Postal Services Bill

Part of Planning (Developer Bonds) – in the House of Commons at 3:00 pm on 27th October 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Denham John Denham Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 3:00 pm, 27th October 2010

That is certainly a real risk, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I return to the point that I made earlier. If the Government are serious about rejecting potential purchasers who they think are wrong or who offer a poor price, the Government will have to deal with the problem of transforming Royal Mail in the meantime. They cannot let it simply stand still, given all the commercial pressures. My fear is that the Government will go to the wrong place, with an inappropriate sale at an inappropriate price, because of the figure that has been pencilled in-although it is hard to find it in the detail-in the comprehensive spending review, and that this would happen irrespective of the long-term interests of the public in this country.

That pressure to reduce the social obligations brings me to one of the central concerns regarding the public interest: the relationship between a privatised Royal Mail and the network of local post offices. We oppose the Bill in part because of its central aim, which is the sale of Royal Mail and the breaking of the key contractual link between Royal Mail and the post offices. There are around 11,500 post offices. The Royal Mail Group is required by licence to support 4,000 post offices. The managing director of Post Office Ltd told a parliamentary Committee that a commercially viable network would have only 4,000 offices.

The previous Labour Government made provision to keep a further 7,500 branches open. They are supported by an annual public subsidy of £150 million, which is due to rise to £180 million next year, and by business that is guaranteed to Royal Mail through the inter-business agreement. The Royal Mail business that is guaranteed by the IBA is crucial to the current viability of the post office network. Leaving aside the public subsidy, Royal Mail business generates 37% of the income of local post offices. However, the IBA could end immediately under this Bill when Royal Mail is sold. A privatised Royal Mail could simply take the work elsewhere. As Consumer Focus-the organisation that the Secretary of State wishes to silence-says in its briefings,

"following privatisation of Royal Mail, subsequent contracts would require a competitive tender process with no guarantee that Post Office Ltd would retain this contract".

The Bill provides no mechanism to ensure that the continued long-term use of the post office network is an integral part of Royal Mail. That would be a disaster for non-profitable post offices in rural and urban areas alike. The Bill could have defined post offices as access points for the universal postal service. Consumer Focus says that the Bill could have specified the number of post office branches to remain. However, the Bill does none of those things. That is a fatal flaw. The axe of uncertainty hangs over thousands of post offices, which puts a huge question mark over the interesting and attractive concept of a post office mutual, because mutuals can go out of business too if their income is taken away. Hooper concluded that the Post Office should remain publically owned, saying:

"Given the social obligations of the Post Office, there is little prospect that the network will be sustained on a fully commercial basis."

However, a mutual is a commercial organisation, subject to commercial logic, and without guarantees of income, it will fail.

The Secretary of State spoke about an additional investment of, I think he said, £1.34 billion. I acknowledge that, although it would perhaps have been useful to have more detail. We will need to explore that figure in greater detail than we can this afternoon, as we have no detail now, although it is clearly a large amount. We will need to know the answer to a few obvious questions. Does that money come from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills budget that was set out in the comprehensive spending review last week, or can it be found elsewhere in the CSR? Does the Secretary of State intend to continue the annual subsidy beyond the CSR? Is the making available of that money linked in any way to the participation of sub-post offices in the formation of a mutual, or will it go to every sub-post office, whether or not it wishes to take part in a mutual? Will the beneficiaries be only current post offices, or could the money be made available to new entrants and companies that wish to enter the market for providing local post offices for the first time?

The Secretary of State talked about building up the business that is done through the Post Office, which I welcome. Doing so would build on work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East on post banking and other areas, but we need more detail. I acknowledge that the figure that the Secretary of State cited would be a very large investment, but we need to know much more about it, and I hope that we will learn more before the Bill goes into Committee. However, I return to the same, fundamental point. Investment in the network without the guarantees of future business simply sets the network up to fail and puts a question mark over the public value for money of the investment now being made. I worry that the proposed mutual may ultimately be seen as a cynical attempt to shift responsibility for future closures of post offices on to the shoulders of the mutual owners of the post office network.

Let me make a few other points. Despite what I have set out, the Bill makes it clear that many risks still lie with the public, in addition to those that I have listed. The Bill results in the nationalisation of risk and the privatisation of profit-a phrase that the Secretary of State may well remember from the recent past. Part 4 sets out the provisions for taxpayers to step in through administration if a privatised Royal Mail becomes insolvent. That is a necessary part of the Bill, given the coalition's intention to sell Royal Mail, but it should kill the idea that once Royal Mail is privatised, the taxpayer will no longer need to worry about or bear any expense for failure. Clauses 34, 35 and 43 create the possibility for the universal service obligation to be split between different operators and for there to be different levels of universal service obligation in different parts of the country. In turn, that makes it possible in practice for Royal Mail to be split up once in private ownership, creating the risk of a commercial dynamic that will make it difficult to maintain the same quality of postal services throughout the UK.

The other major issue of customer concern is the maintenance of the six-day universal service. The Bill gives Ofcom the power to make a universal service direction, and in principle this must include the current level of provision for collections and deliveries. However, the Secretary of State has given himself unilateral and unqualified discretion to remove services from Ofcom's direction if he takes the view that Ofcom's order is too extensive. Similarly, if Ofcom were minded to order a universal service provider to maintain the current post office network, the Secretary of State can overrule it. The Secretary of State has given himself the power to reduce services, but not to extend them. That tells us what he is thinking.

Finally, it is in all our interests to have a Post Office that operates as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. We have recognised the need for private sector investment in the past, and it is likely that this will be needed in future. Now that there is less emphasis on changing the management, it seems that a wider range of approaches to engaging private capital can and should be explored, but I do not believe that the need for private capital justifies the privatisation that is proposed today.

It is also essential that the Government are clear about the future burden of regulation designed to allow competitors into the market. Many argue that that now imposes a real and unnecessary cost on Royal Mail. During its mandate, Postcomm chose to apply a challenging competitive regime to a near-monopoly organisation. Today, that regulatory regime applies to many parts of Royal Mail's activities that are open to intense competition. In some areas, Royal Mail is forced to carry mail on behalf of its competitors at well below cost price, and the market share taken by new entrants is certainly much larger than predicted. I know that the figures are contested, but Royal Mail told Postcomm in August that it was subsidising new players in the upstream market at a cost of £100 million a year. Does that regulatory regime make commercial or competitive sense any more?

Crucially, what guidance will Ministers give to Ofcom? Potential buyers will want to know that now. Without a guarantee of more commercial freedom where competition is already strong, Royal Mail will be much harder to sell. By the same token, however, greater commercial freedom for a publicly owned Royal Mail would enable it to generate a higher income. I hope that all Members on both sides of the House will agree that it would be completely unacceptable for Ministers or regulators to offer greater freedom to a privatised Royal Mail than they are prepared to offer a publicly owned Royal Mail.

If the House is being asked to choose between a privatised, foreign-owned Royal Mail and a publicly owned Royal Mail, it must do so on a fair and level playing field involving a publicly owned Royal Mail enjoying the same level of regulatory freedom, and the same financial freedom and ability to reduce outgoings that comes with the taxpayer assuming pension obligations. The transformation of that publicly owned Royal Mail must also be well under way, and it must be able to explore a wider range of ways of raising the private capital that it might need. I invite the House to oppose the Bill.