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Sub-post Offices

10. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): How many sub-post offices have closed since 1997. [60681]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Barry Gardiner): Under Post Office Ltd's urban reinvention programme, 2,475 sub-post offices closed on a wholly voluntary basis, thereby strengthening the viability of the remaining urban network while ensuring that at the end of the programme over 99 per cent. of the population nationally still lives within one mile of their nearest post office. Outside the urban reinvention programme, 2,248 post offices closed between April 1997 and December 2005, as sub-postmasters retired or sold their premises but were unable to persuade anyone to take on the running of that post office as a viable commercial venture.

Matthew Taylor: The Minister is presumably aware that across the country tens of thousands of pensioners
 
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are trying to support their local post offices and keep them open by using the Post Office card account. He may think it is right to close those post offices in 2010 and to write to pensioners urging them to change to a bank account, but I do not agree. Does he condemn the fact that the Pension Service is trying to frighten vulnerable pensioners into closing their accounts by sending them a letter that says that

That is an attempt to scare pensioners, and a Government service should not tell people who are trying to support their local post office that they might be mugged as a result.

Barry Gardiner: The move to direct payment was absolutely right, as it has cut crime and benefit fraud. Since 1993, the percentage of pension and benefit recipients using direct payment has risen from 43 per cent. to 97 per cent., suggesting that it is people's preferred method. The saving for the taxpayer will be £1 billion to 2010. The Post Office card account was intended to help people without bank accounts to make the transition from order books to direct payment. More than 4 million people, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, still use a Post Office card account, but 70 per cent. of them have bank accounts too. Given that it costs the Government 100 times more to pay benefit through the POCA than by direct payment the taxpayer is entitled to expect us to examine it very closely indeed. As for the hon. Gentleman's question about whether—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Answers are becoming far too long.

Emerging Technologies

12. Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): What support his Department gives to companies developing emerging technologies. [60683]

The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Alun Michael): If I gave the full list, I would exceed the time available and test your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which I would not wish to do. The Department provides a range of grants and manages the technology programme. We promote knowledge transfer, we provide practical advice through the business link network and we help UK experts to visit overseas centres of expertise. I shall write to my hon. Friend with full details, and place a copy in the Library of the House.

Laura Moffatt: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's response, as companies such as Ceres Power in my constituency are developing fuel cells. The company is working hard to make sure that we develop new technologies, but it is not attached to a university, so it finds it difficult to access certain grants. I welcome the Chancellor's statement yesterday on further support, and I hope that many such companies become much more aware of what is available. However, I look forward to receiving my right hon. Friend's letter, so that I can tell them about those opportunities.

Alun Michael: I am happy to expand on those points. The grant for research and development provides the type
 
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of response that is appropriate to the individual company—for example, micro projects with simple low cost development projects; research projects involving a range of planned research; and development projects involving the shaping of industrial research. Exceptional projects involving technology developments that have higher costs and a more strategic focus are also available. At every level there should be a product that would assist the firm to which my hon. Friend refers.

EU Gas Market

13. Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): What discussions he has had with European ministers on liberalisation of the gas market in the EU. [60684]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I will not add to what I said earlier about gas prices, except to say that they have increased across the whole of Europe. There is a huge global demand for energy and, in addition, we have a tight situation in the UK as we wait for the new infrastructure to bring in liquefied natural gas—the pipelines that I mentioned earlier from Norway, and so on. It is a difficult time, not least for heavy users of gas and electricity that choose to buy on the spot market, short term.

Mr. Crabb: As regards taking action in Brussels, is the Minister not concerned that current trends on the continent point not to further liberalisation, cross-border mergers and greater transparency, but to the rise of national monopolistic giants, which have proved to be roadblocks to investment in transnational infrastructure, greater liberalisation and lower gas prices in the long term?

