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Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman is right. We must look at the positives. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran raised a lot of fears, some of which are natural, but we must look at how justified they are. We must ensure that we are not speaking in political terms to draw the attention of the media and to provide a subject on which to campaign, but that we look at the reality. That is why I am delighted that the Government have invested money in the network as part of the programme.

Katy Clark: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the way TNT operates in London is the reality of what we are likely to see in the future?

Dan Rogerson: The hon. Lady made good points about employment practices, which I think will be of concern to people looking at employment in that sector. However, we are talking about the universal service obligation, and we will probably not find TNT falling over itself to provide alternative services in many areas of the rural network that we are talking about. I am confining my remarks primarily to the rural network, although I accept what she says about zero-hours contracts, which is a debate for another time.

Huw Irranca-Davies rose

Dan Rogerson: Let me make a little progress and then I will give way.

I was listing the sorts of approaches that people have taken. In my constituency, the community at St Eval was shaped by RAF and Royal Navy housing, and Trevisker probably would not have been built were it not for the service community. That community has now largely left, and the MOD shut down buildings, took away the old NAAFI and so on, which put the post office under threat. Again, the community came together and put forward a good proposal with Cornwall council. It now has a lease on one of the former United States navy buildings to keep those services in the community. That is vital and we are looking to the future of those services as the buildings get sold off. Hopefully such proposals will play a part in shaping the future of that community.

Interaction with other services is also important. A lot of villages may have a small school that is clinging on, although there are of course pressures regarding the viability of such schools, which we all want to protect. The village pub may also be under threat, and those services support each other. If families come to collect children, they might go into the post office at the same time, or if they are going to the shop they might also go into the pub. Such things all support a viable set of services and businesses in the area, and the post office plays a big part in that.

Post Office Local provides an exciting opportunity for many businesses, and a new way of securing the future viability of the service. In some places, however, the sub-postmaster is looking to sell the business, and there is a concern that if they can sell it only as a local, finding a buyer may not prove such an easy prospect. We must get reassurance on that issue to ensure that in villages where a lot of community support has gone into the business, those gains are not lost as the post office moves to the local model.

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Much of the motion is about postal services and it is right that the House debates such issues as we are the guarantors of the obligation to provide that service across the country. I was struck by the comments of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), who mentioned Royal Mail’s applications to vary some of those conditions, and that the regulator, through discussion and consultation, had decided that that was not the way to go. I do not necessarily think that whether those services are in the private sector—in whatever form—or in the public sector is the ultimate guarantee. That is for us in this House to provide, and the universal service obligation is now protected in law. On the variation of those conditions, we have a prominent role in consultations on whether such things should be changed.

Mr Hain rose

Katy Clark rose

Dan Rogerson: I will give way first to the hon. Lady as it is her debate.

Katy Clark: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we are talking about a framework that will mean less money is available for Royal Mail, which will mean it will not be able to provide the services we have all been talking about? Parliament must have a framework through which Royal Mail is able to survive and post offices to flourish. Is that not what we are debating?

Dan Rogerson: Absolutely, and for some time regulators in other privatised industries have been looking at what is viable and what is not—water bills are a massive issue in my part of the world, and we have had a long debate about what is necessary for investment in the service, what is an acceptable level of profit, and what will be provided. Ofcom’s role is crucial.

Mr Hain rose

Dan Rogerson: I apologise but I am afraid I do not have time to give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

All parties must look at our future commitments to protect the universal service obligation. I sense that any party that signalled it was abandoning support for that obligation would not prosper electorally, and those of us in rural areas will argue strongly that as we move into a new era for postal services those services must be protected in law. We will campaign vigorously for any variations in that and interact with the regulator to secure them. I think we can have a viable postal service that will hopefully be a lot more protected than it was, sadly, under the previous Government.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. It might be helpful to the House if I explain that the Chair will look to call the Front-Bench winding-up speakers at 5.40 pm, with a view also to being able to start the next debate, on cycling, which is very heavily subscribed, no later than 6 o’clock.

4.55 pm

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this debate. I wish, like others, to contribute because a large part of my constituency covers a rural

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area. I have two rural post offices out of a total of eight across the constituency, which is the lowest number of post offices of any Scottish constituency aside from Glasgow North and one of the lowest in the UK as a whole.

The post is a vital service in rural areas. It goes beyond merely putting mail through the letterbox. For example, people who are not naturally gifted at form-filling can get help at competitive prices from the post office on a range of official documents, including passports, driving licences and tax discs. The post office will check the photo and form for a new driving licence for £4.50; by contrast, private companies offering similar services online can charge up to £60 for passport checking. The difference is between a public service at a modest cost and the free market charging whatever it thinks it can get away with.

When public services began to be privatised back in the 1980s, the mantra from many who occupied the Government Benches at the time was that competition meant a better deal for the customer. However, let us look at some recent examples. The privatised Thames Water makes profits of billions of pounds but surcharges Londoners for upgrading the sewer infrastructure in the city. The energy companies, including British Gas, have put household fuel and electricity costs up to an unacceptable level in recent years—not something they are keen to tell Sid about. The railway companies are allowed to get away with above-inflation fare increases when passengers have to tighten their belts and suffer a drop in their incomes. There cannot be many people left apart from some on the Government Benches who believe that privatisation always means a better deal for the general public.

Mr Reid: The hon. Gentleman is right to criticise the private energy companies, but Royal Mail has been guilty of excessive price increases. Royal Mail, which is under public control, put the price of a stamp up from 36p to 50p last year. Both public and private organisations are equally guilty.

Mr McCann: Yes, but under Royal Mail, we maintain the concept of universal delivery. As the hon. Gentleman has made clear, Royal Mail is profitable—it is earning the country money—which is why, instead of a having a one-off pre-election bonus through the sale of services, the UK should enjoy a regular income from post office services throughout the country.

If privatisation is the trend, will there be other royal privatisations? Can we look forward to the McDonald’s civil list, the Starbucks Duchess of Cambridge, or the Mitchells and Butlers Windsor castle? After all, the latter company already has hundreds of Windsor Castles, so it would only be a consolidation of the brand.

I have said those things in jest, but there is a serious point. A line must be drawn on how far privatisation is allowed to go. Everyone, including the Government, agrees that some things simply cannot be put up for sale. Honours such as peerages fall into that category. Parliamentary seats are legally immune from sale. The Prime Minister’s dinner table ought also to be exempt, although there are reports that donations to one Government party can get people through that front

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door. The argument is about whether or not postal services are a proper candidate for selling off. I and many other right hon. and hon. Members do not believe that the case has been made. Perhaps it is worth looking at the debate from the other side.

Recent complaints from the head of Royal Mail, Moya Greene, about remuneration for higher executives in the service, suggest that one priority for a privatised postal service will be significantly better pay for those in senior management positions. I am sure that Moya is still smarting from having to agree to hand back the £250,000 she received to get on the UK housing ladder, on top of the £127,000 she receives annually in relocation payments. Marie Antoinette’s riposte, “Let them eat cake” comes to mind. Are those sorts of increases really what the country wants to see—and pay for—at a time when most families have suffered a drop in income as a result of the economic climate?

The evidence does not back up the case for selling off postal services, so what is the real reason behind the Government’s enthusiasm for these projects?

Lady Hermon: I preface my remarks by saying that I do not want the hon. Gentleman to breach confidentiality, but it would provide a helpful contrast to the pay, salary and bonus of the chief executive if he could give us some idea of the income of the sub-postmasters in the post offices in his constituency.

Mr McCann: I am grateful for that intervention, but unlike our salaries, which are publicly available, I do not know the salaries of individual sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in my constituency. However, I think we can say that their salaries will be a fraction of the money paid to the chief executive, who appears to be willing to increase the salaries of higher executives under Royal Mail privatisation plans.

The evidence does not back up the case for selling off postal services, so we must ask what is the real reason for this project. For most of those on the Government Benches it is surely a dogmatic belief that, whatever the evidence, private is good and public is bad. I anticipate that the argument that postal services do not really have the same status in this technological age as they may have had in the past may come up. We will be told that people have the alternative of going online or using e-mail, and so do not have to rely on postal services. However, my recent experiences in Blackwood, Kirkmuir Hill and other rural areas in my constituency suggest that that is a rash assumption. British Telecom and the Scottish Government, supported by the UK Government, are rolling out programmes for so-called superfast broadband. In rural Blackwood and Kirkmuir Hill, however, a part of the community—a new development—has been left out due to the rather bizarre claim that they could not be sure of demand. Those constituents may get new broadband speeds in three, four, five or six years’ time, so they cannot rely on the internet and e-mail to conduct their business now. They have to resort to more traditional means.

That clearly demonstrates that communities in rural areas, where it is most expensive and difficult to upgrade online services, are the most likely to have to rely on postal services for the longest time. Yet if postal services are deemed to be too expensive, it will be in those areas that services are most likely to be jettisoned by private

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sector companies as uneconomical. That has certainly been the experience in New Zealand. In the UK, the number of rural post offices has been cut by 2,765 since 2000. I acknowledge that that cut is less than the cut to the number of urban post offices in the same period, but the accessibility criteria I mentioned earlier mean it is more significant, as rural offices are much further apart. Rural areas suffer in the provision of traditional Royal Mail and Post Office services and in the technological revolution from which urbanised areas will be able to benefit more or less immediately.

There are, of course, questions about access to services for those who do not own cars and have to get to urban centres, where postal services are more profitable and more likely to remain. A recent Library note shows that the accessibility criteria already differ between urban and rural areas, with urban post offices expected to be within 1 mile of the customer, but up to 3 miles away in rural areas. There are bus services from rural areas—my constituency is no different in that respect—but they are by no means as frequent as those that urban users are familiar with. That self-evidently reduces access, compared with being able to walk up the road to a local post office facility in one’s own village.

Then there is the question of whether the public want postal services to be sold off. The evidence from my postbag is that many people are deeply concerned about the proposals and have shown support for the Communication Workers Union campaign. I, too, would like to mention Hugh Gaffney, who has been a regular correspondent and has worked tirelessly on behalf of his union members in my constituency. However, nobody has written to me to say that the sell-off is a good thing and should go ahead. I cannot find any reference to a Royal Mail sell-off in the 2010 Conservative or Lib Dem manifestos, so there can be no claim of an electoral mandate for the proposal.

In the face of public hostility to the idea and the lack of a clear mandate, surely the Government should reconsider their proposals and withdraw them. At the very least, they should defer the issue until after the 2015 election and put it in their parties’ manifestos to ensure that, before any decision is taken, there is a clear and proper mandate for such a potentially far-reaching act, because once services in rural areas have gone, there will be little chance of their returning and our country will be a poorer place for it.

5.6 pm

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Throughout the debates on Royal Mail, I have made it absolutely clear that I am totally opposed to the privatisation of the system. That is not for any particularly ideological motive, but because I am concerned about what will happen to postal services in rural areas such as those that I represent, which have already suffered a reduction in services.

