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House of Commons

Thursday 26 February 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Post Office Closures

1. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): How many post offices in Greater London closed in each year from 1997 to 2003; and how many she expects to close in (a) 2004 and (b) each of the next two years. [156251]

The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms): Data for Greater London are available from March 2000. Post Office Ltd. closed 10 branches in the year to March 2001, 16 to March 2002, 44 to March 2003 and 89 in the nine months to December 2003. The current programme will lead to a national network of urban post offices that can prosper, given today's requirements, with at least 95 per cent. of urban residents living within a mile of a post office and the majority within half a mile. There is no predetermined list or number of future closures.

Simon Hughes : People will need to take time to digest the Minister's figures, but Postwatch suggests that about 160 of the current 214 that have been considered have already been closed or are ready to close. We are likely to have 14 out of 15 London post offices closed, at this rate. That is a slash and burn policy. What will the Minister do to change it and to listen to the hundreds of thousands of people who say that they value their local post office and want it to stay?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong about the numbers and the nature of the exercise that is taking place. Just before the switch to direct payment started last year, 43 per cent. of benefit recipients were paid through their bank accounts rather than by giro, compared with just 26 per cent. in 1996. The needs of customers in London are changing—and changing quickly—and the post office must change as well.

Our response was to invest half a billion pounds in technology so that a modern banking service could be provided at every post office branch in the country, and to support a programme to reduce the density of post offices in urban areas so that the size of the network

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reflects the business available. Across London, and across the whole country, the outcome will be a post office network that serves benefit recipients and many new customers, too. As I said, 95 per cent. of people living in urban areas will still be living less than a mile from their nearest post office, and most of them less than half a mile.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I would like to call the hon. Gentleman, but unless he represents Greater London I cannot do so.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): This is an important question, so in considering the urban reinvention programme will the Minister ensure that attention is given to the significant number of post office closures that have taken place in London during the past seven years? Does he agree that that context needs to be considered in relation to the closure programme over the next two or three years?

Mr. Timms: That is absolutely right, which is why the process we have been going through since last September sets out for each area what the ultimate configuration of the post office network will be, and takes account of all the changes that have already taken place. In that way, everybody can see where this process is leading. Through the consultation, which is important in this exercise, we can make sure that we end up with a configuration that best meets the needs of all our communities in London, as elsewhere in this country.

Nuclear Liabilities Authority

2. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What progress is being made towards the establishment of the nuclear liabilities authority. [156252]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Energy Bill, which will establish the nuclear decommissioning authority, is currently going through Grand Committee in another place, with Report scheduled for mid-March. The Bill will be introduced in this House as soon as the legislative timetable permits. We are hoping that the Bill will receive Royal Assent by July, and our goal remains to have an operational nuclear decommissioning authority by April next year.

Norman Baker : Does the Secretary of State agree with Sir John Bourn, who said that British Energy's recent activities highlighted

Will she confirm that this authority will cost the taxpayer tens of billions of pounds to clear up the nuclear legacy? In particular, will she explain why we are being asked to pay £300 million to clear up a site in the United States at Springfield because of a flight of fancy of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd? When will we get a grip on the situation? How many schools and hospitals could that have bought?

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Ms Hewitt: Of course I agree with the comments of Sir John Bourn, and I note that the National Audit Office report on British Energy makes it absolutely clear that British Energy's collapse was not inevitable, that it contributed significantly to its own financial difficulties, and that the Government's actions in respect of the company were at all times appropriate and proportionate to the actual risk. As I have told the House on many occasions, we have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring nuclear safety and security of electricity supply, and that is why we have accepted, as any Government must, the responsibility for the clean-up costs for those historic nuclear liabilities. The company is in the process, I hope, of completing its restructuring plan, and we are awaiting completion of the state aids clearance on which we are working with the European Commission.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for taking a courageous step forward in finally grasping the nettle in dealing with the UK's legacy of nuclear waste. Of course, the NDA is only one part of the equation. Will she take this opportunity to reiterate her commitment to making Nirex independent of the nuclear industry, so that we can say finally to the British people that we have a settlement, and that one institution is dealing with the long-term management of that waste?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I am discussing that issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I hope that we can settle Nirex's long-term future very soon.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Will the Secretary of State tell the House how much she thinks the nuclear liabilities contingency will be by 2010, and how much will have been drawn down? When does she expect a decision on British Energy from the European Commission, and why does she think that it is justified to put taxpayers' money at risk to bail out a company, its shareholders and directors because of that company's management incompetence, as confirmed by the National Audit Office? Should it not be allowed to go bust, just as any other business would in normal circumstances?

Ms Hewitt: I have repeatedly made it clear that we stand ready to deal with the administration of that company if necessary. However, I have also made it clear that we believed that it was in the national interest to allow private sector restructuring to take place if that were possible. Either way, we would have had to take responsibility for those historic liabilities and, as I have said, we expect the average cost to the Government to be £150 million to £200 million a year for the next 10 years. Those costs will fall thereafter. We are working with the Commission on state aid clearance, and we hope that that process will be completed by about the middle of this year.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The proposed nuclear decommissioning agency will be working with a new Government policy that envisages that the restoration of decommissioned sites

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for unrestricted use will not always be the best practical environmental option. Given that, does the Secretary of State agree with the suggestion made in the Nuclear Engineering International magazine this month, which I know she will have read? It predicts that the remote sites, such as Sellafield and Dounreay, are highly unlikely to be fully restored, and are in fact being retained and kept waiting in the wings as locations for new nuclear power plants and future nuclear waste repositories. If that suggestion is accurate, is it not shocking?

Ms Hewitt: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to that article, which, I have to confess, I have not read. With the nuclear decommissioning agency, we are ensuring that we will have a competitive market for the very important business of nuclear clean-up. On new nuclear power stations, the suggestion that he cites that article as making is simply wrong. We have clearly set out in the energy White Paper our position on new nuclear build. Our current position is that we have to put all the emphasis on greater energy efficiency and renewable energy to ensure that we meet not only our security of supply targets, but our environmental targets.

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