Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Northbrook: My Lords, the Labour Party manifesto gave a commitment to provide greater

29 Nov 1999 : Column 706

commercial freedom to the Post Office. In December 1998, the then Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, proposed the phasing out of the Post Office's monopoly over letters costing less than £1. He said:

    "I am proposing to reduce significantly the Post Office's monopoly activities".

The Government took seven months to follow up Mr Mandelson's statement with a White Paper in July 1999. The White Paper proposed that the Post Office's legal monopoly over deliveries costing less than £1 would be reduced to letters costing 50p or less, and a statutory instrument giving effect to the recommendation was laid in the same month.

So far the plot is clear, but what has happened since has made it extremely murky. In October a second statutory instrument was laid, the effect of which was to revoke the first. This means that the monopoly threshold remains at £1. To explain a key possible reason for the revocation of the first statutory instrument we must look at reaction to the July White Paper. I am sure that noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that one of the first people off the starting block was Derek Hodgson, General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU). In a letter dated 2nd July to all MPs he wrote:

    "I thought that the days of finding it necessary to write to Labour MPs about the future of the Post Office had gone when jointly with the Labour Party we defeated the Tories when they tried to privatize the Post Office".

He went on to say that he felt the Government's success at the general election had also quashed the scheme. The CWU itself said in a briefing on the White Paper:

    "We believe that the Government's package is fundamentally flawed in two respects--the intention to turn the Post Office into a plc and the move to reduce the reserved area to 50p or 150 grams".

I return to Derek Hodgson's reactions to events. He commented in a letter dated 5th July to all Labour MPs:

    "We cannot stand silent if the Government announces that it intends to push ahead now with ... a reduced monopoly".

Thus, we can see how the union tail is wagging the Labour dog as this veiled threat obviously was enough to persuade the Government to back down on their change to the monopoly.

On the other hand, the Conservative Party believes that in principle the Post Office should be privatised so that it has full commercial freedom to compete on a level playing field with the German and Dutch post offices. The Conservative Party's policy would include minimum standards to ensure universal next-day delivery. We believe that the Government are unable to privatise the Post Office because Labour is in hock to the unions. We also argue that without full commercial freedom, including the right to borrow along commercial lines, the Post Office cannot hope to compete on a level playing field; for example, the Dutch Post Office has been privatised and has the capacity to take advantage of a global market.

Although we welcome the Government's decision to grant the Post Office plc status, we believe that it does not go nearly far enough. The Post Office will still be subject to PSBR borrowing limits.

29 Nov 1999 : Column 707

In summary, the proposal to reduce the monopoly price was welcomed by all, with the exception of the Communication Workers Union. The Post Office itself was happy with the reduction to 50p but the Government are backing down on their proposal to reduce the monopoly price. This can be only as a response to pressure from the Communication Workers Union. It is the only group that has consistently opposed the reduction. We therefore find this U-turn an extraordinary turn of events.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, under the procedures of the House I am not sure whether I am allowed to speak without having given notice. However, having heard the previous contribution and with due respect to all Members of the House, I should like to draw a distinction between the Motion and the remarks of previous speakers. The debate is not about privatisation. I should declare an interest as a retired officer of the Communication Workers Union--in my day it was the Post Office Workers Union--and having spent over 50 years of my life working directly with the Post Office.

I wish to make this point clear. The situation has not been brought about just by union pressure, but because there is an opportunity for sober reflection and to consider what the reduction of the monopoly could mean to the universality of the service to the British people. The monopoly exists simply to ensure that the Post Office is able to give a service at a universal rate throughout the United Kingdom.

This Motion is not about commercial freedom. We are not talking about possible privatisation. We shall have an opportunity to discuss those issues at a later date when the post office Bill comes before this House.

It is not true that just one demon union has suggested that we should hold our fire (to use the analogy of the previous debate about military discipline). There will be a commission and a regulator to consider the effects of the monopoly on the universality of the service provided in this country. A number of people are examining whether it is possible for the Post Office to continue to provide that service with a reduction in the monopoly, whether on the tariff or the weight limit.

I am sorry that I have intervened in a garbled manner. However, I believe that it is right that we should talk today to the Motion and not about general privatisation of commercial freedom. Some of us may have something to say about that at another time. At the moment I ask all noble Lords to bear in mind that there will be a proper examination of the effects of the postal monopoly on the universality of the service provided. I believe that that is where we should leave the matter today.

5.45 p.m.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, I agree that we should stick to the issue before us today. It is important that I emphasise at the start that the overriding consideration of the Government has

29 Nov 1999 : Column 708

always been to preserve the universal service obligation. I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, reinforced that point. The delivery of letters and parcels to any part of the United Kingdom at a uniform tariff is of enormous importance. We place great weight on the value of that obligation. We agree that any greater competition must not undermine these services. That, above all, is what consumers want.

I listened with interest to the comments made in the debate. I think that it will be helpful if I set out the facts as I see them. The monopoly was last adjusted in 1981 with the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1981, which suspended the Post Office's monopoly of postal business in respect of items costing £1 or more to post. That reduction has not affected the delivery of the universal service; and indeed many consumers have benefited from the delivery services for express parcels and letters that have developed.

