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Increased efficiency was the basis of the other recommendation in Hooper 1. In a vote in March 2010, there was two-to-one support among CWU members for the new modernisation programme. That was one of the first Hooper 1 criteria. Many opportunities were missed between 2000, the passing of the Postal Services Act and the granting of commercial freedom and the
2010 decision. Loans were given, but the management failed to deal with distribution or with sorting office networks. Sorting machines were bought from France and left uninstalled by the management. Bullying was used to downsize the number of staff in the distribution and delivery centres. The management's actions were based not on efficiency, but simply on a desire to keep people out when they left the service. The chief executive who failed in that regard was given a £2.8 million bonus for his trouble.
The fully funded modernisation scheme based on the business transformation agreement that was reached in March is a great leap forward, but, as has been said, it will be massively painful. There will be substantial job losses. The whole thing could be handled by means of a change to allow Royal Mail to raise finance directly, without the need for privatisation or the sale of shares.
Let us examine the myth of "necessary privatisation". Share sales do not guarantee investment; they merely move the ownership of shares to another body. Following Hooper 1, it was impossible to find any organisation, even TNT, that would take an interest in buying shares in Royal Mail. The failure came about not because those organisations feared that they would not gain enough control, but because they realised that there was not enough money to be made from the delivery of mail under the present universal service delivery obligation.
So what will happen? A private equity company will buy into Royal Mail. It will probably borrow money, and then load the debt on to Royal Mail. The Business Secretary will deliver a lot of money to the Treasury rather than to Royal Mail. It is likely that the service will then be split between the part that makes money by picking up and sorting the mail and the part that deals with delivery, which will be dumped on regional sub-contractors who will fail both financially and in terms of delivery. The whole service will then collapse.
Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): I have two great interests in the Bill. I speak as chair of the all-party group on employee ownership, which plans to examine the Bill in more detail, and also as head of the Herefordshire save our post offices campaign, which fought hard for several years to prevent local post office closures.
I was surprised by the partisan nature of some Opposition speeches, because there are many aspects of the Bill that Opposition Members should embrace and support. The Government deserve enormous credit for the speed and energy with which they have addressed a thorny and difficult issue. There is a marked contrast between that and the record of delay and compromise under the last Administration, during a period when the financial position of Royal Mail only became worse.
I welcome many aspects of the Bill, including the granting of access to new capital for efficiency and modernisation, the excellent arrangements for employee ownership, and the Government's tough and difficult decision to take on the pension deficit-a nettle that the last Government signally failed to grasp. They preferred to keep it off the balance sheet, like the £230 billion of private finance initiative debt with which we have had to
deal. There is a real possibility that, once those changes have been implemented, Royal Mail and the Post Office will be able to turn the corner. The idea of a new mutual structure for the Post Office is particularly innovative and important. This is a human capital business, which requires the human touch and the service that a mutual can bring to it.
However, serious concerns remain. The universal service obligation, which many Members have mentioned, must be preserved. I remind the House of what happened in the telecoms industry, whose privatisation was in many ways highly effective. The universal service obligation in telecoms does not cover either broadband or mobile telephony, but those are exactly the areas in which rural places such as Herefordshire have had a poor deal over the past decade.
I want to draw particular attention to the issue of back-door closures of post offices. We have a vivid case study of that in my constituency. The village of Pontrilas has an excellent post office and shop, with a sorting office, plenty of parking and disabled access. It is a vital community resource in a very rural area. Recently, the sub-postmaster was sacked by the Post Office for a very small mistake in procedure, from which he derived no personal benefit at all. In any other organisation, that would mean a slapped wrist. His case has gone to appeal but it appears that appeal in the Post Office means one person sitting in judgment on hundreds of cases across the UK. If he loses his job, the effects will be disastrous not merely on him-a man who has had no income for the past six weeks, nor is any to come from the Post Office-but on the shop, which would close. The sorting office would go, too, as most probably would the Longtown post office and its sorting centre up the road in one of the most rural areas of this country.
Therefore, I ask the Minister to take an interest in the situation and to look at the position at the Pontrilas post office. I ask whether he agrees with my view that such back-door closures should be prevented and should be included within the remit of preserving the post office network. I also ask whether he shares my view that we need to grow our post offices, push more business through them and use them to support our towns and villages.
This Bill is one of the great "might have beens." It might have set out a positive policy on employee share ownership. Instead it does not tell us how the shares will be distributed and what employees can do with them. It might have strengthened the link between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd. Instead it raises new concerns about the viability of many post offices.
The Government's plan for the wholesale privatisation of Royal Mail threatens to turn a public service into a private monopoly. The Government have come up with myriad reasons why Royal Mail should be privatised. First, we were told that privatisation was necessary
because Royal Mail could not compete. Royal Mail delivers 99% of the mail to 28 million houses, six days a week. Which competitor in their right mind would want to take that on? The idea that Royal Mail is unable to compete with the private sector is complete and utter nonsense.
We were also told that the privatisation is the only way that Royal Mail can access capital, yet the entire modernisation programme of Royal Mail for the next three years is fully funded. Royal Mail is a profitable business and those profits could and should be retained for future investment.
