HC Deb 11 January 1995 vol 252 cc149-50
17. Mr. Barnes

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what is his Department's policy on allowing commercial freedoms to the Post Office; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Heseltine

The Post Office operates several businesses. We are actively engaged in widening the opportunities for Post Office Counters and are helping to automate its services.

We will announce any plans to change the present arrangements governing the remainder of Post Office activities in due course.

Mr. Barnes

The Government are still in favour of Post Office privatisation even though they have been forced by some of their Back Benchers and by the Opposition to drop it. Will they now consider the position of the Union of Communication Workers, which is against privatisation but for commercial freedom operating fully within the public sector? Will the Government bear that in mind as an alternative to any proposals that they may want to introduce at a later stage?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman obviously does not even realise that 19,000 of the 20,000 post offices are already privately owned.

Mr. Dykes

May I thank my right hon. Friend for kindly responding to the suggestions that my colleagues and I put to him at a meeting before Christmas about the future of the Post Office? Will he confirm that decisions should be made sooner rather than later to remove uncertainties, which do not help the management or the work force? Importantly, as option I was specifically mentioned as one of the possibilities or probable policies in the Green Paper, we should proceed with the component of full commercial freedom for a very successful corporation.

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend will understand the inherent difficulties in equating full commercial freedom with public ownership.

Mr. Wilson

As that answer suggests, is the Secretary of State still sulking in his tent and refusing to accept the defeat which was inflicted upon him not only by hon. Members on both sides of the House but, above all, by the British public? Instead of a grudging response, will he agree, before he gives evidence to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry at the end of the month, to come forward with some positive and creative proposals that will find support throughout the House and the country for giving the Post Office greater commercial freedom within the public sector, which it wants and deserves?

Mr. Heseltine

It is very easy for the hon. Gentleman to make wild suggestions. When the Labour party was in power, it never occurred to it to do any such things. In fact, the Labour Government did exactly the opposite and held back Royal Mail and Post Office investment, as they did in the rest of the public sector. It is nothing but the most trivial political hypocrisy for the Labour party, which slaughtered the capital investment programmes of the nationalised industries using the excuse of proper management of the national economy, to suggest that when it is in Opposition it is possible to change the disciplines that we are discussing.