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Marine Wildlife Protection Bill

Mrs. Helen Brinton accordingly presented a Bill to enable local authorities to prohibit the use of motorised marine leisure vessels in coastal areas for the purposes of protecting marine wildlife and promoting safety; and to make it an offence recklessly or intentionally to disturb marine wildlife: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be a read a Second time on Friday 7 April, and to be printed [Bill 69].

15 Feb 2000 : Column 802

Orders of the Day

Postal Services Bill

[Relevant documents: The Twelfth Report from the Trade and Industry Committee, Session 1998-99, on the 1999 Post Office White Paper, HC 94, and the Government's response thereto, HC 50 of Session 1999-2000.]

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Before I call the Secretary of State, I say to the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. I remind the House that there is a 10-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches in the debate.

5.23 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Resign!

Mr. Byers: I thank the hon. Gentleman. That is my usual welcome to the Dispatch Box.

As hon. Members will know, the Government are committed to the modernisation and reform of public services, and the Bill is part of our programme for ensuring that the country has a postal service that is fit for the 21st century. It will establish a modern Post Office that is able to grow as a significant global player and to meet the enormous challenges now arising in the rapidly changing national and international markets. It will provide a firm basis for competition in the postal services market and a better deal for consumers, including the socially disadvantaged.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): When he mentioned competition, the Secretary of State triggered in my mind a thought that I should like to put to him. He will be aware that the Benefits Agency contract with the Post Office will expire in a number of years and that, after that, the Post Office will have to compete for that contract. He will also be aware that many sub-post offices rely on that contract for their viability: nearly half the sub-post offices in my constituency derive 40 per cent. of their income from it. Will he guarantee that the Horizon project, which is essential to the modernisation of our post offices, will have been implemented and will be operating effectively before the Benefits Agency contract is relinquished?

Mr. Byers: I am delighted to have been able to trigger a thought in the hon. Gentleman's mind--that is pretty good going. If the Government have not done so, I welcome the opportunity to make it clear that we expect Horizon to be fully operational in all post offices by 2001. I shall give details later in my speech of the measures that we want to introduce in the Post Office network. That is a matter of concern to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, so it is right that we devote some time to debating the Government's policies to support the network of post offices.

The Bill will ensure that we have a strong Post Office that is better able to serve all its customers in all parts of the country. We believe that our proposal is important,

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because it shows that we value the Post Office. We have tabled a package of reforms, of which the Bill is only one part, that will maintain and improve postal services in this country and enable the business to become a world player. Under the Bill, the Post Office will enjoy commercial freedom, while remaining in public ownership. That model has operated successfully elsewhere: Sweden and Denmark have shown that it is possible to give a post office commercial freedom, while keeping it in the public sector, increasing competition and guaranteeing a universal service.

The Bill completes the implementation of the package of reforms set out in the Government White Paper on Post Office reform which I published in July last year. The Bill has been widely welcomed, as was the White Paper. The chairman of the Post Office, Neville Bain, said:

The postal users watchdog said that the Bill provided consumers with

    "a real avenue of redress for any failure in service",

and it welcomed the emphasis on increased competition and choice. The Communication Workers Union hailed the Bill as

    "a victory for common sense."

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): The Minister mentions the watchdog, but can he explain the logic behind the abolition of the Post Office Users Council for Scotland and the creation of a UK-wide consumers council? I accept that the Post Office is a reserved matter, but such an arrangement seems to fly in the face of devolution.

Mr. Byers: I understand that concern. Within the UK-wide structure, there will be a specific committee to deal with Scotland. I hope that that goes some way to meeting concerns raised about the postal service in Scotland. That committee will be powerful within the overall umbrella of the new UK-wide consumers watchdog. When the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to examine our proposals, I hope that he will agree that mechanisms will be in place guaranteeing that consumers in Scotland and in the regions of England and Wales are able to express their views on the quality of postal services provided.

The Bill has four main objectives. It will give the Post Office the scope to modernise and run a fully commercial business in the 21st century. It will achieve that by converting it from a statutory corporation to a public limited company, with ownership remaining with the Crown. That will complement the greater financial flexibility that we intend to give the Post Office.

The measure will promote competition by establishing a regulator, which will reduce the part of the market that is reserved largely as a monopoly for the Post Office. The reserved area will be reduced and opened to competitors to the extent that the universal service obligation will continue to be fulfilled.

The Bill will put consumers first by establishing a new independent regulator and a new consumer council. Both will have strong powers to protect and promote the

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interests of those who use postal services. The Bill will reinforce the Government's commitment to a modern counters network, which will ensure reasonable access to the counter services offered by the Post Office.

Part I creates a new regulator, which will be known as the Postal Services Commission. The commission's duty will be to ensure a universal postal service and to look after consumers' interests.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will my right hon. Friend comment on one of the most difficult issues: the potential closure of sub-post offices? It is believed that local communities' ability to oppose such closures is insufficient. Can the new regulator beef up the procedures?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I shall tackle in detail the new procedures that we want to establish for the network. It is convenient to close sub-post offices because there are no access criteria for judging such a decision. The new access criteria that we intend to establish for the first time are important because they will constitute a benchmark against which such decisions can be measured. They will be established when the performance and innovation unit of the Cabinet Office produces its report sometime after Easter.

In a matter of months, we shall produce access criteria for the first time. The Conservative party did nothing about such criteria in 19 years of office. That is the record of Opposition Members. Most people will be prepared to wait a few months for access criteria.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) rose--

Mr. Peter Bottomley rose--

Mr. Byers: I must make progress.

Mr. Bottomley: Will the Secretary of State give way on the point that he is making?

Mr. Byers: No, no, no. I must make progress because there is a 10-minute restriction on Back-Bench speeches and I want to allow Back-Bench Members to contribute to the debate.

Mr. Bottomley rose--

Mr. Byers: If the hon. Gentleman catches my eye when I specifically deal with the counters network, I shall give way to him. I shall address access criteria later, and I shall be more than willing to give way to him then.

The Postal Services Commission will be responsible for a new licensing regime for postal services in the reserved area. It will regulate prices, enforce high standards and improve choice through greater licensed competition. The Post Office will initially be licensed to operate in what is currently its monopoly area. However, others will be able to apply for licenses to carry out services in that reserved area. That process is described in part II.

As well as being able to promote regulated competition, the Commission will be able to propose reductions in the scope of the reserved market area. By introducing competition in that way, we will stimulate greater innovation and lower prices, and promote better services

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for customers. When competition does not provide effective protection of consumer interests, the Bill will give the regulator new duties and powers to promote consumer interests, regulate prices and ensure a high standard of service to all users.

Part I makes it the new regulator's duty to ensure provision of the universal service at a uniform tariff. That will provide for the first time in law that the cost of a stamp will be the same anywhere in the United Kingdom, regardless of the distance of delivery.

The Post Office will be required to provide the universal service through a licence condition. The service will include daily delivery to all addresses at an affordable, uniform tariff.

Part III provides further protection for consumers through the replacement of the Post Office Users National Council. We shall create a new Consumer Council for Postal Services. It will be given the same powers as the new consumer councils that are being established in the energy and telecoms markets--including wider access to relevant information from the Post Office--to enable it to do its job effectively. For the first time, there will be a single national body for postal users. In that national framework, the Bill also requires the consumer council to set up separate committees for Wales, for Scotland and for Northern Ireland and allows for regional committees to be established for England. I believe that those measures will give consumers the powerful voice that they have lacked for so many years.

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