HC Deb 08 December 1999 vol 340 cc939-60

[Relevant documents: The Twelfth Report from the Trade and Industry Committee, Session 1998–99, on the 1999 Post Office White Paper (HC 94) and the Government's response thereto (Session 1999–2000, HC 50).]

10.28 pm
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

I beg to move, That the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1999 (Revocation) Order 1999 (S.I., 1999, No. 2863), dated 19th October 1999, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be revoked. The motion seeks to annul the statutory instrument laid before the House by the Government in October, which revokes their earlier statutory instrument, laid before the House in July, which would have reduced the Post Office monopoly from £1 to 50p. In July, that was the Government's policy, and the Opposition have moved the motion to enable the Government to stick to their policy.

This is a classic example of the Government's approach of saying one thing and doing another. They said that they wanted to liberalise the postal delivery market, but the reality is a continuation of the status quo. The motion is therefore designed to help the Government to say one thing and do that thing. It is designed to help new Labour to stand up to old Labour. So often, we hear the language of the free market of deregulation from the Government but the reality is anti-business, increasing regulation and distrust of the free market. Traditional Labour is always there but, tonight, with our help, new Labour can assert itself by voting with us to overturn the Government's latest pusillanimous U-turn. We are seeing the Government's stamp of weak authority.

The Government have got themselves into a deep mess over their plans for the Post Office. On 8 July, the Secretary of State, with great bravado and flourish, announced his Post Office White Paper, which, he said, sets an agenda for the Post Office … for the 21st century. Today's announcement is good news for the Post Office … because it can now build for the future with real confidence."—[Official Report, 8 July 1999; Vol. 334, c. 1175.] In that same spirit of bravado, the right hon. Gentleman, on that same day, laid the order reducing the Post Office monopoly from £1 to 50p.

The White Paper states: The Government believes that greater competition will bring benefits to the consumer. At present competition is restricted to items costing £1 or more. The Government will take a major first step towards liberalisation by halving the monopoly currently enjoyed by the Post Office to 50p … The Government is committed to further liberalisation of the market. That was the Government's position on 8 July.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Does my hon. Friend link this to the Government's big and shouted campaign about rip-off Britain, which they seem to want to abandon? They got the Minister of State, Cabinet Office to make an announcement and then they shifted him out of his job. Now they are ripping off Britain with the order that is before us.

Mr. Gibb

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The order means that the British consumer will not be able to benefit from the liberalisation of the postal market that would, in the long run, inevitably reduce prices. So much else of rip-off Britain is a consequence of the Government. The extreme increases in petrol and diesel duties are adding to the cost of supermarket space, and they did nothing in the Seattle round last week to seek to reduce the tariffs on imported goods and services for which consumers are paying.

There we have it. On 8 July, the Government were determined to give the Post Office commercial freedom, and as a quid pro quo were reducing its monopoly from £1 to 50p. That was the considered opinion that the Government had carefully reached. That was the right thing to do to enable the Post Office and its competitors to respond to the fast-changing postal delivery market without jeopardising the Post Office's universal service obligation. The internet means that there are new methods of communication and more household deliveries as people order goods by the internet and by e-mail.

The proposed changes that the Government announced in July were welcomed by the Mail Users Association Ltd., which said that, while the Government's recognition that greater competition would bring benefits to the consumer was welcomed, it was reassured that the proposed halving of the monopoly to 50p was seen as a major first step towards liberalisation.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Post Office has nothing to fear? The 1999 Trade and Industry Report on the Post Office White Paper weighs exactly 176 g. Is he aware also that, even if the monopoly were reduced to 50p, the Post Office would still have the monopoly to deliver that report, as 50p allows postage of up to 200 g?

Mr. Gibb

That is right.

Even this first step of reducing the monopoly would not have had a huge impact on the Post Office. As it admitted, only 6 per cent. of Royal Mail's traffic lies between the £1 and 50p tariff. The Post Office anticipated losing only about a third of that market, so just 2 per cent. of the market would be lost by reducing the monopoly from £1 to 50p.

In evidence to the Select Committee, the Department of Trade and Industry's civil servants revealed that Ministers determined it was very important to signal a liberalisation of the marketplace and that is what the move to 50p is all about … to signal that more competition in a liberalised marketplace will be in the best interests of the consumer, the UK economy and … the Post Office. They went on to say in their evidence: That is the judgment which Ministers have reached. What happened to that judgment? The first cracks appeared on 27 July, when the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) and a number of his colleagues prayed against the statutory instrument of 8 July. There followed the summer of discontent—[Interruption.] They are all my own lines. In the run-up to the Labour party conference, there was the real risk of defeat for the Labour leadership, and the Secretary of State in particular.

The Communication Workers Union wanted the 50p proposal dropped. Derek Hodgson, the general secretary of the CWU, was quoted as saying that, if the Government don't back off, they have got a fight on their hands and they have got a fight that they can't possibly win. The Guardian of 29 September summed up what happened next. It reported: Last-minute negotiations between union leaders, party managers and ministers continued last night over the wording of motions that are scheduled to be put to delegates today. However, the indications were that government compromises would prevent a head-to-head conference row. In the most surprising change of policy, trade secretary Stephen Byers' White Paper plans to reduce the Post Office's monopoly on letter delivery from £1 to 50p … will now be referred to the new Post Office Regulator. There it is. Despite all the reforms to the Labour party by Neil Kinnock and despite the new Labour project, it is business as usual, with Labour's trade union paymasters determining not only Labour party policy but, more seriously, the policy of the British Government.

Mr. Fabricant

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. I am a little surprised that he is so surprised about the power of the trade unions. Does he not realise that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is depending on the trade unions for his selection as the Labour candidate for mayor of London?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. May I remind the House that the matter is before us only until 11.30 pm? Such interventions certainly do not help.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

It was a clever point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that it was far from clever.

