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Mr. Heald: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In your role as guardian of the rights of Members of Parliament, can you provide your guidance on the fact that the Secretary of State has failed to attend the debate, despite the fact that the shadow Secretary of State moved the motion at the beginning? Is it right that Secretaries of State can evade accountability in that way, just as the Prime Minister refuses to say whether he will open for the Government in the debate on the Hutton report? Will you defend the rights of the House in this important matter?

Mr. Speaker: I can do many things to a Secretary of State, but I cannot compel one to come to the House in these circumstances.

6.50 pm

Mr. Timms: With the leave of the House, I wish to reply to the debate. On the point of order, I remind the House that we did not know the subject for the debate

13 Jan 2004 : Column 779

today until last Thursday. What is striking about such debates—today's has been no exception—is how strongly people feel about the future of the post office network. I make no bones about the degree of difficulty inherent in deciding that future and we have rightly been reminded of that in the debate. However, we have the worthwhile objective of a viable, countrywide network of post offices that is able to prosper in today's conditions and those of tomorrow, not just stuck in the conditions of the past. That objective needs to be pursued with vigour and determination. We are doing that, but the necessity of doing so has been powerfully underscored in our debate this afternoon.

If I may make a personal point, I recall using a post office—I suspect that many other hon. Members have similar memories—when I first started working, after I had concluded my studies with the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). I used to obtain cash regularly from my local post office. Indeed, the other day I dug out my old post office book, which showed the last transaction occurring in 1983. By then, we were all in the new world of cash point machines and bank cards and I no longer needed to go to the post office for cash. However, since July, I have been able to access my bank current account with my bank card at any post office in the country. There is a post office on the high street around the corner from where I live in East Ham, so I have started to pop in on a Saturday morning to obtain some cash and to buy a newspaper. Many hon. Members have mentioned the importance of footfall and that is right, but some 20 million current accounts are now accessible through every post office in the country, thanks to the investment that we have made. That is part of developing a viable future for the post office network, without the need to try to cling on to business that is ebbing away. Instead, post offices need to win new business in an expanding market that can be the basis for a commercially successful future.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms: No, I need to respond to some of the points that were made in the debate.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) made a thoughtful contribution, to which I listened with interest. He asked where the investment went: some £500 million went into the technology that has computerised every post office. That investment will provide a viable future for the network, because it will be able to offer banking and other financial services much more widely and effectively.

Mr. Heald: Where is the Secretary of State?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman was not present for the debate, but we aired that issue fully. I wish to respond to the issues raised in connection with the subject of the debate and the resolutions that are proposed.

The hon. Member for Gordon asked about "Your Guide". Interestingly, since that exercise concluded, three wholly commercial projects to provide kiosks in post offices have been developed, and they may be best

13 Jan 2004 : Column 780

placed to contribute to the future success of the Post Office. I know that the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters has been in close discussion on one of the projects.

The hon. Gentleman raised concerns about the speed at which the £30 million is being invested. Ideally, that investment will be undertaken within three months but that is not a requirement. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which we need to examine. I was particularly concerned by his suggestion that right hon. and hon. Members feel patronised by Post Office middle managers. That is of great concern to me and to Post Office senior management, who will have noted the hon. Gentleman's comments.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) but do not agree with his characterisation of the process. There will be the opportunity next week in an Adjournment debate to examine the issues in Stoke-on-Trent. We have heard about a number of changes made as a result of the consultation process. I gave figures for sub-postmasters who indicated that they were willing to go but were told that they will not be able to go. However, I will of course listen to my hon. Friend and others, to make sure that we get it absolutely right.

I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) that there should be effective consultation. I was pleased by the examples given by my hon. Friends the Members for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) and for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), and by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), about changes made as a result of consultation.

Mr. McLoughlin rose—

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman did not participate in the debate. I want to respond to important points made in the debate by the hon. Member for Eastbourne and others.

I have kept closely in touch with Postwatch and met Peter Carr, its chairman, not long before Christmas. He told me—I summarise—so far, so good, but we do need to keep a close eye on how the process develops.

I was grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) and for Dundee, East for recognising the need for rationalisation. I completely agree that if two post offices less than half a mile apart were closed at the same time, that would get around the requirement not to shut down post offices in disadvantaged areas. Such an approach is clearly unacceptable and I know that the Post Office has taken that on board. However, I make the point that it is not possible to take through a programme of this kind without causing some inconvenience.

