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The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): By accepting all 24 recommendations of the performance and innovation unit's report on the future of the post office network, the Government have demonstrated their continuing commitment to maintenance of a national network. We are working closely with the Post Office, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and other stakeholders to implement the PIU recommendations. These measures are designed to modernise and improve post office services and to strengthen confidence in the future of the network. We have also established a new fund to support initiatives by volunteer or community groups to maintain or reopen post office facilities in rural areas where the traditional post office is closing.
Miss McIntosh: The Minister will be aware of my keen interest in this matter. I am grateful for the briefing given to me by the Leeds regional office. That briefing proved that the rural post office network is virtually non-existent. It is hopelessly inadequate. The whole network is geared to urban and suburban post offices. Does the Minister accept that the Government have failed rural post offices and the countryside?
Mr. Johnson: I realise that the hon. Lady takes an interest in that matter, but I am bemused by her response following a briefing. Rural closures are 20 per cent. down on the same period last year--[Interruption.] That is the first time there has been a reduction of any sort in the past 18 years. Many of the initiatives that we announced last month resulted from suggestions made by rural sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. So we are providing protection through Government subsidy--as specified in the Postal Services Act 2000. We have abolished the 25 per cent. of salary up-front fee that new sub-postmasters had to pay when they first took over a new post office--that was introduced by the previous Government in 1989 and we have waived the fee--and set up a £2 million fund to allow parish councils and local communities to meet the capital costs of opening a village hall as a post office. We predict that that will lead to the reopening of 200 offices that cannot at present find a location.
European Standing Committee C--Relevant European Union document: 10802/00, Waste electrical and electronic equipment. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 28-i (2000-01) and HC 23-xxix (1999-2000).
Wednesday 4 April: European Standing Committee C--Relevant European Union document: 10544/00, Community postal services. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 28-iv (2000-01) and HC 23-xxviii (1999-2000).]
In the event--I know that this is hypothetical, but I am trying to help the Leader of the House to foresee the sort of errors and omissions that I have just identified--of a general election [Hon. Members: "No."] Well, perhaps. In the event of an election in the next few weeks, will the right hon. Lady share with the House the Government's preparations for how the foot and mouth crisis will be dealt with at ministerial level during the campaign? She will be aware that there are strict codes of conduct on how Ministers handle matters and make announcements. Have the Government considered how they would make announcements about foot and mouth disease and keep people properly informed of developments during a general election campaign, in particular as the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said yesterday that the crisis is likely to continue for several months?
Before the Easter recess, will there be time for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to the House on Macedonia, which is a matter that concerns many hon. Members? We have not yet heard from him on the subject. In the past two weeks we have seen quite a flurry of Bills scheduled for Second Reading. Can the Leader of the House tell us what has happened to the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill?
Finally, this week the Government announced an important White Paper on learning disability, which I welcome although I have tabled a couple of specific questions on concerns that I have. Interestingly, the White Paper was launched at Fulham football ground, which is owned by Mr. Al Fayed. Is this to be the procedure in future? Clearly, the Government have abandoned making such important announcements on the Floor of the House. Could we have a ballot, so that Members like me with excellent football grounds, such as Ladysmead in Tiverton, without any patronage from anybody whom anyone would have heard of, could host the launch of important papers in our constituency? Perhaps we could have a weekly ballot, so that we could all share in this bonhomie which the Government have introduced.
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Lady was kind enough to say that a reminder might be helpful and I appreciate the courtesy with which she made her point, but, no, the Easter recess had not slipped my mind. In fact, I was discussing it only this morning. I understand her point about the notice that the House likes to have about the length of the recess. All I can say is what I usually say on these matters, which is that it is subject to the progress of business. [Laughter.] When the Government have had a chance further to assess the progress of our legislative programme, I will share our thoughts with the House as soon as I can.
As Members on both sides of the House are striving to be responsible about this serious crisis and, although occasionally there have been some differences of view, both the Government and the Opposition take the crisis in the countryside seriously, so that seems to me to be almost the last area in which difficulties of the kind which the hon. Lady identified might be likely to arise. If, however, such a circumstance develops, it will undoubtedly be a matter for discussion and careful consideration in the relevant Departments.
I understand the hon. Lady's remarks about Macedonia. She will know that it is Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next Tuesday, when it will be possible for Members to raise the issue. She asked about the legislative programme in general. Business is coming back from the Lords and returning to the Floor of the House. That is true for all legislation in the pipeline, including the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, and other issues on which the Government have proposals to put before the House.
The hon. Lady lost me on her final point about the learning disability White Paper. I am not sure what the relevance was of her careful point about Mr. Al Fayed. I am sure that there is a delightful football ground in her constituency. Indeed, there is a delightful one in mine--