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To return to the main thrust of my contribution, I am concerned that, unless we are careful, the separation of Royal Mail and post offices will have a sizeable detrimental
effect on the viability of the post office network. The truth is that the network is a diminishing resource even as we speak. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who moved the new clause, said that some post offices had temporarily closed. Well, if you believe that, you'll believe anything. In truth, they are closed for business, just as many pubs are, which is another problem in rural areas-but not a part of the Bill.
Mr Weir: I have some experience of the Post Office in my constituency, and a long-term temporary closure effectively means that, although the Post Office accepts that there should be a post office in that location, the branch has closed because someone has retired or died and the organisation cannot find anyone willing to take it on. One reason for that is uncertainty about the future.
Mr Binley: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whom I worked with for some time on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, for that intervention. He spent many hours with me questioning the management whom I have criticised so heavily. He is absolutely right: temporary closure does not take into account the fact that post offices are private businesses that need to have people to buy them, run them and invest in them. My hon. Friend-I mean the hon. Gentleman, but he is still my friend-makes a valid point. The post offices are for sale, but there are not any buyers for them. The reason is not difficult to work out. I have grave concerns about the viability of the Post Office.
Jim McGovern: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that we-or any new owners-must push business towards the post office network. During the last post office closures in 2007-08, I visited the sub-post offices in my constituency. The sub-postmaster of one of them freely told me that he renewed his TV licence and his road tax online. In addition, seven out of 10 pensioners and nine out of 10 new pensioners get their pension paid out of the bank. We need new business for the post offices. That sub-postmaster was willing to bite the Government's hand off for the compensation he was getting because he just wanted out.
Mr Binley: I accept the hon. Gentleman's comment. The Post Office could have been much more imaginative in supporting sub-post-offices to increase their business. Over the past 10 or 12 years, the lack of that support has been one of the reasons why they are less viable as a business than they should be-even the good ones now are less viable. We must accept that steps have been taken recently and I welcome that. However, the general thrust of his intervention is absolutely right.
Let us consider the post office network. I have already made the point that 150 post offices are closed and will remain closed because there are not the buyers to buy them. Some 900 are up for sale, which supports that point totally. Let us not mess about with stupid phrases such as "temporarily closed." They are pretty much finished and that is the end of it. We need to be honest.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem he describes affects not just post offices, but businesses in neighbourhoods and rural communities in general, and that some of the provisions in the
Government's Localism Bill and in the White Paper, "Local Growth: Realising Every Place's Potential," might help to stimulate interest in communities and local government to support those businesses?
Mr Binley: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He knows that I agree with that view-in fact, we have talked about it. We fought the 2005 election together. That was a very happy experience for me; I wish it had been slightly happier for him, but it is good to see him in the House now. As we fought that election together this was one of the issues we talked about at some length. I accept his point.
The very fact that more than 1,000 of our post offices are either closed or up for sale shows that there is concern about the viability of the network. It is not in doubt that we have some serious problems. I shall come to the impact that those closures might have on many of my colleagues in rural seats in two or three years' time. We went through a process of fighting to save post offices and I will describe how I experienced that process and how difficult it was to deal with as a Member of Parliament, even though I was an Opposition Member. It will be much more difficult for many of my colleagues to deal with the matter as members of the Government. The Minister may well take that point into account. However, the separation of Royal Mail will create massively greater pressures on the commercial viability of many of our post offices, unless we give them more time to adjust. That is the point of all this.
Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman draw parallels between his experience of representing rural areas and my experience of representing very deprived communities that are often isolated, where the post office is a vital lifeline? Perhaps we should support the new clause-although it is proposed by a Member from an opposing party-because the very best thing we can do is to preserve that historic link between Royal Mail and the post office network. We can at least offer people that crumb of comfort from the legislation.
Mr Binley: I share that sentiment-in fact, it is the thrust of my contribution. There is no doubt that urban and suburban post offices are as important to their communities as rural post offices. In the main, urban post offices have a bigger market to exploit if they are given the help to do so, but that is all the advantage they have. They are still in difficulty and they still face considerable danger. I totally accept the hon. Lady's point.
Damian Collins: My hon. Friend talked about good and bad management in the past. Does he agree that we should not let Post Office management off the hook and that they should continue to innovate in terms of how they deliver their services, particularly in relation to the roll-out of the post office local service? That service could integrate well into existing businesses, both in villages and urban areas.
I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran). The truth is that our local post offices are more than just local small businesses. They are that at their very heart, but they serve a wider purpose in many respects. They are vital to our local community networks, as she said, and they are crucial in urban, suburban or rural areas where they are the only point of contact for perhaps a mile or more.
There is a social networking element to my local post office-I pay tribute to it and I shall name it, as I hope it benefits from my doing so-in my village of Hackleton. I know the quality of service that post offices give. Elderly, vulnerable people go in them and seek help on a range of subjects that are way outside the remit of the post office. That help is given willingly as part of the service that post offices provide. The community networking element of our post offices has a value that we have not priced into this whole exercise, and that needs to be taken into account.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I very much want to support the focus on the community role of local post offices. We focused on the economic role, which is massive, but the community role is so important. Figures provided by Age Concern show that more than 98% of older people say that their local post office is a lifeline. For some people, the issue is almost a matter of life and death, which is why this debate is so important.
In addition to the community networking element, post offices have a social work element as well. I have hinted at that, particularly-as was just said-in relation to the elderly and young mums in our communities. Many of those young mothers, who are building families and creating the generations of tomorrow, have only one car. Many of the elderly do not have a car. If such people are not close to a post office, they are, frankly, even more socially deprived.
Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, during the bad weather that we had at the end of last year, the role of local post offices that have been combined with small shops was even more important in constituencies such as mine because people could not travel to large supermarkets?
Mr Binley: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. I think that these interventions are making an impression on the Minister. I am sure that he is well aware from his own experience of the social role that post offices play and that he will have taken that into account. I hope that when I sit down after having made a suggestion to him, he might be able to agree with me, throw me a little red meat, be kind and make all of us feel a bit better as a result of the debate.
I have talked about support for the elderly and young mums-the people without transport. The Government say that there is not a social element to their thinking, but there needs to be, as they will sure find out, as individual Members of Parliament. If people find out some six months or a year before the next general election that that has not been taken into account, those colleagues will be kicked pretty hard, I can assure them, because that happened to many of us in the previous round of closures.
Many of our post offices are sizeably dependent on Royal Mail. A third of our local post offices' revenue comes from the sale of Royal Mail products and services. When the split happens-I am not arguing against that per se at the moment-it will be possible to withdraw, change and alter pricing for those products and services, and that could impact detrimentally on post offices. The related income to our local post offices is £343 million-not to be sneezed at. More than 30% of the wages of the people who work in our local post offices is paid for via these services-that is, some £250 million. Withdraw that, and we withdraw a whole work force of many tens of thousands of people. There are also the 900 post offices that are mail work sub-post offices, which means that they provide the premises and facilities and supervise the mail delivery-a vital element of the role of our sub-post offices in terms of the larger business of communication and mail. That applies to more than 14% of our rural post offices. Unless there is a pre-arranged business relationship, any organisation coming in will see that as a real opportunity to save costs immediately.
Ian Murray: It is not inconceivable that a company such as Deutsche Post could buy Royal Mail. When such a transaction happens in Germany, the post office network is protected by law. As a result of the cost implications, Deutsche Post could run down our post office network to subsidise its post office network in Germany.
Mr Binley: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that supportive intervention. That gives us even more reason to ensure that there is a business agreement to tide the post offices over. We need to ensure-not to hope, guess or think-that they have the time, and therein lies the great value of the new clause. We must give them time; otherwise, we cut their legs off almost immediately. If we cut their legs off, many of my colleagues' legs will go with them. We need to consider this particular aspect very seriously, not because I want to save the future well-being of my colleagues, although I am delighted to do so, but because if their legs get cut off it means that my worst fears have come to fruition and my local communities will suffer immensely. That is where the real concern lies in all this and why it needs consideration and thought.
I fought the closure of two post offices in the previous round. I am delighted that I was successful in one case, although I must say that I was suspicious that the Government had already decided to allow some to be saved merely to give the impression that the consultation had value. Can we really believe that? Well, I did, all the way through-shame on me! I was able to save, in one way or another, one of those post offices, but one of them closed, in a community where the elderly were a sizeable, if not predominant, section of the population. That meant that to get to the nearest post office they either had to hire a taxi or walk a mile and a third uphill. Frankly, the older one gets, it is just as dangerous coming downhill as it is going uphill. A number of those elderly people were distraught, as were some of the young mums with two or three kids, because their husbands needed the car to go to work and they had no other form of transport. They found it immensely difficult-and dangerous too, as the elderly did, particularly in slippery weather such as that which we have just seen.
Those are the sorts of little things that do not impact massively on decision making in this place but impact massively on the lives of individuals in our communities. I therefore implore the Minister to give some thought to the value of post offices as social and local community institutions, and to recognise that many of them will need time to make the adjustment. To cut off the supply of income that Royal Mail provides will be a damaging and, in some cases, a closure-making blow. Does he agree that they are a community network of social value? I am sure he does. I hope he also accepts that I want to see the success of this coalition and to see it returned as the next Government. Unless he takes action, however, he might be cutting off the legs of many of his colleagues-and indeed, for all I know, even his own legs.
I ask the Minister to think about this seriously. Perhaps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester suggested, he would prefer a different time line and might be willing to consider three, four or five years. If so, I beg him to do so. The Minister may need that option to provide more help in his negotiations with potential buyers to ensure that the pill is sweetened a little in recognition of the cost implications. That sort of thinking would be massively valuable to our communities up and down the land. I would argue equally that in the real world of politics it could be massively helpful to many of my colleagues, and the Minister's, who will be fighting for their political lives at the next general election. That is not the reason for doing it-the reason is to help the community-but I will use any arguments I can to encourage him to think about extending the agreement between Royal Mail and the Post Office, as the new clause suggests. I implore him to do so, for our communities and for our colleagues, but most of all for the well-being of our country.
I hope that the Minister is listening to what hon. Members are saying. Prior to any sale or transfer of a post office company, an agreement should be secured between the new owners of Royal Mail and the Post Office for a period of 10 years-that is the suggestion, but it could be any number of years-in order to gain that transfer. Under the Bill, a privatised Royal Mail could break the historic link with the post office network and use another outlet such as Tesco, as the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) mentioned. That might force customers to go much further to post offices to register parcels or to use the other services that people enjoy.
The Government have shown ambivalence towards post offices in this process. Everyone has talked of the importance of maintaining the link and the inter-business agreement between Royal Mail and the Post Office in some fashion, to ensure that the post office network is maintained. Although new clause 2 is not perfect, it would oblige a privatised Royal Mail to maintain the inter-business agreement with Post Office Ltd. The Government refused to listen to similar calls from the Opposition in Committee. Indeed, the Opposition spokesmen made those points clearly throughout the 20 sittings. Unless the Government make a strategic
decision to put business through the post office network, the future of the network as we know it will be in significant danger.
As we have heard throughout the debate, the post office network has a declining share of the market because of the model in which it operates. The Government have an obligation to donate as many services as it is in their gift to donate to the post office network.
Fiona O'Donnell: Given how many post offices are running at a loss and how many are on the market, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to the future of post offices that they have a period of at least 10 years to plan and recover?
