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That this House notes that the Government is investing over £8 billion between 2008 and 2011 to increase the supply of social and affordable housing, has invested over £29 billion since 1997 to bring social housing up to a decent standard and has made £205 million available for a mortgage rescue scheme to support the most vulnerable home owners facing repossession so they can remain in their home; further notes that there has been a 74 per cent. reduction in rough sleeping since 1998, that the long term
use of bed and breakfast accommodation as temporary accommodation for families provided under the homelessness legislation has ended and that since 2003 the number of people who have been accepted as owed a main duty under the homelessness legislation has reduced by 60 per cent.; further notes that the Government has helped more than 110,000 households into low cost home ownership since 2001; believes that the introduction of enhanced housing options services provides tailored housing advice reflecting a households individual circumstances while choice-based lettings schemes give social housing applicants greater choice over where they want to live; and further believes that the Government has taken measures to make best use of the social housing stock such as tackling overcrowding and under-occupation.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you tell the House whether you have received representations from the Leader of the Opposition, wishing to correct the comments that he made about Titian? Or is it enough, in this modern technological age, for his staff simply to alter Wikipedia?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): The right hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced Member of the House, knows that that is not a point of order for the Chair; but his comments are on the record. [Interruption.] Order. Will Members who are not staying for the next debate please leave the Chamber as quickly and quietly as possible?
That this House welcomes the Hooper review of UK postal services; and urges the Government to implement rapidly the reviews proposals for the partial privatisation of Royal Mail.
I regret that I am not the spokesman for my party on the subject of Titian or any other great Venetian painter. I am, however, addressing a serious issue, and presenting what I hope the whole House will consider to be a helpful motion. I am aware that over the years I have acquired a slightly clichéd reputation as a rather combative politician, and I sometimes weary of being described as a bruiser, so I decided to table a constructive and helpful motion as the first Opposition motion on the subject of a DBERR responsibility.
Lord MandelsonPeter Mandelsonhas rightly described himself as an old political friend of mine. I thought I would table a motion that agreed with an important statement that he had made in December last year, supported his announcement about the future of Royal Mail and urged him to proceed with that policy. My hon. Friends and I will have to ask some very important questionsin two months the Government have failed to clarify aspects of the policy, so there will be serious issues for me to raisebut I had assumed that the motion, as drafted, would stand alone on the Order Paper.
If one tables a motion that appears to be supportive of what a Government spokesman said on a subject only two months ago, one rather expects the Government to join Opposition Members in any Division that is called; we might expect to see whether there are Members who have failed to be persuaded by Lord Mandelson and who wish to hold out against this wide consensus, and perhaps expect an informative debate, particularly for those interested in the serious subject of Royal Mail, to then take placebut no. On the Order Paper has appeared a long, convoluted and almost impenetrable amendment, which someone has decided to table to correct our simple support for Lord Mandelson, and it actually arouses more mysteries than it solves.
So there will be other questions. Will the Government explain whether they are sticking to their policy? What do they mean in seeking to qualify an endorsement of what the Cabinet Minister with responsibility for Royal Mail was committing the Government to two months ago, as was the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, who repeated the same statement and agreed to the policy?
When Lord Mandelson made his statement on the Hooper report on 16 December, which was repeated by the Minister now present, he could not have been clearer about what the policy would be. He accepted the three main recommendations of the extremely good Hooper report. There were questions on pensions, regulation and, most importantly, part-privatisation. He and the Minister were clearthere was clarity in both Housesthat they were committed to bringing in a partner through a minority stake in Royal Mail. They made it clear that that would not apply to the post office network, so Post Office Ltd would have to be separated out, as it was Royal Mail that was having private sector capital and a private sector partner introduced. We have reflected on that and waited for the details, but as our motion shows, we are prepared to agree that that needs to be proceeded with with some urgency.
