HC Deb 22 June 1994 vol 245 cc222-4
8. Mr. Barnes

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what representations he has received concerning the future of the Post Office since 19 May.

Mr. McLoughlin

My Department has received approximately 830 representations since 19 May expressing a range of views on the future of the Post Office. These matters will be addressed in the Green Paper, which will be published shortly.

Mr. Barnes

Will the Minister give me a categorical assurance that there will be no VAT on parcels, no further closures of rural post offices and no worsening of this great public service? Why does not he follow the views of the Union of Communication Workers, which seeks commercial freedom for the Post Office, not its destruction by elements of privatisation?

Mr. McLoughlin

If the Union of Communication Workers adopts the same stance as that taken by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, it is most unlikely that I will agree with anything that it says.

We have looked hard at the issue of VAT on stamps; we have consulted the European Commission; we are satisfied that privatisation will not mean the imposition of VAT. As for rural post offices, the hon. Gentleman should be thinking about how to give them more work so as to ensure that people want to take them on. Of the 20,000 post offices, 19,000 are in the private sector. I want them to succeed and to get the increased business that they require so as to ensure that people want to take them on as viable businesses.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Post Office is one of the world's finest distribution companies but that if it is to prosper it must be allowed greater access to capital markets for investment and expansion? Does not he think that the best way to ensure the future of rural post offices is to unshackle the Post Office from state ownership?

Mr. McLoughlin

As I have said, we shall shortly publish a Green Paper outlining a number of options for consideration. We shall say in that Green Paper which is our favoured option. If rural post offices are to survive, we need to find a way to ensure that people are prepared to take them on as businesses. Some 19,000 post offices are in the private sector. Usually, rural post offices close because nobody wishes to take on those ventures.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Does the Minister recognise that the President of the Board of Trade has stirred up a hornets' nest on this issue and that people are genuinely angered? Why do not the Government concentrate on building a successful public enterprise with the requisite commercial freedom?

Mr. McLoughlin

The only people stirring up a hornets' nest on this are those in the Labour party who consistently say that somehow rural post offices are under threat. They speak as if the status quo is an option and say that the universal service and the universal tariff are under threat. There is no threat to either.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fears expressed about the Post Office are precisely the same as those that were expressed by the same people when British Telecom was privatised? Does he also agree that wherever privatisation has taken place there has been increased investment, improved productivity and a much better service for the customer?

Mr. McLoughlin

My hon. Friend rightly points to what has happened with British Telecom. My hon. Friends will remember that when we were privatising British Telecom we were consistently told by the Opposition that it would mean an end of all rural phone boxes because they would not be maintained. There are now more rural phone boxes and, even more remarkable, they actually work.

Mr. Robin Cook

If consultation on the forthcoming Green Paper confirms that the great majority of the Post Office's customers do not want it to be privatised, will the Government accept their verdict? Is the answer yes or no?

Mr. McLoughlin

The hon. Gentleman wants a yes or no answer. When does he intend to give us a yes or no as to whether he supports the rail strike? Indeed, when will any member of the shadow Cabinet give us a yes or no answer—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been asked a question. He is a member of the Executive and he has a duty to answer it.

Mr. McLoughlin

We shall, of course, take note of what is said in the light of the publication of the Green Paper, but we will also want to make sure that our proposals will ensure a good future for the Post Office. There are some serious questions to be asked about that. Even the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, an all-party committee, said that the status quo was not an option.

Lady Olga Maitland

Has my hon. Friend seen the comment by the chairman of the Post Office that the only way to a really secure future for the Post Office is for it to offer a wider range of services? Is not the campaign by the Labour party to scaremonger people into believing that rural post offices will be closed absolutely disgraceful?

Mr. McLoughlin

I have gone a long way to try to assure my hon. Friends and the House about my commitment and that of the Government on the question of a nationwide network of post offices. Unlike both the Opposition parties, ours was the only party to spell out in our manifesto the importance that we attach to a nationwide network of post offices. This week, the chairman of the Post Office rightly told us about some of the problems faced by the Post Office because of current restraints.

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