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Mr. Hain: The easy solution to the hon. Lady's predicament is to get her Conservative colleagues in the House of Lords to agree to the decision made only a few minutes ago in the House of Commons, in which case there would be no reason to reduce the time for the Easter Adjournment debate.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Will the Leader of the House confirm the rest of Sam Younger's letter? It goes on to say that

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already advised the House that we are not debating the substance of the Bill.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend tell me whether Thursday's debate, which may be affected by the business statement, can be used to discuss the relationship between this Chamber and the other place? Tonight, we are being bound over for the 13th time since the general election by the other place defying the view of the elected Chamber, which happened on only three occasions between 1979 and 1997. It is clear that the challenge from the other place is not about revision but about the fundamental politics by which the people elected us to this place.

Mr. Hain: My right hon. Friend makes a compelling case, which is why I am sure that common sense will prevail at this late stage and that Members of the House of Lords will decide, particularly because the vote was so narrow—only six votes in it—that the will of the House of Commons should prevail.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): As the Leader of the House of Commons is discussing Commons business, will he confirm whether a further business motion will be required tomorrow to give effect to what he has said to the House this evening? Will the Leader of the House give my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) a proper answer and undertake to protect the time available to Members of the House for our Adjournment debate on

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Thursday, which has nothing to do with the other place, even if he has to make a last-minute adjustment to the business in a panic? Will he give us such a guarantee?

Mr. Hain: I guarantee the right hon. Gentleman that he can have all the time that he wants on Thursday if the House of the Lords supports the decision of the House of Commons. That is the solution to his problem.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The business statement was narrow, and we must move on.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Social Security

Question agreed to.


Higher Education Bill

8.59 pm

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I should like to present a petition on behalf of well over 1,000 members of the National Union of Students at Orpington college, which is an absolutely first-class college.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

European Constitution

9 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): It is a privilege to be able to present this substantial petition comprising 121 pages of signatures from about 1,000 of my constituents, and I am pleased to be able to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the contents.

The petition states:

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To lie upon the Table.

NHS Dentistry

9.1 pm

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale) (Con): It gives me great pleasure to present a petition signed by some 4,000 locals in Dumfries and Galloway to protest at the inadequate provision of NHS dentistry.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Prittle Brook Sewer

9.2 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Some women's institutes pose for calendars and some bake cakes, but the Hadleigh Evening WI is an effective, tough campaigning machine fighting for its community, along with excellent local councillors and caring, dedicated residents such as Colin Henwood and Don Saunders, who fought for many years to resolve the problem of Prittle Brook sewer, which floods some homes with water and sometimes raw sewage, with all the distress, danger and disruption that that causes.

Anglia Water is an excellent company; I met its representatives today. They want to eliminate sewer flooding in homes and care about customer service. The problem lies with Ofwat and the Government, who must ensure that funds for the necessary repairs are released so that Anglia can do the job once and for all. I congratulate Maureen Hurrell, Sheila Whitelegg, Yvonne Grimes and all the WI ladies on compiling the petition, which states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Sub-Post Office Closures (Wakefield)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

9.3 pm

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise my concerns over the proposed closure of four sub-post offices in my constituency. I have followed very closely the discussions, which have taken place over many years under two different Governments regarding the future of the post office network. I have fully accepted the need to modernise the network to respond to social, economic and technological changes. I have strongly supported the Horizon project, the logic of the provision of modern online IT facilities and, in particular, the extension of the Post Office's arrangement with the high street banks.

I welcomed the installation of cash machines and the overall automation of the network, which led to the Post Office becoming a gateway for delivering electronic and other services. In correspondence with constituents and the occasional anxious sub-postmaster or mistress, I have argued the logic of modernising the network, in the genuine belief that the proposals were in the best interests of the people whom I represent. However, in the past three months, to cite Jarvis Cocker, I have come to the gradual, soul-destroying realisation that I have been most monumentally had.

What I believed to be modernisation turned out to be marketisation; what is termed "urban reinvention" means, in my back yard, putting the boot into some of my most vulnerable constituents. Frankly, I did not expect that from a Labour Government. If the Minister intends to tell me that it is a matter for the Post Office, I say to him now that that simply will not wash. We were used to Pontius Pilate jobs under the Tories, but I am not prepared to accept that from my party. The Minister can and should do something.