Ian Murray: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. The hon. Member for Northampton South was clear about the size of the revenues that go through the post office network, and therefore the survival of many post offices in rural and deprived areas would be in jeopardy. The figure has been mentioned of 900 post offices being temporarily or long-term out of business. It is clear from such figures that the business model for the post office network is unviable at the moment, let alone after taking an additional £343 million out of it.
Tory and Lib Dem MPs were happy to use the Post Office for their own political ends when it suited them in opposition. The post office network was a political hot potato for many years in my constituency of Edinburgh South. It seems shameful that the Liberal Democrat party, which has made a living out of saving post offices-or pretending to save post offices-now sits in judgment on Royal Mail and threatens many thousands of post offices, if not the entire network.
That the Government are not prepared to put a straightforward clause into the Bill to guarantee the future of post offices calls into question the logic of allocating more than £1.3 billion of taxpayers' money to subsidise and refurbish them. There are still no bankable contracts for additional Government work for post offices, in spite of the warm words and requests of the National Federation of SubPostmasters. It is not clear that the Post Office will even win the renewal contract from the Department for Work and Pensions following the benefit changes.
The Government's failure to take forward Labour's plans for a people's bank at the Post Office is yet another Lib Dem manifesto pledge broken. They are turning their backs on the very people out of whom they made political capital for many years.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): That is a fundamental point. In France, Germany, which has been cited, and Switzerland, such banks are viable banks. They are more than just a service for poorer elements of the community, as the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) said; they are successful enterprises. I am astonished that the Liberal Democrats, of all parties, do not insist that the bank should be part of the new model.
Bob Russell: The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) was a former Minister and had 13 years in which he could have promoted the people's bank proposals. It is up to Parliament to suggest clauses. The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) could have tabled a new clause on a people's bank for this legislation. Surely the right time to establish the people's bank in legislation was when his Government bailed out the banks with billions of pounds of public money, when it could have been imposed on the network of post offices that was left after the huge closure programme?
Ian Murray: I am delighted by the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but I repeat the point that I made in my intervention on him: he has criticised previous Governments going back 20 or 30 years for running down Royal Mail and the post office network, but it will be his Government who put the final nail in the coffin.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): One problem for the people's bank, and for using post offices as a branch network for joint-stock banks, was that the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland refused consistently over the past few years to comply. However, they have now done so and the post office can be used to access cash from pretty much every mainstream bank account. That is a real help to the post office network.
Ian Murray: We must leave no stone unturned in looking to provide services through the post office network, so that it can survive this process. The black hole in finance that will come if the inter-business agreement is removed will make most post offices in this country unviable. We should look at every conceivable option to get as much revenue as possible into the post office network, because, as everyone in this Chamber knows, people love and enjoy the services that it provides.
Tom Blenkinsop: On the point made by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), given that banks are closing branches left, right and centre, it suits the banks in the current commercial circumstances to use the post office as an access point.
The Bill does not safeguard the inter-business agreement through which Royal Mail guarantees the use of the Post Office as its retail arm. When the agreement is renegotiated, a privatised Royal Mail will try to reduce costs by using other outlets such as supermarkets and high street chains instead of the post office network.
In my intervention on the hon. Member for Northampton South, I used the example of Germany, which has privatised, or certainly reformed, its national mail services through Deutsche Post. It has written protection of its post office network and services into legislation. We are giving no such protection. Deutsche Post could happily buy Royal Mail and decimate the unprotected UK post office network to subsidise its network at home, which is guaranteed by legislation.
Mr Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning Deutsche Post and its legal protections. He and hon. Members who served on the Postal Services Public Bill Committee will be aware that the protection given to post offices in rural areas of Germany is that there must be a post office every 80 sq km. Is that what he proposes for this country?
Ian Murray: We are proposing protection for the post office network in any fashion, which the Minister point blank refuses to give, even though his Back Benchers are asking him to consider it through the new clause.
"No previous Government have thought to put it on any different footing."
However, no other Government have needed to intervene on the inter-business agreement because no other Government have separated the post office network from Royal Mail, which is what will happen under this full-scale privatisation. He has tried to reassure stakeholders by arguing that both Royal Mail and the Post Office want an extended inter-business agreement. As has been said, the stated aims of the management of Royal Mail and the Post Office are to keep the relationship, but to be frank, management changes rather quickly and regularly. We need more reassurance in the Bill, rather than words from the management of Royal Mail and the Post Office. The Minister went on to argue in his evidence to the Committee:
"If you actually wrote that there should be a contract between two companies that are going to be separate companies into law, I think that it would be subject to serious legal challenge." --[ Official Report, Postal Services Public Bill Committee, 11 November 2010; c. 121-123, Q244-245.]
He therefore admitted that there will be no inter-business agreement going forward and that the post office network is essentially being hung out to dry by this legislation, along with the Royal Mail and tens of thousands of workers.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): My understanding, on which I stand to be corrected, is that the problem is not that the two companies want to have an inter-business agreement-they are free to do that-but that EU rules prohibit Governments from intervening to ensure that an inter-business agreement is prescribed for a specific period. I believe that that is the problem with the new clause.
Ian Murray: But as we have already discussed, Germany seems to have found a loophole in that legislation, so I do not see why we should not be able to find a way forward for an inter-business agreement in this country. It would be up to the Minister and the Government to find a way around that problem and ensure that the post office network was maintained for the future.
Ian Murray: As I said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), nothing astonishes me about the Liberal Democrats these days. Indeed, blaming the European Union is one of their latest wheezes as they break their pledges and proposals and change their philosophy.
The National Federation of SubPostmasters believes that a minimum 10-year inter-business agreement is essential, and it knows about the matter having worked with its members, postmasters and postmistresses across the country. That organisation, which is at the coal face, says that such an inter-business agreement would protect its members, and I think it is telling the truth in this particular matter and giving us the evidence that we need that agreement.
Today we are seeing a disgraceful privatisation of one of the country's, and the world's, treasures. The Royal Mail is not safe in the hands of this shameful Government, and the Bill in its current form will decimate the post office network in this country.
Lorely Burt: I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and with everyone else in the House who wishes to protect the relationship between the Royal Mail and the Post Office. We all want that relationship to continue, but I have severe reservations about whether we can enforce that through Government legislation.
If we examine the situation between the two companies, we will see that they rely on one another. There will continue to be a long-term contract in place between them because there will remain an overwhelming commercial imperative for the two businesses to work together as they do now. The chief executive of Royal Mail, Moya Greene, has said that it is "unthinkable" that there will not always be a very strong relationship between the Post Office and Royal Mail. However, legislation is not the appropriate way for the commercially sensitive terms of a relationship between two independent businesses to be settled.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The hon. Lady says that legislation is not the appropriate way to make provisions about commercial relationships, but surely it is the appropriate way to make provisions to guarantee public services and public service standards.
The Government are not party to the current arrangements between the two businesses, and they will not be in future. There is no statutory precedent for requiring particular commercial terms between two independent businesses. What the Government can do, however, is help to create the conditions in which both businesses can flourish in partnership with one another. We have heard this afternoon about the £1.3 billion funding package that is being provided to post offices, which will help the Post Office to deliver the best possible service to its new business partner.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) mentioned the EU, and I will surprise him again by saying that we in this House are to blame for the EU legislation that has come forward. We have gold-plated the EU directive and created an uncompetitive situation by giving private companies compulsory access to Royal Mail and guaranteeing a margin for competitors. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester mentioned the loss that is made on each competitor's letter; 2.5p is lost with the delivery of a competitor's letter.
Malcolm Bruce: Most of us have visited post offices in recent weeks. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Royal Mail is delivering a huge amount of mail on behalf of other carriers, and that if it did not provide that service, those carriers could not provide their customer guarantees? It is imperative that they pay a fair price for that service, and the Bill may create the space in which that can happen.
Tom Blenkinsop: I think we are getting slightly confused about the matter. There is cherry-picking within Royal Mail, with which I personally do not agree, and the report that members of the Bill Committee considered before our sittings recommended that the practice should be got rid of. However, that should not be a defence for what the Government are doing, which will undermine internal business arrangements. They have created a smokescreen of European legislation for what they are doing, but in fact the Government make 10-year agreements with rail companies, for example.
Lorely Burt: I am struggling to answer the hon. Gentleman's point, because it is a bit technical. I am looking over towards my hon. Friend the Minister, and I am sure that he will make a better fist of giving an answer.
Mr Russell Brown: I hear what the hon. Lady is saying about the UK gold-plating EU legislation, but when the liberalisation first started, and in fact beforehand, a number of Labour Members-we were then in government-spoke to Ministers and met the regulator. The liberalisation that the regulator was committed to carrying out in a five-year period was driven through far too quickly, and it actually happened in 18 months. There was great concern, but the problem was that if we had been seen to be interfering with the job of the regulator, we would have been severely criticised.
Lorely Burt: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, and I have a great deal of sympathy with it. It is a great shame that that happened, but now we have to pave the way for a change in how the rules operate, and the Bill will empower Ofcom to examine how the regulations in question apply.
As far as I understand it-I am sure the Minister will comment on this-current EU rules do not allow specific periods to be imposed on inter-business agreements. Donald Brydon pledged in his evidence to the Public Bill Committee that before any privatisation of Royal Mail, a continued long-term commercial contract would be in place between the two businesses for the longest duration that was legally possible. I do not know whether 10 years is the right period, but that decision has to be made between the two organisations. I know that there is a great will in Royal Mail to ensure that there is an inter-business agreement between the two parties that guarantees a safe, secure and productive future together.
Let me remark in passing that I have spent many years standing in this spot defending post offices. It is somewhat disconcerting to find after the general election that, with a few honourable exceptions, everybody
else has changed sides, while I am still standing in the same place, making the same point. However, it is good to see the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) come at least partly back into the light. We shall be supporting his new clause 2 this evening if he pushes it to a vote, which I hope he will.
The reason for that is that the new clause addresses one of the major issues with the Bill. There are serious concerns in all our constituencies about splitting the Royal Mail delivery system from Post Office Ltd, and about what future awaits our local post offices in the brave new world. Indeed, the National Federation of SubPostmasters made the point that nowhere else in the world have the post office and mail delivery service been split.
There are many issues that give me great concern, but the overall problem seems to be that far too much about the post office network's future depends on the Government crossing their fingers and leaving things to the good will that exists between the management of Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd. That is far too tenuous a way of guaranteeing the future of our local post offices. We need to be much more proactive. As we have heard from other Members, so much of the business that comes through our local post offices depends on Royal Mail and is governed by the inter-business agreement.
Our position is that which was also articulated by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). We are totally opposed to the privatisation of Royal Mail, and we intend to continue to oppose it. However, if that tragedy comes to pass, we will want as much as possible done to protect our post offices. Throughout our debates in Committee the Minister assured us that he was exploring the greater delivery of Government and local government services through our post offices, which would help them to diversify. That was also touched on by Paula Vennells of Post Office Ltd during our evidence sessions. I would welcome that development, and I genuinely wish the Minister good luck in doing that work.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I agree that much more Government and local government work has to go to the Post Office, but can the hon. Gentleman tell us what his Government in Scotland are doing to give more Scottish Government work to the Post Office?
