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House of Commons

Tuesday 24 January 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Post Office

1. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the future of the rural post office network in Scotland. [43210]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend and I regularly meet ministerial colleagues and discuss a range of issues.

Danny Alexander: In the light of the decision not to allow post offices to deal with the new passports, and of reports that the contract for the Post Office card account will not be renewed after 2010, it appears that the Government are planning massive cuts in the number of rural post offices. Will the Minister assure the House that he will impress on his colleagues the essential social importance of the 1,100 rural post offices in Scotland and ensure that funding is put in place to ensure their survival long into the future?

David Cairns: It is disappointing that the hon. Gentleman did not mention the more than £2 billion of investment that the Government have put into the post office network, including £500 million for IT and £750 million invested specifically in the rural network. He has to face up to a simple dilemma. There are 800 post offices in the network with fewer than five customers a day. People are choosing to shop in a different way and, even before the introduction of the POCA, more and more people were choosing to have their benefits paid directly into bank and building society accounts. Would he continue to support a network that would wither on the vine without that investment, at an ever-increasing cost to the taxpayer? Those are difficult decisions. I understand why the Liberal Democrats are not capable of taking tough decisions, but we may have to.

Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister is aware that more than 4 million people have been given a POCA and that the account
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plays a significant part in the financial inclusion agenda. If it is to be withdrawn by 2010, will he give an undertaking that there will be proper planning and consultation so that the Government's financial inclusion objectives are realised?

David Cairns: My right hon. Friend is entirely correct. The Government set great store by financial inclusion. As chairman of the Treasury Committee, he has played a large part in advancing that agenda. The fact is that the guarantee to maintain the POCA extended only to 2010. Decisions on what happens after that are the subject of ongoing discussions between the Post Office and the Department for Work and Pensions. Large numbers of those who access their benefits through a POCA also have a bank account, so it is not axiomatic that all those who currently go through a POCA do not have an alternative account, but my right hon. Friend is right to remind us of the need for financial inclusion. We will keep that uppermost in our minds.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Given that the Post Office successfully continues to supply 170 different products, but that 40 per cent. of its income derives from pensions and benefits, is not the time now right for the Government to renegotiate with Post Office Counters people's ability to access bank accounts at the post office, or to use their cards in the post office to draw money from their benefits? Surely both are not possible.

David Cairns: It is a fact that basic banks accounts with all the major Scottish banks are accessible at post offices in Scotland, so we have gone some way to deal with that issue. [Hon. Members: "No."] Basic bank accounts are accessible. What we have to do is ensure that, as we look to the future of the Post Office, which we regard as extremely important—we have invested massively in its future and put in enormous amounts of taxpayers' money to sustain it—we ensure that we continue to meet the social needs that it currently fulfils. However, we must also bear in mind the fact that people's shopping patterns change and the need to reflect that. We will take on board the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but I think that the Government are already acting in that respect.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I hope that the Minister will discuss these matters with his colleagues, and when he does I hope that he will also raise the question of urban post offices. Is he aware of the plans of Post Office Ltd to alter the status of six Crown post offices in franchise agreements and of the consequences that that will have in terms of reduction of service to customers and of conditions for staff? Given that there are many opportunities for the Government to put business into post offices, will they take a lead in ensuring the survival of our post offices, particularly in towns such as Dunfermline?

David Cairns: The question on the Order Paper is about rural post offices and if the hon. Gentleman thinks that Dunfermline post office is a rural post office, it shows his complete and utter ignorance of Dunfermline. It also demonstrates clearly why his party has abandoned all hope of winning the Dunfermline and West Fife constituency. Indeed, so low is the Liberal
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Democrats' target that they hope only to beat the Scottish National party into third place. We have put significant investment—£2 billion—into the Post Office. I am sure that as long as Dunfermline continues to have an excellent Labour MP, as it will have after the by-election in a week or two, she will continue to ensure that the Government continue their policy of supporting the Post Office.

Asylum Cases (Dawn Raids)

2. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the First Minister of Scotland on the use of dawn raids in asylum cases. [43211]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend has regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of subjects.

Mr. McGovern: My hon. Friend will be aware of the disquiet felt in certain areas in Scotland about what the tabloid press portrays as dawn raids. Many people regard them as insensitive and unnecessary. Although any sensible politician would say there is no case for a separate immigration and asylum system in Scotland, does my hon. Friend agree that a certain flexibility might be applied to bolster public confidence in the system north of the border?

David Cairns: I thank my hon. Friend for the moderate and balanced way in which he made his point. The issue is all too often characterised by extremes at both ends: those who say we should have no asylum seekers or refugees at all, which we reject, and those at the other end who say we should have no rules to remove failed asylum seekers. We must have a balance. My hon. Friend is right. Early morning removals of asylum seekers are regrettable. We must do everything we can to avoid that, but if people are given opportunity and financial assistance once their claim for asylum has been turned down, they have lost their appeal, and they are asked to return to the country that they came from or their home country, if they consistently refuse to do so, we regrettably have to take steps to remove them. We must do so humanely and sensitively. I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution to that.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I welcome the Minister saying that we should enforce the rules sensitively and humanely, but does he agree that as they are currently carried out, early morning removals—dawn raids—are traumatic for families, particularly when parents are handcuffed and children are separated from their parents and taken away in different vehicles? What reassurances can he give to the constituents who contact me because they are concerned about the matter?

David Cairns: The point that the hon. Lady mentions illustrates perfectly why voluntary removals are far better. That is why it is much better for individuals to leave the country when their appeal has been turned down and they are instructed to leave and given financial help and support to do so. If people
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consistently refuse to leave the country after it has been found that they have no claim for asylum, we ultimately have to remove them if we are to have a system that we can enforce at all. It is very regrettable, but the power lies with them to pre-empt that by leaving the country when their appeal has run out.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Like my hon. Friend, I agree that if we have a system, we have to deal with applications that are unsuccessful. Following discussions that colleagues in Glasgow have had with the immigration department, a system is being introduced whereby a lead professional will be involved throughout the removal process, from correspondence to meetings, up to the final removal. What measures will the Government take to encourage more people to take the route of voluntary return?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is right to point out the improvements that are being made in the removals system, such as the lead professional and work with schools that have large numbers of asylum seekers' children, as many of the concerns are raised through the children in those schools. Such changes have been brought about across the United Kingdom because of concerns expressed in Scotland. It is proper for us to acknowledge that the First Minister played an important role in raising these concerns in discussions with the Home Secretary. What we cannot have—I know my hon. Friend agrees with this—is a different removals regime in Scotland from the one in England because that would make it more difficult to remove asylum seekers from Scotland, as we would simply be sending a green light to every failed asylum seeker awaiting deportation in England to move to Scotland. That cannot be a sensible position.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for his answers and concur with his sentiments regarding the people being sent home. Is it not the case that Glasgow is the only city accepting asylum seekers? Is it not despicable for the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) to preach to those of us who have to deal with the problem daily, when her constituency and council have nothing to do with those people?

David Cairns: At Scottish questions, I have repeatedly congratulated Glasgow city council on the work that it has done. I have met Councillor Purcell, the leader of the council, and thanked him personally for the council's work. It is in negotiations to extend the contract. After a difficult start, as you will remember, Mr. Speaker, it has bedded down well and the families of asylum seekers in Glasgow are contributing to the city, the economy and the schools. I am happy to pay tribute to Glasgow. It is open to any other council to come forward at any time and seek to be part of that scheme.

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