Mr. Gibb

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) made what I considered a fairly valid point. Furthermore, the Labour party is depending on millions of pounds of trade union money to fund its general election campaign.

Who is the Minister spearheading the U-turn caused by blackmail from the Communication Workers Union? He is none other than the newly appointed Minister and former general secretary of the CWU, the hon. Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson).

Perhaps we should be grateful to the CWU. Mr. Hodgson, the general secretary, said that he was prepared to allow the monopoly rate to be set by the Post Office regulator. Thank you, Mr. Hodgson, for allowing the Government that concession. We now see who is running Post Office policy.

Later in the debate, we will hear the Minister give his reasons for the Government's U-turn. I bet that he will not say, "Oh, we had to change our policy because of pressure at the Labour party conference from the trade unions." Despite the masses of press coverage of the row, despite statements from Derek Hodgson and despite the fact that everyone knows it to be the case, the Minister will find another reason to put to the House. The excuse that he will give will be that the Select Committee on Trade and Industry recommended the change of policy in its report published on 14 September. That is what he said on television this afternoon, and no doubt it is what he will say tonight.

As the Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, said in the other place, We take seriously the advice of the Trade and Industry Committee; and I hope that noble Lords would not suggest that we do otherwise."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 November 1999; Vol. 607, c. 708.] So, let us stand by for the Minister to use that as his reason—and remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you heard it here first.

If the Minister gives such a reason, it will be extremely odd, because, some nine days after the Trade and Industry Committee report was published, he was quoted in The Times of 23 September as saying: We will look at what the Trade and Industry Committee says but we have already made the order on the monopoly. The reduction is a crucial part of the package of reforms for the Post Office. So, he was still defending the reduction in the monopoly—nine days after the report was published, but six days before that crucial meeting at the Labour party conference.

Also on 23 September, the Minister wrote to every Labour Member of Parliament stressing the importance of reducing the Post Office monopoly to 50p, saying: the reduced monopoly level cannot be extracted without unravelling the entire package". It is absolutely clear that the Select Committee report had nothing whatever to do with the U-turn. I therefore trust that the Minister will not insult the House by saying that that was the reason. We know that it is not the reason, he knows that it is not the reason and every Labour Member of Parliament knows, too.

The Minister might claim that, although he had a copy of the Select Committee report for nine days, he had issued a rebuttal to the press of its main recommendations despite not having read it in full, and that, when he read the report, at the same time as the Labour party conference, he saw the light and urged his Secretary of State to change the policy. If that is so—it beggars belief—he will be the first Minister of this Government to read a Select Committee report 15 days after publication, instead of the usual 15 days before.

If the Minister insists that the Select Committee report was his reason—if he claims that it is now Government policy to adopt all Trade and Industry Committee recommendations—perhaps he will explain what he is doing about the following concern in the Committee's 13th report on small businesses and enterprise: We have noticed a regrettable habit of relatively prosaic ministerial announcements being dressed up in Ministerial Statements and their accompanying Press Notices with potentially misleading figures. Will he now recant all the misleading figures given by his Secretary of State since he took office? The reports also states: We … have grounds for complaint at the apparently scant regard the department pays to its evaluation of its own schemes". Let us consider the Trade and Industry Committee's 14th report on the Electronic Communications Bill, which says: We are particularly concerned … that the order necessary to bring in part I of the Bill ߪ should not be subject to any parliamentary procedure. We recommend that…Parliament should have the opportunity to debate and vote on the issue. Despite what the Minister said on Second Reading, is he to announce that he will allow Parliament to vote on the implementation of part I because it is a recommendation of the Trade and Industry Committee?

The Government's behaviour over this issue is risible, and it is being exposed. For purely internal Labour party reasons, the Government have made a mockery of their policy on the Post Office. The result of revoking the 8 July order will be that Britain will have a Post Office monopoly as extensive as Portugal and Greece, and the UK market will be less liberalised than postal markets throughout Scandinavia and northern Europe, and Italy and Spain.

The views of the private sector package delivery companies can be summed up by TNT, which has said: If the UK … does not rapidly deregulate its postal market, along with other postal operators, the Post Office will be unable to cope with competition when liberalisation is imposed by Brussels.

Mr. Forth

Has my hon. Friend noticed that the former trade unionist, who is now the Under-Secretary, is entitled the Minister for Competitiveness? Does my hon. Friend not find that a little mystifying? Following his forensic and skilful analysis of what has gone on, it would appear that the Under-Secretary is in fact the Minister for Trade Unionism and Uncompetitiveness. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we are to have open government, the Minister's title should be changed?

Mr. Gibb

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. The Minister's title is almost an oxymoron, given his track record during his short term in office.

The explanation given by TNT about the liberalisation of the market being required by Brussels in the years to come was the key reason given in the White Paper for the liberalisation and the reduction in the monopoly. Paragraph 11 states: The disciplines of increasing competition and independent regulation in its home market should have the additional benefit of strengthening the Post Office and improving its competitive position in the European market and beyond, as liberalisation extends and the markets are opened up. Of course those were the Government's words in July, not today.

Government policy towards the Post Office is in complete disarray: as well as the damage to the Post Office, to customers, to business and to Post Office employees caused by the U-turn, we have the chaos of the Government's stewardship of the Horizon project and their decision to abandon the benefit swipe card, which would have enabled claimants to continue to be paid at post offices. As they know, that decision will cause a 30 per cent, drop in the income of average independent sub-post offices. How much more incompetence can the post office network take? In the interests of liberating the postal market and preparing our Post Office for survival in a new, competitive era, I urge the Government to rethink their U-turn and join us in voting for the annulment of this weak and damaging statutory instrument.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind hon. Members that the time limit for the debate is 11.30 and short speeches would be appreciated.