Mr Weir: The Government in Scotland will have discussions with the Post Office, in the same way as the Government here, but that will depend on what happens. I was making the point that, although I welcome the development that I have described-I could equally well ask the hon. Gentleman what his colleagues in local government are doing about it-I have concerns about what will be produced, albeit not because I distrust the Government's intentions. The Minister held a meeting before the Bill came forward and he explained what he was trying to do. I support that, but there are practical difficulties.
I made the point that, in my area of Angus, the local authority has established local access offices in most boroughs to offer a front-office service for all local authority services. In Arbroath, Brechin, Kirriemuir, Forfar and Montrose, those offices are all situated around 100 yards at most from a post office. In the case
of Kirriemuir, Forfar and Montrose, those are the only post offices in the borough. However, there are two difficulties with that. It is difficult to see how the local authority will have a greater ability to deliver services through the post offices in those borough areas, especially where there is only one post office. Also, because of what happened in the last round of closures-when many of our stand-alone larger post offices were closed, being moved into sweet shops, paper shops and other premises, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said-those post offices do not have the space to deliver greater services and nor, in many cases, do they have the expertise.
In my constituency, there are already problems with some of those post offices because of lengthening queues and an inability to deliver the services already provided by the Post Office. It is difficult to see how those post offices will cope with an influx of other services from the UK Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities or anybody else. That is a practical difficulty, and I have not heard anyone in the Government come up with a solution to it. What is proposed may be a possibility in rural areas, but in their programme for post offices, the Government are talking about 4,000 main post offices that will provide a full range of services-incidentally, that is the number of post offices that are currently viable, which is slightly worrying. However, on top of that is what the Government call the post office local model. The idea of the local model is to put post offices into smaller businesses to deliver-the Government say-longer office hours and greater help for local people.
That is fine in theory, but the post office local model does not provide the full range of post office services. I suggest that the bulk of our post offices will be unable to provide the full range of services in smaller communities if the Government, local government, Scottish Government and whoever else get their act together and produce such services in the first instance. That practical difficulty needs to be tackled before things can proceed. That is another reason why a long-term inter-business agreement is a good idea. We have to look at not only the business, but the structure of the post office network, so that it can deliver the new business that is being promised to it.
However, the most important point is what the relationship will be between a privatised Royal Mail and a Government-owned Post Office Ltd, where the Government are determined to push down the costs to the taxpayer of continuing to support Post Office Ltd. As the hon. Member for Colchester rightly said, Royal Mail will inevitably try to push down its costs in delivering a mail service. When asked about that in the evidence session, Paula Vennells of Post Office Ltd said:
"In terms of what is in the Bill, what is important for Post Office is that we maintain our strong relationship with the Royal Mail Group." --[ Official Report, Postal Services Public Bill Committee, 9 November 2010; c. 5, Q6.]
That is fine and well, but we all know that at present Post Office Ltd gets fully one third of its business through the inter-business agreement. The Minister will, I am sure, point to the statement made during the evidence session by Royal Mail. Moya Greene, the chief executive, said:
"For me it is unthinkable that we would not have a very long-term relationship with the Post Office." --[ Official Report, Postal Services Public Bill Committee, 9 November 2010; c. 18, Q42.]
Again, that is all very well, but I would suggest that the relationship between a fully privatised Royal Mail and a Government-owned or mutual Post Office Ltd would be very different from that between two companies that are both members of Royal Mail Group, as they are at present. In passing, one might also wonder how long the present management will remain in place, given what has happened with management previously.
Fiona O'Donnell: The hon. Gentleman has referred several times to the Public Bill Committee's report, but I wonder whether he has also seen the excellent report from the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, in which the Minister is recorded as saying:
"That makes it very clear that there are very limited circumstances in which there could be more than one universal service provider."
I was talking about the management at Royal Mail. Ms Greene may have a considerable attachment to Post Office Ltd, but will a new owner of the business necessarily feel the same way? What happens when the commercial profit motive really kicks in? How much will sentimentality govern the actions of Royal Mail? That is especially important given that, as has been said on many occasions in previous debates, including in Committee, the ultimate owner of Royal Mail may turn out to be Deutsche Post or TNT, which I would suggest perhaps do not have the same sentimental attachment that we all have to our Royal Mail. As I understand it, the rationale behind the privatisation is to make the new company look for efficiency savings and cut costs. I agree with the hon. Member for Colchester that it is utterly inconceivable that the new company will not look at how it can do so in its relationship with Post Office Ltd, which will not be exempt from scrutiny under the new arrangement.
"I do not see other retailers as a particularly serious threat, because Post Office has an enormous amount of expertise in this area". --[ Official Report, Postal Services Public Bill Committee, 9 November 2010; c. 17, Q42.]
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) mentioned the situation in Germany, but as the National Federation of SubPostmasters has said, there is no precedent anywhere in the world for splitting the delivery service from the post office. I asked the Minister on Second Reading whether he could come up with one, but none has been forthcoming since.
I spoke at length in Committee about the situation that has developed in New Zealand. I will not go into that again at great length today-interested Members can read the report of the Committee's proceedings, where it is explained at some length. Suffice it to say that a competitor has set up what amounts to an alternative post office network targeted purely at what it needs to sustain its postal delivery business. That is another point. When Royal Mail is split from the Post Office, it will be in a very different position. Royal Mail will be looking at what it needs to be able to deliver a postal business-not a Government business, a pro-Government business or all the other things that the Post Office might do.
In her evidence to the Committee, the chief executive of Royal Mail said that it would be "inconceivable" that anyone but Post Office Ltd would be used by the Royal Mail. The Minister, if I recall correctly, was very dismissive of the idea that an operator might want to go to, say, a major supermarket and use it for delivery of post office services. Then again, it was not so long ago that it was inconceivable that a supermarket would offer a mobile phone network, for example, be an internet service provider or perhaps offer legal services, which might happen shortly. Who would have bought a television or a hoover from a supermarket 15 years ago? Times change and that applies to the Post Office as well.
In New Zealand, as I say, that has already begun to happen. That does not mean that a provider in the UK would necessarily do the same, but it is certainly a possibility. It might look into it and that provides a danger sign for post offices in the UK. New Zealand Post, of course, fought back-one of its principle weapons being Kiwibank-but this Government have rejected the option of creating a post bank in the UK with which to anchor Post Office Ltd.
No two postal markets are the same and the UK Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd might be able to hold together and provide a seamless and mutually profitable business, but there are lessons from what has happened elsewhere and we simply cannot idly let the future of the post offices in our constituencies rest on the good amicable feelings that currently operate between the two companies, which might not survive the privatisation.
Damian Collins: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, as discussed in Committee, the Post Office remains the owner of the Post Office brand and the business with the largest retail footprint in the country, which gives it considerable power in negotiating with Royal Mail?
Mr Weir: I do not agree with that, as I think Post Office Ltd will be very much the junior partner in the negotiation. I would ask whether Royal Mail rather than the Post Office is the brand for letter delivery, and Royal Mail will focus on how it delivers its mail business through the Royal Mail brand. In an earlier intervention, the hon. Gentleman made the point that an alternative provider could go to Post Office Ltd, but I ask him to consider whether that is realistic, given that only Royal Mail as the statutory provider of the universal service obligation will be required to have a nationwide delivery service. Other companies do not go in for that, and most of the present business for alternative providers relates to bulk mail delivery, not individual delivery. That requires a different business model from the one currently operated by Royal Mail.
Tom Blenkinsop: Another point is that there seems to be a massive assumption that these independently-owned post offices will suddenly opt into this mutualised model. A significant number of independent post offices will not want to do that; they enjoy the profits and the livelihoods they earn from their businesses.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. The problem is that it is not at all clear what mutuality means. If I understood the Minister correctly
in Committee, what is being mutualised is not the post office network, but Post Office Ltd-the management of the Post Office-so the individual post offices would not be in a mutual network, but continue as individual businesses. I struggle to see how that is going to improve the situation.
Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Post Office Ltd is the junior partner in relation to some retail outlets, where it has an upstairs or downstairs location? It has to go through the footprint of the retail store, so it is not able to provide adequate facilities or the same kind of facilities that it did before as the Crown Post Office.
Once Royal Mail is sold to a private operator, that operator will be focused solely on the needs of its enterprise to deliver postal services, not on the various other activities carried out by the Post Office. As I mentioned earlier, we already know that only 4,000 of the current post offices are profitable and that only around 7,500 are required to meet the current terms of the universal service obligation. Is it such a leap of imagination to think that a new owner of Royal Mail might consider whether its needs could be met with a deal with, say, supermarkets, which are increasingly opening for longer hours? I think not-especially now that Tesco Express or Metro are opening everywhere, and although they do not have the 24-hour opening of their hypermarkets, they are still open from 7 am to 10 pm. Even if they do not do so we would still be faced with the situation where two companies of vastly differing sizes and economic muscle are negotiating an agreement. It is difficult to see Post Office Ltd not coming out very badly from that.
Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): On the hon. Gentleman's point about doing a deal with a supermarket, does he agree that there is absolutely nothing to prevent Royal Mail from doing a deal with other supermarket chains?
Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): On the point about supermarkets, one key issue coming out of the Scottish Affairs Committee's report was that the post office network is, in fact, a far better network than any supermarket chain in the UK as a whole. There are huge swathes of Scotland that have no supermarket and no supermarket chain, so this would not be a workable solution for large parts of the landmass.
Mr Weir: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Of the 12,000 current post offices, only 7,500 are needed to meet the universal service obligation. The Minister laughed at the hon. Member for Edinburgh South, I believe, for mentioning the German model and 80 sq km, but one wonders what exactly might happen in large swathes of rural Scotland if this were to come about.
I have spoken longer than I intended, but I end by saying that, while we maintain our position of opposition to the privatisation of the Royal Mail, a 10-year inter-business agreement would give Post Office Ltd the necessary guarantee and stability for a lengthy period after the privatisation. I hope that it would allow the stabilisation of Post Office Ltd, allow a reasonable period to get new Government business, if possible, into post offices, provide some hope for the temporarily closed post offices or others up for sale, and some comfort to those thinking of entering the post office market. That would at least provide them with some confidence that there is a future. Otherwise, they would not go into that market. I urge all Members to support the new clause, which I hope the hon. Member for Colchester will press to the vote in order to show the House's strength of feeling on the issue.
Mr Anderson: I welcome the debate. Like the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), I do not want to see the privatisation of the Post Office at all, but if it happens the new clause will ameliorate its effects. Does anyone really believe that the Post Office, going out into the world of competition, would be able to survive against some of the competitors it would be up against? The case for going outside has not been made, but if it does go outside the Post Office should be protected. I am not quite sure where the Liberal Democrats are coming from-there is nothing unusual in that-but they seem to think that European Union law stops us passing this new clause. We have had no evidence to demonstrate that, and I do not believe that any evidence was shown in Committee either.
I hope that the Minister will explain exactly what rule in European legislation prevents an inter-business agreement. Everybody else who appeared before the Committee seemed to think it was a good idea. George Thomson of the National Federation of SubPostmasters said:
"On separating Post Office Ltd from Royal Mail, it is unprecedented and we have to get it right, which is why we need a 10-year inter-business agreement... We need security for sub-postmasters; they have £2 billion of their own money invested in this business. If you were a company investing £2 billion in a PFI... you would get a 21-year contract. I am not asking for a 21-year contract, but... for a 10-year IBA contract." --[ Official Report, Postal Services Public Bill Committee, 9 November 2010; c. 29, Q70.]