The proposal to separate Royal Mail from Post Office Ltd, the postal service's counter network, is of huge concern to many sub-postmasters throughout my constituency. Any retail network losing its main customer base would struggle to remain viable. The Post Office relies on Royal Mail for a third of its income and the fact is that a privatised Royal Mail will be free to use other outlets for its counter services. Should that be followed through, there will be mass closures among local post office branches, and I hope that the Government Members who said that they would campaign to save post offices are getting ready to campaign once the Bill goes through.
I welcome the proposal for mutualisation of Post Office Ltd, but that does not mean that I do not have reservations. Currently sub-postmasters have £2 billion of their own money invested in the post office network and it is vital that they be granted a far greater say in how Post Office Ltd is run. The success of the Co-operative Group provides an excellent model for Post Office mutualisation. However, any attempt at mutualisation would inevitably fail unless backed by solid actions to get the post office network on its feet, with a viable business model. There will be no mutual option for Post Office Ltd if there is no credible business plan. A 10-year inter-business agreement is an absolute must to ensure Post Office Ltd's viability as both a business and a universal service provider, but the Government have so far refused to look at that. I hope that the Minister does that tonight.
The most important argument against the proposed sell-off is that the public do not want it. The polling is clear on that. They do not want it in Islwyn and they do not want it in the rest of the country. They understand that prices will go up and that the quality of postal services will go down if Royal Mail is sold, and they are right to take that view. The privatisation of Royal Mail makes no political or economic sense and the Bill is nothing but a wasted opportunity.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. A couple of Members have sat here throughout the debate but, unfortunately, were not called. I know they will be disappointed, but I will make sure that this counts in their favour when they next put in to speak. I call Nia Griffith.
Today we have been debating a Bill that will lead to the sale of Royal Mail. Many Members have mentioned the fact that the Royal Mail letter service has faced increasing competition from e-mail and text in recent years, and the decline in letter volumes has continued even between the publication of Lord Hooper's original report in 2008 and the update published last month. Many Members have spoken today, and I hope I will be forgiven if I do not mention every one of them by name, but I do want to pick up a few of the points that have been made.
The hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) serves on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and he obviously recognises the need for change. He also made the point that good management is vital, and asked the Minister to make clear how he proposes to secure the quality management that is needed. We all want to hear the answer to that question.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) wanted to find ways of taking modernisation forward. He pinpointed what we all need to know: how to provide more business for the post office network. The Bill does not provide an answer to that.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) wanted more information about mutualisation, and I recognise that she and her party have long supported mutualisation. Like many of us, she cannot see exactly how these proposals will work for the post office network.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) highlighted a problem to do with sorting offices, as did other Members with sorting offices in their constituencies. They are concerned about the consequences of the Bill for sorting offices. We also had a brief interlude from the hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord), who made an enlightening and enjoyable maiden speech. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]
The hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), speaking for the Scottish nationalists, stressed concerns about the pressures on a privatised service to reduce the extent of the universal service, and highlighted the particular needs of rural areas, as did many of my hon. Friends. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) raised concerns about the future viability of the post office network and stressed the idea that local government and communities need to decide exactly what they want a post office network to do.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) has a long tradition of work with the co-operative movement, and he expressed a fundamental philosophical objection to privatisation: the problem of how to square the inevitable drive to make profits and satisfy shareholders with the provision of a service for the public.
The hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) emphasised the problems of the current regulatory regime, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) emphasised the importance of the post office network for pensioners and the local economy.
The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) spoke in support of the proposed employee share scheme, although he was disappointed that only 10% of the stake will be going to such a scheme. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) explained that if the taxpayer has taken on the burden of the pension deficit, the taxpayer should share in the upside of the transformation of the Royal Mail. He made a compelling case for keeping the majority stake in Royal Mail in public ownership.
My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) wondered what would happen if a privatised Royal Mail got into financial difficulty, and my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) expressed concerns about job losses, and workers' pay and conditions in the private sector.
We heard speeches in favour of the Bill from the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham)-who did, however, request a specific list of several actions to be taken-and the hon. Members for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry).
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) was very concerned about how post offices can be made viable with the loss of Royal Mail business, and I now wish to discuss that particular problem. The Bill, as it stands, provides no guarantee of a continuation of a daily delivery of letters six days a week to every home in the United Kingdom. The Bill, which puts Royal Mail entirely into private hands, provides no guarantee that a wholly privatised Royal Mail would continue to use the post office network to provide its counter services. The Bill breaks the historic link between Royal Mail and the post office. In fact, Royal Mail could use a high street chain whose branches are largely confined to town centres. The Bill even proposes the surreal spectre of a post office network without any Post Office services. With the loss of the one third of its income that comes from Royal Mail business, the post office network could see a closure programme on an unprecedented scale.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): The hon. Lady talks about closures in the post office network on an "unprecedented scale", but could she remind us just how many post offices closed under her Government?
Nia Griffith: I can certainly remind the hon. Gentleman that a viable post office network consists of some 4,000 post offices, and that our Government put in the funding to keep 11,500 post offices open. Not only that, but we guaranteed a £150 million subsidy per year up to 2011, increasing it to £180 million for 2011-12, and designated access criteria to ensure that people would be within a short distance of their local post office, which provided that some 90% of the population would be within a mile of a post office. Without those criteria there would have been wholesale closures before now.