I realise that there were some difficulties at the time; not everybody agreed with what the Ministers said then. Indeed, the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs suffered a considerable misfortune, because on the following day, 17 December, his trusted parliamentary aidehis own Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern)resigned. He left the Government, sayingI am relying on the BBC online site
I do not support what looks to me like partial privatisation of the Royal Mail.
I do not blame the hon. Gentleman for saying that it looked like partial privatisation of Royal Mail, because what had been announced was partial privatisation of Royal Mail. I thought that that was what we were going to debate, but I shall now have to wait and see what we are going to debate.
Mr. Kilfoyle: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I do not want to paint him into a corner, but the only artist he is in danger of becoming is a political con artist, and let me say this to him in all sincerity[Hon. Members: Withdraw!]
Mr. Kilfoyle: I certainly withdraw the remark; I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman understands what I am driving at. In his comments so far, he has already made it clear that his strategy is to drive a wedge between Lord Mandelson and the rest of the Government. [Interruption.] Does he accept [Interruption.] Will he not accept [Interruption.]
Mr. Kilfoyle: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that there is a difference between the Conservative and Labour Members: we are concerned about those with a real interest in the Post OfficePost Office users and staffwhereas the Conservatives want to score cheap political points?
Mr. Clarke: I share all the concern about the Post OfficeI use it and realise that it is in an important institutionbut to say that the Conservatives are the con artists in all this, which is out of order, is ridiculous. Our position could not be one of greater clarity. What is mystifyingwhat justifies the description that the hon. Gentleman usesis the complete obscurity of the Governments position, given what they have gone through.
It is important that we know where we stand, given where we have come from. I was the Minister with responsibility for the Post Office about 20 years agoI have done the job that the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, who is sitting opposite me, is doingand I faced all the same problems of how to ensure that Royal Mail became a modern service organisation that could have a very strong future and could modernise in line with what was being done in other countries and so on.
At that time, I went to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to try to persuade her that we needed to introduce some private capital and private expertise as part of the programme that we were carrying forward in many of the public services. For reasons of which I am still unaware, I and many others were not able to persuade Margaret Thatcher to proceed with the partial or full privatisation of Royal Mail. I do not want to go too much into the history, but it was widely publicised that Michael Heseltine and I made efforts to persuade the Major Government to introduce private capital into Royal MailI am afraid to say that I argued to my colleagues that it would not last 10 years if we did not go down that pathbut, again, I was unsuccessful.
The Conservatives approach has been consistent and clear. In 1998, when Lord Mandelson was last Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, he put forward some proposals and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who was then speaking on behalf of my party, suggested that private capital should be introduced into the business. We offered to support the Government if they wanted to do that, but they were vehement in their rejections. Lord Mandelson was dismissive of our proposal, saying that it
should be stamped return to sender.[ Official Report, 7 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 26.]
As recently as 2006, the current Secretary of State for Health, who was then Business Secretary, said that he would give an absolute, unequivocal commitment that a stake in Royal Mail would not be sold to the private sector.
The Conservatives have been clear in their approach, I have certainly been clear and consistent and the Labour party has been pretty clear about things so far. I congratulate Lord Mandelson on his courage and his success. Who would have thought that after all those years the labour movement would be introducing this proposal, with
Lord Mandelson, echoed by his Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, commending it in this House. I welcome and support that.
This proposal is a U-turn. I do not criticise the Labour party for making a U-turn, because all Ministers have had to make U-turns. They should be made clearly and explained, and they should be done with a straightforwardness and elegance. Is that what was done on 16 December? I congratulate the Secretary of State on tearing up his election manifesto commitment, which had been so foolishly given, and on being so explicitbut what has happened now? The Governments amendment is not a U-turnit is an obscure wriggle; I have never seen meaning vanish into a burrow before. It is plainly drafted by a committee, probably chaired by a nominee of the Chief Whip. If it were parliamentary for me to use the term con artist about anybody in this Chamber, the authors of this amendment would be strong contenders for it.
I shall move on to the substance. I anticipated that I would be pressing the Minister to go through the substance of what has been proposed and what interest has been expressedTNT was said to be very interested. When the stake is sold, will the proceeds go to Royal Mail? In addition, there are the very difficult questions about the pensions and the regulator. However, the Minister now has more questions to answer than simply on the policy, because the Hooper reportwhich we all find very convincingcompellingly sets out why the status quo is not an option and change is necessary; that more private capital would be welcome; and that some managerial experience of change in this kind of industry needs to be introduced urgently.
Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): This is good, knockabout, Oxbridge stuff [ Interruption. ] That is why all the Oxbridge types behind the right hon. and learned Gentleman are cheering him. But if he welcomes the Hooper report, why does he not support the Governments efforts to address the pension deficit? The Tories would leave Post Office pensioners in the lurch by pursuing their obsession with privatisation, as they always have.
I shall put the issue in context. I have already said that there is widespread consensus about Royal Mail. For example, there is widespread consensus that any proposals for its future should be based on the universal service obligation, which Royal Mail should accept, whatever its form. It is necessary to have a nationwide service, with deliveries to any citizen or household at a uniform price; Royal Mail must continue to discharge that obligation. Indeed, the Hooper report says that the changes that it recommends are above all necessary to ensure that the universal service obligation can be continued.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD):
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point about protecting the universal service obligation for the sake of all our constituents. Is there
not a lesson to be learned from the fact that, yet again, the UK introduced competition into postal services faster and deeper than did countries in mainland Europe, meaning that rival companies have a protected home market and are able to cherry-pick in our market? Would it not be more sensible to have a levy on competition to protect the universal service and ensure a level playing field in this country?
Mr. Clarke: There should certainly be a level playing field, and the consumer benefits from such competition. It will be extended across Europe and I hope that Royal Mail will be a powerful contender in wider markets, if it can be modernised and reach the standards of efficiency of its competitors. The Government introduced that competition. We agree that it is of lasting benefit to business and the ordinary user of the service in this country, but competition is not responsible for the present difficulties.
Royal Mails long-standing difficulties are being compounded by the change in the medium of communication. Far more revenue has been lostthe threat to the taxpayer from Royal Mails current state is considerablefrom the introduction of new technology and the steady loss of traffic than has been lost to competition. Hooper is right that the loss of volumethe amount of letters and parcels to be deliveredis speeding up. It could be 7 to 10 per cent. next year without any difficulty, and that is leading Royal Mail in an ever-more downward direction. Other problems include the fact that it has not adopted the modern technology of its competitors in Europe, the enormous pension deficit hanging around its neck like a millstone and the lack of change over the past few years. As Hooper rightly said, it also suffers from extremely bad industrial relations. As we all remember, there was a most unfortunate strike in 2007, which weakened the business still further. Many small and medium-sized businesses joined their bigger competitors in deciding that they could not longer trust Royal Mail, and they turned away from it.
I have merely summarised the analysis set out in Hooper. I have not left myself time to repeat it, but it has been accepted completely by the Government and I think that it is unanswerable. The status quo is not tenable in any way at all.
These problems are familiar to anyone who has ever followed Royal Mail. Similar discussions have gone on for a very long time, and I am sad to say that Hoopers analysis and the litany of problems that he sets out remind me of when I was the Minister in charge. That was a very long time ago, but the problems have actually got worse and worse in the past 10 or 12 years.
Lord Mandelsons clarion call to action before Christmas came after 12 years of inaction or pointless action, and when one looks at the state of the business one realises that it is getting nowhere fast. In 2001, the Government gave Post Office Ltd commercial freedom, but none of the reforms that have been tried has worked. Over and over again, the Hooper commission refers to the political background that has inhibited the managements ability to take decisions. It is obvious that a succession of Ministersuntil these men of courage came alonghave been intervening, slowing down the management and giving in to pressure in trying to make sure that the changes do not take place.
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