10.47 pm
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

I find it rather strange that the Conservatives, who consider this a matter of some importance, cut 15 minutes off the debate by having a second vote on the business that we dealt with previously—especially when so many Conservative Members want to speak.

As an exercise in humbug, the speech of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) takes some beating. Those of us who were Members of the House before the general election well remember the Conservative Government's attempts to introduce the privatisation of the Post Office, and they had to retreat in the face of the refusal of 13 of their own people to support it. [Hon. Members: "Narrow majority."] That is true but, had they wanted to, they could have achieved a majority for a reduction in the monopoly. They did nothing about it. If this issue is so important for the Conservatives now, why was it not important when they had the power to act? They chose not to act, so we need no lessons from them.

Equally, we need no lessons from the Conservatives about the danger to rural post offices, given the opportunities that they had to arrest the decline when they were in power. What is more, a side effect of agreeing to the motion would be an immediate 6 per cent. cut in the volume of post, which would obviously affect local post offices' business and result in further closures.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Neill

No, I will not. [Interruption.] Because I want to make time.

Mr. Fabricant

We have 40 minutes.

Mr. O'Neill

The hon. Gentleman might be fortunate in catching the Chair's eye and may get an opportunity to speak. I shall carry on.

My colleagues on the Select Committee and I were clear in our mind that it would be pointless to introduce a regulatory regime to the Post Office while denying it the opportunity to pass judgment on the first issue of competitiveness, which was being introduced as part of the liberalisation of our postal system. It was also abundantly clear that, if we are to have a regulatory commission, one of its main roles should be considering questions of this nature and deciding whether 50p is the right figure. Some might have argued that we should have gone further. I am not clear about that.

Last week, I talked to former employees of TNT who are now working for the nationalised Dutch Post Office, which has 40 per cent. public ownership and no monopoly. The Select Committee also spoke to the publicly owned Swedish postal service, which does not have a monopoly. There are a number of contradictory examples across Europe. It is wrong to vest in civil servants sole responsibility for the determination of the market in this area. I think that the Government are correct.

I envisage that there will be a reduction in the monopoly, but by what measure I am not sure. The Post Office should be competed against to make it more efficient. I do not oppose the order, but it would be foolhardy to introduce it now. The Government are sensible to withdraw the order. It is the responsibility of Government to use the Select Committee system to pause and reflect, and they took that opportunity. It could be argued that the Minister came to a conclusion much quicker than some of his colleagues have done in the past.

Mr. Forth

Given his position of influence and knowledge, can the hon. Gentleman tell us why the Government changed tack so dramatically during the summer?

Mr. O'Neill

They changed tack because they recognised that other factors were involved. The major factor was the recognition that the regulatory system should be given the first responsibility for making recommendations of this nature, and that it was not right to give that responsibility to civil servants.

A number of people made statements in opposition to the monopoly, and some do not want the break-up of the monopoly, certainly not until the European Union proposals come into effect and the directive is introduced. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) recognises that the European Union is making a constructive contribution to the liberalisation of postal services across the continent, and that that will result in a more efficient postal system, which I am sure is what he wants.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Neill

No, I am sorry. I shall finish now, because other hon. Members want to speak.

The Government's U-turn is a correct move to make.

Mr. Gibb

Does not the hon. Gentleman find it slightly odd that, nine days after the Government received a copy of his Committee's report, they were still defending the cut in the monopoly from £1 to 50p? The first we heard of any decision to accept the Select Committee's recommendation was on 29 September, during the Labour party conference.

Mr. O'Neill

The process of decision making in government is a mystery that few of us are exposed to at any time. There is little consolation in being on the Government Benches when it comes to dealing with such matters.

I think that the Government were correct to change their mind. The Select Committee report gave them the opportunity to pause and reflect, and I think that they came to the correct conclusion. As a consequence, once the regulator has looked into the matter, there will be a better consideration of what the level of monopoly should be. When we get that, we will be able to move on and have a better, more liberalised postal service that will be capable of competing internationally, as the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said.

For those reasons, I am happy to support the Government, to ensure that we have a properly liberalised postal system. That should happen at an orderly pace, and we should take account of the views of all those concerned.

10.54 pm
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

We should consider this matter on its merits. It is patently clear that the Government have made fools of themselves. However, the position that they have ended up with is sensible on economic grounds, regardless of the views of the trade unions.

I shall try to deal with some of the basic economics of the Post Office. I believe in competitive markets and liberal economics. Let us apply that to this case. The first question is this: what would be the implications for the Post Office of reducing the monopoly amount to 50p? According to the estimate that I have been given—I should be grateful if the Minister clarified this—about £1 million will be taken out of Post Office business. That takes into account the dynamics of the market; the sum may be less. It seems fairly clear, however, that a substantial amount of Post Office business will be lost, with all the implications that that involves for the Post Office network.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Cable

I shall be happy to do so later, but first I want to expand on what I have said.

As I understand it, the essential reason for the original proposal to cut the monopoly, and for Conservative Members' promotion of it, is the need for more competition. That is fine on one level, but there is already a great deal of competition with the Post Office. For instance, the massive proliferation of e-mail services has led to an enormous amount of competition, and telephony, faxes and so forth produce day-to-day competition. The Post Office has a monopoly in the statutory sense, but not in the market sense. A question that must be asked, especially by economists like me who believe in the market, is whether competition is always desirable.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)


Dr. Cable

No, it is not. It is usually desirable, but there are instances in which it is not, and this is one of them. There are two practical reasons for that. The first relates to the universal service obligation. The Post Office operates through cross-subsidy. If some of its profitable business is taken out of the cross-subsidy arrangements, what happens? Either the universal service obligation must be abandoned or diluted—I do not know whether Conservative Members are arguing for that—or the element of cross-subsidy must be found in some other way, and the profitable parts of the Post Office must be built up through extra charging on the remaining Post Office business. No one has explained how that will be dealt with.

