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12 Jun 2007 : Column 235WH—continued

The benefits of deploying formed cohorts, and sub-units when that is practical, are acknowledged. Indeed, the latest operational commitments plot reflects that, with TA units being tasked to deliver cohorts or sub-units to specific operations. Longer warnings to units about providing that requirement, together with the benefits that the cohorts will bring to unit camaraderie and cohesion, will provide significant benefits. However, given the individual circumstances
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of many TA members, many will still volunteer to deploy as individuals, and be happy to do so. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point and hope that I have given him some reassurance.

Similarly, opportunities for TA officers to command do exist, at platoon and group level as well as at sub-unit or company squadron level, and in our in-theatre headquarters as staff officers. Of course, we must not forget that command is often about more than operations—TA officers remain critical to ensuring that their men and women are well trained and administered when not deployed.

We assess that the TA can sustain its support to operations at current levels for the foreseeable future, but we will continue to keep that under review. We have recognised that we have used some groups on enduring operations more than others. We carefully monitor their use to ensure that that is sustainable in the long term.

We have planned our TA requirement on operations to involve approximately 1,200 TA members each year—on occasions, more than that. We use intelligent selection to ensure that we choose the most appropriate individuals. That takes account of factors such as previous service already undertaken and family and employment circumstances.

The concern highlighted by the all-party group about the practical maximum for call-out is encapsulated in the “Defence Intent for Reserves”, which acknowledges the one-year-in-five maximum for practical deployment. However, individuals can volunteer for operational service within that period too.

TA post-operational reports do not reflect a problem among those who have been deployed; most find the experience positive. I found that when I talked to many reservists and TA members in Afghanistan and Iraq; that was often why they had volunteered to join in the first place. It is important to make that point. The experience is often positive; such reservists welcome having a clear operational role and want the opportunity to exercise it. That has also been confirmed by the National Audit Office in its report on the reserve forces, published in March 2006.

Post-operational reports also indicate that members of the TA are happy to operate either as formed units or as individual augmentees. We have been working to ensure that the roles that they undertake on operations are both worth while and suited to their personal experience and skill sets, an issue that has been mentioned.

Concerns were raised about the suggestion that we revisit the restructuring of the TA infantry companies and yeomanry squadrons, primarily because of the current demands on the TA as it supports enduring operations and the need to provide a critical mass for training that is challenging at all levels. If the hon. Gentleman gives examples of where in particular he feels the structure needs revisiting, we can investigate his concerns.

As I said earlier, we remain confident about the rationale behind the restructuring of the Territorial Army. The changes that we introduced under the future Army structure have released more regular infantry troops for deployment, who will in due course reduce the requirement for the TA infantry to deploy in support of current operations.

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Crown and Post Office Closures

12.30 pm

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): I thank the Speaker for granting us this short debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) will speak, too, and he will pick up any points that I do not cover because, as I have said, it is a short debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) cannot be here, and as a member of the Government he would not be able to speak in the debate, but nevertheless he supports our endeavours to try to sort out the post office situation in Coventry.

There are two issues as far as we are concerned. The first is the relocation of the sorting office—on that point, I note that the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) is in the Chamber. The second is the relocation, as it were, of the Hertford Street Crown post office. I cannot understand how the Post Office will squeeze the staff from that building into the WH Smith building, which is not far. The Post Office’s justification was that it was not far away and they could move at their will. That has job implications.

Let me jump now to the relocation of the sorting office. There are 500 jobs at stake, and as someone put it to me a few days ago, that is the equivalent of losing some £10 million a year to Coventry’s economy. To a lot of people, that might not seem a lot of money, but to a lot of people it is, particularly when we talk about jobs. When the Post Office talks about consultation, it means, “We have already taken the decision and we are going to tell you about it.” My understanding of consultation was always that people made a proposal, listened to the counter-proposals and then made their minds up. It seems that the Post Office went into the consultation with its mind made up.

One could argue that the change could lead to a further deterioration of the service in Coventry against a background of continual change in the Post Office over the years. The staff have offered a lot of co-operation. We know that from time to time in negotiations we get entrenched situations, but it is incumbent on everyone to try to resolve them. The only way in which that can be done is if the company listens to its employees and the public, rather than saying, “This is what we are going to do; the matter is ended.”

