Newsletter – January 2014

Happy New Year

I would firstly like to take this opportunity to wish you and your families and restful and prosperous New Year. The year to come is going to be extremely important for our country, not least because we will decide whether to become independent or stay part of the United Kingdom in September. I have been working hard for the Better Together campaign because I believe that, while we could ‘go it alone’, we shouldn’t. We are stronger together and as a nation Scotland is well placed to receive all the benefits of being part of a strong world power, while being able to decide on issues such as law, education and health through a devolved system. Crucially, as part of the UK, Scotland attracts investment, bringing jobs to the local economy, and I think we would be putting ourselves at risk by cutting our links to such an important part of our economy.

Finally, in our constituency, and across Scotland, we have the Commonwealth Games to look forward to. Glasgow is the perfect city to host these Games and I know Glaswegians will welcome our international visitors with open arms. Whether your sport is cycling, gymnastics, table tennis, or one of the many other sports on offer, I hope you are able to enjoy these Games coming to our city.

Glasgow North West

Active Seniors AGM


I was pleased to be invited to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Active Seniors Group, based at DRC Generations at Kingsway. Many thanks to Robert Smith, their coordinator, and all the Committee for all the good work.

Meeting with BAE Systems

Anne McTaggart MSP and I held a meeting with BAE Systems at the Clyde Shipyards to discuss the future of the site. It was an informative meeting and we discussed, primarily, the effect their decisions would have on jobs in the area. There are three different projects that are being put together but they are still to finalise which one they will be going for. Some options are better than others, but the arguments for and against are for another day. What is important, is that jobs in Scotstoun are secured. However, it is important to note that this all depends on the result of the referendum: an independent Scotland could not guarantee these contracts.

With Anne McTaggart MSP outside BAE Systems, a vital business in our community

Royal Mail Delivery Office Visits

I visited two of the local Royal Mail Delivery offices in the run up to Christmas. Firstly G13/14 office, which covers Knightswood, Yoker, Scotstounhill, Jordanhill & Whiteinch, was very busy on the day I visited with postal packets and parcels, due to the amazing growth in online shopping. Also visited was G15 Delivery office, which covers Drumchapel and Blairdardie. This office contains the new letter sorting machines which sequences the mail for the delivery postman – saving them time in preparing the mail for delivery. Many thanks to Paul Turner, manager G13/14 and Freddie Mains G15 manager, and all the staff at both delivery offices.

G15 Delivery Office

Parliament

Failure to protect customers

In Glasgow we had our share of the bad weather over Christmas and New Year, and across the country thousands of people were left without power for days on end. UK Power Networks, which supplies houses in the south of England, admitted they hadn’t done enough to get power back on and that too many engineers had gone on holiday over Christmas. This simply is not good enough and so we in the Energy select committee will be calling the company to speak to us about it. The energy networks are often out of sight of ordinary people, but it is important that we shine the spotlight on them as they provide such a vital service. I have had detailed feedback on the actions of SP Energy Networks, which supply to our houses, over the period. But hopefully, this evidence session will act as an additional warning that networks need to provide an excellent service all year round. We rely very heavily on them keeping the heating on and their holiday leave will need to be structured accordingly.

Ticket Touts

There have always been people trying to sell on tickets for a higher price to make a profit. Before the internet, this was annoying but not a great problem. But nowadays we see big companies buying up lots of tickets and then selling them on at inflated prices, often meaning that the real fans can no longer afford to go.

I believe there does need to be a system in place to be able to sell tickets on, but I’m not sure we have the right system at the moment. This is why I am setting up an inquiry as Chair of the All-Party Music Group, along with a number of other groups, so we can present some recommendations on this to the Government. We will hold a series of evidence sessions and I will keep you updated on the conclusions we reach on this issue.

e-newsletter

I will be starting an e-newsletter, so if you would like to be updated by email, please send your email address to jrmpoffice@btinternet.com along with your name and postal address and we will add you to the list.

WE NEED A BANKING SYTEM THAT HELPS SMALL BUSINESSES INSTEAD OF HINDERING THEM

People in Glasgow North West are facing the worst cost of living crisis in a generation.

Prices are soaring, wages are falling, working people are £1,600 per year worse off and small businesses are struggling to access the finance they need to grow. Yet David Cameron continues to demonstrate how out of touch he is with the struggles millions are facing and is determined to operate our economy as business as usual.

I’m delighted that Labour has made firm plans to help people struggling with the rising cost of living, such as our pledge to freeze energy bills until 2017. But as important as this pledge is, it only helps to deal with the consequences of our current economic state, and not the symptoms.

The Tory-led Government has failed to make the long-term changes needed to build a new economy that works for everyone and not just a few at the top.

The Tories won’t build a new economy that can tackle the cost of living crisis. They are determined to cling on to the old economy in a global race to the bottom. They think low wages, low skills and insecure work is the way to take Britain forward in the hope that some of the wealth will trickle down from the top.

If we’re serious about dealing with the cost of living crisis and winning the race to the top with countries like China and India, then we need to build a new economy that works for everyone, and that means dealing with one of Britain’s broken markets: our banking system that works for banks but not for businesses and families.

Britain’s banking system is dominated by just four banks that control 85 per cent of small business lending. This lack of competition is a root cause of poor service, a breakdown of trust and a massive drop of £56bn in lending to business since May 2010.

Part of the reason we rely too much on low paid, insecure work is that the small firms that could create the good, high paying jobs of the future can’t get the finance they need to grow both themselves and our economy.

