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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We have had an excellent debate on the Bill, not just today but throughout its passage through the House. Hon. Members have rightly spent a lot of time scrutinising the detail of our proposals, but I would ask all of them to stand back and remember what we are trying to achieve. We are trying to preserve two great British institutions-the Royal Mail and the Post Office. As we heard from Richard Hooper in his reports, both to the previous Government and to this one, unless we take urgent action, the future of the universal postal service is at severe risk.
Letter volumes are declining faster than anyone predicted-15% in the past five years alone-and some estimates suggest that they could decline by up to another 40% over the next five years. Is Royal Mail yet ready for this most challenging of business trends? Without the Bill, I believe not, for despite some progress on modernisation, Royal Mail has not adapted sufficiently to that market decline. Unless we take action, that will only worsen and Royal Mail's position will become even more precarious. Let all hon. Members be in no doubt: doing nothing is not an option.
The previous Government recognised that, for in many ways the Bill is similar to that which was put before the other place by the previous Government in 2009. The previous Business Secretary was aware of the need for urgency. He said:
"We cannot simply ignore these facts, or put our plans in a bottom drawer".-[ Hansard, House of Lords, 10 March 2009; Vol. 708, c. 1068.]
Unfortunately, the previous Government ended up ignoring the facts. As they oppose the Bill, I suggest that the Opposition ought to go back to that bottom drawer. If they look hard enough, they might find the bottle that they lost in 2009.
The present Government are aware of the urgency. That is why we have pressed ahead with the Bill so early in the Parliament. We will send to the other place a Bill that is significantly better than the previous Government's 2009 Bill. It is better for employees of Royal Mail, with employee shares to give them a genuine stake in the future of the business. It is better for the Post Office, setting it free and creating the possibility for a mutual ownership model in the future. Above all, it is better for the universal postal service and Royal Mail, as our Bill takes a more flexible approach to regulation and is much better structured to attract the private investment that this business desperately needs.
The House should have no doubt about the overriding aim of the Bill. It is to protect the universal postal service. I do not believe it is possible to protect that in the public sector any longer-at least, not without ever-increasing levels of taxpayer subsidy, which even Lord Mandelson, as he doled out largesse in the run-up to the last election, would have baulked at.
Royal Mail needs to modernise. Its business is changing with the impact of the digital world. I am sure that I was not alone among hon. Members in paying a Christmas visit to local delivery offices in my constituency. Not only was I impressed by the hard work of Royal Mail employees, dealing with some of the worst weather conditions in living memory, but I was staggered by the huge increase in the volume and size of parcels. No one, none of the posties there, had seen anything like it.
In recent years, the volume of internet shopping has been increasing, especially items such as books and CDs, but now it seems that the British consumer's confidence in internet shopping has grown dramatically. That is good news for the longer-term future of Royal Mail. Although the increase in parcels will not offset the decline in letter mail, and the parcels sector is intensively competitive, there is a chance-an opportunity-for Royal Mail to grow.
The other dramatic impression that one has after visiting Royal Mail sorting and delivery offices and then visiting similar sites elsewhere-as I did in Berlin, visiting a Deutsche Post sorting office-is the lack of capital investment in Royal Mail so that it can make the best of this opportunity. Since Deutsche Post shares were first sold in 2000, it has invested the equivalent of £11.7 billion and about half of that investment has gone on modernising its parcels and express business because it knows that that is the future for its organisation.
We need to give Royal Mail that sort of freedom to invest in the delivery businesses of the future. We need to ensure that it can access capital, not just for its immediate modernisation plans, but well into the future. I do not believe that if it remains constrained by Treasury borrowing, it could ever access the right amount of cash, with the commercial speed needed.
As we privatise, we are ensuring that the employees get a good deal. Our pension plans and our employee share plans must represent the best deal on offer to any large group of employees in the UK today. I am immensely proud that Liberal Democrats in government with our coalition partners are delivering the deal on pensions that Labour failed to deliver, and I am immensely proud of the strongest legislative commitment to employee shares in any major privatisation.