Mr. Gibb

Has the hon. Gentleman read the Government's response to the Select Committee report, published on 23 November? It states, on page 11, the Government's belief that the current monopoly is higher than is justified by the need to fund the universal service obligation. A pound is too high, and even 50p would not jeopardise the universal service obligation.

Dr. Cable

I do not have a great deal of confidence in the Government's judgment in this regard, because they have vacillated so much. One reason why they were wrong to make that statement is that one of the basic drivers, as it were, behind the Post Office is economy of scale. If the hon. Gentleman examined the regulatory arrangements governing Post Offices in countries such as the United States and Germany, which have big postal systems, he would discover that the marginal cost of a postal operation is about 60 per cent. of the average. Taking a bit of business away will increase the average cost of the remainder. There are very good reasons for not forcing the pace of liberalisation of the Post Office when that would reduce business and lose economies of scale in Post Office operations.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Dr. Cable

On that point, I am happy to give way.

Mr. Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman mentioned marginal costs. Can he confirm the points that he made by telling us what proportion of Post Office business is under the value of 50p per item?

Dr. Cable

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a figure off the cuff.

Mr. Fabricant

I am asking about marginal costs.

Dr. Cable

We are talking about marginal costs to the system as a whole, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well. The example that I am citing is not based on a particular section of a business, or on a particular point in time. The figure is accepted to the extent that it has been built into the system of regulation in the United States. It is a general principle that would apply under the new system of Post Office regulation that the Government propose. It is a general rule, not simply an anecdote that I have plucked from the air, and I think it something that the hon. Gentleman can understand.

The Government have already inflicted considerable damage by failing to understand the way in which monopoly networks such as the railway system operate, and they propose to do the same to the Post Office. There is an argument for having a gradual, slow process of liberalisation to which the Post Office system can adapt. Indeed, that has already happened. Because of inflation over the past two decades, the £1 monopoly has already lost 50 per cent. of its value.

Inflation is a liberalising force. I know that it happened rather faster when the Conservatives were in government; the process of liberalisation through inflation has now slowed down. I refer, of course, to the Governments of the 1970s. However, the basic point is correct. Liberalisation is occurring through inflation.

There is an argument for faster liberalisation, provided that what is happening is clearly signalled to the Post Office so that it can prepare. That is why the context of the whole discussion needs to be made clearer.

As we all recognise, the fundamental problem with the Post Office is that it is shortly to sustain some financial blows. One is the loss of the benefits business. The other is that it will have to finance its all-automation system at a cost of £100 million. Inflicting the loss of another £100 million of business at this time is scarcely helpful to the modernisation of the system.

The central problem of the Post Office is that, far from being a loss-making nationalised industry of the old type, it contributes to a ludicrous extent to the national Exchequer. If hon. Members look at the Post Office accounts for the past five years, they will find that it has been paying roughly 75 per cent. of its net profits to the Treasury, partly through corporation tax, partly through the financial levy. That is a crass way to run a system. Inflicting a sudden, once-and-for-all loss of business through the reduction of the monopoly merely serves to compound the problem.

The Government are introducing Post Office legislation. We will deal with that in a complex Bill shortly. It will set our Post Office regulatory framework. That is the occasion on which to examine the speed at which liberalisation should happen.

The Government are trying to push the measure through now. It reflects considerable discredit on them that they thought of it in the first place but did not think it through. To promote it now is opportunist and unhelpful. The Post Office should retain its £1 monopoly arrangements until there is a proper opportunity for an investigation of the economics of the matter by a non-political regulator in one or two years' time.

11.2 pm

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North)

Reference has been made to my contribution on the issue and to the fact that, along with a number of Labour Members, I prayed against the order that was laid. Why was that? Quite simply, I felt at the time, as did my colleagues, that the Government had got it wrong. Why was that?

The Select Committee on Trade and Industry took a considerable amount of evidence on the issue. A number of us really cared about some of the matters that concentrated the mind of the Conservative party when it was in government: it was particularly concerned about the threat to rural post offices. Taking an almost pre-emptive strike at the monopoly could have some impact on the profitability of the Post Office and there could be subsequent consequences for rural post offices in particular. The Select Committee was spot on when it concluded that, if a regulator were to be appointed under the changes to the Post Office following the White Paper, the task of assessing the economics of the relevant proposals should be handed to him or her.

My personal view is that all post office businesses in Europe should reduce progressively their monopoly in postal services. If we do not go down that road, national postal companies such as Deutsche Post, which is rapidly gobbling up postal organisations throughout Europe, and the Dutch post office, TNT, will take advantage. TNT's monopoly will come into effect on 1 January and, surprise, surprise, when we recently met its representatives in the Netherlands, they said that they were disappointed that Europe was not following the company's lead and that it should be a trail blazer.

As I have said, the Select Committee was spot on. I am delighted that the Minister has taken the opportunity to look at the Select Committee report, to take on board its recommendations and to say that the task of assessing the proposals should be given to the regulator when he or she is in post. I only hope that organisations with an interest in those matters will make known to the regulator their views on developing a common approach to reducing the monopoly across the European Union.

11.5 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I should like to make only one or two points, as I am well aware of the time.

The hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) said he thought that the Government had changed their mind because of the report from the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. With the greatest respect, the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs has presented four reports— some of which were published as long as four or five months ago—but has not received a reply to them. I therefore wonder whether the Trade and Industry report was the reason for the Government's change of mind. If it was, good luck to the hon. Gentleman and his Committee.

