HC Deb 04 February 1976 vol 904 cc1209-16

3.59 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Post Office Act 1969. The Post Office has a monopoly, protected by law, for the collection and delivery of all letters in the United Kingdom. That monopoly does not extend to parcels or newspapers. They can be, and are, collected by other agencies, individuals and charities.

The Bill which I seek to introduce would repeal Sections 3 and 4 of the Post Office Act 1953 and Section 23 of the Post Office Act 1959. Those sections give to the Corporation its exclusive monopoly and provide the penalty of a fine of £5 for every letter delivered in violation of the monopoly.

The Second Report of the Select Commitee on Nationalised Industries, which was published yesterday, records that during the past 10 years the tariff for first-class letters had quadrupled, the quality of the service had deteriorated and the traffic had declined. The Report continues: Against a background of increasing deficit, declining letter traffic, inflation, labour intensive operations and growing commitments, it is clear that urgent and radical action is required in respect of Post Office activities in general, and of the letter post in particular. I do not want to be guilty of selective quotation, and honesty compels me to admit that the Select Committee also recommended that the Post Office's monopoly of letter post services should continue to be protected.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

A unanimous recommendation.

Hon. Members


Mr. Gow

It is precisely that recommendation that I wish to challenge. We are deeply suspicious of monopolies in general and of State monopolies in particular.

It is true that there is growing public dissatisfaction with both the cost and the reliability of the letter post service. There were two increases in postal charges in 1975, one in April and one in October. The Post Office estimates that during the current year, as a direct result of those two increases, there will be a loss of business to the extent of 834 million fewer letters. Despite official denials to the contrary, it is likely that the cost of first-class mail will increase again within the next few months from 8½p to 10½p. If that further increase should take place, the cost of the first-class post in England will be higher than in any other country in Western Europe with the sole exception of Norway.

It is the spiralling cost of the letter post which has given added impetus to the growing demand to end this State monopoly. Such a monopoly is unresponsive to the needs of the public whom it is supposed to serve. That is why my hon. Friend believes that the fresh breezes of free enterprise and free competition should be allowed to blow through the Post Office, with advantage both to the Corporation and to the public.

Business mail represents 80 per cent. of the letters that are posted. More and more businesses are seeking ways of getting round this statutory monopoly. Last June the Bristol Law Society—we know how much the Law Society commends itself to the Labour Party—started a mail collection and distribution service by installing 100 post office-style boxes in the Commercial Rooms in Bristol. Members of the scheme included insurance companies, building societies, the Avon County Council and employment agencies. The service is confined to dealing with mail sent between those organisations within the city. Members of the scheme pay £25 initially to purchase a box and an annual subscription of £7 thereafter. A member organisation sends someone to the Commercial Rooms to post mail for each of the other members and to collect the mail for his own firm. Members of the scheme estimate that their savings in postal charges are between £1 and £2 a week. The Post Office has followed the lead which has been given by free enterprise by adopting a similar private scheme of its own.

In the United States there is no monopoly for second, third and fourth-class mail. Even the remaining first-class mail monopoly in the United States is under increasing attack. Only last month the President's Council on Wage and Price Stability recommended that the monopoly should be brought to an end.

The Post Office monopoly is not only damaging to our commercial life but deals hammer-blows to charities. Last October the vicar of St. Peter's Church, Elworth, Cheshire, put the following notice in his church magazine: Many people send local Christmas cards … I suggest a system by which members of the church might offer a delivery service in the Sandbach area. Cards could be left at the back of the church in a box to be delivered in the next week. In the next edition of the church magazine the vicar wrote: Towards the end of last week I had a visit from the Sandbach Postmaster"— some latter-day Gauleiter. The purpose of his visit was to inform me that our proposed St. Peter's post scheme"— a scheme that I am sure is dear to you, Mr. Speaker— which had some publicity recently, would be infringing the Post Office monopoly, and would therefore be breaking the law. A Mrs. Pinder-White, who lives in Kent and who is a champion of the lonely senior citizen, planned to organise a Christmas card delivery service for old-age pensioners in Broadstairs. She received a letter from the Minister of State, Department of Industry informing her that the Post Office could not allow her scheme to go ahead. It is surprising that the Minister, who is normally so courteous and genial in the House, saw fit to write: I know I must sound like Scrooge and it would be much easier for the Post Office and myself to say 'yes'. But the general financial health and effectiveness of the Post Office must be my first concern. That is the trouble. The Minister and the Government are much more concerned with the Post Office than with the public whom they are supposed to serve.