Malcolm Wicks: The hon. Gentleman puts it well. Market liberalisation is European Union policy. Competition will bring lower prices. It is good for the German consumer and for the British consumer. The two commissioners have issued strong reports on the subject. They are determined to take legal action to bring about market liberalisation, and the hon. Gentleman will have noted the Chancellor's statement yesterday that at the European Council we are pressing for independent investigation and enforcement.

MINISTER FOR WOMEN

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Positive Role Models

18. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to provide positive models of the role of women in society. [60691]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Meg Munn): We have used positive role models very effectively, notably in science, engineering and technology. I recently spoke at the UK Resource Centre annual conference, which unveiled portraits of six inspirational women in science, engineering and technology, creating a legacy for future generations.
 
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The centre has also launched the GetSET Women database, providing access to thousands of female role models and mentors.

Tony Lloyd: I welcome my hon. Friend's positive comments. Does she agree that a necessary part of providing positive roles for women is getting rid of the negative images of women, especially those portraying women as willing or at least acquiescent victims of domestic violence, violence and rape? Will she make it clear that our Government will have no truck with those who suggest reduced sentences for the perpetrators of violence against women, particularly rape?

Meg Munn: The Government are playing an active role in tackling all aspects of violence against women. The information about sentencing was leaked. The guidelines for sentencing have not been issued. They will be produced later this year by an independent body and the Government will respond. The Government take rape extremely seriously. We will do all we can to combat this heinous crime and to ensure appropriate sentences for those who commit it.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am sure the Minister will join me in congratulating the positive women role models in sport, such as Olympic medallist Shelley Rudman, our 56 women Commonwealth medallists from the home nations so far, and the five courageous competitors in "The Games" who are women, including my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). Is the Minister concerned that awards worth £3.8 million are made to elite male athletes—over 50 per cent. more than the £2.3 million in awards to women athletes? That entrenches the existing male bias in sporting role models.

Meg Munn: I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position. I am not sure whether the Liberal Democrats are appointing anyone to deal with women's issues—

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD) indicated assent.

Meg Munn: Perhaps we will find out later who that is. The Chancellor announced yet more money yesterday for investment in sport and to encourage everyone to get involved in it. On role models in sport, some of our best athletes at the last Olympic games were women—Dame Kelly Holmes, for example. We will continue to ensure that women get the opportunities that they need to do well in international athletics.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, in all that they do, every woman Member of Parliament can be a positive role model for women? As eight women from the Gateshead young women's project are observing our proceedings here today, does my hon. Friend agree that women Members in their places today are indeed acting as a positive role model for women generally?

Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for her question and I agree that every woman in the House should be a
 
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role model for women generally, particularly for younger women. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend's constituents are here to observe us today. It is enormously important to encourage more women to get involved in politics, so it is crucial that they have every opportunity to come here and are not prevented from doing so by old-fashioned practices that work against them.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Is it not the height of hypocrisy for the Government to encourage others to provide a positive role model for women in society when its own splendid Minister for Women and Equality is the only Minister not to receive a ministerial salary?

Meg Munn: The hon. Lady is incorrect, as five Ministers do not receive salaries. I am not responsible for ministerial pay, but I wish that I had a pound for every time that I have been asked that question.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I agree with everything that the Minister has said so far, but does she agree that the lack of role models is not the main problem for women in our country today? There have been many role models in this place—Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams and, the greatest of all, Margaret Thatcher—but that is not the key problem. What are the Government going to do about breaking down the barriers that prevent women from following their role models, whether it be in business, science, teaching or other professions? The Chancellor was vague about that matter yesterday.

Meg Munn: Committing millions of pounds to help women back into employment—and to woman returners, generally—is not what I would call vague. The hon. Lady will be aware that the women and work commission recently reported and recommended a range of measures to tackle the pay gap and to ensure that women get through the glass ceilings—or off the sticky floors, as we say—and overcome the barriers. The Government are considering all the recommendations carefully and will respond in due course.


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