Regardless of whether the Government have made a U-turn, I fully support the Government's policy. I have been very concerned, for example, about loss of the monopoly, the 5 or 6 per cent. loss of business, and the damaging prospect of automatic credit transfer. In Wales, ACT is likely to see off about 55 per cent. of rural post offices. We tamper with the monopoly at our peril.

Despite market forces and the need to liberalise, if the monopoly is ended, cherry-picking will inevitably result. In some parts of my constituency, postmen travel 10 or even 12 miles to deliver one letter. If so-called liberalisation is instituted, I do not know what will happen to families who depend on those postmen or what type of service they will be able to expect. The universal service obligation is extremely important, and one can but hope that it will be embedded in any future move to liberalise— or whatever one chooses to call it—the postal service.

I am therefore pleased that the Government have rethought the matter. The hon. Member for Ochil described that as a U-turn—perhaps it is; I do not know— but, whatever it is, I am pleased that it has happened. The postal service has the confidence of the people of the United Kingdom, and the Government will tamper with its monopoly at their peril. The public are squarely behind the postal service.

As hon. Members have said, we need to consider the possibility of directing less of the levy to central Government. Such a change may be one way—I know not—of ensuring a better future for the Post Office. It is one option that should be considered.

In the current situation, I welcome the Government's stance. The official Opposition have come rather late with their prayer. Although I do not know what they hope to achieve today, I am glad that the main issues which must be addressed have at least been aired, albeit briefly.

I am pleased that the Government have reconsidered. I hope that no rash decisions will be taken, and that the Government will take heed of what is said not only by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, but by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by the public. The public are saying very clearly that the Post Office delivers a very fine, first-class service and that we have to ensure that it continues delivering that service. Destroying the monopoly without substituting other arrangements is not the way forward.

11.8 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I welcome this opportunity to speak in this debate, even if I am able to do so only briefly.

I note that not one Conservative Member chose to demur from the Trade and Industry Select Committee's decision, at paragraph (f), on page xxi, to ask the Government to think again about reducing the monopoly levy. One can but surmise that Conservative Members support the Committee's recommendation and concede the logic of the Government's position. Even if the Government have changed their mind, what is wrong with that?

We often argue in this place that insufficient attention is paid to Select Committees' decisions. I therefore very much welcome the opportunity that we have on Thursday afternoons, tomorrow included, to debate either Select Committee reports or Government White Papers. The Government have listened and acted, but the Conservatives are churlishly trying to find ways to attack the Government, making cheap political points that are undesirable and could have adverse effects.

Our decisions on the future of the Post Office will have major consequences. The White Paper in the summer contained four key points that the Post Office had to look at in evolving its performance: it had to face up to a liberalisation agenda; it had to keep its universality; it had to consider how it could increase investment; and it had to be brought up to date. Those four points may seem easy to take together, but there is some conflict between them and we are considering how that conflict could break out.

The performance and innovation unit is looking at the impact on sub-post offices of the Benefits Agency's decision to seek the introduction of ACT at the earliest opportunity. I shall concentrate on the implications of that, because, if we do not get it right, we shall lose many sub-post offices. I see the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) nodding. He knows that the Western Daily Press has been running a vigorous campaign to draw attention to the impact on sub-post offices if ACT is introduced without an understanding of how we can reinvest in them. The hon. Gentleman said that the post offices would lose the benefits trade. If they can get their act together and provide a thoughtful and careful way of doing the business properly they will keep it.

Earlier this week, I went to ICL to look at the Horizon project. I advise anyone who has time to do so. I found it fascinating. Information technology poses some threats, but there are also many opportunities. It can help to bring about an enhanced postal service and better communications. There is also an opportunity to break into banking, or at least to work with the high street banks, which have nowhere near as many branches as there are sub-post offices in many villages and high streets. Thirdly, but by no means least—I am sure that this will be mentioned tomorrow—there is the opportunity of modernising government.

Those three issues provide opportunities for the whole postal network, but particularly for sub-post offices to show that they have a future and can provide for all people—including the poorest, people drawing benefit and people living in rural areas—the services that they have provided best in the past. Those opportunities can be enhanced if we get it right. That is why it is important that the Government have listened. The issue cannot be treated in isolation. If they got this wrong, the implications of ACT would almost certainly increase. That would inevitably mean closure for some sub-post offices and others would fail to realise their opportunities.

The Government are right to have rethought the issue. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister was able to argue in the Western Daily Press a couple of weeks ago about what he, as a former postie, wants. I am sure that he will be able to provide an effective refutation of what the Opposition have come up with. They have failed to understand the importance of getting our postal services right.

11.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alan Johnson)

I listened with great interest to the informed and erudite comments that were made tonight. I also listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) said that humbug sprang to mind. I would add hyperbole and hypocrisy.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The Minister would not suggest that any hon. Member would be involved in hypocrisy.

Mr. Johnson

I withdraw that immediately. Perhaps I should have said hysteria.

We should be grateful to the Opposition for giving us the opportunity to expose yet again their ineptitude in dealing with Britain's essential public services. Of all the issues that they have fumbled over the past 10 years, the Post Office must be the best example of that.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton did not once address the issues in the debate. He accused the Government of saying one thing and doing another.

Mr. Fabricant

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has admitted to being a member of the Communication Workers Union. According to the Register of Members' Interests, which may now be out of date, he has been loaned equipment by that union. Should he not at least declare an interest, if indeed he should be allowed to speak in this debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Minister has declared his interest. I understood the hon. Gentleman to have said that the Minister had admitted to being a member of a trade union.

