I know that time is short, so I will be as quick as I can. I apologise to any Member if they cannot understand my accent.
This Bill is one of the great "might have beens." It might have set out a positive policy on employee share ownership. Instead it does not tell us how the shares will be distributed and what employees can do with them. It might have strengthened the link between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd. Instead it raises new concerns about the viability of many post offices.
The Government's plan for the wholesale privatisation of Royal Mail threatens to turn a public service into a private monopoly. The Government have come up with myriad reasons why Royal Mail should be privatised. First, we were told that privatisation was necessary because Royal Mail could not compete. Royal Mail delivers 99% of the mail to 28 million houses, six days a week. Which competitor in their right mind would want to take that on? The idea that Royal Mail is unable to compete with the private sector is complete and utter nonsense.
We were also told that the privatisation is the only way that Royal Mail can access capital, yet the entire modernisation programme of Royal Mail for the next three years is fully funded. Royal Mail is a profitable business and those profits could and should be retained for future investment.
The proposal to separate Royal Mail from Post Office Ltd, the postal service's counter network, is of huge concern to many sub-postmasters throughout my constituency. Any retail network losing its main customer base would struggle to remain viable. The Post Office relies on Royal Mail for a third of its income and the fact is that a privatised Royal Mail will be free to use other outlets for its counter services. Should that be followed through, there will be mass closures among local post office branches, and I hope that the Government Members who said that they would campaign to save post offices are getting ready to campaign once the Bill goes through.
I welcome the proposal for mutualisation of Post Office Ltd, but that does not mean that I do not have reservations. Currently sub-postmasters have £2 billion of their own money invested in the post office network and it is vital that they be granted a far greater say in how Post Office Ltd is run. The success of the Co-operative Group provides an excellent model for Post Office mutualisation. However, any attempt at mutualisation would inevitably fail unless backed by solid actions to get the post office network on its feet, with a viable business model. There will be no mutual option for Post Office Ltd if there is no credible business plan. A 10-year inter-business agreement is an absolute must to ensure Post Office Ltd's viability as both a business and a universal service provider, but the Government have so far refused to look at that. I hope that the Minister does that tonight.
In conclusion, before it turns to half-past 6, the most important argument against the proposed sell-off is that the public do not want it. The polling is clear on that. They do not want it in Islwyn and they do not want it in the rest of the country. They understand that prices will go up and that the quality of postal services will go down if Royal Mail is sold, and they are right to take that view. The privatisation of Royal Mail makes no political or economic sense and the Bill is nothing but a wasted opportunity.