Consideration of Lords amendments
Report on decision to dispose of shares in a Royal Mail company etc
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
I would like briefly to take hon. Members back to the Bill’s Third Reading in this House, when I marked the passing of the Bill into the capable hands of the other place by saying that the coalition Government’s decision to take on this difficult issue showed them at their strongest and most radical. As we welcome the Bill back, I would like to add to that and say that the Lords amendments before us today also show government at its most open-minded and collaborative, because they represent the constructive and collective efforts of both sides of the other place to improve and strengthen the Bill. The amendments in this group concern part 1 of the Bill and the provisions for the ownership of Royal Mail and the Post Office. I am clear that when it comes to undertaking a sale of shares in Royal Mail, the Government must have the flexibility to negotiate the right deal at the right time.
I know that hon. Members have been anxious to hear more about the next steps in our plans for Royal Mail, so with your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, and in the interests of transparency, I would like to set out briefly the next two crucial steps that need to be taken to secure the future of Royal Mail. As my noble Friend Baroness Wilcox said on Third Reading in the other place, the Government intend to take on Royal Mail’s historical pension deficit with effect from March 2012 as part of the preparations for the sale of the company. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate what a relief it will be to the 435,000 members of the Royal Mail pension plan to know that their accrued pension rights will be protected sooner rather than later.
The key concern of people up and down the country is that the universal service must be protected. To do that, Royal Mail needs to be on a sustainable commercial footing. The company currently has about £1.7 billion of debt facilities with the Government. We need to restructure the company’s balance sheet in due course, and in order to put Royal Mail on that sustainable commercial footing, we will need to reduce significantly that level of debt. Of course, we will need approval from the European Commission to provide this financial support, and we have already begun informal discussions with the Commission. The Government will submit a formal stated notification in the next few days, and I hope that the process will be completed by March 2012.
We will discuss amendments to part 3 of the Bill, which deal with the new regulatory regime, later on, but of course implementing that regime will be another crucial step towards securing the future of the universal service. I would like to assure hon. Members that the work to establish this is already under way. In particular, Ofcom, the new regulator, will launch a consultation in the autumn with a view to establishing the new regulatory framework in the spring of 2012. I hope that that update is helpful.
I begin my main remarks on this group of amendments by commending Opposition Members on pushing us on whether, given our commitment to transparent government, more could and should be done to offer more information to Parliament. Amendment 1 is a direct response to that. Clause 2 already commits the Government to report to Parliament when a decision to dispose of shares has been made. Amendment 1 adds three new requirements for that report: first, that it must include the objective for the sale; secondly, that it must include details of the expected commercial relationship between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd following the disposal of shares; and thirdly, that where the proposed disposal would result in shares being placed into the employee share scheme for the first time, the report must include details of that scheme. As I previously said to the Public Bill Committee, I will ensure that shares are placed in the employee share scheme from the time of the very first sale of shares in Royal Mail.
The second of the new requirements—to provide information on the expected commercial relationship between Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail after the sale of shares—will work together with amendment 9 to address a key concern that I know is held by many in the House. After much debate in the House and elsewhere, I can still see no reason why the strong commercial relationship between Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail should weaken after the two companies have been separated. More importantly, the senior management at Royal Mail has been clear that this relationship will continue. That is why the chairman of Royal Mail, Donald Brydon, felt able to say to the Bill Committee that prior to a sale of shares in Royal Mail, the two companies would put in place a new contract for the longest time legally permissible. I have gone on the record—and I am happy to do so again today—as saying that the Government, as sole shareholder, will ensure that the two companies fulfil this commitment.
The negotiation of that contract is, rightly, a commercial matter for the two companies, and not for the Government or this legislation. However, Lords amendment 1 will ensure that, prior to a sale of shares in Royal Mail, Parliament has a snapshot of the expected commercial relationship following the sale, and Lords amendment 9 would make it clear that the annual report on the post office network must include information every year on the postal services provided as part of that relationship. Lords amendment 10 is a technical amendment to clarify the enforcement powers that apply to the annual report on the post office network.
There can be no doubt that the future of this iconic British institution is of enormous interest to Members of this House and in the other place. I believe that a mutual Post Office is a radical and exciting proposal, and one that is supported by all parties. However, I acknowledge that our position—that mutualisation must be a bottom-up process that engages sub-postmasters, customers and management—means that we cannot be as explicit now about what that mutual will look like. Co-operatives UK has now published its report on the options for a mutual, and that report will form the basis for the Government’s full public consultation in due course. Until the conclusion of that process, the Government remain open to all views. We will not dictate the form that mutualisation will take.
To give both Houses more oversight of what an eventual Post Office mutual might look like, we have tabled Lords amendments 2 to 8, which would introduce the affirmative procedure to the powers to mutualise Post Office Ltd. Furthermore, those amendments would ensure that the report on mutualisation provided for under clause 5 must be laid prior to the vote, so that hon. Members have full and detailed information on the mutualisation plans before they debate and vote on them. Let me be clear, however, that the plans, as I have said before, will be developed from the bottom up and in full consultation with all of the Post Office’s major stakeholders.
The last amendment in this group—Lords amendment 11 —addresses an issue that I know is close to the hearts of many hon. Members. When my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary opened the debate on the Bill on Second Reading, he talked of this country being a pioneer of postal services in the 19th century. It is that proud and rich postal history that Lords amendment 11 seeks to protect, by requiring Royal Mail to report annually on its activities in relation to the British postal museum and archive. Having visited the British postal museum and archive, I can say that it provides a wonderful and fascinating record of our postal heritage, and is absolutely deserving of the protection that Lords amendment 11 seeks to provide. I would be quite keen to share with the House the benefit of my visit and some of the lessons that I learnt—for example, that the first post boxes were green, before moving to chocolate brown and then ending up one of the shades of red that we see across our country—but I am sure that you would bring me to order if I did, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In conclusion, the amendments in this group respond to a number of concerns raised in both this House and the other place. They seek to offer more information on the implications of the sale of shares, more parliamentary control over Post Office mutualisation and greater transparency of Royal Mail’s heritage activities. I believe that the objectives that they seek to achieve are truly cross-party objectives, so I would urge the House to agree to them.
It is indeed our intention to be a constructive Opposition and to welcome amendments that improve the Bill. However, even though we welcome some of the amendments this afternoon—particularly where they reflect to some degree the position that we have taken on aspects of the Bill—we remain totally opposed to the main purpose of the Bill, which is to sell off Royal Mail 100% to private enterprise. That is completely different from our proposal, which was to keep Royal Mail in majority public ownership. Selling off Royal Mail into 100% private ownership means that only through the regulatory regime will the Government and the taxpayers of this country have any influence on the service provided.
I shall take your advice on the matter, Madam Deputy Speaker; I believe that the hon. Lady should stick to the amendments on the Order Paper.
This first group of amendments concerns the sell-off of Royal Mail and the splitting up of the Royal Mail Group into a privately owned postal service and a publicly owned network of post office counters. It is against that background that we should consider Lords amendment 1, which requires that when the Secretary of State lays before Parliament a report on the disposal of a Royal Mail company, it should include
“information about the expected commercial relationship…between the Royal Mail company in question and any Post Office company”.
We genuinely welcome the inclusion of such information in the report, but no one should be under any illusion that this in any way constitutes an inter-business agreement between Royal Mail and the post office network. Hooper recommended in his report that there should be a long-term agreement between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, and the National Federation of SubPostmasters has asked for an IBA of a minimum of 10 years. We have repeatedly called on the Government, at all stages of the Bill, to include an inter-business agreement in the legislation, and have tabled amendments to that effect.
One third of Post Office Ltd’s revenue comes from Royal Mail. Without that revenue, Post Office Ltd would be unable to keep many post offices open. With the greatest of respect to Moya Greene, the current chief executive officer of Royal Mail, who has talked about a privatised Royal Mail continuing to use the post office network, it is no good simply having fine words. Those fine words need to be translated into a proper bankable contract—a proper agreement. Other countries manage to put agreements into their legislation, but the real difficulty in this case is an intense obstinacy on the part of the Government, who have set themselves against enshrining any protection for the post office network in legislation.
A profit-hungry privatised Royal Mail will be looking to cut costs and maximise profits. That could result in Royal Mail drawing up an agreement for part or even all of its services with providers other than the post office network, such as a supermarket chain or a high street store. A privatised Royal Mail may well wish to continue to have some sort of agreement with Post Office Ltd, but that agreement could be for a much reduced service from that which the Post Office currently provides. It could involve just a small proportion of the current network of Post Office branches. That could give rise to the surreal spectacle of some post offices being places where people could hand over their parcels or register their letters, with other post offices not offering postal services. It sounds a bit like a children’s riddle—“When is a post office not a post office?”—but it would be no joking matter for our post office network or for the public, who want easy access to postal services, if such services were available at only some of the current post office branches.
Any decision by a privatised Royal Mail to reduce the number of branches that it uses would have a catastrophic effect on the income of the post office network, and threaten the viability and very existence of any branches that Royal Mail chose not to use. It is therefore regrettable that the Government have refused to include a clause in the Bill requiring an inter-business agreement and that Lords amendment 1, which requires a report on such an agreement, is the nearest that they are prepared to get. The amendment does, nevertheless, mean that the report that the Secretary of State lays before Parliament must include some mention of the expected commercial relationship between Royal Mail company and any Post Office company, and for that reason we welcome it.
Let me turn to the part of Lords amendment 1 that deals with shares. We accept the principle of employee shares, and appreciate the benefits that such schemes can bring, but in this instance employees will need to know a lot more about exactly how any scheme would work. We have pressed for greater detail about the scheme, so we welcome the proposal in the amendment that a report be laid before Parliament setting out the detail of a proposed employee share scheme before the disposal of Royal Mail takes place. In Committee, we pointed out that the Bill as it stands requires employee shares to be offered only when the last Crown share in Royal Mail has been sold. We argued the case for a trigger that kicks in when the first shares are sold. The Minister for postal services has suggested that, despite the wording of the Bill, the Government would, in fact, make available some employee shares when the first disposal is made. I very much welcome his confirmation of that point today, so that employees will not have to wait until the last Crown share is sold before being able to apply for any employee shares.
There remain, however, a number of unanswered questions, on which I hope the Minister can give us some guidance today. Would shares be held on an equal basis, with equal voting rights for each shareholder and an equal distribution of dividends, or would some shareholders be more equal than others? In Committee, we made the case for more than 10% of the shares to be in the employee share scheme; we have suggested up to 20%. That case is backed by specialist bodies that gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee, including the Employee Ownership Association and ifs ProShare. Is there any chance that the Government might consider that?
We would also like greater certainty about the eligibility criteria. Who would be entitled to shares or share options, and what would that mean in practice? Would employees be able to act to influence the strategic direction of the company to some extent, albeit from a minority position? In particular, what is to prevent shares from going to employees one day and being sold within a year or two? We all know of previous examples of where that has happened, with shares being rapidly sold on to big institutions. What mechanisms are the Government considering to prevent that from happening? We hope to hear from the Minister the extent of the detail that the Government intend to report and how much time they will provide for Parliament to consider the report.
We welcome Lords amendments 2 to 8, which give Parliament increased control over the mutualisation of a Post Office company. The effect of amendments 2 to 4 would be to subject the disposal of the Crown’s interest in a Post Office company to a relevant mutual to the affirmative resolution procedure. That would require the Secretary of State to lay a draft order before Parliament and for it to be approved by both Houses before it could be made. Lords Amendments 5 to 8 require the Secretary of State to lay a report before Parliament before an order directing the issue or transfer of shares or share rights in a Post Office company to a relevant mutual is made. That is an improvement on the original requirement, which was to lay a report after any direction for the disposal of the Crown’s interest in a Post Office company to a relevant mutual had been made.