Mr. Fabricant

The Minister did not say that he received goods from that trade union and, as is the convention, he should have declared an interest before making his speech.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It has been known for Ministers and Back Benchers to declare an interest during the course of a speech. Perhaps we should wait and see.

Mr. Johnson

Like his policy on the Post Office, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) is out of date. I wrote to the Register of Members' Interests as soon as I was appointed to this position and gave back the mobile phone and the two computers, so I have nothing to declare in that respect.

I would like to declare, however, that in two and a half years the Government have sorted out the previous Government's mess on Horizon and we are on course for having the entire network on line by 2001. We have ensured that the business is allowed to keep more of the finance that it generates and we have legislation on the stocks to enhance the commercial freedoms that we have already provided to the Post Office and the regulator will be appointed in a few months' time. That is all in line with our manifest commitments.

Mr. Chope

When will the regulator be appointed? The Select Committee recommendations were premised on the basis that the regulator would be appointed in the autumn. Of course that did not happen. The Minister is now talking about an appointment many months hence.

Mr. Johnson

As the White Paper made clear, the regulator will be appointed from 1 April.

In two and a half years, we have stuck to our manifesto commitments on the Post Office. I did some research today. I found a document filed under "Documents of absolutely no political relevance whatsoever". It was the 1992 Conservative party manifesto. It was next to a poster saying, "Vote Archer for London".

The manifesto on which the Conservative party fought the 1992 election and was then in government for the following five years says: We will legislate to set up a new independent regulator … We will lower the limit on the Post Office monopoly much closer to the level of the first class stamp. So, in five years in government, the Conservatives did not a single thing about the recommendations and the policy contained in their own manifesto. Instead, they set off on a wild piece of adventurism that was not in the manifesto—to break up and privatise the Post Office.

When they found that they could not privatise it, they attempted to plunder it—saying one thing and doing another. In May 1995, when he was the President of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) told the House that the Government would reduce the amount of money that they took from the Post Office to 40 per cent. of the post-tax profits. That would have reduced the money paid back to the Treasury to about £175 million. Later that year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer hyped that up in the Red Book to £360 million, and they took £1 billion off the Post Office in three years—saying one thing and doing another.

The situation could have been so different if only the Conservatives had stopped to listen. If only they had listened to that august body, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which, under a Conservative Administration—and with a Conservative majority—said in 1995: We recommend that the Government introduce legislation to convert the Post Office … into a 100 per cent. government-owned plc … in the knowledge that the future sale of any of the Government's shares in Post Office plc would be subject to parliamentary approval. That was the recommendation. This is the policy that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said was sound when we announced it in July.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Johnson

I am sorry, but I am not giving way. This position is closed to interventions.

If Conservative Members had listened to the Select Committee, the Post Office could have had the commercial and financial freedom that it needs, instead of the seven years of stagnation that they condemned it to when they were in government.

Once we got away from the speech of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, the points raised by other Members were all extremely sound. We will be appointing a regulator, and we advertised two months ago. The regulator will be in place from 1 April. There will be a commission of five people—the postal services commission which, as its first job, will be asked to look at where the monopoly limits should be.

The speeches by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and others were sound. For a party that is supposedly concerned about rural services, the Conservatives did not mention a word about the universal service obligation. When it was mentioned by the hon. Member for Twickenham, there was a groan—[Interruption.] I apologise—it was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. However, there was a groan from Conservative Back Benchers when the hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned it.

The universal service obligation and the uniform tariff guarantees people in rural communities the same input into, and access to, postal services—irrespective of where they live, and no matter how remote and rural. The point of the monopoly is not that monopolies are a good thing. The monopoly is there to ensure that the universal service can be provided at the uniform tariff, because the Post Office needs volume going through to guarantee that service. If the monopoly level came down to a level that would jeopardise the universal service obligation, it would be a serious blow to rural services in this country.

Having listened to the Select Committee and others, we are saying that, if the postal services commission says that reducing the monopoly to 50p will jeopardise the USO and that it should be 60p, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it cannot be put back in again. Once the monopoly limit is changed, we cannot take it up again. It is sensible to say to the postal services commission that it should decide on the level. It may be 50p—it may be lower, it may be higher.

We have guaranteed the universal service obligation for the first time in the White Paper, and we will guarantee it in legislation. It is important that we protect that. It does not mean that the Government have decided that there is no case for liberalisation. It does mean that the regulator will do its job first before we take that any further.

Mr. Llwyd

I mentioned the universal service obligation earlier. From what the Minister has said, he appears to presume that the regulator is bound to lower the level. Is that the case?

Mr. Johnson

No. We have told the regulator that they must set the monopoly limit at a level—

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand that the French Government have announced that they will ignore the representations of the British Government—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman was courteous enough to approach me with the problem that he wishes to raise. My advice is that it is not related to the debate before us and that he would do better to wait until we have had the Division to raise what he considers to be an important point of order. We must get this debate out of the way first.

Sir George Young

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand your ruling, but I was anxious that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should have time to come to the House at 11.30 to make a statement. He has just appeared on "Newsnight", and he owes the House an explanation of his failure—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. [Interruption.] Order. Let me reply to the point of order. There is no point in shouting at me. I have given the right hon. Gentleman good advice and I suggest that he takes it.

Mr. Johnson

We will remit the issue to the Postal Service Commission, which will make the decision on the basis that the universal service obligation at a uniform tariff—those are two different things—must be protected. In the meantime, we have laid the revocation order that we are debating tonight. The order is necessary to ensure that the outcome of the Commission's review is not prejudged. The Government have accepted the recommendation of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, and it would be wrong simultaneously to press ahead with a cut in the monopoly.