The universal service obligation and the universal tariff are important to rural areas, but both are under threat, not only from privatisation, but because of other changes in the Postal Services Act 2011. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) said, fairly, that we should not be too fearful of them, but those fears are well based. The problem is that if they come to pass, it will be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle, once we have privatised Royal Mail and lost

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those services in rural areas. In a previous debate, the Secretary of State made the point that the Royal Mail started as a letter service, but was now a package service that also delivered letters, which is very true. That is the key to the future of the Royal Mail service, but it is also why it is crucial that it remains in public ownership.

A reliable universal mail service is essential to businesses in rural areas and to efforts to encourage the growth of such businesses. If we are to re-energise small businesses in the rural economy, they must have access to a full, reliable and, above all, reasonably priced postal service that ensures that they can send and receive packages quickly and efficiently. Ministers have recently taken to justifying the privatisation on the grounds that, as a public service, the postal service has to compete with schools and hospitals for scarce public funds. That is emotive, but completely the wrong way to look at the service. The postal service must be recognised as an important economic driver to the local economy and one of the keys to building local businesses in the internet age.

The Government and local authorities are investing massive sums in bringing improved broadband to rural areas. That presents a huge opportunity for building up the mail system. For example, the Scottish Government have entered into a contract with BT that will ensure that 95% of the population have access to fibre-optic broadband by 2017. Obviously there is a long way to go, particularly in the more rural areas, but we are getting there. That is an important development. Similar moves are being made in other parts of the UK—I recognise that the Government have made money available for that. The extension of fibre-optic broadband will improve the ability of small and medium rural businesses to operate over the internet and give an important boost to the rural economy. However, that will happen only if they have access to a reliable and affordable postal service.

As I have said, it is not only privatisation that poses a threat to that service, particularly the “affordable” element. There is absolutely nothing to prevent Royal Mail or its new private owners from introducing zonal pricing in any service other than the universal service. There is also absolutely nothing to prevent Royal Mail from introducing, for example, a different first-class service—perhaps an inter-city first-class service serving the major urban areas at a lower cost than the universal service—in the face of the competition that will undoubtedly exist. That could lead to a situation in which urban businesses had access to a lower-cost service than rural businesses. Such a move would not breach the obligation under the Act. Indeed, it could be beneficial to large urban areas and larger users as competition developed, but it would, as so often happens, leave rural areas out in the cold with a reduced service. I remind Members that Richard Hooper’s original report made the point that large businesses, rather than small ones, had been the beneficiaries of the previous liberalisation of the postal service. That process could be intensified by the privatisation of the service, which would run against the very ethos of the postal services, which was to ensure that all areas of the country were served equally at the same cost.

Last year, Ofcom decided that price caps would be removed from all Royal Mail products except second-class mail. In my view, the result is that the only truly universal service is now second-class mail. First-class

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mail could be priced out of the reach of many people. With the price of a first-class stamp already 60p—one of the highest prices in Europe for such a service—how many people and, crucially, small businesses will continue to send first-class mail? There is nothing to prevent Royal Mail from raising the price of the service to such an extent that it ceases to be used.

I have raised the question of zonal pricing with Ofcom, and it has confirmed in a letter to me that it does not have any powers to prevent Royal Mail from introducing a pricing variation related to user location, as the Postal Services Act 2011 limits a regulator’s powers to universal services and access. That is the problem. Ofcom cannot prevent Royal Mail from introducing a price rise now, never mind if it were to fall into the hands of a private operator. Given its previous attitude to price capping, there is no guarantee that Ofcom would not allow unrestricted pricing for the first-class service.

Even if Ofcom decided to use its powers, they would be insufficient to protect the universal service. Under the Postal Services Act 2011, Royal Mail is obliged to continue the universal service provision, and it is the only organisation to fund it. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) spoke at length about the fact that the Communication Workers Union had raised the question of cherry-picking. What will happen if services provided by others start to eat into those provided by Royal Mail and damage the universal service? What powers does Ofcom have to deal with such a situation? Would the Government close down a competitor service? The answer is clearly no; they would not do that.

The Postal Services Act sets out what could be done in such circumstances, and it is worth noting that the decisions would be taken by Ofcom in the first instance. It would make a recommendation and a Minister would then decide whether to accept or reject it. If the service were in danger, Ofcom would have to consider the matter. It could decide to review the minimum requirements of the obligation, which could result in a reduced service that would be disastrous for rural areas. It could also decide on the establishment of a compensation fund. Importantly, however, such a fund would have to be paid for by all users of the services and not by the companies that deliver the mail. That could give rise to serious difficulties. It could also lead to substantial price increases for consumers.

Ofcom could also impose general service conditions on all or some other providers. However, that is highly unlikely to be effective if, as seems likely, the other competitors would be found only in relatively small geographical areas and Royal Mail were the only provider in rural areas. Does anyone really think that a future Government would legislate to ensure that TNT, for example, should set up a nationwide service in place of the service that it provides at present?

Ofcom could allow for the tendering of the universal service, but does anyone seriously believe that that would work, when the very reason for its being considered would be the fact that Royal Mail could not manage it? If such an exercise were to be carried out, what would be the cost? The Communications Workers Union has

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pointed out that an executive of TNT in the Netherlands has been reported as describing the universal service obligation as

“a kind of Jurassic Park and we should be rid of it”.

We do not yet know what form the sale of Royal Mail will take. It could go out to the public, or it could involve a sale to one of those companies. Either way, experience tells us that when industries are privatised, the chances are that they will fall under the control of one of the multinational companies. Let us look at what happened in our energy industry. The only consumer protection there is the regulator, and does anyone in this Chamber really feel that consumers have been protected by the energy regulators?

There are huge problems, and as I say, once Royal Mail has been sold, it will be potentially too late to go back. At present, however, Royal Mail is making a profit and there is huge potential for growing its services in conjunction with the roll-out of fibre-optic broadband. Instead of selling it off, we should be constantly ensuring that Royal Mail is treated as an integral part of our infrastructure, in the same way as roads for example, and ensuring that it blossoms in public ownership.

I had hoped to say more about the post office network, which is also very important in rural areas, but I am unfortunately running out of time. Post offices play a part in the delivery of mail, because they provide a pick-up and delivery point in many rural areas. No one in the Chamber will be unaware of the torrid time that the post office network has had over the past decade, when over 34% of post offices have closed. Although there is no closure programme at the moment, it does not mean that post offices are not still struggling and, in some cases, closing. Over the last couple of months in my constituency, two of the remaining sub-postmasters have decided to retire, and in the process the post offices have been transferred to other businesses. The service has been reduced to a post office local service, and that means a lesser service for consumers.

5.16 pm

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I would like to pay tribute to and thank Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), for bringing forward this important debate on the Floor of the House through the Backbench Business Committee.

The mail and postal service plays a key role in the lives of my constituents, and stands at the centre of much that is good in the local community. The local post office and the mail service are central to both the economic and the social life of South Down. Some 55% of post offices are in rural areas and 31% represent the only retail outlet in their area—a situation with which I am very familiar in my constituency, particularly in hard-to-reach areas in the rural communities—a point to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) has already referred.

The postal service plays a vital role in connecting our society: it is the central hub and is an essential part of the rural infrastructure, especially for the elderly and many vulnerable people who may be excluded from other forms of communication. Further cuts to our postal service and network risk isolating many in our

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society by creating a two-tier network that separates the connected and the dislocated. Such a development would be bad for our society and for our economy.

To express support of our existing position is not to say that we cannot develop and modernise the service for the 21st century, and we should indeed be looking at ways to reinvigorate this institution as part of the drive to develop and regenerate the rural economy—a theme to which I will return later. As many Members have mentioned today, however, the fear is that the privatisation of the Royal Mail and its impact on the relationship with the Post Office will place a further strain on the Post Office’s ability to survive, especially in rural areas, and that it will not revitalise the service, as some have suggested it will, but leave it to wither on the vine. I am worried that the inevitable market pressures from privatisation will place further strain across the postal services and that the parts that are not as profitable, especially in remote or rural areas, will have to be closed. We should not and cannot let this happen.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): The hon. Lady is making a powerful point and obviously represents a constituency very much like my own. Does she agree that there will be cases in which remote rural communities need these services so much that, although it will not be possible for them to develop commercially, they will need continued public subsidy? Will she join me in asking the Minister to commit to—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. May I ask the hon. Lady to sit down? Questions must be brief.

Ms Ritchie: I take the hon. Lady’s point. In remote rural areas, where there is little access to broadband, there must be an alternative in the form of the rural post office, with all its attendant services.

As we have seen with other privatisations, once the horse has bolted and the rationale of market practices has been enforced, it can be very difficult to reverse or even moderate the impacts. Despite assurances to the contrary, the end result is likely to be a reduced and more expensive service, and the fear is that rural services will be the canary in the coal mine.

We have received lukewarm reassurances that the universal service obligation will be retained, but it is feared that once private owners are placed under financial and competitive pressure, they will re-examine it and seek to change the terms of that important social compact, or be forced to contract their service. It would be completely unacceptable at any point for rural customers to have to pay more for that service. I ask the Minister to reassure us today that that will never happen, and that we are not on a slippery slope towards the erosion of the universal service obligation. I should also like to hear from her a more detailed explanation of how the Government and Ofcom will prevent a private operator from ever altering the terms of the agreement.

Let me reiterate that I do not oppose the modernisation of the service. Indeed, the initial plans for modernisation met a degree of approval. It was hoped that more Government functions and business would be returned to the Post Office, and that the plans would return post offices to the centre of local life and diversify the service to meet the needs of all in the community. Over the last

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10 months, I have been pleased to be asked by the Post Office to open rebranded branches in my constituency, which have been open for more hours and have offered a broader range of services. It is important for such services to be retained in hard-to-reach rural communities. There is clearly a public demand for more of them to be provided, primarily through local post office branches. In response to a recent ICM poll, 89% of people said that they wanted a face-to-face service, and 73% said that they preferred the post office.

I believe that, following the recent review of banking and financial services, the Government have missed an opportunity to put the Post Office at the centre of a restructured retail banking sector. I believe that there is enormous potential for post offices to offer high-street banking services that would provide income for the Post Office while also bringing customers through the door to use their other services. That would apply particularly in rural areas that are currently experiencing a wave of bank branch closures. In Northern Ireland, Ulster bank, RBS, First Trust—part of Allied Irish Banks—and the Bank of Ireland are closing branches in rural communities.

If high-street banks were compelled, or encouraged, to offer access to a wide range of transaction services in local post office branches, and to make customers aware of that, we could see a revolution in the functioning of our post offices, and a revitalisation of the rural economy. What we need from the Government is an approach that aims to develop and support our postal services, bringing them into line with the 21st century while supporting their invaluable social function, but instead there is the fear that they will sell in haste and repent at leisure.