"we have a very strong commercial relationship with Royal Mail and that is something that both businesses would want to continue, so as we transform the post office network we will make it into something that Royal Mail will want to use."
"unthinkable that we would not have a very long-term relationship with the Post Office." --[ Official Report, Postal Services Public Bill Committee, 9 November 2010; c. 17-18, Q42.]
"importance of the inter-business agreement should not be underestimated". --[ Official Report, Postal Services Public Bill Committee, 11 November 2010; c. 114, Q228.]
It is a shame that those three people did not say that they wanted the IBA to continue in the way the amendment suggests. If we do not have that in black and white, we shall experience a rerun of what we witnessed in the Chamber between 12 and 12.30 pm today, when the Prime Minister repeatedly replied to questions by saying, "We hope that this can happen", "We wish this to happen", or "We are looking into ways of making this happen."
If privatisation takes place in the way that is being proposed, when the contract goes outside people will eat it up. I spent 30 years in the trade union movement trying to unravel agreements and contracts or renegotiate agreements with organisations. I would say, "That must be there in black and white. If it is not in it, you cannot win it." If we do not provide protection for Royal Mail and the Post Office that works in the way in which the IBA has worked so far, the service will clearly not be saved.
I appreciate that members of the Government are naïve amateurs who are doing their best to make things work, but that is not good enough. We need to ensure that services are supported. We are told that European Union rules are preventing that, and I hope that the Minister, who has now returned to the Chamber, will be able to explain exactly how they are doing so. When Corus was threatened with closure on Teesside, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and I were constantly told that EU rules prevented Government intervention. We were told that the Germans and the Dutch used those rules, and that the British must play by the rules. We were losing out. Unless we have real, clear evidence that this cannot be done under law, the Government's case will not hold water.
David Mowat: The hon. Gentleman has talked of the way in which the IBA works, which seems to have resulted in three quarters of the network becoming unsustainable or unviable. How does he think that extending the IBA in its current form will improve the position?
Mr Anderson: The hon. Gentleman is clearly under the misapprehension that public service is about nothing more than making money. We must accept that the public sometimes have to pay for the delivery of a public service in a way that does not satisfy accountants. We have a health service that costs £100 billion. No one says that it is in deficit. We have a defence system that effectively requires us to pay out all the money: we are not given any proper help. The postal service is also a quality public service that we should be proud of. The Labour Government invested a large amount of public money in it, but the truth is that we did not succeed. We were maintaining post offices that we had to accept were effectively a drain on public resources. The question that we must ask, and the question that people in the country will ask, is whether this is money well spent, and I would argue that it is.
I entirely agree that the sustainability of the post office network is a valuable public service, which is why I am delighted that the Bill will provide £1.3 billion to sustain it over the next four years-an average of £40,000 per post office per year. What I want
to understand is how the continuation of an IBA that has apparently caused three quarters of the current network to lose money will help.
Mr Anderson: I think that that question should be put to Ministers. Nothing else will change: the need is still there, and the service must still be provided. In the last Parliament we invested £3.9 billion in the network, but that was clearly not sufficient. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), we must accept that we are living in a different world now. People are obtaining their television and driving licences on line and using e-mail, but that does not mean that we as a nation should not be prepared to say that the post office network is so important that it should be subsidised by the public purse.
Mr Russell Brown: The hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) has mentioned that £1.3 billion twice, but the fact is that money alone is not the answer to the problem affecting our post office network. It also needs the business that comes through the door and is transacted over the counter.
I assure the hon. Member for Warrington South that if there were an easy answer to all this, a Labour Government would have found it. There is no easy answer, which is why the IBA is such an important element. It will deliver more than 30% of the business that is transacted. As I said earlier-and I apologise for repeating myself-if that goes, post offices will wither on the vine.
Mr Anderson: We may compare the IBA to a sticking plaster covering a wound, but if it continues following privatisation, it will provide that little bit of additional protection that would not be there otherwise. Otherwise, post offices will be left wide open to businesses that simply want to make money. Why else would they want to take on post offices? Who wants this not to happen? The people who want it not to happen are those who want to buy postal services, who want to compete, and who want to make more and more money.
If we had been sitting here 25 years ago, we would have been debating the privatisation of the utilities. We would have heard all the arguments that we have heard today about how dynamic privatisation is, and about the efficiencies that it produces. E.ON is raising prices by 9% at a time when people are facing pay freezes. That is the truth about privatisation, and that is what will happen in the case of this privatisation.
Richard Fuller: I should like some clarification. We are using the phrase "inter-business agreement", but the hon. Gentleman seems to be describing it as a 10-year continuing subsidy mechanism. Is he saying that he wants an inter-business agreement to be the transport mechanism for a continuing taxpayer subsidy, regardless of whether Royal Mail is privatised?
I want the IBA to give sub-postmasters the security that they have asked for. They say that it will give them faith in their ability to continue in their business. After all, it is their money. As I said earlier, they will lose £2 billion if the Bill does not work. They would much rather remain in a system enabling post
offices to remain in operation and to receive support from the public purse. If we had adopted that attitude, we would not be having this debate.
Richard Fuller: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again. There is an issue here that specifically concerns subsidy, and we should call it subsidy rather than an inter-business agreement.
The hon. Gentleman has cited the comments of Royal Mail executives as well as those of members of the National Federation of SubPostmasters. They did not ask for a 10-year IBA. Was that because the changes proposed in the Bill will enable managers to manage the operations of the business? Is not one of the problems that we have experienced in the past the fact that Government have shackled management and prevented it from managing effectively? That is the reason for the programme of closures and the inability to modernise effectively.
Mr Anderson: That is true, but the managers have not made the best of the deal that they have been given. They have received plenty of public money, but they have not succeeded. There are a number of reasons for that, but in recent months we have seen a break from it. We have seen new management; we have also seen the trade unions presenting a modernisation plan that can and will work. Those developments are being stopped in their tracks by the attitude of the Government, who want privatisation at all costs.
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the other side of the equation, which focuses on the agreement between Royal Mail and the post offices, is the amount of business that post offices can do by other means? That revolves first around their ability to distribute financial services-access to banking and credit union arrangements-and secondly around their role as "front of office" providers of a series of services for customers coming from other Departments. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about that.
Mr Anderson: I could not agree more. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Colchester, the post office network is unique. Over the past few years, however, we have let the country down by allowing it to be weakened. I must admit that I have argued against that in the House: I have argued against my own Government. The network is being offered a huge opportunity, but the security of being in the public sector will make it even more possible for it to succeed. If it is allowed to leave that sector and to face unbridled competition, it will fall apart.
Lindsay Roy: Does my hon. Friend agree that subsidy is often viewed in a negative context, and that profit is gauged not in social terms but solely in a financial context? In fact, it is about dividends for communities. That kind of social investment is vital to our nation.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is strange to hear Liberal Democrats who, justifiably, used to make that case say that it no longer holds water. The Minister mentioned the cost of the United States social service, but the United States Government obviously decided that the cost of providing
a service that they believed to be second to none was money well spent. Perhaps we should take a lesson from them. There are not many lessons that I want to take from the Americans, but that may be one worth considering.
The truth is that we have been here before. There has been compulsory competitive tendering. There has been the privatisation of cleaning services, when we were told, "You're not allowed to build into contracts clauses that prevent some people from bidding for them." However, there were discussions between employers and trade unions after both sides found that the cowboy contractors were undercutting the service and not delivering what they were supposed to, and we ended up with an agreement between contractors and the trade union side that there would be a baseline that nobody would be allowed to go below.
We could have a similar agreement. We want protection for people, so they know where they are going and they have the strength of knowing that they have the security of this agreement behind them to make sure that things are right. Otherwise, the only people who will benefit will be those who want to take over the post offices: the international companies who want to come here and make money out of public services. It is a disgrace that the Liberal Democrats have given cover to the Tories to push this through.
John Thurso: First, I apologise to the House for having been absent for two of the contributions to this debate. I had an urgent meeting with a constituent who had come rather a long way, from the far north, to be here.
I want to speak in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell)-notwithstanding the fact that I am not his flatmate, which might not be the best way to support him judging by what we heard earlier. I will confine my remarks to why I believe it is absolutely crucial that there should be an agreement. However, I should briefly preface those comments by reminding the House that in the previous Parliament I was my party's Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman. For a considerable time, discussions on the then Government's privatisation of the Royal Mail were in hand and I had discussions with representatives of the post offices and the unions and the Royal Mail.
One view I came to is slightly different from an opinion that has been expressed by many Members today. I felt that the post offices had been the poor relation inside the Royal Mail Group, and that the fact that they did not have their own board or their own chairman meant that very often got the second-best outcome. I therefore put in my party's proposals that whatever happened-whether the Royal Mail was privatised, left as a mutual or left as public-the post office group had to be a separate entity with its own chair and board, so that it could argue its case effectively and have a real future.
I always saw a strong future for post offices. Many of the reasons for that have been alluded to today: the opportunity for new financial products; the possibility of a post bank, which I remain convinced is a particularly good way of taking post offices forward; and the ability to develop post offices in a range of areas, and especially for them to be in many instances the first line of contact
between the citizen and the state. A numerate, literate, intelligent and articulate person-which is what our postmasters and postmistresses are-can help people at the very start of the process of making a claim and so forth, and can help people avoid many of the problems that are encountered when they can talk only to a call centre.
I always saw a strong possibility of post offices developing, but I felt that that required them to be a separate organisation. However, I also thought that, in order to ensure that there is a reasonable degree of stability in the business, it was essential that there was a business agreement for a suitable time to enable the transformation to take place.
Dr Whiteford: I am very sympathetic to the argument for increasing the range of services and products available in post offices, and I think that if that had been done in the past it would have assisted matters greatly, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that some of the local post office branches, and in particular the outreach services provided in vans or in mobile facilities, are wholly unsuited to this sort of provision?
John Thurso: I share the hon. Lady's concern, but I do not believe that is insurmountable. In my constituency, I have probably some of the remotest post offices in the United Kingdom. In the villages of Mey and Dunnet we had the first pilot of a van out of Wick, so I have been through all of that. There are problems. There is a post office at Buldoo, which is a mile from Dounreay. Those in charge of the post office are the fourth generation of the family to run it. Happily, they have a croft to sustain them, because they have only 14 customers; there are 14 regular customers and the odd tourist. Clearly, that kind of operation would have a long way to go to be sustainable in the way we are discussing.
A great many products can be delivered online, but often a human interface is required. Given the breadth and depth of the post office network and the number of people involved in it, it can provide that human element that nowadays is so sadly lacking in so much of the interface between Government and the citizen. That is where the opportunity lies.
Let me now explain why I think the new clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester is so necessary. There are many examples in the private sector of businesses that have decided to split, or of joint ventures where those involved have decided to go their own way, or of hotel companies where those in charge have decided to sell the property to a property company but remain the managers. In every one of those examples, there is an agreement. It might be a shareholders' agreement, or it might be a contract between the two parties, but there is some form of agreement. One aspect of such an agreement that is nearly always in place, and usually for a period of five, seven or sometimes 10 years, is a non-compete clause. If there is not a non-compete clause, it is a fair given that at some point-maybe after one or two years-one side or the other will say, "You know that contract we signed? I reckon we can do a bit better. Let's have a go at this."
