Postal Services Bill

Part of Planning (Developer Bonds) – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 27th October 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party 3:45 pm, 27th October 2010

I cannot take any more interventions. I am sorry.

The point is that 90% of Royal Mail will become a private company. That necessitates close scrutiny to ensure that Royal Mail employees and customers and the taxpayer are protected.

Consumer Focus wants changes that protect consumers to be added to the Bill. It believes that Ofcom "must" impose a consumer protection condition on every postal operator-rather than "may", which is the term currently used in the Bill. Please can we have "must" instead of "may"? Can we also add the requirement that Ofcom must impose the essential condition that every postal operator must guarantee the confidentiality, safety and security of mail?

I know that Opposition Members are concerned that the Bill's provisions may be detrimental to customers in rural areas. Can we therefore insert into the Bill a definition of the minimum number of access points to the mail system-post offices and post boxes-and the criteria for geographic distribution, together with criteria under which exceptions could be sought? Can we also add a requirement on Ofcom to consult representatives of residential and small and medium-sized enterprise customers, and other particularly vulnerable customers, when conducting any review of the universal postal services order? SMEs often get left off the list, but it is important that they are consulted as well.

Customers need proper protections when things go wrong. Can we build into the Bill a requirement for postal operators to be members of an approved redress scheme to ensure complaints-handling standards can be monitored and independently investigated? Finally on the consumer front, can we build in a requirement that postal operators must continue to provide appropriate information to the regulator and an appropriate consumer watchdog in order to enable independent monitoring of performance, quality of service, complaint handling and services provided to vulnerable consumers?

I want to make a few comments about the separation of Royal Mail and the Post Office. Key provisions in the Bill allow for the privatisation of Royal Mail and the formal separation of Royal Mail and the Post Office. Formal separation offers considerable advantages for the Post Office. For example, it would be managed by a board that could be more closely aligned to its own strategic objectives, and would no longer be a junior partner in group decision making. However, the Government have announced that they will seek a refreshed inter-business agreement between Royal Mail and the Post Office. Will subsequent contracts be subjected to a competitive tender process given that, as Opposition Members have pointed out, there would be no guarantees that the Post Office would retain its mail contract thereafter? I fully accept that there may be arguments against seeking to maintain the contractual relationship between the Post Office and Royal Mail in perpetuity as we cannot reasonably assume that consumer need will necessitate upholding the current access arrangements indefinitely. I also understand why, in light of future uncertainties, the Bill must not be too prescriptive, but might it include provision for the Secretary of State to seek a review of the access criteria at a future date, subject to parliamentary approval?

On the division of assets between the Post Office and Royal Mail, the Bill allows for the transfer of property or other assets between parts of Royal Mail Holdings plc. These provisions allow property transfers to be made directly by the Secretary of State or the holdings company. My worry is that the Post Office has frequently taken a minor role compared to Royal Mail, so when negotiating the property transfers, we need to ensure that the greater weight of Royal Mail is not used unfairly. Therefore, can the Government take steps now, in advance of measures contained in the Bill and the separation of the holdings company taking effect, to maintain the Post Office's current assets?

Finally, there is speculation about who might buy Royal Mail. All the protections I have mentioned must be in place, but I would like whoever the purchaser might be to be given the best possible chance to make Royal Mail a world-beating postal service.