The Government remain committed to greater competition in postal markets because it is an essential component in ensuring that the Post Office is successful in the new environment it faces. Together with better regulation and new commercial freedoms, greater competition through liberalisation is necessary to ensure that the Post Office is sufficiently challenged to achieve its objective of being a world class company. The revocation of the order reducing the monopoly to 50p results directly from our acceptance that, in that important area, there would be benefit in the new regulator also considering the issue before final decisions are made.

Developments will not happen quite as quickly as the Select Committee envisaged. It suggested that the regulator might be in office in the autumn. That would have been impossible. Our intention is that they should start work next spring. We are doing some preliminary work so that, as soon as they are appointed, they can make the issue their first priority. Some delay is a necessary consequence of the Government's acceptance of the Select Committee's advice, but, as the delay is likely to extend only to a matter of months, that added period of consideration is something that the House should welcome. It will of course be for the commission to tell us what time scale it can work to, but I am confident that it will do an excellent job with a reasonable time scale.

An overriding duty on the commission is to promote the delivery of the universal service obligation. In essence, that is what the debate tonight is about. It is vital that all customers, wherever they work or live in the UK, should be assured of a world class level of postal services.

Mr. Gibb

Does the Minister remember writing in his response to the Select Committee report: The Government also believes that the current monopoly is higher than is justified by the need to fund the universal service obligation."?

Mr. Johnson

I do remember writing that. The point is what the Postal Services Commission, which we are appointing as the independent regulator, thinks. It will be its job to decide those issues. I remind the Conservatives that that was their policy in 1992. They did nothing about it in five years and then raised it tonight in a debate on a revocation order. I have listened carefully to the arguments made in this debate, but I remain convinced of the need for the order. We are providing action on the Post Office where previously there was inertia. We are providing protection where there was previously decline and we are providing innovation where there was previously ineptitude. I hope that the House will oppose the motion and support the order.

It being half-past Eleven o 'clock Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 17 (2) (Delegated Legislation (negative procedure) and Order [1 December].

The House divided: Ayes 126, Noes 306.

Division No. 16] [11.30 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Amess, David
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Chope, Christopher
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)
Baldry, Tony Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey
Beggs, Roy Collins, Tim
Bercow, John Cormack, Sir Patrick
Beresford, Sir Paul Cran, James
Blunt, Crispin Curry, Rt Hon David
Boswell, Tim Day, Stephen
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Duncan, Alan
Brady, Graham Duncan Smith, Iain
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Browning, Mrs Angela Evans, Nigel
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Faber, David
Burns, Simon Fabricant, Michael
Butterfill, John Fallon, Michael
Cash, William Fight, Howard
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Norman, Archie
Fraser, Christopher O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Gale, Roger Ottaway, Richard
Garnier, Edward Page, Richard
Gibb, Nick Paice, James
Gill, Christopher Paterson, Owen
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Pickles, Eric
Gray, James Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Green, Damian Prior, David
Greenway, John Randall, John
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Robertson, Laurence
Hammond, Philip Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Hawkins, Nick Ruffley, David
Heald, Oliver Sayeed, Jonathan
Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David Shepherd, Richard
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Soames, Nicholas
Horam, John Spicer, Sir Michael
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Spring, Richard
Hunter, Andrew Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Steen, Anthony
Jenkin, Bernard Streeter, Gary
Key, Robert Swayne, Desmond
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Syms, Robert
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Tapsell, Sir Peter
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Lansley, Andrew Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Letwin, Oliver Taylor, Sir Teddy
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Tredinnick, David
Lidington, David Tyrie, Andrew
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Viggers, Peter
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Walter, Robert
Loughton, Tim Wardle, Charles
Luff, Peter Waterson, Nigel
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Whitney, Sir Raymond
Mclntosh, Miss Anne Whittingdale, John
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Maclean, Rt Hon David Wilkinson, John
McLoughlin, Patrick Willetts, David
Madel, Sir David Wilshire, David
Malins, Humfrey Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Mates, Michael Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Woodward, Shaun
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Young, Rt Hon Sir George
May, Mrs Theresa Tellers for the Ayes:
Moss, Malcolm Mr. Keith Simpson and
Nicholls, Patrick Mrs. Eleanor Laing.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Burstow, Paul
Alexander, Douglas Butler, Mrs Christine
Allen, Graham Byers, Rt Hon Stephen
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Cable, Dr Vincent
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Caborn, Rt Hon Richard
Atkins, Charlotte Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)
Austin, John
Barnes, Harry Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Barron, Kevin Campbell—Savours, Dale
Bayley, Hugh Cann, Jamie
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Caplin, Ivor
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Caton, Martin
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Cawsey, Ian
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Bennett, Andrew F Chaytor, David
Benton, Joe Clapham, Michael
Bermingham, Gerald Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Berry, Roger, Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Betts, Clive
Blackman, Liz Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Blears, Ms Hazel Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Borrow, David Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Clelland, David
Browne, Desmond Coaker, Vernon
Burden, Richard Coffey, Ms Ann
Burgon, Colin Cohen, Harry
Coleman, Iain Hinchliffe, David
Colman, Tony Hodge, Ms Margaret
Connarty, Michael Hood, Jimmy
Cooper, Yvette Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Corbett, Robin Hope, Phil
Cotter, Brian Hoyle, Lindsay
Cousins, Jim Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cox, Tom Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cranston, Ross Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Crausby, David Hurst, Alan
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Hutton, John
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Iddon, Dr Brian
Cummings, John Illsley, Eric
Cunliffe, Lawrence Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland) Jamieson, David
Jenkins, Brian
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Curtis—Thomas, Mrs Claire Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dalyell, Tam
Darvill, Keith Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Davidson, Ian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Keeble, Ms Sally
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Dawson, Hilton Keetch, Paul
Dean, Mrs Janet Kemp, Fraser
Denham, John Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Dobbin, Jim Kidney, David
Donohoe, Brian H Kilfoyle, Peter
Doran, Frank Kumar, Dr Ashok
Drew, David Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Laxton, Bob
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Lepper, David
Edwards, Huw Leslie, Christopher
Efford, Clive Levitt, Tom
Ellman, Mrs Louise Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Ennis, Jeff Linton, Martin
Etherington, Bill Livsey, Richard
Fearn, Ronnie Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Fisher, Mark Llwyd, Elfyn
Fitzpatrick, Jim Lock, David
Fitzsimons, Lorna Love, Andrew
Flint, Caroline McAvoy, Thomas
Foster, Rt Hon Derek McCafferty, Ms Chris
Foster, Don (Bath) McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Foulkes, George McDonagh, Siobhain
Gapes, Mike Macdonald, Calum
Gardiner, Barry McDonnell, John
George, Bruce (Walsalll S) McFall, John
Gerrard, Neil McIsaac, Shona
Gibson, Dr Ian McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Gilroy, Mrs Linda Mackinlay, Andrew
Godman, Dr Norman A McNamara, Kevin
Godsiff, Roger McNulty, Tony
Goggins, Paul Mahon, Mrs Alice
Golding, Mrs Llin Mallaber, Judy
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Grocott, Bruce Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hain, Peter Marshall—Andrews, Robert
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Martlew, Eric
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Maxton, John
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Healey, John Meale, Alan
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Merron, Gillian
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hepburn, Stephen Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Heppell, John Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Hesford, Stephen Mitchell, Austin
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Moffatt, Laura
Hill, Keith Moonie, Dr Lewis
Moore, Michael Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Moran, Ms Margaret Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Moriey, Elliot Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Mountford, Kali Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Soley, Clive
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Southworth, Ms Helen
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Spellar, John
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Steinberg, Gerry
O'Hara, Eddie Stevenson, George
Olner, Bill Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
O'Neill, Martin Stinchcombe, Paul
Öpik, Lembit Stoate, Dr Howard
Organ, Mrs Diana Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Osborne, Ms Sandra Stringer, Graham
Palmer, Dr Nick Stuart, Ms Gisela
Pearson, Ian Stunell, Andrew
Pendry, Tom Sutcliffe, Gerry
Perham, Ms Linda Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Pickthall, Colin
Pike, Peter L Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Plaskitt, James Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Pollard, Kerry Temple-Morris, Peter
Pond, Chris Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Pope, Greg Timms, Stephen
Pound, Stephen Tipping, Paddy
Powell, Sir Raymond Todd, Mark
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Trickett, Jon
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Prescott, Rt Hon John Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Primarob, Dawn Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Prosser, Gwyn Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Purchase, Ken Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Quinn, Lawrie Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Radice, Rt Hon Giles Tyler, Paul
Rammell, Bill Tynan, Bill
Rapson, Syd Vis, Dr Rudi
Raynsford, Nick Walley, Ms Joan
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Ward, Ms Claire
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Wareing, Robert N
Roche, Mrs Barbara Watts, David
Rooney, Terry Welsh, Andrew
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) White, Brian
Rowlands, Ted Whitehead, Dr Alan
Roy, Frank Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Winnick, David
Ryan, Ms Joan Wise, Audrey
Savidge, Malcolm Wood, Mike
Sedgemore, Brian Woolas, Phil
Sheerman, Barry Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Shipley, Ms Debra Tellers for the Noes:
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Mr. Jim Dowd and
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Mr. Robert Ainsworth.