We need to support small and medium sized enterprises so they can grow our economy for the future and that means promoting a wider range of banks that have to compete harder with each other for customers.

That’s why the next Labour Government will bring in a legal threshold to ensure no bank can get too big and that the market remains competitive for the long-term. We will improve the amount of lending to small businesses, improve the service to all customers and create new banks that will work for the communities they serve.

Under a Labour Government, small businesses will have a better chance of getting the support they need to grow, employ more people at decent wages and help Britain earn its way to better living standards for everyone.

Post Office Services Debate

On Thursday, I led a debate in the Commons Chamber on post offices and the services they offer. Here is the text of the debate:

Post Office Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Karen Bradley.)

4.51 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): I thank the speakers in the previous debate for giving me some extra time for this important debate. We have had many debates on post office services, and there will continue to be more unless we manage to solve the problems of the Post Office.

Post offices play a significant role in all our communities—80% of people in Scotland say that post offices play an important role in the local community. They act as a vital service and should be seen as community hubs. Sadly, rather than nurturing those community beacons, the Government have done a lot to undermine the network and decrease the services that it provides.

There are about 11,800 post offices in the UK and customers rely heavily on them, especially the most vulnerable in our society—the elderly, those on low incomes and the disabled. The universal service obligation and other services are so ingrained in our society that I fear the loss of them. For example, 43% of elderly people use a post office to access cash. People take it for granted that they can walk into a post office and deliver items within the UK and across the world. We need to act now to keep the Post Office thriving, otherwise we might be at risk of losing that vital institution.

The announcement by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) in November that additional funding had been allocated to complete the network transformation programme was a vote of no confidence. If the Government had delivered on the front office for Government work that had been promised, which I shall speak more about later, that £640 million would not be needed.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the transformation programme is working against many small post offices? In particular, the Post Office appears to be targeting some offices and persuading the postmaster to retire so that it can move into a local shop and downgrade the service.

John Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I shall come on to some of those points as we move on. There is no doubt that larger post offices—and even sub-post offices, for that matter—are shutting. When I spoke at a conference for sub-postmasters from Glasgow and Ayrshire, they let me know exactly how they felt about the Government’s position, and, for that matter, that of the previous Government. At least they were there to help and they offered some examples that I will mention later.

Although the Government will have spent around £2 billion on network transformation, we still will not have an attractive model for current or future operators. The money will have been used to subsidise exit from the network, as the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) said, rather than to make the network sustainable in the long term. That is of great concern to the many people who rely on post offices. We should be looking at making the Post Office better, rather than, as I suspect, making it ready for privatisation.

The sale of Royal Mail was of course resisted by the Opposition. Last week’s news that its share price was £5.67—£2.37 above the Government’s offer price, which raised just £3.3 billion—was disappointing. It was an ideological move, not a financially sensible or thought-through one. The separation of the Post Office and Royal Mail has added millions of pounds in costs to the Post Office due to loss of synergies. No other postal administration in a developed economy has separate letters and retail businesses.

The sale has now been done, but we must still consider Royal Mail in our strategy for the future of the Post Office. Just under 40% of Post Office revenues come from mail, so it is a significant part of the business. I was glad that, in January 2012, the Government caved into pressure and signed the 10-year inter-business agreement between Royal Mail and the Post Office, but there is no guarantee beyond 2022. The position is also not secure for the next 10 years, as the Minister’s own Department has said that the contract allows for changes in commercial circumstances and contains provision for a review of the agreement terms after five years. The 10-year agreement would therefore appear to be for only five years, but hopefully the next Government will be of a different colour and will put right some of these short-term ideological decisions.

It is a real concern that Royal Mail might not continue to support the post office network. The loss of that contract would seriously undermine the Post Office’s integrity as a mail delivery service. Were that to happen, people would lose confidence in the institution and the future of many post offices would be at risk, especially the largely loss-making ones in rural areas, such as the one represented by the hon. Member for Angus. Privatisation is a risk to Post Office services and we need more guarantees for the decades to come.

A post office is a place where people can go to fill in Government forms or to pay for Government services. It is important for both customers and employees that the Government continue to give the Post Office sufficient work. This Government announced in 2010 that post offices would become the “Front Office for Government”, but actions speak louder than words. They promised to give post offices £466 million of Government work, but post offices are currently gaining only £130 million from Government business.

I am sure that the Minister will say that the Post Office has won all the Government contracts it has bid for, but those were contracts it already had, not new ones. No new major services have been awarded to post offices, and the National Federation of SubPostmasters has stated that the few that have been introduced are for one-off transactions that are available in only a small number of post offices. Dangerous precedents have been set by not awarding Government contracts, and the future of the Post Office is in jeopardy as a result.

Linked to that, we need to ensure that post offices are not disadvantaged compared with other methods of using Government services. For example, if I wanted to pay my road tax online, I could bring up all the details—whether my car had its MOT and insurance, for example—via an online portal. I would not need to go looking for documents, as the information would already be on the system. However, until very recently, post offices could check only a car’s MOT, so people would have to bring in their insurance documents. It is clear that those who could choose to use the internet over having that inconvenience would do so. After all, who wants to have to carry around their documentation to ensure that they get their road tax? Thankfully, in this case, somebody has seen sense, so post offices can now check insurance as well, but the internet was well ahead on that, and that should be lesson for future online services. Post offices do not need to have an advantage—in fact, sub-postmasters tell me that they do not want it—but they should have at least a level playing field. People should be able to use the post office to access Government services with the same ease as on the internet. The decision not to award the green giro contract to the Post Office was another example of how the future of the institution—

5 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we have reached the moment for a procedural motion, after which I shall ask him to resume his speech.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Karen Bradley.)