The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said that it is extremely difficult to get a Post Office card account, but 62 per cent of pensioners are requesting and getting card accounts, so the evidence on the ground is that the impossible hurdles that the hon. Gentleman described do not exist. Interestingly, much smaller proportions of those receiving incapacity benefit, jobseeker's allowance and carers' benefits have opted for Post Office card accounts—which illustrates that the Post Office has been locked into a reducing number of customers. It needs in future to attract and serve a much

13 Jan 2004 : Column 781

larger number of customers—including many like me, who did not use post offices in the past. Thanks to the half billion pounds of investment in computerisation in particular, that is the prospect ahead.

The contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East was helpful in many ways. I am glad that the Post Office is considering the alternatives that he proposed. He was right to note that the policy of the previous Government, of simply neglecting the Post Office—worse, using it as a cash cow—is at the heart of many of the problems that the network faces.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) referred to the difficulties experienced with Safeway. I am grateful to him for drawing that point to my attention. I understood that Safeway decided that it did not want to have a post office in the store, but that confusion arose because signatures for a petition against the closure of the post office were collected in the store, even though the closure was Safeway's idea.

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 205, Noes 326.

Division No. 28
[6:59 pm


AYES


Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)
Allan, Richard
Amess, David
Ancram, rh Michael
Arbuthnot, rh James
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Bacon, Richard
Baker, Norman
Baldry, Tony
Barker, Gregory
Baron, John (Billericay)
Barrett, John
Beith, rh A. J.
Bellingham, Henry
Bercow, John
Boswell, Tim
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)
Bottomley, rh Virginia (SW Surrey)
Brady, Graham
Brake, Tom (Carshalton)
Brazier, Julian
Breed, Colin
Brooke, Mrs Annette L.
Browning, Mrs Angela
Bruce, Malcolm
Burns, Simon
Burstow, Paul
Burt, Alistair
Calton, Mrs Patsy
Cameron, David
Campbell, Gregory (E Lond'y)
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies (NE Fife)
Cash, William
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Chidgey, David
Chope, Christopher
Clappison, James
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Collins, Tim
Conway, Derek
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Cotter, Brian
Curry, rh David
Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Davies, Quentin (Grantham & Stamford)
Davis, rh David (Haltemprice & Howden)
Djanogly, Jonathan
Dodds, Nigel
Donaldson, Jeffrey M.
Doughty, Sue
Duncan, Alan (Rutland)
Duncan, Peter (Galloway)
Duncan Smith, rh Iain
Evans, Nigel
Ewing, Annabelle
Fabricant, Michael
Fallon, Michael
Flight, Howard
Flook, Adrian
Forth, rh Eric
Foster, Don (Bath)
Fox, Dr. Liam
Francois, Mark
Gale, Roger (N Thanet)
Garnier, Edward
George, Andrew (St. Ives)
Gibb, Nick (Bognor Regis)
Gidley, Sandra
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Goodman, Paul
Gray, James (N Wilts)
Green, Damian (Ashford)
Green, Matthew (Ludlow)
Greenway, John
Grieve, Dominic
Gummer, rh John
Hague, rh William
Hammond, Philip
Hancock, Mike
Harvey, Nick
Hawkins, Nick
Hayes, John (S Holland)
Heald, Oliver
Heath, David
Heathcoat-Amory, rh David
Hendry, Charles
Hermon, Lady
Hoban, Mark (Fareham)
Hogg, rh Douglas
Holmes, Paul
Horam, John (Orpington)
Howard, rh Michael
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Hunter, Andrew
Jack, rh Michael
Jenkin, Bernard
Johnson, Boris (Henley)
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Keetch, Paul
Key, Robert (Salisbury)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Kirkwood, Sir Archy
Knight, rh Greg (E Yorkshire)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Lamb, Norman
Lansley, Andrew
Laws, David (Yeovil)
Leigh, Edward
Letwin, rh Oliver
Lewis, Dr. Julian (New Forest E)
Liddell-Grainger, Ian
Lidington, David
Lilley, rh Peter
Llwyd, Elfyn
Loughton, Tim
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Mackay, rh Andrew
Maclean, rh David
McLoughlin, Patrick
Malins, Humfrey
Maples, John
Mates, Michael
Mawhinney, rh Sir Brian
May, Mrs Theresa
Mercer, Patrick
Mitchell, Andrew (Sutton Coldfield)
Moore, Michael
Moss, Malcolm
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Norman, Archie
Oaten, Mark (Winchester)
O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Öpik, Lembit
Osborne, George (Tatton)
Ottaway, Richard
Page, Richard
Paice, James
Paterson, Owen
Portillo, rh Michael
Price, Adam (E Carmarthen & Dinefwr)
Prisk, Mark (Hertford)
Pugh, Dr. John
Randall, John
Redwood, rh John
Reid, Alan (Argyll & Bute)
Robathan, Andrew
Robertson, Angus (Moray)
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Robinson, Mrs Iris (Strangford)
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Roe, Mrs Marion
Rosindell, Andrew
Ruffley, David
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Sanders, Adrian
Sayeed, Jonathan
Selous, Andrew
Shephard, rh Mrs Gillian
Shepherd, Richard
Simmonds, Mark
Simpson, Keith (M-Norfolk)
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns & Kincardine)
Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast S)
Soames, Nicholas
Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Spicer, Sir Michael
Spring, Richard
Stanley, rh Sir John
Steen, Anthony
Stunell, Andrew
Swayne, Desmond
Swire, Hugo (E Devon)
Syms, Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, John (Solihull)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Taylor, Sir Teddy
Teather, Sarah
Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Thurso, John
Tonge, Dr. Jenny
Trend, Michael
Turner, Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Tyler, Paul (N Cornwall)
Tyrie, Andrew
Walter, Robert
Waterson, Nigel
Webb, Steve (Northavon)
Weir, Michael
Whittingdale, John
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Wiggin, Bill
Wilkinson, John
Willetts, David
Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon)
Willis, Phil
Wilshire, David
Winterton, Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Sir Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Yeo, Tim (S Suffolk)
Young, rh Sir George
Younger-Ross, Richard

Tellers for the Ayes:


Angela Watkinson and
Mr. Mark Field


NOES


Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Irene (Paisley N)
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE)
Alexander, Douglas
Allen, Graham
Anderson, rh Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale & Darwen)
Armstrong, rh Ms Hilary
Atherton, Ms Candy
Austin, John
Bailey, Adrian
Baird, Vera
Banks, Tony
Barnes, Harry
Barron, rh Kevin
Battle, John
Bayley, Hugh
Beard, Nigel
Beckett, rh Margaret
Begg, Miss Anne
Bennett, Andrew
Benton, Joe (Bootle)
Berry, Roger
Best, Harold
Betts, Clive
Blackman, Liz
Blears, Ms Hazel
Blizzard, Bob
Boateng, rh Paul
Borrow, David
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Bradshaw, Ben
Brennan, Kevin
Brown, rh Nicholas (Newcastle E Wallsend)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Browne, Desmond
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burden, Richard
Burgon, Colin
Burnham, Andy
Byers, rh Stephen
Cairns, David
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Caplin, Ivor
Casale, Roger
Caton, Martin
Cawsey, Ian (Brigg)
Chaytor, David
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Dr. Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Clarke, rh Tom (Coatbridge & Chryston)
Clelland, David
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon V)
Coaker, Vernon
Coffey, Ms Ann
Cohen, Harry
Coleman, Iain
Colman, Tony
Connarty, Michael
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, rh Robin (Livingston)
Cooper, Yvette
Corbyn, Jeremy
Corston, Jean
Cranston, Ross
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Ann (Keighley)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Cummings, John
Cunningham, Tony (Workington)
Dalyell, Tam
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
David, Wayne
Davidson, Ian
Davies, rh Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Davis, rh Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Dawson, Hilton
Dean, Mrs Janet
Denham, rh John
Dhanda, Parmjit
Dismore, Andrew
Dobbin, Jim (Heywood)
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Brian H.
Doran, Frank
Dowd, Jim (Lewisham W)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Edwards, Huw
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley E)
Etherington, Bill
Farrelly, Paul
Field, rh Frank (Birkenhead)
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna
Flint, Caroline
Flynn, Paul (Newport W)
Follett, Barbara
Foster, rh Derek
Foster, Michael (Worcester)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings & Rye)
Foulkes, rh George
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Gardiner, Barry
Gerrard, Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Godsiff, Roger
Goggins, Paul
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Grogan, John
Hain, rh Peter
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Hamilton, David (Midlothian)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Hanson, David
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart)
Healey, John
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Hendrick, Mark
Hepburn, Stephen
Heppell, John
Hesford, Stephen
Heyes, David
Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Hinchliffe, David
Hodge, Margaret
Hood, Jimmy (Clydesdale)
Hoon, rh Geoffrey
Hope, Phil (Corby)
Hopkins, Kelvin
Howarth, rh Alan (Newport E)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N & Sefton E)
Howells, Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Lindsay
Hughes, Beverley (Stretford & Urmston)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Humble, Mrs Joan
Hurst, Alan (Braintree)
Hutton, rh John
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Eric
Ingram, rh Adam
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Jamieson, David
Jenkins, Brian
Johnson, Alan (Hull W)
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Joyce, Eric (Falkirk W)
Kaufman, rh Gerald
Keen, Alan (Feltham)
Keen, Ann (Brentford)
Kemp, Fraser
Khabra, Piara S.
