HC Deb 17 January 2002 vol 378 cc417-9
4. Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

What steps she has taken to ensure that the universal service provision is adhered to in the UK market for postal services. [25548]

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

The Government enshrined the universal service obligation in the Postal Services Act 2000. The Act provides that it is the primary responsibility of the postal regulator—Postcom—to exercise its functions in a manner best calculated to ensure the provision of a universal postal service. It is therefore for Postcom to determine how the universal service obligation is implemented in the interests of consumers.

Mr. Pickthall

Is my hon. Friend confident that, given its recent performance, Consignia is capable of sustaining the universal service obligation? Given that that obligation involves reliable daily deliveries to every household and business in the country, will he use his influence to see that it is extended to the Liverpool postal area?

Mr. Alexander

I appreciate the points that my hon. Friend has made. There have been particular challenges in Liverpool, which is why I was pleased that Lord Sawyer attended the Liverpool sorting office while preparing his report on the Post Office.

Of course Consignia has to do more in terms of providing the quality of service that people are looking for, and we have actively taken steps to strengthen its management. I must re-emphasise the point that the primary obligation of Postcom is to secure the universal service obligation. It is the regulator's prime function to ensure that the service is enjoyed not just in Liverpool but right across the country.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Is it not wholly unrealistic to expect that the universal service obligation, which depends on cross-subsidy within the Post Office, can continue to be maintained when Consignia is making mounting losses because of intensifying competition and industrial disruption? What kind of guarantee can the Minister give that these crucial social service obligations will continue to be provided—by the Government, if necessary—when the Post Office is forced to default on its universal service obligation because of its financial difficulties?

Mr. Alexander

As I said earlier, the primary obligation of the regulator is to secure the universal service obligation. There is no doubt that Consignia faces considerable challenges. Not least as a shareholder, the Government are determined to see the improvement of the company in the months and years to come. That is why we have taken active steps to improve the management. The chairman of Consignia is being appointed at the moment. Allan Leighton has been appointed to the board with particular responsibility for overseeing network issues. A new financial director, Marisa Cassoni, has also been appointed. I am confident that, on the basis of continued application and hard work, not just by the management but by the employees, we shall see the kind of step change in performance that all hon. Members agree is necessary for Consignia.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

Is the Minister aware that the regulator is putting thousands of postal workers' jobs at risk by allowing competitors to cherry-pick the most profitable areas of the postal business while restricting Consignia's ability to raise its prices to the levels necessary for it to meet the universal service obligation and to make a profit? Does he agree that this has the potential to plunge the country's postal services into a shambolic mess?

Mr. Alexander

One of the terms of the licence granted to Consignia was to uphold the universal service obligation. It is also important to recognise that liberalisation is coming not only from the Postal Services Act 2000—which was supported by many hon. Members on both sides of the House—but from Europe. There is simply no alternative for Consignia but to improve its performance, and that is why the Government are taking active steps to ensure that that happens.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

What action will the Minister urge on the regulator in the light of Consignia's persistent failure to meet its delivery targets, the scrapping of the second delivery, and the loss of 1 million items of mail a week? Given the already deteriorating postal service in this country, will he take this opportunity to condemn unreservedly the threat of strike action?

Mr. Alexander

Of course, any strike action is to be regretted, not least in a service on which so many people rely. It is important at this critical stage in the negotiations that management and unions work together to find a resolution to this prospective dispute. The implementation and securing of the universal service obligation rest primarily with the regulator; the terms of any change in delivery schedules by Consignia would also be a matter for the regulator.

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