These amendments strengthen the opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise any proposals for the mutualisation of the Post Office. This is important because considerable challenges must be faced before any such mutualisation can take place. We welcome the work on mutualisation detailed in the recently produced report by Co-operatives UK, which includes information on various mutual options, and on the ownership and governance of a potential mutual, but we recognise that the real challenge is to make the post office network viable. For all the Government’s fine rhetoric, we are concerned about their failure to guarantee business for the post office network. For mutualisation to be a success, we need to see a serious, viable business plan for our post office network. We are fully aware of the Government’s plans to spend money on the network, but their accompanying document “Securing the post office network in the digital age” does not address the issue of how to generate new streams of business for the network.
Post office income can be divided into three main categories—Royal Mail business, Government business and other commercial business—and the Government have failed to provide guarantees of business in any of them. I have just explained how the lack of an inter-business agreement between a privatised Royal Mail and the post office network could result in the loss of all or a substantial part of Royal Mail business from the post office. As for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ claim to be making the Post Office a front office for Government business, that message does not seem to be getting across to other Government Departments.
For example, we have just seen the Department for Work and Pensions award the contract for benefit cheques, the so-called green giros, to a rival organisation. Apart from a couple of pilot projects, there has been little progress on the proposals for more Government business made in a letter from the National Federation of SubPostmasters to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions dated 23 September last year. At the moment, the post bank promised in the Liberal Democrat manifesto and mentioned in the coalition agreement looks like just another broken promise and missed opportunity, especially after Labour had laid the foundations for it before we left government. Nor is there any sign of any other substantial new commercial business for the post office network.
This complete failure to introduce new streams of business calls into question the wisdom of the way in which the £1.34 billion of taxpayers’ money allocated to the Post Office is being used, with the subsidy for running the Post Office and the provision of a few new counters seemingly accounting for the lion’s share of the funds. This also raises the question of what will happen when the subsidy runs out in 2015. The Government have stated that they wish to reduce their subsidy, but if there are no new streams of Government business to make the network more viable, the post office network will be in serious trouble. However, the fact that Lords amendments 2 to 8 improve the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny means that we will support them.
We welcome Lords amendments 9 and 10, which clarify that in the Post Office company’s annual report to the Secretary of State on the post office network, details of postal services provided under arrangements between a Post Office company and a universal service provider must be included. We welcome any amendments that improve clarity and increase the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny.
Lords amendment 11 would require Royal Mail to report annually to the Secretary of State on its activities in relation to the British Postal Museum collection and the Royal Mail archive. The proposal would also require the Secretary of State to lay the report before Parliament. In Committee, we sought amendments to ensure that the work of the British Postal Museum and Archive—the BPMA—would continue following the passage of the Bill, and that the heritage cared for by the curators of the museum would be protected. That protection needs to be strengthened, because the Bill moves us away from a situation in which one Government-owned company, Royal Mail, is clearly responsible for supporting and safeguarding our postal heritage, to one in which there will be at least two companies with different ownership models. There will also be the potential for a privatised Royal Mail company to be taken over, perhaps by foreign postal administrations or other companies with no interest in supporting Britain’s postal heritage.
I do not feel that the Lords amendment is as strong as the one that we originally proposed. Nevertheless, anything that we can do to protect our heritage is to be welcomed. The BPMA is the leading resource for British postal heritage. It cares for visual, physical and written records dating back more than 400 years, including stamps, poster design, photography, staff records and vehicles. The BPMA is the custodian of two internationally significant collections—the Royal Mail archive and the collection of the former national postal museum. Together, the museum and archive collections form a unique record of a national institution, and offer a fascinating perspective on the history of British society, design and industry. We want the strongest possible protection for the British Postal Museum collection and the Royal Mail archive, and although we were looking for stronger protection, we are of course pleased to lend our support to that amendment.
I welcome the Lords amendments that we are considering today. They are an indication of the way in which the Government and the Opposition can work together, because the Government have obviously listened to the constructive suggestions made by Members on both sides of the House. There is a great deal of consensus; I believe that the amendments went through the other place without a Division. That goes to show just how well things can work when everyone is minded to make that happen.
On the subject of shares going to employees, when I wrongly tried to intervene on the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), I was going to point out that it is not 100% of the company that is being sold off to private interests: it is actually 90%, and 10% will go to the employees. The benefits to those employees will be huge. The Bill recognises the importance of the work of the conscientious postman or woman who keeps the post coming through the letterbox six days a week, come rain or shine, and the importance of the work force to the success of the company. The proposals will offer real benefits to the employees.
I greatly welcome the fact that the pension plan members will be protected and that the subsuming of the pension plan is being brought forward. That will give tremendous reassurance to prospective pensioners in Royal Mail. Perhaps most importantly, and despite the disagreement of the Opposition, we are securing the future of the company. The worst thing would be for the Government to do nothing, which would allow Royal Mail to decline and fall. It is an unfortunate fact that, under the previous Government, 65,000 Royal Mail employees lost their jobs and 7,000 post offices were closed. The future of the post office network is now secure. I also greatly welcome the proposal for a vote before mutualisation. That will put in place important protections.
I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a few questions. Does he think that I have understated the benefits for employees? Can he think of any others? Can he give me an assurance that the universal service obligation will be properly protected? Has he had any discussions with representatives of the Communication Workers Union, and, if so, what do they think about the proposals?
It is important that, when we come to the House, we should reflect the feelings of our constituents. I should therefore like to tell two stories. First, just before Christmas, I visited the local postal sorting office at Sutton New road. I spoke to each of the excellent men and women there. They told me how they had worked there for 10, 15 or 20 years. Some had worked there for 25 years. They work in all weathers to provide an outstanding service to the people of north Birmingham. They felt bitter about what they regard as a betrayal of their loyal service to the country.
Secondly, I want to tell a story not so much about a local post office as about a local entrepreneur who wants to reopen a post office. We have in Perry Common a community well served by the Witton Lodge community association. That community has backed an individual who now runs the local grocery shop—it used to be a sub-post office—and he wants to reopen that post office. Through me, he has approached both the Post Office and the Government for support, only to have it declined. If I may, I will return to that matter at the conclusion of my remarks.
The Lords amendments focus on local post offices, among other things, and the evidence is clear that they are finding it increasingly hard to survive. By some estimates, only 4,000 of the UK’s 11,905 post offices are economically viable. Despite assurances from the Government that there will be no further programme of post office closures, the evidence shows that branches are closing every day of the week. More than 150 offices are closed on a long-term “temporary” basis and there is no guarantee that these will re-open; many are likely to stay closed indefinitely. As Consumer Focus stated in a press release,
“we have continued to see a dwindling in the overall number of branches.”
Nationwide, 900 post offices are up for sale. That is why the Post Office cannot afford to lose any more revenue. The post office network is already loss making and depends on an annual Government subsidy to remain afloat. In 2009-10, the Post Office made an operating loss of £80 million before Government subsidy and its financial position continues to weaken. Its target this year, excluding subsidy, is for a £120 million loss.
The Government have pushed through this unwelcome Bill, allowing the privatisation of Royal Mail with scant regard for the consequences for the post office network or the universal service of a six-day delivery at a uniform, affordable price across the whole of the UK. As the Labour Front-Bench team has made absolutely clear, we continue to oppose the wholesale privatisation of the Royal Mail. We called on the Government for a guarantee of an inter-business agreement between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd. The Government have refused to listen to that, including in these amendments, so they are abrogating their responsibilities to the post office network.
I have to say that Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs are quick to use the Post Office in their localities for their own political ends, but not as quick to stand up in this place for their local post offices in their time of need. I also have to say that the Government’s approach calls into question the logic of allocating £1.3 billion of taxpayers’ money for subsidy and refurbishment of post offices when the Government are not prepared to put a clause in the Bill to guarantee the future of Royal Mail business to the Post Office.
The Minister referred to history, and this remarkable institution of the Post Office certainly has a remarkable history. We have seen over the last 50 to 100 years how it has developed ground-breaking initiatives that make no profit but serve the community—ranging from free delivery of articles for the blind to answering letters written to Santa free of charge.
Returning to the issue of the Post Office—
I was just about to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, but like the Minister, I embarked on some historical anecdotes, as the Post Office is very proud of its history.
There is a simple inescapable reality, which is that the Post Office is dependent on Royal Mail’s business. A third of its revenue—£334 million—and a third of sub-postmasters’ pay—£240 million—is generated by selling Royal Mail products and services. The Bill does not safeguard on a continuing basis the inter-business agreement. The Government will not undertake to extend the current five-year guarantee to 10 years. Key stakeholders recognise the importance of making a longer commitment on the IBA. Let me cite what Consumer Focus said in its evidence to the other place:
“There are few safeguards to keep that contract for the long term. It’s entirely conceivable—though it seems an odd thing to suggest—but several years down the line you could have a post office network where you cannot undertake mail transactions. It would be for Royal Mail to determine which operator—whether it was Post Office Ltd or Tesco or whomever—to offer mail services and there would be no requirement for stamps or parcels.”
“You could see a scenario where Royal Mail looked to cherry pick so Tesco, say, could meet its requirements in urban areas and the Post Office would pick up the slack in rural areas where there isn’t anybody else. And that has very serious implications in terms of the viability and integrity of the network because urban areas typically make money.”
Consumer Focus went on to argue that the number of post offices could fall by 37% as a consequence of these measures—from the current level of 11,900 to the minimum number consistent with the Government’s access criteria of 7,500. In Birmingham alone, seven post offices face closure.
The National Federation of SubPostmasters has added its call to the need for action. It also argues for a minimum 10-year IBA. Let me quote what it says:
“The NFSP believes that in order to avoid further post office closures, existing levels of Royal Mail work at post offices must be maintained with a minimum 10 year IBA between the two companies following separation.”
The Government’s stance is clear, albeit sad. They have rejected a number of opportunities to make the commitments that have been called for.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the recommendation in the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs report that the Government should be doing more to remove the barriers to local post offices providing services in relation to devolved and local government?
To develop our post office network, it is necessary to be imaginative and creative. Sadly, we are moving in the opposite direction.
The Government’s stance could not be clearer. They have rejected a number of opportunities to make the commitment firm in this important legislation. They have declined to accept a statutory commitment, as exists in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, to a figure of 11,500. They have rejected the embedding in the Bill of the access criteria on how near people’s local post office will be. Post offices locally cannot live on warm words alone; good intentions and high hopes mean naught if we cannot have guarantees for the future.
Will the hon. Gentleman refresh my memory on how many new post offices were created under the Labour Government? Was there not a net decline, or managed decline, of the Post Office amounting to 7,000 post offices. Why does he decry the fact that this coalition Government are doing all they can to preserve and enhance the post office service that we have inherited?
Order. We are supposed to be discussing amendments that have come from the House of Lords and deal with commercial relationships, the interaction between various bodies and the issue of an employee share scheme. I would be grateful—no, I insist that Members stick to the amendments before us on these important issues.
In that case, I must regretfully resist the temptation to respond to the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), much as I should like to do so.
Let me make a point that goes to the heart of what you have just said, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have been given few assurances about the method by which Royal Mail may be sold in a way that guarantees value for money for the taxpayer, and we have no idea who its new owner might be. We have no assurance that employee shares will be held in trust and could not simply be sold on in a short period, which would defeat the objective of employee involvement. We do not know for sure that access pricing for Royal Mail competitors will be fair. An IBA should have been included in the Bill, on a continuing basis. What will happen to the post office network after 2015, when the comprehensive spending review money runs out but the Bill’s provisions do not, and when, sadly, we then embark on the path towards privatisation of Royal Mail?
Let me return to the two constituency stories that I related earlier. Few jobs in Britain have been immortalised in children’s books, but Postman Pat reflects the high regard that exists for the postmen and postwomen in Birmingham and Britain, and they feel badly let down by the Bill. Will the Minister accept my invitation to visit Perry Common and meet Tarnjhit Dhesi, members of the Witton Lodge community association, and representatives of local care homes and tenants’ organisations? Will he sit down and listen to the case that they have put for the reopening of their post office in a small high street that some entrepreneurs are trying to regenerate, at the heart of which is an admirable man who wants to provide a service for the community?