Nia Griffith: No, I will not give way; I wish to return to discussing today's announcement about the money, because it is important. Of course new investment is to be made and it will build on the investment that the Labour Government put in, but with no guarantee that the Royal Mail will continue to use the post office network, that could be good money wasted. Furthermore, will the Minister please clarify whether this is new money for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that was not in last week's comprehensive spending review-or will it lead to cuts in other business spending?
The Secretary of State gave us little insight into when the mutualisation of the post office network might take place, and no detail at all about the nature of the scheme envisaged. Most notably, he completely failed to make a convincing case for the wholesale privatisation of the Royal Mail; nor has any other speaker done so. Labour Members recognise the crucial role that public ownership has in safeguarding the public interest, and in making sure that taxpayers' money is invested for public benefit and not for private profit. For that reason, we oppose the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): I start by thanking the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), and all the other hon. Members, for their contribution to today's debate. The quality of the debate is testament to the importance that this House attaches to two of Britain's great institutions: Royal Mail and the Post Office. May I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) on his maiden speech? He may not be aware of it, but I visited a post office in his constituency to look at one of the pilots for our reforms. Will he send my regards to Mr Patel at the West End post office, who has certainly influenced my thinking?
Both sides of the House recognise the extent to which our constituents value Royal Mail's universal postal service. No one who witnessed the passionate debates over the previous Government's post office closure programme can underestimate how deeply communities across our country feel about their local post offices. That is why the Government feel so strongly about the Bill: we believe that what is at stake is no less than the very survival of the universal postal service and Britain's network of post offices. If we do not reform those two institutions, attract private capital and private sector disciplines into Royal Mail and tackle the underlying economic challenges to the post office network, their future in a digital world of e-mail and internet services is bleak.
Some Members wanted me to blame past management for all Royal Mail's ills. My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton South (Mr Binley) and for Southport (Dr Pugh), in particular, wanted me to criticise the quality of the management in the past. I am not going to take up that kind offer. What I will say is that the current chief executive, who was appointed by this Government-Moya Greene, who came from Canada Post-is an excellent chief executive and is already taking the tough decisions that need to be taken. It is interesting that she and Royal Mail support the Bill. They know that we need to get capital into Royal Mail. They know that it needs to be released from Treasury control.
Mr Binley: Will my hon. Friend correct a mistake that he has made? I asked him to explain how he was going to get the exciting new management into the Post Office to ensure its future, and I did not particularly want him to comment on my criticism of past management.
The real challenges of the digital world, as the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) said, apply to all postal administrations across the world. It is the deep challenges that face Royal Mail and the Post Office that make the position of the Opposition at best incredible and at worst downright irresponsible. They know the problems that Royal Mail faces: the decline in letter volumes as e-mail volumes grow exponentially, the large losses the company has made in recent times, and the incomparably large pension deficit. We know that they know, because just last year they said the same thing, and put a Bill before Parliament to address those very same problems. I have that Bill here-but unfortunately it was not brought down the corridor from the other place for us all to debate in this Chamber. If it had been, the similarities in the Bill would have meant that many of the questions raised in this debate could have been debated then. So, let me address some of the questions that I have been asked.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall talked about foreign ownership. She may remember that when her Government tabled their Bill there was concern on the Labour Benches that TNT and Deutsche Post might buy Royal Mail, so she has an issue to raise. What is often forgotten in this debate is that British investors already own 30% of Deutsche Post. That is the real world: investors invest in good companies.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) had worries that the royal associations would somehow be broken as a result of privatisation. The Queen will continue to approve all stamps that bear her image, as she does now. The Royal Mail brand is valuable and we will put safeguards in place against its misuse. We have initiated discussions with the Palace for that very purpose. I should tell the hon. Gentleman, who claimed that more post offices closed under the Conservative Government, that he is wrong. In 18 years of Conservative government fewer post offices closed than in 13 years of Labour government.
Coalition colleagues might be concerned because of the similarities between our Bill and the Labour Bill. They are so similar that we half expected the Labour party to feel duty-bound to support our Bill.
For example, there are almost identical proposals on pensions, except that our proposals are slightly more favourable to Royal Mail employees. The clauses on regulation are also similar, except that our Bill introduces new safeguards for the universal postal service that were strangely absent from the previous Government's Bill. Our Bill rebalances the regulatory framework, putting the universal service and its financial sustainability at its heart.
Those ought to be major areas of agreement, but we did not get that tonight. We heard some bizarre criticisms from Opposition Front Benchers. They said that we are not addressing the problems of the regulatory system, but it is their regulatory system. They do not appear to have read the Bill, because we are making changes to that regulatory system.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East brought in Ofcom in the previous Government's Bill. It has a duty to reduce unnecessary regulation, which will assist the legislation. The Bill requires cost transparency and accounting separation to deal with many of the regulatory problems that my hon. Friends the Members for Southport and for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) raised in the debate.
Surprisingly, Opposition Members also raised concerns about the pensions solution. The hon. Member for Vauxhall said that it is possible to achieve a solution on pensions without a sale. It would be irresponsible to ask the taxpayer to take on an £8 billion deficit without securing private capital and disciplines and without transferring future risk from the taxpayer. This is a package deal, which is what Hooper argued for and what we are delivering.
