Rest assured, we will keep a careful eye on its funding.
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Alan Johnson): We will not privatise Royal Mail. We will pursue our ambition of a seeing a publicly owned Royal Mail fully restored to good health, providing customers with an excellent service and its staff with rewarding employment. I am pleased to announce that I am today appointing Professor Sir George Bain to support me in working on Royal Mail issues.
Mr. Grogan: Can my right hon. Friend assure the 100-plus Labour Back Benchers who have signed early-day motion 548, which supports our manifesto commitment on a successful, publicly owned Royal Mail, that 100 per cent. of the shares will continue to be owned by the Government?
I will certainly reiterate our manifesto commitment on privatisation. My hon. Friend makes a point that I think is directed at whether there should be an employee share trust. I am not ruling that out, and as a former employee of Royal Mail for many years, I do not think that the House should rule it out. It is worthy of examination, and it is certainly something that we
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should look at on the basis of seeking to restore Royal Mail to full health and to take it further along the road that it commenced upon in 2002.
Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Is the Minister aware that closures of several sub-post offices in my constituency have caused inconvenience and concern to many, including pensioners? Does he agree that Royal Mail should consider its Post Office subsidiary and try to get it to diversify, so that more post offices can remain open as community facilities?
Alan Johnson: That is an important point, which was highlighted in the performance and innovation unit report in 1999 on the post office network, which gained broad support across the House. Part of the report was about the transformation of the Post Office as it loses its traditional customer base. Some 40 per cent. of its work was paying out pensions and benefits, but more and more people have those paid into their bank accounts. There is an enormous opportunity for the network to move to new forms of work, including community-based work. There is an awful lot going on, with the support of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, in order to make that work, but the simple message is that people have to use the initiatives and use the post offices. Post offices have to get the footfall because if they do not, they will be commercially unviable for the independent small business men who run them.
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I believe that the partial sale of the Post Office through an employee buy-out would be privatisation by the back door and I am alarmed to hear my right hon. Friend say that he has not ruled it out. When will he end the speculation? We find out information because Allan Leighton makes statements in the national media; indeed, there was a statement only last week. We need the matter cleared up. If my right hon. Friend is not ruling it out, is he ruling it in? When will he make a proper statement on this issue?
Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is another former employee of Royal Mail; there seem to be a lot of us around today. I disagree with her on the issue of employee ownership. In all my time as leader of the Communication Workers Union, I looked for ways in which employees could have a bigger stake and involvement in the company that, day in and day out, they helped to make successful. I am surprised that from Labour Benches people are asking me to rule out employee involvement. Our manifesto commitment was to look carefully at the impact of full market liberalisation on the Royal Mail, the universal service obligation and the uniform tariff. That is a job of work that cannot be done with one statement to the House. It requires a thorough job of work. It will involve Royal Mail, the unions, the regulator and now Sir George Bain to help me to bring those different factors together.
Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)
(LD): We are told that Royal Mail requires £2 billion to £3 billion to invest in automation to catch up with its continental rivals. We are also told that there is a deficit of about £2.5 billion in the pension fund. We have full liberalisation on
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1 January. What plans does the Secretary of State have for Royal Mail to obtain the money that it needs to invest in automation and to remove the pension deficit?
Alan Johnson: Those are the very issues that we need to look at. Royal Mail has gone from a position in 2002 when it had losses of about £360 million to a position this year in which it has profits of £500 million. So the organisation is moving forward. I reject completely the argument that the only way to create a successful, profitable Royal Mail is to privatise it. A public sector success story with full commercial freedom is within the grasp of Royal Mail. We intend to tackle the very real problems that the hon. Gentleman mentions and ensure that we make Royal Mail an exemplar across the world of a successful publicly owned company.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Barry Gardiner): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meets all the stakeholders in the postal services market on a regular basis to discuss a range of issues including the future of the company. My right hon. Friend last met representatives from the Communication Workers Union on 24 May 2005 and will be meeting members of the parliamentary trade union and CWU group later today. I will be meeting CWU representatives on Monday next week.
Kate Hoey: Will my hon. Friend congratulate the CWU members, particularly in the south-west branch, on the news that the Royal Mail has won the contract to continue working in the Palace of Westminster? I am sure that all hon. Members welcome that. Why is it necessary for this country to liberalise its postal services long before the rest of Europe is doing so? Surely that will put our postal service at a disadvantage?
Barry Gardiner: Of course I join my hon. Friend, and indeed the whole House joins her, in congratulating the members who have won the service for the House of Commons work. We are pleased to see that situation continue.
Full liberalisation of the market is something that Royal Mail itself has embraced. The regulator believes that it is the right thing to do. The reason why liberalisation of the market has taken place a year earlier than in the rest of the Europe is that Royal Mail believes that it is the best way of preparing the company ahead of time to take advantage when the rest of Europe liberalises. That is its stated position, and it is one that I urge my hon. Friend to discuss with it most carefully.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): According to the newspapers today, Allan Leighton has said that if price controls were put on stamps, it could lead to the loss of 40,000 jobs, or a quarter of the work force. That would devastate the rural network and have a huge impact on the urban network. Can the Minister give an assurance that such job losses will not occur?
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the proposals have been set out by the regulator,
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but no final decision has been taken. We are in a period of consultation on the price control mechanism, which will not be concluded until later this year. Therefore, it is redundant to speculate on the price of stamps to 2010 at this stage. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the rural network and, indeed, the rest of the network, but this Government have invested £2 billion in updating post offices and the Royal Mail. Yes, there have been closures in the rural network and through the urban reinvention programme
Barry Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman is obviously unaware of the programme and the £210 million. This Government have invested £2 billion to ensure a successful future for the Royal Mail, whereas the hon. Gentleman's party closed 3,500 post offices without putting in any such investment.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): When my hon. Friend talks to the union, will he make it clear that many Labour Members agree with many of its members that there is not one model of public enterprise? As a lifelong co-operator, I believe that the enterprise that works best is the one in which every member of the work force has a share. That is a good rule and I hope that it will not be cast aside.
Barry Gardiner: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, the first time that I ever stood for public office was as a Labour and Co-operative candidate. Those principles have always been very dear to me and I hope that we can expand them in government.
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