That man said this to me: “Jack, I don’t understand why I read all these stories about the commitment to the post office network. The post office here closed a couple of years ago. We want to reopen, but the door has been shut in our faces.” Will the Minister translate his commitment to local post offices into action by coming to hear the voice of local people who want a local post office?
Following the speech by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), I wish to raise a few points relating to the inter-business agreement and the post office network.
The network should be under some obligation to adapt itself to the framework established by the Government. The creation of the post office local format, which allows limited services to be provided through other retail businesses, is an example of that at work. The location in his constituency that the hon. Gentleman cited may well be the type of location in which the post office can adapt its service to conform with the local retail environment and, in doing so, begin to thrive. I also agree with the Government that mutualisation should be partly a bottom-up process and not entirely driven from the top.
At the end of last year, I met in my constituency representatives of Action with Communities in Rural Kent. Unfortunately, the Bill had already completed its passage through the House of Commons. That organisation does excellent work, with some public support. When a post office closes—not as a result of any decision by the Government or a Minister, but because the person who owned the business has either passed on or retired—the organisation actively seeks a new location for it. In the village where I live, a post office moved from stand-alone premises to the local pub. The mutualisation for which the Bill provides can support such work, and should be welcomed.
The Post Office’s own initiatives in developing the post office local format can support the trend as well. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Government’s financial guarantee will expire in 2015. The Post Office should be using the intervening period to establish how it can adapt its activity to ensure that its business platform is as sustainable as possible in the future.
The inter-business agreement is a two-way street. In terms of access for British consumers, the post office network is unrivalled by any other retail business. Its footprint is much larger than those of all the supermarket chains put together, and it is very unlikely that Royal Mail could find another commercial provider which could match that. The IBA provides the possibility of an interesting two-way negotiation between the Post Office and Royal Mail. To what extent would Royal Mail like the Post Office to offer mail services from competing companies when it is given the freedom to do so? There is also the possibility that Royal Mail could establish a better relationship with the post office network. The Bill provides the opportunity for a more equal relationship than that which, at present, is skewed in Royal Mail’s favour.
There is much to be welcomed in the Bill from a business point of view. The Post Office should see it as an opportunity to embrace mutualisation and a different type of relationship with Royal Mail which will enable it to provide a better service for its customers.
I have expressed opposition to post office closures for 10 years in the House, and my view is unchanged. My colleagues and I do not think that the Post Office should be privatised, but the Bill is going through. I would laugh if it were not so sad to hear Labour Members slagging off the Government, given the number of post offices that their party closed, but I had better confine my remarks to the amendments so that you do not call me to order, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Although I welcome Lords amendment 1 to an extent because it would improve the report, it does not provide a guarantee of business. That remains a difficulty: there is considerable uncertainty in local post offices about future business, and I fear that many more will close if it is not dealt with. Many are closing now, not just because of the Post Office side of the business but because of the general state of the economy. At the risk of opening up another front of argument between the two sides, I will cite Ferryden in my constituency. During the closure programme it was agreed that Ferryden’s post office was needed, but the post office was in the local shop, which recently closed. The reason was not to do with the post office itself—and I appreciate that it is not within the Government’s immediate control—but the fact that the small shop, the last in the village, was considered to be no longer economic. When the shop went, the post office went as well.
The same difficulty exists in rural areas throughout the country. With respect to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), post offices will not take up the slack in rural areas, because they are closing there as well. It is a simple case of economics. It is unlikely that the Ferryden post office will go to another business, because it does not exist. The chances are that it will end up as an outreach programme and a restricted service to the village. The important thing is to try to keep some postal services in that village. I should have preferred an inter-business agreement that provided certainty about the future level of business. I appreciate the difficulties, but the continued uncertainty does not help.
My main point about the Lords amendment relates to new section (3A)(b), which concerns the proposed share scheme. I wanted to raise the issue at an earlier stage, but unfortunately we ran out of time. The amendment states that when shares are sold for the first time, details of the employee share scheme will be given. However, we do not know what the structure of the scheme will be. Clause 3(2) states that when the Crown no longer owns any part of Royal Mail, the share held by or on behalf of the employee share scheme must be at least 10%. I know that the Minister said that on the first sale of shares the share scheme details would be given, but the 10% is vitally important, because the Bill otherwise allows the sale of 90% of the company to one other entity, such as another postal operator. Leaving aside the argument put by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) on behalf of the Opposition about whether 10% is an appropriate figure, the choice of this level does present a potential difficulty, depending on how the shareholding is held. In Committee, the Minister was pressed on whether the shareholding would be held in a trust for the benefit of the employees—the so-called John Lewis model—or whether it would be given in individual shares to the workers. We did not receive an answer to that question.
The hon. Lady has taken her chances by asking that question, but it goes beyond the scope of the amendments before us. The Post Office is very important to rural areas of Scotland, and I will merely note that the Scottish Government have done much more than the UK Government to help rural post offices in the future—such as through the diversification and rates rebate schemes. That illustrates what we would do in an independent Scotland.
To return to the point I was making before being led down this interesting side road, the lack of detail about the structure presents a dilemma because, depending on what method is chosen, there could be unintended consequences in the future. If the John Lewis method is pursued, there may well be no problem, in that it will be a trust holding and will, in all likelihood, be held at or above the 10% level. However, if the shares are distributed to individual employees, we could have a very different scenario. Experience of previous privatisations suggests that a number of employees would immediately sell their shareholdings, and others would be likely to sell at some future date, either when they retire or, perhaps, by their executors on death. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; they would be their shares so they can dispose of them as they see fit. Such actions could, however, have a serious consequence for the continuation of a workers’ shareholding within the company, because of the operation of our current company law, and especially as Ministers have made it absolutely clear that they would be relaxed about Royal Mail being bought either by one of the major foreign postal operators or by private equity companies up to the remaining 90% figure.
I remind the House that in cases where private equity companies have bought listed companies, they have on occasion de-listed the company and operated it as a private company. I particularly draw Members’ attention to the terms of section 429 of the Companies Act 1985, which gives provision in respect of implementation of the EU directive on takeover bids. One of the purposes of the directive was to deal with the problems of, and for, residual minority shareholders following a successful takeover bid, processes known as “squeeze out” and “sell out”. The provisions in question provide that following a takeover offer:
“If the offeror has, by virtue of acceptances of the offer, acquired or unconditionally contracted to acquire—
(a) not less than nine-tenths in value of the shares to which the offer relates, and
(b) in a case where the shares to which the offer relates are voting shares, not less than nine-tenths of the voting rights carried by those shares,
he may give notice to the holder of any shares to which the offer relates which the offeror has not acquired or unconditionally contracted to acquire that he desires to acquire those shares.”
In effect, therefore, anyone who acquires 90% of the shareholding in a company can force the sale of the shares of the remaining small shareholders and become sole owner of the company. If the Government were to sell 90% of Royal Mail to, say, Deutsche Post, there could clearly be a potential difficulty in regard to the workers’ shareholding in the future if that is held individually by Post Office workers. If at any time the individual shares held by the work force were to fall below 10%, there is the potential for the owner of the remaining 90% to force a sale and therefore wipe out the shareholdings of the workers.
I am sure the Minister will, in his usual inimitable manner, tell me that I am constructing a theoretical problem that would not occur in the real world, but I wanted to propose an amendment on this point because of a real case of this kind involving constituents of mine. My constituents, who are pensioners, were shareholders in Dana Petroleum, and had been for a large number of years. The company was not paying dividends, but the shareholding did increase in value and my constituents regarded it as a nest egg for the future. Unfortunately, Dana Petroleum was subject to a hostile takeover by the Korean National Oil Corporation, which I believe is state-owned—I believe it is part of a sovereign wealth fund. That company purchased the majority of shares, although my constituents did not wish to accept its offer. The new owners decided to de-list the company, with the effect that my constituents were forced to sell their shareholdings, in their case causing a capital gains tax liability.
Unless the Government give us details of the form the shareholding will take, there is a genuine danger that we could face that situation within Royal Mail in the future. If the Minister will stand up and say, “It will be the John Lewis model; it will be a share trust of at least 10% of the shares for all the employees in the company”, I do not think there will be a problem. Alternatively, however, we might go down the same road as with previous utility sales, where individual shares were given to the workers and that shareholding within the companies has been reduced over the years. It is interesting to note that many of the former utilities are now offering special deals to get small shareholders to sell out their remaining shares because they do not want the small shareholders. Although this idea of worker participation is a good one, I would rather the company was not privatised. If that does happen, however, the bigger the workers’ shareholding within it, the better, and the shareholders would, it is to be hoped, have real rights.
As there is a lack of detail on this point, there is a danger that we will end up with nothing for the workers and the company wholly in the hands of one, possibly foreign, postal service or private equity company. The recent experience of private equity companies buying out limited companies is not a good one; we need only look at the current problems with Southern Cross to see that. I ask the Minister to reflect on this issue, and give us an assurance on it, or at least more information as to how the shareholding is to be held.
I am aware that you have asked us to focus on the amendments, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I intend to do just that. I want to focus my comments on Lords amendment 9 to clause 11, referring in particular to the universal service provider. While some level of provision is given, I am not entirely convinced that we will have a better service. That is my opinion, and it is informed by the views of the people I represent, because they are telling me the same thing. It is being said not only by Post Office personnel, and among them it is stated by both those who own post offices—postmistresses and postmasters—and the Postman Pats of this world who do the hard graft out on the streets. Some Members have spoken about the business plan that post offices need in order to make them sustainable. Can the Minister convince me and other Members—and, through the Hansard report of the debate, convince my constituents—that the service will continue to deliver in the large rural community I represent that stretches from Portaferry to Ballynahinch?
For many of my constituents, post offices are a crucial part of their community. They are the front office of government. I am unconvinced that the revenues of sub-post offices will not decline, and that could lead to some of them closing. We need the Minister to respond to that point.
Some Members have spoken about the continuity of contracts beyond five years, and that is essential. The postmistresses and postmasters of the rural post offices in the areas I represent have told me that they are under absolutely no illusion about how things will progress, and I say on behalf of them that we need to ensure that they have such continuity.
Under the new law, the universal service for six days a week with one price sending post anywhere could be downgraded in just four years, and it is feared that the everyday post office user will experience price hikes and have to pay for the privatisation. The unions have pointed out the possible consequences of privatisation in respect of postal services, and I look forward to hearing the Minister comment on that point. This has already happened in the Netherlands and Germany, where the rural service has been reduced to three days a week, and the costs have risen.
We might find examples where what is being proposed here has not worked out elsewhere, so what lessons have the Government taken to ensure that the same does not happen in this process?
I am keen and anxious to discover whether the Government have taken full account of the views of sub-postmasters. I understand that some 92% of them have said that they feel that the Post Office is “very unlikely” or “unlikely” to survive without the mail business provided by Royal Mail. As so many people are saying that, it would be unwise of the Government to ignore it.
As we all know the statistics on this, I do not intend to go into them. What consideration have the Government given to the crucial role of post offices in the community? I believe that we all agree that our post offices are more than just post offices; they are a social meeting point for a great many people. I know that that does not come into the economics of a post office, but it must be part of the process in deciding which post offices can remain open. Finance will be the driver in that, but post offices provide an opportunity for people to mix and mingle and the staff have clear contacts with the people in the community. Most of the hon. Members who are going to speak today will probably speak from a rural community background. The National Consumer Council has shown that the Post Office was thought to be more accessible than banks, and we cannot ignore that. When we decide what is going to happen with the Post Office today and what could happen in five or 10 years’ time, we have to ensure that we will get things right. Only 4% of villages have a bank, whereas 60% of them have a post office, so we should ask communities such as mine about this. It would be remiss of me not to make that point in the House today and not to ask the Government to tell us exactly what assurances we will be given. It is the essentials provided on a week-to-week basis that the banks do not do, because they are not in these places but the post offices are.
What consideration has been given to the view of businesses in rural communities that are near to the post offices? They say that some 15% of their revenue is created in the post offices, so has full consideration been given to that? What assurance do we have that that will continue to happen in the post offices? The fact that the service provision is universal is a crucial factor in what happens and what we take forward.