Richard Hooper made it clear that action is needed if we are to secure the future of a universal postal service. His document, "Modernise or Decline", sets out those options. When the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) questioned whether a privatised Royal Mail would threaten the universal service obligation, he was ignoring the evidence put forward by Sir Richard Hooper. I can only think that he has not read the Bill. If he had read it, he would know that it is all about safeguarding the universal postal service of Royal Mail and the Post Office, recognising the particular importance of those services to our rural communities.
The six-day, one-price-goes-anywhere universal service obligation is enshrined on the face of the Bill, but we have not stopped there. The Bill introduces new safeguards to protect that service, ensuring that any future change must be properly debated by Parliament, must retain the uniformity of the service and must take into account the interests of postal service users, which, of course, includes rural communities. The scaremongering of the Scottish nationalists flies in the face of both the facts and the text of the Bill.
Returning to the substance of today's debate, despite our producing a Bill that is better than the previous Government's Bill-better for Royal Mail employees' pensions and better for the protection of the universal service-the Opposition are determined to oppose it. Where are the huge differences that are causing the Opposition such problems? We want to provide Royal Mail employees with shares, so workers can benefit from the prosperous future for Royal Mail that our reforms will enable. The previous Government talked about involving employees, but they argued with the
unions about giving employees shares and then argued with themselves. This Government are united, and we are going to do it through the largest employee share scheme by percentage of shares of any major British privatisation. For the first time ever, I believe, we are mandating an employee share scheme on the face of a Bill. As a member of a party that championed employee share ownership for decades in opposition, I could not be more proud to present this radical measure to the House tonight. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who did so much to develop those issues when we were in opposition.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), who explained how important employee share ownership can be in driving productivity. He was concerned that only 10% of shares will go to the employee share scheme, but I can tell him that the Bill refers to "at least 10%". I was pleased by the support for employee shares from my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman). His chairmanship of the all-party group on employee ownership shows that he knows about that area. He raised a constituency case, which I will take up if he writes to me.
Another key difference between Labour's Bill and our Bill is our mutualisation proposal for the Post Office. Sub-postmasters, Post Office employees and communities can all have a say in how their post offices are run. The Co-operative model is a huge example of the big society and something that the old Fabians would have classed as public ownership, but the Labour party is going to vote against the Bill.
Let me clarify the mutualisation proposals for the Opposition, who do not seem to understand what they are all about. Post Office Ltd, the national company that franchises to individual post offices and chains of post offices, would become a mutual if our proposals go ahead. We believe that having a national mutual similar to the Co-op would have many practical benefits and would align the incentives of sub-postmasters with those of the company and their main franchisor. When it comes to modernisation and putting services online, it is important to have aligned incentives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) raised concerns about the conditions for mutualisation. Of course we will have to ensure that there is a viable post office network, otherwise we could not make mutualisation work, so that is one of our conditions. Clause 7 makes it clear that a mutualised post office network would have to be "for the public benefit", so that is also a clear condition.
Despite the fact that our Bill is better for Royal Mail employees, Royal Mail, the Post Office, customers and the taxpayer, the Opposition still oppose it. What is their problem? The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East, the former Minister of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, said that it is about ownership but he did not ask the next question: what is the difference between the shareholdings to which the previous
Government and this Government were prepared to agree? That principle concerns about 0.2% of the shares-the extra shares that they were not prepared to sell but we are. The sale of those shares will free Royal Mail from Treasury control and will enable it to be the master of its own fate and to invest for the future without coming cap in hand to the taxpayer. New Labour has been dying for some years but with the opposition to this Bill, old Labour has returned. I thought that I would be in danger of being called Red Ed with the bail-out of the pension plan, but the real Red Ed is on the Opposition Benches-ideology before reality, dogma before common sense and, worst of all, vested interest before national interest.
The idea that public ownership has delivered a successful Royal Mail and post office network clearly is not right. Perhaps Opposition Members are aware that Royal Mail shed 65,000 jobs during the 13 years of Labour government, so public ownership did not deliver for workers. Let us consider the experience under privatisation around the world. Since Deutsche Post was floated in 2001, it has seen investment of £11.6 billion. That just will not be possible for Royal Mail if it remains in the public sector, but through our measures, it will become possible.
The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) made another accusation against the Bill-it would lead to post office closures. What a cheek! Ten post offices closed in his constituency under the previous Labour Government and about 5,000 post offices were shut in total. As so many colleagues have made clear throughout this debate, Labour is the party of post office closures. This Government will not make those same errors. That is why my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary today announced our £1.34 billion investment programme for the post office network. That money will not pay for a closure programme-we will not throw money down the drain as Labour did-but it will bring a lasting change to the network and will tackle the underlying economic issues it faces. That is why the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will see, when we make our full statement on policy for the post office network shortly, a Government working as one-joined-up government is what they used to call it.
Mr Denham: We look forward to hearing the more detailed statement. Will the Minister confirm that his Department suffered one of the largest departmental cuts in last week's comprehensive spending review-25% of revenue and 50% of capital? Will he also confirm that the money announced today will come from that same pot of money? What other cuts that he has not yet announced will be made in BIS to finance it?
