Jenny Marra Universal Postal Service (Competition)       Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate    2 October 2014

 I thank my colleague Hugh Henry and congratulate him on bringing this important debate to the chamber.

I echo colleagues’ unstinting support for the universal service obligation.

It is still, in our country, a delight and a cherished wonder that someone can pop a first-class stamp on a postcard in Ullapool and be confident that it will arrive in the thronging metropolis of London the very next morning, to be read over breakfast.

Indeed, just this morning, I went to the post office to replenish the book of first-class stamps in my purse, and who knows where on these islands I will use those stamps and for what purpose.

Reflecting today on the wonder of the service, none of us can be in any doubt that it is one of the many important and emotional ties that bind us to the UK.

It is an emotional and practical arrangement that is backed up by legislation at UK and European Union levels.

Competition has become mandatory in postal services as a result of the EU postal services directive, which was transposed into UK law by the Labour Government.

There was and is no opt-out from the directive as long as we are a member of the EU.

I think that all members across the chamber support our membership of the EU, so the challenge becomes one of finely balancing competition arrangements to protect and strengthen the USO while maintaining the quality of jobs across different employers in the sector.

To that end, our trade unions—the Communication Workers Union, representing Royal Mail workers, representatives of whom are in the public gallery, and Community, representing Whistl workers—are doing a fine job of working with employers to enhance training and support the modernisation of working practices in the sector while securing an agreement to end Whistl workers’ zero-hours contracts, as well as securing pay increases and improvements in health and safety.

Those are measures that workers across all postal services providers will support, I am sure, in order to maintain standards across their industry.

The job of finely balancing and making fair the competition arrangements in the UK falls to Ofcom, as Hugh Henry pointed out.

I welcome and support his call for a review of competition in end-to-end postal services to determine the regulatory changes that are needed to protect the USO.

An arrangement as precious and fundamental as the USO needs to be constantly scrutinised so that we can strengthen, improve and sustain it in a constantly evolving postal market and so that standards in the industry for all workers can be maintained and strengthened by the arrangements that are put in place.

The industry has faced a marked decline in letter delivery, as online billing and emails are cheaper for consumers and for business, so we have to be innovative, within the rules of the EU postal services directive, if we are to strengthen and maintain the USO far into the future.

Royal Mail, as the legally designated provider of the USO, must be allowed a fair playing field in which to deliver its obligation and maintain standards in its practices. That is absolutely necessary and fair.

I understand that a review is scheduled to take place in 2015. However, if it is necessary to bring that forward, Ofcom should heed the call to do so.

As Hugh Henry said, we must ensure that there is no unfair competition and that we finely balance the competition rules.

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