The Post Office's letter monopoly is a privilege, not a right. While we keep the options under review, we have no present plans to alter the scope of the letter monopoly, although in the event of a cessation or serious disruption to the letter service we would consider suspending it. The Government remain fully commit ted to the existence of a nationwide letter service with an affordable, uniform tariff structure, available to everyone, including those in rural areas.
When my hon. Friend gets back to his office at the DTI will he open his top drawer in which, when serving as a PPS to his predecessor, I recall leaving a copy of a document published by the No Turning Back group, entitled "Choice and Responsibility"? It was co-authored by my hon. Friend and myself and by a large number of our other colleagues last July. I commend to my hon. Friend the words on page 14, where we wrote:
The Post Office monopoly can no longer be justified.
As we have an entirely open mind on this matter I can announce today that I am happy to read any pamphlets on this issue, even those written by myself. More than that it might be unwise to say. My hon. Friend might conclude—I would not, but he might—that it is a misfortune of political life that a Back Bencher can say exactly what he wants although people do not always listen to him, while people always listen to a Minister, so he cannot say exactly what he wants to.
I have a book on my desk in the DTI to which I occasionally refer when I am given an idle moment. It was written in the 14th century and entitled "The Cloud of Unknowing"—that represents the reactionary fog in which the Opposition move. They are not prepared to look at anything or to reform anything. What is, has to be, for now and for ever more. I am the Minister responsible for consumer affairs, and I am prepared to consider competition and value for consumers with an open mind.
I welcome the Minister's statement that he intends to retain the letter monopoly and I remind some of his hon. Friends who are keen to lift it that if they did so, cream-skimming would result and private operators would be willing to deliver only profitable inter-city routes. Conservative Members who advocate lifting the monopoly would find that services in rural areas would cause tariffs to rise to 80p a letter. The letter services to rural areas would be desperately hit and many Members thus affected would lose their seats as a result.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman did not listen to my original answer, in which I said that the Government are absolutely committed to a uniform tariff structure, even in rural areas. We are also committed to choice and value for money in the Post Office, but we do not rule out that in certain circumstances competition may well increase choice and be to the benefit of the consumer.
Despite the veiled attack by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown), will the Minister accept the congratulations of most hon. Members from rural areas on getting the balance absolutely right on this difficult issue and for stressing the importance of a uniform tariff for the mail? By not ruling out the possibility of competition my hon. Friend has struck exactly the right balance.