The Royal Mail needs such a measure just as much as the post offices do. If any body can come anywhere close to challenging the Royal Mail's universal service obligation last-mileability, it is the post office network.
That may be unlikely, but it is a possibility, and why bother with allowing a possibility? It is inconceivable that, in an initial public offering or a trade sale, any investor would make an investment in the Royal Mail if there was not a clear contract. Therefore, I would almost guarantee that there will be a contract, so I do not understand the reticence of the Under-Secretary about giving a few measly guarantees as to length and content. I cannot see how that would be other than simply sound commercial good sense by the Business Department, in order to enable both organisations to operate effectively and have a clear path for the future, and for there to be a clear understanding. It is on that one commercial ground that I think the arguments put forward are compelling, which is why, unless there is an even more compelling argument from the Front Bench, I shall support my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester.
Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I support the new clause. I noticed that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) was temporarily sitting on this side of the House a few moments ago. I thought he had crossed the Floor. If he wants to make it a permanent arrangement, I am sure we will find space for him on these Benches.
It was John Major who said that in 50 years from now Britain will still be a country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, dog lovers, invincible garden suburbs and pools-fillers. Well, he was wrong about that; I do not know anybody who plays the pools any more. He was derided at the time for that vision of the future. It was said that it was nostalgic. However, in that nostalgic vision, what he was really describing are the villages throughout Britain where the sub-postmaster and sub-postmistress underpin the community, as they know their customers and will ask, "We haven't seen Mrs Jones for a couple of days. What's wrong with her? Perhaps I should go round or give her a call." We have all seen stories in the press of the times when postmasters or postmistresses have said they have not seen someone collect their pension, and they have gone round to their home and found that they were in trouble and sorted it out. Unless this new clause is passed, the British way of life-the British way of village life-will be at stake.
As we all know, the fact of the matter is that if the Royal Mail is privatised, it will not be working in favour of the community or the customer; it will be working in favour of the shareholder by selling off assets and knocking down costs. The one thing that it will say is, "We will go to the lowest bidder." I know that Sir Terry Leahy is retiring from Tesco, but if he decides to come up with a white-label Post Office, I am sure that a privatised Royal Mail will go along with that. What will happen then to our village post offices? They will lose more than a third of their business, and that would be terrible.
We already face a problem in getting people to be postmasters. Just this week, I have heard from residents in Crosskeys, in my constituency, where the postmaster has decided to resign. They do not have a post office at the moment and are deeply concerned by the situation.
What is the problem? I do not know, so I am talking anecdotally, but it may be that he is making more money from the grocery side of his business or from the national lottery distribution. A lot of people have said to me, "I make more money out of the national lottery than out of the post office." So here is a quick idea for the Minister: if these people are making so much money from gambling, perhaps he should change the regulations to allow post offices to have one-armed bandits or fruit machines in them. Perhaps that would be one way to raise revenue.
Richard Graham: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify where he thinks the risk to our sub-postmasters is coming from? I have a print-out of a Communication Workers Union briefing that arrived this morning. It is claiming to have a list of 900 post offices that are for sale and 160 that are subject to long-term temporary closure. One of those listed in both categories is the post office in Quedgeley, in my constituency. However, it is not for sale and it is not subject to long-term temporary closure, because a new sub-postmaster will be opening it in the next six weeks-
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. We are discussing a new clause on inter-company agreements, so the hon. Gentleman's intervention needs to be relevant to that point, although I am sure that his sub-postmaster will be pleased to hear that they have been cited in the Chamber.
Chris Evans: I know Quedgeley post office, because I was the Labour party candidate in Cheltenham in 2005. I know Gloucester quite well and I know that Quedgeley is a lovely part of the world. If the hon. Gentleman is looking for support to keep its post office open, he should give me a call.
As I was saying, we seem to have enough of a problem getting people to become postmasters. If postmasters start losing a large amount of their business, how we will recruit people into these positions? Nobody becomes a postmaster in the hope of becoming a millionaire. Perhaps I am naive, but I believe that people become postmasters because they want to serve their community. They want to be part of their community and provide a service, but who in their right mind would want to be a postmaster when they are having their business taken away? That situation is a tragedy.
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that 71.3% of Welsh post offices are in rural areas, which compares with the UK average of 55%. Does he not therefore share my concern that if there is no long-term agreement on the inter-business agreement, that will have a disproportionate effect on Wales?
Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. As a Welsh MP, I know that this Government have certainly hit our country hard. I well remember the posturing of some Members during the Second Reading debate. Many Government Members were boasting, patting themselves on the back and telling us what they
done to keep their post offices open when they were up against the wicked Labour Government. What will they do next time if this Bill goes through? Before they go into the Lobby, they should think hard. If they are faced with a post office closure in five or 10 years' time, what will they say to their constituents? Are they going to say, "I didn't think it through" or "I followed my Government Whips." That is what they are faced with at the moment. The hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) talked about people's legs being cut from under them, and that is what the Bill will do to these Members politically-I am saying that as an Opposition Member.
Chris Evans: Yes, but my major argument to that is that if we are taking business away, we are condemning post offices to closure in any case. We have to give them every chance possible. As has been said, many people see the Royal Mail and the Post Office as the same thing. An elderly person who cannot go to their post office to post a letter yet sees the Royal Mail thriving will wonder what is going on. The Government may say that they are providing support to the Post Office, but if they defeat this new clause, they will be giving about as much support to the Post Office as a scaffold gives to a hanged man.
Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab): I begin by declaring an interest: I am pleased to be a member of the Communication Workers Union. I was disappointed that I was not more closely involved with the Scottish Affairs Committee and its excellent report on this Bill and with the Public Bill Committee, which I know went into great detail when examining the Bill. I wished to speak this afternoon because I feel obliged to represent the interests of my community and to put on the record the real concerns that exist about the Bill. Like other Members, I wish to reiterate people's support for, and emphasise the significance of, post offices, but I have to tell the Government that people see this Bill as a real threat to them.
As I said to the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley), my particular interest relates to the attention that needs to be given to post offices in particularly deprived communities. Such post offices often face different challenges from those in rural communities and from those faced by normal city post offices, because they, too, deal with isolation, represent a lifeline and are vital. Other shops, services and support are often absent in these deprived communities, so post offices take on a particular importance, and we should bear that in mind. I do not doubt that most of us in this House would seek to improve those areas and represent their interests as best we can, despite our different political approaches to doing so. However, rather than improving services, this Bill will move in completely the opposite direction.
I recognise the points made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and I understand that he has a long history of criticising the records of many Governments
towards post offices. I understand that he legitimately and respectfully disagreed with the previous Labour Government, but it is somewhat illogical that the moment someone is in government, they make the situation even worse and take the actions that will make the problems that they are identifying much more grave in communities. None the less, he has tabled this new clause, which gives us some means of protecting the interests of the communities that I wish to discuss this afternoon.
I hope that hon. Members will support the new clause and that the Minister will address the many detailed points that have arisen. In particular, I hope that he will deal with the interesting points made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who addressed the economic and business arguments and showed that this proposal could easily be supported because it does not run counter to business interests or, presumably, to European Union legislation. I say that given the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the subject. If we are seeking to bring stability to post offices' services and to secure the future viability of the Post Office, the new clause should be supported, because the core of the argument is the fact that we need to oblige Royal Mail to maintain an inter-business agreement with the post office network. We need to do that if we are to safeguard and protect the viability of post offices. If we do not do that and the Government go full steam ahead with their proposals, it is perfectly feasible that the historical link between Royal Mail and the post office network could be broken, with far-reaching implications.
As many Members have said, the implications of that may be felt further down the line, but they will be far reaching. As the hon. Member for Northampton South put it, they could cut the legs from under people and from Members in here when people realise the consequences of this. So the decision we make this afternoon will have consequences down the line.
Cathy Jamieson: Does my hon. Friend agree with me and with the other members of the Scottish Affairs Committee on our recommendation that the Government should take a more proactive approach towards the inter-business agreement, rather than simply setting something up and leaving it to its own devices?
Margaret Curran: I strongly agree, because that goes to the heart of the protections that are required and explains why people are deeply worried about this legislation. They see it as a forerunner of many post office closures because we are not taking the necessary steps to protect the service and we are not being proactive. Communities, particularly the ones in greatest need, look to their representatives to protect them and to take action that will look after their best interests. If we do not do this during today's debate, we are being, at best, neglectful. If we pass the Bill in its entirety, we will be taking negative action in respect of the interests of the post office network and, therefore, of those communities.
David Mowat: I have difficulty understanding how the continuation of the IBA can be more powerful than the policy whereby 11,500 post offices are guaranteed to be kept open for four more years. Can the hon. Lady answer that question?
Margaret Curran: I have listened to the hon. Gentleman make similar points to a number of Members. I fundamentally disagree with the argument made by Government Members that it is an either/or situation. I am not saying that the IBA is the only thing that will protect post offices, but it is at the core of what needs to be done. If we take it away, we will almost guarantee closures. In itself it is perhaps not enough, but we cannot take it away. To argue the opposite is illogical.
We need to take action now to ensure that we do not end up, as has been said by many Members, in a situation in which a large retailer steps in and takes over the service. In my constituency, Barlanark-a very deprived area-has a post office on the up-for-sale list. That community could end up with no post office in a few years' time. An elderly person living at the back of a housing scheme would be unable to get to any of the large retailers in the community, a single parent with three children would be unable to get to a post office and those who did not have a car would find things very difficult.
We have seen the centralisation of services in the big retailers and, as the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) has said, more and more purchases are being made from them. That has led to the centralisation of many facilities in deprived communities and those who are at the margins of those communities cannot access those facilities. We should not be making the situation worse. We should not be acting against those interests by not protecting the IBA through the opportunity we have before us this afternoon.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I totally endorse what the hon. Lady is saying, particularly about post offices in deprived inner-city areas. I represent some of the most deprived wards in Belfast and I recognise what she is saying. We face a similar situation in my constituency at the moment and we need the agreement to provide stability. We cannot get people to take on post offices as it is. If this threat hangs over them, we will have no chance of getting postmasters to take over ailing businesses.
Margaret Curran: That is a very good point and I associate myself strongly with it. Things are very difficult as they stand and if the IBA is not strengthened in the proposed way, we will make the situation much worse and make it a much less attractive option for people.
David Mowat: I agree with the need to keep the 11,500 post offices open, which is exactly what the Bill is doing, but I have genuine difficulty understanding why the IBA, which has resulted, among other things, in two thirds of the post offices that are open making a loss, is more important than the clear policy commitment to keep 11,500 post offices open.
Margaret Curran: I disagree fundamentally with the hon. Gentleman. First, it is not the IBA that has led to post office closures in the past. Many factors led to those closures, but many people would argue that we need to maintain the IBA to continue to protect the service. If we do not take this action today, we could deprive Post Office Ltd of 38% of its income. In whose world does depriving an organisation of 38% of its income protect it and its viability? I ask the hon. Gentleman to think long and hard before he argues in favour of and supports the Bill this afternoon.
