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Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): In the debate on Iraq announced by the Leader of the House, will he ensure that Ministers come to the House prepared to answer for the advice given to them by Iraqi exiles and expatriates in the run-up to the war in
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Iraq that informed their policy of the “de-Ba’athification” of junior officials, which led to our failure to establish a credible police force and army, and to the shambles in Iraq?

Mr. Straw: No doubt, that issue will be raised. I was party to those decisions, and the situation was much more complicated than the hon. Gentleman implied. The pressure for “de-Ba’athification” came not from Washington but from the Shi’a and the Kurds, who suffered for a long time under members of the Ba’ath party.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): May I echo the call made by the shadow Leader of the House for an early debate on the NHS, as 21,000 posts may be at risk and 900 jobs subject to compulsory redundancy? At the same time, we could have a discussion about the 160,000 workers who were made redundant during 18 years of Tory misrule.

Mr. Straw: We are always happy to debate the health service. There is not a single constituency in the United Kingdom that has not benefited hugely from the additional investment that we have made in the health service over the past 10 years, nor a constituency where the number of health workers of all grades has failed to increase.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): I welcome the news that we can discuss the future of Iraq next month but, given that it was the Prime Minister who led us to war, and given his apparent willingness to discuss the issue with everyone else, including US politicians, will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend to come to the House and lead that debate? If he will not do so, will he explain why not?

Mr. Straw: Normally, debates on foreign policy are led by the Foreign Secretary, and that is the plan. I think that that is entirely appropriate, and it was the arrangement when I was Foreign Secretary. The Prime Minister is not slow to come forward and make statements, and he has a very good record on doing so. If we wish to make a comparison of Heads of Government, British Prime Ministers, whatever their party, are subject to far more routine and intensive scrutiny by Parliament than almost any other Head of Government.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Last month, I raised with the Leader of the House my concerns about the decision by the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, to distribute its products via a single source—namely, UniChem. It appears that AstraZeneca and other pharmaceutical manufacturers are set to follow suit. Pharmacists not only in my constituency but throughout the UK have expressed concern about that, so may we have an urgent debate or ministerial statement to reassure our constituents that those monopolistic deals will not have a detrimental effect on patient care?

Mr. Straw: We will certainly consider that proposal. I believe that my hon. Friend has sought a debate in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment, and I will refer his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. Meanwhile, he may wish to consider making representations to the Office of Fair Trading.

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Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As it is Christmas, may I ask the Leader of the House for a rerun next week of yesterday’s child maintenance statement? He and I are used to Liberal Democrats saying one thing to one voter and something else to another, but it is unusual that their spokesmen say the opposite things in Parliament. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) said that the name and shame policy

In another place, Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman asked for debate, and the Leader of the House will reply.

Mr. Straw: I would be delighted to lay on a debate about the inconsistencies of the Liberal Democrats, who say one thing and do another. I have a long list of examples, as they have done so in different streets in the same town.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I renew my suggestion that we have a debate on passport policy? Last week, I reminded the Leader of the House that, as from 2009, all applicants for new passports, including renewals, must present themselves for a personal interview, which would mean 6.5 million interviews in 69 offices. He said that he would raise the matter with the Home Secretary, and an early debate would enable his right hon. Friend to tell the House that he will adjust the proposals thoroughly and change them.

Mr. Straw: I have indeed raised the matter with the Home Secretary. I drew his attention in detail to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, as I always do when such points are made in the House. Let us wait to see what my right hon. Friend says before deciding whether the situation is as bad as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): As the Leader of the House knows, this afternoon the House will debate fisheries on the Adjournment. The debate follows the important EU-Norway negotiations on fisheries in the North sea. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider rescheduling the debate in future years so that it takes place before such important negotiations and hon. Members can make their recommendations to the Minister and the Minister can share with them the advice that he gives to the Commission in the negotiations?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We will certainly consider it.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have a debate on the Floor of the House on the continuing crisis in Burma, given that Burma Campaign UK will next week publish its annual dirty list of companies that, by trading with or investing in Burma, are propping up the brutal military dictatorship there, and that Britain is the second largest investor? Would not such a debate be a magnificent Christmas present to human rights campaigners in and for Burma, by allowing the Government to announce the imposition of a unilateral investment ban?