Lady Hermon: Before the hon. Lady closes her remarks, I am sure that she would like to join me in paying tribute to all those in Royal Mail and the postal services in Northern Ireland who served the entire community, without fear or favour, through the awful years of the troubles. We owe them a sense of loyalty and dedication now, when they feel that their jobs and their services are in jeopardy.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, with which I fully agree. I commend all those—past and present—employed in Royal Mail and postal services throughout Northern Ireland, because through the dark days of the troubles they had to go to hard-to-reach communities, both rural and urban, in very difficult circumstances. They often risked their lives to ensure that people had proper access to a postal service. It is important that we commend them and that this House records that.

The postal service and the post office lie at the heart of rural life and the rural economy. While remaining open to new opportunities, modernisation and reform of these vital services, we must not let the driving logic of privatisation destroy part of the fabric of rural life. It is important to emphasise that the National Federation of SubPostmasters, a representative of which I met recently, has made it clear that in practice it is very much not opposed to modernisation or to getting more services, but it is opposed to any contraction or withdrawal of services. There has certainly not been enough to counteract the fall in income from Government services from £576 million in 2005 to £167 million in 2010. I am

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happy to commend the motion standing in the name of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark). I fully support it, but we must show our determination to retain postal services and Royal Mail.

5.26 pm

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I am delighted to speak in this important debate on the future of postal services in rural areas, and it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie). I congratulate all hon. Members who proposed this excellent motion, especially my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), who gave this debate a lucid and thoughtful opening.

The fact that the motion is supported so widely is hugely important and will, I hope, provide a clarion call to the Government that those who represent rural and semi-rural seats will not stand for anything less than a genuinely universal service as regards Royal Mail and the Post Office. My postbag of postcards, letters and e-mails from people from across my constituency’s 240 square miles bears a clear message: keep the Royal Mail public, with a genuine universal obligation, and protect our post offices. My constituents are absolutely right to say that. Some who have written to me tell me openly that they are supporters of the Countryside Alliance, whereas others will be members of the Communication Workers Union or Unite. The majority are probably not aligned with any of those groups, but everyone speaks with one voice on this issue, which is so critical to all rural and semi-rural communities, such as those in my constituency. At least one commentator has described the campaign to save Royal Mail and the universal service obligation as

“an unholy alliance of left and right”.

People coming together across the normal political divides might be “unholy” in the tawdry little world of dog-whistle politics, but for most of us it is a sign of strength.

I hope that hon. Members will now forgive me a moment of lyricism. Is this situation not a case of an Aesop’s fable being enacted all over again? Is it not the Notting Hill town mice, free-market rodents to every last whisker, scoffing at their little country cousins, saying, “Come on, let’s get rid of the old-fashioned structure. We’ll do something more modern, more sophisticated—more free market. In short, things will be so much better”? We all know what happened in the end: whether because of the couple of dogs in Aesop’s version or the vacuum cleaner in the 1970s one—it is odd what one remembers—the metropolitan order got its come-uppance and the country mouse gladly returned to the security of a system that worked.

I suspect that things are not quite as easy in this case as they were in Aesop’s fable, because if the Government go ahead with their plans for Royal Mail, the security of the old system in rural areas simply will not be in place. If Royal Mail as we know it is destroyed, it will not just wait around some imaginary corner. It was put beautifully in an article in The Daily Telegraph last summer written by Vicki Woods, stating that

“twisting lanes and long driveways may be a step too far for the privatised Royal Mail.”

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We still have not heard why the Government intend to privatise such a profitable institution as Royal Mail or why they appear to have ruled out the mutual option of ownership. We still have no guarantees that the cost of sending parcels to different parts of the country will be the same and we have no guarantees, shamefully—because there are no guarantees—that Royal Mail will stay where it belongs, in British hands.

We often speak in this place of the importance of a revival in private sector fortunes for economic growth and we are absolutely right to do so, but in our rural communities that highlights the importance of people being able to work at home from those communities. Whatever line of business they are in, the chances are that that will mean parcels and mail. Imagine the disincentive to those communities if every single delivery ends up costing more—perhaps vastly more—than in an urban area. That would be even more the case if the daily delivery ended. The impact on rural staff and companies—and ultimately on the rural economy—would be immense.

Let me move on to the post office. We cannot forget that in many rural centres post offices can be a hub for the local community. We should invest in that and support it. I want to pay tribute at this point to the post office diversification fund of the Labour Welsh Government, which last year made a grant to Pontfadog post office in the beautiful Ceiriog valley to fund new lighting and signage, a new chiller for fruit and veg, sandwiches, pies and cakes for tourists, a photocopier and a notice board. The post office, like many in the smaller villages, manages to combine being a village centre with being a place of hospitality, a tourist information centre and so much more. We must support such initiatives and commit ourselves to them and those like them in our rural areas.

We must think, too, about how we can support postal services in two other scenarios that are, I think, almost exclusively rural. The first is when there is no longer a full post office but the Post Office is willing to retain a counter. How can we give more support to other retail outlets, where they exist, or to other organisations? We must be more flexible in that regard and urgently need to do more to promote partnership working and to get post office counters running. As long as there is the relevant security, we can and should be very imaginative about where to place those counters.

In the second scenario, the Post Office will want to keep a post office open but no willing party will take on the post of postmaster, which means that we see temporary or, in some cases, long-term closures. We should be open to different patterns of employment so that services never have to close for the lack of one post holder. More must be done to ensure that those post offices stay open. Post Office Ltd should not be let off the hook in this regard: we would not say that it did not matter if a school or health service provider closed for six months.

Postal services—Royal Mail and the Post Office—are undoubtedly vital to our rural communities, so I urge the Government to do more to support them. I urge them to listen to the country mice in this place and reconsider their flawed and unpopular plans to privatise Royal Mail.

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5.34 pm

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting the debate. I especially thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), who has been dogged over many years in speaking against the privatisation of Royal Mail and pointing out its impact on her rural constituency. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not mention everyone who spoke because time constraints mean that we must rattle through the debate.

With perhaps only a few weeks to go until the Government hammer the final nail in the coffin that will seal the privatisation of Royal Mail, this has been a crucial opportunity to debate the impact of that policy on rural communities throughout the country. Such communities have already been hit hard by the Government. Whether through their astonishing abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board without a debate in the House or their inaction on rising travel and fuel costs, or with the disproportionate effect of the cost of living crisis on rural communities, the Government have been found wanting, and we now have the ideologically driven fire sale of Royal Mail to save the Chancellor’s blushes. It is only a few months since the rural economy index concluded:

“Rising unemployment, shrinking profits and plummeting confidence in countryside businesses has thrown the rural economy to the brink of a further recession”.

There is a fear that the privatisation of Royal Mail and other changes to postal services will accentuate that decline.

We should praise postal workers throughout the United Kingdom for their work. They get important mail and items to families and businesses up and down the country come rain, hail, shine or snow. We should especially thank those workers in the most remote parts of the country, which is why the motion is right to cite the

“vital contribution that Royal Mail makes to rural areas”.

Royal Mail’s profits, which are in excess of £400 million, are a testament not only to the hard work of its staff, but to the partnership of management and staff working with the trade unions to make the Royal Mail service the best that it can be.

The universal service obligation of one price anywhere, six days a week, gives equity to rural areas and supports rural economies. We have only to look at the inequity of pricing for delivering parcels to certain remote areas, which many hon. Members cited, to see the potential for rural economies to be hit hard should the USO principle be undermined.

The social aspect of the post office network in rural areas is critical. Post offices act as a focal point for communities and provide a vital service, especially for older people, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) said. Of course, they are also important to the small businesses that use our postal services.

There are undoubtedly challenges, given that letter volumes are falling drastically and maintaining the USO is expensive. However, the maintenance of the USO is at the crux of the debate. The Government cannot guarantee either the USO or the inter-business agreement with the Post Office because they have no real control over rival end-to-end operators cherry-picking more profitable services, which in turn makes delivering

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the USO more expensive. A more expensive USO puts pressure on a privatised Royal Mail to cut costs, and the most expensive parts of its business are its rural operations.

Neither the Minister nor the Royal Mail can tell us what will happen if everything goes wrong. If the USO becomes too expensive to deliver or if the privatised Royal Mail just hands back the keys to the Government, as the private companies did when their contracts failed on the east coast rail line, what will happen? The taxpayer will pick up the tab. The situation is compounded by the fact that the Royal Mail has much higher service standards than rival deliverers. It therefore faces higher standards that are more expensive to deliver, and pressure on its most profitable parts from rival companies operating under lower service standards and employing staff under worse working conditions, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, to make their services cheaper still. Combined with that is an ever-more expensive USO, pressure on the inter-business agreement with the Post Office and the fact that the Government have no strategy on how to protect the USO in the long term. Then there is the big question of the EU directive, because will the UK be in the EU? Does the Prime Minister want to repatriate in this area, and will that create further uncertainty about the universal service obligation? This is a recipe for disaster, and the effects will be hardest felt in rural areas.

It would be naive to think that any new owner of a privatised Royal Mail would not aim to maximise shareholder value. That will put pressure on reducing costs and on services that might be considered uneconomic, such as reaching remote areas. Rural businesses might well have to pay more to have their mail delivered, while getting parcels from online retailers could come at a premium for householders. We have heard that a survey by Citizens Advice Scotland found that 84% of people living in the remotest parts of Scotland have been refused delivery by a non-Royal Mail carrier.

The importance of the post office network to rural communities is shown by statistics from the National Federation of SubPostmasters saying that 55% of post offices are in rural areas and that 31% are the only retail outlet in some areas. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) said, such post offices are often how rural communities access the wider world. The post office network depends on Royal Mail for more than 30% of its income, so we can see why there are considerable concerns that the 10-year inter-business agreement will fall. First, it was included in the Postal Services Act 2011 only after Labour and stakeholder pressure. Secondly, it can be reviewed in five years and, thirdly, it can be altered if there are material adverse effects on either of the two companies. It is a vital link in the sustainability of the post office network.

The Post Office is in a precarious position. A recent survey by the National Federation of SubPostmasters found that operating costs were rising; personal drawings for sub-post masters had fallen by 36% in four years; one in four sub-postmasters took absolutely no salary from their post office income; and most sub-postmasters earned little or no income from financial or Government services—the two areas that Ministers identified as having “real growth potential”. Most importantly for this debate, the Government have completely failed to deliver their pledge to make the post office the “Front Office for Government”. Do hon. Members remember

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that mantra? That has resulted in the NFSP withdrawing its support and saying that the privatisation of Royal Mail could fundamentally impact on the viability of the post office network, as it has become increasingly dependent on Royal Mail for business.

Then there is the impact on rural areas of the roll-out of the Post Office Local programme. Groups such as Consumer Focus—now Consumer Futures—say that there is a lack of analysis by the Government on how the programme will ultimately work. The Countryside Alliance is concerned that the model could result in many rural communities losing their post office or seeing further cuts in services such as manual cash deposits and withdrawals, manual bill payment services, and on-demand foreign currency. That is particularly worrying, given that the NFSP has shown that 43% of older people in rural areas use the post office to access cash.

Mr Reid: I am pleased that the Labour spokesperson is speaking up for rural post offices, because thousands of post offices were closed under the last Government. We are not going to take lectures from Labour on saving rural sub-post offices, given the thousands that they closed.