Given the time, I want to say something about post offices, but before doing so I shall comment on stamp design. The amendments passed by the House will ensure that Her Majesty's head will appear on stamps in the future.
Let me anticipate the hon. Gentleman, because the concerns that the nationalist parties expressed in their amendments are unfounded. The Bill will ensure that nationalist emblems can be placed, and be required to be placed, on stamps in future. I hope that he is reassured by that.
I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman how delighted I am to be able to give him that reassurance. It was a slip of the tongue.
Some people have concerns about the wording of our amendments, which ensure that Her Majesty's head will be on our stamps in future. I can assure hon. Members that, under section 10 of the Interpretation Act 1978, "Her Majesty" can be taken as
"a reference to the Sovereign reigning at the time of the passing of the Act" and construed as applying to any future Sovereign, so people should not worry about that.
May I turn to the Post Office? There has rightly been a lot of debate about the impact of the Government's proposals on the network of post offices. First, I want to be absolutely clear that we are talking about a sale of shares in Royal Mail, not in the Post Office. They are both cornerstones of British life, but they are different businesses facing different problems, and that is why separation has been so widely supported by the experts. Of course, their futures are closely linked, and we expect that they will always have a strong commercial relationship, but securing the future of Royal Mail will of course help to secure the future of the Post Office as the natural outlet for purchasing Royal Mail services.
I shall say again something that I have said many times before. There will be no programme of post office closures under this Government. I have been very clear on that, as has my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary. That is why we have pledged £1.34 billion of funding to support the post office network, funding that will ensure the continuation of at least 11,500 post office branches throughout the United Kingdom.
If the hon. Gentleman had been present for our debates in Committee, he would have found that his Opposition colleagues understand that it is impossible for any Minister in this or previous Governments to say that no individual post office will ever close. Why? Because in large part they are private businesses, and individuals can retire, decide to close their business or, of course, die. So, it is impossible to give him that reassurance. The reassurance I can give him, which his colleagues could not during the previous Parliament, is that no programme of closures will be driven by this Government. That is why we have secured the money, and the deal-the contract signed by the Government with Post Office Ltd-ensures that there will be a network of at least 11,500 post office branches throughout the United Kingdom.
When the Opposition scaremonger on that issue, we simply need to remind ourselves of their record on post offices. When urgency was needed to invest in Royal Mail, the only urgency the previous Government demonstrated was an urgency to close post offices. The numbers do not lie. The number of days the previous Government were in office: 4,753. The number of post offices closed in their two major closure programmes: 4,854. That is a strike rate worthy of an English batsman, not of a Government seeking to protect communities, small businesses and the most vulnerable throughout our country, yet we have had no apology for that appalling record.
Through this Bill, the Post Office also has the opportunity to move to a mutual ownership model, which would give employees, sub-postmasters and communities a real stake in their post office network. With our work to pilot more and more new Government services, both national and local, through the post office network, such new ideas will give local post offices a fighting chance.
Let me end by returning to the universal postal service. I reiterate that this Government are fully committed to that service: six-days-a-week collection and delivery to the UK's 28 million addresses at uniform and affordable prices. This Bill gives Ofcom an overriding duty to secure the provision of the universal service, and the tools that it will need to do so. It gives greater safeguards to the minimum service levels for the universal service, with parliamentary protections, and it creates a new regulatory regime that can bring rapid deregulation for the universal service provider where there is effective competition in the market. Ofcom has a statutory duty to deregulate where it can, and we are giving Ofcom the tools to do so for the postal sector.
I would like to thank all those who have been engaged in the Bill's passage through the House, particularly Bill Committee members for their work over the past couple of months. We have certainly had some lively discussions. I would also like to thank the hon. Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) and for Angus (Mr Weir). Although we may not have always agreed, I am grateful to all of them for the detailed scrutiny that they have given the Bill.