There is another factor. We were told some weeks ago that Coventry city council had about six sites that it could propose for the relocated sorting office. However, no one has told us yet where the sites are, so we do not know what is happening. I have always believed that if a site can be identified, the situation would be part of the way towards being resolved. When the proposals came about, the Post Office had no idea where it would relocate if it went to Northampton. Subsequently, we have heard stories that a site might have been identified in Northampton, but the Post Office has certainly not told us where that site might be. Coventry city council could be helpful if it could identify a site. That has been going on for many months.

The public in Coventry are concerned by the level of service, and different groups are getting up a series of petitions. I do not know the exact figures, but I am told
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that they run into the thousands. That campaign will continue. Although various structural changes have been made to the Post Office through legislation made in Parliament that was initiated in Europe, and although we accept that the Post Office is up against stiff competition—no one is trying to deny that—how it makes the changes is what matters. It has been suggested that when the legislation was debated, Members of Parliament were voting for closures. The legislation said nothing about closures. Royal Mail Group has decided to take them on and to go ahead with them.

Other rumours are flying around that there will be further closures in Coventry, and so far we have not been able to substantiate them. No one is coming clean. We hear such stories, but we are not able to bottom out, as it were. There are some major issues not only for Coventry but for Royal Mail up and down the country. Rather than carrying out a so-called consultation, there should have been a bit of negotiation to try to sort the problems out.

It has been suggested for a long time that the Royal Mail wants to get out of Bishop street. We know that the Bishop street site is a prime site in Coventry and there have been all sorts of suggestions about its use. Nevertheless, Coventry has gone through a large number of changes over the past 20 years—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West can elaborate further on that—and the service has deteriorated over the years. All sorts of changes have happened, and we do not know what the outcome will be even if people go along with the relocation to WH Smith. As I understand it, the lease will last for possibly seven years, but what will happen at the end of those seven years?

The company might well say that there will be no redundancies, but if it starts to relocate people again that will prompt the question whether they will want to travel. If Royal Mail wants to be efficient, everyone knows that transport is one of the biggest costs. I noticed that Royal Mail backed away from the two small sub-sorting offices that it had initially suggested, but we have heard no more about that. The situation is muddied. My hon. Friends and I are concerned about redundancy, and whether it will be compulsory or voluntary; the deteriorating level of service; and the lack of suggestions for a site from Coventry city council—if a site was suggested, that would give us something on which to work. We are also concerned about the fact that Royal Mail has not come clean about the Northampton situation, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Northampton, South is as concerned as we are.

In conclusion, Royal Mail has to come clean and to have meaningful negotiations about the future. It must be prepared to consider alternatives. We have met the trade unions on a number of occasions, and the first time I met them was before last Christmas—it might well have been around November. They know that changes have to be made, and want to be able to propose their alternatives. They were prepared to have serious discussions. After we met the unions, we eventually met Royal Mail and it became apparent that it would not listen to any alternatives. It is understandable why, from time to time, Royal Mail has problems with industrial relations. When I was
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involved in the trade union movement and with negotiations, if a manager sat round a table and told me, “This is what you are going to have,” he would have a problem, and he could well understand the men’s attitudes.

The men and women are concerned about the future, as are their families. I hope that the Minister will try to answer our questions, but more importantly, my hon. Friends and I would like to take a small delegation to meet him and to have a proper discussion about some of the issues that concern the people of Coventry and the employees of Royal Mail.

12.39 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): I thank the Speaker for granting us the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on securing it. It is timely and important, and from the point of view of MPs in the area, we are pleased to see the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) here. I gather that he would like to say a few words, too, so I shall make space for that. It is important that we hear all the arguments in the round.

The situation with the post office and the unions is not the happiest. Sadly perhaps—rightly or wrongly, I do not know—the unions have strong views. The idea of shares and involvement in the ownership of the business by the work force did not come through, which the management saw as a setback. The Post Office does not seem to be able to get into a good consultative position with the unions, and there are difficulties and a general feeling of impending problems with the whole business at a national, background level. At a more immediate level in Coventry, there are the two points that my hon. Friend raised—the Bishop street closure and the move to Northampton, about which we have grave reservations.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con) rose—

Mr. Robinson: I shall give way in a second, but I will also allow time for the hon. Gentleman to speak.

We have seen nothing on the logistics, effectiveness and cost savings of the move to Northampton, and we remain doubtful about whether it will come off.

Mr. Binley: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I really am most appreciative, and I thank you, too, Miss Begg. I wish to add to the hon. Gentleman’s point about uncertainty, because there is concern about the matter in Northampton. We do not know what is happening, and there has been uncertainty about post offices in Northampton for some considerable time, since the burning down of our major post office and sorting office. I ask the Minister, and the hon. Gentleman, whether they believe that jobs will be coming to Northampton and whether they believe that any assessment has been done of the labour market in Northampton. I know as an employer that finding labour is very difficult there and in surrounding areas.