Ian Murray: The day I take lectures from a Liberal Democrat in the Chamber is the day I leave the Chamber in utter shame. The key thing that the hon. Gentleman tends to forget is the fact that privatisation of Royal Mail will signal the final nail in the coffin for the post office network. The Government can trumpet mutualisation as much as they want, but the fact that they have kicked it into the long grass until 2016 shows how undeliverable it is. Why on earth are the Government talking about mutualisation for the post office, but are hellbent on privatising Royal Mail? Those two things are just not compatible.

By continuing to pursue a policy that is ideologically driven, quite simply, Ministers and the Government are playing politics with the postage stamp. Let us be quite clear: this has nothing to do with postal services or the impact on the public, but is meant to save the blushes of a discredited Chancellor. Why are the Government not listening to the voices of the coalition of opposition, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), including the Countryside Alliance, the National Pensioners Convention, the Scottish Family Business Association, the National Federation of SubPostmasters, the Conservative right-wing think tank, the Bow Group, the cross-party Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, and even the late Baroness Thatcher? A recent survey by the Communication Workers Union showed that 96% of Royal Mail staff were against privatisation on a massive 76% turnout, despite the Government bribe to give them shares. If the Government do not want to listen to all those people, why does the Minister not listen to her colleague, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), who took responsibility from her to privatise Royal Mail in the recent ministerial reshuffle? He said in a letter to the CWU on 11 February 2009:

“I certainly do not support the...plans for privatisation.”

Why does that Minister not even listen to himself?

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The British public, who are against privatisation 2:1, recognise that, and the Liberal Democrat manifesto—remember that document?—recognises it. The weakness of the Government’s case is absolutely clear. I say this quite seriously: Government Members who represent rural constituencies should think carefully about privatisation of Royal Mail, which they support, and how it will affect not just their constituents but the businesses in their constituencies that rely heavily on the post office network. Rural areas, more than most, rely on our much-cherished postal services. The overwhelming case is to keep Royal Mail in public hands and protect postal services for all our communities.

5.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): I congratulate the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) and for Angus (Mr Weir) on securing this debate on the future of postal services in rural areas, for which the Backbench Business Committee has found time. The hon. Lady mentioned in her opening remarks that there have been particularly strong representations on the issue from parts of Scotland. It is lovely to return to these issues, as just a few weeks ago we had a good debate in Westminster Hall on the future of postal services, particularly in Scotland. I welcome the opportunity to respond to some of the issues raised this afternoon.

I will try to address as many as possible of the points made during the debate, focusing especially, as has much of the debate, on Royal Mail and the universal service, particularly in the light of the forthcoming privatisation. It is important to scotch the myths that have grown up during some of the speeches in this debate. I will also make sure that my remarks focus on the future of the Post Office because postal services relate not just to the delivery of letters and parcels, but to the wide range of postal services provided through the post office network.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so early. In scotching one of those myths, could she deal at the outset with the issue of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, which stated:

“49 per cent of Royal Mail will be sold to create funds for investment. The ownership of the other 51 per cent will be divided between an employee trust and the government.”

Is that an accurate reading of the manifesto, and is that what the Government are proposing?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman is obviously an avid reader of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, perhaps unlike his hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann)—

Mr McCann rose

Jo Swinson: If the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow will let me finish the sentence first, he may be fortunate and I may be able to give way to him.

Indeed, we recognised in the Liberal Democrat manifesto that Royal Mail would need an injection of private capital. Clearly, in the current plans at least 10% is guaranteed as worker shares. That is right and, importantly, it is set down in the Postal Services Act 2011. Obviously,

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the shape and format of the present proposals is not a carbon copy of what was in the manifesto. We are three years on from then and we are working within a coalition Government.

Mr McCann: May I remind the Minister that the Liberal Democrat manifesto committed also to full public ownership of the post office network? Can she explain how that sits with selling off the Crown post office network through franchising and with the Government’s plans to sell off most of Royal Mail, whereas the manifesto specified only 49%?

Jo Swinson: It is very important to make the point that the post office network remains in public hands. We need to get it on to a sustainable footing. I should have thought the hon. Gentleman welcomed that. The opportunity to mutualise the post office network ought to be welcomed not just on the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Benches, but on the Labour Benches, as it will ensure that ownership of such an organisation is more widely available to stakeholders within it, including not just sub-postmasters, but customers and others. That mutualisation process is an important part of the future of the Post Office.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the Crown network. In our post office network of almost 12,000 branches, the vast majority of which, as has been outlined eloquently by many speakers in the debate today, are small sub-post offices. About 370 are Crown post offices in the busiest high streets and town centres. For those 373 offices to be losing more than £40 million a year, as they were when this Government came into office, is unsustainable. I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise, therefore, that getting the Crown network as well as the rest of the post office network on to a sustainable footing is essential to the future success of the Post Office.

Mr McCann rose

Jo Swinson: I will give way, then I want to make some progress.

Mr McCann: Will the Minister concede that the Liberal Democrat manifesto did not make that distinction between Crown post offices and all the smaller ones that she has just mentioned?

Jo Swinson: I am making the point clearly that the Government remain the key shareholder in Post Office Ltd and therefore accept that the Post Office is in public hands. I concede that we are suggesting that when it becomes financially sustainable it would be a positive future if the post office network could be mutualised, which would mean it would not remain in Government hands, but I would have thought that that was something the hon. Gentleman welcomed.

With regard to the motion, I understand that with Back-Bench business we often have good debates on various issues and that votes are not common. I agree with much of the motion, but hope to be able to reassure the House on a couple of points. In relation to the claim that

“the impending privatisation of Royal Mail will place a question mark over its willingness to maintain what may be loss-making services”

and the reference to providing

“more concrete, long-term protections for postal services in rural areas”,

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I hope to reassure the House that the Government have long-term, concrete protections in place for postal services, and indeed that the Royal Mail will have to continue to provide the universal service. Many Members have raised that as a concern.

In setting out the background to how we got where we are today, it is important to remember that the Government are implementing a package of key reforms recommended in Richard Hooper’s independent review, which was first commissioned in 2008 by the previous Government. He set out three clear recommendations that needed to be implemented as a package if the Government wanted to secure the future of the universal postal service: that they should tackle Royal Mail’s historic pension deficit; that responsibility for postal regulation should transfer from Postcomm to Ofcom; and that Royal Mail should have access to private capital to support its ongoing modernisation. The previous Government accepted those recommendations in full, but their Bill was subsequently dropped owing to market conditions.

The Postal Services Act 2011, which was passed a little over two years ago, enables the Government to implement the full package of recommendations. As the House will be aware, we have now relieved Royal Mail of its historic pension deficit—I am glad that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran was able to welcome that move—and established a new regulatory regime under Ofcom, with stronger powers to protect the universal service. The third and final recommendation, to give Royal Mail future access to private capital, is now being progressed through the planned sale of shares in the company. That is a crucial element of the Hooper package. It will be positive for Royal Mail as a business, enabling it to respond to the changing needs and demands of postal users now and in the future. Most important, it will help secure a sustainable universal postal service in the UK.

Many Members have rightly mentioned that the universal postal service is crucial to the UK’s economy and social fabric, particularly in rural communities, and the coalition Government recognise that. That is why the overarching objective of our postal market reforms is to secure the future provision of the universal postal service, the six-days-a-week service at uniform, affordable prices for everyone in the United Kingdom, regardless of whether they live in urban, suburban or rural communities.

Various references have been made to whether that is a sufficient service or a minimum one, so I thought that it would be helpful to state what it actually means and what is set down in the legislation, which will continue to apply in the event of Royal Mail being sold: six-days-a-week delivery to the home or premises of every individual in the UK; six-days-a-week collection from every access point—post boxes and post offices—in the UK; a uniform, affordable tariff across the UK; the provision of a registered items service at uniform tariff; the provision of an insured items service at uniform tariff; free postage for the blind and partially sighted; and a free service of conveying qualifying legislative petitions. That is all set out in legislation, so regardless of ownership Royal Mail will continue to provide that universal service. The ownership change does not change that; only Parliament can change those requirements.

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Katy Clark: Does the hon. Lady not accept that what Members have been saying today is that the commercial pressures will be on both Royal Mail and the Government to reduce those universal service obligations if privatisation goes ahead?

Jo Swinson: It is up to Parliament to defend that universal service. That lies in Parliament’s power. We have protections in place through the 2011 Act because the Government recognised that that is an important service. [Interruption.] Members heckle from a sedentary position, but I highlight that it was the coalition Government who enshrined the universal service in legislation, not the previous Government. I think that it is incumbent on all Members of Parliament to ensure that we protect that, because it can be changed only if Members of Parliament decide to do so. I can certainly give an undertaking that I have no desire to do so. Perhaps Opposition Members are worried that they might feel under too much pressure and cave in; that is all I can imagine must be the cause of the concerns they are raising.

Mr Weir: The Minister is ignoring the point that has been made consistently: the universal service might become endangered owing to privatisation and increased competition. She can stand there and say that it is enshrined in legislation, but if Royal Mail can no longer deliver, there is very little that Parliament can do to stop it collapsing; there are only Ofcom’s various processes, which, as I explained in my speech, are unlikely to work.

Jo Swinson: Of course, Ofcom, as the regulator, has a range of tools. The nub of the hon. Gentleman’s point—there is a sensible point that he is making—is that it is vital that Royal Mail can continue to deliver as a successful company, and one of the challenges it currently faces is its lack of ability to invest. The postal service market it changing rapidly—parcel delivery, in particular, is very much a growth area, as other hon. Member have outlined—and we need to ensure that the Post Office has the capacity to react to changing circumstances. That is why it needs to be able to access private capital and why that is a way of protecting the universal service obligation, rather than the contrary.

Time is short and I would like to ensure that I mention post office matters, but on the issue of profitability and Royal Mail, which various hon. Members raised, I will put into context the challenges it faces. Competitors are investing significantly in their postal service markets and in improving their technology to deal with that. For example, Deutsche Post has invested more than €700 million over the past two years alone in its mail facilities and infrastructure and is focusing on another €750 million of investment by 2014. That is the type of investment that Royal Mail, in its market, ought to be looking at and that others in similar markets are looking at. That is why accessing private capital will be so important.

The debate has also covered the post office network. I think it is important to point out clearly that Post Office Ltd is not for sale; as of 2012 it is formally separate from the Royal Mail Group and remains wholly owned by the Government. Issues of Government contracts have been raised. I point out to hon. Members that Post Office Ltd has won 10 of the 10 Government contracts it has bid for since 2010, and it has done so on merit.

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The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) talked about the important opportunity of high street banking being provided through post offices, and I absolutely agree. It is pleasing that 95% of high street bank accounts can now be accessed through local post offices. That network is very important, particularly in areas where many of the banks have closed their branches. I encourage hon. Members to bring that to the attention of constituents, as they might not be aware of it. Also, the Post Office is currently undertaking a current account pilot in the east of England, so current accounts can be available from the Post Office as a financial services provider across the rest of the country.

