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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is always a delight to take part in pre-recess Adjournment debates, because they provide such a splendid opportunity for Back-Bench Members, in particular, to raise issues that may be particular to their constituencies, or wider issues that they do not have the opportunity to raise on other occasions. That is a valuable opportunity, and I am a little saddened that today fewer Members than usual seem able to take advantage of it. I have no doubt that the quality will outweigh the quantity.
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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm for the House, the nation and the record how many Liberal Democrats there are in the Chamber?

Mr. Heath: My colleagues are all fully engaged in Committee work at the moment, maintaining the Opposition to this rotten Government that the Conservatives seem to have abandoned over recent days. I applaud my colleagues for that. It is extremely important that we have a party of opposition in the House, not one that is always willing to collude when things get tough.

Some issues that have been raised time and time again in business questions, which take place each week on a Thursday, simply never get the benefit of a debate. I am not going to use this opportunity to raise issues from my constituency; I shall suggest matters that ought to be debated before the recess, and certainly before the next recess. No. 1 on my list was raised again in business questions today. It has been raised at every business questions for weeks, if not months. I am talking about the future of Post Office card accounts and the effect on sub-post offices. I found the Leader of the House's response today one of the most laughable that I have ever heard. He suggested that one of the reasons for having what he described as the interim Post Office card account was to allow old age pensioners to get used to using the post office.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): That is what he said.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful for the confirmation from the right hon. Lady. I have got news for the Leader of the House: pensioners do not need practice in using the post office; they have used it throughout their adult life, and possibly in their childhood as well. They value the post office as something precious in their community. That was why they were so desperately keen to ensure that the Post Office card account was put in place: it enabled them to take cash out at their local sub-post office, which was to their benefit because of the way in which they prefer to do their business and budget, and was also to the benefit of the local post office, in making sure that it was a viable concern.

Mrs. May: Perhaps I could come to the assistance of the Leader of the House at this point, and suggest that there was one aspect of what he said that might have had an element of truth. Many pensioners in my constituency are having to get used to using a different post office because their local post offices—such as those in Ross road and Woodlands park in Maidenhead—have been closed under this Government.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady and I note how cunningly she inserted a reference to her constituency in that intervention—but the same story applies in every constituency and, frankly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you ain't seen nothing yet. If we see the demise of the Post Office card account, we see the demise of small sub-post offices across the country, whether they are in rural or urban areas. That is something that we in the House fought to ensure did not happen. Promises were made at the Dispatch Box by everybody from the
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Prime Minister down that arrangements would be put in place to ensure the safety of the post office network. The Post Office card account was an integral part of that. I maintain that there was never any suggestion that it was a temporary or interim measure when it was introduced. It was there as a safeguard for the future of the post office network.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for talking about this matter, because we have all been subjected to massive closures. In the largest town in my constituency, we went from five post offices down to one, in Belper. That was done under the urban regeneration programme, or something like that.

David Taylor: Reinvention.

Mr. McLoughlin: Well, it is another new Labour word. Can the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) tell me when he first heard that the Post Office card account was only a temporary measure?

Mr. Heath: I recall that I heard it from the Leader of the House at business questions when it emerged as a way of getting him off the hook when hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber were asking him why Post Office card accounts were suddenly being closed, and why the Department for Work and Pensions clearly had not the slightest interest in maintaining the post office network, despite all the promises that were given. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) revealed last week that letters had been written to pensioners to warn them that if they went to the post office and took cash out, they were likely to be mugged on their way home—that is a great help to the post office network. That is the sort of nonsense that we have had to face throughout the sad and sorry decline of the network, because of the Government's abandonment of the promises that they purported to give about its protection.

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House how much the Conservatives invested in the post office network during their 18 years in government, and will he tell us how much this Government have invested—for example, to continue the rural post office network?

Mr. Heath: I have not the slightest idea how much the Conservative Government invested in the post office network. There were closures of post offices under that Government, as there have been closures since, but the latest development is the unkindest cut of all, because it will mean that the postmasters and postmistresses who foolishly took this Government at their word when they said that they intended to maintain the post office network will see that that was a con. The fact that the Government are reneging on their promises will be disastrous for our post office network, and I feel sorry for the people who invested their life savings in trying to maintain a viable business, but are now having the rug pulled from under them.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: I am taking a lot of interventions, which means that we are extending the length of the debate—although perhaps that may be a good thing today.
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Bob Spink: I can put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest, because I was going to raise this issue but now I will not, because he is covering the points in an excellent, admirable and eloquent manner. Does he realise that there were 19,000 post offices when the Conservatives left power in 1997, but that many of them have been shut down by the Labour Government? That is hurting the most vulnerable people in our society, damaging our high streets and changing the fabric of our community, which is deplorable.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman's last point was absolutely accurate. He knows that I share his view, because I have been arguing about the matter for several years. Labour Members sometimes experience self-delusion. They believe their rhetoric and think that the Government are performing better on some areas than the previous Conservative Government, although they are not. I was no supporter of the Conservative Government—I thought they were disastrous.

The problem hugely affects vulnerable people. I referred to housing during business questions, and that is a similar such problem. Some 1.5 million people are waiting for a council house—500,000 more than under the Conservatives. The number of homeless people has doubled and the Government are building half as much affordable social housing as the Conservatives did in their last year in government. That does not sound to me like a Labour Government—it certainly does not sound like a socialist Government.

David Taylor rose—

Mr. Heath: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has something to say about that.

David Taylor: I was never one for inhaling Millbank press releases in my time as a candidate. Nevertheless, it has to be said that during the 18 years of the Conservative Government, for all sorts of reasons—I do not necessarily go by the simplistic cliché of holding the Government of the day responsible for everything that happens—the number of post offices went down from about 24,000 to about 18,000. There was a 25 per cent. reduction in those 18 years, and the Conservatives cannot walk away from that.

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