Postal Services Bill

Part of Planning (Developer Bonds) – in the House of Commons at 4:16 pm on 27th October 2010.

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Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Liberal Democrat, Southport 4:16 pm, 27th October 2010

The hon. Gentleman is assuming that the Bill is totally finished business. If he has amendments that he feels ought to be tabled and that ought to impress the Minister, I am sure he will have the opportunity to do so.

Not only is employee ownership part of Lib Dem policy, but it is a long-standing part of Liberal policy before that, as many of my hon. Friends will recognise, and it was backed by candidates in the recent Labour leadership elections. It is good to see employee ownership in the Bill. It is 10%, but it is there.

I welcome the central place in the Bill given to retaining the universal service obligation and the measures taken to secure it. We all hope that they will be good enough.

I welcome the plans for the Post Office, but with some caveats. It is a huge franchise and it still has huge potential, but it remains the case that there is virtually nothing that it now does which cannot be done in some other way. Its viability depends on elderly customers preferring to do things in a traditional way, via paper transactions. It needs more than the good wishes of the House, the occasional subsidy and a more modern and diverse facade. It is a very distinctive type of franchise, unparalleled in any other European country, and it needs a distinctive role.

That can only be through an enduring link with the Government or with the community that post offices serve. It is not clear to me yet what long-term role the Government or the community wants the Post Office to discharge. My fear is that if central Government, local government and the community cannot identify that role, the franchise will lose its universal service provider status and part of its raison d'être. The Government need to work out what they want a sustainable post office network to do. We cannot have, as we have had in the past, some Departments promoting it and others, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, effectively sabotaging it.

I fear there is also an element of backdoor sabotage. I have had difficulty in my constituency, where sub-postmasters have tried to sell franchises to somebody else and have encountered untold difficulties in seeking to do that and prohibitive prices presented to buyers.

The fundamental issue that we are facing is privatisation. Some people approach the subject with a presumption against privatisation, and some have a presumption in favour of privatisation. I guess most of us are fairly pragmatic about it, but do we accept that the safeguards of the universal service obligation are robust? If we accept that there is an argument for the Government to absorb the pension deficit, and if we accept that the business will go better with sane regulation and employee involvement, the big question is why not retain the business in public ownership. That is the issue on which we will torture ourselves over the next few days. We hope that we will have from the Minister an exhibition of evidence-led policy where the balance of argument prevails, not the balance of numbers.