Report (1st Day) (Continued)
Clause 4 : Restrictions on issue and transfer of shares and share rights in a Post Office company etc
19: Clause 4, page 2, line 43, after “may” insert “by order”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 22, 24, 28, 29, 31 and 32 in order to reflect their purpose in its entirety. I shall also address Amendments 21, 23, 25, 26, 33, 34 and 35 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Young, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Stevenson, as well as Amendments 20, 27 and 30 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. This is a large group of amendments but it covers ground with which we will all be familiar from earlier stages. I shall try, therefore, to be as brief as I can while still, I hope, addressing the concerns of noble Lords. I hope that the government amendments will help to ease the noble Lords’ concerns as well as the concerns raised in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty.
All sought to increase the parliamentary scrutiny around the transfer of Post Office Ltd to a mutual ownership structure. The Government believe strongly that a mutual structure should not be imposed on Post Office Ltd from the top down, and this has not changed. We are still of the opinion that Parliament should not dictate the structure of a mutual Post Office Ltd or the make-up of its board. When the company is mutualised these details must be agreed by all of the interested parties and the interests of stakeholders such as sub-postmasters and employees must come first.
As I have said before, the Government have asked Co-operatives UK to report on recommendations for a move to a mutual model. This report will be presented to Ministers shortly and we will of course make it public. Should your Lordships wish, I shall also ensure that a copy of it is placed in the House Library. I hope the report will provide more detail of what a mutual Post Office Ltd might look like in practice. The Government plan to launch a public consultation later in the year, which will develop further details of how a mutual Post Office Ltd might work.
Your Lordships will understand that the suitable model for a mutual Post Office has yet to be designed and that we cannot know its governance structure. As I said in Committee, it is by no means clear at this early stage that the selection of both sub-postmaster and employee representatives to the board would necessarily be the best option. Enshrining governance arrangements in legislation goes completely against our commitment to ensuring that the mutual is developed by the people who know it best. The Government do not, therefore, agree with Amendments 34 and 35 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Young, Lord Stevenson and Lord Tunnicliffe.
I understand the desire of both Houses to be able to exercise further scrutiny over a move to a mutual. Until we have fully consulted, we will be unable to define specifically what the Post Office mutual will look like and we recognise that, in order for Post Office Ltd to transfer to mutual ownership, it must have become commercially self-sustaining. Indeed, the noble Lords, Lord Young, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Stevenson, recognise this too in their Amendments 21, 23 and 33. We are confident that the strategy mapped out by Post Office Ltd, backed by the Government’s £1.34 billion funding package, will deliver a commercially self-sustaining business.
There are a number of elements to this, as set out in detail in the Government’s policy statement published last November, particularly the aspiration that the Post Office should become a front office for both central and local government. There are great opportunities for the Post Office to develop this ambition and a number of pilots for new services have already been agreed. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions has recently announced plans for three pilots, including document verification for pensioners and support for jobseekers in more rural areas. The DWP has also confirmed that it will work with the Post Office to explore its role in supporting new ways of delivering welfare, including universal credit. Post Offices are also of course a trusted and natural place for people to access face-to-face government services such as identity verification services. Currently, the ambition to be a front office for government builds on existing capabilities and strengths.
As Paula Vennells, the Post Office’s managing director, explained to a number of us at the briefing meeting last week, the Post Office is working closely with the Cabinet Office to explore the services it could offer the Government to help them to make the savings that this demanding fiscal environment requires. Paula has also been working with Martha Lane Fox to ensure that the Post Office can have a sustainable role as services are increasingly delivered digitally—a trend which is set to continue. This could include supporting those who are unable or unwilling to access services in this way.
As Paula Vennells also emphasised last week, the front office for government strategy must not be considered in isolation. The Post Office must continually improve, with quicker transactions, shorter queues and longer opening hours. The better the Post Office’s customer-service offering, the more attractive it will be as a channel for government departments. That is why the Post Office’s network strategy—the introduction of 4,000 main post offices and 2,000 Post Office Locals across a network that remains above a total of 11,500 outlets—is so important. That is why the Government’s investment of £1.34 billion and their commitment that there will be no programme of Post Office closures are also so important. We will no doubt discuss that network strategy in more detail when we come to Clause 11.
On the question of a post bank, I reiterate what I said in Committee. The Government have already looked carefully at the options and arguments for establishing a standalone post bank. Regrettably, our conclusion is that it is just not a viable option, particularly in the current fiscal environment. Setting up and capitalising a post bank would be prohibitively expensive as well as creating a much more volatile and risky balance sheet for the company. Yet it is important to remind noble Lords quite how extensive the Post Office’s existing financial services business already is. For example, the Post Office offers savings accounts, ISAs, mortgages and credit cards and, following the recent agreement with RBS, it will provide access for more than 80 per cent of all UK current account holders. That is in addition to the wide range of basic bank accounts available to those who do not use conventional current accounts. As I said in Committee, from this strong base financial services have significant potential for growth.
These are some of the key strands of the strategy which we are confident will put the Post Office on a commercially sustainable footing. We have been clear that this is not an overnight solution. It will take a few years, and possibly more than the two years allowed under the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for Post Office Ltd to become self-sustaining—that is, Amendments 20 and 30. The process of moving to a mutual model should not be rushed through and the Government have no intention of setting deadlines which Post Office Ltd and its stakeholders must meet in order to speed up this process. We recognise that some time will pass between the debates we are having now and any subsequent move to a mutual model. As such, Parliament should be given the opportunity, nearer the time of a proposed mutualisation, to scrutinise those proposals in more detail.
The amendments in my name in this group ensure that both Houses will need to approve a move to a mutual through the affirmative resolution procedure before it can proceed. They also ensure that a report giving details of the proposed move to a mutual will be laid before Parliament before any order is made. We hope that this addresses the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and other noble Lords, since the government amendment seeks to ensure that the report will now be laid before Parliament before it votes on whether the company should be mutualised.
I reiterate that the proposals eventually brought before Parliament must be developed with the full involvement of all interested parties. The Post Office’s commercial position must have improved as we expect. Provided that these things happen, I am confident that proposals for a mutual Post Office will, after careful scrutiny, be implemented. The reports in Amendments 21, 23 and 33 will not be required because the improvements to the Post Office’s commercial position on which they seek comfort will necessarily already have occurred. Parliament will in any event have the safeguard of a vote on a move to mutual ownership.
Amendments 25, 26 and 27 are technical amendments that I hope I can clarify as unnecessary. As I stated at Committee, Clause 4(4) makes quite clear the only people who can own an interest in the Post Office. The clarification envisaged by Amendment 25 is not required to achieve this. Amendment 26 seeks to ensure that any disposal made by a relevant mutual would be a disposal of its entire interest. Again, as I said in Committee, we believe this amendment to be unnecessarily restrictive. Clause 7 provides sufficient safeguards to ensure that it is perfectly possible for different stakeholders to form separate corporate bodies to take their interest in the Post Office. Provided the safeguards in Clause 7 were met, why would we want to prevent this prior to completion of the process of designing what a mutual might look like?
Finally, Amendment 27 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is technically unnecessary as Clause 4(1) ensures that a disposal of shares can be made only pursuant to a direction under subsection (2) or an approval under subsection (3). In addition, the government amendments brought forward today will ensure that any direction made by the Secretary of State under subsections (2) or (3)(b) must be subject to approval by Parliament through an affirmative resolution procedure.
