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Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): Is the Leader of the House aware of the increasing concern in the construction industry—in my constituency and elsewhere—about the Department of Trade and Industry’s continued delay on late payments? The House was promised an answer, and proposals, in September, then
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December, then January and then March. I now have a written answer, which says, “Well we haven’t got a date, but we’ll have a second consultation on the previous consultation.” Does the Leader of the House agree that the construction industry deserves far better? Will he undertake to speak directly to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—preferably before that title and office are abolished by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown)?

Mr. Straw: There is a big, continuing problem, which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry— [Interruption.] Here he is, bearing good news as ever. The matter is not directly the Government’s responsibility but, of course, we will follow it up.

May I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and other members of the Parliament Choir on being in great voice at yesterday’s performance of Mozart’s “Requiem”, and say how well he delivered the bouquet to one of the fine singers at the front?

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the system whereby pubs are tied to a specific company or brewer? Under the tied system, Marston’s is stopping pubs in my constituency selling a locally brewed beer, Cameron’s Strongarm, which happens to be the best beer in the world. The tied system restricts choice for consumers and limits access to markets. Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate that feudal system?

Mr. Straw: I should be delighted to do so, but my hon. Friend is wrong about the best beer, which is, unquestionably, Thwaites, brewed in Blackburn. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has heard the question and will follow it up.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Will the Leader of the House reconsider the request of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on policing priorities? The right hon. Gentleman told the House that there is no requirement for the police to arrest for trivial offences, and he is right about that, but does he none the less accept that there is pressure on them to do so because of targets that the Government impose? As perhaps a future—certainly a former—Home Secretary, the Leader of the House knows that the police do their job only with the public’s consent. Does he accept that that consent may be damaged by the perception that I have described? That is why we need a debate.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is out of touch with the public’s feelings about so-called trivial offences, which might explain Conservative Members’ reluctance to back the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and their pouring scorn on antisocial behaviour orders. All the evidence—from the United States, here and other countries—shows that so-called low-level crime must be nipped in the bud. What might be trivial to the hon. Gentleman, living away from estates, can be serious for the people who suffer from those crimes. Police officers make the judgments and, far from their making decisions without the public’s consent, pressure from the public to deal with low-level disorder is typically
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the reason nowadays why the police, properly, arrest people. The offences might seem “trivial” to an out-of-touch Conservative Member of Parliament, but they are important to those who have to live with that stuff.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on finding time for a debate on Darfur when we come back after the Whitsun recess. Sadly, in all the months that it has taken to arrange to hold the debate, the position has got worse. I hope that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development can give some positive news on what the British Government are doing to try to bring about an effective peace settlement, given that the existing one is not worth the paper it was written on.

Mr. Straw: I express my appreciation to my hon. Friend for all his work on Darfur and the expertise that he has developed through several visits to that benighted area of the Sudan. I visited in August 2004 and again when I attended the negotiations in Abuja in January 2006, and it was bad then but there was hope for improvements. Sadly, they have not happened. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development will make a full report to the House when the debate is held.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Defence to give some thought to the media handling of individual service deployments? It is surely wrong that the deployment of any young serviceman or woman to Iraq should become a matter of public debate. If one thing emerges from the sorry events of recent months, it should be that they never happen again.

Mr. Straw: Of course, I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns; they probably enjoy the approbation of all hon. Members.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): May we have an early debate on relations with Russia? Many hon. Members, and the Leader of the House, will have seen the front page of The Guardian, which reports Russia’s declaration of cyber war on an EU member state. That country has already declared economic war by not allowing trade in food products with EU member states. Energy wars have been talked about—perhaps even polonium wars, with the as yet unresolved problem of the death of Mr. Litvinenko here. I have a letter from the Duma that was sent to all hon. Members who serve on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which meets in 10 days. Frankly, its language of hostility to the western democracies takes us back to 1939 and 1940. I want good relations with Russia; we want open trade with Russia—my right hon. Friend worked hard as Foreign Secretary for such good relations—but something bad and sad is happening. We need to discuss it and send a clear message that good relations with Russia must be two-way.

Mr. Straw: I accept entirely the comments of my right hon. Friend, who as Minister for Europe worked
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hard for good relations with Russia. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), there will be a debate in Government time on the European Council at the end of June and I hope that will be a good time to raise those concerns.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Last week, my father passed on. For many years, he was a distinguished public servant who frowned upon politics. A few years ago, he displayed early signs of Alzheimer’s and was given a drug that reversed—well, certainly halted—the condition. He had no problems in his last few years. I understand that the drug has, unfortunately, been withdrawn and is not available to people showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. Will the Government reconsider the matter?

