HC Deb 11 May 1994 vol 243 cc309-10
9. Mr. Hicks

To ask the President of the Board of Trade whether he proposes to introduce any changes in the administration and operation of the Post Office; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Heseltine

That is being considered as part of the Post Office review.

Mr. Hicks

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge, however, that in rural areas especially there is genuine apprehension about the possible introduction of fundamental changes that could adversely affect not only the sub-post office network but the Royal Mail delivery service, and in particular the uniform standard charge? Is not it possible for the Department to come to some agreement with the Treasury to lift the existing Treasury constraints to give the Post Office the commercial freedom that we all acknowledge that it needs as we approach the 21st century, so that we do not have to go through with the suggested fundamental reorganisation?

Mr. Heseltine

I know of my hon. Friend's concern, but he will also know of the Select Committee's unanimous report that there has to be change. However, I can assure him that the universality of delivery and the universal charge for the services of the Royal Mail are not under review. They are sacrosanct. I have made that clear before, and I have pleasure in repeating it now.

Mr. Hain

Why does not the President of the Board of Trade listen to the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) and give the Post Office commercial freedom now? He could do that right away. All the delay is allowing European competitors to come into the British market and clean up, which is against the interests of the Post Office. Why does not he allow the Post Office to invest its own money, instead of being restricted by arcane Treasury rules? Why does not he allow it to enter joint ventures with other European operators to conquer the European mail market? Surely his option of privatising the Post Office, whether in BP style or otherwise, will threaten the interests not only of the Post Office but of rural deliveries and post offices, so that all his hon. Friends will be swept aside at the next general election.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman must know that the principal foreign-owned organisation that is entering this country is the Dutch post office, and that the Dutch Government are about to float shares in the Dutch post office in order to ensure its freedom to operate in the commercial market. I will not anticipate the outcome of our review, but the hon. Gentleman and the whole House will understand that the concept of major state organisations trading with taxpayers' money, and therefore being able to undermine and undercut the private sector, represents an extremely unattractive prospect for the jobs of all the people who work in the companies that could be affected, many of whom live in the constituencies of Labour Members.

Mr. Dykes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the abiding characteristic of the organisations in the long list of companies that we privatised during the excellent and successful privatisation programme under the previous Prime Minister, was that in public ownership they were by and large unsuccessful and loss-making? In the present case that is not so, and as the Post Office is already so successful and profitable—no commercial criticism of its functioning has been made by anybody outside—it will not need the upheaval that my right hon. Friend has in mind, provided that it can be freed from Treasury bondage.

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend must not anticipate any changes that the Government may wish to decide on. However, I cannot agree that we privatised only unsuccessful loss-making organisations. For example, we privatised British Telecommunications, which was a profitable organisation. We privatised the electricity companies and the gas companies. What has happened as a result of the 1980s privatisation programme is that major nationalised industries serving a domestic market from a monopoly base have become competitive world-class companies, trading across the face of the earth to the greater benefit of the British economy.

Mr. Cousins

Does the President realise that this summer it will be 330 years since Britain was last invaded by the Dutch? The Government may well be proposing to celebrate that event by taking a stiff gin—and who could blame them—but Admiral van Tromp's successors, as the President has recognised, are back, in the form of the Dutch post office. What plans does he have for our defence?

Mr. Heseltine

It surprises me not one whit that the hon. Member draws for his philosophy and his practical proposals on the deep archives of history. My concern is tomorrow, not yesterday.