I raise the following point because I was asked it by the Royal National Institute of Blind People and other hon. Members have alluded to it. If closures go ahead, they will hit the blind and partially sighted particularly hard, leaving them even more socially and financially excluded than they have ever been before. They will no longer be able to use their local post office to help with the mountain of forms pushed on them by civil servants.
So the role of the post offices in rural communities and in urban centres is a crucial factor in terms of how people can respond to any changes that will take place. Worryingly, as I said in my introduction—I will say it again and I look forward to hearing the response—I do not believe that the Government have convinced the general public that the changes that are coming are changes for the better. I am not convinced of that, neither are the people who speak to me, the postmasters and postmistresses, or Royal Mail staff. Most importantly, the general public, who we have a duty and responsibility to look after, are not convinced of it either.
Despite all these amendments, which have been won by clear arguments put by Labour Members in the House of Lords and the Cross Benchers who supported them, I am still concerned about having a Bill that is fit for purpose.
Lords amendment 1 provides a new requirement that the report made by the Secretary of State will make clear the
“objective intended to be achieved”
by the disposal of shares in Royal Mail. I have followed this issue very closely so I know that everything else falls on that. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am the secretary of the Communication Workers Union liaison group of MPs in this House and have been so for more than a decade. Despite all the Minister’s warm words, it is not clear what this is meant to achieve that can be achievable under this privatisation model as structured.
Does the “objective intended” include maintaining Royal Mail as an organisation able to deliver to all parts of the UK for a single charge or two varying charges? The Bill and the amendments provide no guarantees that that is the case. Will that be covered in the report given each year by the Secretary of State to the House in order to show just how far the failure has been progressed, and how far my concerns and those of other Opposition Members have been realised? If we were to fragment Royal Mail—it is entirely possible that that will happen as there is nothing to prevent it under the Government’s privatisation model—a Scottish regional mail delivery service could be given responsibility for meeting that objective under this model. That provider might then find that that particular part of the United Kingdom—the same could happen in places such as Cornwall and elsewhere in the south-west—the sparsity of the population and the diversity of the communities mean that it is not possible to make a profit. This process is about a privatisation and about giving organisations the right to run Royal Mail as an organisation that must make a profit. The Bill would allow them to come back to ask the Secretary of State to allow them to get rid of that universal service obligation.
Order. We are not discussing the entire Bill. We are having a time-limited debate about specific amendments. The Minister knows that as well as every other Member of this House, so I am sure that he does not want to tempt the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) down that path. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can focus specifically on these amendments so that the Minister will not be troubled.
I was talking about the amendments; the new requirement in Lords amendment 1 is that the report must include the
“objective intended to be achieved”
by the disposal of shares. That is a specific Lords amendment and I am questioning what will be put before the House as a result. Will it be a report on the progress of fragmentation and of these parts in trying to achieve the Minister’s stated aim for his sale of these shares?
The Minister has spoken repeatedly about finding some way of saving the post office network. I know that great steps have been made on the Bill through the amendments won by the diligent efforts of Labour Members and Cross Benchers in the Lords. There will be some sort of inter-business agreement and it will be extended. I know that the Minister is not trying to pull the wool over our eyes, because he is telling us about his aspirations. However, when I hear him talk, I am unsure what his benchmarks for achievement under these amendments will be if it turns out that his idea of having a full network of post offices and post office “locals” does not work, the “locals” fade away and—I believe this will happen—we begin to lose post offices at a faster rate than would have happened under the previous Government’s plans to stop the flood by taking out a number of post offices and hoping to leave enough business for those that remained.
I did not agree with that approach, but I recognised what the previous Government were trying to do. I do not understand how the Secretary of State will report on these matters as a result of these amendments. If the report were honest, it might suggest that we have to do something different. I want the Minister to tell us what he feels his duties now are as a result of these amendments or what he feels the duties will be of whoever succeeds him, should there ever be a change of Minister. I do not wish such a change upon him, because he deserves to come back to apologise for everything he is now bringing about.
Is this about return to the Exchequer? Let us look at the attempts of previous Governments to sell shares and at the way in which they sold those shares. The sale of the first tranche of British Telecom shares achieved a 90% profit in one day for those who bought them, because it was an attempt to get quick money into the Exchequer—or was it just to get British Telecom into the private sector? If it was to get money into the Exchequer, the then Government appear to have greatly short-changed themselves and the country. A better example, also in telecoms, is provided by the sale of level 3 broadband, in which we made a substantial profit for the Exchequer because of the way in which we auctioned it off, although that did not please people in the industry.
I would like the Minister to tell us how these things are going to work. Will the judgment be based on return to the Exchequer? I know that the Government will, if they get their way, want to balance that against their willingness to take on any deficit in the pension fund that comes with taking on the pension assets. These matters have to be clearly spelt out by the Secretary of State so that people can judge what he is going to do in the Bill. That is what is accepted in the amendment. People want more clarity because we have not been given a clear understanding of the benchmarks and targets that the Government hope to achieve. We have had warm words and aspirations, but given the backdrop—the person who has given those assurances has previously given assurances that they were against full privatisation of the Post Office—we would like to see something a bit more solid on the ground. Perhaps the Minister could say something about what the intentions are.
The amendment also asks for more information about the purpose and structure of the mutualisation. It has been suggested to the Government that it might be useful to set up a task force immediately, but I do not think they have taken that idea up. The idea is to give share options to the members of a work force who have seen 55,000 of their members thrown out the door already and who have heard from the chief executive in the past few days that another 40,000 are about to go behind them, so there is hardly going to be an atmosphere in which anything can be done mutually unless a lot of hard work is done.
I agree with the points made my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) about the hard work and dedication of long-term Post Office employees. We know that people go and work there in the short term and realise that it is a difficult job with unbelievably hard hours and that they often have to work in the most inclement weather to get the mail through. However, many of the people who have been there for a long time want the company to succeed and want its work force to be secured and modernised. A task force would be useful, and it would be useful if the Minister would spell out exactly what will be the benchmark for mutualisation so that the amendments have some value when they are in the Bill.
The proposal is for the mutualisation not of Royal Mail but of Post Office Ltd, so the average postie does not come into this. They are the ones who will be subject to whoever takes over. Mutualisation will apply only to Post Office Ltd after it is demerged from Royal Mail some time in the future.
That is even more frightening. People at that end of the business are facing the same problems from the same management. If the management model has changed, I would like to think that the Minister would put that forward.
Those are my concerns about the amendments, which have been hard won and which came with a promise from the Government that there would be real changes that would make a difference to the Bill. I wonder therefore whether the Minister, if he speaks on this again, will give some idea of what is going on to give us an infrastructure for these matters.
My final point is about the sale of shares to employees. The record is exactly as the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) said. Shares are slowly but surely bought up by large organisations. The famous case is the one with Sid and the idea that Sid had some power, but Sid’s shares are probably now owned by several multinational hedge funds or equity funds or perhaps by insurance companies or a pension fund or two. There is this idea that members of the work force will get shares that will give them some sense of ownership, and I remember the first debates in which this was talked about by Ministers. This is one of the myths that the Liberals like to push—that if someone is given a few shares, that will make them a part of the ownership of the business. It does not do that unless those shares come with some powers. As we have seen from many of the banks’ recent annual general meetings, even having large amounts of shares does not give one any power over bonuses, performance or the behaviour of the people who run the companies. What will come with the deal apart from a few stocks and shares that will be stuck in the bank until they are sold to fund a holiday?
I only wish that that were true. I assure the hon. Lady that although small shareholders can go along and make a protest and trumpet what they have to say, the bonuses, the sale of companies and the redundancies will still be voted through regardless of small the shareholders’ shouting. I am not in the business of standing on the fringe and shouting. I would much prefer the Bill to be rejected out of hand. I am against the privatisation of Royal Mail and I believe that the pension fund deficit was caused by the holidays taken by Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, which were allowed by previous Governments of both hues. I would rather be standing here opposing what the Government are about to do to Royal Mail because I think that all the assurances we have been given, hard-won though they are, will not make a difference.
Capitalism will work as capitalism works and will do what is to the advantage of the people who hold the majority of the shares for the bottom line of their dividends. That will mean that people will lose their jobs and the Post Office will not be sustained using Royal Mail, which will not continue to provide a universal service at one price. The amendments will have to come with a lot more specific targets, which I do not see in the Bill or in any of the schedules to the Bill. Although I welcome the smaller amendments that have been made in this part of the Bill, I do not believe they will make a major difference to the outcome for Royal Mail or Post Office Ltd.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) finished where the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) started—in total opposition to the Bill. I have to tell the Opposition that they are ignoring the economic and financial reality of Royal Mail. As a result of the reduction in letter volumes because of technology such as e-mail, the internet, text messaging and social networking, it is losing a huge amount of money. The reduction in letter volumes—its core business—is predicted to fall again and again, but it is not only Royal Mail that is affected. Every postal administration around the world is seeing letter volumes and revenues go down. That means that those administrations are leaching money and something has to be done. The previous Government failed to do anything, although I should pay tribute to Lord Mandelson, who had the decency, on Second Reading in the other place, to recognise that we were on the right track with this Bill. The fact that Labour Front Benchers are unable to recognise that today is testament to Labour’s unwillingness to face up to the reality of the challenges.
I am sorry to stray away from the amendment, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think it needs to be put on the record that our Bill, as it stood as Lord Mandelson was taking it through the other place, would clearly have kept Royal Mail in majority public ownership. That was written into the Bill, but it is not in the current Bill. We are talking about a totally different Bill that goes for 100% privatisation. They are two completely different scenarios and the amendments in the Bill arise largely from some of the situations created by that difference.
Perhaps we could return to the amendments. We are debating the Lords amendments to the Bill—this is not Third Reading. The Minister is experienced and knows that. He has made his opening remarks. Will he answer the debate please?
I am looking forward to doing that, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Llanelli welcomed Lords amendment 1 but felt that it did not go far enough. Despite all the arguments we have had in this place, she still believes that an inter-business agreement should be in the Bill, as do a number of her party’s members.
I do not wish to rehearse the long speeches that were made on Report, when our debate on this particular point lasted for about three hours, but let me repeat that putting provisions in the Bill in the way in which the hon. Lady suggests would create a significant risk of legal challenge owing to incompatibility with competition law. In addition, such an approach would almost certainly face a state aid challenge. I would have thought that she would have realised that, because it has been accepted by many who have examined the situation in detail.
The hon. Lady says that the absence of such provisions means that there is no protection for post offices, but the whole point is that the detail set out in our policy statement will enable them to be more profitable. It is real business that will save the post office network, not legal provisions in the Bill, so I disagree with her point.
The hon. Lady spent some time talking about employee shares. The Lords amendments will require the Secretary of State’s report to Parliament at the time of first sale of shares to include details about the employee share scheme. I would have thought that she would have supported that welcome development.
We would certainly want to report on such things as the terms by which shares would transfer to the employee share scheme and the design of the scheme. Such detail might include questions of whether there would be a trust model or individual shares, or a mixture of the two. There would also be consideration of the percentages to be transferred and the governance arrangements.
The hon. Lady asked how the shares will be allocated, but clearly that is a point for later discussion. Such a point might be addressed in the report. We can imagine allocating shares to employees on many bases, such as length of service, grade and salary. The Government would certainly not object to a proposal that shares and their benefits should be allocated evenly across employees to ensure that there is equal entitlement regardless of grade, salary or length of service. We have been clear that the scheme is for all employees of Royal Mail, not just the management, so I hope that people will not run away with the wrong idea.
Several Opposition Members asked what would stop employees selling shares immediately. Again, we are not making premature decisions about the scheme’s design, but we have always said, as I have repeated several times, that we are designing the scheme with longevity in mind—there are many attractions to a trust model for that very reason. However, it is not true that individual employees’ shares are always sold off by those employees. People arguing that point try to pray in aid the BT example, but the Public Bill Committee heard evidence that 66% of BT employees held on to their shares after the share plan had matured, so there is longevity in share ownership, even with the individual model. A lot of myths are cited by those who oppose employee share ownership, which was no doubt why the Labour party did not include employee shares in its 2009 Bill.
