The powers that be in the Whips Office approached me last week to ask whether I would like to speak on the Bill, and then a few days afterwards they asked which side I intended to speak on. I reassure them that I shall speak largely for the Bill.
The Government are to be congratulated on introducing a Bill on postal reform. I accept that stagnation is not an option. The pension deficit is crippling. The regulatory environment is crazy, as many Members have established. The communications market is changing dramatically, and the work force are confused and demoralised.
The last time I spoke on postal services in this place, I did so on behalf of employees in my constituency who were locked in battle with the local management. I must admit that like other Members I did not find the Crozier-led management easy to deal with. Nor did I find the union especially helpful, although I have a generally high opinion of the Communication Workers Union and of Billy Hayes in particular. The battle was over an astonishingly high rate of dismissals and disciplinary actions taken against a work force who are neither work-shy nor particularly militant.
A pattern of petty penalisation and unreasonable demands had emerged, and it needed to be dealt with. Otherwise decent staff were being punished for not fulfilling unreasonable schedules, or for simple lapses of concentration, such as not wearing their cycle helmet at the right time in the right place, or for not following procedures with absolute accuracy. In some cases, that became the basis for dismissal, and bit by bit, long-term staff were replaced by casuals. I came to the conclusion that the management wept no tears at all about that, and that the dismissal of long-term, high-pension staff was in fact relatively welcome.
I came to the conclusion that unreasonable schedules were being set-almost wilfully-because Royal Mail believed that the only way it could compete was to ask staff not only to go the extra mile, but to go another and then another. I draw no comfort from the current agreement whereby Royal Mail is to beef up massively the junk mail element in every postbag. A business that plans to survive by giving its customers more of what they do not want does not seem to have much future. That is why something has to change, and there is a lot in the Bill we should welcome.
We need to do something about the insanity of postal regulation. For years, Postcomm has forced Royal Mail to upstream and downstream prices to subsidise its competitors. The line is, "Let the poor old Royal Mail struggle with the long paths, the dogs, the gates that fall off their hinges, the flats with no visible means of access and the long country roads." While Royal Mail does that, the private market looks at what is actually profitable.
Payment for the final mile has been derisory, and as Kate Hoey would point out, it is due to the bloodless application of EU law and directive that has done untold damage to the postal system of the UK. I do not want to go into the rationale for that; suffice it to say that as a consequence of the single market agreement that Mrs Thatcher introduced-or got Parliament to agree to-we are stuck with it. But as far as I can see from the Bill, we are not stuck with Postcomm. That is a significant improvement. I welcome, too, the emphasis on employee share ownership.