Those involved in the regeneration of deprived communities and who have considered the different levers available to Government to keep those communities going know that post offices are a critical part of the process. We should not-particularly not under any Government who would ever try to claim the word "progressive"-be undermining the regeneration of those communities and making the lives of individuals, particularly those in the greatest need, more difficult. I disagree with the Bill fundamentally and think that the privatisation of Royal Mail will critically undermine post office services, but if we do not take the opportunity offered by this new clause, not one of us could ever with any credibility stand outside a post office and campaign to save it.
Mark Durkan: Like many others who have spoken in this debate, I completely opposed the direction of travel of the last Government on Royal Mail and post offices. I therefore oppose this Bill. I very much support the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), because it at least seeks to mitigate some of the most likely impacts and effects of the privatisation measures as far as implications for the post office network are concerned.
As legislators, and collectively in this House, we have a duty of intelligent care when it comes to the impact and effects of the legislation that we pass. It is not enough for any of us to say that our judgment of what, as many Members have said, is predictable as regards the future of the post office network-many have recalled the toll of business loss, the loss of Post Office Counters and the loss of post offices in many constituencies in every area-is somehow washed away by the Secretary of State's telling us that it is unthinkable that there would not be a long-term ongoing relationship. It is not washed away if we are told that that is unthinkable by Richard Hooper or the chief executive of Royal Mail. We all know that it is entirely thinkable- and it is not just thinkable, but predictable.
The truth about why the Government do not want us to legislate against the unthinkable-surely, as legislators, that is the first thing we should be doing-is not because such a change is unthinkable, but because they think that it is undesirable for the potential investors that they seek for Royal Mail. The Government believe that the sort of measures contained in the new clause would be repellent to potential investors and would-be future buyers of Royal Mail. It has little to do with what the EU will say or anything else. The real business is that such changes are entirely thinkable, which is why it is completely dishonest for people to rely on the claims that a change in the long-term relationship between Royal Mail and the Post Office would be unthinkable.
I was struck by the points made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). He began by saying that, in his view, the post office side of the business had always suffered from being a bit of a Cinderella and that the driving force was very much on the Royal Mail side of the business. At the end of his interesting and welcome comments, he suggested that he thought that at some point the Government would consider the need for a clearer contract between Royal Mail and the post office counters, but, again, it was telling that that contract would be revised because of the interests of Royal Mail and the future of that
business, not so much because of the post office end of the business. In those circumstances, it is right and proper that this House-now we have been given the opportunity offered by the useful new clause-should make very clear the particular regard that we, collectively and individually, have for the service that post offices provide and could potentially provide in future.
There is a danger, which some of us might have added to in this debate, of creating a sense that the demise of post offices as we know them is inevitable and terminal, but I do not believe it is. As many hon. Members have said, there are services into which post offices could better diversify, such as providing a range of different financial services with other businesses or having a much stronger service portal relationship with government and public services in many ways. The best way of allowing the post office network to reinvent and develop itself over a period of years in the aftermath of this privatisation would be to provide a margin of reliability for post offices in terms of the business from Royal Mail on which they have traditionally depended. A figure oft quoted in this debate is the amount of post office business that involves post offices fronting for Royal Mail services. If we deny them that margin of reliability and say, "It's up to you to find all sorts of new services and new markets and to reinvent yourself," we give them an impossible task. It would be an absolute dereliction of our public and legislative duty to do so. I therefore ask all hon. Members to support the new clause.
What might constitute a long-term agreement? Back in October, the Secretary of State told the House, and we have since heard it from everyone else, that it is unthinkable that there would not be a long-term contract. In Committee, many hon. Members, including Opposition Front Benchers, asked exactly what that meant. If there is to be a long-term contract, the Government should tell us the substance of the contract and how long is meant by long term, but we have not had that information. It is ridiculous for them to ask us to rely on assurances and indications. It would be like pretending that a tyre is flat only at the bottom-that this is just a small issue that we do not have to worry about and that we can go along and make do on that basis. That simply is not true.
What would be a reasonable long-term agreement between these two independent businesses, which are going to be new and separate entities? The Government are made up of two separate and independent entities and they have made a business agreement between them that goes to the maximum it could possibly be-five-year parliamentary terms. They have produced a five-year agreement on the back of which they say that all future Parliaments should be five years rather than the four years that people believe to be reasonable. They have gone to the maximum in that regard, but apparently five years is too long for a business agreement between the Post Office and Royal Mail. They say that would be wrong and undue-apparently it is too long term-but I think it entirely proper that there should be a long-term agreement.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as postmasters and postmistresses retire and opportunities become available for people to take on public post
offices, a 10-year, rather than a three-year, agreement would make that more attractive? If he were considering taking over such a business, would a 10-year agreement give him some confidence in the future?
Mark Durkan: I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point. The proposed agreement would make a difference not just for the individual business people who make a commitment to individual post offices, but collectively for the network and for those who will have responsibility for the broader Post Office enterprise in future. It is meant to give a period of confidence and space, to reduce the unknowns and to give at least some stability and reliability regarding some of the knowns in that context. It would not solve all the other problems-and there are many other issues and challenges-but it would at least give people some measure of assurance.
Lorely Burt: I think we are all on the same page in wanting a long agreement. Donald Brydon has said that he would push for the longest agreement possible, so I am not too sure why hon. Members are so worried about the fact that we are trying to impose a 10-year agreement on two businesses for which 10 years may or may not be an optimum time.
Mark Durkan: We are not worried about why we should impose an agreement of 10 years; most of us are worried about why the Government would not impose an agreement of 10 years. If someone says they want the maximum agreement possible, it is entirely reasonable for us as a legislative body to say that 10 years is a reasonable period. Given that the legislation is going to construct new realities and impose new conditions on these businesses, we at least have a duty and responsibility to make sure that one of them can have a measure of confidence that it will not have if this new clause is not accepted.
Gordon Banks: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the argument put by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) is not assisted by the fact that people such as Mr Brydon are unable or unwilling to put a figure on what the maximum number of years will be? That undermines her argument.
Mark Durkan: I accept fully the point that my hon. Friend on the Front Bench is making. In the absence of other indications, that is why we as legislators have a duty at least to indicate what we think is a reasonable time. It is unreasonable for us to do otherwise in the circumstances.
Richard Graham: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if legal advice to the Minister is that it is not practical to legislate for an agreement between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd for the IBA, and if we all accept that both companies wish to agree a long IBA, surely that will happen in due course, before there is any IPO-initial public offering-of Royal Mail?
The hon. Gentleman may be easily reassured on that point, but I certainly would not be and I doubt whether many other Members would be either. Perhaps we should have tested the question more during the debate-the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) referred to it-so that we knew exactly why the
Minister says that we cannot include the new clause. It seems that there would be a legal challenge on the basis of EU legislation.
Mr Russell Brown: I sincerely hope that the Minister responds to my hon. Friend, but I think the answer to the question he is posing is simply that the Government are trying to privatise an asset, but they think it will become a liability as soon as it has the sentence of a 10-year IBA around its neck.
Mark Durkan: My hon. Friend is exactly right and he reinforces a point that was made earlier. The real issue is that the Government believe that potential investors will be put off if the agreement is seen to impose restrictions on their options for a period of years.
Mr Binley: Whatever happens, the recognition of 900 mail centres means that whoever buys Royal Mail will have to work with those people. They cannot possibly cut off those centres straight away, so an agreement of some kind has to be made for Royal Mail to continue working. Is it not right to say that we want to include the provision so that we know that an agreement will certainly be made?
There is a suggestion that the EU would upset an agreement, or frown on it. Let us remember that we are not talking about the House suddenly legislating to impose an agreement on two currently free, private and commercial enterprises; we are talking about a very different starting point. All Members of the House and of the devolved Assemblies have dealt with lots of situations where, through legislation and other means, we provide for various restraints, guarantees, restrictions and obliged agreements in contracts over a period of years. Such provisions could relate to restrictive gas and energy licences over long periods, guaranteed contracts between providers in different markets to create stability, or even to opening and developing markets. Such things are done all the time, and the measures are respected and accepted by the EU.
Mark Durkan: I join my hon. Friend in that suspicion; no doubt the Treasury is asking where the proposal will go and what would be the margin of attraction if there were changes. Because the Treasury believes that the proposal would make the business less attractive to the market, it has drawn conclusions and made an assessment.
On that point, I shall close to allow other Members to participate. I stress that we cannot hide behind the assumptions and presumptions that have been casually made, either in Committee or in the House, that the new clause is neither necessary nor feasible because other things are unthinkable.
Mr Davidson: I rise to speak as the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, rather than as a constituency Member. I will therefore not explain why the construction of two aircraft carriers is absolutely vital to the maintenance of Royal Mail and the postal service.
We decided as a Select Committee that it was not appropriate for us to consider ownership or pension issues, because they were not mainly Scottish issues, but we wanted to consider particularly the future of the universal service obligation and the future of post offices, as they are of greater importance to rural and deprived areas in Scotland than perhaps they are to many other areas of the country.
We took as a given the importance of the role that post offices and Royal Mail play in the community. A number of other Members have already referred to that. Normal procedure does not necessarily mean that we cannot repeat exactly what other Members have said, but I will not do so in these circumstances. I want to move on to our recommendations on these issues.
We met the Minister and had a hearing with him, and it was generally our view that he was not nearly as bad as people led us to believe. He was sincere in his view. We all thought that he wanted to support the maintenance of the post office network and the universal service obligation. There was no doubt in our view that his heart in all this was in the right place. Unfortunately, we did, however, think that his head was a bit muddled.
The Minister and ourselves had identified the fact that the inter-business agreement was absolutely essential for the future of post offices, but we were not convinced that he appreciated the necessity to make it as firm as possible. We took the view that his good intentions, which we accepted, were not sufficient, because events might occur that submerged a host of good intentions. We have already seen the Government use the economic crisis as an excuse to ditch all sorts of commitments that both coalition parties made before the election. We therefore took the view, as Ronald Reagan did with the Russians on missiles, "Trust, but verify." We accepted his good intentions, but we wanted to ensure that things were pinned down as firmly as possible.
We welcomed the Minister's statement that he did not intend to put anything in the way of such an agreement. We took the view that there was a hierarchy of ways in which it could be approached. Undertaking to remove obstacles-well, not objecting to do so in the first place-we took as a given. He indicated that he was keen to see obstacles removed. One of our recommendations is that the Minister take positive steps to facilitate a long and robust IBA and to remove any obstacle, whether practical, legal or otherwise, that may exist. Clarifying whether there are obstacles to a 10-year IBA being signed now would remove a lot of the anxiety about whether the European Union is blocking this or any other agreement.
As the second line of pursuit, we wanted a voluntarily entered-into 10-year IBA agreed before any such sale. There seemed no reason from what we heard from the Minister, given that he was willing to overcome any obstacle, why a voluntarily entered-into IBA could not be signed before sale took place. We said:
"We understand that this may affect the marketability of Royal Mail, but it is essential to the sustainability of Postal Services in Scotland."
We appreciated that Royal Mail signing an IBA might affect the price that it achieved, because it might be seen as a less attractive commercial operation than would otherwise be the case. We none the less agreed that we wanted to include that because the preservation of post offices through the construction of an IBA and its implementation before privatisation or a change of ownership was absolutely vital.