I listened carefully to that interesting point in the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and the way in which he eloquently described the situation and referred to the Companies Act 2006 showed that we need to ensure that we design the scheme carefully. We will do so, because we want to deliver on employee share ownership, which is an objective of the Liberal Democrats, the coalition Government and the Bill.
The hon. Member for Llanelli was generally supportive of the proposals on mutualisation, but she spent a lot of time—do tell me if I stray out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker—saying that Government front-office services had not been delivered. We are turning around the decline under which the previous Administration took away more than £300 million of Government services from post offices. Our policy statement and the things that we are delivering show that there is a real future for the front office of government.
The hon. Lady is right—and we have been clear about this—that the network must be viable before going to mutualisation. The problem is that we inherited a post office network that was so badly managed that we had to turn it round. She asks for specific details, but she knows that several were set out in our November policy statement. She ought to know that the National Federation of SubPostmasters welcomed the start of the pilot scheme offering document verification for pension applications in 106 post offices in the north-east. She should also know that that is only the first of three planned pilots with the Department for Work and Pensions; the other two involve national insurance applications and testing the impact of requiring jobseekers who sign on by post to attend their local post office instead. I would have thought that she would have welcomed such pilots.
I expressed my disappointment that Post Office Ltd did not win that contract from the Department for Work and Pensions, but I have described three pilots on which the DWP is working with Post Office Ltd. I could also have talked about the proposals on credit unions that we hope will go forward, or the fact that Post Office Ltd has won a contract with the London boroughs so that local authority staff can have an authentication service at the local post office. If that scheme develops, it might have applications throughout the country. Such developments have been welcomed by the National Federation of SubPostmasters, but of course we want to go further, which is why we are so pleased to have persuaded the Royal Bank of Scotland to enable its customers to access their bank accounts through the post office network, which we believe will start to happen from September. I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome such developments.
If such developments arrive in the future they will be welcome, but will the Minister return to the point about the green giro? Do we have joined-up government? This was an opportunity to boost the Post Office, so why did the Government not do something about it? Surely the Minister, as a Liberal, will not just blame European regulations.
I certainly would not—but when Labour Members make such points they really have a cheek, because their Government removed more than £300 million of Government services from the post office network. We are working hard across the Government to ensure that we can position Post Office Ltd in a place from which it can win contracts from Government Departments in Whitehall and local authorities to deliver the front office of government. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a huge amount of work is being done on this, and he needs to be a little patient.
The problem is that when we came into government and developed the strategy, the cupboard was bare because the previous Government had done almost nothing. They had allowed the post office network and the process for developing new business to wither on the vine because they were so busy closing 7,000 post offices. I have to tell Opposition Members that the tender for the green giro began under the previous Government, so they really ought to be careful. We have had to deal with the tender that Labour Ministers wrote.
The Minister will no doubt want to read the piece of paper that has just arrived in front of him, but perhaps I should read him what the National Federation of SubPostmasters actually said:
“The government’s decision not to award the new contract for benefit cheques to the Post Office does not bode well.”
It seems to me that competence in the Government is not as high as he—
I agree that we should focus on the long-term viability of the post office network. I recently attended the annual conference of the National Federation of SubPostmasters in Torbay, where we discussed the sorts of thing we are proposing and they were able to look at the new machines that Post Office Ltd is developing to position itself to win Government contracts, such as the application, enrolment and identity machine, which is already being used for contracts from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. They already have a portable one, which could be used across the network, and a number of other machines. The sub-postmasters were absolutely delighted. I wish that Opposition Members who have spoken today had been there, because the sub-postmasters showed greater confidence in the future of their post offices and their businesses than they do.
I will respond to some of the comments made by other hon. Members who have spoken. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) for her comments. She mentioned the benefits to employees that will result from the proposals on employee shares set out in the amendments, and she mentioned pensions, which we will come to later. She specifically asked what discussions we have had with the Communication Workers Union on some of the amendments. It is interesting that on 13 April the CWU issued a press release in which it said that it welcomed the amendments to the Bill. Its general secretary, Mr Billy Hayes, said:
“We warmly welcome these amendments…We are pleased that Government has taken on board some of our concerns”.
I have met the CWU, and it has noticed the progress that we have made.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) complained that post offices in his constituency would close as a result of the amendments, but I hope that he tells his constituents that four post offices closed in his constituency under the previous Government. All Members across the House will have discussed post office closures with many people in many communities. What we are offering in these amendments and in the Bill is hope that the Post Office will not see a repeat of those closure programmes, which have devastated so many people.
The hon. Gentleman asked what would happen after the spending review. The modernisation that the Bill and the amendments will enable us to undertake with the £1.34 billion will allow us to go further and continue the transformation. I believe that what we have with the funding package and the proposals is a radical change, but one that will lead to a sustainable network. He knows, because I wrote to him on 9 February, that the post office in Perry Common closed under the previous Government. Reopening it would lead to business migrating away from nearby offices at College road and Hawthorn road, which could jeopardise all three offices, which I am sure is not what he wants.
The Minister speaks of hope, and the same word was used when the Bill was launched. Seven post offices in Birmingham now face closure, one of which is in the Yardley constituency of a Liberal Democrat Member. Will the Minister agree to meet the community of Perry Common, which has signed a 1,000-strong petition asking for the reopening of a flexible post office in their locality? Earlier this week another Minister went to Perry Common and held it up as an excellent example of a community that has rebuilt its environment. It now wants to rebuild its high street, and it wants a sub-post office on it. Will the Minister meet the community and Mr Tarnjhit Dhesi, who is driving that proposal?
I say to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that they should look at the economics of the post office network in the area, because there are other post offices nearby, and talk with Post Office Ltd about the “locals” model that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) mentioned.
The “locals” model holds real prospects for dealing with some of the post office network’s cost problems, and for helping to revive shops on our high streets by bringing them and post offices together. In our pilots, not only have postal operators liked the model that we are developing, but so have post office customers and local communities. Having seen the evidence, some communities that were sceptical have been delighted by the service quality that Post Office “locals” have delivered. That is the future, and my hon. Friend was quite right to turn to it.
I am sorry to press the point, but my local community has looked at the pilots, is inspired by the prospect of flexible provision and wants to engage, but it has had the door closed in its face. Ministers say that they are offering hope and are prepared to listen, so will the Minister meet a delegation from Perry Common and Mr Dhesi?
The reason why I am not agreeing to the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation is that, under legislation that has been on the statute books for many years, and based on the practice of the previous Government, Post Office Ltd decides where Post Office “locals” open, so if that is his request he needs to address it to Post Office Ltd managers.
There have been Post Office “locals” pilots in all parts of the country. We are up to 80 local schemes, and Post Office Ltd has tried to pilot them in urban, rural, suburban and urban-deprived areas. It is trying to test them out over time, taking account of seasonality and cash flow, so we are learning an awful lot of lessons from them. The recent analysis of the “locals” project by Consumer Focus is publicly available, and although it has some concerns about privacy it was able to show that on issues such as access, longer opening hours and reduced queues, people have found the projects to be a beneficial step forward.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that he was concerned about the universal service obligation and worried that the Bill would undermine it. Far from it: one of the Bill’s main objectives is to secure the universal service, and Opposition Members have failed to realise that clause 30 includes stronger protections for the universal service than was previously the case.
The hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) made a very informed speech. He was a distinguished member of the Public Bill Committee, who failed to attend only on the few occasions when the weather prevented him from flying down to London, but in looking at the amendments before us I have to say that he has made the mistake of calling for guaranteed business for the post office network and, almost, of wanting to keep things in aspic.
On the train down to the annual meeting of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, I read the federation’s account of its 100-year history, which mentions the concerns that existed when telegrams were being phased out, and when postal orders were used. In other words, the business and services that have gone through our post office network have changed hugely, and we have had to develop them and move on, so setting things in aspic—putting things in the Bill, as some Members want—would not help.
With respect to the Minister, this is not about setting things in aspic. The problem is that there is a great deal of uncertainty, because Royal Mail is up for privatisation, the link between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd now relies on the good will of whoever runs Royal Mail, and with no guarantee of business it is difficult for those trying to sell post offices to find people to take them on, as they are uncertain of what business there will be in one or two years’ time.
We are in danger of going over old ground. The hon. Gentleman will know, because we have had this debate many times, that it is my view that post offices are in a very strong position in this negotiation, because the idea that Royal Mail is going to absent itself from the post office network and allow its competitors to go in there is, frankly, nonsense. As for the particular issue that he has been raising with Post Office Ltd—the closure of Ferryden post office—he will know that that closed not because of any action of the Government or Post Office Ltd but following the resignation of the sub-postmaster. Post Office Ltd is looking at all available options to keep that service in his constituency open.
If the Minister reads my remarks, he will see that that is what I said. I understand that the closure at Ferryden is not the Government’s responsibility. I have been in touch with the Post Office and it is trying to get an alternative, but it looks as though it will be an outreach service rather than anything else. That is a reduction in service to that community.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be engaging in that debate with Post Office Ltd.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) asked, in the context of the report, what objectives we have for Royal Mail and the Post Office. We have made it very clear that securing the universal service obligation is our top objective. Getting a good deal for Royal Mail and for the taxpayer is essential. There is no objective of fragmenting Royal Mail as he described. When he suggested that employee shares were not a good thing for employees, I began to despair. The only correct thing that he said was that employee share ownership—ownership of the company in which one is working—needs to be combined with involvement in worker participation.
We should look at what is happening in Royal Mail at the moment. Someone who goes to sorting offices such as Gatwick, Greenford or Cardiff, as I have done, sees a world-class mail system and the rolling out of a programme of modernisation that involves the workers directly and has as one of its key objectives the health and safety of those workers. Sorting offices are being made not only more productive but safer. There is great employee involvement. If we link that with employee share ownership, this business will have a real future. I hope that the House will welcome this group of amendments from the other place, and give them its approval.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 11 agreed to.
Restriction on power to transfer assets
The amendments in this group are either minor or technical—or, indeed, both. However, they make some important improvements to the Bill that I hope all hon. Members will feel able to support.
Lords amendments 12 to 14 concern the pensions provisions. Lords amendment 12 is, I must confess, not the easiest technical amendment that hon. Members will have had the pleasure of scrutinising, but I will attempt to explain it as clearly as possible. The amendment concerns the transfer of assets from the Royal Mail pension plan—RMPP—to the Government and is designed to deal with the fact that we expect the assets to transfer in two tranches. An estimated amount of the assets will transfer when Government takes on the historical liabilities of the RMPP. However, there will be a time lag between this point and the point when the necessary actuarial valuations are finalised. We will need a second transfer to take place when the scheme valuation has been completed: a corrective, or “mop-up”, transfer. The amendment ensures that this two-stage transfer is possible and that any adjustments applied to the second transfer are disregarded so that the funding level test to protect RMPP funding levels works as intended. This funding level test, assessed at the effective date of the transfers, should not be affected by any market movement in the assets that transfer later.
In supporting Lords amendment 12, I would like to be clear on one broader point. The Bill provides a safeguard in clause 21 so that the ratio of assets to liabilities in the RMPP must be no worse after assets transfer to the Government than before. However, we intend to go beyond that minimum and leave the RMPP fully funded after transfer, subject to state aid approval.
Lords amendment 13 will put in place a legal framework for the sharing of information between the new public scheme, the trustees of the Royal Mail pension plan and relevant employers. In her evidence to the Public Bill Committee, the chair of the Royal Mail pension plan trustees, Jane Newell, stressed the importance of ensuring a seamless service for pension plan members who will find themselves with accrued rights in two schemes, rather than one. That is exactly what Lords amendment 13 seeks to do. It will, for example, facilitate the provision to members of a single benefit statement, rather than two.
Lords amendment 14, which is the final amendment to the pensions provisions, will simply allow secondary legislation made under the pensions provisions to be commenced on a day specified by the Secretary of State through a commencement order. That might be necessary to synchronise the various elements of the pensions solution.