As the Minister knows, the proposals to close the Thornes, St. Michael's, Agbrigg road and Haddingley Hill sub-post offices were announced in a letter that was sent out by the Post Office's head of area, Mr. David Mellows-Facer, on 29 December last year. The Minister will appreciate that probably the best time to make such an unpopular announcement is between Christmas and new year. Parliament is not sitting and most Members of Parliament and other public representatives are having a Christmas break. In short, the announcement was a classic Jo Moore job—burying the bad news.

I found out about the proposals from the local press. I strongly resent the fact that I received such important information at second hand. I did not receive Mr. Mellows-Facer's letter until 9 January, because it was sent to the wrong address. Given that my constituency office has been listed as my contact address for many years, and that the other, fairly obvious point of contact for a Member of Parliament is the House of Commons, it is astonishing that the letter was sent to the Yorkshire regional Labour party headquarters.

Even if I had received the letter on time, it is unacceptable that my constituents and I were given only until 9 February to respond to what was described as "a consultation process". I had less than four weeks to

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develop a detailed response to proposals that will undoubtedly have a serious impact on the lives of the people whom I represent. That is disgraceful. However, it was par for the course. The kindest thing that I can say about the consultation process is that it was a complete joke. Unfortunately, it is hard to see the funny side when three of the four closures impact on some of the most disadvantaged areas in my constituency, and the fourth, Thornes, affects an especially large population of elderly people.If the Post Office had deliberately targeted the most vulnerable in picking out those four sub-post offices, it could not have done a better job.

The Minister knows that I tabled a series of parliamentary questions about the way in which the Post Office has developed its proposals and consultation process. I am disappointed with the answers that I have received so far. They have been very much in the "not me, guv" mode. I was especially disappointed that the Minister refused to instruct the Post Office to publish a profile of the select teams of personnel who walked between each sub-post office that was proposed for closure in Wakefield and the named alternative branch. Not unreasonably, I believed that it was important to know how many members of the select teams replicated the age profile of the customers who would be expected to travel further afield, and how many were physically disabled, wheelchair users, the elderly and very elderly, or people wheeling pushchairs and accompanied by young children.

I have received many letters from people who are angry and deeply upset about the way in which the proposals will impact on them and their loved ones. I shall read only one, which was sent directly to Mr. Mellows-Facer by the daughter of an elderly couple who would be affected by the proposed Thornes closure. She wrote:

In a later letter to me, she said:

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If they are using the general post office in Northgate, I only hope that this elderly lady can cope with queuing for up to half an hour, which is apparently a frequent experience that will no doubt worsen as a consequence of the proposed closures.

I was also disappointed with the Minister's answer to my question on the steps taken to monitor the factual accuracy of information on which closure proposals have been based. He told me on 22 March:

What he did not say is what difference it makes to closure proposals when the information on which they are based is found to be fundamentally flawed.

I do not have the time to detail all the erroneous information contained in the consultation document. The farcical nature of procedures that the Minister appears to be defending, however, is particularly well illustrated by the proposals concerning the St. Michael's sub-post office. Dewsbury road, Wakefield, is described as

I invite the Minister to take a stroll with me through the rural idyll that is Dewsbury road, Wakefield. I will give him a fiver for every chicken, cow and pig that he sees, and a tenner if he meets a farmer. The simple fact is that Dewsbury road is an urban, built-up area running from Westgate End to the city and constituency boundary. Whoever says otherwise is living in cloud cuckoo land.

The Post Office's assessment of those served by the Thornes sub-post office also confirms the cloud cuckoo land theory. Apparently, the population is "largely young". It is not. It has among the highest numbers of elderly and very elderly people in my constituency. Alms houses in Horne street and the Whitehouse bungalows are among several that specifically accommodate the elderly. The Thornleigh estate and Thornes Moor estate house significant numbers of retired constituents who, like the elderly couple to whom I have already referred, may simply be unable to access the proposed alternative in Kirkgate.