The Bill is in no way critical of postmen. They are loyal, popular and hardworking members of our community. The Bill is critical of an inefficient, costly, unresponsive and loss-making State monopoly. The Government have refused to allow the Post Office Review Committee to include in its terms of reference whether the statutory monopoly should be broken. The Bill seeks to put that right.

Competition and the disciplines of the market economy, feared and detested by bureaucrats and monopolies of every kind, are the truest friends and the surest protectors of the people. The Bill asserts the supremacy of the public interest over an increasingly discredited and inadequate bureaucracy.

4.8 p.m.

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I declare my interest as assistant secretary of the Post Office Engineering Union, but I speak for the interests of all those who have a national postal service at heart.

Yesterday the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries reported after receiving evidence from a wide variety of sources, including the Post Office Users National Council, that the monopoly should in no way be infringed. I repeat that the Post Office Users National Council gave evidence to that effect. The reason why it did so was quite obvious. It reprsents all users of the postal service. It is not solely representative of commercial companies in the City of London or Bristol.

It is true that substantial payments have been made to the Post Office by the taxpayer over the last two or three years, due to the policy of the last Tory Administration in deciding that postal charges should be pegged below an economic level.

Were the proposals contained in the Bill to become law—which they will not—an immediate consequence would be the creaming-off to private companies of the profitable business of the postal service, leaving the unprofitable business to the State. Whereas some private commercial concerns would get their service perhaps marginally cheaper, the unprofitable, uneconomic provision of postal services to the ordinary citizen—especially to those who live in the country—would be much more costly. The level of service could also be subject to cuts.

The issue, therefore, is very clear. It is whether harm is to be done to the ordinary user of the postal service because of the greed of the business community. It is my belief that we have to maintain a national postal monopoly in the interests of the small private user. That is not only the view of the Post Office and the Post Office unions, who want to give the best service possible, but is also the view of the Post Office Users National Council. It is a view with which I concur.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring

in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 155, Noes 166.