Lords amendments 23 and 27 will give effect to the recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place. The Government listen carefully to the views of that wise and respected Committee, as is reflected by the fact that we have accepted the two recommendations of its report on the Bill.
Lords amendment 23 concerns the appeals regime in part 3. Clause 58 allows the Secretary of State to apply, with or without modifications, certain provisions of the Enterprise Act 2002 to appeals made under the Bill. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee recommended that the provision be modified to prevent it from being broad enough to allow increases in civil or criminal penalties beyond the levels set out in the Enterprise Act 2002. Lords amendment 23 will do just that.
The second recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee concerns the Secretary of State’s power to amend Ofcom’s universal postal service order in a special administration scenario. Although the Committee accepted the need for that power and recognised that it would apply only in very limited circumstances, it recommended that the power be subject to the negative procedure. Lords amendment 27 will give effect to that recommendation.
Lords amendment 24 simply clarifies that directions made by the Secretary of State under part 3 must be in writing, and may be varied or revoked by a further direction. Lords amendment 26 will remove a reference to that procedure in clause 60 as it will be superseded by Lords amendment 24.
Finally, Lords amendment 28 is a consequence of this year’s referendum on the powers of the Welsh Assembly. The Bill sought to make a consequential amendment to schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act 2006. However, the yes vote in the referendum resulted in that schedule ceasing to have effect. Lords amendment 28 simply deletes what is now a redundant reference in the Bill.
As I said, the amendments are technical and perhaps not of the most interest to the House. However, I hope hon. Members agree that they represent small but important improvements to the Bill and feel able to support them.
This is a group of technical amendments. We all want legislation to be as clear, precise and effective as possible. We will therefore support them.
Lords amendments 12 to 14 will form an important part of the Bill. The transfer of the Royal Mail pension plan and the fact that the Government will take responsibility for it are aspects of the Bill with which all parties agree. Any amendments that offer further clarity and security in respect of the handling of workers’ hard-earned pensions are to be welcomed. We had a thorough discussion of the pensions issues in Committee, so I simply reiterate our support for those amendments. I also confirm our support for Lords amendments 24 and 26.
Lords amendments 23 and 27 give effect to recommendations of the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Lords amendment 27 strengthens parliamentary scrutiny by introducing the negative resolution procedure into the Secretary of State’s power to amend the universal service order in a special administration scenario. As it strengthens the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny, we shall support it.
Lords amendment 28 is purely technical and has been made to reflect the new situation with regard to Wales, following the result of the referendum held on 3 March in which the people of Wales voted yes to additional powers for the Welsh Assembly Government. We campaigned for and welcomed that referendum result, as it will help to streamline procedures, cut out wasteful duplication and ensure that the Assembly has the appropriate legislative powers in the areas for which it already has spending responsibility. We accept the clear need for the amendment and will support it.
As has been made clear at every possible opportunity, the Government are absolutely committed to the long-term security of the universal postal service. As Royal Mail is the provider of that universal service, and the only possible provider of it for the foreseeable future, its viability is clearly of huge importance to achieving that goal. The Lords amendments to the regulatory provisions of the Bill respond to points raised in both Houses and by Members of all parties, and will help to ensure that the Bill meets our primary objective of securing the universal service.
Lords amendment 17, on Ofcom’s duties, will ensure that Royal Mail has the opportunity to earn a reasonable commercial rate of return on all expenditure incurred in providing the universal postal service, and on any regulated access services in so far as they make use of the universal postal service network. Although it is obviously not within the gift of the regulator to determine precisely what returns Royal Mail can make—that should depend on the market and the company’s performance—it is essential that the regulatory framework should provide incentives for Royal Mail to be successful and make the necessary efficiency improvements, and allow for good performance to be rewarded without regulation eroding the effect of increased efficiency. The amendment will ensure just that.
Lords amendments 16 and 18 further amend Ofcom’s duties, to specify that the requirement for efficiency should apply
“before the end of a reasonable period”,
to give Royal Mail time to continue its vital modernisation. That is an important change. Clearly, the delivery of the universal postal service needs to become more efficient, and neither those amendments nor the ones to which I have already spoken will undermine that. However, we do think that it is important to give Royal Mail a reasonable period of time in which to modernise and achieve efficiency.
As part of that ongoing modernisation, Royal Mail will need to invest in new machinery and technology. Before making long-term investments, boards and shareholders look for certainty. Lords amendment 22 will give Royal Mail certainty that for a significant length of time—10 years—it will be able to remain the universal service provider throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. As previously drafted, the Bill could have given rise to doubts about the certainty of Royal Mail’s designation as the universal service provider in the short to medium term, as it effectively provided for a three-year moratorium period before there could be a procurement determination. Although it was not the Government’s intention, the risk of Royal Mail losing part or all of its designation after three years via a procurement determination could clearly have discouraged the company from making otherwise rational and important long-term investments in its infrastructure. That is why Lords amendment 22 gives Royal Mail a 10-year period of certainty.
However, although we need Royal Mail to have that certainty, we also need to keep up the pressure on it to press ahead with modernisation. We must recognise that the threat of a compensation fund means increased uncertainty for its competitors. It is therefore not unreasonable to seek to delay the possible introduction of a compensation fund until necessary modernisation has taken place.
We have looked again at the moratorium period before Ofcom can initiate an unfair burden review and concluded that a period of five years is appropriate. Lords amendment 21 gives effect to that.
During the passage of the Bill, many hon. Members have raised concerns about the prospect of other operators cherry-picking profitable elements of Royal Mail’s delivery business and, as a result, putting the security of the universal service at risk. The Government have reflected on those concerns, and during the Bill’s passage through the other place engaged in constructive discussion with Opposition Front Benchers there, as well as with Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union.
Although we are confident that Ofcom has the necessary tools to ensure fair and effective competition in the market, it is our belief that on occasion it will need to build in greater time to inform its use of those tools. Lords amendments 15, 20 and 25 address that by giving Ofcom the power to require operators to pre-notify them of the planned commencement or expansion of a letters business on a specified scale. We have left the precise scale for later definition—it will depend on the market at the time—but our clear intention is that that should apply only to a significant letter delivery operation that could have a damaging impact on the provision of the universal service. That notification mechanism will ensure that Ofcom has the necessary time to evaluate the potential impact on the universal service of such an operation before the operation has commenced and, critically, before any potential damage has been done to the security of the universal service.
I stress that the notification condition is aimed at avoiding damaging cherry-picking that would put in jeopardy the long-term security of the universal service. As such, our clear view is that the condition should apply only to those operators seeking to commence or expand a significant letter delivery service, but it will not impose any additional burden on, for example, current access competitors, courier services or parcel delivery businesses.
Finally, Lords amendment 19 addresses concerns, which were again raised in both Houses, about access to postal services. The central concern of hon. Members who have raised this issue is how we can ensure that people right across the country and from all walks of life continue to have access to the high standard of postal service on which they depend. The Bill already specifies that Ofcom’s duties include ensuring that there is provision of sufficient access points to meet the reasonable needs of users. In determining those, Ofcom will conduct thorough research and analysis, and consult users to take their views into account. Importantly—this was often misunderstood in our previous debates—Ofcom will also be bound by its broader duties, as set out in the Communications Act 2003, to have regard to, among other things, the needs of persons with disabilities, the elderly, those on low incomes and those living in rural areas.
I am confident that that will mean that Ofcom’s requirements on the distribution of access points across the country will ensure that all users can continue to post their letters, packets and parcels in a convenient way. However, although we are clear that the reasonable needs of users is the right test, it is conceivable that in some cases the Government will wish to apply different considerations. For example, the Government may have wider public policy objectives to consider, perhaps in relation to rural policy or small business support.
Such broader public policy goals are rightly a matter for the Government and not for an independent sector regulator. Therefore, amendment 19 allows the Secretary of State to step in and require Ofcom to ensure sufficient access points throughout the United Kingdom to meet the interests of the public. That is not a power that we would ever expect to use—its inclusion simply serves as a fail-safe to address the legitimate, albeit unlikely, concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by colleagues in the other place.
I hope that this package of regulatory amendments demonstrates that we have listened to the concerns of hon. Members and those in the other place. The amendments constitute a real strengthening of protection for the universal service—an objective that I believe all hon. Members share—and as such, I hope they are warmly welcomed.
Lords amendment 17 requires that, when having regard to the requirement for a postal service to be financially viable, Ofcom should include the need for a reasonable commercial rate of return for the universal postal service. We argued this very determinedly in Committee. The provision of the universal postal service constitutes a considerable financial burden and we have seen how, in recent times, the opening up of opportunities for competitors to come in and cherry-pick some invitingly profitable parts of the postal delivery service, leaving Royal Mail to provide the universal postal service, has led to some considerable controversy about the price charged for the final mile. Royal Mail feels that the price set by Postcomm is too low, while the competitor providers would quite naturally always want the price kept as low as possible.
We welcome the fact that—as is made clear elsewhere in the Bill—Royal Mail will continue to be the provider for 10 years after privatisation, not just three. This will provide some much needed stability for the service and make it worth Royal Mail investing sufficiently in the necessary infrastructure. But crucial to the success and stability of the service is the need for the postal service to be financially viable. It would be immensely disruptive and damaging if a privatised Royal Mail got into difficulties and had to be bailed out. That is one reason it is essential that the regulator, Ofcom, should understand the need for a reasonable commercial rate of return for the universal postal service and make its judgements and interventions accordingly. This is common sense, so we shall support this amendment.
Lords amendments 16 and 18 provide clarity that the requirement for efficiency would apply after a reasonable amount of time and provide a definition of that reasonable period as a period beginning on the day that the provisions of the Bill come into force and which Ofcom considers to be reasonable. These amendments also help to improve the Bill and we shall support them.
Lords amendment 19 is an extremely important amendment. In Committee, we tried very hard to persuade the Government to amend the Bill to ensure that the post office network was used to provide the network of access points, and we were very disappointed that the Minister chose to turn down the opportunity to show any real commitment to the post office network and refused to accept our amendment on using the post office network to provide the access points to the postal service.
This Lords amendment does not safeguard the post office network. It does, however, provide some protection for the public, and some reassurance that the Secretary of State may direct Ofcom to take action to ensure that sufficient access points are provided to meet the interests of the public. It is not, however, anything like as specific or forceful as we would have liked. It does not specify, as legislation in some other countries does, the number of access points or their geographical distribution. This is done elsewhere either by specifying a precise number of outlets, as in the German model, or by insisting on specific access criteria, as in the Australian model.
This amendment is much more subjective and leaves it as a matter of opinion for the Secretary of State to decide what is meant by sufficient access points to meet the interests of the public. Will the Minister clarify the thinking behind this, and specify the number of access points? We understand that the access criteria, as laid down in the document “Securing the post office network in a digital age”, could be met by a network of some 7,000 or 8,000 post offices. When we were in government we put in money to keep open a network of 11,900 post offices, and the present Government are doing likewise. What number of access points is the Secretary of State likely to designate as sufficient to meet the interests of the public? Will it be as many as the current network of post offices, or will it be fewer? If it is the latter, some post offices could cease to be access points for postal services and not only would they lose the third of their income that comes from the Royal Mail work that they do but they would stand to lose a lot more income, as they would lose footfall.
Access points would not, of course, have to be post offices. We have already seen some very adverse public reaction when post offices have been moved into the upstairs of some high street chains, making them difficult to find and time-consuming to access. Will the Minister clarify the number of access points he envisages meeting the interests of the public, and whether the Secretary of State might also have criteria for the accessibility of access points so that we do not end up with access points that are hard to access?
Access points does not just mean counter services, but can also include post boxes. Will the Minister give us any indication of what number of post boxes the Secretary of State would consider sufficient to meet the interests of the public? Would it be the same number as now, or are we likely to see post boxes removed or boarded up? I say that as someone who has only recently had to fight for Royal Mail to restore a post box at Brynteg in my constituency, and I can well envisage that a profit-hungry privatised Royal Mail would look to reduce the number of post boxes in order to cut down on collection costs. That could mean people losing their local post box and no longer having one within walking distance of their homes. We welcome the amendment because it could improve the chances of a better service to the public, but we would have liked a much stronger amendment to give a stronger guarantee of a comprehensive network of access points.