The Opposition made much of one point tonight. Apart from their ideological contortions over ownership, they have tried to suggest that separating Royal Mail from the Post Office will somehow be the catalyst for post office closures. Let me explain why they are wrong.
First, a privately owned Royal Mail will not act against its own commercial interests. It will not give up valued retail space in the heart of communities the length and breadth of Britain, creating a vacuum that
its competitors would gratefully fill. To think otherwise one would have to be living on Planet Consignia. Have Members heard of Planet Consignia? It is where the previous Government once tried to place Royal Mail. This Government, along with most people in Britain, understand the value and tradition of royalty, and will not make such daft mistakes.
Secondly, Royal Mail has made it clear that the current long-term commercial contract between Royal Mail and post offices will continue. Only this week, the chief executive of Royal Mail, Moya Greene, told me that
"the support that the Government is giving to Post Offices Ltd should mean that the Post Office should become an even stronger retail channel for Royal Mail."
Thirdly, if the Opposition are seriously saying the Government should write into the Bill that there should be a statutory permanent contractual relationship between Royal Mail and the Post Office, they would be risking not only a legal challenge from competitors, but setting the Post Office in aspic. Do they not realise that as Royal Mail's letter volumes decline, so too will the mail business for the Post Office, so it needs to be given the opportunity to build new revenues? Do they not realise that new sources of revenue will be critical if we are to achieve a financially viable post office network?
I have a confession. I am a postal anorak. Before having the honour of being elected to the House in 1997, I was a management consultant and I specialised in postal companies. I worked on projects for Royal Mail's equivalents in Taiwan, South Africa, Belgium and Sweden. Although I co-authored a report for the US Postal Service to put to Congress on the commercialisation and liberalisation of postal companies and markets around the world, I have to disappoint the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont); I never worked on a privatisation programme- [ Interruption. ] Regrettably. Back then, in 1997- [ Interruption. ]
Mr Davey: In 1997, Royal Mail was a company that could hold its own with most postal administrations around the world. It needed reform and it needed investment, but it was not balance sheet insolvent or loss-making and it was not as fragile as it is today.
Mr Deputy Speaker, what happened between 1997 and 2010? I will tell you. There was dereliction of duty by the Labour Government, on a massive scale. There were post office closures, lack of investment in Royal Mail and the pension deficit ballooned.
This Government will not shirk our responsibilities. We will take the tough decisions. We will invest in the Post Office. We will free Royal Mail for the investment it needs. I commend the Bill to the House.
That the following provisions shall apply to the Postal Services Bill:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
2. Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 9 December 2010.
3. The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
4. Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
6. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
7. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed.- (Mr Newmark .)
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Postal Services Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of-
(1) expenditure in connection with the provision of benefits under the Royal Mail Pension Plan,
(2) other expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown by virtue of the Act,
(3) expenditure incurred by the Postal Services Commission by virtue of the Act,
(4) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided. -(Mr Newmark.)
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Postal Services Bill, it is expedient to authorise-
(1) the imposition of charges to corporation tax and stamp duty land tax in connection with the restructuring of the Royal Mail group,
(2) the making of provision in connection with the restructuring of the Royal Mail Pension Plan,
(3) the imposition of charges on providers of postal services and users of such services by the Office of Communications, and
(4) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund. -(Mr Newmark.)
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue. In the past few months, the House has debated public spending cuts, job losses and the scaling back of services, but the human and personal costs are often forgotten among the facts, figures and policies, with a profound and tragic impact on individual lives and families.
When people take their own lives and self-harm, their reasons are complex and often individual, but running through too many incidents are worries about money and debt, the loss of status and esteem often associated with unemployment, and fears about a house or job loss. The increases in personal debt, bankruptcy, homelessness and unemployment that can follow can substantially increase the incidence of suicide and self-harm. A survey for Mind this year showed that one in 10 workers had approached their GP as a direct result of the recession, mostly for depression.
The points that I wish to make this evening are drawn from papers written by academics working in a range of institutions, including the universities of Bristol, Oxford and Manchester, which have departments focusing on suicide and its prevention. I am also indebted to the tremendous work of the Samaritans and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The academic community draws on research on the effect of recession on cultures across Europe, as well as those in east and south-east Asia, Australia, America and elsewhere. The data go back to the great depression of the 1930s and are right up to date.
The steps that I will urge the Government to take are recommended by leading experts in the causes and prevention of suicide and self-harm. I thank those experts not only for their support and access to their research, which has helped me to prepare for the debate, but for their dedication and commitment to preventing self-harm and saving lives.
Self-harm includes intentional acts of self-poisoning or self-injury, irrespective of the motivation or the degree of suicidal intent. It includes suicide attempts as well as acts in which little or no suicidal intent is involved, such as when people harm themselves as a form of interpersonal communication of distress, to reduce internal tension or to punish themselves.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists points out in its report "Self-harm, suicide and risk: helping people who self-harm" that the incidence of self-harm has continued to rise in the UK over the past 20 years. For young people, the rate here in the UK is said to be the highest in Europe. The RCP points out that
"the needs, care, well-being and individual human dilemma of the person who harms themselves should be at the heart of what we as clinicians do. Public health policy has a vital role to play and psychiatrists must be involved and not leave these crucial political and managerial decisions to those who are not professionally equipped to appreciate the complexities of self-harm and suicide."
