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Rural Post Offices

13. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): If he will make a statement on the rural post office network. [153643]

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.

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The Post Office has accepted a formal requirement, placed on it by the Government, to maintain the rural network and to prevent any avoidable closures of rural post offices.

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.

The hon. Lady asked a genuine question and has a genuine interest, but we should have a better dialogue on the subject because the rural part of the network is doing better than the rest.

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Business of the House

12.31 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Would the Leader of the House please give us the business for the coming week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 26 March--Second Reading of the Adoption and Children Bill.

Tuesday 27 March--Second Reading of Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 28 March--Second Reading of the Private Security Industry Bill [Lords].

Thursday 29 March--Debate on the Intelligence Agencies on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 30 March--Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 2 April--Remaining stages of the Criminal Defence Service (Advice and Assistance) Bill [Lords].

Consideration in Committee followed by remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill.

Tuesday 3 April--Second Reading of International Criminal Court Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 4 April--Remaining stages of the Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords].

Thursday 5 April--Remaining stages of the International Development Bill.

Friday 6 April--Private Members' Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the beginning of April will be as follows:

Thursday 5 April--Debate on renewable energy.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 28 March, there will be a debate relating to the support scheme for olive oil in European Standing Committee A.

On Wednesday 28 March, there will be a debate relating to waste electrical and electronic equipment in European Standing Committee C.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 4 April, there will be a debate relating to community postal services in European Standing Committee C.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 28 March: European Standing Committee A--Relevant European Union document: 9431/00, Support scheme for olive oil. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 23-xxviii (1999-2000).

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).]

Mrs. Browning: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business and congratulate her on retaining

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her composure, particularly as she read out the latter dates. I want to be helpful to the right hon. Lady today. I am afraid that she has been rather remiss as it is only three weeks until Maundy Thursday. It must either have slipped her mind, or she has been too busy with other matters, but we have not yet had the dates of the Easter recess. I am sure that that is only an oversight. Clearly, hon. Members who have serious matters with which to deal in their constituencies would like to make arrangements for the recess. I would be grateful if the right hon. Lady could give us some indication of its length this year.

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.

The hon. Lady asked about preparations for the continued handling of the foot and mouth crisis. As she will be aware, if a general election were called, Ministers

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do not cease to be Ministers. They continue to carry out their duties. She raised the issue of the code of conduct. My recollection is and my impression has always been--although this will be a matter of discussion, should a general election be called--that what is intended is to ensure that the holding of a ministerial post does not lead either to controversial party political decisions being taken which might bind a subsequent Government unfortunately or to exploitation for party political advantage.

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--

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