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3. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What progress the Government have made with the introduction of safeguard measures to prevent the dumping of salmon from non-EU countries. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): The European Commission imposed provisional safeguard measures in August to levy additional duty on imports above a certain level. With our strong ally in this cause, Ireland, we continue to press the case of Scottish salmon farmers.
Mr. Carmichael: I thank the Minister for that answer. Indeed, I commend the Department, and the Minister for Trade and Investment, the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Alexander), who I know has acted in this area, for their efforts to date. Unfortunately, however, aquaculture in my constituency remains an industry under the cosh, and safeguarding measures, important though they are, can help only in the short to medium term. In the long term, the industry needs a level playing field on which it can compete with countries such as Norway. That will involve the elimination of some of the extra regulatory burden and charges such as Crown Estate rents. Such charges do not have to be paid by the industry in Norway. What will the Minister do to progress that agenda?
The Department of Trade and Industry has been working closely with the Scottish Executive and colleagues there who make representations about the tremendous pressures on the industry. My right hon.
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Friend the Secretary of State has written to each member state counterpart to press the case, and our co-sponsor, Ireland, is supportive as well. This issue will be subject in early January to a proposal from the European Commission, and it is hoped that a decision will be taken by the end of next month, with measures being introduced at the beginning of February.
The hon. Gentleman will know, as he takes a keen interest in this issue, that there is no certainty of support from other member states, but I have outlined just one of the steps that my right hon. Friend has taken. The Prime Minister has also made representations, as have other Ministers. We are acutely aware of the pressure that the industry is under, and will do what we can to alleviate that. The best way of supporting it, however, is to ensure that it is not subject to any sort of unfair competition.
Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles) (Lab): May I, too, pass on the gratitude of the industry to the Minister, his colleagues and officials who have been fighting the case in Brussels? Is he aware of the latest figures from the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, which show that the Norwegian industry has been losing £100 million a year over the past three years? Is that not strong evidence of the existence of illegal and underhand subsidies being paid to that Norwegian industry?
Nigel Griffiths: Certainly, I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment has discussed these issues directly with Norway. I am particularly grateful to him for briefing me on that issue earlier this week. We know of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald), how hard he presses the interests of his constituents, and the meetings that he has had with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and others. We are aware of the issues and want to make sure that other member states, which seem more sympathetic to Norway and the practices that have come in for great criticism than to the problems facing his constituents and our colleagues in Ireland, address this issue. We believe that we have the firm support of the European Commission in this matter, and my right hon. Friends are making sure that they apply as much pressure as they can and advance the arguments with the 23 other member states, to make sure that we get a successful resolution early in the new year. We realise the threat that is posed to our industry.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Will the Minister bear it in mind, before he goes down the traditional Labour-EU protectionist routewhich militates against the interests of the British consumer and, in this case, those of a poorer country, toothat these safeguards would cause Norwegian salmon to be exported to third countries to the detriment of Chilean producers, who in many instances are considerably poorer, and who have a right to sell their salmon, too?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman speaks for the House in relation to this matter, but let me touch on an issue that I have not covered: Chile. We are aware that it was excluded from the provisional measures because its imports were assessed as being less than 3 per cent. of the EU value. I do not see Norway as
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a poor country, and I do not believe that if there are unfair subsidies, anyone in the House would support them.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): Over the past 18 months, DTI Ministers and officials have had discussions with all parts of the newspaper and magazine industry about the proposal to remove the exemption of vertical agreements from prohibition under UK competition law.
Mr. Gill: I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware of the current deadlock in the industry and the impact that changes to the newspaper and magazine supply chain will have on the viability of small independent retailers. Given the vital role that small independent retailers and newsagents play in our communities, particularly the 254 small retailers and newsagents in Leicester that sell less than £300 worth of newspapers a week and are particularly at risk, will he assure the House that he will seek a resolution to the deadlock and provide legal certainty before 1 May 2005, when the competition law changes take effect?
Mr. Sutcliffe: As the hon. Gentleman will know, there has been a great deal of discussion about the vertical agreement. Indeed, as I studied it horizontally this morning I saw a clear need for both sides of the industry to consider the impact of last year's decision so that they would have time to think about how they should come together. DTI Ministers have met representatives of all sectors, including the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, and are well aware of the issues that concern them. The Office of Fair Trading is also talking to the industry, and we hope to make some announcements along the lines that the hon. Gentleman wants by early spring.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that small independent newsagents in every constituency in the country are being increasingly squeezed by the superstores? They have always had a problem with the wholesalers. We want those small newsagents to survive, because they are an important part of the community network throughout our constituencies.
Mr. Sutcliffe: I agree that it is vital to maintain the small newsagent network. Newsagents have been assiduous in expressing their views about their relationship with the wholesalers. The OFT's purpose in talking to both sides of the industry is to secure an agreement, and I hope that one can be reached.
