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The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): The Government have improved the working conditions of part-timers--and full-timers--significantly. We have introduced the working time regulations and the national minimum wage. New rights to parental leave and maternity leave will come into force in the next few days. We intend to take that work forward through implementing the part-time work directive, which will end the less favourable treatment of part-time employees in the few places where that persists. It will also raise the status and availability of part-time work. We are committed to implementing the part-time work directive by the 7 April deadline, and we shall issue a consultation document shortly.
Mr. Gardiner: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate him on the work to extend maternity leave and part-time workers' right to time off for domestic emergencies. That will make a huge difference to women. How does my hon. Friend propose further to increase the status and availability of part-time work, which would benefit many women?
Mr. Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which the social partners in Europe have discussed. One of the reasons for considering not only protection for part-time workers but the possibility of extending part-time work is the view that, in many companies, part-timers were employed on some of the basic grades, but found that there were no promotion opportunities unless they became full time. That is one of the anomalies that we shall tackle in the review.
Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): Given that hundreds of jobs have been lost in the hosiery and knitwear industry in recent weeks, does the Minister accept that conditions of work are not the only matter on the minds of part-time and full-time workers in my constituency this Christmas? Since the Government came to power, 70,000 jobs have been lost in the clothing and textile industries. Does the Minister know that a petition presented to Parliament in July on behalf of my constituents and forwarded to the Secretary of State was not even acknowledged? That has enraged my constituents in the hosiery industry. Does the Minister accept that there is a perception among hosiery and knitwear workers in my constituency in Leicestershire and in the east midlands that, while the Government are prepared to go the extra mile for the motor industry, and perhaps even for farming, hosiery and knitwear are seen as a twilight industry and the Secretary of State and his colleagues are not prepared to help? Will the Minister give a personal assurance that he will ask the Secretary of State to consider seriously the desperate plight of the hosiery and knitwear industry in my constituency and the east midlands?
Mr. Johnson: I shall look into the point that the hon. Gentleman raises about the petition. There has certainly been no deliberate decision by my Department not to do him the courtesy of responding. In terms of what we are doing for textile and hosiery workers, the industry faces important problems, which is exactly why we have set up a task force--which will report next week--and why industry representatives sit with me on the textiles and clothing strategy group to look precisely at how we can
Angela Smith (Basildon): Like my constituents, I welcome my hon. Friend's comments about increasing the rights of full-time and part-time workers, but is he aware that many people do not know about the increase in rights under this Government? Numerous people have contacted me as their Member of Parliament to ask what rights they have at work and how they have increased. Some employers are not passing that information on to their employees, so may I urge my hon. Friend and other Ministers to take every possible action to ensure that people at work are aware of their rights?
Mr. Johnson: My hon. Friend raises a serious point. We are looking at how we can best ensure that people at work are aware of new rights in this country. We have set up helplines for the working time regulations and the minimum wage, and intend to do the same for the part-time work directive. We have also taken an initiative to ensure that members of ethnic minorities understand their rights to the minimum wage, because there was evidence to suggest that, when we launched it, we did not reach the media and radio stations used by Afro- Caribbean, Hindu and other ethnic minority people. We shall work hard to ensure that workers are aware of their rights.
The Minister for Trade (Mr. Richard Caborn): We consider that consumers should be told in advance of any charges that they may face when they use cash machines, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has written to the British Bankers Association to make that clear. We hope that the trade will reach a voluntary agreement. If it does not, my right hon. Friend will consider using his powers under the Prices Act 1974 to require price transparency.
Mr. Baker: I agree with the point about price transparency, but does the Minister share my concern about the proposals for the introduction of further charges by banks, particularly Barclays, for making withdrawals from cash dispensers? Is it not ironic that those same banks are closing branches, including one in Ringmer in my constituency, and therefore making the use of competitors' cash machines even more necessary? Will he prevent the banks, if possible, from introducing further charges? If he cannot lean on them to persuade them to abandon their greed, will he take action to prevent them from introducing such charges?