The coalition Government have not shied away from grappling with this issue, which has defeated two one-party Governments. This shows the Government at their strongest and most radical. This Government are taking decisive action to tackle the problems that the previous Government ducked. I commend the Bill to the House.
I shall make a few remarks on Third Reading to summarise where we are as a result of the discussions of the past few months. The House may be aware that in what I can only describe as a spirit of total selflessness and altruism, I allowed my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) to lead for the Opposition in Committee. I thank them for doing so and for the excellent way in which they helped to scrutinise the Bill. I also thank the other Committee members and, indeed, the Minister, who I can see from looking at the Committee records and my colleagues' reports was open and helpful in responding throughout the 20 sittings for which the Committee sat. There is no doubt that, including the evidence session, there was a great deal of opportunity to consider many parts of the Bill in detail.
The problem is that the Bill comes to Third Reading with many of the fundamental issues and concerns that were raised on Second Reading and that have been raised outside the House still unresolved. The earlier debates, including that on the new clause tabled by Bob Russell, show that concerns are not by any means limited to the official Opposition. This might not have been or have become an issue on which a head of steam builds up into a full blown parliamentary revolt, but it is clear that the Government have by no means persuaded all their supporters of the wisdom of their policies and approach.
The Bill will now go to another place and no doubt the same issues will be discussed there. Those on the Labour Benches in another place will make every effort to make the progress that we have not made in the House of Commons. The central part of the Bill is, of course, enabling legislation. It enables the Government to privatise Royal Mail and to transfer this vital part of our national infrastructure to a foreign buyer. The Bill does not require the Government to do so and therefore today's debate is not the end of the story. As I shall set out, too many uncertainties still exist to proceed just on the basis of where we are today. That is not just the view of the Labour Opposition; that is the view of Consumer Focus, which has looked at the matter from a customer point of view. As I shall show, that is also the view of the National Federation of SubPostmasters-the people who in many ways are meant to be at the heart of the Bill.
The House did not agree to secure a 10-year inter-business agreement today, but that does not mean that the campaign to get one will go away. If we have not so far explained to all the constituents of hon. Members who support the Bill why their post offices are under threat, we have plenty of time yet to do so and to push for a change in Government policy. The basic problem is that the Government have still not made the fundamental case for the full-scale privatisation that they have proposed, nor have they addressed the concerns that exist. It is very interesting and, of course, welcome that a new clause has been introduced that is designed to ensure that the Queen's head remains on postal stamps. That is interesting because it has been made necessary solely as a result of the desire to privatise Royal Mail.
As long as the Post Office and Royal Mail remained in public ownership, as they would have done under the Bill introduced by the Labour Government, no one thought for a moment that it would be necessary to introduce legislative protection to retain the sovereign's head on our stamps. It is only because privatisation is being brought in that that is at risk. The problem is that the Government, by conceding on this point, have accepted that full-scale privatisation opens up all sorts of possibilities and dangers that simply do not exist if the Post Office remains in public service.
The right hon. Gentleman is incorrect on this point. It was a Labour Minister in the 1960s-Tony Wedgwood Benn-who tried to remove the Queen's head from the stamp. I hope that he will correct the record.
But the evidence remains, some 50 years later, that that did not happen. My point remains-public ownership, and the debates around it, protected that position.
Before Christmas, when the Minister was challenged on this issue, his response was, "Don't worry. No sensible private buyer would dream of removing the monarch's head." He has now conceded that that response is not enough. Yet when Members asked him today about a private buyer's relationship with the post office network, the same argument came into play: "Don't worry. No sane private buyer would take the business away from the post office network." If the guarantee is necessary for the sovereign's head, it is necessary for the inter-business agreement with post offices. It will not do to ask the House to accept this on trust, because thousands of post offices are at risk. That is, and has been from the outset, the fundamental argument against a majority privatisation of the Post Office. Although Royal Mail must be run as a commercial enterprise, majority shareholding for the public gives an ultimate protection that privatisation will not provide. If the Bill is flawed, as it is, then that protection will not exist.
