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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.
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 narrowonly six votes in itthat 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
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.
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 of Orpington College Student Union and NUS members,
Declares that the petitioners are united in their opposition to the Government's Higher Education Bill.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons decline to pass the Higher Education Bill at Third Reading.
And the petitioners remain, etc.
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 of persons living or working in the Parliamentary constituency of Christchurch
Declares that the proposed European Constitution with which Her Majesty's Government has agreed in principle involves grave and significant constitutional issues that affect democracy in the United Kingdom, self government, and the national interest and makes a fundamental change in the relationship of the United Kingdom with the European Union.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons passes legislation to authorise a referendum of the electorate on the European Constitution at the conclusion of the intergovernmental conference.
And the petitioners remain, etc.
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 of residents of Dumfries and Galloway declares that provision of NHS dentists in Dumfries and Galloway is unacceptably low, with over 40,000 local people who are not registered with an NHS dentist and are unable to do so. The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Scottish Executive to take immediate action to rectify the situation.
And the petitioners remain, etc.
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:
The Humble Petition of Mrs M Hurrell and others of like disposition sheweth
That there is considerable public concern caused by the long standing failure of the Prittle Brook sewer, which causes serious health concerns and damage to property every year.
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House shall urge the Government, and in particular, DEFRA, to investigate this matter and to ensure that the necessary investment is made to permanently resolve the problem so that residents can live in their homes without continual fear of flooding by surface water and raw sewage.
And your Petitioners, in duty bound, will ever pray.
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 jobburying 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
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:
You suggest that she could use the 119/120 bus service to access either the Kirkgate or the Lupset Bar branches if the Thornes branch is closed. This bus service runs hourly in each direction. After collecting their pension from the Kirkgate branch, my mother would have to cross the busy Kirkgate road to catch the return bus. At the Lupset Bar branch she would have to walk down to the bus stop by the park and then would have an hour's wait, in the open as there are no facilities for shelter etc, on this road. The local newspaper, the Wakefield Express, has also recently reported that this bus service is to be curtailed in future as it is not well used.
Both alternative branches are too far away for my mother to walk to and so the only other solution is for her to take a taxi. I find it disgraceful that she should have to pay taxi fares every week to collect their pensions."
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
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.
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 propsI 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 possessionshis rugby league medalsto the former sub-postmaster. The Minister may regard such a caring role as
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
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 wallbut 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.