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Post Office Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:57 pm on 15th May 2002.

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Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry 6:57 pm, 15th May 2002

That is excellent, because it will give me the chance to tell the House about the Liberal Democrats' record, about which I shall say more in a moment.

The debate demonstrates the strength of feeling with which the Post Office and the post office network are regarded in the House and throughout the country. No one more than I appreciates the work of more than 200,000 postal staff and the many thousands of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who deliver an excellent service.

I am grateful for the many constructive comments that have been made and I welcome the opportunity to respond to as many of them as possible. As everyone knows, the Post Office touches everyone's lives like no other industry in Britain. It is clear from the debate that all hon. Members want it to provide a first-class postal service and network fit for the 21st century. That is why we are delivering the investment and the reform that the business has long needed.

My hon. Friend Geraldine Smith made some telling points. I had the pleasure of visiting her constituency recently, so I know how in tune she is with her constituents. She asked about the 1p increase in the price of stamps. I can confirm that this week Consignia applied to raise the price of a second-class stamp from 19p to 20p and the price of a first-class stamp from 27p to 28p. That will now be considered by the regulator, and any representations that my hon. Friend or anyone else wishes to make will be taken into account. Even with that increase, the House will want to know that the cost of sending a standard letter in Britain will remain cheaper than almost anywhere else in the world. Even if we apply the proposed new first class charge of 28p—I stress that it is a proposal—it will still be cheaper than the cheapest in other EU countries. Spain charges the equivalent of 29p, and Italy—the highest—the equivalent of 97p. To put the matter in perspective, even if the proposed rise is allowed, the cost would still be reasonable. Indeed, it would be very low in European terms.

In the light of the intervention by Mr. Weir, we must ask how much it would cost to send a stamp in an independent Scotland. The more important question for the Scottish National party, I suspect, is whose head would appear on the stamp. Would it be John Swinney's, or that of Mr. Salmond? I should certainly like to be party to that internal SNP discussion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale raised another serious point—the second delivery. She will know that only 4 per cent. of items are delivered by second delivery, but that they absorb 20 per cent. of costs—a fact that must be taken into account by the regulator when considering Consignia's proposals. She also raised the issue of consultation, as did several other hon. Members. In response to meetings with Members of this House, and to representations from others with an interest, the consultation period was extended by a full month, so that everyone affected could make proper representations.

My hon. Friend also raised the important question of frequency of collection. So far, the consultation has concerned itself with second delivery, rather than frequency of collection, but we regard collection as key to the future commercial success of Consignia and the Post Office. They will want to take account of the need for a full network of uplifts to ensure that a place in the market is maintained. I urge my hon. Friend not to vote with Mr. Page—who called for the immediate privatisation of the Post Office—and the Liberal Democrats. Having recently taken over Norwich city council, the Liberal Democrats have promised to privatise the housing service and the benefits service, so at a national level they would doubtless try to privatise the Post Office as well. Liberal Democrat councils are not a model of good practice in local government, but time prevents me from discussing that issue.

In a witty and incisive contribution—in fact, it was one of the best speeches of this year—my hon. Friend Mrs. Williams put the best case yet for strengthening the Post Office's management team. I can assure her that we have done just that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister[Interruption.]