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Government have invested more than £2 billion in the Royal Mail and the post office network since 1999. We have appointed a strong management team to the Royal Mail, which is successfully turning the business around. I am delighted to announce that I am reappointing the chair, Allan Leighton, for a further three years.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sure the Secretary of State realises that the post office network plays a vital part in keeping rural communities together. The closure of post offices such as the one in Watermoor in Cirencester, leaving the elderly and the vulnerable to walk an additional three quarters of a mile, is extremely unwelcome. What will the Government do to prevent further closures once funding ends in 2008?
May I make a positive suggestion? Should not all post offices be able to sell all Government servicespassports and driving licences, for instance? That would enable them to remain more viable than they would be otherwise.
Ms Hewitt: I know that the hon. Gentleman is extremely concerned about the impact of the Watermoor closure. Both Postwatch and the Post Office thought about it very carefully. I understand that most customers are already choosing to shop in Cirencester, and there are direct bus services from Watermoor to the main branch in the town centre. [Interruption.] There are bus services to the centre. As for rural services, we have indeed extended funding until 2008. I know that the Post Office is making enormous efforts to find an alternative to the branch that is currently in Tesco in Wootton-under-Edge, which is also in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I am sure he will regret the fact that Conservative public spending cuts would mean less money for the post office network in future, not more.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I welcome the reappointment of Allan Leighton as chairman of the Post Office, but does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the way in which the consultation process works? She and I, along with the late Jim Marshall, wrote many letters to try to prevent the closure of post offices in our Leicester constituencies, but our representations were rejected. Petitions were presented, but Post Office officials refused to meet Members of Parliament before the deadline. It looks as though decisions are made and the consultation process is a farce. When she welcomes Mr. Leighton to his reappointment and invites him for a cup of tea and a mince pie at the Department, will my right hon. Friend ask him to have another look at a process that leaves everyone frustrated?
I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but in fact, we took steps last January, after considerable concern had been expressed in the House, to strengthen the consultation process and sort out the problems that had arisen. I simply do not accept his assertion that that process is a sham; indeed, as a result of it, 400 Post Office proposals were either withdrawn or changed. In the case of Leicester, I am glad to say that, as a result of the representations made by my hon.
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Friend and I and the late Jim Marshall, two post offices that had been slated for closurein Clarendon park and Abbey lanehave been reprieved.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The Secretary of State may be aware that yesterday I was in her constituencyI did her the courtesy of informing her in writingand that of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Gill), looking at the installation of Community Point in post offices, which have sadly been let down by the failure to follow up the Your Guide experiment. Does she accept that this initiative by the National Federation of SubPostmasters might offer the way forward, the ultimate objective being that at least 5,000 of these Community Point units be installed throughout the country? Will she undertake to ensure, through the office of the e-envoy, that Departments across government use this service, which can print out up-to-date Government forms and eliminate the risk of stocking out-of-date ones? It could ensure that all post offices are used as a Government information network, to the benefit of their own business and of the public. Will she ensure that this experiment actually delivers the results that Your Guide did not?
Ms Hewitt: As I think the hon. Gentleman is aware, the very good Your Guide experiment, in which we invested nearly £25 million, simply did not deliver the increase in customers that the sub-post offices were looking for. However, the investment that we have made has proved enormously successful, in that 21 million bank account customers are now able to do their banking at post offices, thus hugely increasing the Post Office's potential customer base. I certainly hope that the current Post Office experiment in e-government connections will prove successful, and I shall discuss this issue with the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), and with the Post Office, directly.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): While I welcome the changes that were made last January, there is still huge concern about the urban reinvention programme consultation process. Decisions are being made, and consultation is then taking place upon their implementation. Although such changes happen in only a minority of casesincluding in my own constituencythis process falls a long way short of the assurances that the Post Office gave to the Trade and Industry Committee last year, which Ministers subsequently gave to me. Communities should have a say in the planning of their local post offices' facilities, but that is simply not happening.
I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but the Post Office has more branches than the whole of the banking and building society systems put together, and because there are simply too many branches for the number of customers, it is just not possible for our sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to make a living. In order to get proper community involvement in these decisions, we changed the consultation process so that decisions are made on an area basis, instead of one by one. I am afraid, however, that even with the very substantial support that we are providing for post offices, it is up to Post Office Ltd.the management
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to decide which branches will be viable in future, and to ensure that 95 per cent. of its customers, and if possible more, are within a mile of a post office branch. That is the way to get a strong post office network that can deliver for customers and go on playing a strong role within communities.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware of the continuing concern of many pensioners about the new system for paying pensions at post offices? The blurb says that they are not supposed to give their PIN to anybody, but what about those pensioners who rely on a neighbour to collect their pension because they are house-bound? Giving their PIN away exposes them to a considerably greater risk than simply asking someone to pick up their pension, but what are they supposed to do, particularly if they do not have a neighbour who is a close friend?
Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I am glad to say that recent Department for Work and Pensions customer research shows that the vast majority of customers are happy about opening a Post Office card account and using the associated card. Of course, the system was designed to take account of the point that he makes, so that an elderly person who cannot collect the benefit at the post office can make an arrangement for a trusted person to do so on their behalf. I will check the precise point, but my understanding is that, in those circumstances, another person can be given their own PIN in order to get the cash payment. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with further details on that point.
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