I therefore hope that these government amendments will provide noble Lords with further reassurance regarding the move to a mutual model. I hope, too, that the noble Lords, Lord Young, Lord Stevenson and Lord Tunnicliffe, will feel they need not move their amendments. I beg to move the amendment in my name.
My Lords, we welcome government Amendments 19, 22, 24, 28, 29, 31 and 32. They are a very positive response to the representations made inside this House and beyond for greater accountability before Post Office Ltd is made a mutual. They also deal with the case of that mutual disposing of Post Office Ltd subsequently in whole or in part to another mutual or set of mutuals, and we are very pleased to see them. We are particularly pleased that provision has been made for the Secretary of State to come back to Parliament to provide details and seek approval of an order under the affirmative procedure before it is too late to influence events. We welcome these amendments and support them.
I shall speak to a number of the amendments in this group that we have tabled, but I have taken comfort from what the Minister has said in her response and will give her some assurance that we will not press the amendments to a vote. However, one or two points need to be made for the record.
Amendments 25 and 26 seek the safeguard of maintaining Post Office Ltd as a single entity before and after the creation of a mutual. From what the Minister has said, that is probably not necessary. Amendments 21 and 23 seek to ensure the Government give proper consideration to the case for a post bank. We have heard from the Minister that she has looked hard at that proposal. Given that that is the case, would it be possible for the Minister to share some results of the investigation with us? That would put our concerns beyond all doubt. Perhaps she could write to me with as much detail as she feels she can.
What I am left with is to reiterate the comments that we made earlier but to add more flesh to the suggestion about the volume of government business being transacted at post offices before the disposal takes place. We should be given more information about that, and a report should be provided to both Houses.
On the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Kennedy, who is not in his place at the moment, I understand the wish to avoid unnecessary sloth over creating the mutual, but I agree with the Minister that the overriding consideration must be to have Post Office Ltd in good shape before mutualisation. That is why we put in Amendment 33 a call for a sustainable development plan for Post Office Ltd before any change of ownership is mooted.
It would be nice to see the Co-operatives UK report when it comes. It was promised in April but has still not been delivered. When it does come, we would like to have a look at it as well. The Minister said that she would publish it, and we are grateful for that. That will get us only to the stage where we understand better what the options are. We will need to know what the Government intend to do; as we have discussed, the Government intend to provide a full report on that before any proposals come through. I hope that in preparing a report for both Houses of Parliament, the questions that we have about what obligations a privatised Royal Mail will be under to utilise the Post Office network will be answered and, in the case of Post Office Ltd, what type or range of mutual bodies may end up owning our post office network. What will the rules be and what will be the extent of its powers? Who will be eligible to be a member? How will a board be constituted and could the mutual-owned post office have ownership and nationality tests that would be appropriate for a company-owned Post Office Ltd? Those are all questions that we will want to come back to at that time.
I turn to Amendment 23 and government business. The amendment puts in context some of the difficulties facing those who run the network of post offices throughout the United Kingdom. The Post Office is a trusted and traditional outlet for government services on the high street, and the future of the service lies in the redevelopment of that role. The post office network needs new sources of revenue to survive without subsidy; the Government need a reliable means of communicating with and serving the public directly in their local communities and, in this time of economic downturn, access to government services is more crucial than ever.
The Government should consider making the Post Office a first-choice provider of local and national government services on the high street. A systematic policy of using the Post Office as a shop front for government services could help the Government reach vulnerable and marginalised members of society in rural and urban deprived areas. Moreover, it could further the Government’s regeneration agenda, tackle the financial exclusion that is rife in communities across the UK and, in so doing, ensure a future for the post office network. Despite some of the removal of government services over recent years, post offices remain a massively popular and a reliable source for information and assistance to the public.
If the Post Office is to survive as a mutual, it cannot continue along its current trajectory. This can happen only if it keeps the work that it gets from two major clients—Royal Mail and the Government. Already there is concern about the Post Office’s business relationship with Royal Mail. A survey by the Communication Workers Union this week, widely published in the papers today, found that nine out of 10 sub-postmasters said that they could not survive without Royal Mail business. Assurances from the Minister about that relationship do not hide the fact that the Bill contains no real protection for Post Office Ltd in that regard. Equally, there are reservations about the so-called locals model of franchised post offices, which by their nature make it difficult for customers to interact with staff on anything other than the most superficial transactions. A recent report by Consumer Focus highlighted some of the problems in this regard.
The Post Office is dependent on Royal Mail’s business for its survival. Over one-third of its revenue, £343 million, and one-third of its sub-postmasters’ pay, £240 million, is generated by selling Royal Mail products and services. If the two businesses are forced to separate, a privatised Royal Mail will be likely to look elsewhere for retail outlets to sell its products. There is no guarantee that it will use post offices to the same extent. The loss of accounts such as TV licensing and the “green giro” was a bitter blow, particularly for those post offices operating at very tight margins. Taking those contracts away was a classic case of the Government’s left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing.
Having said all that, we think that the move to mutualisation is highly welcome, but employees and managers within Post Office Ltd will be concerned that the business they inherit has a real future. They will want to know that future revenue streams from the Government are secure and that business planning can proceed accordingly. Our amendment provides that assurance by setting out which government business will be transacted through post offices. Such a report will also enable the Government to consider what other types of their business the Post Office might be able to develop. We have a range of thoughts about that which echo many of the points that the Minister made, and we will be happy to exchange views on that, perhaps outside this discussion today.
We think that the Post Office banking remains a prize that could help sustain the future of the network. I heard what the Minister said about it not stacking up, but it is surprising that many of Post Office Ltd’s overseas equivalents have developed comprehensive banking services to offset losses of other traditional services which have made substantial contributions to the viability of those national post office networks. Even if they are not like-for-like comparisons, they are useful examples of where the future might lie.
The post office network, mutualised or not, can prosper as a standalone business with the Government and Royal Mail as key customers. Our amendments do not seek to force that choice upon the Government but ask them to consider what business they intend to transact via Post Office Ltd over the next few years so that the people who run our post offices, whom the Government want to take ownership of the business, can do so with certainty and security.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for putting forward the government amendments, which both clarify and assist us in being sure that various points have been taken on board that have been raised in previous debates. She mentioned Post Office Locals, which are an excellent idea. For example, in my village of Congresbury in Somerset, where I live, the local post office is doing an extremely good job. I welcome what has just been said by the previous speaker—that wherever possible we should do all that we can to expand the sort of services that they can provide. Many suggestions have been made and I am sure that we all look forward to adding to them when we can get some ideas accordingly. I ask the Minister to do the same.
It is tremendously encouraging that the Government are committed to ensuring not only that we maintain services through the local post office network, but that where necessary there will be financial support so that we can carry on having representation of a post office service in all parts of the country.
I referred a moment ago to my local post office. As I said, it provides a wide range of services. I am sure that the Minister will answer me by saying that there is no problem in this direction, and that no post offices that give a good service will be reduced in scope to become just Post Office Locals. The post office that I am talking about gives the full range of services, so I will be urging the Government to maintain that full range where at all possible.
Post Office Locals are a welcome idea as the concept ensures that at least a basic provision will be there. Over time, it will be useful to clarify ideas on exactly how Post Office Locals will operate and what encouragement they will be given to do so. With my congratulations to the Minister on the amendments being put forward tonight, and on the Bill as a whole, I look forward to hearing her response to the various matters that have been raised.
