HC Deb 21 July 1993 vol 229 cc334-5
2. Ms Estelle Morris

To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement on the application of European Community regulations and developments to Post Office activities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Technology (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

There are at present no European Community regulations which apply specifically to the Post Office, although the European Commission published a range of proposals in its green paper on the development of the single market for postal services in June 1992, which have been subject to widespread consultation. There is also a considerable range of European Community directives which have some bearing on the activities of the Post Office and with which the Post Office seeks to comply.

Ms Morris

Does the Minister accept that Britain, with the most profitable and efficient postal service in Europe, is well placed to benefit in a single market? Does he agree that the Post Office needs a clear assurance about its future organisation, freedom to invest in and develop services, and a firm commitment to universal delivery? When will the Government come off the fence and give the Post Office the backing it deserves?

Mr. McLoughlin

There is no question about giving the Post Office the backing that it deserves. Indeed, the Post Office had a good year last year, as its results showed. We have consistently made it clear that the maintenance of a nationwide delivery network with delivery to every address in the United Kingdom is of paramount importance. I agree with the hon. Lady that there are certainly opportunities for the Post Office within the single market.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Will my hon. Friend renew the assurance that has been given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that pensioners will be able to cash pensions at post offices as well as perhaps through banks, if they wish to do so? Will he join me in deploring the Labour party's continuing campaign to frighten pensioners into believing that they may not be able to cash their pension at a post office?

Mr. McLoughlin

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. No pensioner or other benefit recipient will be forced to use automated credit transfer. We have made it clear that those people who wish to collect their benefits from post offices will be able to do so. Indeed, as we have said several times, the amount of business transacted through the post offices on behalf of the Government increased in each of the past three years.

Mr. Beggs

Is there anything in European Community regulations to prevent the delivery free of charge of talking newspapers to the blind and partially sighted? Will the Minister guarantee today that, if proposals are made to privatise post office services, such a service will continue to be provided free to the blind and partially sighted?

Mr. McLoughlin

I know of no proposals from the Commission that would put any restrictions on the service that is provided. As I have often said, when we come to make our full decisions on the Post Office, the House will be the first to be informed. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the point that he has raised will be dealt with carefully.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Irrespective of what the EC has to say about post offices, will my hon. Friend give an assurance that, in any changes, due regard will be given to the importance of post offices in rural areas? In many rural areas, the post office is the only shop that is there giving a service to rural people. Perhaps, in any future changes to post offices, we could consider widening the services that they can provide to rural people.

Mr. McLoughlin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right about the provision of post offices in rural areas. Indeed, my constituency is similar to his in some respects. There are many rural post offices. It is worth remembering that most rural post offices are in private hands and have a great deal of flexibility in the services that they can provide.

Mr. Robin Cook

Will the Minister explain how he can square his claim that the Government back the Post Office with the Government's instruction to the Post Office to treble the pay-out that is clawed back to the Treasury? Does he recognise that the Post Office can achieve such a dramatic increase only if it shoves up the price of stamps? Is he aware of the rumours that that is what the Post Office intends to do next month? Does he appreciate that, if it does so, the Government will have imposed a new stamp tax which will shove up the price of sending a letter for everyone who uses the Post Office?

Mr. McLoughlin

I shall not go into the details of the price rises that were inflicted by the Post Office between 1974 and 1979. The Post Office is an efficient organisation, and it has made a return to the taxpayer. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman might welcome that.