Postal Services Bill

Part of Planning (Developer Bonds) – in the House of Commons at 4:07 pm on 27th October 2010.

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Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 4:07 pm, 27th October 2010

I congratulate Jonathan Lord on making his maiden speech. I have been to Woking only once, and he missed out its most famous citizen-the great Paul Weller.

Turning to the matter at hand, although our amendment was not selected, it sets out the feeling of the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and all the parties from Northern Ireland, including the Democratic Unionist party; although DUP Members did not sign the amendment, they support its aims. We fear for the future of the universal service obligation if the Post Office is privatised.

I contributed submissions to Richard Hooper's original work. I agreed with much of what he said in the end, but I strongly opposed the part-privatisation proposed by the previous Government and absolutely oppose the full privatisation proposed by this Government. Today, the Business Secretary argued that regulation will protect the universal service guarantee and that there is therefore no need to maintain Royal Mail as a public company, but it is inevitable that the pressures from a fully private company will lead to a reduction in the universal service.

Over the summer, the Business Secretary appeared to recognise that the current six days a week pick up and delivery service may not survive and suggested that a five days a week service might be sufficient. That accords with the current definition of the universal service, which does not include Saturday deliveries, so the Government already envisage the service declining. That position was justified on the grounds that it would not discriminate against any area, since it would be the same service whether someone resides in Kensington or Kyleakin. However, that is not quite the case. If I reside or run a business in Kensington, I am sure that there are a number of different services to which I can turn, but it is somewhat different in rural areas of Scotland where Royal Mail is the only service that will pick up and deliver mail. That vital point must be borne in mind when we consider the Bill's proposals.

We are dealing not only with residential customers but with business customers, many of whom, in more rural and remote areas, rely absolutely on Royal Mail, which is the only carrier that is obliged and able to deliver a service to them. Does anyone really believe that that will continue in a fully privatised environment? How long will it be before a private owner such as TNT or Deutsche Post argues that it is at a competitive disadvantage because it is the only company required to offer a universal service? How long will it be before it wants the agreement to be watered down or requires public subsidy to enable it to continue?

Such an outcome would be a disaster for rural business. Only this week, the Government talked about the need to increase broadband access in rural areas. All too often Royal Mail is considered old-fashioned-it is seen as Postman Pat and his black and white cat touring Greendale as opposed to the brave new world of broadband. Although broadband is important in rural areas, which would benefit enormously from faster access, one cannot send goods down a telephone line or a fibre optic cable. Unless some entrepreneur in this brave new world comes up with Star Trek transporters, we will still require a physical delivery service to go up and down dale and glen to pick up and deliver physical objects. At the moment, the only company that will guarantee to do that is Royal Mail. We have to take that on board and do nothing that will undermine the service if we are to encourage the regeneration of our rural areas and create jobs in the new green economy.

I appreciate that many Government Members firmly believe in the overriding primacy of private enterprise, but even private enterprise sometimes needs public help. I was intrigued by the Prime Minister's speech to the CBI earlier this week in which he said that

"business confidence doesn't just come from financial and human assets. It comes from physical assets too-from our infrastructure."

I do not often agree with the Prime Minister, but I think that is absolutely correct. He recognises the need for substantial public investment in the infrastructure needed to help businesses develop. Infrastructure is not just roads, railways and broadband-it is also investment in existing systems that provide a backbone for many businesses. Infrastructure assets such as Royal Mail provide new entrepreneurial businesses in many of our rural areas with an essential service that enables them to operate, grow and create jobs. They do that in many areas that are about to be hit very hard by the reduction in public sector employment.

I am interested in the fascinating myth-busters leaflet published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.