My Lords, thank you very much indeed for those contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, was most reassuring for me. He asked if I could expand in due course on the assessment of the case for the post bank and I will certainly write to him on the matter. I agree that it would be lovely if we could have a Post Office bank. At the moment the numbers do not add up, but that is not to say that it could not be the case in the future so I am with him on that. When the report comes out, he will of course see it. There will be a copy put in the Library and we will make sure that he has a copy too.
My noble friend Lord Cotter gave a vote of confidence in the Post Office Local idea, which I was delighted to hear. In the ones that we have already started, we are ironing out the problems which you always have with a new idea but they seem to be becoming successful. People like them and, because the opening hours are extended, it means that the footfall and the other business transacted within the shop seem to be improving by leaps and bounds. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, was not here to be able to speak to his amendments but the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, did. Unless there is anything further, I hope that covers any of the points that other noble Lords wished to make.
Amendment 19 agreed.
Amendments 20 and 21 not moved.
22: Clause 4, page 3, line 9, after “has” insert “by order”
Amendment 22 agreed.
Amendment 23 not moved.
24: Clause 4, page 3, line 9, at end insert—
“(3A) An order under subsection (2) or (3)(b) is subject to affirmative resolution procedure.”
Amendment 24 agreed.
Amendments 25 to 27 not moved.
Clause 5 : Report on transfer of interest in a Post Office company to a relevant mutual
28: Clause 5, page 3, line 30, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert “proposes to make an order under section 4(2) or (3)(b) (order directing or approving issue or transfer of shares or share rights in a Post Office company to a relevant mutual).”
Amendment 28 agreed.
29: Clause 5, page 3, line 34, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
“(2) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a report on the proposed issue or transfer before making the order.”
Amendment 29 agreed.
Amendment 30 not moved.
Amendments 31 and 32
31: Clause 5, page 3, line 38, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—
“(a) give details of the proposed issue or transfer (including the expected time-scale for the issue or transfer),”
32: Clause 5, page 3, line 40, after “are” insert “proposed”
Amendments 31 and 32 agreed.
Amendment 33 not moved.
Clause 7 : Meaning of “relevant mutual”
Amendments 34 to 36 not moved.
37: After Clause 10, insert the following new Clause—
“Closure of post offices
(1) Where any company or any other person proposes to close a post office, it shall at the earliest opportunity begin consulting representatives of the employees affected and community and other groups with an interest in the proposed closure, including consulting on that company or person’s plans for alternative provision of services provided by the post office.
(2) No decision to close may be made within the period of six weeks from the start of the consultation required by subsection (1).
(3) No decision to close a post office in a Crown post office shall be taken within 12 weeks of the start of the consultation required by subsection (1).
(4) No decision to close a post office in a rural or a deprived urban area or an outreach service shall be taken within 16 weeks of the start of the consultation required by subsection (1).”
My Lords, as you are all very aware, post offices continue to provide a lifeline to residents in rural and urban deprived areas, not only through access to postal services but as a shop front for government services, a means of benefit collection and, often, as the only source of cash withdrawal in an area. This amendment aims to ensure that proper consultation procedures are followed when a post office closure is considered. It is not intended to prevent all post office closures; it simply aims to strengthen stakeholders’ opportunity for input into the consultation process. It also provides for a longer consultation process on potential closures in rural and urban deprived areas.
Rural and urban deprived areas clearly suffer disproportionately when a post office closes. Post offices have closed in vast numbers in recent years, both through formal closure programmes and through natural wastage when sub-postmasters close their businesses and post offices are not replaced. At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, proposed a 16-week consultation period for rural post offices due to close to give time to find an alternative. Over the past 10 years, the post office network has declined from 17,845 in 2000-01 to 11,905 in 2009-10. This is in large part due to two major closure programmes: the urban reinvention programme from 2003 to 2005 and the network change programme from 2007 to 2009. Approximately 11 per cent of the post office network is in urban deprived areas. Consumer Focus clearly states:
“Urban offices play an even more important role in urban deprived areas, particularly as they provide free access to cash, plus pensions and benefit payments”.
The 2003-04 urban reinvention programme was an attempt by Post Office Ltd to reduce the size of the network with a view to developing a more commercially viable network. It further hoped to manage the so-far unplanned decline in network size that arose from sub-postmasters’ decisions to close their businesses. At the time of the programme there were serious concerns over the fate of post offices in urban deprived areas. The Government stated that they would not close post offices in urban deprived areas unless there was another branch within half a mile, or unless there were exceptional circumstances to justify the closure.
The Post Office’s code of practice for network change programme closure consultations included a six-week consultation process. Many stakeholders felt that the consultation processes were inadequate. This was in large part because of the criteria for closures and the decision to close 2,500 post offices had already been made prior to the consultation process. This meant that opportunities for preventing individual closures were very limited.
Post offices are still closing every week. More than 150 closed on a long-term temporary basis in 2010 alone. There is no guarantee that these will reopen; many are likely to stay closed indefinitely, as Consumer Focus has said. Since the last programme of post office closures finished we have continued to see a dwindling in the overall number of branches. According to the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, 900 post offices—an unusually high number—are currently up for sale. Many sub-postmasters are retiring or leaving the business because of the low levels of revenue generated by some offices. The Post Office is struggling to find alternative premises and service providers. It is vital that adequate measures are in place to protect rural and urban deprived communities from these closures. I urge support for Amendment 37, which puts current practice into law, allows extra time for rural post office closures and ensures consultation ahead of any closure, planned or unplanned. It also provides additional protection for rural and urban deprived post offices. I beg to move.
I have to inform your Lordships that there is a misprint in proposed new subsection (3) in the Marshalled List. It should read:
“No decision to close a Crown post office shall be taken within 12 weeks of the start of the consultation required by subsection (1)”.
My Lords, one of the best things that the Government have said in the context of the Bill is that there will be no more mass closures of post offices. I am very conscious of the damage done by closures in recent years in an area that is not necessarily “urban deprived” but where quite a lot of poor people live. It is the area surrounding Vauxhall, which in the past few years has lost three post offices. The result is that the nearest post office is right across Vauxhall Bridge, half way to Victoria station. Whenever one goes past or tries to use that post office, there are queues that reach out into the street. It has been a disastrous programme for that part of London. Therefore, I very much welcome what the Government have said about closures. Of course, one cannot have an absolute ban on closures because inevitably sub-postmasters die or fall ill and businesses are sold. Although great efforts are made to try to keep the post office going, it cannot always be guaranteed. However, that is totally different from the sort of mass closure programme that we had over the past decade.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Cotter, I have been very impressed by the potential offered by Post Office Local. Up to 2,000 Post Office Locals may be coming forward in the next few years, offering the great majority of services that are available in a Crown post office. They will be able to offer the customer a much better deal because they will be open during shop hours. One knows that many of the shopkeepers, who are often from minority communities, work very long hours and their shops remain open long hours—and so, of course, will the post office services offered by Post Office Local. This is perhaps one of the brightest and most optimistic scenes on the horizon. It will make post offices a good deal more viable than they have been. However, post offices also need new business. I have been impressed by what I have heard about the plans—in some cases these are already being trialled—to let these post offices offer identity services, as it were. They can check identity through biometric photographs and this service is already being used by the UK Border Agency. There must be government departments which could make good use of such services. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench can expand on that.