Madam Deputy Speaker: I am sorry to have interrupted you mid-flow, Mr Robertson.

John Robertson: That is quite all right, Madam Deputy Speaker; you are in charge, after all.

The decision not to award the green giro contract to the Post Office was another key example of how the importance and value to people of the institution’s future was not even considered. The move was widely condemned by charities, which highlighted the fact that it would affect the elderly and vulnerable the hardest. Andy Burrows of Consumer Focus said:

“research suggests that people, particularly those on a low income, value the security and privacy that post offices provide.”

There is a real necessity for post offices that cannot be measured by numbers. When we think about the use of post offices, such matters should be considered, but it seems that in this case they were not.

Such a thing is also relevant when we talk about the Post Office’s announcement last year that it is to franchise several Crown post offices. There is a lot of concern, particularly among the vulnerable people I have mentioned, that certain services will no longer be easily available to local people, leading to an inferior service for our constituents and the loss of one-to-one help from specially trained and committed post office staff. We must also bear in mind the livelihoods of hard-working staff in Crown post offices. Post Office Ltd appears to have handled this very badly through a lack of consultation with staff, unions and key stakeholders, which resulted in a strike. About 800 jobs are at risk due to franchising, but that does not seem to have been considered during the decision-making process. Have the Government learned from this and how will the Minister proceed with franchising? Can she explain why the Crown branch section of the network should receive no public funding at all and yet hit break-even by April 2015 when other sections of the network will continue to receive public funding after this date? Many Crown branches are in the poorest and most disadvantaged parts of the country. A more realistic timetable would balance the need to protect services and jobs with financial sustainability.

We should be thinking about how we could increase the number of Government services available in post offices. Many people prefer to carry out transactions with the UK Government, devolved Administrations and local authorities online. Crucially, however, those who do not have the internet are the most vulnerable. Some 53% of people who have never used the internet have a disability. Around 37,000 people on low incomes in Scotland have never used the internet, while only 33% of adults over 65 have the internet in their home. These people need another option, and post offices are a clear choice: 43% of over-65s use a post office at least once a week, as well as 37% of people with disabilities and 31% of those in the D and E socio-economic groups.

It is also much more difficult for such people to move on to other ways of accessing services. The post office could act as a one-stop shop for people to sort out all these services in one go. Post offices are the natural home for local government services, and that approach could save money, improve public services and increase post offices’ footfall, although it would require co-ordinated work between local authorities and devolved Administrations. If the Government are so committed to making the Post Office the front line of Government, what is the Minister going to do to encourage councils and devolved Administrations to transfer their contracts over?

We should also look at widening the range of services provided by post offices. We were hugely disappointed that our plans for a people’s bank were abandoned in 2010. Post offices provide local access to cash and banking services, and that is particularly important in rural areas and areas such as those in my constituency with high levels of elderly people. The potential of such services is not being realised. Post offices should have full access to all high street bank accounts, but some banks have not been forthcoming.

In the long term, the possibility of a state-backed bank at the post office should be explored. There is evidence that that could be of great benefit to the Post Office, as New Zealand Post has seen its profits surge by nearly 70% thanks to its financial services arm, Kiwibank. Such a bank could also be massively beneficial in combating payday loan companies and high-cost doorstep lending by being linked to credit unions and providing affordable credit directly to the communities that our post offices serve.

The post offices of our communities need to be saved. They provide vital services, the reduction of which is of great concern to workers and the vulnerable people who rely on their post office. Action on the idea of a front office for Government is lacking when we need it most, and there has been no initiative from this Government to widen the impact of post offices. We need action, and we need it fast if we want to save this national institution, rather than let it be sold off for a quick buck like Royal Mail.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): In calling Minister Jenny Willott to reply, may I put on record my congratulations to her, because I believe that this is the first time that she has spoken from the Dispatch Box? I welcome her.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jenny Willott): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Having not been allowed to speak in this Chamber for two years as a Government Whip, it is a little surreal to be at the Dispatch Box.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing this debate on an important subject. Despite the lack of Members present, the issue comes up regularly, and on most occasions a significant number of Members want to discuss the critical role that post offices play in all our local communities. The post office is much more than just a commercial entity. As the hon. Gentleman has said, it is important to hundreds of thousands of small businesses, which rely on it every day, as well as to the millions of customers who use the network for a range of services. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that post offices are particularly crucial to elderly residents, those on low incomes and the disabled, who make particularly good use of them in our communities.

In November 2010, we announced a funding package of the historic amount of £1.34 billion to guarantee the size of the network until 2015 and to end the closure programmes run by the hon. Gentleman’s Government, which led to the closure of 7,000 branches under the previous Administration. In November 2013, we announced our continued support of the network with a further £640 million to secure and continue its modernisation until 2018. That makes clear the Government’s commitment to the post office and its future success. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman has said, that recent investment is a vote of confidence in the post office network and it is helping to move it to a more sustainable and secure long-term future.

Mr Weir: I understand what the Minister is saying and I think we all appreciate the money going into the transformation programme, but many small sub-postmasters in my constituency are concerned because they feel that they are being pressurised by the Post Office to give up their businesses, take extra redundancy or move to a local model that they feel is unsustainable. That does not seem to be a sensible way to pressurise people who have run post offices successfully for many years.