We welcome Lords amendment 20 and the consequential amendments 15 and 25, because they enable Ofcom to impose a notification condition on any person providing, or intending to provide, a service within the scope of the universal postal service. Again, this is important for the rational management of the universal postal service, and we should support it. Lords amendment 21 makes a significant change to Ofcom’s review of the costs of the universal service obligation. Whereas previously the Bill specified that Ofcom would have to wait three years from when the Bill came into force before it could carry out a review of the costs of the universal service obligation, the amendment increases the period to five years, unless the Secretary of State intervenes and directs Ofcom to carry out a review. We have not sought amendment 21. Will the Minister clarify under what circumstances the Secretary of State might intervene before the five-year period is up?
On Lords amendment 22, we have consistently pointed out that the universal service provider incurs very large costs and needs to have as much certainty as possible about its future obligations so that it can plan long term and make the necessary investment in the latest technology. We therefore welcome the amendment, which means that Royal Mail will continue to be the universal service provider for the next 10 years, rather than just the next three years. This is a significant improvement. We know that significant modernisation has taken place within Royal Mail over the past few years. In the evidence sessions, the chief executive, Moya Greene, expressed her pride and delight in the world-class facilities that Royal Mail has in some of its depots, but she also pointed out that there are still areas awaiting modernisation. If Royal Mail is to continue to invest, the certainty of knowing that it will remain the provider of the universal service for the next 10 years will provide a much better basis for doing so than a mere three years. This is very important to create the necessary stability and justify the necessary investment. We therefore welcome the amendment.
This final string of amendments is another testimony to how the Government have listened to colleagues on both sides of the House. I greatly welcome a number of the amendments, particularly those that make the duties of Ofcom stronger than under Postcomm. I want to ask the Minister about amendment 19, which specifies that the Secretary of State can override the regulator on access points. We need to be wary about setting up an independent body but saying, “Never mind, the Secretary of State can override it”. We want to be sure that that could be done only to the benefit of the consumer. Bringing politics into the matter concerns me a little, so will my hon. Friend confirm that he cannot envisage any circumstances in which the Secretary of State could intervene, perhaps to specify that we do not need as many access points as now?
I particularly welcome amendment 17. Royal Mail has found it difficult to make a profit given the constraints under which it has had to work. The previous situation was impossible, so I am delighted with the amendment. We had to address the appalling decline in profitability, which was due to the ceiling imposed by the previous Government, who were unwise in their overzealous interpretation of the European legislation. If we can do it now, why could we not have created a more competitive environment for Royal Mail in the past? No one can make a profit with one hand tied behind their back. I particularly welcome Lords amendment 22, which guarantees that Royal Mail will remain a USP for 10 years, thereby removing any lurking uncertainty, which is particularly helpful.
Finally, Lords amendments 20, 15 and 25 require pre-notification to Ofcom of the planned commencement or expansion of a letters business on a specified scale. That will allow Ofcom to evaluate the potential impact beforehand, not after the stable door is opened and the horse has bolted. I wonder whether the Minister could say a little more about the circumstances in which he would envisage the provisions applying. Opposition Members have rightly raised the spectre of lots of other organisations wanting to come in and expand their letter delivery services, so how will the provisions work to ensure that Royal Mail’s commercial interests remain viable?
I would like to press the Minister on Lords amendments 16 to 19, to clause 28. He has rightly spoken of the need for Royal Mail to continue to modernise, and I hope to give a simple example of why this is so important.
The House will recall the severe snow that affected large parts of Scotland last winter, including West Fife in my constituency. Fife was particularly badly hit because of the incompetence of Fife council, which failed to clear the roads and keep traffic moving. That had a huge knock-on effect for Royal Mail. If residents are stuck in villages or large parts of Dunfermline and cannot get out, it would quite obviously be unreasonable to expect Royal Mail to be able to deliver a regular service, because for genuine health and safety reasons it is vital that posties are not exposed to unnecessary risk. However, Royal Mail failed to provide a robust contingency programme to deal with the huge backlog that quickly built up.
It will probably not surprise the House to know that mid-December is a particularly busy time for Royal Mail, as there is a substantial increase in the volume of packages and cards. Unfortunately, business continues in the build-up to Christmas for many of my constituents. I was approached by a number of small businesses and local law firms that were waiting desperately for important documents—in some cases legal documents—and that were simply unable to get them delivered by Royal Mail. Many of my constituents showed some initiative and went to the Dunfermline sorting office to see whether they could simply collect their post. However, Royal Mail had no plan in place even to allow local businesses or my constituents to do so, which is a sign of poor planning by Royal Mail management. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what discussions he has had with Royal Mail about that lack of strategic or, some might argue, tactical thinking, which should be happening at the local and regional levels.
The backlog was such that many of my constituents did not receive the parcels and cards that friends and relatives had sent them until the middle of January, which is clearly a most unsatisfactory circumstance. To be fair, after I met Royal Mail in the build-up to the new year, it took a number of steps, including putting on Sunday deliveries, drafting in additional staff from other sorting offices and putting on extra deliveries. But, with the best will in the world, I hope that the Minister will agree that it should not have been necessary for us to reach a state of chaos before Royal Mail took proactive steps to tackle the problem.
I would be grateful if the Minister outlined the specific issues he has raised with Royal Mail relating to the modernisation of its procedures. Has he discussed how its policies might become more robust? Has it given him any indication of whether it has learned the lessons, not only from Fife but from across Scotland, in time for next winter? I fear that we might otherwise face a rather challenging set of conditions.
I should like to echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). This is a listening Government who are seeking to improve legislation at all stages and in every way, and that is evident from the Lords amendments before us today.
I should like to speak particularly to Lords amendments 17, 20 and 22. They represent a significant shift in the terms offered to Royal Mail, to the advantage of the Royal Mail group. In Committee and again today, we have heard justified praise for the present management of the group. Moya Greene is an exceptional leader of the group and she is bringing her depth of experience to the provision of Royal Mail services in the United Kingdom. It was not always thus, however. The group has at times had a poverty of good management. Indeed, its management has at times been weak. Many times during our discussions of the Bill, we have recognised that the people who best knew how to run the Royal Mail group were the postal workers themselves and their representatives in the Communication Workers Union. The amendments demonstrate our faith that the management and the unions will use the new advantages to the best effect and in the long-term interest of the people who use Royal Mail services.
We are extending for 10 years Royal Mail’s ability to be the sole universal service provider. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, that is a sensible and welcome change, because it will enable difficult investment decisions to be made with more certainty about market conditions. We are also providing that, after five years, the other operators will be able to receive a charge for any inefficiencies or burdens resulting from universal service provisions not being made. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that sufficient incentives will exist for the management of the Royal Mail group to continue to make the improvements that he rightly identifies as necessary over the next five years. Perhaps he will also be able to update the House and give us assurances on progress with the unions in relation to these advantages.
These measures demonstrate that we are placing additional trust in responsible management and responsible unions in our Royal Mail group. We are making significant changes in the Bill, to the benefit of the people who work for the postal service. They will move it forward, and they represent a welcome step. However, we shall require the recent excellence in the provision of services to continue. We do not want to have to look back in five years’ time and say, “We gave you those chances, but you didn’t take the necessary steps to modernise. Now we are going to have to burden other people because you didn’t take up all the advantages that we provided.” These are good amendments, and I fully support them.
The hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) referred to the trade unions in a way that sounded as though he did not accept the hard work they have done over the past decade and a half to try to get a good relationship with the management. The amendments were driven by the work of the Communication Workers Union, working alongside the Labour Lords and reasonable people on the Cross Benches, and they have now been taken up by the Government. Only one of the amendments before us today did not come through the debates in the Lords as a result of the work with the CWU. The unions have always been responsible. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, over the decade in which I have been the secretary of the CWU parliamentary liaison group, the management have been horrendous in the running of Royal Mail and the Post Office.
I appreciate the opportunity to reassure the hon. Gentleman that he must have misheard what I said. I said precisely what he has just said—that the people who have provided leadership in the Royal Mail group and who have provided a consistency of belief in the ethos of public service provision have been the workers themselves, and that they have been let down by the management over a number of years. I said that the CWU, with the business agreement it put in place, showed that it had learned that it needed to be constructive and positive, and that it provided great leadership. My hope was that, with Moya Greene in place, we have a solid partnership of management, workers and the unions that can move forward. The hon. Gentleman was not always present in Committee; if he had been, he would have heard more clearly that I am strong supporter of the CWU. I am glad to have the opportunity to clarify that.
I am grateful, and I am glad that we have a solid platform on which to continue the debate.
It is remarkable that not just myself, but not a single Labour member of the CWU parliamentary liaison group, which worked together with the CWU and the Post Office, was asked to participate in the Committee considering this Bill. I might ask the Minister some detailed questions that he could have answered before if I had been granted access to his knowledge and aspirations in Committee. That position will have to be explained by the business managers—not by me, as it has never been explained to me.
I wish to focus on amendments 21 and 22. Let me provide some background. The 10-year period in amendment 22 for the universal service provider—currently, Royal Mail—is welcome, but the phrasing of the provision amounts to a get-out clause. Lords amendment 22, as it says in the explanatory notes,
“would prevent Ofcom from making a procurement determination within 10 years from the day that Part 3 of the Bill comes into force, unless the universal service provider agrees.”
Thus we have a privatised Royal Mail with a universal service obligation; it has all the burdens, which are not going to be shared properly with others in the business. Others have already cherry-picked much of the provision—TNT, to name just one, and many others come through our door, delivered in the last mailbag by Royal Mail employees. As far as I can see, none of the burden is going to be shared with Royal Mail for providing that universal service; it all falls on the universal service provider.
By using deductive logic, people can see that the privatisation of the universal service provider, Royal Mail, should not be continued. We would like Ofcom to look at splitting up the obligation and sharing some of the burden by allowing some other regional post office or mail provider to come in and take on some of it. It is possible that in a privatised scenario, the interests of Royal Mail—at the moment, the public service provider—will not be the same. As I say, there is a get-out clause.
Clause 33(5) will permit the Secretary of State to amend the minimum requirements of the universal service postal provision in clause 30—a mail service for six days a week, provided at an affordable and uniform price throughout the UK. Under clause 33(7), an affirmative resolution is required before the Secretary of State can make amendments, but a coalition Government with a majority can easily achieve that. This is predicated on good will, in a sense. On a more negative view, we see these provisions as being nothing but wallpaper for public consumption, which will not help us to face up to the financial problems of a privatised Royal Mail operating in a privatised environment. In that context, it might not be sustainable.
I am concerned when the amendments can be interpreted in two different ways. I have not had the benefit of interrogating the Minister in Committee, of hearing the Committee debates or of participating in the debates in the House of Lords that led to these amendments being brought forward.
Lords amendment 21 increases the three-year period in clause 42—which provides for Ofcom to review the extent to which the universal service provider is bearing a financial burden—to five years. If that extension is such a good thing, why is this a Government amendment? Why was it not tabled, here or in the House of Lords, on behalf of the work force, via the Communication Workers Union? What is the reason for the extension?
The provision of a universal service is one of the great burdens on Royal Mail. Delivering post in parts of the constituency of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) or a constituency in Somerset is much more burdensome than delivering it within the square mile of the City of London. The last Government, who allowed commercialisation, were immediately accused of allowing some companies to cherry-pick the deliveries. That is why TNT made so much money: it is much more interested in cities and large conurbations than in the universal service obligation, which covers all the sparsely populated and difficult parts of the country. The capital and work force required by the universal service provider cannot be utilised at its optimum level because of the unevenness of the urban density and geography of the country. Some areas are more profitable than others, but the burden of delivery must still be carried.