I too have talked with the chief executive and was impressed by what she had to say about the range of services which need to be available in post offices. This will require investment and nobody is going to pretend that Post Office Ltd will become a fully self-sustaining business; it cannot. It will continue to require support, and everybody has recognised that. However, it seems to me that if it is given the freedom to expand into new areas and the Government support it through government departments using its services, thus enabling it to be, as it were, the front office for government, there is every chance that the post office network will survive and prosper in a way that it has not done in recent decades. Therefore, I very much support what is being planned.
I accept the argument that my noble friend put forward when we were discussing a previous amendment —that some of the proposals we are putting forward may not be necessary, but no doubt we will hear about that. In the mean time, I very much congratulate the Government on the efforts that have been made to make Post Office Ltd a more viable business than it has been in the past.
My Lords, Amendment 37 seeks to impose consultation requirements on companies or people that propose to close a post office. As we well know, 97 per cent of post offices are privately owned and operated businesses. As I said in Committee, neither Government nor Post Office Ltd can ensure that there is always time to carry out a consultation before an office closes. A sub-postmaster may retire or move away or the premises may be damaged by fire or flooding. It cannot be appropriate to impose a consultation requirement on a retiring sub-postmaster before he can shut his store, as this amendment would do.
My noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding spoke warmly of the Government’s commitment to ensure that there will be no further programme of post office closures and that the network of at least 11,500 post offices will be maintained. I confirm that commitment. Therefore, if a post office is to close, there is a strong likelihood that this will have been driven by a choice of the sub-postmaster rather than by Post Office Ltd. In the unfortunate event of a post office closure, other than in very exceptional circumstances, Post Office Ltd will seek to maintain services. If a permanent closure without any replacement is proposed, the Post Office must undertake a local public consultation for a six-week period, in line with its code of practice. In addition, Post Office Ltd will contact local councillors and parish councillors about service changes.
It is worth stressing that the code of practice has been agreed with Consumer Focus. I mentioned in Committee that the code of practice has recently been amended to introduce a telephone helpline providing information on temporary breaks in service and on new notification requirements.
The noble Lord, Lord Young, mentioned that at Second Reading and the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, in his maiden speech, called for a 16-week consultation. He spoke eloquently about the problems faced by rural communities as a result of the previous Government’s closure programmes. However, this Government have committed that there will be no programme of post office closures and a network of at least 11,500 post offices will be maintained. As I said, if a post office is to close, there is a strong likelihood that this will be driven by the choice of a sub-postmaster rather than by Post Office Ltd.
In considering the appropriate duration of local consultations, it is important to strike a balance between giving communities sufficient opportunity to express their views and allowing the Post Office to get on with providing the services on which those communities so rely. A 16-week period—that is four months—as Amendment 37 envisages in some cases, seems to be disproportionately long. That is especially so when we recall that we are talking predominantly about individual small businesses operated by sub-postmasters. Furthermore, the six-week period currently required by the code of practice was introduced, following a national consultation, as part of the previous Government’s closure programme.
I therefore hope that the noble Lord will be reassured by the arrangements already in place and will consent to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 37 withdrawn.
Amendments 38 and 39 not moved.
Clause 11 : Annual report on post office network
40: Clause 11, page 6, line 25, at end insert “including reporting for the UK as a whole and separately for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland against the total population residing—
“(i) within three miles of a post office outlet;(ii) within one mile of a post office outlet; (iii) in urban areas within one mile of a post office outlet;(iv) in urban deprived areas within one mile of a post office outlet;(v) in rural areas within three miles of a post office outlet;(vi) in rural areas within three miles of a post office outlet;(vii) at the level of each postcode district, within six miles of a post office outlet,”
My Lords, I shall speak also to the earlier amendments that were previously grouped with this amendment, and the amendment to which my noble friend has just spoken. They deal with the criteria for access to the post office network. I very much welcome the noble Baroness’s reiteration of the commitment to maintain a level of post office network and her comments on the criteria in relation to what the Post Office rather bizarrely calls “business as usual” closures, whereby a sub-postmaster gives up or the post office has to close for another reason. The criteria there are much tighter.
I am a veteran of the last stage of the previous closure programme, which was in many ways unsatisfactory and ended in anomalies. I am familiar with the territory in Vauxhall to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, referred, and the effect of what happened on the other side of the river. That experience has been repeated in rural areas and in deprived suburbs up and down the country. The determination to maintain a minimum network is very welcome.
The jury is still out on the move to Post Office Local. There are significant advantages, particularly in relation to opening hours and the flexibility that that provides. Consumer Focus has heard varying reports on the first batch of Post Office Locals, and that the range of services they provide is differentiated. For example, the USO for the parcel service refers to a 20 kilogram parcel service being available in all post offices, but a lot of locals were not doing that until about this time last year, when the Post Office advised them to do so. It is still not the case that all Post Office Locals, or some other post offices, are providing that service. I am not saying that there should be an absolutely rigid range of services available under Post Office Local, but we need to know that what will happen as a result of normal retirements and closures, new post offices opening, post offices opening in host premises will provide something like the previous minimum access criteria.
The new access criteria will be a matter for the Secretary of State and for Ofcom, but the amendments would require that there be a reporting mechanism which indicates not only how good the access is, in terms of mileage in rural and urban areas, to the nearest post office but what range of services is available. In other words, there would be a matrix that would indicate the services available as well as the number of outlets. In order to be able to monitor over time the effectiveness of post office services and the accessibility to them for communities who have, over the past two rounds of closures, seen some diminution in the number of outlets and now some diminution in the range of services, we need reporting criteria roughly along the lines that I propose here, which are the criteria which were broadly agreed at the end of the last round of closures.
I shall not press the amendments tonight, but the Government and the regulator will need a clear reporting process which covers not only the number of outlets but the range of services provided. As others have said, that range of services needs to include some enhanced commitment across Whitehall and local government to provide a wider range of government services—and digital access to them—than currently exists. Unfortunately, over the past 15 years, we have seen a diminution of government business going through post offices. Some of that has been due to technological and behavioural change; some of it has simply been due to false economies. Post offices have missed out there. The post offices should in most communities be the front office of government. In rural communities and more deprived outer suburbs, they are the point at which the community has access to the range of state services. We need to retain that, we need to build on it and we need to know under laid-down reporting criteria how well we are doing.
Although I welcome much of what the Government are committed to in enhancing the number of services that go through post offices as well as preserving the number of post offices in the network, we need to be able to monitor that. That is what my two amendments are about, and I will be interested to hear the noble Baroness’s comments. I will not press the amendment tonight, but we may need to return to it. I beg to move.
I shall briefly support my noble friend Lord Whitty. He has made all the key points about the importance of the additional information that the amendments would provide.
I tend to agree with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, in a previous debate about the potential for locals. They have to get the formula right; they have to get the transition payments right as well. The managing director, Paula Vennells, has assured us that they are learning quite a lot from the 60 or so pilots that are currently running. Interestingly, I received an assurance that they have all been instructed to accept parcels of up to 20 kilograms in weight. Clearly, the message has not filtered through to all of them but the intention is clear. Amendments 40 and 41 pose some important questions and I, too, will be listening intently to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I shall speak to the amendments to Clause 11 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I thank him for telling me in advance that he is not going to press them tonight and I hope that my response will at least reassure him.