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Mr. Straw: I am very happy if the hon. Gentleman is able to obtain a debate on Burma. It is an important issue, which requires international co-operation. However, I refute the suggestion that we are less active on the matter than other countries, when within the European Union, to my certain knowledge, we have been more active than almost any other country.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May we have a debate on early-day motion 361 on the replacement of Trident, tabled by the shadow Defence team in terms very similar indeed to the robust terms of the Prime Minister’s statement?

[That this House believes that the United Kingdom should continue to possess a strategic nuclear deterrent as long as other countries have nuclear weapons; and accordingly endorses the principle of preparing to replace the Trident system with a successor generation of the nuclear deterrent.]

If the answer is that we can await the debate and vote in three months’ time, will the Leader of the House at least confirm that he and his hon. Friends will sign the early-day motion, as it is so close to his own Prime Minister’s policy?

Mr. Straw: Happily, I have been spared any requirement to sign early-day motions since I entered the shadow Cabinet in 1987. We have already said that there will be a debate on Trident and it will be on a substantive motion. It will be in early March, I think. We are not signing the early-day motion—

Dr. Lewis: Why not?

Mr. Straw: Because we do not sign early-day motions. The hon. Gentleman knows that very well. As they are all directed at the Government, it would be eccentric if we signed them. Anyway, I am glad to have been spared the requirement. The hon. Gentleman knows what our position is.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): As British dairy farms go bust every week, as family members on those that remain are being paid less then the minimum wage, and as we have an annual fisheries debate today, will the Leader of the House consider instituting an annual agriculture debate?

Mr. Straw: I will certainly consider it. The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Modernisation Committee is considering the use of non-legislative time by the House and in the House. The current arrangements are slightly eccentric, because there are some scheduled debates on issues on which I am not sure the House, on reflection, would want scheduled debates or so many of them, and there other crucial issues on which there are no scheduled debates. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to submit evidence to the Modernisation Committee, we will be pleased to hear from him.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time about why hundreds of thousands of our own citizens do not understand English? If we are spending £100 million a year on publication translation services, how on earth will we build an integrated nation?

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Mr. Straw: We do not need a debate on that. It is part of our history. Because of the Commonwealth, arrangements were made whereby Commonwealth citizens who were settled in the UK could become citizens after five years of settlement. There was no language qualification until we as a Government introduced such qualifications in 2001. Although language qualifications have been in place since then, many people who became citizens before that date have not acquired language skills. On this one, the hon. Gentleman needs to examine the beam in the eye of the Conservative party, rather than the mote in our eye.

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Post Office Network

12.24 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Post Office. I am today publishing the Government’s proposals in a consultation document, copies of which will be available in the Vote Office in the usual way.

First, let me set out the background to the proposals that we make. There are 14,300 post offices in the UK, of which 480 are Crown post offices owned by the Post Office and 13,820 post offices are operated by postmasters and mistresses as private businesses. Historically, branches have been located where the sub-postmaster has chosen to set up business, rather than as a result of a strategic decision by the Post Office. The result is that in some places many branches are competing for the same customers, which is why the Post Office will take a more active role in ensuring that the right post office is in the right place—something the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters supports.

But the big problem is that people are simply not using post offices as they once did. Some 4 million fewer people are using post offices each week, compared with just two years ago. [Interruption.] The market in which the post office network operates has changed beyond recognition in the past 10 to 15 years. Traditionally, the post office was the place— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The best advice I can give the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) is to let the Secretary of State make his statement and let a rebuttal go from the Opposition Benches. We will then take questions. There is no point interrupting a Minister while he is making a statement.

Mr. Darling: Traditionally, the post office was the place where people went to post a letter, to pay their utility bills and to collect their benefits. Many still do, but increasingly people choose to send an e-mail or text, they pay bills by direct debit or internet banking, and they pay for their tax disc online and have pensions or benefits paid into their bank accounts. Of the 11 million pensioners in this country, 8.5 million have their pensions paid into a bank account. In fact, most people making a new state pension claim choose to do so in this way.

Inevitably, that has taken its toll on the Post Office. Last year the Post Office lost £2 million a week. This year the figure is £4 million. It is not surprising that both the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and the Select Committee on Trade and Industry have recognised that the present situation is, to use their word, “unsustainable”. So change is needed. Of the 14,300 businesses, only about 4,000 are commercially viable. Many never can be, nor should we, realistically, expect them to be.

