The Postal Services Bill has had its first full debate today. The Bill makes provisions for the restructuring of the Royal Mail Group, addresses problems in the Royal Mail Pension Fund and changes some of the regulatory arrangements.
Usually, the House of Lords gives Bills – however controversial – are given an unopposed Second Reading, so that they can be given detailed consideration at the Committee and Report stages. Today, however, Lord Tony Clarke, a former postman who became Deputy General Secretary of the Union of Postal Workers, put forward an amendment to the motion that the bill be now read a second time, to leave out all the words after “that” and insert “this House declines to give the bill a second reading”.
In introducing the Bill, Lord Peter Mandelson set out clearly the case for modernisation:
“We live in a digital age. As we send more texts and emails, we send fewer letters. The Mobile Data Association estimates that in 2008, we sent around 216 million text messages per day. That same year, we sent five million fewer letters per day than we had done just two years ago.
The fall in mail volumes is happening across many modern economies but I do not accept that postal services are locked into an inevitable decline. I believe mail is still a critical part of our social fabric, our communication infrastructure and our economy. And for those reasons, I want to see Royal Mail modernised and made fit for the future.
The Government is fully committed to maintaining the universal service. Royal Mail is at the heart of that service. Only Royal Mail has the ability to collect and deliver letters anywhere in the country, six days a week, for a single, affordable price.
That’s why the Royal Mail’s service requires sustaining not abandoning – and sustaining with a vision that will ensure its commercial success.”
He also made clear the Government’s commitment to:
“a universal service which is reliable, offers good value for money, is innovative and responds to their needs.
Our proposals seek to deliver that. Part 3 of the Bill sets the standard for the universal service. It requires Ofcom to ensure that the universal service is maintained. If Ofcom finds that there is tension between its functions in relation to post, the Bill is explicit in requiring the regulator to give precedence to the universal service. “
In the end, Tony Clarke withdrew his amendment – while making it absolutely clear that he was not convinced by the arguments. So we didn’t vote today, but there will be no doubt much detailed debate and discussion over the weeks ahead.