On 27th July of this year, after a short period of consultation, we laid the Postal Services Regulations 1999 before Parliament. One of the provisions of those regulations was to introduce a weight element to the monopoly of 350 grammes in order to comply with the EU postal services directive. This new weight limit came into effect on 1st September 1999.

Earlier, when we published the White Paper on reform of the Post Office on 8th July, we laid the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1999 to reduce the monopoly to 50p in price and 150 grammes in weight from 1st April 2000. The intention was that this would be a first step in a phased reduction in a postal services monopoly and that the new Postal Services Commission which we are establishing would be responsible for future phased reductions in the monopoly, subject, I emphasise, to a duty to ensure adequate funding for the provision of the universal service at a uniform tariff.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that there is no doubt about what was said then. But I have to say also that he does not seem to have followed the events which have occurred since then.

On 14th September, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry published its 12th report on the 1999 Post Office White Paper. We take seriously the advice of the Trade and Industry Committee; and I hope that noble Lords would not suggest that we do otherwise. I am grateful to members of that committee for the work they put into their report. Indeed, the Government have been appreciative of the helpful reports made by the committee during the course of the Post Office review, which have helped in the development of the Government's policy. The Government appreciate the committee's welcome to the general thrust of the reform package set out in the White Paper.

In its report, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry recommended that the Government consider withdrawal of the order reducing the monopoly to 50p so that the Postal Services Commission can consider evidence put to it of the effect of a reduction in the monopoly threshold and recommend to the Government an appropriate monopoly threshold.

29 Nov 1999 : Column 709

After careful consideration, we accepted that recommendation. We shall be remitting the issue to the Postal Services Commission as soon as possible, urging it to treat the matter as a high priority. In the meantime, we have laid the revocation order which we are debating today. This order is necessary to ensure that the outcome of the commission's review is not prejudged. Having accepted the Trade and Industry Committee's recommendation, it would clearly be wrong simultaneously to press ahead with a cut in the monopoly. However, we remain firmly of the view that greater liberalisation is both necessary and desirable.

The Government remain totally committed to greater competition in postal markets. Greater competition is an essential component in ensuring that the new Post Office is a success. Together with better regulation, and new commercial freedoms, greater competition through liberalisation is needed to ensure that the Post Office is sufficiently challenged to turn itself into a world class company; and greater competition in postal services will be a spur to efficiency which should bring benefits to consumers in terms of choice, price and quality.

The revocation of the order reducing the monopoly to 50p results directly from our acceptance that in this important area there would be benefit from the new regulator also considering the issue before final decisions are made, in particular to ensure that the universal service will not be threatened by any changes. In no way does it mean that we are no longer committed to competition.

Inevitably, acceptance of the recommendation of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry will mean some delay in opening up the market, but we do not think that that will alter fundamentally the course of the process of liberalisation. It is 19 years since the monopoly was last reduced. A few months delay will, in the scheme of things, make little practical difference.

I am sure that the Postal Services Commission will press forward with liberalisation as fast as can safely be achieved, consistent with the preservation of the high standards of the universal service which I know consumers have come to expect in their postal services.

Things will not happen as quickly as the committee had anticipated. It reported that the regulator might be in office in the autumn. Our intentions, as set out in the Postal Services Regulations 1999, are that it should start work next spring. Clearly, there has been some difference in interpretation about the likely starting date of the commission.

Accepting the advice of the Department of Trade and Industry will mean that a decision will be delayed only for a few months and I believe that the House should not oppose that added period of consideration. It would be extraordinary if this House, which has so often urged Ministers to listen to the advice of Select Committees, sought to overturn the action of the Government when they did so. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, made the point about considering such views flexibly and I hope he will consider that the House of Commons should be one of the bodies able to suggest such flexibility.

29 Nov 1999 : Column 710

I assure the noble Lord that good progress is being made in setting up the regulator to assume its functions and duties from 1st April 2000 under the Postal Services Regulations 1999. We intend that a nucleus of people will be undertaking pump-priming work before 1st April. We are planning for the commission to comprise five people, who will be drawn from a range of backgrounds relevant to postal services. This approach will bring a range of views and expertise to bear on any questions and I hope that that will be welcomed.

We hope to make an announcement about the appointment of a chairman of the commission in January. The post was advertised in September and good progress is being made with the selection process. We are also recruiting other members of the commission and staff and expect to be advertising for these posts soon. We are therefore making good progress towards the commission being ready in good time for 1st April 2000.

We envisage that once people are on board they will begin tackling this issue. It will of course be for the commission to tell us the timescale in which it can deliver a review and I am confident that it will do a good job. An overriding duty on the commission is to promote the delivery of the universal service obligation. That is in essence what the revocation order is about.

It is vitally important that all customers, wherever they work or live in the UK, should be assured of a world-class level of postal service provided at a reasonable price. For the first time, we have enshrined the universal service obligation in law. The Government are committed to its continuation. Revoking the order while the Postal Services Commission does its work is a sensible step. I listened to the points made in the debate, but remain convinced of the need for the order. I hope that the House will support me in opposing the Motion.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page