Damian Collins: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the case might be argued the other way? In taking Royal Mail to sale, one has to demonstrate that one has a secure agreement with the post office network as a major retail outlet that provides a sound footing for services at the point of sale. It is in the network's interest in getting the best possible deal for Royal Mail.
Mr Davidson: No, we took exactly the opposite view. We accept that Royal Mail would probably want to have the post office network. That network is important to Royal Mail, but it is not utterly and absolutely essential, whereas the converse is not the case. It is a question of ham and eggs. The pig makes a much greater commitment than the hen, so we took the view that, if there were a privatised Royal Mail or a change of ownership, which is free to negotiate with post offices, it would be likely to drive a much, much harder bargain. It would seek, for entirely understandable commercial reasons, to drive the post office network into the ground as much as possible, to extract the maximum possible advantage from those negotiations, because it would not be directly responsible for the future of the post office network. That is why we took the view that the Post Office's position was likely to be strongest before any change of ownership, so it was best agreed now, rather than later.
Richard Graham: I was not quite sure who the pig and chicken were in the hon. Gentleman's analogy. However, on the relationship between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, and the role of the Treasury and the financial issue, does he not agree-and I am sure that we will all be invited to buy shares in a privatised Royal Mail, and that it will be a flotation in which many people will participate-that we would all want to see that agreement in place, so that provides the best likelihood of its happening?
Mr Davidson: No, I do not agree with that at all, because I do not believe that a structure will be established for Royal Mail that necessarily allows all shareholders to come round and cast a collective vote on whether they want to maintain a collective post office network. It will be in the management's interests to maximise the return for the shareholders, so screwing the post offices into the ground will probably be in their interest. I am sorry if my comparison about ham and eggs, and chicken and bacon was not understood. The concept is that the pig provides the bacon, and the chicken provides the eggs. The chicken can carry on afterwards, but it is not quite as easy for the pig. I am sorry if that is beyond senior members of the Conservative party, but we are prepared to explain these things to them later.
Returning to the question of how we can secure the strongest possible commitment to the IBA, as proposed in the new clause, which the Committee had not seen when it prepared its report, we thought that having that
in legislation would be an extremely strong protection. If the Minister can give us an assurance that legislation is not necessary because the same things will be achieved without legislation before there is any question of a sale, then, because we are reasonable, we would be satisfied. However, the House will understand our anxiety, because after the by-election on Thursday, the Minister might not be here any longer. We want to make sure, while he is in a position of authority, that he allows his heart to rule and produces measures that we find acceptable.
I should like to touch on one or two other worrying issues relating to the Post Office. On the size of the network in Scotland, we accept that the Government's access criteria are helpful in setting out the structure of the network that they want. We welcome, too, the fact that they intend to keep 11,500 post offices. However, it is not the case that the access criteria necessarily mean that the 11,500 will remain, because our understanding is that the access criteria could be met with 7,500 post offices. A commitment to 11,500 is not necessarily a commitment to the 11,500 that are there at the moment. It would be possible in those circumstances for a substantial denuding of the post office service to take place in the highlands, the islands, the borders or Argyll. Rural areas could maintain the present access criteria, and the 11,500 criterion could be met because other post offices might set up elsewhere in urban areas, but the service would undoubtedly be worse than it was before.
The Minister shakes his head. I would welcome a commitment from him that the intention is to maintain the network pretty much as it is. I genuinely understand his difficulty. Individual post offices are controlled by individual private contractors. We cannot legislate to refuse somebody permission to leave. There will always be some degree of coming and going. If it were one in, one out in a particular area, we would not object to that, but there could quite easily be a couple of hundred post offices going out of the rural areas or the poor areas, and a couple of hundred starting up in the richer areas where need is perhaps less. The Minister's criterion would still be met, but the social objectives that we are pursuing would be lost. I am happy to give way if the Minister wants to solve my problem.
Mr Davey: Philately has got me to my feet. I am looking forward to reading the Scottish Affairs Committee's full report. I thought that I had said to the Committee that the 11,500 commitment is in the contractual agreement between the Government and Post Office Ltd. That is a strong commitment and it is backed up by the access criteria that we inherited from the previous Government, which could be delivered by a network of 7,500 post offices. Obviously, there is a debate about that, but the two together give a strong reassurance to Members and to communities around the country and meet all the concerns that the hon. Gentleman is raising.
The Committee unanimously welcomed the points that the Minister was making about the access criteria and the fact that he was guaranteeing, as I understood it, 11,500 post offices, but surely he will accept that his guarantee does not guarantee the same 11,500. It does not guarantee them in the same locations. In some areas, particularly rural areas, where there are small post offices, the access criteria are, thankfully,
better met. One of those could easily close, one could open somewhere else, such as London, and both sets of criteria would still be met.
If the Minister cannot give us a commitment today, perhaps he will take that away and consider whether something could be done at a later stage in the passage of the Bill. I think that he accepts that this is a genuine anxiety and that we are here to help him. We are identifying gaps in provision and trying to strengthen the Bill.
Mr Reid: I share the hon. Gentleman's anxieties. However, as we discussed in Committee, the problem was framing legislation to cover all eventualities. He correctly pointed out that the previous Government's access criteria, which continue under the present Government, could be satisfied with 7,500 post offices. The only way to solve the problem would be to pass legislation that no post office could ever close, but it was agreed that that was not a practical solution. No amendment has been tabled today that offers a practical solution. The problem is putting such a solution into legislation. We have to accept the assurances of the Government. That is the only way in which we can proceed, because of the impracticality of legislating.
Mr Davidson: The hon. Gentleman serves with me on the Scottish Affairs Committee. As he will remember, we were not recommending that there should be a change to the legislation on this point. Unanimously we agreed that putting it in legislation would be too difficult, and we understood the Minister's difficulty in identifying a policy that would encompass these points. But we wanted to raise the matter again because it was raised with us on a number of occasions by people who could see how the Government's commitment could, in effect, continue to be met while there was none the less a deterioration in service.
The Minister has made the point that the contractors are independent. If somebody leaves a post office, somebody else will have to decide whether they want to take that on. After the next election, there may well be a number of Liberal Democrats looking for new jobs, and they may consider whether to become sub-postmasters. So, I am actually thinking of the Minister as much as anything else. He might wish to become a sub-postmaster in those circumstances, and, to return to a previous point, I am sure that he would much prefer a 10-year, or what might then be a five-year, guarantee with Royal Mail to one of only a few weeks. Again, it would be for his own good.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I very much agree that the location of post offices is vital. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that responsibility for that could be given to the new regulator? The previous Government took away that responsibility, but there used to be regulation on the consultation and decision-making process that affected the location of post offices, so the Minister might consider that idea when establishing the new regulator.
That seems like a very constructive way of looking at the issue. I am not sure about the practicalities, and nobody else raised the matter with us during our
discussions, so we have not introduced it as a recommendation. We were interested in the outcome, however, and we had sufficient faith in the Minister and his support staff to identify ways in which it could be achieved.
That brings me to the other point about which we had anxieties. It relates to the point about the number of outlets, and it is the issue of wandering vans. The Government have committed to a certain number of outlets, and the Minister has indicated that he wants to have 11,500, but an outlet can be a van that stops for a certain period at a location and then moves on; it does not necessarily have to be a post office.
We have already heard how some sub-post offices and outreach facilities were not considered adequate, and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) described how people had to queue outside some of them in the rain and snow. The facilities were not always satisfactory, and we worry that the Government will be able to meet their target of 11,500 by introducing a number of wandering vans that go to five places a day, five days a week, meaning that 25 outlets are covered.
So, 100 peripatetic vans-to use their Sunday name-would cover a substantial number of the 11,500 outlets that the Minister identifies, and that is clearly not what we intended. It would therefore be helpful if he indicated the criteria that will apply when deciding to introduce a wandering van. Is he willing to state that there will be a maximum number? We do not want the commitment to 11,500 outlets undermined and devalued by there being not even full-time vans, but part-time vans that appear for only a limited number of hours per week. That is the final area of the proposed changes on which we want the Minister's clarification. Again, if he does not feel able to provide it today, I hope that he will find it possible to produce appropriate statements before the legislation is finalised.
Tom Blenkinsop: I support new-cross-party-clause 2 as part of a damage limitation exercise in opposition to this Bill to privatise Royal Mail, and in order to protect Royal Mail, which Moya Greene, its new chief executive, says provides one of the most excellent services in the world.
I, like many colleagues, have major concerns that the Bill's proposal to separate Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail will lead to significant changes in arrangements between the two entities-two that are currently one. My Opposition colleagues and I are not the only ones to have said that; the postmasters, Royal Mail workers and managers whom I met in my constituency over Christmas reiterated it.
There is no known international precedent for separating a national mail operator from its retail arm, and the changes will be detrimental to post offices in my constituency and to my constituents, their customers. The changes are likely to lead to Post Office Ltd no longer being treated as a preferred and reliable in-house provider by Royal Mail. Instead, I fear that the Post Office will be seen no differently from any other supplier, with the long, shared history between the two companies overlooked and the public's wishes for a good, complementary service disregarded.
As we have heard, post offices-especially small rural post offices in villages across the country and in my constituency-are heavily dependent on Royal Mail
business for income and attracting customer visits to their premises. In the same area, our local post offices provide a convenient and trusted location to carry out Royal Mail transactions both for the general public and for our local small businesses. Many of those post offices act as village shops and sell convenience goods, groceries, sweets and newspapers. However, many of those businesses' activities are unviable on their own without post office activity underpinning them.
The existence of the business agreement is also important to sub-postmasters when they deal with their banks. The banks view the agreement as a guarantee of income that can be considered as collateral for lending to post offices and sub-postmasters. An unconditional clause must therefore be put in any legislation stating that such a mandatory contract between Post Office Ltd and the Royal Mail must be put in place if there has to be any separation. However, Liberal Democrat and Conservative pleas on that are in opposition to the comments of the Lib Dem Minister, who said in Committee:
"if you actually wrote that there should be a contract between two companies that are going to be separate companies into law, I think that would be subject to serious legal challenge." --[ Official Report, Postal Services Public Bill Committee, 11 November 2010; c. 123, Q244.]
I strongly believe that there must be a commitment from Ministers that the full range of Government services that can be delivered via local post offices will be secured. The Government must proactively look at a range of attractive new services and post office business streams. Some post office services have already been outsourced to PayPoint, as was reported in the press recently. In addition, the coalition's decision not to pursue a post bank is another example of the Government ignoring opportunities for the post office and the public. A mutualised post office with a bank would be an excellent community asset and would provide financial sustainability for post offices. The other arguments we have heard today about commercial necessity and banks withdrawing from localities and using post offices for their financial services tie in with the ongoing arrangements that post offices are developing.
Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the alternative of bringing credit unions into post offices is very attractive and that the opportunity for credit unions to work with post offices creates a positive alternative to the banking approach?
Tom Blenkinsop: It certainly is an alternative and I take it on board as an option. However, in and of itself, the post bank would not necessarily be in conflict with the credit union. Other Government policies have undermined and withdrawn funds from credit unions. That happened recently with the north-east moneylending team, which was within the Minister's remit.
Many postmasters fear the worst-that the Bill will be passed-and have made a plea to Government to consider at least extending the contract to 10 years. That request has been knocked back by the Government on the basis that it would not be compatible with EU regulations. However, I am assured by postmasters who investigated the matter that that is merely an excuse.