The case has not been made in other areas, because, in contrast with the situation just a few years ago, transformation and modernisation are under way. The challenge of bringing in capable, senior management has been met, as I am sure all Members who have met the chief executive will confirm. Investment funds are currently available, and there are mechanisms well short of majority privatisation or a minority shareholding that could be used to raise equity in future.
Moya Greene, the chief executive of Royal Mail, said to the Bill Committee:
"I think that if the Bill does not go through, you will see a continuation of what have been chronic problems for Royal Mail." --[ Official Report, Postal Services Public Bill Committee,
She was very clear with us that this is a path that Royal Mail has to go down.
I understand those remarks, but I believe that it would be possible for a Government who wished to do so to resolve the need to bring in additional investment in future through measures that fall short of selling a majority shareholding in Royal Mail. Some of those measures have been proposed by my party in the past, while other mechanisms have been proposed from outside. The truth is that the Government are driven by the desire to raise the albeit relatively paltry funds that they will get from selling as quickly as possible. That is fundamentally why they have refused to provide the safeguards on future business that many Members have been seeking. The highest price will come from giving the buyer the greatest freedom to make money through eroding the quality of service by closing post offices and transferring functions elsewhere.
If the Bill goes through this House today, and if it succeeds in another place, that is not the end of the story, because uncertainties still exist. First, there are the state aid discussions that will have to take place with the European Union. That arises from the need to deal with the Post Office deficit, and it will arise, if not in exactly the same form, if Royal Mail remains in public hands. We do not yet know whether any restructuring of Royal Mail will be required or whether profitable subsidiaries will need to be sold off, as the press have speculated, so we do not know what would be available for sale.
Secondly, there is still uncertainty about the regulatory regime. There is agreement about the transfer to Ofcom, but there is a crucial question about whether it will review the regulatory relationship between Royal Mail and its private sector competitors. Royal Mail has argued, most recently in a letter from the chief executive this week, that the current arrangements are commercially unfair, and that many of the letters that we all saw being delivered on our Christmas visits to post offices were, in effect, costing Royal Mail money because of the terms of the agreement. The crucial question on the proposed privatisation is whether Ofcom will review that relationship and, if so, when. Clearly, any change, particularly if it conceded Royal Mail's argument, would make a very big difference to the future financing of a publicly owned Royal Mail and a huge difference to the price that could be obtained from a privately owned Royal Mail. We must begin to say that a final decision on whether to sell can be made only once it is clear whether Ofcom will investigate this issue, what the time scale of such an investigation will be, and after there is an indication of the likely outcome. That is the second reason to say that there is great uncertainty.
The issue over the universal obligation has been debated this afternoon, and I will not take it further.
The final area of uncertainty is the future of the post office network. The major argument today has been about the inter-business agreement, but there are other questions about the amount of business that will go to local post offices. I welcome the Government's promise of substantial investment in the network. In some ways, that is a bold decision, because if they are wrong about the future business that goes to local post offices, that will be public money not well spent. Capital investment cannot of itself secure revenue from the Royal Mail. Promises of other work are slim and not tied down. Our plans for a Post Office bank have been dropped, and the promises from other Departments are vague.
The National Federation of SubPostmasters has supported the principle of the Bill, but the briefing it has circulated to right hon. and hon. Members for today's debate could not be more explicit. It states that
"ministers must recognise that their plans will only succeed if they deliver on access to government and Royal Mail work at post offices. If they fail on this, not only will plans to mutualise the Post Office be doomed to failure; there will be no way back for the network and our post offices will face even greater jeopardy."
It goes further and states that if adequate levels of new Government work at post offices are not secured, it believes that the separation of Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail, and the sale of Royal Mail must be "indefinitely delayed".
