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Post Office Card Account

Q2. [61811] Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): If he will reconsider the Government's decision not to renew the Post Office card account after 2010.

The Deputy Prime Minister: This is where closed questions always catch you. [Laughter.] When you get the briefing, they say, "This one's a closed one," and you say, "Oh, yeah."
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Offering people the opportunity to access their benefits through the post office is an important objective to the Government. The Department for Work and Pensions and the Post Office are discussing how this can be achieved when the present contractual arrangements end in 2010.

Mr. Illsley: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. As he is aware, the decision by the Department for Work and Pensions not to renew the Post Office card account after 2010 has caused a great deal of concern, especially among pensioners, particularly as to the future of the sub-post office network. Will my right hon. Friend, together with his colleagues in the DWP, work with the major banks and with the Post Office to find a successor account to the Post Office card account from 2010 and get that agreed as quickly as possible, to stop the scaremongering and the fears about the future of our sub-post offices?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The House would agree that every DWP customer who currently collects their benefit from a post office will still be able to do so if they wish. There will be about 25 banks associated with the Post Office order, which can be accessed at post office branches. We hope that that number will grow in the future. I am told by the Post Office that it is developing new banking products for its customers and some of those will be available to existing Post Office card account holders. The point is sometimes made that transferring to a bank account may offer the individual a higher rate of interest than on the Post Office account, but the Government's objective is that there should be a range of alternatives to choose from.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): But is it not a fact that there are over 4 million pensioners with Post Office card accounts, and millions of those do not have bank accounts at all? Stripping them of that vital lifeline is yet another kick in the teeth for our pensioners and a certain death sentence for thousands more of our post offices. Why are the Government so intent on going ahead with such a callous act against our pensioners?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman have been expressed on both sides of the House. The contracts go on until 2010. Before then we will have to consider the full effect. Of course, many pensioners now have an awful lot more money to put into bank accounts, and more and more are changing to bank accounts, but it is a problem. If we look at the changes that are taking place and being discussed with the Post Office, perhaps we will come to a better conclusion nearer the end of the consultation. The discussions are still under way.


Q3. [61812] Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Given the Deputy Prime Minister's long-standing involvement in the local government pension scheme, and following yesterday's industrial action in local councils, what steps does he intend to take to ensure that meaningful discussions take place to resolve the dispute?
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The Deputy Prime Minister: It is an obvious regret to us all that the trade unions took yesterday's industrial action. To be honest, I did not feel that industrial action was necessary, because the negotiations could have continued. The Government's role is to act as a regulator, and the House has given me the authority to act as a regulator and make sure that the funded scheme is a viable scheme. That is my responsibility, and I intend to fulfil it. The negotiations are between employers and employees. As I have said in a statement to the House, we intend to introduce a regulation this week setting out the changes to the pension arrangements from April that will affect local government pensions. In the meantime, I appeal to all involved to return to the negotiating table. I am pleased to tell the House that those involved are meeting again at 12.30, and the Government are encouraging them to reach an agreement. Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war—I am not sure whether I have always thought that throughout my colourful life, but at this stage, I certainly do.

Q4. [61814] Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Last year, my father died of motor neurone disease, as do 100,000 people worldwide every year. The good news is that recent medical breakthroughs mean that a cure is almost in our grasp. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in endorsing the Motor Neurone Disease Association's commitment to finding that cure? And will he ask the Prime Minister to meet representatives of the association to hear their thoughts and plans on how together we can end that tragic and heartbreaking illness?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that the whole House will want to join me in sending our condolences to the hon. Gentleman on the difficulties that he is going through in his personal circumstances. I am sure that we all know about hon. Members on both sides of the House who have been afflicted by that terrible disease. Not long ago, I visited the former hon. Member for Doncaster, Kevin Hughes, who is suffering from that terrible disease. He is still going out canvassing, which is a remarkable reflection on the man, and I am sure that hon. Members will want to send our best wishes to him. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear"] I am also sure that the whole House will want to endorse the work of the Motor Neurone Disease Association. In addition, I welcome the national service framework for long-term conditions, and a £20 million research initiative is now under way to try to speed up the development of new medical treatments for that terrible disease. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will accede to the hon. Gentleman's request to meet the association and discuss the matter. We wish all the best to those who are looking at the experiments and conducting research to try to find an answer to that terrible disease.

