20 Mar 2003 : Column 1067

House of Commons

Thursday 20 March 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Questions to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I call Lynne Jones.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Now we know that Bush is lying to the American people—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Why does the hon. Lady not say "Question 1"?

Lynne Jones: I will ask my question, but—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister must reply. The hon. Lady has been here long enough to know that she should call Question 1.

Lynne Jones: I do believe that this House should be suspended—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Valerie Davey.

Postal Services Commission

2. Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): Whether the appointment of the chairman of the Postal Services Commission will be renewed; and if she will make a statement. [103881]

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Stephen Timms): The term of the current chairman of Postcomm, Graham Corbett, formally ends on 31 March. I am glad to be able to tell the House that he has agreed to an extension of his term of up to a year, to complete the current phase of Postcomm's work and allow time for the appointment of his successor. Having consulted Mr. Corbett on the future composition of Postcomm, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has agreed to begin the process now to recruit a new chairman. She has also agreed to reappoint Janet Lewis-Jones for a further three-year term.

Valerie Davey : I thank the Minister for that reply. I am concerned to know how his Department will ensure

20 Mar 2003 : Column 1068

that the successor, the new chair and, indeed, members of the commission will be appointed with some relevant experience of the postal service. How can he ensure that?

Mr. Timms: The current commissioners have been successful in establishing Postcomm as a postal regulator with a strong, independent voice. That was no mean feat and I congratulate them on it. There is a case for the commission reflecting direct experience of postal markets. We have agreed with Graham Corbett on a balance of continuity and change as the work of Postcomm goes forward. We will seek to appoint a new commissioner with specific experience of postal markets to reflect my hon. Friend's point. We also need to reflect on the overall balance of Postcomm in considering candidates for the new chair.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the chairman of the Postal Services Commission look specifically at the Government's broken promises and ensure that elderly people can continue to collect benefits in the way that they have always wished to—from post offices? Postmasters and customers in my constituency are complaining bitterly that the Government have not kept their promise and that they are under huge pressure and influence to open new bank accounts. The Government made clear promises, but they have broken them. Will the new chairman look into that?

Mr. Timms: Those promises have been maintained and will be maintained as the new arrangements roll out from next month. In particular, it will be possible for anybody who so wishes to continue to receive their benefit in cash weekly at the post office without charge either through a basic bank account, an ordinary current account, where the bank has a contract with the post office, or through a Post Office card account. That requirement, which was set out three years ago, is fundamental to the way in which the automated credit transfer change has been implemented.

Colin Burgon (Elmet): I am slightly disappointed that Mr. Corbett has an extension to his position. He has not been the force that we needed, although I may be in a minority of one on that. [Hon. Members: "No."] Thank you. May we have an assurance that his successor will have ideas that are rooted in reality and not be obsessed by the market approach, down which Mr. Corbett seems to be leading the Post Office?

Mr. Timms: In my view Mr. Corbett has done a good job in establishing Postcomm with an independent voice. Nobody should be surprised that he has sometimes taken views at variance with those of the Royal Mail—that goes with this terrain. Maintenance of the universal service obligation is Postcomm's key aim. That will certainly be at the forefront of the aims of the new chairman, as it has been for Graham Corbett.

Animal Welfare

3. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): What steps she is taking to prevent imports of products containing cat and dog fur. [103882]

20 Mar 2003 : Column 1069

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson): The Government are investigating the possibilities for the labelling of any products containing domestic cat or dog fur. This will give consumers the information they need about what they are buying and enable the Government better to determine levels of imports.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend is aware of the concerns of people such as Sarah O'Leary in Plymouth and of the Western Morning News. Does she share their revulsion at this vile trade, in which cats and dogs are beaten and clubbed to death for fur for toys and ornaments? Will she do everything she can to bring this awful trade to an end?

Miss Johnson: I would like to commend the campaign of the Western Morning News and the work that my hon. Friend and others are doing. The Government are serious about addressing cruelty to animals in third countries that do not have the same high welfare standards as the United Kingdom. My noble friend the Minister for Trade and Investment will meet interested non-governmental organisations and the relevant industry associations in the next month or so, to discuss their views on labelling. She has undertaken to report back on progress before the summer recess.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I welcome the Minister's initiatives on cat and dog fur, but there are many long-established and legitimate mink furrier industries in the UK, many of which are in my constituency. What discussions are taking place with the Home Office to ensure that such people can go about their legitimate business?

Miss Johnson: I am sure that the Home Office is undertaking its duties in respect of these matters, as it always should.

