HC Deb 29 March 1976 vol 908 cc881-4
13. Mr. Jessel

asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will make a statement defining his statutory powers for controlling Post Office charges.

The Minister of State, Department of Industry (Mr. Gregor Mackenzie)

My right hon. Friend has a limited power under paragraph 102 of the Price Code to restrict Post Office charges below what the Code would otherwise permit.

Mr. Jessel

As the Post Office has already to some extent priced itself out of the market with its exorbitant charges for letters, telegrams, parcels and telephone calls, why does not the Minister make more use of the powers he has or, if they are not sufficient, why does he not seek more powers in the public interest?

Mr. Mackenzie

The hon. Gentleman will know of the limitations of the Price Code, which are very limiting for us, and he must be aware also, with reference to the general topic which he raises, that there are no powers under the Post Office Act which allow Ministers to interfere in all the matters to which he refers. It sounds good stuff to suggest that the Post Office is pricing itself out of the market, but the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends cannot have it both ways: they cannot tell me that I have to run the Post Office in a certain way and at the same time urge me to interfere in matters of this kind.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Cannot my hon. Friend do something to improve the situation? Does he not realise that 50 years ago, without modern appliances such as electronic machines, motor vehicles, fast trains and the rest, the British people had a faster and better service for the equivalent then, I think, of one old penny or 1½? old pence, yet now, with as much as 1,800 per cent, increase, the postal service is now worse? If my hon. Friend cannot reduce prices, can he not either get rid of the Chairman of the Post Office Corporation or do something else to improve the situation?

Mr. Mackenzie

I know of my hon. Friend's interest in the Post Office over many years, an interest which I have not always found terribly helpful, but I must ask him to recognise that we have a very good postal service in this country. It compares extremely favourably with that in many other countries of Western Europe.

Mr. Tom King

From the figures which the Minister of State gave me last week, is it not clear that the increase in telegram charges has resulted in a fall of 40 per cent. in traffic, and is it not clear also that the increased charges now proposed for parcels are at least likely to lead to the end of the Post Office parcels service—a fear already expressed by the trade union leaders concerned? Can the Minister stand completely aside in such a situation?

Mr. Mackenzie

We have to be guided, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, by the Post Office Act, and the whole question of the parcels service and representations made about it by the POUNC have been considered by my right hon. Friend.

14. Mr. Stonehouse

asked the Secretary of State for Industry what is the expected deficit in the Post Office for the current year; and what changes in tariffs in telecommunications and postal services he expects in consequence.

Mr. Gregor Mackenzie

Present indications are that the Post Office will make a modest profit in the current financial year. Proposals for increases in inland postal tariffs to take effect early in 1976–77 have been made to the Price Commission. In addition, some overseas postal prices are being increased to meet higher payments to other countries under new Universal Postal Union tariff regulations.

Mr. Stonehouse

I welcome the prospect of a small surplus, but is it not true that two of the main reasons for setting up the Corporation eight years ago were, first, to achieve greater efficiency and, second, to achieve closer touch with the consumer? Is it not plain that neither of those two objectives has yet been achieved, so how can the Minister afford to stand aside and allow the Post Office to continue to decline and become more inefficient in the way it is doing?

Mr. Mackenzie

With respect, no one knows the Post Office Act better than does my right hon. Friend, who put it through the House of Commons, and he will know that one of the reasons why we do not interfere is that it is implicit in the Act that there should be a measure of commercial freedom given to the Post Office. We do not believe that the Post Office is less efficient than it was when my right hon. Friend was Postmaster-General, and I think it reflects very badly on him to suggest that of the people who work there.

Mr. William Hamilton

Despite the shortcomings of the Post Office, which I think everyone accepts, does not my hon. Friend agree that our postal service is probably the most efficient in the world, and that anyone who has travelled in North America or Europe knows that to be so?

Mr. Mackenzie

I agree with my hon. Friend, and in this connection I have in mind an article that appeared in The Guardian a few weeks ago, making comparisons between the Post Office service in this country and that in other countries of Western Europe and showing that on price and efficiency this country came out exceedingly well. In my view, our Post Office should be congratulated on that.

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