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Business of the House

3.31 pm

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East) : Will the Leader of the House state the business for next week ?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton) : Yes, Madam

Perhaps I should explain that we were especially anxious that Her Majesty's Opposition should have a proper opportunity to study the statement on the Post Office, and I therefore hope that it will be for the general convenience of the House if I make the business statement now, before the statement by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

The business for next week will be as follows :

Monday 23 May----Conclusion of remaining stages of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill.

Motion on the Railways Pension Scheme order.

Motion on the Railway Pensions (Protection and Designation of Schemes) order.

Tuesday 24 May----Third Reading of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill.

Motion on the Northern Ireland (Emergency and Prevention of Terrorism Provisions) (Continuance) Order.

Wednesday 25 May----Motion for the Spring Adjournment.

Motion on the Council Tax Limitation (Sheffield City Council) (Maximum Amount) Order.

Thursday 26 May----Debates on the Adjournment.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committees will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 25 May to consider European Community documents as follows :

Committee A, document No. 4168/94 and the supplementary explanatory memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 16 May relating to intra-Community trade in bovine animals and swine.

Committee B, unnumbered explanatory memorandum submitted by HM Treasury on 16 March relating to the discharge of the General Budget for 1992, document No. 6214/94 relating to the fight against fraud in 1993 and document No. 6214/94 ADD1 relating to the anti-fraud strategy and work programme for 1994.

[Wednesday 25 May :

European Standing Committee A--Relevant European Community document : 4168/94, Intra-Community Trade in Bovine Animals and Swine. Relevant reports of the European Legislation Committee : HC 48-x (1993-94) and HC 48 -xviii (1993-94). European Standing Committee B--Relevant European Community documents : (a) Unnumbered, 1992 Budget Discharge ; (b) 6214/94, The Fight against Fraud in 1993 ; 6214/94 ADD1, Anti-Fraud Strategy. Relevant report of the European Legislation Committee : (a) HC 48-xiii (1993-94) ; (b) HC 48-xvii (1993-94) and HC 48-xviii (1993-94).]

Madam Speaker : Before hon. Members put questions to the Leader of the House on the business statement, they may find it helpful to know that, in view of the changed date for the rising of the House, Northern Ireland questions, which were to have been taken on Thursday 26 May, will now be taken on Thursday 16 June and that there

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will be consequential alterations to the rota for subsequent Thursdays. A revised rota will be published as soon as possible. Since those hon. Members who are interested in Northern Ireland questions will have had insufficient notice to table questions today for 16 June, arrangements have been made for questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to be tabled next Tuesday 24 May, when there is Northern Ireland business. Questions to the Prime Minister for 16 June are unaffected and should be tabled today. Full details are available at the Table Office and hon. Members are advised to consult that office if they are in any doubt.

Secondly, I remind hon. Members that, on the motion for the Adjournment of the House on Thursday 26 May, up to nine hon. Members may raise with Ministers subjects of their own choice. Applications should reach my office by 10 pm on Monday. A ballot will be held on Tuesday morning and the result made known as soon as possible thereafter.

Mr. Brown : I thank you, Madam Speaker, for your statement, and I thank the Lord President for his statement. May I especially thank him personally and the Government's business managers for rearranging the business for next Thursday and today ? Many hon. Members on both sides of the House will be attending John Smith's funeral service, either in Edinburgh or in one of the regional centres, tomorrow. Would not it have been possible to have postponed business or scheduled tomorrow's business for some other occasion so that tomorrow would have been entirely free of business ?

On a more controversial matter, may I raise with the Leader of the House a request for a statement from the Minister for the civil service, dealing with the use of civil service time to draft wrecking amendments for Conservative Back Benchers to table for private Members' Bills ? If the Government are opposed to a private Member's Bill, for reasons that they no doubt regard as legitimate, surely they should stand up and say so and not use the civil service in such a hole-in-corner, blatant, party political manner.

The Leader of the House will have noticed the resonance in the House caused by the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) at Prime Minister's Question Time last Tuesday, as he will have noticed the resonance caused by the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) in the House today concerning the Child Support Agency. He will have seen today's comment from the Chairman of the Social Services Committee, who has described the Child Support Agency as "a spectacular failure". May we have a debate on the agency and a statement of the Government's plans for reforms ?

Finally, may I invite the right hon. Gentleman to reconvene the previous meeting that was held to discuss the Jopling report with a view to achieving a consensus and making progress ?

Hon. Members : Hear, hear.

Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman referred to resonance in the House. It is clear that his final remarks drew just such a resonance. He will know --I think that the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) will not mind me mentioning it--that I was due to have a meeting with her on Thursday, but for reasons that the

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whole House will well understand it was not possible to have it. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has indicated that he hopes to be able to meet me and I, in turn, hope to arrange that for next week. Therefore, we are all keen--[ Interruption. ] Well, nearly all as I had better not speak for those below the Gangway--to make progress on those matters.

I do not think that I can add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said a few moments ago about the Child Support Agency.

On the question of the drafting of amendments--the hon. Gentleman referred to the need for my right hon. Friend to say something--I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the letter that the head of the civil service recently wrote to his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), the Opposition spokesman on those matters, making it clear that there was nothing improper in Ministers asking civil servants to assist in the preparation of Bills, or amendments to Bills, including private Members' Bills, whether they are to be tabled by the Government or handed to Back-Bench sponsors or, as was eventually decided in that case, to other Back Benchers.

Tomorrow's business is, of course, governed by Sessional Orders passed by the House some months ago.

Lastly, on perhaps a happier note, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about our response to the unhappy circumstances with which we have all been faced this week. I am glad that we have been able to make a number of helpful adjustments to Government business.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : Will my right hon. Friend try to find time next week to discuss planning ? There is a particular worry in my constituency about unwanted planning applications from Tesco and Sainsbury for super-stores on the edge of communities, with the potential for ripping the heart out of those communities. A debate would be a good opportunity for me to vent my spleen about the behaviour of those two super-stores.

Mr. Newton : Although I cannot promise precisely that opportunity next week, I point out that there are a number of opportunities for many matters to be raised. I hesitate to encourage my hon. Friend to vent his spleen on me in the debate on the Spring Adjournment. Should he do so, I shall endeavour to ensure that I am armed with some kind of comment.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : Further to the exchange between the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) about procedure, what is to prevent the Leader of the House from introducing next week draft amendments to the Standing Orders of this place and inviting the House to vote on them on a free, unwhipped vote so that we can make the urgent changes to procedure for which, I am sure, there is widespread support throughout the House ?

Mr. Newton : I know that that suggestion is intended to be helpful and I take it as a useful indication of the hon. Gentleman's strong support for reform. He will have heard my exchange with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). That is the sensible next step.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) : May I support the calls that have been made from two major parties in the House for amendment to the way in which the Child Support Agency operates ? Although we fully support the

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objective that absent parents, whether fathers or mothers, should pay towards the cost of the upkeep of their children, the way in which the agency is operating is a disgrace and an abuse of the power that the House gave it. The Government must act, not next week but this week, to rectify the injustices currently being perpetrated by the agency.

Mr. Newton : My hon. Friend, like others, will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said. I will, of course, ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has his attention drawn to his remarks. I know that Ministers are carefully considering the points made in the House.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that the very important statement containing amplifications and clarifications of the Downing street declaration which we understand from the press is to be made by written answer will be dealt with in the House so that there will be an opportunity to question the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and that it will not simply be pushed away along with other matters that may be appropriate for a written answer ? The matter is important not only here but all over the world. There is great interest in the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Newton : I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will look carefully at what the right hon. Gentleman has said. There will be an opportunity to refer to Northern Ireland matters next week, although whether precisely what the right hon. Gentleman has in mind would be in order is not perhaps for me to say.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) : Although I realise that my right hon. Friend cannot give an undertaking on this, may I ask that, when he considers the business for Monday 13 June, he bears in mind the fact that the Lords v . Commons tug of war is to take place at 7.15 pm ? It is expected to raise a substantial sum for the Macmillan cancer appeal.

Madam Speaker : That is perhaps a matter for advertisement in The House Magazine .

Mr. Newton : I can certainly undertake to my hon. Friend, whose vigorous support for this and a number of other causes is well known, that I shall bear the point in mind. I cannot go quite so far as to say that it will be the decisive factor.

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood) : Will the Leader of the House please confirm that he will provide time next week for the completion of the remaining stages of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, given that on 29 April the House, without any opposition from the Government, called for time to be made available ? In addition, contrary to what the Prime Minister said today, the alleged deficiencies and certainly the cost implications were not debated in Committee because the cost compliance assessment was not provided by the Government for the Committee. The Government did not, in fact, oppose a single clause of the Bill in Committee. Should not we have time now to complete the remaining stages ?

Mr. Newton : I am afraid that I cannot give the undertaking for which the hon. Gentleman asks. My right

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hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government's purpose is constructive but that they see the way forward as being slightly different from the way in which the hon. Gentleman sees it.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : May we have a debate next week on the important decision of a Committee of the House to veto the Crossrail Bill ? Crossrail is essential for west London, for my constituency and for other areas, with 60,000 jobs and general prosperity being created on both sides of London. Perhaps the debate could centre on early-day motion 1215.

[ That this House expresses its dismay at the decision of the Committee on the Crossrail Bill ; reaffirms its strong support for the Crossrail project which will provide better public transport and many thousands of new jobs for people in London and the South East and which will help provide London with the infrastructure it requires as one of the world's leading financial and commercial cities ; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to bring forward urgently the necessary measures to ensure this project proceeds without delay. ]

That motion is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Newton : I do not know whether it will bring any comfort to my hon. Friend, but this is a matter of some concern in my Braintree constituency also.

The Government have consistently made clear their commitment to the project, and they share the disappointment about the action of the Committee. The commitment remains, and we are currently having discussions with the promoters of the Bill about how best to proceed.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : Will the Leader of the House confirm what I think he said a few moments ago--that it was entirely legitimate for a Minister of the Crown to cause amendments under public money to be drafted by parliamentary counsel and then passed to private Members for a private Member's Bill ? If he did

Madam Speaker : Order. Will the hon. Gentleman phrase his question in a different way so that it relates to business next week, as this is business questions ?

Mr. Spearing : During a debate next week, will the Leader of the House confirm what he said earlier on the matter which I have just raised ? Is not it against the traditions of the House for the Crown to spend public money on interfering and stifling the political and legislative initiative of private Members who are sent here by the public ?

Mr. Newton : I simply quoted directly from a letter from the Secretary to the Cabinet to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who raised the matter with him.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that a report on the parliamentary data and video network has been completed by the Information Committee, but that no debate has yet been arranged ? The whole data network system in the House will come to a full stop until that is possible. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that steps will be taken so that hon. Members can chase up Ministers by electronic mail on behalf of their

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constituents ? That would greatly speed up the process, and would abolish the need for the enormous amounts of paper which are used, and stop trees being cut down.

Mr. Newton : I am always anxious to assist my hon. Friend in any way in the vigorous pursuit of his duties. I hope at an appropriate time to arrange a debate on the report, but some consideration is still being given to the matter by the appropriate committees, including the Finance and Services Committee.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Will the Leader of the House reverse the decision to have an extra day off next Friday in view of the fact that the Government say that there is not enough time to debate the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill ? Is not it a kick in the teeth for the disabled that the House is getting up a day early when we could have debated that Bill ? The Government are under instructions to give that Bill extra time. Surely Friday would be a suitable occasion for it. Will the right hon. Gentleman revise what he said and give that Bill time so we can get it on the statute book to help 6.5 million disabled people, instead of kicking their crutches away ?

Mr. Newton : If I may say so, I made no reference whatever to questions of time or shortage of time in responding to the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry).

Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport) : My right hon. Friend will be aware that Britain has been in the forefront of Europe in introducing measures for casualty reduction on our roads. When the Department of Transport shortly publishes its report on introducing seat belts into minibuses and coaches, will my right hon. Friend try to find time to debate the issue so that Britain may be in the forefront on this issue too ?

Mr. Newton : I will certainly give consideration to that matter. My hon. Friend is right to say that this country has been in the forefront of Europe, and one of the outstanding achievements of recent years has been the reduction of deaths on the roads.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool) : May I urge the Leader of the House to arrange for a debate next week on the future of the civil service in view of reports this morning that the Government plan to place senior officials on fixed, short-term contracts ? Before the civil service is further casualised and, I fear, politicised, will the right hon. Gentleman give a clear undertaking that the Government will listen to the views of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, and to the views of the House as a whole, before they reach any further conclusions on the matter ?

Mr. Newton : The Government always look very carefully at anything that any Select Committee says.

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon) : May I support the call of other hon. Members for a debate, at an early date, on the Child Support Agency ? May I remind my right hon. Friend that about a year ago he was good enough to arrange a debate on the United Kingdom tourist industry during which the then Minister with responsibility for tourism--my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key)--said that he very much hoped that it would become an

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annual event. Does my right hon. Friend share our hon. Friend's hope, which is also my hope, and can he provide time for a debate on tourism before too long ?

Mr. Newton : I share the hope, but I cannot yet say that it is necessarily an expectation.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Is it possible for the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People to make a further statement next week, bearing in mind that information has now emerged that the amendments provided by parliamentary counsel for Tory Back Benchers to wreck the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill were prepared some 16 days before the Minister made a statement to the House saying that his Department had no knowledge of the matter ? Does not the Leader of the House understand the feeling of disgust throughout the country at the fact that the Government have used every underhand method to try to wreck a Bill that would help the disabled ? The Minister should give an explanation and, in my view, he should resign.

Mr. Newton : The fact that the drafting of the amendments was set in hand shortly after the Bill emerged from Committee was clearly and straightforwardly stated in my right hon. Friend's letter to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). Yesterday's answer added nothing new in the way that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. As for the rest, I simply say that my right hon. Friend, in a letter to the hon. Member for Workington, acknowledged an error and he made a personal statement and gave an unreserved apology to the House. In my judgment, the matter should be left there.

Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck) : Will the Secretary of State consider providing time--if not next week, some time in the near future--for a debate on unemployment in the Northern region ? The Secretary of State for Unemployment-- [Interruption.] Employment--although I got it right the first time--has been in great voice this week about the drop in unemployment nationally, which the Prime Minister confirmed today, but there is a problem in the Northern region. In my constituency the figures for February-March show that male unemployment has risen by 540 while female unemployment has dropped by 49, most of it due to part-time work. Those figures reflect the position throughout Northumberland and, indeed, the Northern region. We deserve a debate on unemployment in the Northern region.

Mr. Newton : I cannot promise a debate, but I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I had considerable involvement with the Northern region over a long period and I certainly would not just dismiss his concern. However, I must express some pride at the amount of new manufacturing industry that has been brought to the north in recent years.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : Following the comments of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), will my right hon. Friend take time next week to discuss the matter with our hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam), whose commitment to the disabled is second to none in this House, and who on the radio this morning said that he believed that the vendetta being

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waged by some people against our right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People should be stopped forthwith ?

Mr. Newton : I did not hear those remarks, but I certainly echo both the comments that my hon. Friend made about our hon. Friend the Member for Exeter and the remarks that he attributes to him. I would add one thing. While the tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter was entirely due, it would also be right to say that there are not many who have made a greater contribution to advancing the cause of the disabled than my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) : I direct the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the debate proposed for Tuesday evening and ask him to reconsider it. The report of Mr. J. J. Rowe QC into the operation of the emergency provisions Act of 1993 was placed in the Library only late on Monday night and as of yesterday it was not available in the Vote Office. Nevertheless, there is to be a debate on Tuesday evening on that important matter, which should be properly considered by the House. There is plenty of time--the order does not have to be made until the end of June. Surely it would better enable the House to give fuller consideration to the report and to the debate if it was postponed.

Mr. Newton : I cannot undertake to postpone the debate, but immediately I am able to do so I will look into the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the availability of documents.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : Now that we have established from the letter of l3 May that we have just received from Robin Butler to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) that Back Benchers can have drafting assistance from parliamentary counsel, could such assistance be put on a more solid basis ? Could the service be advertised to Members and, in future, where clearly there are drafting problems with amendments tabled by Opposition Members, could we go to parliamentary counsel at public expense-- [Interruption.] Perhaps we can have a statement on the matter next week, Madam Speaker. Could we go to parliamentary counsel at parliamentary expense to ensure that Ministers cannot knock our amendments down on the basis that they are badly drafted ? Could such a service be put on a proper footing to help Opposition Back Benchers ? Perhaps we could have a statement from the Dispatch Box on the matter next week.

Mr. Newton : I find myself slightly puzzled because the hon. Gentleman has been here a considerable time. It remains the case that parliamentary counsel draft on the authority of Ministers, but that help is often given on that authority to Back Benchers on both sides of the House. A whole set of Bills currently before the House or recently passed by the House were drafted by parliamentary counsel.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood) : As we are about to have a statement on the Post Office, does the Leader of the House agree that it would be more sensible if all Members received the written statement ahead of the oral statement ? At present only some Members receive the

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written statement in advance. Would not it be far more sensible to proceed in the other way ? Will the Leader of the House inaugurate that practice from next week's business ?

Mr. Newton : Consideration of that proposal would, in the first instance, be for the Procedure Committee. Obviously, we would consider carefully any recommendation. I can make no commitment. The existing convention, which is part of the usual channels, is that copies of the statement are made available a reasonable time in advance to the Opposition Front Bench. One reason for the fact that the business statement is being made now rather than when earlier advertised is to provide time for the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) to study the statement that he is now studying.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : When a resolution of the House has been passed by due procedure, should not it be acted upon ? A motion in the name of the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) was passed on 29 April. Should not we have a full debate ? If the Government are against the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, should not they have the guts to vote it down while the rest of us have an opportunity to support it ?

Mr. Newton : The motion to which the hon. Gentleman refers was explicitly framed as an expression of opinion. It does not bind the Government any more than it overturns the Sessional Order of the House about the time for private Members' Bills. I cannot add to what I and, before me, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about the Government's approach to the Bill and their desire to advance the cause of disabled people in constructive, workable and practical ways.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : Will my right hon. Friend next week read the report of the Procedure Committee which recommends, not that statements should be made available in advance, because statements are often altered at the last moment, but that all documents relating to a statement should be published not after the statement is made but 15 minutes before so that Members may have access to them ? That is a recommendation of the Procedure Committee. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider it most fully.

Mr. Newton : My right hon. Friend knows that I always consider as constructively as I can his Committee's proposals. I see some difficulties with the one to which he refers. It is different from the proposal that was put to me. If I remember rightly, the Procedure Committee's report explicitly did not cover written statements and said that the Committee did not believe that it was appropriate for them to be available in advance.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that not all Bills that come before the House which are drafted by parliamentary counsel are perfect ? Would not it be better for parliamentary counsel to be dislodged from their ivory tower to allow Members of Parliament to have more direct access to them ?

Mr. Newton : I should be the last person to suggest that no Bill ever coming before the House that had been drafted by parliamentary counsel was perfect in every respect, but I am not sure that the conclusion that my hon. Friend seeks to draw would necessarily follow.

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Post Office

3.59 pm

The President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Michael Heseltine) : With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Post Office. On 29 July 1992, I announced that the Government would be considering the future structure and organisation of the Post Office. I made it clear then that we would consider a variety of options both in the public and private sectors. In March, the Trade and Industry Committee published a report on the future of the Post Office. We have considered that carefully.

The Government have now decided that they will shortly publish a Green Paper setting out the issues in full and outlining the options for change. In view of the intense speculation of the past two days, however, I thought it important that I should make this early report to the House.