Jenny Willott: I cannot comment on the operational procedures of the Post Office, which is a separate entity, but the Government are very clear that we want to maintain 11,500 branches in the post office network across the country. That means ensuring that we maintain a branch in all communities that currently have branches, and the level of knowledge and expertise that exists among many sub-postmasters, who are extremely well embedded in their communities and extremely well known and trusted by members of their local community. That is one of the elements that make the post office so important in many of our communities, especially in rural or more deprived areas, where many people depend heavily on the local sub-postmaster and the post office branch.

Mr Weir: I do not want to labour the point, but experienced postmasters are being encouraged to give up and businesses are going to a local shop, on the post office local model, that generally offers fewer services than existing post offices. I appreciate that the Minister has said that the Post Office is independent, but Government money—taxpayers’ money—is being used to achieve the changes.

Jenny Willott: We are trying to ensure that the post office network is sustainable into the future. We cannot subsidise at historical levels. The previous Government’s way to tackle the problem was just to close post office branches, with significant losses. There were many losses in my constituency, as I am sure there were in those of other hon. Members in the Chamber.

This Government have taken a different decision, which is to look at different models to ensure that we can maintain post office services in all communities across the country. Services delivered in particular communities may have to change to ensure that they are viable, but it is incredibly important that we have post office outreach in communities across the country, and that we do not see any repetition of the previous Labour Government’s closure programme.

John Robertson: The point that the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) and I are trying to make to the Government is that post offices supply a service to people who need that service. We do not need a downgrading of the existing service, but it appears likely that the Government’s project will downgrade post offices to such an extent that people will wonder what the point is of having them in the first place.

Jenny Willott: I could not disagree more with the hon. Gentleman. The vast majority of services available in post office branches across our communities will still be available. I cannot remember the exact figures—I hope that he will forgive me—but well over 90%, perhaps even 95%, of the services that people can currently access in their branches will still be available under the new models. There will still be every reason for people to carry on using their post offices, which will serve their communities in exactly the same way: the model will be slightly different, but they will provide just as vital a service to members of our communities as they currently do.

The £2 billion of funding that has now been approved by the Government will allow post offices to invest in transforming and modernising the network and helping to ensure the long-term sustainability that we all agree is absolutely critical. Despite what the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, the new models are attractive. I understand that he and the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) both have concerns, but the models are attractive to those running post office branches. Some 2,500 sub-postmasters have already converted, or have signed contracts to convert, their branches to one of the new operating models. They have received investment to modernise and improve their branches, which will bring benefits not just to them in running their businesses, but to the consumers they serve and the communities in which they are based, including much longer operating hours, shorter queues and more attractive branch layouts.

John Robertson: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again, but perhaps we can solve the whole problem. Why does she not come up to Glasgow and meet the same sub-postmasters that I have spoken to? Let me assure her that what she says is not what they are telling me. She can come and see for herself.

Jenny Willott: I have met the National Federation of SubPostmasters. I represent Cardiff Central, and I have spoken to my local sub-postmasters. I appreciate that this is clearly a period of change that will be very unnerving for many sub-postmasters, particularly for those who have to change how they operate their business, but a significant amount of investment is available for those who want to carry on and to sign contracts to change to a new form of business. They are getting a lot of support from the Government. Others might want to leave the network or to retire, including those who have run businesses for a long time, and there is support for them as well, but it is important to recognise that many sub-postmasters are happy to alter their properties and to change to the new model.

Customers are getting significant benefits from the new models. Across the network, there are an additional 34,000 opening hours a week, which is equivalent to 700 more traditional post offices. The programme of investment will see the modernisation and protection of all branches by 2018, ensuring that every community and customer that relies on access to a post office today will continue to have access to post office services in the future.

The Government have ensured that all sub-postmasters can benefit from the investment. For the first time, a dedicated fund has been set up for post office branches that are important to the communities they serve, but where one of the new models would not be viable. That is an issue in large, remote rural areas, such as those in Scotland, where the post office is often the last shop in the village, as it were. The community fund to ensure that those post offices are kept open is a real departure. It will protect those branches well into the future and ensure that people have access to post office services. That is particularly important in areas where the post office provides an important service to more vulnerable consumers.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for giving way yet again; I do not want to push my luck too far. I remember taking this matter up with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) when she announced the fund. The fund is for doing work on the post office to make it better, but that is not the difficulty in many of these very small post offices. The difficulty is that the postmaster’s income is simply insufficient. Postmasters want to keep going, but there is nothing in the fund to give them an uplift in their income to help the post office survive. The fund is for physical changes to the post office, which is not the issue at most of the post offices we are discussing.

Jenny Willott: I will come on to talk about income and the services that we are supporting in post offices to ensure that they are viable.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West spoke about Crown post offices. As he mentioned, the funding package that was set out in 2010 required the Post Office to eliminate its substantial losses. In 2012-13, £37 million of losses were incurred by the 373 branches that made up the Crown segment of the network. It is a key part of the Post Office’s strategy to make the network sustainable in the long term. The Government support the business in delivering that strategy. The current losses of the Crown network contribute a third of the losses incurred by the network as a whole. That is clearly unsustainable. No business, including the Post Office, can maintain a situation in which its high street branches cost substantially more to run than they bring in.

As part of its strategy to eliminate the unsustainable losses, the Post Office identified about 70 branches where there is no prospect of eliminating the losses at a local level under the current structure. In those locations, it is seeking a suitable retail partner to take on the operation of the branch under a franchise arrangement. The Post Office has made it clear that under each franchise proposal, the full range of current post office services, including the more complex transactions such as passport applications and identity services, will continue to be available in close proximity to the existing Crown branch. In the event that a suitable retail partner cannot be found, Post Office Ltd has given a commitment that a post office service will be retained in the area. I hope that what I have said reassures the hon. Gentleman that communities will not lose these vital local services.

