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Mr. Letwin: If that array of new councils and the Secretary of State's access criteria show that a non-viable rural post office should not be closed, will he subsidise it?

Mr. Byers: There is a question of definition of viability but, in Committee, the Government will consider very closely the need to include a provision that would enable a subsidy to be provided where it is appropriate to do so. Indeed, there will be a Government amendment to that effect. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Hon. Members should not jump to the conclusion that--

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury) rose--

Mr. Byers: May I explain? I shall give way later. We should not jump to the conclusion that we should always look for a subsidy from central Government. Other public organisations such as local authorities may want to invest if they think it appropriate to provide a subsidy but, as we are introducing a Bill that we would like to think will be on the statute book for a good number of years, it is sensible to cover all possibilities. At some time in the future, we may want to consider a subsidy to maintain a post office and the Bill is a suitable vehicle for providing that opportunity. We shall introduce an amendment in Committee to provide for that possibility.

Mr. Baldry rose--

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) rose--

Mr. Byers: I have a choice between a pro-European and an anti-European. I always prefer to give way to a pro-European.

Mrs. Browning rose--

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Mr. Byers: The anti-Europeans will have their chance. I may describe the hon. Lady as many things, but pro-European is not one of them. I give way to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry).

Mr. Baldry: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, although I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) would have made the point more elegantly than I. It would be useful for those of us who are keen to sit on the Committee to know how many months we shall have to set aside. His introductory remarks gave the impression that the Bill is a done deal, but now he talks about Government amendments. May we have a sweepstake on how many will be introduced and a prize for every time that more than 100 are agreed to? Will the Committee sit until Easter, Whitsun or the summer recess, and of which year?

Mr. Byers: As I know how many Government amendments are likely to be tabled, I would happily enter a sweepstake. I could do with the money. I was addressing the serious question of a subsidy. [Interruption.] I want to address the serious point. If the Opposition are against an amendment that would provide the opportunity to make a subsidy, so be it, but I happen to think that the Bill will be better if we cover that eventuality. I have thought about that since its introduction and the Government are prepared to provide such an opportunity. As it seems likely that we shall receive a report from the performance and innovation unit of the Cabinet Office while we are considering the Bill, we should be able to reflect on its recommendations. After consideration, that is what we intend to do. If the Opposition want to play games, so be it, but it will go down badly if they are seen to oppose an amendment--[Interruption.] We can tell from those comments that Conservative Members do not support an amendment that would allow a subsidy to be introduced. I regret that.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State is discussing the reaction of other Members to an amendment that has not been tabled. The convention of the House is that amendments should be tabled. When he tables that Government amendment, will he also table the other amendments and new clauses that are needed because the Government have changed their mind since printing the Bill?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order. It is more a matter for debate.

Mr. Byers: The report of this debate will be read by many people who have a real interest in the Post Office network. They will read with interest that when I replied to a specific point about a subsidy hon. Members opposite did not want us to proceed in the way that I described. That is the implication of what they are saying. They are playing games.

I shall bring forward an amendment that secures the possibility of providing a subsidy. If Opposition Members do not agree with that, so be it. They can raise the matter in Committee and deal with it then. We intend to adopt that measure because we believe that it is a suitable course

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of action to ensure that we can protect the network. In 19 years, the Opposition did not provide such an opportunity, but we intend to do precisely that.

Mrs. Browning rose--

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) rose--

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench spokesperson also wishes to intervene and, as both are anti-Europeans, I give way to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning)

Mrs. Browning: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. My original intervention was totally in accord with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), who asked exactly what I was going to ask but, in his response to my hon. Friend, the Secretary of State said that he knew how many amendments would be tabled. That is contrary to what the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe told us. If the right hon. Gentleman knows how many new clauses he will table, will he kindly share that information with the House now?

Mr. Byers: I do not know what comments my right hon. Friend has made. The hon. Lady might like to tell me when my right hon. Friend said that. We shall table amendments in Committee. There will be a number--[Interruption.] Opposition Members who have been in government know that the Government table amendments at the Committee stage. That will happen, and there will be a number. Some of us will try to have a serious debate about the matter. The Opposition may not want to debate a serious issue, which is about the Post Office network, and instead are trying to pursue this point. I shall continue to give them rope, and they will continue to hang themselves. I give way to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I confirm that I believe in national self-government.

What guarantee can the Secretary of State offer to Bruce and Yaeko Spilker, who run the post office in Station road, Marsh Gibbon, OX6 0HN, in my Buckingham constituency, where over 1,000 people have signed a petition in protest against the Government's plans for compulsory payment of benefits into bank accounts from 2003? In reflecting upon the question of a subsidy, will he confirm that he has no intention of discriminating between post offices, depending on whether they are in Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat constituencies?

Mr. Byers: I can confirm that that will not be a factor. It will be a matter at looking at the viability of individual post offices and deciding accordingly.

When I come on to address issues in relation to the Post Office network, I hope that I shall be able to answer the specific question.

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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Byers: I intend to give way once more, and then I want to make progress because I want Back Benchers to be able to take part fully in the debate.

Dr. Cable: Following the Secretary of State's very helpful indication on accepting the principle of subsidies, can he now give an approximate upper limit to the annual amount that will be forthcoming in relation to the £400 million loss of income?

Mr. Byers: No, I cannot, but what is crucial is a recognition that local post offices are a vital part of local communities. Over the last decade they have been in decline, as people's life styles and buying habits have changed.

The network of post offices has never been static. However, the Government must acknowledge the important community and social role played by post offices, and should provide new opportunities to individual post offices. That is why, for the first time, under provisions in the Bill the Government will issue access criteria for Post Office Counters to ensure reasonable access to those services, particularly in rural areas and areas of social deprivation.

The regulator and the consumer council will monitor the network closely against those criteria, and will advise the Government on the accessibility of public post offices. Access criteria will also provide a fundamental reinforcement of the public's right to appeal against individual closures. Rather than considering an appeal in a vacuum, the consumer council will be able to consider it against tangible access criteria, and will be able, through the regulator, to take up cases with the Post Office to ensure that those criteria are being met and will continue to be met. This underlines the Government's commitment to a nationwide network of post offices--a commitment that we are also implementing by giving the Post Office more commercial freedom, thus enabling post offices to offer new services and win new customers.

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