The Government's position regarding BSkyB and the fact that the potential buyer of the Royal Mail could own 90% of the company leads us to ask what the difference is between a state-owned monopoly and a private monopoly.
Postmasters have also referred me to the rail franchise contract as an example of how such things can be and, indeed, have been done. I cannot think of any reason why the Government are willing to grant 10-year rail franchises, but will not do something similar for the Royal Mail. A 10-year agreement would be advantageous for a number of reasons. First, in the German and Dutch models, which have been referred to as examples of best practice by Ministers in Committee and today, legislation stipulates the number of national access points. It appears that the Minister has more of a problem with German geography than with the potential German ownership of the Royal Mail. Without such a clause, a minimum 10-year deal is necessary to reassure those running existing post offices, which are mainly independently owned.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Having seen several post offices close in my constituency before the general election, I welcome the Minister's commitment to end the closure programmes. The key point is that post offices should be given the flexibility to get in extra services and respond to new developments, and that is the fundamental point of this aspect of the Bill. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Tom Blenkinsop: No, I do not. The point of the IBA is to allow for an established foundation so that post offices can exploit further services, but we have not seen, to date, what those services will be. We have had promises about potential services, but as in the case of the press stories about PayPoint bidding for benefits contracts, for example, we hear one thing and then there is evidence of something else occurring.
Post offices are, in the main, independently owned, and the mutualised scheme assumes that the vast majority will opt into the mutual model, without providing any details on what that will mean in practice for a particular post office, which mutual model will be adopted, or whether Government will sit on the board of a mutual or a workers' co-operative or customer-workers' co-operative. Nor does it say what would happen to a sub-postmaster if they decided not to opt into the model. In any case, a mutual model offers no safety without a long-term guaranteed IBA for business. Royal Mail could, and probably will, seek cheaper access points after the IBA has expired.
How can the Government guarantee fair commercial negotiations between a privatised, large and powerful Royal Mail and a mutualised, smaller Post Office Ltd? Perhaps the two coalition partners, with one obviously being large and the other smaller, can give us some information on how such negotiations go ahead and how such agreements are reached. However, looking at this from the outside, it does not look particularly helpful for any form of Post Office Ltd taking forward any sort of commercial negotiations. If the position cannot be guaranteed, what message does that give to business and to the general public at large, and what chance is there of having an independent Post Office that opts out of a mutualisation scheme and goes into commercial dealings with a larger Royal Mail?
The Government's proposed pilots have yet to start and to prove how new services in post offices will have worked. That is not to say that they will not, but there is no evidence as yet for us, as legislators, to see that evidence before we carry on.
Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): Obviously the details are some way from being decided, and the model for how the Post Office will be organised as a mutual, if that happens, has yet to be chosen. Surely, however, this is something to be welcomed across the House. There may be concerns about the specifics, but does not the hon. Gentleman feel a sense of warmth towards the idea of a mutual Post Office?
Tom Blenkinsop: As a member of the Labour and Co-operative party, I always have a sense of warmth towards mutuals and co-operatives. However, I do not yet know what we are being sold, and until I see the details I ain't signing anything.
Post office and mail services are seen not as mere businesses but as an essential part of our way of life. These are not just romantic notions on my part. I cite the report issued last year by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which said that local post offices provide a focal point for communities. It says that they are
"an instrument of social cohesion"
"preserve the fabric of our society"
"where vulnerable and non-vulnerable people alike share services".
Every week 20 million people visit a post office. For every £1 transacted in the UK, 14p is handled through the post office network. Post offices are also a lifeline for many of the most vulnerable people in society, including older people, the disabled, people on low incomes and also-this is important to me in my constituency-those living in rural villages and small towns.
Small businesses are also extensive users of the post office network, particularly its mail services. I understand from the Federation of Small Businesses in my region that 20% of its member companies use post offices, while 59% use their local post office at least once a week. The growth of online business transactions has boosted this usage significantly, with Royal Mail parcel delivery posted from local post office branches being the preferred medium.
The inherent strength of the current post office network lies in its depth and its reach. The existence of 11,500 sub-post offices means that the network of post offices remains bigger than all the bank and building society branches put together. This becomes even more important when we note the continued closure of local bank branches.
Damian Collins: As we have discussed, that is the inherent attractiveness of the Post Office and one of its great bargaining tools. No retail outlet in this country can offer the breadth and number of locations of the Post Office.
Damian Collins: Even the major supermarkets-and probably all the major bank branches-combined do not reach the scale of the Post Office. I am yet to be convinced that there is a realistic retail alternative whereby the Royal Mail could take its business wholesale out of the Post Office and give it to someone else. That is the picture painted by some Opposition Members.
Tom Blenkinsop: No, we are portraying a picture of the future in which that could happen. Royal Mail Group has admitted that nearly two thirds of existing post offices are economically unviable. That does not mean that they are not propped up by the inter-business agreement. That is the difference in how the Opposition and some Government Members view the IBA. Is it simply a system that keeps post offices alive, or is it a redistributive mechanism within Royal Mail Group, alongside other mechanisms, that ensures that there is a service provider across the UK?
Mr Davidson: Perhaps it would be helpful if we clarified whether it would be possible, without an IBA, for Royal Mail to do a deal with Tesco, other supermarkets and a number of banks, and to fill in the missing parts of the jigsaw with post offices. Surely that is the alternative that we ought to be worried about. That is the danger of going down the road indicated by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). He seems to think that the option is between the Post Office in its entirety and Tesco in its entirety. A predatory Royal Mail could easily decide to pick and mix. The danger is that we would be left with a small number of post offices, with the rest replaced willy-nilly by Tesco and the like.
Tom Blenkinsop: There is also the assumption that the Royal Mail will stay at its current size and not contract wholesale to a more commercially viable size in urban areas, and an assumption that it will remain as one national system and not fracture into regional systems with further purchases and sales. It depends who the buyer is, and we have no guarantee on that either.
The importance of the inter-business agreement is demonstrated by the figure from the National Federation of SubPostmasters that income from transactions carried out in post offices on behalf of the Royal Mail accounts for a third of Post Office Ltd's income-£343 million in 2009-10-and makes up a third of sub-postmasters' pay and income. It is clear that if the agreement, which has almost four years left to run, is not retained and carried over, more local sub-postmasters will conclude that the game is up and hand in their keys. The arrangements under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 are likely to change, and the terms and conditions for sub-postmasters may change substantially. If I was a sub-postmaster in a rural area and wanted my pension or redundancy, I would see this as a dodgy area.
It may be easy for Ministers to ignore such arguments and say that there are always people who are willing to provide post office services, but from my constituency
experience, that is far from the truth. When a local urban post office in Coulby Newham closed recently, the response to the advertisement of the new business opportunity was negligible. Luckily, we were able, in partnership with the regional offices of Post Office Ltd to find a businessman, Mr Patel, who was willing to take the risk of opening a new outlet in Coulby Newham, but I stress that that was with the benefit of the inter-business agreement. Without it, I do not believe that he would have taken the plunge.
Any changes to Royal Mail and its relationship with Post Office Ltd that adversely impact on the network will unquestionably risk further widespread post office closures. If the Government do not heed that warning, the public and my constituents will know who to blame. Royal Mail is a great example of how the market does not solve everything. It simply does not make economic or business sense for a company to set up to provide a postal service in rural areas. That is why we need Royal Mail, why we have the IBA, and why it must remain.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): To most people in this country, the Royal Mail and the Post Office are synonymous. To them, the matching colours of the Royal Mail vans and the oval sign indicating the presence of a post office are symbolic of an inextricable link between the two. They are the two arms of one and the same service. The post office is the collection or access point-the place where people take the parcel that they want to post or the letter that they want to register-and the Royal Mail van that does the country rounds, or the postman or woman wearing the badge with the red and yellow insignia on it, provides the delivery service.
To most people, it is unthinkable that the two should be separated, and indeed Moya Greene, the chief executive of Royal Mail, recognises that historical link and has uttered warm words about a privatised Royal Mail continuing to use the Post Office to provide the access counters for its services. However, fine words are not enough. In the tough world of business, in which a profit-hungry, privatised Royal Mail will be looking to drive the hardest bargain possible, neither tradition nor public service is likely to be the foremost consideration. They are likely to be subservient to the profit motive.
One may well think that the motive of profit would also lead to costs being driven down, which would be beneficial to the consumer. However, we all know that cost-effectiveness can mean that services become concentrated in the big centres with high turnovers. Services such as shops or post offices that serve scattered rural communities, or less well-off urban areas where spending levels are low, find it difficult to make ends meet, and that can lead to shop owners or sub-postmasters shutting up shop with little to attract new entrants. The consumer is therefore left with fewer outlets and less choice. Very often, those who are not car owners miss out most. They can no longer look forward to a little walk and a chat in the local shop. We have all seen it happen-the big supermarket arrives in an area and surrounding businesses are put out of business.
Labour's belief is that a viable, sustainable post office network is a critical part of the social infrastructure of many communities. That belief led us to develop the access criteria for post offices and to set aside the
£1.5 million annual subsidy to maintain the current network of some 11,900 post offices. I am pleased to note that the important social role of post offices was recognised in the Government's recent document accompanying the announcement of the continuation of that subsidy.
We know that Royal Mail business accounts for more than a third of the post office network's revenue-some £343 million. One third of sub-postmasters' pay, some £240 million, is also generated from the sale of Royal Mail products and services. Clearly, the loss of one third of the Post Office's revenue would have catastrophic effects.
That calls into question the logic of allocating £1.34 billion of taxpayers' money to subsidising and refurbishing post offices, when we could find the business stream that guarantees them a third of their business being taken away. There has been no guarantee that it will stay. Where is the logic in putting taxpayers' money into the Post Office while doing nothing to secure a third of its revenue? Using taxpayers' money to refurbish post offices while doing nothing to secure Royal Mail business is like respraying a car before pushing it over the cliff.
The Minister has tried to tell us that he cannot do anything about securing an inter-business agreement between a privatised Royal Mail and the Post Office. He is standing back, wringing his hands and saying, "Oh, I'm so terribly sorry, there's nothing I can do." It sounds very much like Pontius Pilate. What advice has he taken? What options has he explored? Does he expect that a privatised Royal Mail would honour the current inter-business agreement? Depending on the time scale of his proposed sell-off of the Royal Mail, that could mean honouring just the last couple of years of the existing agreement.
Nia Griffith: As I understand it, there is an existing IBA. The question is: what is the timetable for the privatisation of the Royal Mail? How much of the existing IBA will be left? If we are arguing that an existing IBA can be carried over, surely an existing IBA of a different length could also be carried over. Although we currently have one that is worth probably a couple of years at most, by the time the privatisation procedure has gone through, there could be a new and different IBA. Indeed, there could be a 10-year IBA. We have already heard from the Minister that it is possible to have all sorts of businesses entering into agreements. We know that there are 10-year rail franchises, for example. There are all sorts of different takeover bids-when companies take over other companies, they have all sorts of contractors working for them-so there can clearly also be a takeover of an inter-business agreement. We are asking the Minister for a guarantee that it will be a 10-year agreement. What we are asking for is not rocket science; it is something that I am sure he will want to do. Indeed, if we can be persuasive enough, I am sure that he might even consider it, but we shall see.
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