Lady Hermon rose

Jo Swinson: I will give way, but then I will have to bring my remarks to a close.

Lady Hermon: The Minister is very kind to allow me to intervene when she has only a few minutes left. I must say that, despite the assurances she has given in the Chamber this evening, there will remain a nervousness and anxiety right across Northern Ireland about the Government’s future intentions in relation to both Royal Mail and postal services. Will she kindly give a commitment that a senior member of the Department will come to Northern Ireland, visit rural and urban post offices and meet a representative group of postmasters and politicians?

Jo Swinson: I will certainly take the hon. Lady’s representation on board. I cannot give a commitment on when that can happen, but I thank her for the invitation.

The 2010 spending review allocated a funding package of £1.34 billion to the post office network up to 2015, which is providing significant investment in the shape of network and Crown transformation. The new Post Office Local models are proving very successful, as indeed are the Post Office Main models. More than 1,750 sub-postmasters have signed contracts to convert their branches and nearly 1,000 are open—the 1,000th is expected to open this week. These new offices are reporting high levels of customer satisfaction; many Members will be aware of that because more than 400 have at least one in their constituencies.

I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) about local branches. Where sub-postmasters wish to sell a going concern, it will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and if it is not viable for one of the new models it can be sold under the existing type of contract.

I welcome this debate, which has featured contributions from all parts of the House and from all four nations. Postal services are indeed vital in rural areas, which is why the coalition Government are investing £1.34 billion to improve and modernise the post office network and putting Royal Mail on a sustainable future footing.

6 pm

Katy Clark: This debate has been a useful occasion for Members in all parts of the House to express to the Government the genuine concerns in all parts of the United Kingdom about the implications should they decide to proceed with the privatisation of Royal Mail over the coming weeks. They have said that it is going to

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happen in this financial year, and there is therefore a real possibility that we might be revisiting this issue very soon. I hope that the Minister has been listening very carefully to what has been said. She represents a constituency with many rural post offices and will therefore have a strong constituency interest in the issue.

Members in all parts of the House have spoken about the wide range of organisations that have concerns. I hope that the Minister will look at what those organisations are saying, particularly the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which points out that no substantial new work has been provided to the post office service. Until that new work is delivered throughout the country, we should not be proceeding in this direction.

A number of Members have spoken about the importance of the competition regime and the impact that the new providers are having, particularly in London. I ask the Minister to see whether it is possible to ensure that the competition regime is on a level playing field so that all providers are acting in a way that enables Royal Mail to continue to provide a universal service. She has not come forward with long-term, concrete protection today. I hope that she will do so over the coming period before any proposals are brought to this House to announce that the Government are going to proceed with the privatisation.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House recognises the vital contribution that Royal Mail makes to rural areas; notes that the six day a week collection and delivery service to rural and remote areas is invaluable to local life; further notes that the relationship Royal Mail has with the post office network is equally important for the continued survival of post offices; recognises that the impending privatisation of Royal Mail will place a question mark over its willingness to maintain what may be loss-making services; and calls on the Government to provide more concrete, long-term protections for postal services in rural areas, remote areas and islands while ensuring that the postal universal service obligation in its current form endures.

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6.2 pm

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I beg to move,

That this House welcomes the recommendations of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s report “Get Britain Cycling”; endorses the target of 10 per cent of all journeys being by bike by 2025, and 25 per cent by 2050; and calls on the Government to show strong political leadership, including an annual Cycling Action Plan and sustained funding for cycling.

It is a great pleasure to move this motion. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to schedule a debate on this subject after the success of our very well-attended debate last year in Westminster Hall, which showed just how many Members of this House care about cycling. We discussed all forms of cycling, from sport to commuting, leisure, utility and all-access cycling. It was clear from that debate that Members agreed that cycling was an energy-efficient form of transport, a healthy way to get around, a cheap means of travelling, and fun as well. No one who was there will forget the tale we heard of romance on a tandem.

Since that debate, the all-party parliamentary cycling group, which I have the great pleasure of co-chairing with the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), has conducted a detailed inquiry to make a series of recommendations on what Government ought to do to get Britain cycling, and we are now debating the resulting report. To produce it, we spoke to a wide range of people.

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I am not at all surprised that this debate is so well attended. I want to put on record the representations that I have received from at least one constituent who wants us to focus still more on cycling as part of an improved environment. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that improving the road structure, pathways and so on is important not only because individuals want to take part in cycling but because it is a great attraction and opportunity for tourism in the areas we represent?

Dr Huppert: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I completely agree that there are huge benefits, some of which I will outline. He is absolutely right that tourism can benefit and that environmental concerns can be addressed. There are lots of benefits in getting Britain cycling.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to stress the benefits, but does he accept, as I hope most in the House would, that there are also associated tragedies? One thinks of Mary Bowers, who is still in a coma, and one thinks of the excellent campaign run by The Times, “Cities fit for cycling”. Does he accept that cycling is not only a marvellous, fit and healthy way to travel but should be protected and that cyclists should be safe?

Dr Huppert: Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There have been a number of tragedies. Part of what we ought to do is to make sure that it is safe for people to cycle. In fact, it is fairly safe at the moment, but the perception is a problem. I agree that there are far too many tragic incidents such as that of Mary Bowers.

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Several hon. Members rose—

Dr Huppert: Let me make a bit more progress and then I will give way.

We spoke to a wide range of people—not only cycling organisations, which I thank for their assistance throughout the process, but the police, the freight industry, Living Streets, the president of the Automobile Association, and many others. I thank them all, and particularly those parliamentarians from both Houses who served on the panel, many of whom are here today, and Adam Coffman, who co-ordinated the entire process. There were hundreds of suggestions for recommendations, and those and more analysis can be found in the companion report by Professor Phil Goodwin, together with transcripts of the entire session.

Currently, only about 2% of trips are made by bike—a tiny fraction, well below the levels found in many countries. A huge range of short trips that could easily be walked or cycled are driven. That is why we set a long-term ambition to try to increase that from 2% to 10% by 2025 and to 25% by 2050. That is entirely do-able and still below what the Dutch, for example, manage to achieve.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): As the hon. Gentleman highlights, very few people cycle, but in my borough of Hackney we have a far higher percentage—more than 10% of people regularly cycle. Does he agree that that is testament to what can be done with forward thinking, good planning and a political will to achieve a change?

Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Lady for her comment and for her work on the report. She is absolutely right that there are exemplars. In my constituency of Cambridge, about a third of trips are now made by bike. We are hoping to increase that to 40% with the money that has been given by the Government through the ambition grant. Some places are showing that they can do this, and the rest of the country can as well.

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Government must provide funding, and they have been doing so, but it is also important for local authorities to be doing more. Let me quote what my constituent Adrian Lawson, the chairman of the Reading Cycling Campaign, said about Reading borough council:

“We identified a lot of simple things that would make it immeasurably better for cyclists. This was over a year ago. Not a single thing has happened.”

Does that not show that we also need local councils to implement measures?

Dr Huppert: Absolutely; local authorities have a crucial role to play.

If more people were to cycle and walk, we would all benefit. We would be healthier, saving huge amounts of money—billions of pounds—for the NHS. There would be less congestion on the roads, making travel times faster and more reliable for those who are in cars. There would be less pressure on city centre parking, helping people to get to the shops and keep the economy going. The economy would grow. Cycling already contributes

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about £3 billion to the UK economy, but it is not always seen as significant as that. We all win by promoting cycling and walking.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I applaud the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and the Members who added their name to the motion. Cycling can be promoted not only in Cambridge but in extremely hilly and mountainous areas such as the constituency of Ogmore, with the right investment by the local authority and the voluntary sector in things such as safe routes to school, which link to safe routes to work, which then link to the Afan Argoed mountain bike track.

Dr Huppert: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Cycling can indeed be encouraged anywhere in the country; the area does not have to be flat and dry like Cambridge.

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): Ealing has a very strong reputation as a cycling borough. Schools there are playing their part in training young people using travel plans. Eight schools in Ealing have travel plans that are considered outstanding. Does my hon. Friend agree that using travel plans is an imaginative way for schools to train youngsters in cycling?

Dr Huppert: Travel plans are critical and the hon. Lady is right to highlight the role of schools, because training in schools makes a big difference. The Government have protected Bikeability funding. I received my own Bikeability training during the summer from Outspoken! Cycle Training in Cambridge. I learned quite a lot from that and it would be good to see other people receive it.

Several hon. Members rose

Dr Huppert: I will take one more intervention from a Government Member and one more from an Opposition Member, and then I will make some progress.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I think now has the distinction of being fashionable. I am glad that page 15 of the report refers to the bridge over the railway tracks in Cambridge, which I funded and was delighted to be part of opening. On the issue of risk, does my hon. Friend agree that comparisons of risk per distance travelled are ludicrous when comparing walking, cycling, driving and flying? We ought to have risk per hour exposed, which would give people a far greater sense of the relative safety of cycling.

Dr Huppert: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I thank him for his support for Cambridge cycling. Statistics can say all sorts of things. The most dangerous form of travel per trip is a space shuttle, and the safest per passenger mile is also the space shuttle. That shows the extremes.

Several hon. Members rose

Dr Huppert: I am going to make some progress, because a lot of Members wish to speak in this debate.

Our report makes 18 recommendations on five key themes. The first is for sustained investment in cycling in order to improve the infrastructure. The European

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standard is for funds to the order of £10 per person per year, hopefully rising to £20 per person per year. That is the sort of level the Dutch have sustained and that is what we need to make the difference. It will not happen overnight, but the benefits will substantially outweigh the costs according to almost every single study.

Many of the improvements that would benefit cyclists, such as improvements to road quality, segregated cycle tracks and junction changes, would also benefit pedestrians and other road users. No conflict is necessary in improving the infrastructure.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Huppert: The hon. Lady has been patient, so I will take her intervention.

Rushanara Ali: I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I want to draw the House’s attention to the death in my constituency in July of Philippine De Gerin-Ricard, a 20-year-old student who was tragically killed while cycling. In the previous year, two others were killed on the ring road. I fully support the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need for investment to make roads safer, for drivers as well as cyclists. What can be done to reduce the number of minor and major injuries, which have increased by 29% in the past year—a dramatic increase since the period between 2005 and 2009?

Dr Huppert: The point of a lot of what I will say will be about how we can reduce that number. Some of that is about infrastructure and some is about measures such as making heavy goods vehicles safer, which I will come on to discuss in detail.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that very point?

Dr Huppert: No. I want to make progress; otherwise I am afraid others will not have the chance to speak.

We have to make sure that other local and national bodies, such as local authorities and the Highways Agency, allocate proportionate funds to cycling, so that major road schemes such as the A14 in my constituency include appropriate cycle facilities along or across them. Other Departments should also get involved: there are benefits to health, education, sport and business. They should step out of their silos and get involved.

