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Post Office Closures

7. Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): What discussions she has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on the impact of the closure of sub-post offices on neighbourhood renewal areas; and if she will make a statement. [195866]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): There have been no specific discussions on this matter, but the Department has worked closely with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in developing the £15 million deprived urban
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post office fund, which is aimed at providing support for sub-post offices in the most deprived urban areas. Post office closures are a commercial matter for Post Office Ltd. It is the company's responsibility when developing its closure proposals to consider carefully, among a range of factors, any impact that they may have on neighbourhood renewal areas.

Clive Efford: I appreciate that the closures are a matter for Post Office Ltd. The criterion it has set to identify deprivation uses ward-based statistics, which, the Government realise, are a blunt instrument. They have introduced neighbourhood renewal projects in some areas because they understand that the figures do not identify areas of deprivation in sufficient detail, but Post Office Ltd. has ignored that fact in its reinvention programme. Will my hon. Friend take that up with Post Office Ltd. and revisit some of its proposals? It should ensure that there is a good case for the closure of post offices in neighbourhood renewal areas. The sub-postmaster of the Mound post office in my constituency has changed his mind. He no longer wants to close it because he thinks that he can put a business together, but still the closure is going ahead.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue and pay tribute to his work on the matter in his constituency. He has written to me on the subject and I shall respond in due course. He can take a crumb of comfort from the fact that Postwatch will launch a survey on the impact of post office closures to determine whether the company got things right, so there is an immediate proposal to examine his constituency issue. In the longer term, we will see how effective the closures have been and act accordingly.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I support the views expressed by the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) and I would like to go further. Does the Minister not accept that the Post Office has forgotten the service responsibilities that it owes to people in communities throughout the country? Will he have a firm word to encourage it to understand that the location of post offices in areas such as those that the hon. Gentleman described is vital to their success? The Post Office has become too damn commercial and has forgotten its duty of service and provision of service to the people of this country.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman raises, but he must remember the bigger picture affecting the Post Office, which has been missed in today's questions. Closures happened regularly under the Conservative Government without any control or consideration of the reaction to them. This Government have invested £2 billion in the Royal Mail and post office network, but I agree that we need to get the balance right, which is why my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms) talked to Postwatch about the consultation process when he was a Minister in the Department. I accept that we need to learn lessons, but we must also remember that post office business was losing millions of pounds every day. The Government have put in the investment and we will continue to ensure that people get the service that they require.
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Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): We accept the need for some change, but my constituents feel that the seven planned closures in the Leigh area go way too far. Leigh is a former mining area and has a legacy of ill health, including people with mobility problems. It is a collection of former mining villages and some of our post offices are classed as rural. May I urge my hon. Friend to impress on the Post Office the need to proceed with great caution in a constituency such as Leigh when implementing a closure programme?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I recognise those points and am pleased that my hon. Friend accepts that change was necessary. If no change had taken place, there would be no post offices and we would be in a dire situation. The Government recognise the value of post offices. We also recognise the value of having a controlled position, which is why investment has been made. We set up the consultation process through Postwatch, and I know that my hon. Friend will have contacted it about the closures. If he feels that the process has not worked properly, I shall certainly take representations from him.

Operating and Financial Review Regulations

8. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What key performance indicators will be included in the operating and financial review regulations. [195867]

The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Jacqui Smith): Our proposals for a statutory operating and financial review will require quoted companies to provide a narrative report setting out the company's business objectives, its strategy for achieving them, and the risk and uncertainties that might affect their achievement. It will require companies to report on other matters where these are necessary for an understanding of the business, and these include their employees, the environment, and social and community issues.

Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for her response. Will there be a mandatory set of performance indicators for quoted companies, covering their environmental and social performance and impact? If so, will the performance indicators allow comparisons between different companies? Will they also allow a year-on-year assessment of the companies?

Jacqui Smith: There will not be a mandatory set of common key performance indicators. What is important about the process is that directors have to think carefully about the prospects of their business and how different factors—the environment, their employees or other risks—will impact on their business. They then have to consider the most appropriate ways to measure that and to report it to shareholders and investors who, because of that process, will be better able to engage with the ongoing governance and running of the company. I am not convinced that setting out a list that directors may be tempted to run down and tick is the most appropriate way to encourage the engagement that this development is all about.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Given that the operating and financial review regulations are
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designed to make directors more accountable and that the Government have spent a small fortune on introducing, through resource accounting, often ill-fitting copies of private sector accounting practice into the public sector, do they intend to produce something similar for the public sector so that we have greater insight into its increasingly opaque accounts?

Jacqui Smith: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's conclusion, but I agree that we must consider applying the same principles on transparency as we propose for the private sector to the public sector. In many ways, we lead on that in terms of the information we provide. It is key that we improve that information and enable accountability wherever possible.

Young Workers

9. Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): If she will make a statement on her policy on protection against exploitation of young workers. [195868]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I understand that my hon. Friend is particularly interested in the position of young apprentices.

The Low Pay Commission looked at the position of apprentices aged 16 and 17 in its 2004 report and recommended that they should be exempt from the minimum wage because of concerns that employers might otherwise be deterred from providing valuable training opportunities for young people. Bearing in mind the Government's ambition to ensure that young people reach 19 with the skills they need to succeed, the Government accepted the commission's recommendation.

Tony Lloyd: My hon. Friend needs no lessons from me as he has a strong record on protecting all workers, and in particular young workers, and the Government have done much in that area. However, unscrupulous employers can make life difficult for people on modern apprenticeships. The £79 recommendation, accepted by many, is designed to ensure that employers take on apprentices. Some employers, alas, are driving the figure below the recommendation. Not only are they exploiting young workers, but they are giving them a strong incentive to get out of training and to work for Tesco or wherever the minimum wage applies. That is not the right way to go.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Again, I acknowledge the work that my hon. Friend has done to pursue employment rights for workers in the UK. He makes a valid point. The Learning and Skills Council, which is under the auspices of the Department for Education and Skills, deals with issues relating to apprentices. We are considering the matter of the £79 and the protections that should be included in the contracts between apprentices and companies. My hon. Friend will be pleased about the number of modern apprenticeships taken forward under the Government's policies, and he will recognise that we always try to strike a balance between making sure that people are employable and making sure they get a just reward from their work.
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The Minister was asked—

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