John Robertson: The hon. Lady has not reassured me at all, I am afraid. Some of the Crown post offices that are closing are in areas where people simply cannot get about. There is no transport to get to where the new post office is because the bus services have been cut. How are those people supposed to get to the facilities that they need? They cannot go online because they do not have a computer and they cannot afford one.

Jenny Willott: The Post Office operates to the strict criteria that 90% of the population must live within a mile of a post office and 95% within three miles. Although there may be some changes to the exact buildings in which branches are provided, as I said, services including the more complex ones available at Crown branches will still be available in the area. We are maintaining the access criteria so that more than nine out of 10 people will live within a mile of a post office. We recognise that more vulnerable members of the community in particular will find it hard to travel longer distances to access services, so we are ensuring that they are maintained locally.

The investment that is being made is helping to ensure that an independent Post Office will remain a strong and long-term partner for Royal Mail—that is another issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. A transformed network will offer Royal Mail and the many companies, Government Departments and agencies with which the Post Office works better access to customers than ever before, which is crucial to winning new contracts and retaining existing ones.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the decision to separate the Post Office from Royal Mail. Far from being a mistake, it has allowed the Post Office to focus on its own priorities and needs. It is important to recognise that the two companies are very different. Royal Mail is a logistics company whose business is collecting, sorting and delivering mail. Although we can access Royal Mail services at post offices, the Post Office is different. In addition to mail services, it provides access to a wide range of Government services, from pension and benefit payments to passport check and send services and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency motoring services, all the way down to fishing rod licences. It also provides access to a wide range of financial services products, from savings accounts to mortgages, insurance and foreign exchange. It is now piloting a range of current accounts. Separation is allowing the Post Office to focus on its business and make the right decisions in the long-term interests of its staff, sub-postmasters and customers.

I recognise, as I think we all do, the importance of the Post Office’s relationship with Royal Mail. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, prior to separation the two companies negotiated and signed a long-term commercial agreement. It was a 10-year agreement, the longest permissible at the time, and ensured that Royal Mail services would continue to be offered at post offices until 2020. That cemented the long-term relationship between the two businesses. As the post office network modernises and the parcels market continues to grow, the relationship will only get stronger. Indeed, Royal Mail’s chief executive has said that it is “unthinkable” that the two companies will not always have a close relationship. I am reassured that the relationship will be maintained long into the future.

It is important to remember that the relationship is equally important for both businesses. The Post Office benefits from a continuing commercial relationship with the largest postal operator in the UK, and Royal Mail benefits from exclusive access to the largest retail network in the UK and the millions of customers who use post offices every week.

Alongside its work for the Royal Mail, the Post Office is making good progress on its ambition to become a front office for government. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out—slightly dismissively, if I may say so—the Post Office has won every Government contract that it has bid for in the past two and a half years. That is a notable achievement that should not be underestimated. The contracts have been secured in highly competitive markets against fierce competition, and the Post Office’s success represents a vote of confidence in the business, in the Government’s funding and, more importantly, in the thousands of highly skilled postmasters and post office staff who deliver the services every day. That shows the regard in which they are held.

The contracts that have been won include the vital cross-government front office framework contract, which was led by the DVLA and won by the Post Office in 2012. It has extended the Post Office’s contract with the DVLA and broadened it into new areas. Because it is a framework contract, it also means that other Government agencies can contract more easily with the Post Office and deliver value for money to the taxpayer. The contract is already in use by Her Majesty’s Passport Office, which sees in it an opportunity to modernise the passport check and send service. With a stable and modernising network, the Post Office is well placed to build on those successes.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and all other Members who are in the Chamber will support me in encouraging Government Departments and agencies, local government bodies and, as he said, the devolved Administrations to seek out new opportunities to work with the Post Office. That includes new and emerging digital and identity markets, but also counter services. As he has said, branch security is important to so many Post Office and Government customers.

The Post Office has shown time and again the benefits it can bring to the Government in driving value for money for the taxpayer and in improving the accessibility of Government services, including to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups across the UK. That has brought many benefits to the Post Office. Additional new work will be crucial in helping to ensure the network’s long-term future.

However, I want to be clear that, in accordance with EU procurement regulations, the Government cannot simply award contracts to the Post Office or, for that matter, to any other company. We must secure suppliers through an open and competitive tender process. That ensures fairness, drives innovation and delivers value for money for taxpayers, which is important in these times. That the Post Office is winning contracts in such circumstances shows that it meets those competitive criteria and does an excellent job.

There is more to the Post Office than mail and Government services—the hon. Gentleman highlighted that. The company has been growing well in new areas in recent years and is now one of the leading providers of financial and telephony services in the UK. Growth in the Post Office’s award-winning financial services business under this Government has made it one of the leading challengers to the high street banks. Post Office’s 3 million customers have deposited more than £17 billion in a variety of savings products. Customers rely on the Post Office for insuring their homes and holidays. It also helps them to get on or move up the property ladder with the range of mortgages it has available. Recently, the Post Office’s current account pilot was extended and is now available in more than 100 branches.

The Post Office acknowledges the important role its network plays in local communities. The business is already in conversation with the Association of British Credit Unions and the credit union sector to explore how they can work together to reach more families and give access to credit union services in more communities. I am sure hon. Members welcome that.