We need to make our roads and cities fit for cyclists. Planners need to give consideration to cyclists and pedestrians right at the start of all developments, whatever they are. We also need new design guidance to provide a modern standard, not merely paint on a pavement, which annoys cyclists and pedestrians alike. Local authorities can get on with the small schemes, as can the Highways Agency, which has agreed to our call for a programme to reduce the barriers its roads can cause to cycling.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Huppert: No. I am not going to give way for a bit longer.

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Road travel is never perfectly safe and there is a lot we can do to make it safer. Infrastructure is key, but we can do other things, too. For example, 20 mph zones, which this Government support, are clearly beneficial, not only for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, but for the perceptions of safety for people who want to cycle or take their children cycling. Some rural lanes could be appropriate for a 40 mph speed limit.

Hon. Members have talked about the number of tragic deaths. Sadly, too many of them have involved cyclists and HGVs. Steps have been taken by the Mineral Products Association, Cemex and others, but we need to push further for better vehicle design and better controls, and encourage HGVs not to use busy roads at peak times. Crossrail has led the way on much of that.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr Huppert: I am sorry, but I want to make some more progress.

Road traffic laws are broken too often and they should be enforced for all road users. When a serious driving offence takes place, especially if it results in death or injury, it must be treated seriously by police, prosecutors and judges. Far too often the sentences proposed are, frankly, trivial.

We also need to encourage people to ride positively. Cycling should be seen as a safe and normal activity for people of all ages and backgrounds, as is the case in the Netherlands.

Several hon. Members rose

Dr Huppert: I want to make more progress, but I will give way later.

Education will help. Bikeability should be available at all schools, and adults should also have the chance to learn to ride. We also need political leadership, and it is good to see the Transport Secretary enter the Chamber at this point. We need not just nice words from senior politicians—although I am pleased that the Prime Minister wanted personally to announce the recent substantial extra funding—but sustained support, including a cross-departmental action plan, with annual progress reports, a national cycling champion, a clear ambition to increase cycling and for Government at all levels to have a lead politician responsible for cycling.

Several hon. Members rose

Dr Huppert: I will take one intervention from each side of the Chamber.

Mr Sheerman: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on securing this debate. He will know of my long-term interest, as chairman of the parliamentary advisory council for transport safety, in safety on the roads. Is he worried that at least a third of youngsters who get on a bike do not have any Bikeability training?

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about HGVs. What are we going to do about those whose steering wheels are on the other side of the vehicle, who have terrible blind spots and who cause many terrible accidents?

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Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for the support that PACTS, along with many other organisations, has given to our report. I think that more training should be made available. It should not be compulsory, but we want to encourage people to feel comfortable. There is a lot more we can do to deal with HGVs.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I have cycled in the UK and in Holland. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about meaningless bits of paint on pavements and trees in the middle of cycle routes, and does he agree that what we really need are segregated cycle paths?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I can see the hon. Gentleman is in free wheel, but I am going to put on the brake. We said 10 to 15 minutes, so I am sure Dr Huppert will have finished in a couple of minutes.

Dr Huppert: We all benefit from improving the take-up of cycling. To quote the president of the Automobile Association, Edmund King:

“Implementation of the Get Britain Cycling recommendations would bring tangible business and economic benefits by reducing congestion, absenteeism, NHS costs and by producing a more creative and active workforce.”

There speaks the voice of the automobile, and I entirely agree with him.

Despite these benefits, Governments for decades have not sufficiently supported cycling. There has been massive investment in road infrastructure, but little for cycling; cyclists have often had small-scale provision, if any. Individual Ministers have tried, but they have not always received the support they need. I pay great tribute in particular to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who I believe is the longest ever serving Minister with responsibility for cycling. However, he is not able to deliver as much as he or I would like. He has done things such as announce extra money over the summer for the local sustainable transport fund, but we need more and it needs to be sustained.

Many Ministers face a culture that points the other way—that focuses on car drivers only, to the detriment of others and without realising that fewer cyclists will result in more cars on the roads. I hope that one of the outcomes of our report and this debate will be to provide support for Ministers of all parties who want to make that difference—to turn welcome comments, such as those made by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, into reality.

On 12 August the Prime Minister said that cycling will be at the heart of future road developments. I hope we can make sure, through the impetus of this debate, the “Cities fit for cycling” campaign run by The Times, the excitement of the Olympics and the double Tour de France victory, that that will become a reality.

6.18 pm

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate to take place. I also thank everybody who took part in the three-month inquiry and British Cycling, the CTC, Sustrans and the other organisations that helped us run

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it. I thank in particular Chris Boardman MBE—an Olympic gold medallist, world champion, great man and fantastic campaigner for cycling—for everything he does to promote cycling in Britain and for supporting our inquiry. Phil Goodwin and Adam Coffman pulled the report together and organised the inquiry.

I thank News International for sponsoring the inquiry. Its involvement came about as a result of The Times’ brilliant campaign for cycling, which has been a breakthrough for cycling. I pay tribute to the current editor, John Witherow, and his predecessor, James Harding, and to Kaya Burgess, Phil Pank and Phil Webster, who have worked so hard on this campaign. It is brilliant campaigning journalism at its best.

That campaign, as we heard a moment ago, was triggered by the tragic incident in 2011 that injured their colleague, Mary Bowers, so badly that she has still not regained consciousness. The driver who hit her was getting directions over the phone at the time. Mary was in his direct line of sight for at least 10 seconds, but he failed to spot her. He was found guilty of careless driving, fined £2,700 and banned from driving for just eight months. I therefore welcome the review by the Ministry of Justice of the all too often derisory sentences that are handed down to drivers when cyclists are killed or injured. We also need a comprehensive review of the justice system, from beginning to end, to ensure that the police enforce the law properly and that the Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes people on stronger charges.

Meg Hillier: Does my hon. Friend agree that if we had a lower speed limit for all road users, it would make life safer for cyclists and pedestrians?

Ian Austin: I agree with my hon. Friend. Our report recommended 20 mph speed limits in urban areas—for which The Times has been campaigning. I pay tribute to the contribution that she made to the inquiry. It would not have been such a success and the report would not have been written in the way that it was if she had not done so much work.

Mr Jim Cunningham: Does my hon. Friend agree that a lot more can be done in schools to promote cycling proficiency, because safety is a very big element of this matter? Equally, should local authorities not do more through traffic management schemes?

Ian Austin: My hon. Friend is completely right. He did a lot of work on this matter when he was the leader of Coventry city council, before he became a Member of Parliament.

I do not want to criticise the Minister for cycling. He is a good man, he fights hard for cycling and he is a keen cyclist himself. However, the Government’s response to our inquiry was disappointing to say the least. The Government have promised that

“cycling will be at the heart of future road development”

and their response stated:

“The Government is committed to turning Britain into a cycling nation to rival our European neighbours.”

If the Minister answers one question in this debate, I want him to tell us how those two promises can be taken seriously when the Netherlands spends £25 per head on cycling while the UK spends just £2 per head, and when

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the highways budget in the UK is £15 billion, but the funds announced for cycling are just £159 million, with no dedicated funding stream that allows local authorities to plan for more than two years.

Our report makes a series of recommendations to boost cycling from less than 2% of journeys in 2011 to 25% by 2050. I ask the Minister why his Department’s response did not commit the Government to that target. We also want a national cycling champion to lead a drive for 10% of all journeys in Britain to be made by bike by 2025. As I said, the Minister fights hard for cycling and has done a good job of putting it on the agenda to the extent that it is. Although I do not want to criticise him personally, I point to the fact that he is a junior Minister from the junior party in the coalition, so it will always be difficult for him. We need someone with Cabinet-level clout to get different Departments working together.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Promote him to the Cabinet! [Laughter.]

Ian Austin: Okay. I also want to ask the Minister why the Government have not agreed to the appointment of a cycling champion.

Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) cannot be here because two members of his family have health issues. He wanted to call for a more comprehensive cycling strategy. He welcomes the £835,000 grant to improve the cycling safety of the Plain in Oxford, but wanted to point out that that is a tiny fraction of the money that is needed to bring Oxford’s cycle network up to an entirely safe standard.

We think that more of the transport budget should be spent on supporting cycling, with an initial rate of at least £10 per person per year. That would increase as the level of cycling went up. I welcome the recent announcement by the shadow Secretary of State for Transport that she would use a proportion of road spending to build long-term cycling infrastructure. Most of the spending that was mentioned in the Government’s response had already been announced. Why will the Minister’s Department not shift resources in that way?

London has spent five times as much on cycling per person as the rest of the UK in the past 10 years. The benefits of that are clear from the huge growth in cycling in the capital.

Several hon. Members rose

Ian Austin: I will not take any more interventions, because I want to allow everybody else to speak.

Given the benefits of cycling to the economy and the huge savings it could bring to the NHS, there could be huge benefits in the long run. Cyclists are fitter and healthier than the population as a whole and less of a demand on the NHS, so will the Minister say why the Department of Health, which has a budget of £1 billion, last week committed just £1 million to cycling over the next two years? Making cycling safer in local residential streets would also help. That is why our report calls for lower speed limits in urban areas. The campaign by The Times calls for 20 mph to be the default limit in residential areas that do not have cycle lanes.

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The Government need to ensure that cycling provision and safety are considered at the outset of all major developments. That is the central point in British Cycling’s road safety manifesto. I am therefore pleased that the shadow Secretary of State is committed to the introduction of new cycle safety assessments for all new transport schemes. Given that local roads and planning are the responsibility of local councils, it is a shame that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has indulged in populist calls for councils to ignore cycling and to do more to help motorists.

I am a cyclist and a motorist. Most of us are both. In fact, cyclists are more likely to own a car than the general population, so let us have no more of the cheap, populist nonsense that tries to set drivers against cyclists. We should all be working together to improve safety on the roads.

Finally, this debate is just the next stage of our campaign to get Britain cycling. We should use the inquiry and today’s debate to drive cycling up the agenda. It is fantastic that so many MPs are here for this debate on the first day back when there is a one-line Whip. Let us make cycling an election issue, with local cyclists getting candidates to sign pledges and with the parties competing to produce the best manifesto for cycling. Let us continue the campaign to get Britain cycling.

6.26 pm

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I was fortunate to sit on the “Get Britain Cycling” inquiry earlier this year. There was huge interest in what we were doing. When we started the inquiry, we were the best trending name on Twitter. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) for securing this debate and to Adam Coffman, who put so much work into making it a professional, Select Committee-style inquiry.

In the short time available to me, I will focus on three areas: vision and leadership, which for me is where it starts and ends; the design issue; and the summer of cycling in my constituency. I am extremely proud of the report and believe that it stands up really well. Having read it again in writing these remarks, I think that it will age well. We launched the report in April and the Government responded last week. In the light of everything that has happened since we produced the report, I think that is more relevant now than when we launched it.

On leadership, it is no coincidence that one of the first points in the report is the need for

“vision, ambition and strong political leadership”.

As the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) said, we recommend the appointment of a national cycling champion. I share his regret that that recommendation was not accepted in last week’s Government response. It is all too easy to regard such things as somebody else’s responsibility. The Minister need not look further than City hall, where Andrew Gilligan is the Mayor’s cycling champion, for a good example of how a cycling champion can work.

