Postal Services Bill

Part of Planning (Developer Bonds) – in the House of Commons at 6:22 pm on 27th October 2010.

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Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire 6:22 pm, 27th October 2010

I have two great interests in the Bill. I speak as chair of the all-party group on employee ownership, which plans to examine the Bill in more detail, and also as head of the Herefordshire Save our Post Offices campaign, which fought hard for several years to prevent local post office closures.

I was surprised by the partisan nature of some Opposition speeches, because there are many aspects of the Bill that Opposition Members should embrace and support. The Government deserve enormous credit for the speed and energy with which they have addressed a thorny and difficult issue. There is a marked contrast between that and the record of delay and compromise under the last Administration, during a period when the financial position of Royal Mail only became worse.

I welcome many aspects of the Bill, including the granting of access to new capital for efficiency and modernisation, the excellent arrangements for employee ownership, and the Government's tough and difficult decision to take on the pension deficit-a nettle that the last Government signally failed to grasp. They preferred to keep it off the balance sheet, like the £230 billion of private finance initiative debt with which we have had to deal. There is a real possibility that, once those changes have been implemented, Royal Mail and the Post Office will be able to turn the corner. The idea of a new mutual structure for the Post Office is particularly innovative and important. This is a human capital business, which requires the human touch and the service that a mutual can bring to it.

However, serious concerns remain. The universal service obligation, which many Members have mentioned, must be preserved. I remind the House of what happened in the telecoms industry, whose privatisation was in many ways highly effective. The universal service obligation in telecoms does not cover either broadband or mobile telephony, but those are exactly the areas in which rural places such as Herefordshire have had a poor deal over the past decade.

I want to draw particular attention to the issue of back-door closures of post offices. We have a vivid case study of that in my constituency. The village of Pontrilas has an excellent post office and shop, with a sorting office, plenty of parking and disabled access. It is a vital community resource in a very rural area. Recently, the sub-postmaster was sacked by the Post Office for a very small mistake in procedure, from which he derived no personal benefit at all. In any other organisation, that would mean a slapped wrist. His case has gone to appeal but it appears that appeal in the Post Office means one person sitting in judgment on hundreds of cases across the UK. If he loses his job, the effects will be disastrous not merely on him-a man who has had no income for the past six weeks, nor is any to come from the Post Office-but on the shop, which would close. The sorting office would go, too, as most probably would the Longtown post office and its sorting centre up the road in one of the most rural areas of this country.

Therefore, I ask the Minister to take an interest in the situation and to look at the position at the Pontrilas post office. I ask whether he agrees with my view that such back-door closures should be prevented and should be included within the remit of preserving the post office network. I also ask whether he shares my view that we need to grow our post offices, push more business through them and use them to support our towns and villages.