Amendment 40 seeks to oblige the Post Office to report against its compliance with the access criteria at a UK level and also in each of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The access criteria are national criteria. Five of the six of them apply across the entire United Kingdom but they recognise the country’s diversity by including individual protections for urban, urban deprived, rural and remote rural locations. The sixth criterion—for 95 per cent of the population in each postcode district, such as BA2 or GU27, to be within six miles of a post office—applies to each and every one of the nearly 2,800 postcode districts in the UK. This provides a very real guarantee that post offices will be broadly spread and accessible to communities in every corner of the United Kingdom. I reassure the noble Lord that the annual network report will include details of the Post Office’s compliance with the criteria. Indeed, such reporting is already done. Your Lordships will recall that last year’s Postcomm network report showed that the Post Office continues comfortably to exceed the access criteria.
It is most upsetting to have the opposition Chief Whip sitting here with me. I want that noted.
However, we believe that obliging the Post Office to report against the access criteria separately for each of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would be of limited assistance. The previous Government recognised that too when, following a national consultation in 2007, they rejected suggestions from some that the access criteria should apply at an individual national level. This additional reporting obligation would place a significant additional administrative burden and subsequent cost on the Post Office. For example, 17 postcode districts straddle national borders, such as postal district TD15 around Berwick-upon-Tweed. For this reason, I urge the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to consider withdrawing Amendment 40, which I think he has already agreed to do, and to reflect on what I have said.
I turn to Amendment 41, which again is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. It relates to the services offered over Post Office counters on behalf of a universal service provider—in other words, Royal Mail. I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured by the Government’s Amendment 50, which obliges the network report to contain details of the services offered by the Post Office on behalf of a universal postal service provider. The report must also contain details of the wider postal services that are available, so services that are not regulated under universal service conditions must also be covered.
I also reassure the noble Lord that new Post Office Locals all offer the full range of Royal Mail’s universal service products. Some have voiced a concern that certain Post Office Locals do not offer full universal postal services—for example, through not accepting parcels weighing more than 6 kilograms. However, I reassure noble Lords that the Post Office has, through the current pilot process, now developed the Post Office Local model so that new local outlets will all accept parcels up to the full universal postal service standard of 20 kilograms.
I hope that in the light of those reassurances the noble Lord will feel happy to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for those reassurances. Behind them is a recognition that some reporting provisions need to be laid down and maintained.
The main disappointment in her response was the reference to not accepting the need for separate reporting for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As we said before dinner when debating an amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, the situation is somewhat different. The criteria need to be universal, but it is also important that the particular positions of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland must be focused on. There are some fudges at the border, but they are relatively small, and it is important that the Post Office network is seen as part of the social provision of the Government, particularly in remote rural areas, for the rural population and rural businesses. The devolved Administrations have a role in that. Therefore, it is very useful for them to have a separate reporting provision. This does not mean that the criteria should be significantly different, but it does mean that the kind of problems that meeting those criteria may create in those countries could perhaps be devolved by wider rural and social policy in those areas. I would be disappointed if the final form of reporting did not allow for separate or parallel reporting to the devolved Administrations.
Subject to that caveat, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 40 withdrawn.
Amendments 41 to 45 not moved.
46: Clause 11, page 6, line 28, leave out “and”
My Lords, Clause 11 provides for the annual report on the post office network. The amendment seeks to include information in the report on,
“any major change in contractual terms affecting sub-postmasters as a result of the change to the ‘Post Office Local’ model”.
The document produced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in November 2010, Securing the Post Office Network in the Digital Age, claimed success for the local pilots in the Post Office Local model. Under pilot schemes, Post Office Local branches have offered longer opening hours of up to six hours per day. Services have been restricted to core services, with what are described as more complex and time-consuming transactions being channelled through main post offices. Post Office Ltd reports that Post Office Locals are being trialled in around 60 locations across the UK. Many operate a small counter located within the premises of another business such as a supermarket. Some have replaced sub-post offices that have closed and some have been set up as new branches. The physical layout of the counter-based model has been replaced by more open-plan arrangements alongside the retail till.
The BIS report says that over the next four years, 2,000 small sub-post offices will convert to the local model, either on-site or in neighbouring premises, with what is described as a major rollout in 2014 following further piloting. It is unclear whether the rollout will be to reach the figure of 2,000 Post Office Locals—or essentials, as they are called—or whether this marks an intention to roll out beyond 2,000. It could be a precursor to a much wider application of the model.
The paper proposes two key strands of the network. The Government have asked POL by 2014 to have about 4,000 main post offices in towns and city centres and to convert about 2,000 sub-post offices to the local model. The 4,000 main post offices and 2,000 new locals will leave more than 5,500 branches in the current network untouched. However, the BIS paper states that, under POL's commercial strategy, the Post Office Local model will become the mainstay of the smaller post offices over time. This will mean a fundamental change to the current network.
Consumer Focus, which represents post office customers, has said that the conversion of 2,000 sub-post offices into Post Office Locals will be a major change. For millions of people, it will mean a shift from what they know and trust. The problems that people have experienced with pilot Post Office Locals—some of which are known as essentials—include benefit capping, where branches limit the amount of money that people who are collecting benefits such as pensions can withdraw in a single day. This is to prevent the branch running out of money. Other examples of problems which people have experienced with Post Office Essentials include not being able to access counters if in a wheelchair, staff with inadequate knowledge of services and a lack of privacy when carrying out transactions.
A more recent investigation by Consumer Focus, in March 2011, concluded:
“While consumers are likely to welcome the convenience and extended opening hours provided by PO Locals, without clear improvements to the in-branch experience, some consumers will be likely to perceive the shift in provision negatively … In particular, our research has found worrying evidence of examples of cash and benefit withdrawals being capped; temporary breaks in service because there are not always trained staff on hand to serve at the counter; and the inconsistent provision of parcel services, which in many instances seems to vary from one PO Local to the next”.
Just over half of customers—53 per cent—have had to use an alternative post office because their Post Office Local did not offer the product or service they wanted. Some 43 per cent of customers say that the privacy available is poor, especially for banking or financial transactions. Finally, 61 per cent of customers said that their overall experience was good, but a large percentage —38 per cent—said that it was average or poor.
The Post Office Local model clearly has the potential to impact on the terms under which sub-postmasters operate sub-post offices, and the terms and working arrangements of the staff working in them are also significant, not least the significantly increased opening hours. Those issues therefore deserve a word or two.
The changed physical working arrangements in the open-plan post offices envisaged by the pilot carry implications for the terms, safety and well-being of staff members which need to be taken fully into consideration. Some postmasters have expressed concern that they will see a major shift in their contractual terms away from secure payments to income based largely on commission. That is not just a rumour; I think it has been confirmed by the Post Office. While existing sub-postmasters may have their current income protected for a limited time, this would not last. At the same time the range of services on offer under the pilot is restricted to core services, meaning that customers needing to access a more time-consuming or complex transaction will need to go to the main post office. The report does not envisage restrictions being imposed on which services may be regarded as core by a local post office, and which may be dispensed with. Over time this would mean a high percentage of the population having to travel further to access the full range of post office services. I think that I am touching here on some of the points made by my noble friend Lord Whitty.
The problem is likely to be particularly acute in rural areas, where the distance to a main post office is likely to be greater. Although commercial terms between Post Office Ltd and individual sub-postmasters is confidential, it is reported that sub-postmasters converting to the essentials model are seeing a worsening in the terms of their contract and a larger reliance on commission on sales. I shall not cite the many examples from the local newspapers and so on, but Ministers could reassure sub-postmasters by stating that they will not be compelled to move to the Post Office Local model.
