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Post Office

13. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): When he expects to complete his review of the future of the Post Office. [108596]

The Deputy Prime Minister: The House is aware that that is a complex and sensitive issue. I have chaired a Cabinet Committee a number of times to discuss the future of the post office network. The Government will make an announcement very shortly.

Joan Walley: I welcome my right hon. Friend’s work on the cross-departmental ministerial Committee on the post office network. What value does he place on the social and community aspects of the work of post offices in both rural and urban areas across the country?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I recognise that my hon. Friend has made clear in an early-day motion the importance of post offices providing social access for people in rural and urban communities. That is the major consideration in the Cabinet Committee that I chair. I can assure her that the decline occurred under both Administrations—about 50 per cent. of the decline took place under the previous Administration—and there is a real problem achieving a proper balance between cost and social access to those facilities. We will take that into account, and it will be included in the consultation document that we will shortly announce to the House.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): In the Deputy Prime Minister’s co-ordinating role, can he say what action he took when four separate Government Departments announced their intention to take business from the Post Office, leading to closures? Did he do nothing, or did he intervene but was overruled by his colleagues?

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The Deputy Prime Minister: I think the hon. Gentleman knows that when those decisions were taken, I was a member of the Government but did not have responsibility in the Cabinet Committee for that. I was given that responsibility when I was given my present job. I can tell him that the matter causes real concern. All Governments have examined the expenses of Departments and asked them to get value for money. However, under this Government we have spent about £2 billion supporting the post office network, whereas nothing was put in by the previous Administration, so we will take no lectures from the Opposition about that, and as for the Liberals, they are never in power to make any decisions anyway.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman recall telling the Labour conference in 1999 that he would protect post offices against closures? Is it not the case that since then the Government have taken away the traditional business of post offices and that the fastest rate of closures has been in the past two years? Since it is his responsibility to co-ordinate Government policy on this, is the devastation of our post office network the intended result of a brilliant piece of co-ordination or the unintended result of a staggering piece of incompetence?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Always clever with words, but the facts never measure up. Nearly 50 per cent. of post office closures took place under the Government of whom he was a member. He gave no money or financial support to the post offices; we have given nearly £2 billion. We established the Post Office card account, which everybody agrees was a good step forward. Our actions in government have shown our support for the maintenance of a post office service, which has to be sustainable and to have public support. I note that neither the right hon. Gentleman nor the Leader of the Opposition offer any guarantee of giving subsidies to a future network if they were to get control in here.

Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend seen the report published recently by the Communication Workers Union into the future of the post office network? During the course of his review, will he meet representatives of that union to ensure that post offices continue to be a valued part of our community?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, we have had discussions with several stakeholders about our responsibility for the post office network and their concerns about it. We will shortly publish a consultative document. When that is announced to the House, the debate can start on the Government’s proposals on the Post Office and the maintenance of its network.


14. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): What cross-departmental discussions he has initiated on pensions policy. [108597]

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The Deputy Prime Minister rose—

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: In view of—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have called Question 14 and the Deputy Prime Minister will answer.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thought that the game was that I was to give an answer and the right hon. Gentleman was to respond—he has been here long enough to know that.

The House will be aware of the Government’s commitment to developing an affordable, just and sustainable pensions system. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister chairs the Cabinet Committee on welfare reform, where decisions on pensions policy are taken. I continue to play an active part in those discussions. The Government’s Pensions Bill, which was presented to the House on 29 November, makes a landmark settlement for future generations. It will link the basic state pension to earnings—a link that was broken by the Opposition—and make the system fairer to women and carers. The pensions personal accounts White Paper was laid before the House yesterday. It sets out in more detail our proposals for a new, low-cost way for ordinary working people to save for retirement. I am proud to be part of a Government who are bringing forward these plans for the long-term benefit of ordinary people, and I commend them to the House.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: In view of the Deputy Prime Minister’s active interest in this, and in view of his own imminent retirement, will he, as his last act, put right that crime against pensioners—the £5 billion annual raid on pension funds carried out by the Chancellor since 1997—or is he content to retire himself on a secure pension having undermined the savings and pensions of the rest of the country?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I will take no lectures from the right hon. Gentleman, who was a member of a Government who drove 2.5 million pensioners into poverty, whereas we have lifted them out of it, who changed the pension rules allowing them to tax surpluses on pension funds—that was first done by Geoffrey Howe—and who allowed pension holidays. They created the problems in pensions, and we are now correcting them.


15. Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): Whether he discussed the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade on his recent visit to the UN in New York; and if he will make a statement. [108598]

The Deputy Prime Minister: May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend for the close interest and support that she has expressed for next year’s commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade? As she is aware, the Government have been working to co-ordinate activities across a wide range of groups in the UK and with our international partners. As part of that effort to ensure international co-operation, I recently met a number of senior figures at the UN in New York. Along with a range of other issues, I discussed the
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bicentenary with the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and with the permanent representatives of several Caribbean countries and of some Asian countries whose people suffer from the modern form of slavery that is people trafficking.

Ms Butler: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Will he make it clear to the House when a statement will be made on the programme of events taking place in 2007, how organisations and individuals can contribute and get involved, and whether he supports a Government-funded annual remembrance day?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We are actively co-ordinating that, and I hope that the Prime Minister will make a statement in January about the nature of national and international activities to commemorate the 25 March—a resolution was passed by the House. The UN passed a resolution a few weeks ago saying that 25 March should be commemorated and celebrated throughout the year. The House will recognise, however, that 23 August is the UNESCO international day for the remembrance of the slave trade and its abolition. We will mark both those dates during the 2007 commemorations.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [108579] Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 13 December.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of the Royal Marine from 42 Commando who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. Again, we in the House pay tribute to the bravery, professionalism and commitment of our armed forces.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Beith: I am sure that the whole House will want to support the Prime Minister in his comments about our lost serviceman.

Is the Prime Minister aware that most of the strategic A1 road in north Northumberland remains the single carriageway that it was when he went from Durham to school in Edinburgh? Does he blame that on bad decision making, which has led to nearly £500,000 being spent on schemes that have been dropped from the road programme, or on the fact that he has never given the north-east anything like the Barnett formula, which has enabled Scotland to spend more money on transport, public transport and other services?

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The Prime Minister: There are a number of political minefields that I could step on in answering that question. We have, of course, invested a great deal more money in road building. I not only know about the A1 but recall many occasions on which I drove on it and wished for precisely the upgrade to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. We must make sure, however, that our transport budget is spent according to our overall means. Although we have increased the budget substantially, we have not been able to find the money for that upgrade yet. I know that he would want to pay tribute to the work that has happened in the north-east over the past few years, which has seen the strongest economy in the north-east for probably the past 100 years, massive investment in education and health and the lowest unemployment there for the whole time that I have been an MP, and probably for the whole time that he has been an MP.

Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to express horror at the events and sympathy with the family and friends of the five young women who have disappeared from in and around Ipswich and probably have been murdered. Will he express confidence in the Suffolk police, the other east of England police services, their ability to work together and the resources available to them in order to bring this vile murderer to justice as quickly as possible?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has said. We support the police fully in dealing with the horror of the situation and with the entirely understandable fear in the community. I am sure that the whole House will want to send sympathy to the people of Ipswich, to the people of the county of Suffolk, and particularly to the family and friends of the victims. I assure my hon. Friend that we will do everything that we can to support the police in the difficult and challenging work that they do, and I have every confidence that they will perform their task well.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I agree very much with what the Prime Minister said about Ipswich. We all want this monster to be caught and locked up. May I join the Prime Minister in sending our condolences to the Royal Marine who died in Afghanistan?

The Defence Secretary told the House of Commons that changes in allowances for troops would

Will the Prime Minister confirm that Government briefing now shows that that is not true?

The Prime Minister: Let me explain what is happening in relation to the allowances. I apologise at the outset because some of it is complicated, and this is as I understand it.