The Post Office remains committed to ensuring that communities continue to be able to access cash and banking services—the hon. Gentleman highlighted that important issue. Ninety-five per cent. of UK current accounts are available over the post office counter. With the support of the Government, the Post Office is continuing to work with the one remaining high street bank—Santander—that does not offer this service. Those services are important in ensuring local convenient access to cash, particularly, as he said, for the communities that have been left with no high street branch. Unfortunately, that is many of our communities in the UK.

In conclusion, I am confident that the hon. Gentleman can see that the Government believe strongly in the future of the Post Office and that we are working hard to ensure its future success. We are investing in modernising the network. Under this Government, the Post Office is flourishing. Customers are benefiting from longer opening hours at improved branches. The company is winning new contracts and providing its customers with an increased range of services. The Government are laying the foundations for the long-term, sustainable and successful future of the Post Office. Hon. Members agree that it is essential for our communities that the Post Office continues to thrive in the years to come.

Questions to the Energy Secretary

In questions to the Energy Secretary in the Commons Chamber on Thursday I asked the following question:

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase levels of competition in the wholesale energy market. [902012]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr Edward Davey): There are two main initiatives to increase competition in the wholesale energy market led by Ofgem, which we have underpinned with new powers in the Energy Act 2013. First, Ofgem has worked with the industry to increase the amount of electricity traded in the “day ahead” market, with very encouraging progress. Over the past 12 months, over 50% of electricity has been sold on the day exchanges, compared with just 6% in 2010. Secondly, Ofgem’s new reforms—most notably, the market maker obligation—should be rolled out from 1 April 2014, which will force the big six to publish prices and require them to buy and sell electricity at those prices in the forward markets. That will increase liquidity, transparency and competition.

John Robertson: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but even he will agree that the biggest problem, particularly for the poorest in society, is cost. The energy companies that generate the power are getting 20% profit on generation, selling the electricity to themselves and then selling it on to customers in retail and getting anything between 4% and 6% profit. Surely that cannot be right. Is it not time we broke up the generation and retail sides of the business and stopped those companies dealing with themselves and undercutting the poorest members of society?

Mr Davey: I can agree with the hon. Gentleman on the cost issue and that we need reform in the wholesale market because of the vertically integrated model, but I have to remind him and Opposition Members that that model for the big six was created under the previous Government, and we are tackling the issue—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I think that we have got the point.

POST OFFICES MAY CLOSE WITHOUT SUPPORT

Government must support the institution through giving more public contracts, says Glasgow MP.

John Robertson MP will today call on the Government to make post offices a ‘one-stop-shop’ for government services and other facilities, such as a post bank. He will lead a debate in the Commons, highlighting that elderly and disabled people rely on the Post Office and will struggle to move towards online government services.

Ahead of the debate, Mr Robertson said: “Almost half of the over 65s go to the Post Office at least once a week and many people depend on being able to go there to pay their council tax or their road tax, pick up their pensions, or send post all over the world. Instead of supporting these people by giving the post office contracts, our Tory and SNP-led governments are risking the closure of post offices across the country, who rely on contracts for around a fifth of their business.”

“Royal Mail privatisation has not helped, as 40% of Post Office business is from mail. We need to be pushing the newly private company to take on the contract with the Post Office for decades to come – or look to re-nationalise this profitable business.”

Questioning DWP on Personal Independence Payments

I had the opportunity to ask the Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions about personal independence payments. Here is what I said:

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): How many claimants have received the personal independence payment since April 2013. [901894]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): The Department intends to publish official statistics in the spring. In the meantime, we are looking to see whether we can publish interim information as soon as it becomes available.

John Robertson: I thank the Minister for that answer, which is good news for a lot of people. He will appreciate that a lot of people are suffering while Capita takes so long to get that information out; they have the anxiety of not knowing whether their appeals, or even their applications for assessment, have been agreed. What kind of monitoring of Capita is he doing, and does it have enough people to do the job?

Mike Penning: We are monitoring the work of both Capita and Atos, and we will have the figures as soon as we can. Under the previous Administration’s scheme, fewer than 6% of people claiming this or a similar benefit were ever assessed. It must be right and proper that there is not self-assessment; it is done by the experts.

November Newsletter 2013

Clarity over Shipyards

We received the announcement that we have been waiting for that BAE Systems will be closing Portsmouth shipyards, and 835 people in the Clyde shipyards will be losing their jobs progressively through to 2016.  While not unexpected, it is very sad for the hardworking people involved, as well as their families. But I have been assured that the company will be working with trade unions and will explore all potential opportunities, including retraining, redeployment and flexible working arrangement, as well as providing support for employees who wish to retire or seek external opportunities.

The positive thing to come out of the announcement, however, is that the future of the Clyde shipyards as a whole has been secured for at least the next decade.  They stated that following an assessment of capabilities, the Clyde was seen as the most effective build location for Type 26. Future QE Class work, which was initially planned for Portsmouth, will be relocated to the Clyde under BAE Systems’ proposals.

Of course, a question mark still hangs over this, as I am sure if Scotland sadly decides to vote for independence, then I cannot see how the UK and Scottish governments would decide on the future of these shipyards.  Since the Second World War, no UK government has ever commissioned the building of a warship in a foreign country, and I would find it very difficult to believe that they would choose to do so if Scotland became a foreign country.

I care deeply about keeping jobs in the constituency and, while disappointed that jobs will be lost over the next few years, I am pleased that the future of the Clyde has been secured.

Glasgow North West

Oppose the Bedroom Tax

The Labour Party has held a debate in the Commons recently on the Bedroom Tax. It is a deeply cruel and unfair measure which hits 660,000 vulnerable people, including 400,000 disabled people, through no fault of their own.  For the vast majority affected, there is nowhere smaller to move to, and this is a particular problem in Glasgow.