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Mr. Robinson: I am grateful for that intervention, and the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The labour market might be very tight in Northampton, but in Coventry we are losing 500 more jobs. I mentioned our doubts about Bishop street and the Northampton move, but in the light of what he said about the labour market I add that we view with dismay the possibility of the loss of 500 jobs and further closures. Jaguar jobs have gone, and we now have more uncertainty about Jaguar after the announcement put out in rushed circumstances last night by Ford. We had the Massey’s problem a couple of years ago, which is still working its way through, and there was the complete closure of Peugeot.

Coventry has done brilliantly, with the work force, management and the council working together, to overcome those difficulties, but we cannot keep on being hit. We are saying, “Give us a break.” I hope that the Royal Mail management will consider the matter in the round and take a balanced, calm look at it rather than try to rush through too much too quickly. That would make it come unstuck both in its relationship with the unions and the conduct of negotiations or consultations—whichever they are—and in its figures and the savings that it hopes to make.

We are specifically considering Post Office Ltd’s announcement of the franchising of 70 branch offices to WH Smith, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows. I am pleased to see him here today. As my hon. Friend said, he might not be able to give us answers today, but it would be good if we could bring a small group to him to follow up with a meeting on the points made and those that we cannot make in a short Adjournment debate.

Consultation was planned for August 2007, with a view to the whole operation being carried out by 1 May next year. It has been said, as I understand it, that the number of counter desks will be reduced from 13 to six—roughly halved—but that there will be no reduction in the quality and speed of the service. That just does not stack up. All of us who have followed the slimming down of the banks know that people cannot get served at the counters in banks any more. It will be the same at the post offices—successful post offices already have such difficulties. So how will it happen? The numbers that we are seeing for the move to Northampton and the franchising to WH Smith do not have the ring of conviction about them.

A couple of other things need to be highlighted. I gather—I am looking for advice and possibly reassurance—that the Post Office will not offer its professionally trained staff the opportunity to transfer to the franchised offices under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, with their current terms and conditions. If that is the case, I think it is a backward step. One thing that was successful in some of the privatisation that we managed to do was the fact that people could hold on to that right under TUPE in pretty much acceptable conditions. It did not always happen, but sometimes people managed to have that right. I would certainly have thought that they could in this case.

The other related point is that there is talk about the remuneration being £4 an hour less than is currently paid by the Post Office. If that is seriously proposed, I think we have a very rough road ahead of us. We must
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all sit down; there is particularly a role for MPs to play, as we must always use our good offices, and Ministers, unions, the Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd are all aware of the need to sit down together. We would certainly do that.

We are looking for reassurance about how these matters are being handled. We want a better feel for the numbers, and we want a better impression to be communicated that the normal procedures of negotiation and consultation with the trade unions are being followed. We get the impression that they are not, and that there is a tendency for those procedures to be ridden roughshod over. That is bound to stack up problems as we go down the road. The industry is a labour-intensive service industry and we are moving away from the manufacturing base that has been so eroded in Coventry. We have overcome the problems that that has created and are embarking on a whole new area that needs the most thoughtful and careful management approach possible.

I wish to know to what extent we can be reassured on those points and the other points raised, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, if he cannot answer our questions, will at the very least see us about them.

12.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Miss Begg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on securing the debate and on securing the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who cannot be with us.

I shall try to respond to the points that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South, spelled out clearly the importance of postal services to his constituents and emphasised his concern about the future of the post office network. He also stressed the role of Crown post offices, particularly the Hertford street branch, which Post Office Ltd has announced will be transferred to the management of WH Smith. He mentioned plans announced by Royal Mail to review its operations across the Coventry and Northampton postcode areas, including the intended relocation of the Coventry mail centre. As I have said, I shall do what I can to respond to the points raised, but as requested I am happy to meet hon. Members outside the debate to discuss issues further.

The future of the post office network and Royal Mail is a subject of great relevance to all Members of the House, as has again been reflected by the issues raised today. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced last month the Government’s decision, having considered the views put to us during the 12-week national consultation on the post office network. The Government have an unprecedented record of investment in the Post Office. We have provided some £2 billion since 1999 and will now be making a further investment of up to £1.7 billion, subject to European Community state aid clearance, to support the national post office network.

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