"we must never forget that we are not just dealing with social phenomena but with people who are often at, and beyond the limit of what they can emotionally endure."
Research has shown clearly that economic cycles give a clear indication of suicidal trends, and recession has been shown to be accompanied by an increase in suicide rates across the world. Falling stock prices, increased bankruptcies, and housing insecurities including evictions, the anticipated loss of a home and higher interest rates are all associated with increased suicide risk. Study has shown that being in debt is associated with mental health problems and suicide ideation, which contribute to someone taking their life.
We know that the unemployed are two to three times more likely to die by suicide than people in employment. Unemployed men are particularly at risk. Unemployment can result in poorer mental health and contribute to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness, all of which increase the likelihood that someone will think that their life is no longer worth living.
For those who have no history of mental health problems, there is a 70% increase in suicide risk if they are unemployed. The great depression of the '20s and '30s resulted in a steep increase in male suicides. The people most at risk of suicide are those who are experiencing financial problems, those in poverty, those struggling with the rising cost of living, those who have recently lost their jobs or who are affected by a downturn in business, those who are in low-status occupations, and those with existing mental health problems. People who are self-employed or who live in single-person households, those experiencing relationship breakdowns, and those who are isolated and without strong social networks are also particularly at risk.
Initially, people often turn to drugs and alcohol to mitigate the emotional pain and confusion that they feel. Some argue that improving access to psychological therapies is the best way of helping those who suffer from mental health problems as a result of the recession. Treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapies can benefit people, but as Professor Drinkwater of the university of Bristol has made clear,
"unless you do something about the environment in which they live they are...likely to relapse. Without real jobs, decent housing, and adequate incomes people are going to be at risk of becoming ill again".
Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. In addition to what she says, I suggest that businesses have a role to play. In Nelson in my constituency, six deaths in the past six years resulted from people falling from a multi-storey car park by the Pendle Rise shopping centre. Despite that, when Pendle borough council proposed new safety measures in July last years, the car park owners refused to support such measures, saying that town hall chiefs were "wasting their money" because people with a desire to commit suicide would always "find a way". Does she agree that such an attitude from certain businessmen is completely unacceptable?
Mrs Moon: Anyone who can take any step to turn someone away for that brief moment in which they might think again should do so. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that whatever barriers are needed in that car park should be in place, and I thank him for his intervention.
I would direct the Minister to research carried out by Professor David Gunnell et al on the effect of the economic crisis in east and south-east Asia in the 1990s,
to recent work by Professor Keith Hawton, David Platt and Camilla Haw, and to the work of Professor Purkis and the steps taken in Australia to deal with, and indeed to reduce, suicide in a recession.
There is broad agreement in academia, psychiatry and mental health charities on what steps need to be taken to reduce suicide and the effect of a recession on suicide and self-harm rates. Suicide prevention must remain a priority of public health policy in all countries in the UK. There should be structures at national, regional and local level and mechanisms for the flow of information, evaluation and best practice in reducing suicide and self-harm. That best practice must be known, shared and implemented. It is essential that research into what works and why people are taking their own lives be funded.
The current national suicide prevention strategy for England is coming to an end. I urge the Government to ensure that this work continues to be funded and taken forward. Overseeing and administering the strategy, including issuing annual reports, costs very little, but the potential cost-effectiveness of continuing it is enormous. It is important that the strategy should help to ensure a continued focus on all those working in the field. The Samaritans and the Royal College of Psychiatrists stress the need for all people attending accident and emergency departments, as well as those admitted to hospital following incidents of self-harm or attempted suicide, to be referred to trained mental health professionals and sources of help. It is sad to say that many people-especially those who self-harm-are seen as attention-seeking, and do not get the help and support that they need. They do not get onward referrals, and instead return again and again. The risk of their self-harming becoming suicide ideation and suicide is very high. It is critical to ensure that people receive the help and support that they need, once they take that first step of approaching A and E.
Mental health needs in general, and a specific strategy to prevent suicide and self-harm in particular, should form a central part of the upcoming White Paper on public health. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that that will be the case. In addition to those facing unemployment and debt, or relationship problems, the needs of those at particular risk-they include asylum seekers, those in minority ethnic groups, those in institutional care, sexual minorities, veterans and those bereaved by suicide-should be actively addressed as part of the strategy.
I call on the Government to establish a UK-wide forum to bring together agencies from the four nations that are involved in suicide prevention policy, research and practice, to help us formulate a way forward through the difficult years ahead. The Departments responsible for public health in each of the four Administrations must lead a cross-departmental strategy to raise awareness of self-harm and ensure that front-line staff in education, social work, prisons, Jobcentre Plus, the police and other relevant agencies receive appropriate training in dealing with self-harm and those at risk of suicide.