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Does he agree that leadership at a local level is important? I have seen the difference in my borough as the political leaders have started to take this issue much more seriously and to engage much more vigorously with local cycling campaigners. That really makes a difference.

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Steve Brine: It is funny that my hon. Friend should say that, because my next line states that our report says that every local authority should appoint a lead politician who is responsible for cycling. I want the report to give birth to mini Borises across the country. Bearing in mind that we did not launch the report until April, that is quite a short gestation period.

I find it bizarre that we even needed to say that each local authority should have a lead politician. Winchester had a cycling champion long before the report was produced. This must not be about just giving somebody a new line on their letterhead. The cycling champion must be a councillor who is at the heart of the administration, as they should be at the national level. They must have the necessary political clout and authority to drive things through with their colleagues at cabinet level and with the key officers and the chief executive.

The cycling action plan should not be marked as being in the cycling folder; it should be part of the council’s health, tourism and economic strategy, and an integral part of the council’s strategy should be to make it work. How many MPs in the House have sent a copy of the report, or an e-mail with the link, to their chief executive or leader of their local council? How many know who the cycling champion is for their area and—more importantly—what they do?

I am not trying to be the lead councillor for cycling in my constituency—if I wanted to be a councillor, I could have a far easier life. [Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] I notice the double-hatters looking at me—how to win friends and influence councillors. I am trying to push the issue up the agenda locally, working with the marvellous councillors I have in my constituency. I hope soon to sit down with councillors from Winchester and Hampshire county council, and start putting some lines on maps.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I think my hon. Friend is genuine in his praise for councillors such as the lead member in Swindon, Councillor Keith Williams, who is a triathlete and passionate cyclist. Does my hon. Friend agree that with local leadership such as that which I have described we will improve cycling facilities in towns such as Swindon? Department for Transport funding for improved links between west Swindon and the town centre is an example of how cyclists will find things safer in the long term.

Steve Brine: Yes, I agree. What I said about putting lines on maps is an expression I borrowed from Andrew Gilligan, who came to see the all-party cycling group on the eve of launching the Mayor’s cycling strategy for London. One thing he took us through was that putting lines on maps is not easy; land belongs to Transport for London or to the boroughs, and somebody had to try and pull that together. It was the leadership of the Mayor and of Andy—

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Steve Brine: I will not because time is tight and I know other hon. Members want to get in. The way in which Crossrail for cyclists was chiselled out is impressive and a blueprint of what people should be doing—I know what is being done in Swindon.

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In my constituency we have made significant progress, for example with national cycle network route 23. However, somebody needs to grab the bull by the horns—or perhaps grab the highlighter pen—and sit down and put those lines on the maps. Then the leadership can really shine through. Will that happen? Well, ultimately it requires the leader of the council to do that. Councillor Keith Wood, who leads the majority council in my constituency, is interested in cycling and keen on cycling, but, as he knows, I want to see passion and more leadership from him on that issue.

On design and planning, I am a passionate believer in segregated cycle routes, especially on main busy roads. I have seen them in other parts of the continent and they have to make sense, particularly if we are hopeful of getting children to stay cycling, especially after they have got their driving licence. As those who have read it will know, the report recommends a statutory requirement that cyclists’ needs are considered at an early stage of all new development schemes, and I welcome the new national planning policy framework introduced in 2011. It sets out clearly that including facilities for cycling and walking should be part of delivering sustainable development, but as we know, too often at present those things are not included, which in my book is a wasted opportunity. What is set out in the NPF needs to catch up quickly and become the norm.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Steve Brine: I will not if the hon. Lady does not mind.

I have one opportunity in my constituency right now where the developer, CALA Homes, has permission for 2,000 houses on the highly controversial—to put it mildly—Barton farm site. The developer was an early recipient of a copy of this report, and my challenge today is this: “Make us proud of your development at Barton farm. Put cycling at the heart of your development, not just in new cycle routes into and through the area, but by linking up with existing cycle connections. You will make a lot of people very pleased with you, after gathering planning permission in the way you did.”

The report also states that local authorities should seek to deliver cycle-friendly improvements across existing roads, including small improvements and segregated routes. Of course they should. I am not a dyed-in-the-lycra person on this—imagine! I am realistic: Winchester’s ancient Saxon streets will not suddenly all have segregated cycle routes, but there are great opportunities in my constituency to do that.

Finally, the Highways Agency should draw up a programme to remove the barriers to cycling. Junction 9 of the M3, which the Minister knows, has received significant Government funding for pinch-point improvements that will be done later this year. We are increasing two lanes to three and bringing traffic closer to cyclists, which seems a missed opportunity. Therefore, my other challenge to the Minister and the Highways Agency is to see whether we can look again at junction 9 of the M3 on the edge of my constituency and come up with something that is a compromise for cyclists and for drivers.

In conclusion, the report is about getting Britain cycling and much good stuff is taking place in my constituency and across the country. The VC Venta

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cycling club in Winchester has seen its membership rise by 300% since the Olympics, and the Winchester CycleFest this summer, which culminated in the Criterium high-speed cycle race through Winchester on 11 August, was fantastic. “Get Britain Cycling”—yes, we are doing it, but we must scale it up and this report is part of the blueprint for how we do that.

6.35 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): In 2006, four members of the Rhyl cycling club in my constituency were killed in the worst ever cycling accident in British history. They were Tom Harland, aged 14, Maurice Broadbent, aged 61, Dave Horrocks, aged 55, and Wayne Wilkes, aged 42. Two years before that accident young Tom Harland visited the House of Commons and I took him round. His father, John Harland, is a personal friend of mine. The club and families involved were faced with the decision of whether to crumple—both personally and as a club—or whether to thrive. They chose to thrive and I would like to outline some of the successes for cycling in my constituency since 2006, which I think could be replicated around the country.

John Harland got together a group of people, including a chap called Gren Kershaw, who was the ex-head of our local health board, and they had an idea, a vision, for cycling in my constituency, based around Marsh Tracks. In the intervening years, Marsh Tracks has opened, and includes a five-star BMX track with an Olympic starting gate and a £1.2 million floodlit off-road cycleway. It is now being extended with a mountain bike track over a 3 km area. Those are fantastic cycling facilities. The local authority has developed miles and miles of off-road cycleways connecting the towns of Rhyl, Prestatyn, Rhuddlan, St Asaph, Dyserth and Bodelwyddan, and connecting Rhyl college, the local hospital and St Asaph business park—all those key sites are connected off road to the cycleways.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chris Ruane: Yes, because I want the extra minute.

Catherine McKinnell: I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity. He is making a powerful speech. Many constituents have asked me to come to this debate to make representations on their behalf, and in particular on behalf of their children. As cyclists, my constituents worry not only for themselves and their safety, but for that of their children, and many of them have asked me to press the Minister on making cycle urban infrastructure development compulsory as part of the legislation on cycling and urban planning. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Chris Ruane: I think I have lost that minute—[Laughter.] My hon. Friend owes me 15 seconds but I agree with her and will come to the education side of that point in a moment.

We were also successful in getting £4.5 million for a purpose-built cycling bridge over Foryd harbour in my constituency. That will be part of the Sustrans national coastal cycling network around the UK. On 26 September I will meet Network Rail to see whether we can get a disused railway to connect the coastal path to the

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country paths further inland. They are currently cut across by a railway bridge, and we want to use an adjacent railway bridge to connect the coastal path to the country, so that the coast will be connected to the castles and cathedrals in my constituency.

I recently met Adrian Walls, a cycleways officer from Denbighshire county council, who is developing a mountain bike route in my constituency. He has not finished yet—it will be probably be finished in about six weeks and will be a state-of the-art mountain bike route. However, I do not think that the fantastic facilities I have outlined in my speech are being used sufficiently. The task is getting pupils in our schools and colleges, and workers, to use those facilities—those multi-million pound investments—which I believe are under-utilised in my constituency. How do we make the most of them? I have met council officers and enthusiasts, who have come up with a vision for a centre of cycling excellence in my constituency, which will be tied in to the back-to-work agenda. It will include cycle maintenance, and importing, assembling and selling cycles. That fantastic facility on our doorstep will be used to train local people, including unemployed people from some of the poorest wards in Wales.

Hon. Members have spoken of tying the cycling agenda to the health agenda. Denbighshire has high obesity levels. How do we get general practitioners to write cycling prescriptions? That has been done in other areas, including in London—Brent and Tower Hamlets have done it. People who suffer from diabetes, arthritis and a range of illnesses would benefit tremendously from cycling. If cycling prescriptions are available in Brent and Tower Hamlets—

Stephen Pound: And Ealing.

Chris Ruane: And Ealing. If it has been done in those places, why can it not be done throughout the country? If we have fantastic and safe facilities in my constituency, why can we not use them? They are floodlit. We could use them for 16 hours a day.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): My hon. Friend is outlining the need for co-operation to achieve an outcome across policy areas, from health and local government to sport and recreation. That will be achieved only if there is a cross-Government message from the top. The message needs to be not only on cycling, but on sport, and on recreational and physical activities across the board.

Chris Ruane: All hon. Members would have been sent to swimming lessons when they attended school. Cycling lessons should be on a par with those.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chris Ruane: I am afraid I will not.

People are much more likely to cycle than they are to go to their local baths. The profile of cycling therefore needs to be raised in education, which needs leadership from the top. Departments should talk to Departments, including the Department of Health, the Department for Education and the Department for Transport. We could train young people properly and to cycle safely. One idea we discussed in recent meetings was having a

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safe area where people can take toddlers as young as two or three years old to teach them how to cycle. In centres such as the one we are developing in Rhyl, we could teach 90-year-olds to regain the confidence to get back on their bikes. We should advocate cradle-to-grave cycling.

A lot has been done in my constituency and a lot more needs to be done. Cycling could transform tourism in many areas. My home town, Rhyl, is a seaside town. The Prime Minister said a few weeks ago that it was neglected—he has visited only once, for 10 minutes, in his whole life. We are having £200 million-worth of investment in my home town, including a £17 million new harbour with a £4.5 million dedicated cycle bridge. The potential of cycling tourism is massive.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My constituency has had Government money for our “Pedal Peak” project. We look forward to welcoming an influx of cyclists of all abilities who will come to enjoy the benefits of the Peak district.

Chris Ruane: The hon. Gentleman is right.

We want cyclists of all abilities and ages, including the people who learned to cycle when they were children but who have lost their confidence. Millions of people will not go back on a bicycle because they have lost that confidence. We have a chance of developing throughout the country facilities such as those in my constituency to give back that confidence.

I reflect on the terrible tragedy we experienced in 2006. It was a bad thing that happened, but good came of it.

6.44 pm

Mike Thornton (Eastleigh) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this fantastic debate. He has long been a vocal advocate of cycling, and I pay tribute to his tireless work. I congratulate all members of the all-party group, who have done such a fantastic job. I will not speak for very long—I do not have long, so that is okay and I am sure hon. Members are pleased about that. I shall emphasise the health and economic benefits, which hon. Members have mentioned, and describe my experience of cycling.