The sub-postmasters’ fears are summarised in a survey which was commissioned by the Communication Workers Union and reported in today's newspapers. It says that up to 9,300 post offices could close as a result of the Government’s sell-off. This prediction is worrying for people living in villages whose post office is the only shop that provides a vital service, particularly for those without cars. Perhaps I may read one or two bits of information from this survey; I do not think that anyone doubts the quality of the very well known company which was invited to undertake this research.
More than 90 per cent of sub-postmasters told researchers that they are very unlikely or unlikely to survive without Royal Mail business if it dries up. This clearly overlaps with all the other questions about the interservices agreement and the universal service obligation. Billy Hayes, the general secretary of the CWU, has said that it clearly demonstrates the fears of sub-postmasters about the fate of the network, which faces a greater threat than anyone previously dared believe.
John Denham, the shadow Business Secretary, has said that postal services policy is now in utter disarray. I am sure that the Minister has a brief prepared to read out on all this, and I look forward to hearing it. Then we will have to consider where this question rests before we come to Third Reading.
My Lords, I shall be brief because my noble friend Lord Lea has covered the waterfront, as they say. He raises a key point, which I referred to in my previous contribution. There are some concerns about the quality of the service offered by locals, but we have had some useful assurances from the managing director, Paula Vennells, about the nature of pilots that will genuinely seek to improve the level of service. The concerns about the quality and range of services have been adequately described by my noble friend Lord Lea.
On the transition arrangements in converting those sub-offices to the local model and what the payments are likely to be, I do not know whether the Minister is in a position to reiterate the statement made by Paula Vennells, who said that broadly speaking the fixed and variable income ought to be more or less on a par with the income at the moment.
I wish to pick up on what my noble friend Lord Lea said when he talked about the importance of government business and it being a key part of the future of these offices; and my final point is that it would be useful if the Minister could confirm that remote rural offices that need a fixed income to survive will not be moved to the local model on a compulsory basis.
My Lords, Amendments 46 and 49, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lea, require the Post Office to provide details in its annual reports of major changes in its sub-postmaster contracts from the introduction of the Post Office Local model. In Committee, I spoke at length about the Post Office Local model, but I would like briefly to reiterate some of the key points. The Post Office Local model was introduced under the name Post Office Essentials in September 2008, and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Young, is therefore familiar with the format. The Post Office Local does away with the impersonal, screened-off, fortress post office counter that requires separate staff. Instead, it provides open-plan access to post office services alongside the retail till for the hours the shop is open. This will involve a significant increase in opening hours for the customer while also providing a much more flexible and lower cost operating model for the retailer. The Post Office Local model currently provides 97 per cent of post office transactions by volume and there are over 50 Post Office Local pilots operating across the country right now. Customer satisfaction with these pilots has been excellent with 94 per cent of customers being very or extremely satisfied with the local model. Some noble Lords will have been unable to hear Paula Vennells, the managing director of the Post Office, speak last week, although I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lea, was there when she spoke. Paula explained very eloquently that it is plainly not in the Post Office’s interest to introduce a model of contract that is not viable for sub-postmasters.
The model will involve pay being rebalanced from fixed to variable pay in those outlets affected. But this cannot be accomplished simply by eliminating fixed pay without evaluating rates of variable pay to ensure the model works for sub-postmasters and Post Office Ltd alike. Over the next two years, there will be continued and widespread piloting to develop understanding of the locations in which a Post Office Local may be viable and the services that may be offered from one.
In 2014, we expect a larger scale rollout so that by 2015 around 2,000 of the network of at least 11,500 will have converted to the local model. To give some perspective over the same period, the Government’s £1.34 billion funding package will enable the Post Office to invest in around 4,000 main post offices in towns and city centres across the country. These will more closely follow the traditional post office model. Of course, that will leave almost 6,000 post offices whose operating model will remain unchanged. I understand that any change in sub-postmaster contracts is of great significance for the many independent businessmen and women who operate post offices up and down the country. But I do not think that a public annual report is the appropriate place for a business to detail its contractual terms with its agents. That is certainly not something that one would see any competitors of the Post Office doing.
I hope that I have provided sufficient explanation and reassurance to the noble Lord to encourage him to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister. However, the competitors of the Post Office may not do this, but they are not the Post Office. They are not what the British people understand to be the service of post offices right across the country. They do not cherry-pick like their competitors, which is why they are part of the fabric of the community. Perhaps one could agree the terms of reference of a public opinion poll whereby all the facts are on the table, as spelt out by the managing director of the Post Office, the noble Baroness and the unions. I include the national federation and George Thompson who, according to the Independent yesterday, said:
“The NFSP has made clear that a minimum 10-year inter-business agreement … between the Post Office and Royal Mail is required if the companies are separated, both to allow the public and business to continue to access Royal Mail services at their local post office and to secure the large proportion of subpostmasters’ income which comes from carrying out work on behalf of Royal Mail”.
Parliament is the backstop if something goes wrong with these negotiations. I am not saying that it is a negotiation between an elephant and a mouse. But the idea that the negotiations have as much leverage on the part of the sub-postmasters as on the part of the Post Office under the plans in this Bill is rather fanciful. We will just have to consider where we are. I asked the noble Baroness whether she would comment on the interesting study which says that sub-postmasters believe that 9,000 post offices could close under the Government’s plans. I should like to know what was wrong with the methodology of this study. The Government have had 48 hours to look at it. I do not know whether the noble Baroness would like to take this opportunity to say more about that.
I understand that the National Federation of SubPostmasters said in response to recent claims by the CWU:
“We (the NFSP) have played a pivotal role in ensuring that both companies are working well together towards securing a mutually beneficial arrangement and we are confident that a 10-year commercial deal will be achieved”.
“Scaremongering about the future without an IBA and the forced introduction of the Post Office Local model does nothing but harm to the post office network and to subpostmasters”.
I thank the noble Baroness for reading out what I have in front of me as well. I was asking whether she thinks this so-called scaremongering is actually the survey of the membership of the national federation. It is all very confusing and I do not know any more than the noble Baroness does how one reconciles these two things. But before we get to Third Reading, it is incumbent on BIS to make a more considered evaluation of this remarkable survey.
Amendment 46 withdrawn.
47: Clause 11, page 6, line 29, at end insert “, and
( ) until delivered, the progress of developing the back office integration with credit unions”
My Lords, the link-up with the Post Office is one of the most exciting innovations for the credit union movement and my amendment places a requirement on the Government to report back on the progress to achieving this until such time as it has been delivered. Getting people on the lowest incomes into the habit of saving and giving them access through the Post Office network to affordable credit is something that we can all support. Would this not be the big society in action?
What we do have is some of our poorest and most vulnerable people who are unable to get affordable credit. They are either put into the hands of illegal loan sharks or into the payday loan shops with their exorbitant interest rates. The Government need to take action, and take action quickly. The noble Baroness is fully aware that I have pursued this issue with questions to her and other Ministers, as well as in debates such as this one. It is something that I feel very strongly about. It is an area for which I think there is considerable support around the House in all political groups and on the Cross Benches, but it does require the Government to take action to move it forward.
I look forward to the noble Earl’s response. If he is not able to accept the amendment, can I refer him to page 11 of the House of Lords’ Proceedings covering the Questions for Short Debate and my Motion on a similar subject? Any help he can give me with the Government Whips’ Office in getting that Motion brought forward for debate will be much appreciated. We could then spend a little bit longer discussing these important issues and the progress being made by the Government on them. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment. Each week something like 6.5 million visits are made to the Post Office network with a view to withdrawing funds from the Post Office card account. It has been calculated that those aged under 65 who hold such an account are 28 times more likely to be unbanked. These same people, those in receipt of state benefits and tax credits, are the most likely to use high-cost credit. That is evidence of the justification of the point being made by my noble friend Lord Kennedy about the valuable contribution that credit unions can make. The Post Office product range is such that it will not make personal loans of less than £2,000, yet evidence shows that sums of between £300 and £600 are the primary amounts sought by those using high-cost credit.