Question accordingly negatived.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand that the French Government have announced that they will ignore the representations of the British Government and will persist with the unlawful ban on British beef. Have you received a request, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has just made an ineffective appearance on "Newsnight", to come to the House to explain his and the Prime Minister's complete failure to protect British farming interests in Europe?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

I have received no indication—[Interruption.] Order. The right hon. Gentleman asked me to reply to the point of order. The Chair replies to points of order—no one else does. I have received no indication from the Government that there is to be any statement.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Does the right hon. Lady want to make a point of order?

Mrs. Beckett

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My understanding, which can only be imperfect at present, is that there appears—[Interruption.] I do not need any interventions. It appears that the French Government may have made a statement. The British Government have no change of policy to announce. Obviously, if the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) wants a statement from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, we shall consider that request and discuss it through the usual channels. My understanding of the situation at present is that the British Government's position is unchanged; there is thus no change of policy to announce to the House.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Chair has no power in these matters. The point of order was a question as to whether there would be a Government statement. We have heard from the Leader of the House that there will not be a statement tonight, so I am obliged to continue the business of the House.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As the Leader of the House is in the Chamber, will she give us an assurance that tomorrow's business can be adjusted, so that we can take this serious matter into account? Tomorrow, there will be debates in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall; they are neither time sensitive nor urgent. Will the Leader of the House give us an undertaking that she will try to change tomorrow's business?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is a Liberal Democrat Whip and has access to the usual channels. These matters are for the usual channels—not for the Chair.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind hon. Members that I have explained my view on these matters.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As the guardian of the rights of Back Benchers, will you express the general principle that it is quite disgraceful that the Minister of Agriculture should be parading around on "Newsnight", commenting on a matter that vitally affects one of our great industries, which is in grave difficulty, instead of coming to this House to announce that there has been a major setback for the Government? The House needs to be told about that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The answer is no. I have been here in this Chamber looking after the rules of the House of Commons.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has said, you are the custodian of the rights of this House, and I ask you a direct question under a point of order. Is it right that a Minister of Agriculture should go to the media to deal with a matter that should be announced in this House and is critical to many constituencies?

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I shall not take any more points of order on this matter. The fact is that the rules of the House require me to call the next motion.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am taking the motion before us. I am looking after the rules of the House. I have explained my position.