Kidney, David
Kilfoyle, Peter
King, Andy (Rugby)
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green & Bow)
Knight, Jim (S Dorset)
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lammy, David
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Laxton, Bob (Derby N)
Lazarowicz, Mark
Lepper, David
Leslie, Christopher
Levitt, Tom (High Peak)
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Liddell, rh Mrs Helen
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Love, Andrew
Luke, Iain (Dundee E)
Lyons, John (Strathkelvin)
McAvoy, Thomas
McCabe, Stephen
McCartney, rh Ian
McDonagh, Siobhain
MacDonald, Calum
MacDougall, John
McFall, John
McGuire, Mrs Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McKechin, Ann
McKenna, Rosemary
Mackinlay, Andrew
McNamara, Kevin
MacShane, Denis
Mactaggart, Fiona
McWilliam, John
Mahmood, Khalid
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Mallaber, Judy
Mandelson, rh Peter
Mann, John (Bassetlaw)
Marris, Rob (Wolverh'ton SW)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Marshall, David (Glasgow Shettleston)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Martlew, Eric
Meale, Alan (Mansfield)
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Milburn, rh Alan
Miliband, David
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Moffatt, Laura
Mole, Chris
Moonie, Dr. Lewis
Moran, Margaret
Morgan, Julie
Morley, Elliot
Mudie, George
Munn, Ms Meg
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
O'Hara, Edward
Olner, Bill
O'Neill, Martin
Organ, Diana
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr)
Owen, Albert
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pearson, Ian
Perham, Linda
Picking, Anne
Pickthall, Colin
Pike, Peter (Burnley)
Plaskitt, James
Pollard, Kerry
Pope, Greg (Hyndburn)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Prescott, rh John
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Ken
Purnell, James
Quin, rh Joyce
Quinn, Lawrie
Rapson, Syd (Portsmouth N)
Reed, Andy (Loughborough)
Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Ms Christine (City of Chester)
Ryan, Joan (Enfield N)
Sarwar, Mohammad
Savidge, Malcolm
Sawford, Phil
Sedgemore, Brian
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheerman, Barry
Short, rh Clare
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, rh Chris (Islington S & Finsbury)
Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Soley, Clive
Southworth, Helen
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stewart, David (Inverness E & Lochaber)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Stinchcombe, Paul
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Straw, rh Jack
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Sutcliffe, Gerry
Tami, Mark (Alyn)
Taylor, rh Ann (Dewsbury)
Taylor, Dari (Stockton S)
Taylor, Dr. Richard (Wyre F)
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Thomas, Gareth (Harrow W)
Timms, Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Todd, Mark (S Derbyshire)
Touhig, Don (Islwyn)
Trickett, Jon
Truswell, Paul
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton Kemptown)
Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Tynan, Bill (Hamilton S)
Vaz, Keith (Leicester E)
Vis, Dr. Rudi
Walley, Ms Joan
Ward, Claire
Wareing, Robert N.
Watson, Tom (W Bromwich E)
Watts, David
White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Williams, rh Alan (Swansea W)
Williams, Betty (Conwy)
Wills, Michael
Winnick, David
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Wood, Mike (Batley)
Woodward, Shaun
Woolas, Phil
Worthington, Tony
Wright, Anthony D. (Gt Yarmouth)
Wright, David (Telford)
Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Wyatt, Derek

Tellers for the Noes:


Ms Bridget Prentice and
Charlotte Atkins

Question accordingly negatived.

13 Jan 2004 : Column 785

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—

The House divided: Ayes 322, Noes 203.


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