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The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Douglas Alexander): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry receives correspondence on a range of issues from numerous people working in the rural sub-post office network.
Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Minister for that most unhelpful reply. Despite the tinkering at the edges by his Department to try to ensure that the rural network of post offices remains, 929 post offices have closed in the past two years. That is twice as many as in the two previous years. That means that the Government's initiatives are failing, and I question whether they really want to keep those post offices.
Mr. Alexander: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we do wish to maintain the rural network and I can clarify the figures for him. I welcome in particular the reduction in the rate of closures that we have witnessed recently175 in the first half of this year, compared with 299 in the first half of last year. The Welsh figures may also be of interest to him. There were 13 closures in the first half of this year, compared with 68 last year.
I would argue that the Government are determined to take real action to address some of the challenges that have been mentioned today. We commissioned the PIU report and accepted all its recommendations. There is now a formal requirement on the Post Office to maintain the rural network. We have established a new £2 million fund for community ownership, and rural transfer advisers are now working in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and many others around the country.
The contrast could not be clearer between this Government's actions and the inaction and negligence of the previous Conservative Government, under whom 3,500 rural post offices closed between 1979 and 1997.
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): I have represented my largely rural constituency for 22 years, and I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that post offices have always been under pressure. The rate of closure of rural post offices was far greater under Conservative Governments, when most rural services deteriorated substantially too. I am delighted with the Government's plans to ensure that rural post offices do not close as quickly as has been the case, but I hope that my hon. Friend will not underestimate the very big backlash that will be felt in rural areas if we fail in what we are trying to do.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Will the Minister confirm that the date for the transfer of benefit payments to automated credit transfer remains April 2003? If so, when does he expect the systems for the Post Office card account to be operational?
Mr. Alexander: I can confirm the timetable for the universal bank, and that a great deal of detailed work is being done on the specific issues of systems and of the migration strategy that will ensure a smooth transition.
9. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): What correspondence her Department has received in the past three months concerning claims for equal pay for National Union of Mineworkers cleaners and canteen workers. 
Mr. Barnes: I am aware of the squabble between Arthur Scargill and my hon. Friend the Minister on this matter. Arthur Scargill claims that promises were made by my hon. Friend's predecessor that have not been lived up to. The Government have said that the claims from the former cleaners and canteen workers were not submitted in time by the NUM.
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the matter, should not the cleaners' and canteen workers' claims be met? We are not talking about people who are wealthy, unless the odd one happens to have won the lottery.
Mr. Wilson: I do not accept that there has been a squabble. The simple fact is that 1,300 claims were registered and have been met, at a cost of £14 million. Unfortunately, many claims were not registered. Sad to say, the responsibility for that lies not with this Government or even their predecessors, but with the unions representing the workers. That has left the ladies involved in a difficult position. I continue to meet them and to search for a rational solution to the problem. I have no doubt that the people concerned suffered unfairness, but my basic problem is that the claims were not registered.
I am sure that all hon. Members know that many claims, with different circumstances but equal validity, are made to industrial tribunals and are time-barred. To create one category of time-barred claims that are accepted because we feel that the people involved were hard done by would leave another category of peoplemany tens of thousands of themwhose claims had been time-barred for different reasons in an equally anomalous and unfair position. We are trying to find a solution, but it is not easy.
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I fully accept what my hon. Friend the Minister says, but there are a number of elderly canteen workers in my constituency who failed to get their compensation claims in in time. They see the colleagues with whom they worked receiving generous compensation, and it was not the workers' fault that the claims were not submitted in time. Does the Minister think that he could come up with a small amount of compensation to ensure that these people get a fair solution to the problem? It is within his power and he should do it in the name of fairness.
Mr. Wilson: As I have just explained, in resolving one unfairness I would create another unfairnessunfairness to everybody else who has a tribunal claim time bar. There is no general power to waive the fact that no claims were registered. There must be specific grounds that would give a basis for these claims that would satisfy any accounting officer or auditor. We are looking at this and constantly meeting miners' representatives. I recognise the sense of injustice, but the fundamental problem is that these claims were never registered. Perhaps the people who failed to register these claims should begin to take some responsibility. I simply point out that the NUM has had a generous payment made to it for its administrative role in what would appear to be generally not registering claims.
Monday 3 DecemberOpposition Day [6th Allotted Day] until 7 o'clock on a subject of which we have yet to be notified. Followed by a debate entitled "The Government's Mismanagement of Wembley Stadium, Pickett's Lock and the Dome", also on an Opposition motion.
Tuesday 11 DecemberEstimates Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on waste management policy until 7 o'clock followed by a debate on the staging of the world athletics championships in the United Kingdom. Details will be given in the Official Report.
At 10 o'clock the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates. The estimates to be agreed are as follows: Winter Supplementary Summary Request for Supply (HC 391), Vote on Account (For Generality of Government Departments) (HC 392), Vote on Account (House of Commons) (HC 393), Vote on Account (National Audit Office) (HC 394) and Vote on Account (Electoral Commission) (HC 395).
The House will wish to know that on Monday 3 December there will be a debate relating to the European arrest warrant and the surrender procedures between member states in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant document will be given in the Official Report.
European Standing Committee BRelevant European Union Documents: 13425/01, European Arrest Warrant and the Surrender Procedures between Member States. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-vii (2001-02) and HC 152-viii (2001-02).