Division No. 50.] AYES [4.10 p.m
A[...]tken, Jonathan Grieve, Percy Nott, John
Arnold, Tom Grist, Ian Onslow, Cranley
Banks, Robert Hall, Sir John Oppenheim, Mrs Sally
Bell, Ronald Hall-Davis, A. G. F. Page, John (Harrow West)
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay) Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
Benyon, W. Hampson, Dr Keith Pattle, Geoffrey
Berry, Hon Anthony Hannam, John Penhaligon, David
Blaker, Peter Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hawkins, Paul Price, David (Eastleigh)
Bottomley, Peter Hayhoe, Barney Rathbone, Tim
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) Henderson, Douglas Rees-Davies, W. R.
Braine, Sir Bernard Holland, Philip Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Brittan, Leon Hooson, Emlyn Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)
Brocklebank-Fowler, C. Hordern, Peter Rifkind, Malcolm
Brotherton, Michael Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Jessel, Toby Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Buchanan-Smith, Alick Jones, Arthur (Daventry) Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)
Budgen, Nick Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Burden, F. A. Kershaw, Anthony Ross, William (Londonderry)
Carlisle, Mark Kimball, Marcus Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Chalker, Mrs Lynda King, Evelyn (South Dorset) St. John-Stevas, Norman
Channon, Paul Kitson, Sir Timothy Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Knight, Mrs Jill Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W) Lament, Norman Shelton, William (Streatham)
Cope, John Langford-Holt, Sir John Silvester, Fred
Cordle, John H. Latham, Michael (Melton) Sims, Roger
Corrie, John Lawrence, Ivan Sinclair, Sir George
Costain, A. P. Lawson, Nigel Skeet, T. H. H.
Crouch, David Le Marchant, Spencer Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Dean,Paul (N Somerset) Lester, Jim (Beeston) Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Dodsworth, Geoffrey Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Sproat, Iain
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Lloyd, Ian Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Drayson, Burnaby Luce, Richard Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward McAdden, Sir Stephen Stonehouse, Rt Hon John
Durant, Tony Macfarlane, Neil Stradling Thomas, J.
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) Mather, Carol Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Elliott, Sir William Maxwell-Hys[...]op, Robin Tebbit, Norman
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Mayhew, Patrick Thompson, George
Eyre, Reginald Meyer, Sir Anthony Tugendhat, Christopher
Fairbairn, Nicholas Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) van Straubenzee, W. R.
Fairgrieve, Russell Mills, Peter Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Fell, Anthony Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Walters, Dennis
Fisher, Sir Nigel Moate Roger Watt, Hamish
Fookes, Miss Janet Monro, Hector Weatherill, Bernard
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St) Montgomery, Fergus Welsh, Andrew
Freud, Clement Moore, John (Croydon C) Wiggin, Jerry
Gardiner, George (Reigate) More, Jasper (Ludlow) Wigley, Dafydd
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Morgan, Geraint Winterton, Nicholas
Goodhart, Philip Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Younger, Hon George
Goodhew, Victor Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Mudd, David
Grant, Anthony (Harrow C) Neubert, Michael Mr. Nicholas Ridley and
Gray, Hamish Newton, Tony Mr. Ian Gow.
Archer, Peter Carson, John Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)
Armstrong, Ernest Carter-Jones, Lewis Deakins, Eric
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Cartwright, John Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)
Atkinson, Norman Clemitson, Ivor Dempsey, James
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Dormand, J. D.
Bishop, E. S. Cohen, Stanley Douglas-Mann, Bruce
Blenkinsop, Arthur Colquhoun, Mrs Maureen Dunlop, John
Booth, Albert Conlan, Bernard Dunn, James A.
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Eadie, Alex
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Corbett, Robin Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE)
Buchan, Norman Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)
Buchanan, Richard Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) English, Michael
Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green) Crawshaw, Richard Ewing, Harry (Stirling)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Cryer, Bob Faulds, Andrew
Canavan, Dennis Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Fernyhough, Rt Hn E.
Cant, R. B. Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiten) Flannery, Martin
Carmichael, Nell Davidson, Arthur Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) MacCormick, Iain Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Forrester, John McEIhone, Frank Snape, Peter
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) MacFarquhar, Roderick Spriggs, Leslie
Freeson, Reginald McGuire, Michael (Ince) Stallard, A. W.
George, Bruce Mackenzie, Gregor Stoddart, David
Ginsburg, David McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Strang, Gavin
Gould, Bryan McNamara, Kevin Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Graham, Ted Madden, Max Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
Grant, George (Morpeth) Mahon, Simon Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Grocott, Bruce Mallalieu, J. P. W. Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Marks, Kenneth Tierney, Sydney
Hardy, Peter Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Tinn, James
Harper, Joseph Maynard, Miss Joan Tomlinson, John
Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Torney, Tom
Hayman, Mrs Helene Mendelson, John Tuck, Raphael
Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) Urwin, T. W.
Huckfield, Les Moonman, Eric Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Hunter, Adam Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Newens, Stanley Ward, Michael
Janner, Greville Noble, Mike Watkins, David
Jay, Rt Hon Douglas O'Halloran, Michael Watkinson, John
Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Orbach, Maurice White, Frank R. (Bury)
Johnson, James (Hull West) Ovenden, John Whitlock, William
Jones, Barry (East Flint) Park, George Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Pavitt, Laurie Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Kelley, Richard Peart, Rt Hon Fred Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Kerr, Russell Pendry, Tom Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Perry, Ernest Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Lamborn, Harry Richardson, Miss Jo Wise, Mrs Audrey
Lamond, James Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Woodall, Alec
Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Robertson, John (Paisley) Woof, Robert
Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Rodgers, George (Chorley) Wrigglesworth, Ian
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Rooker, J. W. Young, David (Bolton E)
Lipton, Marcus Sedgemore, Brian Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Litterick, Tom Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Loyden, Eddie Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Luard, Evan Silverman, Julius Mr. John Golding and
Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Skinner, Dennis Mr. Roger Stott.
Mabon, Dr J. Dickson Small, William

Question accordingly negatived.