The House has rejected the first thing that the federation asks for, which is a long term deal. The Government have failed, as yet, to deliver the second thing that it asks for, which is a clear commitment for future levels of other Government work. The argument over indefinite delay is, I think, the battleground on which the forthcoming campaign to save our postal services will be fought.
Royal Mail is, first and foremost, a people business. It is a people business, or it is no business at all. We know that not only because of the campaigns that hon. Members from all parts of the House have conducted to save post offices in their constituencies, but because of the hard work undertaken by Royal Mail workers throughout the year, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. We also know it because of the hard and vigilant work that the Communication Workers Union has put in to help us understand the issues involved in the Bill, as I experienced when Paul Moffat, the CWU representative for my region, came to see me. We also know it because of the groundbreaking modernisation agreement that the CWU made with Royal Mail. That is a signal triumph about which Mr Hayes and his colleagues can rightly be proud. It is that people aspect of the Bill on which I shall focus my brief comments.
No, I do not agree. I believe that they do so because they have in their hearts a sense of public service, and the Bill offers a much better, more secure way for them to fulfil their sense of public service obligation by securing a stronger foundation for the Royal Mail Group. In addition, it contains groundbreaking provisions that extend the principles of employee participation and employee ownership, which are most welcome.
I know that I disagree with the CWU about Government ownership, and in its most recent note it listed some of the things that could happen under continued Government ownership. It stated that the Post Office could move to be more profitable, raise commercial loans or enable the relaxation of competition. Those things could happen, but they could have happened in the past and did not.
What is the legacy of Government ownership of the institution of the Royal Mail Group? It is a revolving door of, let us face it, not particularly competent management until the recent past; a crippling burden of unfunded pension liabilities; and a delay of more than 18 months in giving management access to capital. Those things have held back the Royal Mail Group, so Government ownership is not the answer. Mr Denham made the assertion, with which I do not agree, that the case for private ownership has not been made. I would say that the case for ending Government ownership has truly been made.
I believe that the CWU and workers now need to look forward at how we can use the Bill to extend further the principle of employee participation, and how we can continue to make it the groundbreaking legislation that many Members of all parties would like it to become. Let us ensure that employee ownership, which the Minister rightly said can be at a minimum of 10%, can truly be a model for how that principle should continue. The mutualisation of the Post Office should be thought through so that long-term business interests are secured when people put their own capital into a business to fulfil a service obligation to the people of this country.
Most importantly, as the Minister goes through the process of looking for the future owners of the business, with the participation of the CWU and the workers' representatives, it is crucial that he stresses that the management, with the unions, must secure another groundbreaking modernisation programme. That is an absolute pre-requisite if any future owner is to secure a bright future for the Royal Mail Group as it goes forward and meets the challenges of the years ahead.
I am sure that no one in the Chamber would accuse we Scots of being parochial, but I wish to take a moment to thank the posties of East Lothian, who delivered the Christmas mail in the most difficult of circumstances. Even more locally, I thank my own postie, who delivered my Scottish Affairs Committee papers and, I am sure, would have been pleased with the report contained in his delivery.
It is sad that this place has made one so young so cynical so quickly. I have had to learn a whole new language, because this Government speak in code. I could almost hear the theme tune from "Born Free" as the Minister spoke about setting free the Royal Mail.
This is a Government who do not believe in public service. When my hon. Friend Ian Murray asked the Minister to provide assurances that no post offices would close as a result of the measures in the Bill, I once again learned that Ministers often do not answer the questions put to them. This is an issue of genuine concern to my constituents, but there is nothing in the Bill to reassure them. This is shotgun legislation from an adulterous coalition. There may be no programme of post office closures, but I am sure that post offices will close. I am sure that the Minister must have a trumpeter's lip by now, because he has been blowing his own trumpet all day, talking about "post office local" and how he has no plans for vans, but there were no plans to raise VAT, so I am not going to take that as a promise.
Debate interrupted (Programme Order,
Mr Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (