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Mrs. Beckett: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister said that there is a real crisis in the countryside, but that there was much about which to be positive as well. It is by no means the case that my right hon. Friend suggested that there was no crisis, but he drew attention also to the responsibility for that position that lies on the shoulders of Opposition Members. I understand that that does not comfort the hon. Gentleman.

On sub-post offices, the hon. Gentleman may know that we had such a debate--I think only last week--in Westminster Hall. [Interruption.] I apologise to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)--the debate was promoted by the Liberal Democrats. In the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness was able to state that the Government have continuing concern for the fate of rural post offices but wish also to see improvements in the way in which benefits are paid. The Government do not believe that the two issues are incompatible.

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have announced the Second Reading of the Postal Services Bill, and I anticipate that, whatever changes are made, that will take place in the near future. This may give the hon. Gentleman and others an opportunity, and allow my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to repeat his reassurances.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The Leader of the House will recall that a fortnight ago I raised the issue of the concern felt in the north-west of England about the fact that Manchester has not been given proper consideration as the site of the national athletics stadium. Since then, I have received a communication from the British Olympic Association that makes the--to me--astonishing assertion that it regards only London as an acceptable venue to be promoted for a future Olympic games bid. Does she share my concern about that? May we have a statement, or a debate in Government time, that would allow hon. Members from all regions to express their dissatisfaction that only London is now considered a worthwhile centre for the Olympic games, should they come back to the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett: I can understand the hon. Gentleman's indignation and accept that it will be shared by hon. Members from many other cities. However, I understand that it is not the British Olympic Association but the International Olympic Committee which has indicated that it wishes to consider only bids from capital cities.

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I understand the view that many people will find that unacceptable, but if that is the context of the IOC's considerations, it will create a difficulty for others here.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): I support the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) for a debate on low pay and the minimum wage. I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that the minimum wage was the most important legislation of this Parliament, but I am sure that she will also recognise that the time is rapidly approaching when the minimum wage will need to be increased dramatically if we are successfully to continue the fight against poverty in communities such as my own in Blaenau Gwent.

Mrs. Beckett: Of course I share my hon. Friend's view that the introduction of the national minimum wage was a step of enormous importance and one of the considerable achievements of the present Government. He will know, however, that it is not the only step. There have been many others, such as the creation of the working families tax credit, which do and will bring benefit to lower- income families. I cannot undertake to find time for another debate on the matter in the near future, but my hon. Friend will have noticed that we have Trade and Industry questions next week, and he may find an opportunity to raise the matter then.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 282:

[That this House congratulates those financial institutions which are continuing to offer free access to cash machines; expresses concern that the LINK cash machine network is considering the introduction of a surcharge of £1 per withdrawal from cash machines when cash machine providers already receive a LINK interchange fee; notes the crucial role played by the free cash machines in promoting financial inclusion in deprived and in rural areas; and therefore urges all financial institutions not to adopt surcharging, due to the adverse effect this will have on the consumer in general and particularly those on low incomes and those living in areas with limited cash machine coverage.]

It stands in my name and has been signed by Members from at least six other parties. Is she aware that members of the Link network, which operates the machines, are attempting to introduce a standard £1 charge per withdrawal? Is she further aware that that will affect drastically the most impoverished and socially excluded members of our community--those who traditionally draw small amounts of money at regular intervals--who will be hit by a charge of £1 per transaction? Will she please impress on the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the need for him to make an urgent statement about what he intends to do to bring that anti-competitive cartel to book?

Mrs. Beckett: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government welcome the decision of the financial institutions which continue to offer that service free of charge. We are concerned about the issues he raises, although it is a matter for the banks to resolve with their customers in the marketplace as an issue of competition. However, he will know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has commissioned a review of banking under

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Don Cruickshank. We anticipate that the report will cast some light on those matters and the Government will carefully consider its recommendations.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Will the Leader of the House ensure that either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor comes to the House at an early opportunity to explain the new underlying thinking on green taxes, in the light of the U-turn on the pesticides tax and given that the climate change levy--as it is called by the Government, although it is an energy tax--is penalising efficient, energy-intensive manufacturing industry in this country?

Mrs. Beckett: We have just had Treasury questions and that was the hon. Gentleman's opportunity to raise that issue.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): The replies by the Leader of the House this morning and speeches this week by senior members of the Government show a chronic misunderstanding and grotesque underestimation of the agricultural crisis. I meet farmers every weekend and I ring them from here most days of the week. They do not want subsidies; they want the regulations, costs and conditions imposed on them uniquely by the Government to be lifted. If the Prime Minister can find two days to go to the south-west, cannot he find two hours to discuss the matter in the House?

Mrs. Beckett: We fully accept, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made plain, that there is a deep and painful crisis in agriculture, although I remind the hon. Gentleman again that the Leader of the Opposition told the NFU conference:


The hon. Gentleman claims that the agriculture industry does not want subsidies but wants regulations and costs imposed specifically by the Government to be lifted. All I can say is that my reading of these issues--which come up weekly and include matters such as the pig industry, which he has, quite rightly, often raised in the past--is that most of them were caused by the Conservative party in government.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Social Security to explain why in January there was a double pension pay-out to about 112,000 pensioners, at a cost of about £10 million? Was that an attempt to compensate for the derisory increase of 75p in the basic state pension, or was it just another Government computer bungle? May we have a statement on why it happened, what is being done to deal with it and what steps are being taken to ensure that such bungles do not occur again?

Mrs. Beckett: I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter, but I remind the hon.

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Gentleman that we have Social Security questions on Monday, so he can ask my right hon. Friend himself. Alternatively, he may find an opportunity to raise the issue in the debate on social security motions.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): May I reinforce the request from my right hon. and hon. Friends for a ministerial statement on the proposed very large increase in the television licence fee? I am sure that the Government would not want it to be thought that a motivation for that would be to put the cost of a licence beyond the reach of large numbers of electors, who would then be deprived of the spectacle every Wednesday afternoon of the Prime Minister trying to explain why he is reneging on all his election pledges.

Mrs. Beckett: I remind the hon. Gentleman that I have already said that the reports are wrong. The Government do not want to deprive people of the opportunity to watch television or indeed to watch Prime Minister's Question Time on a Wednesday. The only people who have deprived them of that spectacle lately have been Conservative Members.


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