Postal Services Bill

Part of Planning (Developer Bonds) – in the House of Commons at 4:52 pm on 27th October 2010.

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Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East 4:52 pm, 27th October 2010

We have had many debates on post offices and Royal Mail in the House over the years, and we have often concentrated on the competition regime governing the different mail companies that are engaged in the delivery of mail. Less often, we have concentrated on the technological shift away from all mail companies to new technologies, including text messaging and the use of the internet and e-mail, to which my hon. Friend Glenda Jackson has just referred. This is a fundamental shift, and it lies behind many of the problems that Royal Mail now faces. Perhaps it is natural to concentrate on the things that we believe we can change, but just because we cannot change that technological shift, it does not make it any less real or any less fundamental to the challenge being faced by our post offices and by Royal Mail itself.

All this is not necessarily bad news for Royal Mail, because there is a growth in fulfilment mail, as it is called, as well as in internet shopping and in selling things through eBay. However, Royal Mail's business needs fundamental modernisation if we are to keep the universal service obligation and the six-day-a-week delivery service that lies at the foundation of our postal system.

There are some areas of the Bill with which I can agree. The Secretary of State attempted to say that it was much the same Bill as the one proposed by the previous Government, but it clearly is not. They have some areas in common, however. The Government taking on an historic pension deficit-and, indeed, the way in which they are taking it on-is something with which I can agree. The taking on of both the assets and the liabilities puts postal workers on the same basis as nurses, teachers and so forth. This method was attacked by the previous Conservative Opposition as a raid on the pension fund, but I am glad to say that, now they are in government, they have turned their backs on that position and adopted the method we proposed.

Similarly, when it comes to regulation, it is right to move from Postcomm to Ofcom and regulate mail services in the wider context of communications technologies. Regulation, however, is about more than the heading on the notepaper or the address of the building. It is also right to put at the heart of the regulatory system the maintenance of the universal service. This Bill, like Labour's Bill, has a reserved power for a levy to support universal service. In his report, Richard Hooper was sceptical about the need for this, seeing it perhaps as an excuse for modernisation not to proceed. We felt it was right to take such a power to ensure the maintenance of universal service in the future.

So much for areas of agreement. The fundamental area of difference is on ownership. Clause 3 of Labour's Bill said:

"Each Royal Mail company must at all times be publicly owned."

Anyone wanting to see the difference between our proposals and this Bill need only scan the present Bill to try to find such a clause-they will not find it. That clause meant that any private investment had to be on a minority basis. The idea of having a minority stake was not particularly new; it had been floated as far back as 1998. Why keep a majority public stake? It gives the taxpayer an ongoing interest in the maintenance of the universal service obligation and an ongoing interest in the inter-business agreement, which is so essential to the post office network. Even more important than those two elements, however, it also gives the taxpayer an ongoing interest in the transformation of what is, after all, a public service. The taxpayer is taking on the historic pension deficit and the liabilities therein, so why should not the taxpayer share the upside of the modernisation that the Bill is designed to achieve? That explains the logic behind keeping a majority stake in taxpayers' hands.

All that has been cast aside by the Government. Our Bill was a proposal for partnership; this Bill is a proposal for privatisation. On employee shares, yes, we were in favour of that, too, but again, only in the context of a company that would remain majority-owned by the taxpayer. What guarantees are there for the universal service obligation, the inter-business agreement and the taxpayer sharing in the upswing envisaged by the Bill?

Finally, there is a lesson for Labour Members, too. My hon. Friend Kate Hoey said that we should not have introduced our Bill. I offer the opposite lesson, however, as the truth is that if we had managed to get our Bill through, we would have had a publicly owned Royal Mail and might not have had to face the measure before us. There is a fundamental difference between what we were proposing and what is before us today. That difference is a majority publicly owned Royal Mail-a difference, I suggest, that is worth having.