Rural Post Offices

4. Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): If she will make a statement on the provision of Government services by rural post offices. [103883]

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Stephen Timms): Every community is entitled to good access to postal and Government services. We will continue to ensure good access through the post office network, in particular through the rural network.

Mr. Simmonds : Does the Minister acknowledge that, with the imminent commencement of the universal bank and the withdrawal of 40 per cent. of rural post offices' business, many rural post offices will have to make staff redundant and, ultimately, close as the Government withdraw the lifeline that allows those post offices to continue in business? How will the Government replace that lost income stream? Is this not just another example of the Government's disdain for rural post offices and local small businesses?

Mr. Timms: Following the publication of the performance and innovation unit's report, we made a commitment to end avoidable closures of rural post

20 Mar 2003 : Column 1070

offices. As a result, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of closures. The hon. Gentleman talks about withdrawing a lifeline, but it is quite the contrary. We have just announced £450 million to maintain the rural network up to 2006. We have invested £500 million to provide the platform for ACT from next month. That will allow post offices to provide modern services of the kind that people want, which will secure a successful future for the post office network. Over a long period, there has been a decline in the old-fashioned business of the Post Office. That is why we have had to make the changes that we have made, laying the foundations for the successful future of the whole network, including the part of the network that is in rural areas.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Would not rural post offices be assisted if the Post Office card account system was run on a decent and full basis? Why is it so difficult to obtain a Post Office card account, despite the issuing of new literature today? Why cannot an account simply be obtained from a post office by people who are known there, or why cannot people simply tick a box to get a Post Office card account, as they can if they want to get a bank account? That is what is wanted.

Mr. Timms: We are ensuring that those who wish to choose a Post Office card account can do so. However, it is important to take the opportunity of this change to address the problem of financial exclusion. Many people in rural and other areas are disadvantaged because they do not have a bank account. We want those people to have the opportunity to consider whether, given the change, they now want to open a bank account. That is the reasoning behind the helpline. However, if people decide that they would prefer to have a card account, they will get their card account.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): Despite the gloss that the Minister puts on the situation, is it not a fact that—and this applies to urban as well as to rural post offices—post offices' income is dropping, the value of sub-post offices is dropping, the footfall is dropping, and the number of services to the elderly and vulnerable is dropping? Only 311 out of 3,000 sub-post offices that are facing compulsory closure know their fate. When will the Minister let those sub-post offices know whether they are going to have to close? He cannot keep them in limbo for ever.

Mr. Timms: It is true that custom at post offices has been declining. The Government that the hon. Gentleman supported did nothing; by contrast the Labour Government are addressing the problem and ensuring that there is a successful future for the Post Office. In 1996, 40 per cent. of benefit recipients received their benefit in cash at the post office, but today that proportion is down to just over a quarter, as a result of the choice that people have made. The Post Office has to reflect the changes in the wishes of its customers and provide services that meet their needs, so we have invested in technology for the post office network the

20 Mar 2003 : Column 1071

very large sum that I mentioned. The Post Office will be able to use that as a platform to deliver modern services that people want.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): May I return my hon. Friend to the issue of the Post Office card account and ask that he hold further discussions with our ministerial colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions? Some of my constituents have received forms from the DWP regarding their benefits after the changes take place, which have no reference whatever to the Post Office card account as an option. That is seen, rightly, as discrimination against the account and the matter ought to be put right.

Mr. Timms: If my hon. Friend looks at the leaflet that accompanies the form to which he refers, he will see that the position is clearly spelt out. However, the point that he made has been drawn to our attention and a change will be made to ensure that there is a reference to the Post Office card account on the form.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Is not the truth that thousands of vulnerable people who have hitherto relied on receiving benefits in cash at post offices will find it harder to do so? Post offices will lose thousands of customers because the Government have made it almost impossible for them to open a Post Office card account. The Government's disastrous double whammy is more post office closures and more problems for pensioners, young mums, disabled people and other vulnerable people in the community.

Mr. Timms: No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. He should not mislead and worry people, especially the elderly, who will be concerned about what he said. People who want to continue receiving their benefit in cash from their local post office will be able to do so through one of the means that I mentioned. We built that requirement into the process from the start and it will be delivered when the arrangements are put in place next month. Given our investment in technology and the fact that post office services will use modern technology in the future, as opposed to the old-fashioned systems left behind by the previous Government, there will be a much better future for the Post Office and the services that it provides for the benefit, especially, of elderly and vulnerable people in every part of the country.

Next Section

IndexHome Page