I apologise to the House for being absent this afternoon. When I applied to the Speaker to take part in the debate, I stated that I would have to chair a meeting at the offices of the Department for International Development, which was the reason for my absence.
The Bill is undoubtedly contentious. Although some would like to do so, we cannot separate Post Office Ltd from Royal Mail and that part of the business that the coalition Government seek to privatise. I should declare an interest as Chair of the all-party group on post offices.
I am deeply disappointed, because, having been in the Chamber when the Secretary of State made his opening remarks, I feel that there has been something of a mad dash to introduce this legislation. I admit that he talked about the right things as far as I am concerned, such as mutualisation and everything that that offers, but I am disappointed, because he should have examined the issue in more detail before we reached this stage of the Bill.
I am not here to negotiate on behalf of either the employees of Royal Mail or the Communication Workers Union, but 10% shared ownership is almost derisory, and a greater shared ownership figure might have been more acceptable to some at the forefront of the issue.
I accept that there is a demand for modernisation and for greater efficiencies. I do not think that anyone in this House fails to recognise that. I appreciate that some Members will have visited their local sorting offices, but I say to Members from all parts that if they speak to their local staff, as I regularly do at my five local sorting offices, they will hear each and every worker, including their managers, say that they have done their utmost to adhere to what the company has asked of them. They have modernised.
We have reached the stage at which any further attempts to make some of those businesses more efficient will result in job losses, and employees are at a total loss to understand what more they can do as individuals in that work force. We have seen 50,000 jobs lost, and, if the Bill is passed and delivers what many Opposition Members think it will, we could see another 50,000 to 60,000 job losses.
I represent a rural constituency, and the universal service obligation is sacrosanct, but there is absolutely nothing in the Bill which provides a cast-iron guarantee that the current six-days-a-week delivery to every door will continue. I mentioned-and I wish to mention again-that I recognise that there is a black hole in the pension fund, but it is a significant pension fund, and I issue a warning to the coalition Government. I sincerely hope that they go nowhere near that pension fund to do what the previous Conservative Government did to the bus employees' pension fund after bus deregulation.
This is a Bill with unintended consequences: the closure of post offices. I know that Government Members have mentioned what the previous Labour Government did, but if they cast their minds a little further back, they will find that thousands of post offices closed on an ad hoc basis. There was no structure to their closure at all, and I say to Damian Collins-it was a point that I wished to make in an intervention on him, but I shall make it now-that the things that keep post offices open today are, without a shadow of a doubt, the access criteria. I do not know whether the Government intend to keep those criteria in place.
Some 41% of the business that our post offices transact daily is as a result of the inter-business agreement. The National Federation of SubPostmasters wants a 10-year agreement, and anything less than that will result in post offices withering on the vine. So, there is a warning: the 10-year agreement that has been asked for should be carefully considered.
"Post bank" is not the white knight that we all expected, but it must be introduced. In a briefing, the postal services Minister did talk about asking Departments to provide additional business for our post offices. I only wish that that could happen. If it were possible, and if we were able to make it happen, it would have happened by now.
The issue of green giros has been raised, but the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Steve Webb, who is responsible for pensions, refused to meet a small delegation from our all-party post offices group.
I thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I urge caution on this Bill and on the unintended consequences that it could bring.