Mr. Caborn: We do not believe that that is the right way to go. We are looking to the British Bankers Association and the trade itself to produce a voluntary code, and competition will make sure that the customer gets a reasonable deal. If we find that there has been any
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): I am sure that the Minister appreciates that the Post Office network will close down if the Government continue with their policy of doing away with the payment of benefits through post offices. Will he look carefully at the charges being made on people who simply want to use a bank to cash their giro in one go? The banks are clearly putting up their charges and the Post Office is the cheapest way of delivering that service. I believe that the Minister will not want to inflict on the Post Office network damage similar to that which his colleagues in the Department of Social Security are about to cause. He needs to take action before it is too late.
Mr. Caborn: First, the systems that are in place are being automated and, secondly, because of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, the performance and innovation unit is looking at many of those issues. We shall come back to the House in the not-too-distant future to answer the serious questions that he raises.
The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): The Post Office already has arrangements with the Alliance and Leicester Giro bank, the Co-operative bank and Lloyds TSB, enabling customers of those banks to undertake a range of transactions at post offices. It is intended that the Post Office will extend its commercial arrangements with banks; and the automated Horizon system, which is to be installed at all post offices, will have suitable banking technology to enable all Post Office customers to have access to banking services at post office counters.
Ms Southworth: I thank my hon. Friend for that welcome reply. Does my hon. Friend agree that, while high street banks are closing all over the place, denying people access to local banking services, the Post Office network is ideally situated to fill that gap? Will he ensure that the investment is available, automation takes place quickly, and Government Departments work positively together; and that business opportunities are made available so that every post office is economically viable and can provide locally those new services that people want locally?
Mr. Johnson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Over the past 20 years, there has been a decline of about 20 per cent. in the Post Office network. Sixty per cent. of villages have a post office, while only 5 per cent. have a bank. By automating the network, by bringing it on line, we can bring network banking back to deprived urban areas as well as rural areas. Further to a previous question, if the major high street banks start charging to withdraw cash
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Will the Minister's Department reconsider the damaging policy of compulsory automatic credit transfer being introduced in 2003? Unfortunately, it will mean closing at least 50 per cent. of post offices and small shops in rural Wales, in addition to the one in every 18 that has closed since the Government took power. It is a serious position. Yesterday, the Prime Minister acknowledged that there are problems in rural areas. I wonder how the Government's policy will assist those problems. In particular, what will be the view of the social exclusion unit?
Mr. Johnson: Social exclusion is crucial to all these matters. Financial exclusion is both a cause and an effect of social exclusion. Ensuring that people have access to bank accounts is an important principle that has been highlighted by the social exclusion report. If we sit back and do nothing, the gradual migration of customers to automatic credit transfer will mean a decline in the Post Office network. Introducing the automation of the network, setting up the performance and innovation unit study that will report to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister early in the new year and guaranteeing that, whatever happens after 2003, customers will still be able to draw their benefits in cash across a post office counter, are important developments and assurances. We either do something about the gradual erosion of our Post Office network or we sit back and do nothing. We are taking the option of protecting the network. This is an opportunity for the Post Office, not a threat.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I welcome the Government's stated commitment to the maintenance of a nationwide network of post offices. Does my hon. Friend agree that a sub-post office is often vital in keeping active a village community and urban district centres? Will he examine the way in which the Post Office maintains its franchises with sub-post offices to ensure that those post offices and district centres can remain open so that the Government's stated commitment to a nationwide service becomes a reality?
Mr. Johnson: My hon. Friend is right about the importance of the Post Office network to the social fabric of this country. As for the relationship between the Post Office and sub-postmasters, the Post Office makes every attempt to keep a post office service going, even in areas where it cannot attract staff to run a local post office. There are mobile post offices, post offices that are run from people's homes and others that are run from garden sheds just to keep the service going.
We are committed to maintaining a national network of post offices. We are committed to ending the decline. We are committed also to ensuring that, when people go to their local post office, they will have a greater range of services available to them as a result of putting the Post Office on line and through the Horizon platform, which will be completed by the spring of 2001.