Clause 43 provides for the regulator to consider mechanisms for a burden-sharing arrangement if Ofcom finds that such a burden exists. I welcome that proposal. Ofcom could take three possible courses. It could review the minimum requirements of the universal service under clause 33, which means downgrading the service. The Minister said earlier that that was not one of the Government’s aims. There could be an industry or users’ levy, which has been hotly resisted by the privatised cherry-picking companies which have made a killing from the commercialisation of Royal Mail delivery in the past decade. There could be a “procurement determination”, allowing the universal service provider’s obligation to be changed under clause 43. No one knows what course Ofcom will choose, but we do know that if there is to be any logic and justice in a levy across the industry to help with universal service provision, the Lords amendment will not allow it to happen for five years.
This is a negative amendment. It leaves Royal Mail with a burden that it cannot shift, cannot share with others, and cannot ask Ofcom to share with others for five rather than three years. Perhaps the Government want that to happen. If that is what they are up to, let them tell us. I know that the extension to five years has been welcomed by those who are currently making a nice killing by cherry-picking certain kinds of mail, but a real problem will face whoever bears the universal service obligation under privatisation. No subsidies will be offered; the provider will have to stand on its own two feet and make a profit. It will have to seek a change.
The extension to 10 years proposed in Lords amendment 22 is all right as long as the procurement trigger is not used by the universal service provider, but I think that the two proposals are heading in the same direction. Following privatisation, there will be pressure on the universal service provider—currently Royal Mail—to offload some of its universal service obligation. It could do that by means of a change in the number of deliveries. There have already been some changes: there is now only one delivery per day, and letters are not collected from mail boxes between lunchtime on Saturday and 5 pm on Monday. All those adjustments were made under the pressure of commercialisation, but there will be other pressures.
What worries me particularly is the possibility that regions to which a provider does not want to deliver will be offloaded on to another provider. That provider will then go to the Secretary of State or Ofcom and say, “We cannot make a profit on this.” My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) was asking about this point earlier. The provider will say, “It is not viable, so we want to be able to change the arrangement either by cutting the number of deliveries or pick-ups or by altering the price of the delivery.”
All those options are available under these amendments. It may not be the intention but if it is the intention, the Minister and those who drafted the amendments are being Machiavellian in their approach to Royal Mail. I do not think they are Machiavellian, however. Frankly, I do not believe they are sufficiently smart; I think they are just blundering along, putting together groups of clauses and amendments that will have unintended consequences.
I am worried because the Bill, with these amendments, is deeply flawed. There are even flaws in the amendments that we are welcoming now. We are providing for 10-year terms, but it is still possible to get out of that by going to Ofcom and saying, “We can’t make it. We can’t cut the mustard here. We can’t make a profit. Either we give up as a universal service provider and sell out the lot, or you let us break up the franchise.” I think that is what will happen. I have serious reservations, therefore.
Also, why does the Minister want to extend the time period for Ofcom to be able to review the situation from three years to five years, under amendment 21? Is it to protect those who at present do not want to pay a levy, or to stop the burden sharing being properly looked at, or is it because he wants to save the minimum requirements of the service order? We are not sure. Will he address those concerns to give me the confidence so that I do not choose to press amendment 21 to a Division?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) for her general welcome for many of our amendments. I began my remarks by saying that a degree of consensus had emerged in the other place.
The hon. Lady spent most of her time talking about access points and amendment 19. We must be clear about what an access point is. It comes from the directive; the definition of an access point and the requirement to provide them flow from the universal postal service directive, and we then define it in this Bill. It would be wrong for us to state that it could only ever be post offices, and to enshrine that in the Bill, because, for instance, some rural communities might need access points in a form that the post office network is unable to provide. I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that it is therefore important to have some flexibility.
The hon. Lady was concerned about some post offices not being accessible, and gave the example that some of them might be upstairs. In addressing the access points issue, Ofcom will be required to look at the needs of users, and its obligations, under the Communications Act 2003, are much stronger than those of Postcomm, and they include taking account of the needs of disabled people. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Lady will understand that the accessibility requirements have been improved. On access points more generally, the hon. Lady did not give the Government credit for the fact that in the—signed and legally binding—agreement we have reached with Post Office Ltd providing the £1.34 billion, Post Office Ltd has to secure a network of at least 11,500 post offices. That is the clearest and strongest way to ensure that the network is delivered.
The hon. Lady had some concerns about amendment 21, and asked why the Secretary of State would intervene before the five years was up. It is sensible to maintain the Secretary of State’s ability to intervene and direct Ofcom to conduct an unfair burden review. That measure adds some flexibility to the Bill. If all the evidence pointed towards there being a need for an unfair burden review, a process to allow a review to be conducted would clearly be beneficial. We wanted that extra flexibility in the Bill.
I am not against the idea of Ministers intervening, because it is very important to have that opportunity for a review. I was just wondering whether there were any particular circumstances in which the Secretary of State might be proactive, because of the damage that could be caused if the review was left for five years rather than three. I am all for the Secretary of State having that additional power, but are there any circumstances that would precipitate an instant review?
We need to have flexibility in the legislation to ensure that if the circumstances are so bad for Royal Mail because technology is having a worse effect than we had expected on its letter flows, we can still provide the universal service. That is what this Bill is about. This extra flexibility ensures that if an unforeseen circumstance arises requiring an unfair burden review before the five years is up, that flexibility is in place. I am glad that the hon. Lady welcomes that.
I was grateful for the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who acknowledged that these amendments show that the Government have listened. She was concerned that amendment 19 would give the Secretary of State an override. May I assure her that we think it very unlikely that the power would be used? We need to make it clear that the first step is for Ofcom to assess the needs of users, and it will consult the public. We would not expect to use the power, and it is highly unlikely that we would interpret the “interests of the public” as being less important than the “needs of the public”. The words in the amendment should reassure her. The amendment is intended as a broader test to capture elements that the “needs of the public” do not, and that Ofcom is not allowed to consider. I hope that she will be reassured by that.
My hon. Friend also asked about the notification scheme. I assure her that it is designed to enable Ofcom to act to prevent harmful cherry-picking, which would damage the universal service. Again, this is another tightening up of part 3 and the regulations, to ensure that we can deliver the universal service through this Bill.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) talked about what happened in his constituency following the bad weather just before Christmas, and asked me whether I talked to Royal Mail about it. Of course I regularly meet the management of Royal Mail, and they are committed to providing an excellent service. I think we all accept that the conditions last winter were exceptional and did create lots of problems. Royal Mail took exceptional measures to try to deal with them, including investing £20 million of extra resources to ensure that deliveries could be maintained. Although the details of Royal Mail’s operations are, of course, a matter for Royal Mail, it is worth pointing out that in areas of Scotland, including his constituency, the private companies had much greater problems in delivering. Royal Mail acted strongly, made the investment and was able to deliver. As the universal service provider, it showed its strength.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I would love to speculate on such a matter, but Madam Deputy Speaker has made it very clear that she would not wish us to do so. All I can suggest to the hon. Gentleman is that he might wish to debate that later with the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) in order to get an answer to his question. He should not believe everything he hears.
Let me take the Minister back to the point about some of the other providers, such as City Link, which he is absolutely right to say did not provide any service at all. That affected quite a lot of packages; for example, Amazon uses a non-Royal Mail provider. Will he give a cast-iron guarantee that if one of those companies tried to become the USP, it would be expected to make the same provision as Royal Mail does, and that we would not get the kind of cowboy operations that handle some deliveries now?
That is the whole point of the Bill’s ensuring that the universal provision is there for us. It will be maintained, because the regulator, Ofcom, will ensure that the universal service provider meets the minimum requirements, including on performance. If a company took over the management of Royal Mail and became the USP, it would be subject to that very tough regulatory regime.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) rightly praised the management of Royal Mail, led by the chairman Donald Brydon and the chief executive Moya Greene, who have made a real difference in their time at the helm; the Government have huge confidence in them. My hon. Friend asked what the incentives for management were. Having met the chairman and chief executive and having attended a board meeting recently, I assure him that its management is really seized of the need to modernise Royal Mail. Look at the way in which we have set the regime up: the Bill makes it clear that Ofcom must, when regulating, have regard to the need for the USP to become, and to remain, efficient, so there will be a regulatory framework to bear down on management—but there also are other incentives for management. He was right to make that point.
My hon. Friend also asked about the role of the unions. Royal Mail’s management and I have engaged very constructively with the Communication Workers Union, and I have already welcomed its very strong support for the amendments we are discussing today, which it recognises as strengthening the protection of the universal service that its members provide. There are, however, some difficulties. I was disappointed by the CWU’s decision to ballot for strikes in London about modernisation and I hope that the ongoing talks will prevent a strike from going ahead, as industrial action would only damage the very universal service that we are all acting to protect.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) went very wide in his remarks on the regulation. I know that he is secretary of the CWU parliamentary liaison group, and I wish that he had been on the Bill Committee, as that would have spiced things up. We had a great time on the Committee. I remember fondly the days of Red Bull amendments, Gordian knot amendments and clause 3 amendments and all the rest that we heard from the Labour party. No doubt we would also have had the Linlithgow and East Falkirk amendment if the hon. Gentleman had been on the Committee. He is particularly concerned about Lords amendment 22, on which he spent a lot of time, about the procurement determination. As I said in my opening remarks, that change has been welcomed by Royal Mail and the CWU because it provides greater certainty. I also said that people had interpreted the option of procurement decision, if there were a decision that the USO represented an unfair burden on the USP, in ways that we had not expected. We believe it is a useful tool in the regulator’s armoury to make sure that the universal service will be provided throughout the country. It is not an attack on the USP, as some people had expected. The measure is designed to ensure that the legislation is future-proofed and to make sure that the regulator has all the necessary tools at its disposal.
Let me bring my remarks to a close—
The Minister has missed out Lords amendment 21, which came from the Government side and has not been discussed or pushed for by anyone else. That amendment changes from three years to five the time after which the issue of levy and burden-sharing will be set aside. That has been welcomed by the people who are making lots of money out of cherry-picking in relation to Royal Mail at the moment.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I thought that I had dealt with that when I responded to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, who also raised that point, albeit from a slightly different perspective. We need to ensure that Royal Mail management have incentives to deliver. On reflection, I was concerned that the three-year period before which an unfair burden review could result in compensation was too short. Five years is the right length of time, because we need to put pressure on Royal Mail management—I think that they willingly accept that—to drive forward modernisation, because that is the only way in which the company will survive in the context of a universal service provider, and we will deliver the universal service.
I put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Llanelli for her sterling work in scrutinising the Bill, both as a member of the Public Bill Committee and in the Chamber. I also thank her former Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), who brought a great deal of wisdom to the Opposition Front-Bench team, which I am sure it will be sad to lose. I welcome the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), although he is not in the Chamber, to his new role. I also thank all other members of the Public Bill Committee, especially the hon. Member for Angus, who was with us when he was able to beat the weather.
I am sure that all Members of this House and the other place would wish to join me in thanking Richard Hooper, whose two excellent and comprehensive reports formed the backdrop to the Bill. He has been incredibly generous with his time, and the Bill would not be as strong without his contribution.
It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on what a historic occasion this is. For more than 20 years successive Governments have grappled with this problem, ranging from the work in the mid-90s by Lord Heseltine to the more recent attempt at legislation led by Lord Mandelson, right through to the present day. If Royal Mail’s problems were stark 20 years ago they are considerably worse today, because of the advent of e-mail, social networking and mobile communications. I am thankful that rather than having to face the problem with a blank sheet of paper, I have been able to draw on a large body of previous policy thinking and evidence.
The Bill is a culmination not just of the present Government’s efforts, but of more than 20 years’ work by successive Governments to tackle the problems faced by Royal Mail. By enacting it, we will finally be taking the action that successive Governments have recognised as necessary and, most importantly, giving Royal Mail the best chance of a successful future. Only with a successful Royal Mail can we all be confident that our constituents and businesses will continue to benefit from the universal postal service on which so many rely. This is a momentous achievement in which both sides of the House can share.
Lords amendment 15 agreed to.
Lords amendments 16 to 28 agreed to.