At the present time— [Interruption.] I am trying to give the explanation, if the House would be kind enough to listen. At the moment, for the Navy and Royal Marines, two different allowances have been amalgamated. One of those allowances—the longer service at sea bonus—is then split into two different types of payment. When all of it is amalgamated into
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one allowance, which is going to be called the longer separation allowance, the amount of credits under that particular part of the longer service at sea bonus will be deemed to be at roughly 60 per cent. That will mean that within that bonus there are those people who have accrued more than 60 per cent. who may receive less than they otherwise would. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Will the House listen? However, that is more than compensated for by the fact that the new allowance is going to be paid at a bigger higher rate—£25 rather than £12.80—and all personnel will be credited with an extra 100 days as the deemed separation.

As a result of that, so I am informed, the letter that the Second Sea Lord sent to the Navy and Marines is correct—people will not lose under that benefit. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but this is the explanation. [Interruption.] I spent a long time this morning trying to get to grips with this.

In relation to the other allowance, the accumulated turbulence allowance, I am told that at present it kicks in when 280 days are served. That is now going to be amalgamated so that there is the one longer separation allowance. I am told that it is possible that some of those who are getting that allowance at present may receive less than they otherwise thought they would. However, the majority of them will receive more under the longer separation allowance. Quite apart from all of that, however, the new operational allowance—tax free at £2,200 a year—means that overall no one loses money and everyone gains money.

Mr. Cameron: I am very grateful for that answer. This is complicated and I think that the Prime Minister has shown that when his current career is over, a relaunch of “Yes, Minister”, with himself as Sir Humphrey, would be very effective.

At the heart of this is a simple question: are Ministers reflecting the briefing that they are given? I have the Ministry of Defence briefing. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes. Officials now are so concerned about inaccurate answers that they have started giving the briefing to us as well. The briefing, which says “Restricted policy”, states:

It also says very clearly:

Given that there are going to be potential losers, why did the Defence Secretary effectively give an inaccurate answer? Will the Prime Minister get him to come here and apologise for doing so?

The Prime Minister: If one looks at what is happening as a result of the explanation—which I shall not repeat, the House will be delighted to know—it is not the case that, in relation to the allowances paid to Royal Marines and the Navy, people are losing out. On the contrary, they are gaining. Indeed, in some cases they will gain significantly. That is why the Defence Secretary, when he agreed with the letter that the Second Sea Lord sent to the Navy and Marines, was absolutely accurate. The point in relation to the other allowance—the accumulated turbulence allowance—which arose, I think, in the newspapers this morning in
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respect of the Grenadiers, is not that they receive less money— [Interruption.] No. It is that the money that they were going to receive under the current allowance may be less than they thought they were going to get. However, many of those will in fact get more. In any event, the charge that has been made by the shadow Defence Secretary—that we are effectively giving the operational tax allowance of £2,200 with one hand and taking it away with the other—is completely wrong. In actual fact, we have worked it out that £60 million additional in total is being paid under the allowance system.

Mr. Cameron: But the lieutenant-colonel in the Grenadier Guards said:

The point is simple. The Secretary of State for Defence was briefed to say one thing, and said something else. Why not apologise? Why do this Government find it so impossible to apologise?

Let me turn to another front-line service that the Government are letting down. Today the Labour-dominated Health Committee said that many of the problems in the NHS were caused by “poor central management”. Who is responsible for that poor central management?

The Prime Minister: Of course anything managed from the centre is the responsibility of Government, but let us look at the situation in the health service today. As well as the Health Committee report—which actually, on balance, points to improvements in our health care system—we have seen the publication of the latest results showing the amount of work done in our health service. They show, for example, that for the first time ever the average waiting time for out-patient appointments is less than four weeks, and that there have been dramatic falls in both waiting lists and waiting times across the board.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister stands there week after week saying that local cuts are the fault of local health staff. This report shows that they are due to poor central management. The Health Committee report says that

It also says

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