My Lords, I am glad to be able to welcome the Postal Services Bill here today. I also welcome the two excellent maiden speeches given by the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Dobbs. When I heard the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Mandelson and Lord Hunt, I had a sense of déjà vu, which the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, might share. I hope that on this occasion we shall see a successful conclusion to our deliberations. I apologise to the Minister for not being present for a few minutes at the beginning of the debate. I heard most of her words and shall read the rest in Hansard.
As has already been made clear, everyone expects that some action has to be taken to improve the current situation with the Royal Mail and the Post Office. The Bill addresses that and is designed to improve the current problems that the services face. It is also important to note that the Bill takes a major step forward in committing to at least 10 per cent of share ownership by the employees. That will ensure that there is not a total privatisation. The unsuccessful Bill introduced by the previous Government did not contain such a provision for shared ownership.
It is important that the Post Office diversifies and opens up its services by encouraging new initiatives. Those will include post offices in rural areas perhaps, developing services tailored to customers' needs or providing a one-stop shop for government services in inner-city areas by offering services such as the verification of documents and the processing of benefit payments. I know that there are many other ideas about how to use the Post Office in the future. I welcome the fact that the present Government have committed funds to support this process. We must encourage an entrepreneurial spirit to ensure the Bill's success and generate innovative ideas.
It is a pity that the post bank initiative has not been carried forward in the Bill, as there is room for alternative systems in light of the banking crisis. I ask the Minister to clarify any role that a post bank or similar could have in the future. It is certainly very useful that the consumer can access the big banks' services through post offices, but it will be good if other initiatives can come forward. Recently there has been quite a lot of talk about the expansion of credit unions, for example. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and the noble Lord, Lord Christopher, spoke about that aspect of the future for the Post Office. Where you have local post offices, it is very important indeed that people feel that they can use them in some form as a bank.
Coming from a small business perspective, I know that the Royal Mail and the Post Office have played an integral part in the running of businesses on a day-to-day basis. Like many others, I welcome the fact that the Bill reinforces the universal service, which ensures that small business's needs are listened to and considered. Some 77 per cent of small businesses say that they use the Post Office to send their parcels to their clients and customers. It is so important that this Bill will be part of the process to ensure that we get good delivery of the mail and a good service locally for businesses and people in all parts of the country.
Mutualisation has been mentioned, and I know that that will be developed when we discuss the Bill in Committee. It is another very important aspect of the Bill in terms of the changes that we can and should make. I welcome the Bill. I believe that it lays down the necessary framework to ensure the future success of the Royal Mail and the Post Office.