Included in such a strategy should be the monitoring of harmful internet sites that encourage or incite suicide and self-harm. I would like to pay my personal thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for her help in taking that issue forward in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. However, we now urgently need to address the legal status of those sites
on a European level, so that we can increase our control over them and prevent them from reaching out and damaging the lives of people across the UK. It is important that Government websites, including the NHS Direct and Department of Health sites, should include authoritative, accessible and user-friendly information on the help and support available both to those who self-harm or who are contemplating taking their own lives, and to their friends and their family.
The NHS has a guide, entitled "Help is at Hand: A resource for people bereaved by suicide and other sudden, traumatic death". That excellent guide, which could possibly be updated and reviewed, gives advice for those who are suddenly bereaved. It is an excellent example of the kind of information that should be available. Unfortunately, not enough front-line staff know about it, so the information is not getting to those who need it. Services coming into contact with those who have been bereaved by suicide should know about the document and be able to distribute it. It is vital to ensure that GPs' surgeries, the police, social workers and coroners have access to it, and that families receive it.
Professors Gunnell, Platt and Hawton, in an article recently published in the British Medical Journal, stress the importance of social policy measures to create new jobs, of adequate welfare benefits for unemployed people, and of the provision of alternatives to early entry into the labour market, especially for young people, such as increasing the number of university places. It is important to give people a sense of hope. They also argue that employers and trade unions must be mindful of the potential risk to mental health of redundancy, and that workers should be given the help and support that they need.
I was pleased by the help and support that I received from the former Member for South Dorset to ensure that front-line Jobcentre Plus staff had access to support and training to give them an understanding of mental health needs, and of the risk to the mental health and emotional stability of those who had newly been made redundant or become unemployed. I should like to know whether that help, support and training will continue to be available to Jobcentre Plus staff.
In concluding my remarks, I want to stress that most people who lose their jobs, their homes or their businesses in a recession do not commit suicide or self-harm, but we must be aware of the increased risk in the current economic climate. This must be addressed by the Government. I am aware that new figures are coming out tomorrow, and I look forward to seeing whether the tremendous reduction in suicides in this country is continuing. I fear that perhaps it is not.
I also encourage the Government to enter discussions with the media on the reporting of suicides, to prevent the potential for social contagion. In the past few years, many of the national newspapers have become much more aware of what they are doing when they report such cases. I do not wish to criticise, but it is important, in a recession, that we do not exaggerate or even raise the link between the loss of a job and a death. I believe that the Government could take a lead in that area.
I would also ask all Ministers, when looking at policy, to bear in mind the emotional devastation and exhaustion that drives a person to suicide, and the enormous loss
for friends and family, and to avoid trivialising that pain and despair as the Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond) did in a recent article on train delays. I do not want to see that repeated.
It has been my aim in this debate to raise awareness, and to concentrate focus across government on the potential consequences of policy decisions if they are not mitigated by the help and support recommended by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, leading academic researchers and voluntary agencies working in this field. Finally, I invite the Minister to attend a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention, to discuss what the Government are going to do to reduce suicide and self-harm, so that we can engage and work together to reduce the incidence of such terrible loss and damage.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Paul Burstow): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing the debate. I want to pay tribute to her, and to thank her for the work that she does in leading the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention. Her name sticks in my mind because, when I first became a Minister, I answered many questions that she had tabled on these issues. When I saw that she had secured this debate, I was conscious that she had been pursuing this matter vigorously and diligently for many a year. She brings that important issue to the House's attention tonight. The fact that she has constituency experience of the matter, given the tragedies that have taken place there in recent years, lends added weight to her argument.
The hon. Lady was right to bring us back to the personal stories behind the statistics, and to recognise that, while strategies are important, they offer little consolation to those who are affected personally and directly by suicide and self-harm. She rightly paid tribute to the work of the Samaritans and other organisations. She was also right to highlight the need to share best practice and research; I entirely subscribe to that view.
There is plenty of evidence across the world that in times of recession and high unemployment, rates of mental illness and suicide tend to rise. In this country, Office for National Statistics figures tell us that suicides rose 6% between 2007 and 2008 when the recession began to bite. Tomorrow, as the hon. Lady said, the Department of Health publishes its "Mortality Monitoring Bulletin", updated to include the data for 2009. I am unable to share it with the House now, but it will be in the public domain then. This will include new information on suicide rates, giving us the full picture of how the course of the recession affected the nation's public health. The figures illustrate in the most dramatic way the human tragedies that took place in the economic downturn.
We now need to ensure that economic recovery is matched by psychological recovery from a long and painful recession. The 2010 Legatum Institute's report, published earlier this week, showed that there is plenty of work to do. It gave a salutary warning that in terms of happiness and the general well-being of our fellow citizens, the UK is sorely lacking compared with other countries. In our services, too, across society, we have to
ensure that we start valuing GWB, or general well-being, as highly as we do GDP. Specifically, as the hon. Lady argues, we must do everything we can to return to the pattern of declining suicide rates that we saw for most of the last decade.
To help us do so, I can first confirm for the hon. Lady that we will publish a new suicide prevention strategy in the new year. As the old strategy comes to an end, we need to update it and make sure that it is fit for purpose. We will certainly take into account the points she has made. I will want to look at the studies to which she referred and ensure that suicide prevention is referenced in the forthcoming mental health strategy, too.
