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Post Office

Volume 167: debated on Wednesday 14 February 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he last met the chairman of the Post Office; and what was discussed.

I last met the chairman of the Post Office, Sir Bryan Nicholson, on 11 January. We discussed various matters of mutual interest.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Post Office workers who have coped so ably with the extra-large load of card deliveries today? Despite the blandishments of the directors of TNT and others interested in acquiring the profitable sectors of the Post Office, will the Minister reassure the British public, especially those who live in rural areas, that their needs have not been forgotten?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for putting the question in that way. I agree with all parts of her question. First, I congratulate the Post Office in Glasgow on its excellent performance and on one of the best staff recruitment and retention records in the United Kingdom. Secondly, I join the hon. Lady in praising the Post Office for having one of the best delivery performances in Europe and for charging less for stamps than almost any other country in Europe. I can give her the assurance that she seeks. Despite the fact that my right hon. Friend has met a number of companies interested in the kind of services provided by the Post Office, none has put forward a proposition of interest to my right hon. Friend or to me. We are concerned to maintain not just the rural network hut all parts of the Post Office network.

Does my hon. Friend recall that 13 years ago, with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) I introduced a Bill to end the Post Office's statutory monopoly in the collection and delivery of letters? Will he now reintroduce that Bill?

My hon. Friend is ahead of his time in many things. That is a reputation which he rightly enjoys. He must know, however—it has often been repeated—that we regard the Post Office monopoly as a privilege, not as a right, and the Post Office well understands that. The monopoly is kept under review so that an assessment can be made from to time of whether any action is appropriate. That process continues.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly said that she believes in keeping the Royal Mail intact. The Under-Secretary of State wrote to me on 1 February saying that there were no plans to break up the Post Office monopoly, so on what basis did the Minister say today that propositions had been received relating to the privatisation of the Post Office? Why did departmental officials admit to the press this morning that they had received propositions and that talks had taken place with road haulage companies? Will the Minister make an honest statement and say whether the Government intend to sell off the letters business to the fat cats in the road haulage industry, or is he prepared to accept the need to protect the service throughout the country, especially in rural areas?

The hon. Gentleman is confusing himself and there is a danger that he may confuse the House as well. It is no secret that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met a number of companies with activities in that sector. Indeed, it would be most odd if he had not, as I believe that my right hon. Friend has shown his usual open-mindedness in wishing to hear all points of view and all proposals. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman, as I reassured the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe), that none of the companies' suggestions has found favour with my right hon. Friend, but we shall continue to consider the matter as it is our duty to do so.

I would not wish to stop the Minister talking to anybody, but will he give an absolute commitment to the House that he stands four-square, 100 per cent. behind the principle that the postage rate for letters should be the same no matter where in the United Kingdom they go? That is what matters to constituents in the further-flung areas, particularly in my part of the world.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Interestingly, that principle and the principle of universal delivery provide the greatest difficulty for those who seek to provide alternatives to the existing postal services. I believe that our insistence on those principles is crucial and I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support.

If newspapers can be delivered all over the United Kingdom at the same price, why should the Post Office continue to have a monopoly? Private enterprise has already shown that it can deliver various goods just as well as the Post Office does.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend here, obviously in good heart and good spirits. It is untypical of him to confuse deliveries of commercial items such as newspapers with postal deliveries. The two cannot and should not be compared because the Post Office has an obligation to collect an item anywhere in the United Kingdom and to deliver it anywhere in the United Kingdom, and it does so. It is seeking to improve deliveries, but it still delivers at a standard rate. That principle has been re-emphasised not only by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister but by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and we shall continue to do so.