In short, the Post Office has the facilities and credit unions have the ability. Would it not be good if we could bring these two groups together to serve the public?
My Lords, since he arrived in your Lordships’ House the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has spoken passionately about the role of credit unions, and with good reason. We all know about the activities of loan sharks. As my noble friend the Minister said in Committee, the Government place a high importance on access to affordable credit and believe that the use of credit unions should be encouraged as a means of saving and obtaining access to short-term loans.
Co-operation between Post Office Ltd and credit unions is already very strong and we support an even closer link-up between the Post Office and credit unions. We have demonstrated clear progress against this aim. The noble Lord’s amendment seeks details on that progress and I hope that I can give him some reassurance today. The Department for Work and Pensions recently announced a significant package of support for the credit union sector, including funding set aside for a shared credit union banking platform, which will be subject to a feasibility study, in which the Post Office will participate fully.
The Post Office also continues to develop individual services and assistance to facilitate close working with credit unions, including a new pay-out service which allows people to collect their credit union loans at their local post office branch, and guidance to facilitate local arrangements between post offices and credit unions where both parties wish to participate. These developments build upon existing arrangements whereby many credit union current account holders can access their accounts at post offices through arrangements with the Co-operative Bank. Post Office Ltd expects that around 170,000 credit union transactions will be carried out in post office branches in this way in the coming year. Facilities are also available at post offices whereby credit unions issue customers with a payment card, which they can use to pay off the loans they have received via the electronic bill payment facilities that are available at every post office. More than 60 credit unions have established this facility.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to the possibility of a debate. As he will understand, I can give no assurances on that because it is a matter for the usual channels.
As my noble friend the Minister said in Committee, we recognise the worthy intention behind the amendment and I hope the noble Lord will be reassured by the good work that is already under way in these areas. We will continue to encourage co-operation between the credit unions and Post Office Ltd and to support the Post Office in its provision of wider financial services. However, placing this reporting requirement—and, indeed, others tabled by noble Lords—in legislation would simply increase bureaucracy, and the greater the reporting requirement imposed on the Post Office the greater the cost and, therefore, the impact on its competitiveness.
With the reassurance that I have given today, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 47 withdrawn.
Amendments 48 and 49 not moved.
50: Clause 11, page 6, line 29, at end insert—
“( ) In subsection (2)(b) the reference to postal services includes postal services provided pursuant to arrangements made with a person who provides a universal postal service.”
Amendment 50 agreed.
Amendments 51 and 52 not moved.
53: Clause 11, page 7, line 5, at end insert—
“( ) A Post Office company’s duties under this section are enforceable in civil proceedings by the Secretary of State—
(a) for an injunction,(b) for specific performance under section 45 of the Court of Session Act 1988, or(c) for any other appropriate remedy or relief.”
Amendment 53 agreed.
54: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Annual report on postal museum collection and archive
(1) A Royal Mail company must send to the Secretary of State each year a report on its activities in relation to—
(a) the British Postal Museum Collection, and(b) the Royal Mail Archive.(2) Before preparing the report, the company must consult any Post Office company.
(3) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the report before Parliament.
(4) A Royal Mail company’s duties under this section are enforceable in civil proceedings by the Secretary of State—
(a) for an injunction,(b) for specific performance under section 45 of the Court of Session Act 1988, or(c) for any other appropriate remedy or relief.(5) This section applies irrespective of whether the British Postal Museum Collection or the Royal Mail Archive alters the name by which it is known or forms part of a wider collection or archive.”
My Lords, during an earlier debate on Amendment 54 the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, asked what was meant by a consultation with the Post Office company and I should like to respond to that point now. Amendment 54 will require Royal Mail to consult a Post Office company about its activities in relation to the proportion of the archive and museum collection for which it is responsible. I hope the noble Lord finds that helpful. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am most grateful for being guided on the procedures of the House and grateful to my noble friend for remembering that I raised this and providing me with the opportunity of coming to listen to her at this hour. I am still not absolutely certain that I understand what the process of consultation that she envisages will consist of, but at this late hour I would certainly not wish to press her any further than I have already.
Amendment 55 (to Amendment 54) not moved.
Amendment 54 agreed.
Clause 17 : Division of the RMPP into different sections
56: Clause 17, page 10, line 16, at end insert—
“( ) Before making an order under subsection (1)(c), the Secretary of State must obtain a certificate from the government actuary stating that in the actuary’s opinion, the allocation of assets between the different sections is appropriate having regard to the liabilities and obligations of each section.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 56, I will also speak to Amendment 57.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for his courteous and helpful letter that addressed several issues relating to the Royal Mail pension plan raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, my noble friend Lord Young and myself. I welcome the assurances that: the Government are developing a joint communication plan with the trustees so that members are provided with information on the benefits that will transfer to the new public service scheme ahead of that transfer; active members will receive a seamless service from the new public service scheme and the Royal Mail scheme, including the provision of combined benefits statements; benefits which transfer from the Royal Mail scheme to the new public scheme will be replicated exactly; the governance arrangements for the new public service scheme will be the subject of consultation with the trustees and members’ representatives; and the Government must consult the trustees on the use of powers set out in Clause 17. I welcome that and the Minister’s confirmation that I am correct in my understandings.
However, there remains a matter of continuing concern. The Bill gives the Secretary of State considerable powers to make amendments to the Royal Mail pension plan, including the smaller Royal Mail pension plan—I call it “Mark II”—that is post transfer of assets and liabilities to the new public service scheme. These powers include the ability to transfer assets between the Royal Mail scheme and the new public service scheme, to which accrued pension rights will be transferred, and to divide the Royal Mail scheme into different sections, to allocate assets between the different sections and to determine which company or companies is a participating employer in any given section—this in preparation for the sale, retention and restructuring of different parts of the business. I am concerned that the Bill does not allow for some balancing mechanism of protection for scheme members when the Secretary of State exercises those powers. These amendments seek to address that.
I accept that, on the setting up of the new public service scheme, the Bill limits the assets that the Secretary of State can transfer out of the Royal Mail scheme such that the ratio of assets to liabilities in the Royal Mail scheme is no worse immediately after the transfer of those assets than it was immediately before. However, the valuation of those liabilities and assets is to be done in a manner determined by the Secretary of State. There is no explicit role for the Royal Mail scheme trustees, acting on the advice of their scheme actuary, to exercise a judgment on whether the assets remaining in the Royal Mail scheme are adequate in terms of value or appropriate in terms of the types of assets retained or transferred. Similarly, under Clause 17, when the Secretary of State exercises his or her power to divide the Royal Mail pension plan into sections and to allocate assets and liabilities between those sections, there is again no explicit role for the trustees acting on the advice of the scheme actuary.
Amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Young in Committee sought to address this concern by strengthening the consultation rights of the trustees and involving the Pensions Regulator in any assessment of the transfer of assets and liabilities, particularly between the new sections of the Royal Mail pension scheme. Having reflected on that debate in Committee, I recognise that the Government would probably not want to give the Pensions Regulator the power to impose any methods, assumptions or penalties on the Secretary of State when transferring assets between schemes or sections of the Royal Mail pension plan. Similarly, the Government may well be reluctant to give the Royal Mail scheme trustees a potential power of veto on the transfer of pension assets, which could impact on the sale process itself. None the less, the concern remains that the Secretary of State retains considerable powers when it comes to determining the adequacy and appropriateness of the actual assets transferred.
The issues that we are dealing with here are fundamentally actuarial, ensuring that the assets of the Royal Mail pension plan and its sections are adequate and appropriate in terms of matching assets to liabilities. If these decisions have to be justifiable as a matter of actuarial opinion and the actuary concerned cannot be the Royal Mail scheme actuary acting for the trustees, the best candidate for the job in my view is the Government’s own actuary, GAD.
Amendment 56 to Clause 17 would address transfer of assets between the newly created sections of the Royal Mail scheme and Amendment 57 to Clause 21 would address assets transferred from the Royal Mail pension scheme to the public service scheme. The amendments would require the Secretary of State to obtain a certificate from the government actuary stating that in his opinion, in the first instance, the allocation of assets between the different sections is appropriate, having regard to the liabilities and obligations of each section and, in the second instance, the selection of assets transferred and the assets remaining in the Royal Mail scheme is appropriate, having regard to the liabilities and the obligations of the Royal Mail scheme and the new public service scheme established under Clause 16. In my view, requiring such a certificate from the government actuary would provide a form of protection to the scheme, its trustees and its members when the Secretary of State exercises his powers under Clauses 17 and 21.
The Secretary of State has very wide powers to allocate assets and liabilities and materially alter the strength of an employer covenant backing any of the new sections of the Royal Mail pension plan. These must be seen in the context that, under Clause 8, the Secretary of State has powers to transfer property rights and liabilities between the holding company and other companies that are wholly owned by the Crown, which may occur prior to, and be in preparation for, sale or mutualisation. These powers in Clause 8 could be exercised so as to have the effect of materially weakening the employer covenant supporting any section of the remaining smaller Royal Mail pension plan. To give an example, the Secretary of State could create a separate section of the Royal Mail scheme for Post Office Ltd under Clause 17 and determine which assets and liabilities are allocated to it. The Secretary of State also has the power to decide which assets and property rights are held by Post Office Ltd as a company under Clause 8. When these are taken together, they are considerable powers and reinforce the need for a protection mechanism for scheme members. I believe that certification from the Government’s actuary will provide, before assets and liabilities between schemes and sections are transferred, that degree of protection. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, for giving us another opportunity to discuss the vital provisions in the Bill on the RMPP. Amendment 56 relates to the selection of assets left with individual sections of the RMPP created under Clause 17. That clause allows the Secretary of State by order to divide the RMPP into sections. The Government intend that this power will be used to create a separate section in the RMPP for Post Office Ltd. This is necessary as Post Office Ltd will be separated from Royal Mail, because it is not part of the sale under Part 1 of the Bill. Amendment 57 relates to Clause 21 and the selection of assets left with the RMPP as a whole once the deficit is transferred to the Government.
Part 2 of the Bill will allow the Government to take over the historic deficit in the Royal Mail pension plan. We intend to do this by transferring approximately £35.9 billion of liabilities and £27.5 billion of assets from the RMPP to the Government. This means that Royal Mail will be left with an appropriately sized pension plan to manage.
We intend that only liabilities relating to the salary link—that is, real growth in salaries for active members—and ongoing pension accruals will be left with the RMPP. We estimate that the salary link portion will amount to approximately £1.5 billion of liabilities remaining with the RMPP at the point at which the Government implement the measures in Part 2. Subject to state aid clearance, we intend to fund fully the liabilities remaining with the RMPP at the point of transfer, which would mean the RMPP also retaining £1.5 billion of assets.
In dealing with both amendments, I want to provide some reassurance on the process that will be followed to transfer assets from the RMPP to the Government. Before any assets are transferred, a valuation of the RMPP will indeed be undertaken by the Government Actuary. That valuation will follow standard actuarial principles and reflect the assumptions agreed between the trustees and Royal Mail for the March 2009 triennial valuation. The output of that valuation will be an up-to-date view of the value of the assets and liabilities in the plan. As a result, there will be no benefit in value for the RMPP, or a section of it, in selecting one type of asset rather than another. As noble Lords have highlighted in their proposed amendments, however, it is important that careful consideration be given to the type of assets that are left with the RMPP and to how those assets might be allocated between the Royal Mail section and the Post Office Ltd section of the plan.
We fully recognise that the assets to be left with the RMPP, and the individual sections, should reflect the future investment strategy of the trustees, and that it should be the trustees, in consultation with the respective employers, who set that strategy, rather than the Government. Jane Newell, the chair of the RMPP trustees, stated during her evidence to the Public Bill Committee in the other place that she would look to engage with us on the selection of assets to be left with the RMPP. I assure noble Lords that officials, with advice from the Government Actuary’s Department, have indeed been engaging with the trustees of the RMPP and are making good progress. Indeed, the Government are obliged under Clause 24 to consult the trustees before any orders are made under Part 2 of the Bill.
It is also important to bear in mind that the trustees would be free to sell any assets left by the Government and to change their investment strategy as they see fit. Of course, given the costs that this would involve, it is in everyone’s interest that we continue to work with the trustees to reach a satisfactory agreement on this issue.
I understand that concerns have been raised—the noble Lord, Lord Young, and I have corresponded on this—that the Government may seek to make changes to the RMPP by way of the powers in Part 2, even after the pensions changes that I have described have been implemented. I am happy to make clear that the Government intend to use these powers on a one-off basis only, and have no intention of making any substantive changes to the RMPP under Clauses 17 or 18 after the implementation of the pensions solution.
Queries have also been raised over how Clause 8 might interact with the Part 2 provisions. Clause 8 provides for the reorganisation of the property rights and liabilities of Royal Mail companies. As the assets of the RMPP are held on trust for the benefit of the members of the scheme, Clause 8 would not be used in a way that would affect the allocation of assets within the RMPP. I assure your Lordships that the Government have absolutely no intention of using Clause 8 powers in a way that would weaken the employer covenant of the scheme. I hope I have sufficiently reassured noble Lords opposite that the proposed amendments are not necessary, and that they will therefore feel able to withdraw Amendment 56 and not move Amendment 57.
I thank the Minister for that detailed response. I am conscious of the lateness of the hour and that the detail of pension valuations is not everyone’s cup of tea. I took from what the Minister said that the Government’s actuaries will be involved in making a full assessment of the value and type of assets in relation to liabilities before any transfers are made under Clauses 17 and 21. It would be very helpful for the record to show that. That is exactly what I sought to achieve.
I noted the assurance that the Government would not seek to deploy Clause 18 in a way that weakened the employer covenant. Wholly hypothetically, if Post Office Counters did not retain the Crown offices on its balance sheets and did not get a good settlement on the transfer of assets and liabilities, my concern is that the combined effect would not be very helpful to the members in that section of the Royal Mail scheme. However, the Minister has given assurances that that is not the Government’s intention, and that they will actively seek to ensure that the application of Clause 18 does not weaken the employer covenant behind any of the sections. Those assurances are very helpful and, if the record shows them, I can withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 56 withdrawn.
Clause 21 : Restriction on power to transfer assets
Amendment 57 not moved.
Consideration on Report adjourned.
House adjourned at 10.18 pm.