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The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Discussions with Post Office Ltd. take place regularly on the implementation of the performance and innovation unit recommendations to modernise the post office network, including those relating specifically to the rural network. The Government's formal requirement on the Post Office to maintain the rural network and to prevent avoidable closures of rural post offices remains in place.
Adam Price: I am grateful to the Minister for his characteristically unhelpful reply. If the Government are sincere in their commitment to preserve the rural network, why is the commission on the new automated teller machine system weighted against smaller post offices, because it increases with volume? If sub-post offices have fewer than 180 transactions a month, they will receive no commission. Can we have a real business plan from the Government to save the rural network, or is that too much to ask of a Government who care little for rural communities?
Mr. Alexander: The sincerity of the Government's commitment to the rural network is evidenced by the fact that we have accepted every one of the 24 PIU recommendations, which we have backed with real cash. Some £480 million has been contributed to the network to upgrade the computer systems and another £270 million has been committed as a result of the last spending round. There have been other changes on top of that. The rural transfer managers are making a significant difference in community after community across the country, and the new £2 million fund for community post offices will also have an impact across the country. In addition, there is an obligation on Consignia to prevent avoidable closures. That is in direct contrast to the previous Government's neglect.
Mr. Alexander: As I said in a debate late last year, the pilot will be completed on time, at the beginning of March. That will allow us not only to evaluate the effectiveness of the service and the income stream to Post Office Counters Ltd. but to expedite work across Government in considering the delivery of electronic services. I can assure my hon. Friend that we
Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): May I again ask the Minister why, 18 months after the introduction of the £2 million interim scheme to help rural sub-post offices and urban post offices, only five claims have been made, totalling £27,000? I have asked that question before, and the issue has been raised on several occasions. There has not been a satisfactory answer, although we are seeing, week on week, sub-post offices closing throughout the country.
Mr. Alexander: I am glad to say that one of the reasons why there has not been as much demand as there would have been in the equivalent period last year is that the rate of post office closures is falling, not rising. The significant figure to which I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention is that, in the current year, the total number of closures has been far less than the 434 that occurred last year. In fact, real progress has also been made on the scheme to which he refers. In addition, more than 100 forms have been sent to organisations across the country. My predecessor ensured that many parish councils were notified of the scheme's availability. I am confident that, as the months proceed and where opportunities for community involvement in post offices exist, the scheme will provide an effective and efficient means by which to make progress.
The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): Thousands of women teachers and health professionals are being helped to return to work in our schools and hospitals every year, as a result of our supported return to work programmes, our investment in child care and increased flexibility in work patterns and working hours.
Siobhain McDonagh: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will she expand on assistance with child care? I understand that, in the recent consultations that she has undertaken in her role as Minister for Women, expensive child care was particularly identified as a problem in returning to work, especially in London, where child care costs are higher than in other parts of the country.
Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with the point that my hon. Friend makes. Child care costs, particularly in London, can be a real barrier to women seeking to return to work. For example, the refresher courses, which the Government are funding, for teachers returning to work include help with child care costs. The national health service is
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Can the right hon. Lady tell the House what proportion of the women who left those sectors were full time; what proportion were part time; and what proportion left voluntarily to spend time with their families at home?
Ms Hewitt: I do not have the detailed figures for which the hon. Lady asks, but of course most of the women who left their professions did so to spend time with their children, and they have gained invaluable experience, as well as contributing to their families, as a result. Of course, we are seeking not to compel anyone to return, but to make it much easier for women who have that combination of family experience and relevant qualifications to return to work when they want to do so, on hours that will suit them and their families.
The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The women's representation Bill completed its parliamentary stages on 28 January and will, I hope, receive Royal Assent shortly. The Government's overall action plan on public appointments, together with individual departmental action plans, will be published today.
Joan Ruddock: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. May I tell her that ethnic minority women are even less well represented in the House and in public appointments than other women? A third of my constituents are from ethnic minorities. What steps can my right hon. Friend take to encourage such women to come forward for public appointments, which are generally deemed to be for the great and the goodwhich tends to mean white people and white men particularly?
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, and I am glad to say that, as a result of the steps that we have taken during the past four and a half years, we have succeeded in opening up many of the 30,000 appointments to a much wider range of people, so that they are no longer simply for the so-called great and the good. But she is right to say that the under- representation of women from the African, Caribbean and Asian communities in particular is a very real problem; and she will also see in the departmental action plans the specific steps that Departments are taking to increase their representation not only of women, but of people from minority ethnic communities.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey): In 1997, 33 per cent. of public appointments were held by women. The women and equality unit website states that that percentage is the same today. Does that not signify the Government's failure to address the problem? Will the Secretary of State tell us today's figures for the percentage of women in public life? Will she admit that holding a few seminars
Ms Hewitt: The hon. Lady will find from the report published today that the figure is now 34 per cent., which is nowhere near good enough. However, she is wrong to mock the seminars that the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, who also has a responsibility for women, is holding around the country. We are succeeding in attracting enormous interest from women who are already playing a role in their communities as governors in schools, as leaders of tenants' associations, and in Church and faith groups.
I am therefore confident that we will achieve the targets that we have set. On the basis of the departmental plans that we are publishing today, by the end of 2005, in the majority of Departments, women should hold between 45 per cent. and 50 per cent. of appointments to the bodies sponsored by those Departments.
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): May I welcome the seminars being held jointly around the country with the support of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Women's National Commission and the women and equality unit? However, I echo the view that the Government need to do everything that they can to ensure that recruitment to those seminars includes women in employment in professions such as nursing and caring, who do not think that they have the right experience to sit on public bodieswhereas, in fact, they have exactly the experience needed by those bodies.
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The women and equality unit is doing everything that it can to ensure that as wide a range of women as possible are attracted to those seminars, and that as many of them put themselves forward for public appointments as possible. I urge her and other hon. Friends to help in this process by encouraging women whom they know in their constituencies to attend those seminars and to put themselves forward for appointments for which they are eminently well qualified.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Conservatives have launched an active campaign to get women into public life. We shall certainly take positive measures in the light of the changes to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 which had cross-party support.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that progress on appointing more women in Departments is patchy? One blanket statistic disguises the fact that I am sure that she could name and shame certain Departments. Will she also tell the House whether the new diversity targets will apply to public appointments generally?
Ms Hewitt: Indeed. Of course, we seek to achieve much greater representation from the ethnic minority communities as well as from women. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends whose Departments are not yet on course to meet the 50 per cent. target to the additional steps that they need to take.