Q5. [61815] Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Looking on the bright side, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) a moment ago, does my right hon. Friend agree that by doing its job, the House of Lords Appointments Commission has brought about the full disclosure of political loans—we have given the names, unlike the other side—a full public debate about party donations, which has been useful, and a further stage of House of
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Lords reform, which will apparently take place shortly? All that took place in a fortnight—was that not good work?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not know whether the whole contribution was supposed to be funny. My hon. Friend has made a serious point, and I am sure that the recent stories about loans to political parties have undoubtedly caused concern on both sides of the House. As he has said, there has also been a wider public debate about how political parties should be funded. On the one hand, people do not like the idea of wealthy people financing parties, but they appear to be equally strongly against state funding of political parties, which has been my position for a long time. I think that we will have to move towards a form of state financing. [Hon. Members: "No, no"] I hear hon. Members saying, "No", but the Short money is state financing, and I have not seen anybody turn it down. We should not forget that the Government have already introduced some of the reforms to make party funding more transparent, and we have asked Sir Hayden Phillips to review the issues and report by December, which is the best course of action that we can take.

Q6. [61816] Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): My constituency is part of the outer-London borough of Merton. Our schools are under severe financial pressure. Part of the reason for that is that we pay our teachers the inner-London weighting, but do not receive from the Government the same grant as inner-London boroughs. Will the Deputy Prime Minister agree to meet me to discuss that anomaly and commit today to sort out that inequity for our borough?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I assume that that was an eloquent plea for more money. The hon. Gentleman's constituency has 50 more teachers, 340 more teaching assistants and 420 more support staff than in 1997, and that costs money. I take his point about the differential between what teachers are paid in London and outside, and that also applies to firefighters and the police. It does cause difficulties and we try to deal with it. However, he is getting £1,320 more funding per pupil and that is a lot of money. It has improved education, along with more than £1 million of capital investment.

When the hon. Gentleman criticises how much money we have put in, he should take into account the principle proposed by the Leader of the Opposition on the relationship between growth and spending. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor pointed out in the Budget, that means £17 billion less in public expenditure, as agreed by the shadow, er—whatever she is. What is her title? [Hon. Members: "Chief Secretary."] Yes, shadow Chief Secretary. I see that she has moved down the Front Bench today, because she went on television and, much to her credit, admitted that the principle would mean a cut in public expenditure. The hon. Gentleman should get his Front Benchers sorted out first.

Q7. [61817] Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Many people, including the shadow Attorney-General have called for complete transparency in party funding. Has my right hon. Friend considered introducing legislation to force political parties to reveal all their sources of funding, say, prior to the last three general
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elections? That would show us exactly how much of the   £1 million donated by the Chinese heroin baron Ma Sik-Chun in 1994 was used to fund the Conservative party printing press in Reading.

The Deputy Prime Minister: It does sound like a Chinese takeaway problem. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point and no doubt he will pursue it with his usual vigour.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Would the Deputy Prime Minister agree that he was right to warn the Prime Minister that Government instability would result from saying in advance that he would go?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman must know that I did not say that at all. Even though he has difficulty understanding what I say, I clearly did not say that. I said that it might cause uncertainties, but as I said on that day, the Prime Minister will make his decision and name the day when the time is right, and the transfer will happen before the next general election. That is the Prime Minister's commitment and that is what we are saying, and that is an important point. I know of no other leader who has made such a commitment as Prime Minister. I know that that would be difficult for the right hon. Gentleman, because he was the first Tory leader never to become a Prime Minister.

Mr. Hague: Well, that was the 2001 election and at least I got through the campaign without hitting anybody. Let us look at the state of this divided Government. The former Secretary of State for Health is attacking the Budget in the Budget debate; the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning is saying that people are being taxed to the limit; allies of the Chancellor are going around saying, "Gordon is desperately unhappy"; and the Prime Minister has fled the country before the police turn up.

