HC Deb 01 April 1981 vol 2 cc541-2
Mr. Charles R. Morris

I beg to move amendment No. 66, in page 54, line 24, leave out from 'addressee' to end of line 26.

This is a minor amendment. It is not my intention to detain the House at any great length. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the delivery of hard copy transmitted by telecommunications as part of an electronic mail service will be covered by the postal monopoly.

I am informed that the Post Office board itself is equally concerned about the amendment and I am anxious that the Minister should respond favourably to it.

The first and most obvious point about the amendment is that there is no need for the Government to take a decision now about this matter. I suggest that it would be preferable for the Government to monitor developments and to take suitable action later if required. Let us suppose that it was decided that it would be desirable for the hard copy to be delivered either by telecommunications staff or by private operator. There would then be power under clause 66 to grant a licence specifically for that purpose. To that extent clause 64(5)(c) is unnecessary. There are more serious arguments against it as well, for it chips away at the basic letter monopoly, potentially damaging the viability of the letter service.

There is no question of the postal service gaining the monopoly of electronic mail at all stages of its progress through the system, if only because transmission by electronic means lies fairly and squarely within the British Telecommunications monopoly under clause 12. However, transmission is likely to be dependent on British Telecommunications' purchasing service by payment for circuits just like any other licensee. For these reasons, I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

I have listened carefully to the arguments advanced by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris) as I did in Committee. However, I continue to believe that giving the Post Office the exclusive privilege over the delivery of hard-copy electronic mail could act as a serious deterrent to the development of this important new form of communication. As I said in Committee, we must remember that it will be not only the Post Office that will provide electronic mail services that involve a hard copy stage.

Under clause 15 the Secretary of State will be able to issue licences to private operators to run these services. If we were to allow the amendment those private operators would be faced with a situation where, although they could transmit messages electonically from one end of the country to the other, they would not be able to deliver those messages physically to their final destination but would be dependent for that on the Post Office. The amendment would even prevent the delivery to third parties of telex messages, and this now happens.

The right hon. Gentleman has argued that the Post Office will lose possibly as much as 25 per cent. of its traffic if its monopoly is not extended in this way. That need not necessarily be so. The Post Office already has a nation-wide network for the delivery of mail and thus has a distinct advantage over any potential competitors in this area. It should not therefore fear that competition but should be able to meet it.

The right hon. Gentleman argued once again that it was not necessary for us to exclude hard-copy electronic mail from the monopoly now, because we could use the powers under clauses 66 and 67 to license private operators or to suspend the monopoly if the Post Office service proved to be inadequate. I cannot agree. I am sure that if we were to take that line and to give the Post Office the monopoly over the delivery of hard-copy electronic mail, private operators would be deterred from setting up that sort of electronic mail service. As a result there would be little or no call on the Post Office service in this respect and we would therefore never be able to judge its adequacy.

As I said in Committee, I have not taken this decision lightly. I have considered it very carefully and I remain firmly of the view that to give the Post Office the monopoly over the delivery of hard-copy electronic mail would have a potentially very damaging effect on that extremely important new form of communication. I must therefore ask my hon. Friends to resist the amendment.

Amendment negatived.

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