The assessment of St. Michael's sub-post office talks of a "largely young population" who presumably will have little trouble accessing the alternatives, providing that they can avoid the cow pats on Dewsbury road. I have a rather different impression, however, of a population with a large number of low-income and elderly people. Neither of the alternatives proposed, and in particular the Dewsbury road sub-post office, is within walking distance, especially for elderly people, and this closure will cause particular difficulties for many of the current customers.

As I pointed out in my written response to Mr. Mellows-Facer, many of the current users of the Agbrigg road sub-post office are elderly and disabled people from the Belle Vue area, who had to use Agbrigg road sub-post office when the Doncaster road sub-post office closed some years ago. This is a low-income area with low car ownership, and suggesting Sandal sub-post office as an alternative for most of the current users is completely inappropriate, given the difficulty of accessing it from Agbrigg and Belle Vue, especially for residents living to the east of Doncaster road.

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The customer profile of Haddingley Hill sub-post office describes

but turns a now familiar blind eye to the impact of the closure on the large number of elderly and very elderly people currently served. Why is there no mention of the fact that this outlet is used by a large number of elderly people living in flats and other purpose-built accommodation in Manygates crescent and Duke of York avenue? Why is there no mention of the fact that immediately across the road are the flats and sheltered housing complexes in Woodcock street and Sparable lane? Why, according to one of the Minister's answers to me, are the health and social care implications of the closures

Has the Minister never been contacted by a sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress in his constituency who is concerned about some aspect of the health and well-being of an elderly customer, or does that only happen in Yorkshire? Is it not right that those people have served as a point of contact with outside help for those who may have few other ways of obtaining such help?

Let me illustrate the problem by referring to the individual circumstances of two people. The first is a gentleman who lived a few streets away from me until he died a couple of years ago. His name was Alf Watson, and he served his country during world war two. He never recovered from some of the things that happened then. He was an accomplished rugby league player and played professionally on the Leeds side which played in the challenge cup final against Bradford Northern, at Wembley in 1947. Towards the end of his life, when he was not finding things easy, he had two particular props—I use the word "props" in the widest sense. One was a very good neighbour; the other was the former sub-postmaster at Haddingley Hill sub-post office, who helped Alf retain his independence against all the odds. Significantly, when Alf died he left his most prized possessions—his rugby league medals—to the former sub-postmaster. The Minister may regard such a caring role as

but I regard it as basic humanity. I hope the Government may encourage such basic humanity.

The second person I want to mention illustrates the fact that the consultation process take no account of the likely impact of the proposed closure on the local economy in the immediate area of three of the four sub-post offices in Wakefield, which are located near other retail outlets. I feel that that impact should have been considered.

This second gentleman is 83, with a similarly distinguished war record. He is a widower living alone in the Milnthorpe area of Wakefield, which was removed from my constituency in 1997 by the Boundary Commission. For some reason it felt that Farnley Tyas near Huddersfield had more in common with Wakefield city. This gentleman has taken the modernisation agenda fully on board, accessing his Co-op bank account and conducting his domestic financial transactions at Haddingley Hill sub-post office. He takes a taxi from his home to Haddingley Hill, or "busy corner" as it is more commonly known, where he also

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visits the freezer centre, the chemist, the butcher/greengrocer and the newsagent. He has been known very occasionally to visit the off-licence and the pub, The Foresters—but not, as far as I am aware, the suntan centre. There are two sub-post offices near where he lives, but neither has adjacent parades of shops where he can obtain all that he needs for the week. He could go to a supermarket, but is not up to walking around it or queueing at the checkout. He and many others like him have been simply disregarded in the closure process.

The gentleman's name, by the way, is the right hon. Walter Harrison. He is my predecessor as Member for Wakefield, which he represented for 23 years. He was probably the most legendary Whip ever to pin a Back Bencher against a wall—but he will not be pinning me against a wall for refusing to support the Government in last week's vote on post offices. Like many others in my area who have solidly supported the Labour party all their lives, he shares my view that what is happening to our sub-post offices is not what we expected of a Labour Government. Both he and I sincerely hope that it is not too late for the Minister to do something about it.

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