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked at the weekend when the Prime Minister would go and he said:

What is the timetable?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is for me to know and him to guess. [Laughter.] There is constant reference to the incident that occurred during my election campaign, but I thought that we had finished Punch and Judy politics here. I know that I will be called Mr. Punch—what does he think that that leaves him as? [Laughter.] I have to say to him that he did lose that election, and a great deal has changed since he was last on the Front Bench. What has not changed is that I am on this side in government and he is on the side of the losers. That was the result of that election, and we will continue to be successful at introducing the economic prosperity, social justice and economic stability that no other country has been able to match. I am quite proud of that. I might say to the right hon. Gentleman that he is a very good example of the fact that the election of a Labour Government means great personal prosperity—for himself.

Mr. Hague: Can the Deputy Prime Minister honestly tell the House that the Government can seriously deal
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with the problems facing the country when we have a Prime Minister who says that he will not go until the NHS is fixed and a Chancellor who will not even mention it in his Budget, a Prime Minister who wants an end to pensions means-testing and a Chancellor who is introducing more of it, and a Prime Minister who wants to reform public services and a Chancellor who is a roadblock to reform? Is it not time that the country knew who was running the Government—the man smouldering next to him or the man in the departure lounge on the other side of the world?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman must know about divisions in his own party. I am not conceding that what he said is right. His judgment is questionable, as I have already said. I can remember him 30 years ago when he was just 16—a little Rotherham lad speaking at the Tory party conference in 1977. I remember him saying what life would be like if Labour was in government in 30 years' time. He will recall that he said that. Well, to coin a phrase—"Have I got news for you?" We are here with low mortgages, low inflation, 2 million back at work, a national minimum wage, and 800,000 kids lifted out of poverty—that is what happened with a Labour Government in 30 years' time. I will tell him something—he can have that speech for free.

Q8. [61819] Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the 1.3 million people who will receive a pay rise in October and the historically high levels of employment in Falkirk and across the country show that the national minimum wage is fulfilling its function precisely?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The latest increase in the minimum wage will benefit around 1.3 million workers, 66 per cent. of them women. Of course, hon. Members will be aware of the sustained growth, with more than 2 million extra people in employment than in 1997. We continue to support those who get paid the least, despite Opposition spokesmen having told us that the minimum wage would cause mass unemployment. It did not. We got the minimum wage and high levels of employment. The Low Pay Commission shared our aim; that is why we have accepted its recommendations. I am proud that this Labour Government introduced the minimum wage—one of the founding goals of our party and the reason why we can say that economic prosperity and social justice go hand in hand. That is an important part of the policy that has been pursued by this Government.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): When the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister came to Shrewsbury in 2000 during the terrible flooding, they promised that Shrewsbury would be protected from flooding in future. So far, only a tiny area around the council offices has been protected. I have two questions: first, when will the right hon. Gentleman fulfil the pledge to Shrewsbury; and secondly, when will he return the wellington boots that he borrowed from the Environment Agency locally, because he has still got them?

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, I have not got them and I do not know what happened to them. I think that that is a little story that the hon. Gentleman picked up along the way.
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I visited Shrewsbury along with many places that had been flooded. We increased the amount of money for flood protection to £500 million. It was far less under the previous Administration. As to where and who built the defences, the Environment Agency determines the most dangerous points, for which greater protection is needed. I do not know whether the council office is one of those points. We have provided the resources and, when flooding last occurred, Shrewsbury was pretty well protected from what had happened previously. I therefore think that we have done well.

Q9. [61820] Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the proposed restructuring of health services in the Pennine acute services area, which will mean the withdrawal of
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special care baby units, maternity and children's services from the people of Rochdale, Bury, Rossendale and other parts of east Lancashire? Does he agree that that is unacceptable and that the reconfiguration should be reviewed?

The Deputy Prime Minister : I understand that the proposals for the changes in the children's services in the area are part of a wider review, about which my hon. Friend knows. That review is currently in consultation until 1 May. I am sure that his views and those of the local population will be taken into account during that process. I know from my visit to my hon. Friend's constituency how active he is on behalf of his constituents and I am sure that his voice will ring loudly in the ears of those who make the decisions.

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