The post office has a vital social and economic role. That is why we will continue to support a national network of post offices, and we are able to back them with the money that they need. The Government have invested more than £2 billion since 1999 to support the network. That has included £500 million for the
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Horizon programme, which provided computerised banking to all post office branches. I can tell the House that the Government will provide up to £1.7 billion until 2011 to support the Post Office, to support the network and to pay for restructuring to provide a firm basis for the future. The annual subsidy will remain in place.

Let me now turn to my proposals. We propose to introduce new access criteria for the postal services to ensure a national network. The access criteria will include provisions to protect customers in deprived urban areas and remoter rural areas. Details of the criteria covering rural and urban areas are set out in the consultation document, but I can tell the House that nationally, 99 per cent. of the population will be within 3 miles of a post office. This will mean the restructuring of the network of Crown and other post offices. The Post Office will consult widely before taking a decision on its proposals.

The Post Office will also provide services in different and more imaginative ways better to serve its customers’ needs. The way in which postal services are provided will also change. Government support will enable the Post Office to open at least 500 new Outreach locations to provide access to services for smaller and more remote communities, using mobile post offices and post offices within other locations such as in shops, village halls, community centres, or in travelling mobile vans. In some cases they will be able to deliver services directly to people’s homes. The Post Office is also determined to provide new services for its customers, particularly financial services. It is, for example, now the market leader in foreign exchange provision.

As a result of these changes, we expect that about 2,500 post office branches will close. However, the remaining network of around 12,000 will still have more branches than the entire UK banking network. After discussion with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, the Government have decided to provide compensation to those leaving the Post Office, based on a 28-month remuneration package.

The Government want to devolve greater responsibility for local decisions and to provide greater flexibility for local funding decisions. We will therefore consider what role local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might play in influencing how the postal services are best delivered in the future.

The Government intend to consult on these proposals, and the consultation will end in March. It is intended that the restructuring proposals will be implemented over an 18-month period starting in the summer of next year. The Post Office will ensure that it puts in place procedures to consult on restructuring proposals as widely as possible, providing people, including right hon. and hon. Members, with an opportunity to make representations and suggestions—in relation to outreach provision, for example.

The Government introduced the Post Office card account in 2003 to enable people to get their pensions and other benefits in cash at the post office. The Government remain committed to allowing people to get their pension or benefit in cash at the post office if they choose to do so, and a range of accounts available
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at the post office make that possible. The current Post Office card account contract ends in March 2010. I can tell the House that the Government have decided that they will continue with a new account after 2010. It will be available nationally and customers will be eligible for the account on the same basis as they are now.

European Union procurement rules leave us with no option but to tender competitively for this product, and we must ensure that best value for money for the taxpayer is achieved, but the Post Office is well placed to put in a strong bid given the size of the network and the access criteria that we are now introducing. In addition, cash will be available at the post office through some 4,000 free-to-use ATMs, which are being introduced across the network, as well as a range of interest accounts. Those will be attractive to the general public as well as those Post Office card account users who choose to build up balances on their card account.

The proposals that we make today will put the post office network on a stable footing and ensure that there is a national network across the country. I commend the statement to the House.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, initially in the weekend’s papers, then consistently through the media during the course of this week, and finally with the hard text this morning. I apologise to the House on behalf of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, who is unable to be here today because he has been overseas.

The statement is both disappointing and wrong. It will cause fear and anxiety to people, often the most vulnerable, in every part of the country. It will destroy many good businesses simply because the Government do not have a long-term vision for the future of the post office network. Does not the Secretary of State recognise that if the local post office closes, often the last shop in the village closes as well, and that a van visiting for a couple of hours a week is no replacement for a post office that is open full-time? Of course, the Government have form on this issue. About 4,000 post offices have already closed under this Government; taken with today’s statement, that means that in 10 years of Labour Government we will be losing more than one third of the post office network.

The Government’s decision on the Post Office card account is welcome. Indeed, it is what Conservative Members have been calling for since the Government announced their intention to scrap it. I am glad that the Government have yet again responded to ideas put forward by Conservative Members and changed their mind on this issue. It is important that the new Post Office card account scheme is genuinely available to existing customers and that the application process should not be unnecessarily complex. However, the Secretary of State said that the contract for the new account may not go to the Post Office. Can he tell the House how many more post offices will have to close if the Post Office does not win this vital contract?

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