I used to cycle a lot when I was less well off and gave up when I could afford a car, but I have cycled into my local town of Eastleigh for shopping and other things. It does not feel that safe. One of my best friends, a physicist by profession, has cycled all over the country. His comments and knowledge are invaluable. The uncertainty principle applies to his cycling, too.

I remember disagreeing with my daughter on whether she should wear a helmet. Helmets are contentious. Some say that wearing a helmet is good and some say it is bad. Whatever one’s views, one must admit that parents, rightly or wrongly, feel their hearts in their mouths when they see their child go out cycling. That is probably one of the constraints on children cycling.

Alok Sharma: My hon. Friend makes an important point on wearing cycle helmets. Independent studies have shown clearly that wearing cycle helmets saves

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lives and cuts injuries. Last year, I called on the Department for Transport to issue a definitive and independent report on the benefits and costs of introducing a law requiring children to wear cycle helmets. Would he welcome such a report?

Mike Thornton: There is a difficulty with wearing cycle helmets. I tried to get my daughter to wear one, and she stopped cycling. I do not know whether I did the right or wrong thing in trying to force her to wear a helmet. I worried a bit less, but she stopped cycling.

Ian Austin: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman says his daughter stopped cycling when she was forced to wear a helmet, because that is exactly what happened in Australia. When a law requiring people to wear helmets was introduced there, cycling numbers plummeted. We can make cycling safe by getting more people to do it. The more people cycle, the safer it is. That is how we make cycling safer in Britain.

Mike Thornton: I admit that I do not know the answer. My brother came off a bicycle and was badly injured because he was not wearing a helmet. I am in two minds about the argument, but I understand both sides.

Chris Ruane: You’re a Liberal. What do you expect?

Mike Thornton: I am also a father and a brother, so what do you expect?

We are fortunate in the borough of Eastleigh to have more than 44 km—30-odd miles—of dedicated cycling routes. It is difficult to have such routes because of the criss-crossing motorways, railway lines and watercourses. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), my constituency neighbour, has mentioned some of the problems. Part of the Sustrans cycle network 24 is routed directly behind my constituency office in Leigh road—hon. Members will remember that from a certain election. National cycle route 23, which was also mentioned by my hon. Friend, stretches from Reading to the Isle of Wight. National cycle route 2 runs along the coastline all the way to St Austell in Cornwall—my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) has left the Chamber. We are immensely proud to have Dani King, one of our gold medal winners.

With all that, hon. Members might think that cycling in Eastleigh would be on the up. Unfortunately, the number of people cycling to work has continued to stick at around 2%. One would think it would be a lot better, especially when one considers how effective the borough’s environmental and green policies have been under the leadership of Councillor Bloom.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to intervene in this important and popular debate. Does he agree that the link between cyclists and the public transport network is the real issue in getting people to cycle to work, and that we should make it easier to store bikes in places such as railway stations? That would encourage people to link up with public transport.

Mike Thornton: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I have noticed that it is sometimes difficult to get a bicycle on to a train, which is a great shame. Taking a

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bicycle on a train should be encouraged as much as possible. Perhaps there should be more areas for bicycles on trains and buses, and for locking up bicycles.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mike Thornton: May I keep going?

We need more areas where people can leave their bicycles safely when they go to work.

The report of the all-party group on cycling sets out perfectly why the status quo is maintained. Nearly half of all Britons own or have access to a bike, but we do not use them. Safety is the No. 1 concern. We are still frightened for ourselves and our children, even if not for a rational reason. Extending 20 mph zones, as the report proposes, is therefore extremely important.

As other hon. Members have mentioned, we need to do something about HGVs. We cannot always blame HGVs for not seeing cyclists. We need to ensure better visibility and sensors to minimise the risks to cyclists, and make cyclists realise that they cannot necessarily be seen. That is particularly difficult with children, who do not have the same road sense as grown-ups.

Many of my constituents have told me how dangerous road surfaces are. Trying to swerve around a pothole or street furniture can cause all sorts of problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned indicative lines that do not tell us anything. When one comes into Winchester—it is outside my constituency, so I apologise—there are some nice pictures of bicycles. One says, “Yes, that’s a lovely picture of a bicycle. What good on earth is that doing?” Segregated bicycle lanes, as has been mentioned, are vital.

I agree entirely that new developments should be cycle-proofed. Cycling should be incorporated into all planning policies. When there is a new development—we are getting one in my constituency—it should be cycle-proofed. I think we would all agree that that will pay for itself. The report states that cycling demonstration towns saw a 27% increase in cycling from 2005 to 2009. The financial benefits were estimated to be nearly £64 million, from a cost of £18 million—a particularly strong piece of evidence. The report also shows that every pound spent on cycling can save the NHS £4—again, economics wins the argument.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s recent announcement to increase funding for cycling, but the lion’s share will go to eight select cities, seven of which already exceed the national average for cycling. In addition, the funding has been earmarked for only two years. The announcement was welcome, but what about the rest of us? My constituents in Eastleigh could do with some dosh. We need a nationwide commitment to increase the per head cycling budget. I think we are looking for £10 per head by 2025 and up to—what is it?—£50. That is vital.

What I have heard today is a remarkable degree of consensus among cycling organisations, cyclists, local authorities and hon. Members about what needs to be done. That is extremely positive. We must ensure that we capitalise on that and that something is done. I fully support the motion and the report’s recommendations, and I thank the group for its hard work.

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6.52 pm

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), the co-chairs of the all-party group, of which I am a member, on the report. It is sponsored by The Times, which I congratulate too. I should declare that The Times is still in Wapping in my constituency, so there is a little bit of self-interest there. Other national newspapers—The Guardian and The Independent—have been trying to catch up and are supporting the campaign. My comments will be made as a Londoner and as a London cyclist, and will not necessarily reflect issues in other parts of the country.

I invited my constituents, through the social media of Twitter, Facebook and the East London Advertiser,to contribute to the debate by raising issues that they thought I might want to mention. I was staggered by the response—more than 50 people e-mailed or tweeted issues that are of importance to them. I am very limited for time and cannot name them all, but I will list some of them. Before doing that, I want to thank the cycle firms in my constituency, in particular Bikeworks, a social entrepreneurial group that does great work and made a running repair to my bike in half an hour last Wednesday morning to get me back on the road, and also Halfords and Evans, which are national organisations that support cycling in Tower Hamlets and in the community.

I will run through the list of issues raised by my constituents: keeping cycle routes clear when there are roadworks and parking problems; cycle superhighways not being up to the necessary standard—my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) raised the incident of the Aldgate East fatality—with just a coat of paint on a road and nothing more; and lower speed limits, an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North. Cycle training and education in schools was mentioned by several hon. Members. That is critical. I am doing an Industry and Parliament Trust Fellowship on logistics. I spent some time with TNT, which trains its postal delivery people to ride bikes. When they have down time, they partner local schools to train the kids there. If TNT can do it, the question to the Minister is this: is Royal Mail doing it? There must be other companies out there that could contribute, too.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): Royal Mail is doing that. It has a cycle workshop in my constituency, which maintains 500 bicycles used by the Royal Mail in the Greater York area.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the extra time he has given me; I knew that somebody would respond positively on behalf of Royal Mail.

Questions have been raised about HGVs and the fear factor, a road deaths investigation board and improved statistics on serious injuries and fatalities. The Home Office and the Department for Transport have always resisted a fatalities inquiry board for road traffic fatalities because there are just too many of them, but we have to raise the bar and look more seriously at investigating more thoroughly the fatalities on our roads.

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Other issues raised include: congestion charging and road closures to force traffic to surrender more space to cyclists; advanced stop areas; earlier green lights for cyclists; blitz enforcement of transgressors—whether car drivers or cyclists—in advance areas; cycle storage; and mandatory helmets. I know that many people are opposed to making helmets mandatory. I am in favour, but it is not going to happen. The evidence against it coming from Australia and America is somewhat time-limited. If we get our kids using helmets in schools, they will graduate into wearing them.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): No one who is favour of cycling should be against encouraging people to wear helmets, but will my hon. Friend accept that the overwhelming evidence—not just in Australia, but from all over the world—is that where cycle helmets have been made compulsory the impact on cycling has been negative, and therefore the overall public health impact has been negative?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I hear what my right hon. Friend says and there is a cultural question here. I am sure we all watched the 100th Tour de France this year. All the way down the decades of historic footage, none of the cyclists was wearing helmets. Every Tour de France rider now wears a helmet. That is professional leadership. They are in the game of minimising and mitigating risk, and they give a lead to all cyclists.

Dr Huppert rose

Jim Fitzpatrick: If I have time at the end I will certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to get through the points raised by my constituents.

The last two negatives raised related to fatalities and punishment to fit the crime. We all hear tragic stories from constituents about punishments that do not fit the crime. On the conversion of wider pavements, Boris Johnson certainly has done that in London, particularly on the Embankment.

What I find fascinating is the counter-culture that comes through from my cyclist constituents. They complained about bad cycling behaviour and said that the cycle demographic in our country is mainly young, white, aggressive and male. That is why we do not “go Dutch” and why many people are put off cycling: they see a race track and do not want to join it. We need to address that problem, and the only way we are going to do so is through enforcement against those who cross red lights and pedestrian crossings.

People complained about cyclists who disregard the rules by wearing earphones; running red lights; crashing pedestrian crossings; not signalling whether they are turning left or right; not warning when they are overtaking; riding on pavements; using mobile phones; speeding on the Thames path; not ringing to alert pedestrians or other cyclists that they are overtaking on tow paths; swearing at pedestrians—some cyclists, like some drivers, think that they are entitled to a free run at the road; not dismounting in foot tunnels; not having lights; not having bells; and not wearing high-visibility clothing. Cyclists are not perfect. We have to give a lead to

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cyclists to say, “We should show a better example in the way we behave, to ensure that drivers behave in the way we want them to.”

In conclusion, my wife Sheila and I visited Amsterdam and Copenhagen recently. There is less racing, more sensible cycling and a much wider demographic; there is a different culture. We must have that more varied cycling demographic in our country. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State recently asked two questions of the Government. First, why do we have annual road and rail budgets to 2021, but not one for cycling? Secondly, why do we not have cycle safety assessments, similar to economic and equality impact assessments, for all road schemes?

My final question is about something that is raised in the report—I am not quite clear about the Government’s response—which said that we should have champions.

Dr Huppert: The issue with cycle helmets is that although they might save some lives, the countervailing loss of life from people not cycling and being less fit massively outweighs that. Indeed, one academic analysis suggested an extra 250 or so deaths a year net.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful for that intervention. That discussion needs to be had, and I am happy to ensure that we are raising it tonight.

My final question to the Minister is this. The report says that we should have national, regional and city champions. It is not clear from the Government’s response whether he is the national champion or not. If he is not, he should be. When will he recruit his regional and city-wide teams?