The Post Office is an essential part of our national life. It provides at least one daily delivery of mail throughout the country at a uniform tariff, which is the same regardless of whether one lives in Westminster or the Western Isles. It handles some 60 million items of mail per day. Perhaps most important of all, it maintains a network of some 20,000 post offices which serve their local communities in a way that no other organisation can match. The Government therefore made their consideration of the future of the Post Office subject to three vital and non-negotiable commitments, all of which we clearly set out in our manifesto. These are, first, the maintenance of a nationwide letter and parcel service with delivery to every address in the United Kingdom ; secondly, a uniform and affordable structure of prices ; and, thirdly, a nationwide network of post offices. Under no circumstances would we put those commitments at risk.

There are three principal businesses of the Post Office : Post Office Counters, the Royal Mail and Parcelforce. The Green Paper will outline a number of options, but I can announce some firm decisions today.

Let me begin with the Counters business. Every Member of the House is well aware of the vital importance of the network of post offices, particularly in rural areas, but also in our towns and cities. The Government fully recognise the key role that they perform in our communities. That is why the maintenance of a nationwide network is non-negotiable.

The Counters business is essentially a partnership between the public and private sectors. The central core, which negotiates contracts and provides back-up services, is Government owned. But the vast majority of post offices--all but some 800 of the 20,000 outlets--are privately run sub-post offices operating under an agency agreement.

The Government can see no case for changing that structure. It works well. It ensures that the Government retain the necessary control over the maintenance of the nationwide network. It also allows for private sector initiative at local level where the local post office is at the heart of local communities.

During the review, however, the case has been put forcefully, particularly by the National Federation of Sub Postmasters, that the commercial prospects of the post office network need reinforcement. I understand and share that view. Most post offices are small shops, and the Government understand the pressures on such shops as a

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result of social change. We therefore intend to proceed with two measures specifically designed to improve their position. First, we will be giving Post Office Counters greater freedom in future to seek new clients from the private sector to supplement their existing client base, which consists largely of public sector bodies. The best way of maintaining the network is to give it freedom to compete for new business on fair terms, and thus increase the spread and scale of its activities. The Green Paper will set out our proposals.

Secondly, we propose to automate many of the clerical procedures that lie behind much of the business of the network. These procedures--particularly those related to the payment of benefits--have been unchanged for decades. Work is thus under way between the Counters business and the Benefits Agency to devise a method of automating the payment of social security benefits. That will provide not only an extremely cost-effective way of paying benefits, but an electronic platform in post offices enabling the business to provide enhanced services for all its clients, new and old.

Work on that project is at an early stage, but we are looking to extend the public/private sector partnership by the involvement of the private sector in the management and funding of the project. I should like to comment on the relationship between Post Office Counters and the Royal Mail. The Royal Mail does not cross-subsidise post offices. Post Office Counters has been run as an independent business since 1986 and has been profitable throughout that period. Some post offices in rural areas do, of course, make a loss on a strict accounting basis. Post Office Counters has existing powers to support such post offices. Indeed, at the present time, 2,700, of which 1,800 are part time, are already supported by a flat fee, regardless of the business that they undertake.

Post Office Counters and its clients see the nationwide network not as a liability, but as an asset which enables it to provide a unique service to villages and hamlets throughout the land. It enables the Benefits Agency, for example, to provide a service for the millions of people who have no bank accounts and live in remote areas. The business link with the Royal Mail is also important, although Members may be interested to know that only about 25 per cent. of Post Office Counters' turnover comes from the Royal Mail. In any proposals, however, the Government will require the Royal Mail to continue to use post offices, as they do at present.

I shall now turn to the Royal Mail, which accounts for more than 70 per cent. of Post Office turnover. It is the most efficient postal service in Europe. It is a modern, profitable business and it is looking to expand into what is rapidly becoming a European and even a world market for postal services. That is in itself only a part of a global communications market that is one of the most innovative industrial sectors of all.

The Post Office board wishes the Royal Mail to be free of many of its constraints. Indeed, the board has made it clear that the increasing competition in its marketplace is beginning to pose a real threat to its ability to maintain its current performance. In its recent report, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry accepted that argument. The Government also recognise the case for change. The Green Paper will set out the options, showing the advantages and disadvantages and, in particular, the case for retaining a substantial minority shareholding in a newly

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