The new prevention strategy for suicide will include new measures, particularly those to support high-risk groups. I will ask officials to discuss the hon. Lady's suggestion of how best to collaborate with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we share learning and best practice across the countries. The strategy will also look at how we can restrict access to some of the methods people use to self-harm or commit suicide. The hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who talked about a particular constituency example, illustrates why we need to erect barriers, quite literally, to deal with suicide hotspots. I am shocked and appalled by the attitude that the business in his constituency adopted to that necessary investment in prevention. The strategy will also involve working with all forms of media to ensure that we get responsible reporting to prevent copycat suicides.
Let me say something about the issues raised about the internet and how it can be used to promote suicide and provide information about methods. There is now greater clarity in the law. Section 59 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 simplified and modernised the law on encouraging or assisting suicide by online means. The Government continue to work with internet service providers through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to remove harmful or illegal content. We continue to work with search engine providers, encouraging them to link only to appropriate, supportive websites when somebody uses "suicide" as a search term.
There is clearly a difficulty in how to strike the balance correctly, which does not really lend itself to arbitrary Government action. Banning all discussions and content on suicides from sites popular with young people risks driving them to parts of the internet that are far less safe and certainly not moderated, so more harm could be done. There is a need to update existing guidance, and we plan to publish updated guidance for technology providers to keep children safe online. We expect internet providers to follow that advice and remove harmful content as quickly as possible. I will certainly look at the hon. Lady's points about the provision of helpful advice on the Department of Health and associated websites.
In reducing suicides, we have a specific focus on the health service, but we need a much broader programme of work across Government to improve general well-being while ensuring that the right services are in place for people who experience mental illness.
Everything that we know about the pattern of suicide rates demands a twin-track approach covering both clinical and societal issues. On the clinical side, we will do more to ensure that the NHS gives people the support that they need, and a new outcomes framework should make clear that the NHS must give mental health services the same priority as physical health services. There should be no difference in the esteem that we attach to those services. That approach will help us to shift cultures and priorities, ensuring that accident and emergency and hospital staff are trained to deal with self-harm or other indications of poor mental health, and are able to refer patients to the appropriate services rather than creating the revolving door to which the hon. Lady referred. GPs also need to be properly trained to help them to identify those at risk of suicide, and to provide appropriate drug treatment and psychological support in line with National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines.
The hon. Lady was right to say that talking therapies are a critical part of the onward journey for those at risk. In 2009, the last Government initiated the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme. Where they exist, IAPT services work extremely well, but coverage around the country is still patchy. Earlier this year, I was able to announce additional investment of £70 million in the current financial year to ensure that we could continue the roll-out of IAPT, in order to deliver a commitment in the coalition programme. I am pleased that the Chancellor confirmed last week that we are now committed to investing more additional resources to allow the continuing expansion of IAPT up to 2014, including its extension to cover people of all ages rather than just those of working age.
However, we must not over-medicalise what is also a social and cultural issue. The Foresight report from the Office of Science shows that mental health problems are closely linked to a range of social problems. Debt and unemployment are key triggers for suicide, as are social isolation, family breakdown and substance misuse. Those are best addressed and best prevented in the community, not in the clinic. In developing our new mental health strategy, we will also consider how we can change cultures and develop resilience and relationships in communities to prevent mental illness and suicides.
We will, for instance, target those with alcohol or drug problems, and create better links between treatment services and mental health services. We will support vulnerable families by providing more health visitors and family nurse partnerships to give children the stable upbringings that provide a basis for good mental health in later life. We will also address the stigma associated with mental illness. It is that stigma-that reluctance to express emotions and accept help, advice and support, especially among men-that can be such a serious cause of the problems in our mental health services and, ultimately, even a cause of suicides. We also need to harness the expertise and experience of the third sector and voluntary groups to create local grass-roots plans and action to support better public mental health.
One of the biggest priorities will be returning more people with mental health problems to employment. We know that long-term unemployment has a hugely corrosive effect on a person's mental health. Those who are unemployed for an extended period are 35 times more likely to commit suicide than those in stable employment. The sad legacy of the last decade has been the huge rise in the number of people trapped on benefits, along with all the damage that that does to a person's self-esteem and self-worth.
We will build on the good links that have been established in some areas between IAPT and employment services. Many primary care trusts are already making connections with their local Jobcentre Plus, and I want to ensure that such relationships are formed in all IAPT centres as the roll-out continues. However, we also need businesses and organisations to invest in the good mental health of their staff, particularly during times of anxiety and change. Research shows that employers who invest in staff well-being receive a ninefold return on their investment in terms of increased productivity and reduced sickness absence. We want to drive that message home in the context of the employers' occupational health responsibilities.
The human effect of dealing with the deficit crisis is not something that the Government can take lightly. I know that many in the public sector will be feeling anxious and concerned as a result of the spending review, and that demands the utmost vigilance from us in our support for people's mental health in the months and years ahead. We are committed to mending the psychological as well as the economic scars of the past recession, improving mental health services, promoting greater community resilience to mental illness, and doing much more to help unemployed people regain their confidence and return to work.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate, and for the leadership that she provides in this regard. I hope that we shall be able to deliver the changes that we all want to see, and ensure that we have good-quality mental health in this country.