There is now also a real risk that this tax will end up costing more than it saves.  This is due to people being forced to move to the private sector which will end up costing more in Housing Benefit.  I have been speaking with housing associations in our constituency and they have stressed they see this being a major problem in the years to come.

Presentation of the old Yoker School clock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was delighted to be invited by Sandy Busby of Yoker Resource Centre, to make the formal presentation of the old Yoker School Clock, in the Yoker Community Campus, located in the old school.  The clock was discovered early this year in an unkempt and damaged state in the loft of the resource centre.

The clock hung in the Yoker primary school from its opening in 1875 till it closed in 1965 and then served the local community on to 1991 when the school closed in the then Yoker Neighbourhood Centre.

Mr Billy Mills, from Bearsden, offered to pay for the refurbishment of the clock, in memoriam of his late wife Nancy, who attended Yoker Primary School as a young girl.

Parliament

Questioning the Energy Companies

The Energy select committee, which I sit on, has had a lot of media attention in recent weeks as we have been questioning energy companies on why they are putting up prices yet again.  In the last month or so, all of the biggest energy companies have announced price rises of between 4 and 10%.  As many of you who read my newsletter often will know, I am always annoyed by the reasons they give for price rises. They say wholesale energy prices are going up and government policies take up a lot of the cost of a bill.  But the committee this week showed they are simply lying about this.  The Chief Executive of a smaller company, Ovo, said he hasn’t seen wholesale prices go up in about two years.

I also appeared on an episode of Dispatches called “Energy costs exposed”.   It showed that energy companies are not sure how much government policies, so called ‘green levies’, are adding to the bill, with different companies saying different things.  The programme also looked into some of the shady tax practices by the big companies and it suggests a lot of tax avoidance is going on.

I will keep pressuring the energy companies to come clean about their accounts.  But if you have problems paying your energy bill please speak to your supplier or call my office if you have a problem.   There are plenty of schemes which could help you with energy bills, and I do not want any of my constituents going cold this winter.

With Shadow Energy Secretary, Caroline Flint MP, pledging to freeze energy bills

 

End zero-hours contracts

We need real action to end exploitative zero-hours contracts and rising insecurity in the workplace

Families in Glasgow North West and across the country are facing the greatest cost of living crisis in a generation. Prices are increasing, wages are falling and for many hard-working people there is rising insecurity in the workplace.

One of the worst examples of this is the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts. I’ve spoken to many people in Glasgow who are employed on zero-hours contracts and they’ve told me of the struggle they and their families face on a daily basis.

According to recent estimates there could be as many as 1 million workers employed on zero-hours contracts – with a big increase since the Tory-led government took office –  and they are now used in one in five workplaces.

The Tory-led government has failed to act on zero-hours contracts. It emerged that a ‘review’ of the issue initiated by Business Secretary Vince Cable earlier this year consisted of three officials spending part of their time “speaking informally” with stakeholders.

Zero-hours contracts mean insecurity and stress for too many families in Glasgow North West. We can’t let this continue, which is why I voted on Wednesday for an end to their exploitative use and for action to stop rising insecurity at work.

The Tory-led government has failed to act. According to recent estimates there could be as many as 1 million workers employed on zero-hours contracts – with a spike since the Tory-led government took office –  and they are now used in one in five workplaces.

A Labour Government would ban employers from insisting zero-hours workers be available even when there is no guarantee of any work, stop zero-hours contracts that require workers to work exclusively for one business and end the misuse of zero-hours contracts where employees are in practice working regular hours over a sustained period.

Both employers and employees need flexibility but this shouldn’t mean people in Glasgow lacking job security and having to be flexible about whether or not they can afford the weekly shop. We’ve got to put a stop to it and that is what Labour is determined to do.

Hard-working people should feel confident and secure at work; ending the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts is an integral part of achieving this.

Report from Jonathan Gibson

Jonathan Gibson has been undertaking work experience in the office this week and he came along to the Energy and Climate Change select committee yesterday. Here is his report for us on what was said during the meeting.

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This morning I attended the Energy and Climate Change select committee on proposals for carbon reduction, through the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) programme. John was sitting next to Ian Lavery and we heard the opinions of a number of energy experts and representatives of various CCS companies with which the government might potentially cooperate. The principal issues addressed in the committee largely involved funding for the project, potential barriers  to its implementation and the issue of how best to ensure that it will effectively reduce carbon emissions in the short and long term.

A number of queries were raised regarding how cost-effective these plans would be, the response from the panel being that the project they advocated is the most cost-effective option available, with major opportunities for cost reduction through economies of scale over time. They cited similar projects in Canada and Texas which had successfully reduced their costs by 30% and 25% respectively. Professor Stuart Hazeldine of the Scottish CCS stated that there was plenty of room for as many as 4 or 5 CCS programmes to operate alongside the other energy policies the government is currently running. A suggestion was also raised about how the UK economy might benefit from taking the first steps in this programme, as there might be opportunities to export his new technology overseas. Furthermore, the panel maintained, we should act sooner rather than later in any case, exploiting our local expertise in the North Sea, to encourage the rest of Europe to follow our example.

