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3.55 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I realise that time is short, so I want purely to repeat that it is extremely regrettable that Powergen has decided to discontinue selling electricity tokens. I quote from an e-mail that I received yesterday from an ever-alert South Bedfordshire councillor, who said:

At a time when we should be encouraging the Post Office to take on an extra range of services to increase footfall, I hope that the Minister will take that matter seriously and speak to Powergen so that something can be done about it.

3.56 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): During this debate, hon. Members on both sides of the House sought to express their views and concerns about post office services—as opposed to the post office network, which was the subject of the debate that took place, again in Opposition time, on 13 January. In doing so, we are motivated by our deep commitment to what characterises the communities that we are sent here to represent, be they rural, suburban or urban. As we know from our own experiences, from the representations that we receive day in, day out, and—ironically—from the volume of correspondence in our postbags, people in those communities feel that local post offices define not only their sense of belonging, but their ability to express that through their relationships with staff, particularly in terms of being known and identified. That gives great comfort to elderly and vulnerable people in particular.

That is the context in which we are considering post office services and the developments that have taken place as a result of the actions and omissions of this Government. The key element in the debate was

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identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) when he so ably, expertly and cogently opened the debate—[Interruption.] I am sure that his objective assessment will be confirmed by Ministers, who are properly subject to it.

At the heart of the matter lies the element of customer choice, and the whole business of providing post office services must be motivated by what is right for them in making those choices. That is reflected by campaigns that have been going on up and down the land. In Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, Councillors Sheila Foster, Joan Briggs and Tom Pettengell have raised petitions of more than 1,200 names to campaign against the closures of Chilwell and Attenborough post offices. Yet when we debated that matter on 13 January, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) chose not to join us in the Lobby, although the motion gave him a perfect opportunity to confirm by voting some of the rhetoric that he and others had expressed during that campaign.

The same could be said of the campaign to try to stop the closure of the Finchley Church End post office in the constituency of Finchley and Golders Green, and of the contributions of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). However much Labour Members may not want to incur the wrath of their Whips, there comes a time when their votes must equal their rhetoric and campaigning in their constituencies. It is clear that the Conservative party spokesman in Finchley and Golders Green has been campaigning hard for the retention of that post office, having collected petitions containing more than 2,000 signatures. We are now offering the opportunity to Members across the House, in accordance with the campaigning sentiments that they have articulated both here and outside, to walk through the Lobby to give substance to those campaigns.

This is our second debate in Opposition time on this subject. The debate on 13 January led the Minister with responsibility for post office services to make an announcement on 5 February, of which the Secretary of State sought to make a virtue. Curiously, she declined to say that that amounted to a large vote of thanks to us for having raised the issue and creating the opportunity for that debate, from which that statement resulted, although that is clearly what happened.

That point was nailed by the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who demonstrated that the "Westminster Newsletter" issued by the Post Office had stated, following the 13 January debate, that the Post Office would guarantee that it would

Members of Parliament

That announcement resulted from the statement made by the Minister that there would be no contract to

By any definitional interpretation of that, it is difficult to see why that guarantee would have been presented as a new development in the "Westminster Newsletter", unless there had been no guarantee before then. That is

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precisely the argument that we have been making, and I am glad that the Minister responded to it at the time in relation to the post office network.

All that we ask of the Secretary of State is that she listen again to the issues raised in this debate. It is jolly sporting of her to be with us today—

Mr. Hoyle: Cheap shot.

Mr. O'Brien: Labour Members might consider that a cheap shot, but the Secretary of State chose not to turn up to the last debate, although I, as her shadow, was leading it. The Minister both opened and wound up the debate on that occasion. There was clearly a mismatch there. More importantly, the Secretary of State should listen to the points being made in this debate on the way in which people experience post office services. We have heard countless examples from Members on both sides of the House of the deep concern and distress and of the grave inconvenience that has often been increased as a result of Government policy.

It is important to recognise that this is not simply an attempt by Her Majesty's Opposition to oppose for opposition's sake, although I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Minister would like to portray it as such. There are now countless early-day motions on this subject. I fully expect all those Members of the Opposition parties who have signed early-day motions 58, 431, 375, 725, 814, 826, 850 and 859 to join us in the Lobby. I also believe that the tens, if not hundreds, of Labour Members who have put their names to early-day motions on these issues—namely early-day motions 236, 373, 389, 397, 628, 648, 689, 549 and 797—should now think very carefully. This is a genuine opportunity for them to give an honest earnest of their campaigning through early-day motions in the Lobby tonight, rather than attempting to curry favour with a Government whom they always wish to congratulate. They stand up to make speeches and suggest that they are campaigning on behalf of their constituents, but they usually vote for the Government who have caused the problem in the first place.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is trying to entice us to vote for his motion, but it is really rather pathetic. It says nothing about post offices providing a vital public service or that they should be cross-subsidised in some kind of socialist way, which is what I believe. All that we have in the motion are proposals for more consultation and a bit of tinkering to try to make things work better. That is not enough.

Mr. O'Brien: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Of course, we would have been interested to see his proposed amendment to the motion, suggesting that his Government should support, in all honesty, the essence of socialism, which he is so keen to promote. The most important point is that he has an opportunity to give expression to what he has been campaigning on.

We have heard from many Members and it would be invidious, given the shortage of time, to try to mention them all, although, interestingly, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) offered the

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Secretary of State a job swap. In the resulting exchange, she appeared keen to have the opportunity to be a sub-postmistress if she were not re-elected to this place. We are interested to hear of the candidacy of Mrs. Patel, her local sub-postmistress, whom we would much enjoy seeing in the House.

Apart from the community-led points and those on the criteria articulated by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)—we hope that he will join us in the Lobby this evening—the most important point is that the Government have made a series of attempts to change the way that people get their services, which is convenient to and focused on them.

There is evidence of Government bias in terms of trying to force people to make a choice against their better instincts. The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) made a telling point when he showed that the ready-for-work unemployed are not allowed to have the card account because, apparently, they have to be on the same basis as those who are waged in respect of bank accounts. Again, that is a restriction of choice. Given that the Secretary of State had no answer, that point rather nailed her.

We are short of time and there are a lot of questions to answer in the 10 minutes remaining. Although many have referred to Planet Hewitt I am far from wanting to do so, given that the Minister will make the winding-up speech. We must consider the fact that in Pond World it is indeed dark and a bit creepy. Pond World is also very wet and blind to the world on earth, as the rest of us—our constituents and Conservative Members at least—recognise.

What we see with our own eyes, through our constituency postbag, is deep concern about the restriction of choice and the Government's attempt to railroad people into behaving in a way that they feel is best for those people, rather than allowing people to behave in a way that they want to behave in and which they feel is best for them. They want certain services for themselves, and it is time that the Government listened. I hope that full account is taken of the debate so that we get another revision of Government policy, reflecting the will of the constituents whom we represent.

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