Another issue that the committee tried to address involved the barriers to achieving CCS and how they might be overcome. The experts on the panel argued that scientific and technological barriers were easily surmountable and far more important were policy barriers. They argued that thus far the government had not been sufficiently proactive or creative in taking proposals forward and in many cases had been more effective in killing off suggestions or leaving them to wither than it had in encouraging them to expand. Undeniably, trying to find a meeting point of policies of de-carbonisation and energy generation is not a simple task and the UK government is already world-leading in this area, but several of the experts maintained that more needs to be done and that CCS is the natural next step. In comparison to the case of policy in renewable and nuclear energy, the government’s strategy on carbon reduction is still quite uncertain. We need to avoid the situation that arose on wind farms in the ‘70s and ‘80s where plans were not sufficiently supported throughout their development; greater focus on funding and visibility is required to implement really ambitious reforms.

Finally, the committee discussed the issue of how government policies should best address the issue of carbon emissions. The panel maintained that simply regulating energy prices is not enough to maximise the scope and ambition of this programme and that we need to focus more on offering incentives to energy companies. Other countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia have already worked on this but in the EU little tangible change has yet been achieved. The advice of the panel was generally to try to make CCS more investible for companies to ensure greater cooperation in reducing carbon emissions. Christopher Pincher did call this assertion into question by referencing Shell’s statement that previous efforts within the EU to offer greater incentives had not been successful; The panel responded that the issues with these previous programmes (lack of a clear objective, insufficient integration etc) had been properly rectified in their CCS proposal.

In conclusion, the committee heard many compelling arguments in favour of the CCS scheme as a way to achieve greater cooperation between government and energy companies and ultimately to meet our long-terms targets to limit carbon emissions. Although questions still remain about how exactly the programme would operate, I certainly believe that the government should take a more proactive course in supporting ambitious plans to address this very important issue.

Jonathan Gibson

High School of Glasgow

September Newsletter 2013

A Historic Vote

Parliament was recalled towards the very end of recess, as I am sure you are aware, so that we would be able to vote on action in Syria. The images that came out of Syria, after what appeared to be a strike using chemical weapons, were undeniably horrifying. It is unsurprising that people in the UK were keen to try and stop this happening again.

The week preceding the vote in Parliament was surrounded in speculation that the Prime Minister would ask for us to vote on military action against Syria, but following various discussions across all parties, he in fact asked for us to support the principle of military action.

I have always been very hesitant about this sort of action – I was one of the ‘rebels’ who voted against the Iraq War in 2003. As now, I was concerned that we were rushing into a war when we didn’t have all the facts to hand. I think

many of my colleagues have learnt the hard lessons of Iraq and we voted against making that same mistake again.

The Prime Minister had pushed for the UN to send weapons inspectors into Syria, and yet called on us to approve his actions before waiting to hear what evidence they had found. I am sure that, while they may have been able to prove that a chemical weapons attack did take place, they would not be able to prove who was responsible for it.

In Syria, there are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. I have my concerns about the rebels as well as the Syrian regime itself. I also do not think we could successfully perform a ‘shot across the bows’, as President Obama seems to think. This could be a long and costly war and I would be hesitant to vote in favour of it, even if we had all the evidence to hand.

Glasgow North West

St. Thomas Aquinas

I recently met and had a discussion and question and answer session with S4 modern studies pupils, and their teacher, Christopher Shannon, Principal Teacher of Social Subjects at St. Thomas Aquinas. The pupils are currently studying the systems of Westminster, elections and central government. Everyone was keen and they asked many questions.

Street Surgeries

Over the recess I have run a number of street surgeries with local councillors: John Kelly, Judith Fisher, Liz Cameron and Paul Rooney (and unfortunately one with Jon Findlay was cancelled due to the recall). For these surgeries, I deliver letters to all in the area and ask constituents to contact me if they would like me to visit them to discuss anything. Look out for my letters – I will be holding more of these in October.

VJ Day Commemoration

I was honoured to recently attend a service at Knightswood St. Margaret’s Parish Church to mark the 68th anniversary of the Victory Japan (Pacific) Day, along with local Councillors Bailie Jon Findlay and Councillor Paul Rooney. The service was hosted by the Central Scotland Branch of the Parachute Regimental Association. After the service there was a wreath laying ceremony at the Veterans Memorial and a March Past and Salute taken by the Lord Provost’s representative.

Thanks should also be recorded to all the Veterans of all ages who took part, Rev. Melvyn Wood of Blawarthill Parish Church for taking the Church Service and Her Majesty’s Band of the Royal Marines Scotland for their participation.

Parliament

Simpler Energy Bills

The energy regulator, Ofgem, announced at the end of August that it has reformed the way energy companies present their bills to us and how they ensure we are on the cheapest tariffs. They have reduced the number of core tariffs available to four for electricity and four for gas. Tariffs will all be presented in the same way, with a standing charge and single unit rate, designed to make it easier for customers to compare. There will also be more encouragement for people to switch, with customers given personalised information on the cheapest tariff for them based on energy consumption. I think it is good news that customers will find it easier to compare prices and easier to switch. I do have some concerns that by reducing the number of tariffs, the cheaper tariffs will be scored off and this will end up being the equivalent of a price rise for some people. I will be ensuring Ofgem makes sure this does not happen.

Zero Hours Contracts

As a former manager at BT, I know the importance of looking after employees and making sure they feel secure in their jobs. Sadly, other employers do not feel the same way. Zero hours contracts do not offer any guaranteed hours and often do not include holiday or sick pay. They mean that people cannot plan their budget or time from one week to the next and leaves them in a very vulnerable position.

We in the Labour Party have been campaigning against the use of these contracts and will continue to do so when Parliament returns. If you are in this position and would like any advice, please do not hesitate to get in touch with my office using the contact details on the back of this newsletter.