Mr. Straw: First, I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I express my condolences to the hon. Gentleman. Secondly, we are all aware of the difficult issues associated with whether new or experimental drugs should be made generally available within the health service. My understanding is that patients who have already been prescribed this drug will continue to receive it. I do not know of any system better than the establishment of an independent clinical body, whose acronym is NICE, to make these judgments, removing them from politicians who are inappropriate to make them. Such judgments are now made on clinical grounds. They are very difficult to make and I accept that in some cases they can cause distress, but they have to be made to ensure that the drugs available to patients in the national health service—and, indeed, elsewhere—are efficacious.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I will raise a pint of Thwaites to the Leader of the House to mark his great success in the leadership election campaign, but he should clarify who now really speaks for this country. Prime Minister A will go to Germany to discuss the EU constitutional treaty, which will be handed as a fait accompli to Prime Minister B, who, we understand, might not hold the same views on European matters as Prime Minister A. Perhaps the best way to resolve the problem would be for Prime Minister B to announce that the British people will be given a referendum, as Prime Minister A promised in the first place.

Mr. Straw: The whole Cabinet promised a referendum and I was pleased to make that promise myself when the appropriate moment came—Easter 2004, I recall. The proposition is not yet clear, however, and the Government will have to take a decision on it as a whole. I reassure the hon. Gentleman, who is a constituency neighbour and has some good opinions on some things— [Interruption.]

Mr. Evans: Thwaites beer.

Mr. Straw: And Blackburn Rovers, so that makes two. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that once we know what the proposition is, the House will be consulted—and that, meanwhile, the Government remain as seamless as ever!

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Post Office Review

12.22 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Post Office. Last December, I published the Government’s proposals on the future of the post office network. We then consulted and received more than 2,500 responses. I am today publishing the Government’s final proposals and can now set out how we intend to proceed. Copies of the Government’s response to the consultation and our response to the Trade and Industry Select Committee’s report are available in the Vote Office.

Post offices play an important social and economic role in the communities they serve and the Government are determined to maintain a national post office network, allowing people to have reasonable access across the whole country. New technology, changing lifestyles and wider choice of ways of getting services mean that people are using post offices less. The network’s losses are now running at almost £4 million a week—double what it was two years ago—and that will increase further unless action is taken to make the network more sustainable. As the National Federation of SubPostmasters and others have recognised, the present network is unsustainable, which is why change is needed.

Without continuing public support, a purely commercial Post Office would see fewer than 4,000 branches. That cannot be allowed to happen, which is why the Government are providing substantial financial support to maintain a national network. Although the proposals I am confirming today will see the closure of about 2,500 branches, the remaining Post Office network will still be larger than all the UK’s banks and building societies put together. We want to maintain a national network, so we are putting in place rules that will provide for reasonable access across the whole country. We will give Post Office Ltd the ability to shape the network for the future with clearly defined access criteria to ensure that the right post offices are in the right place to maximise their business. The rules governing access are set out in detail in the response we are publishing today and will guarantee reasonable access in both urban and rural areas, with additional protection for more deprived urban areas and some of the more remote rural areas.

People were understandably concerned that these changes should be implemented in a sensible way. So, in addition to taking into account obvious obstacles such as rivers or motorways, the Post Office will also consider, in putting forward its proposals, the availability of public transport, alternative access to key post office services and the impact on local economies. It will have to demonstrate how those factors have been considered in each local consultation.

Most respondents welcomed the proposal to extend outreach arrangements to provide postal services to small and remote communities. The Government will therefore ensure that, building on the success of mobile post offices and postal services provided in village halls, community centres and even pubs, 500 new outreach locations will be provided. In some areas, it will be possible to deliver services to people’s homes. We also
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want to encourage community ownership. There are already some 150 thriving community-owned shops, many of which already incorporate post offices. It is clear in the comments received that there is widespread interest, so the Post Office will work with interested parties to encourage expansion. We also want the Post Office to work with credit unions to develop services further.

Key to ensuring the success of the Post Office, of course, is encouraging greater use of post offices. The Post Office will be given every opportunity to pursue Government business and the network changes will put it on a stronger footing to do so. We will encourage the Post Office to look at further scope for co-locating with other community services, including local government services. Councils will be involved in the proposed changes to the network and that should provide an opportunity to explore ways for them to play a greater role in future in deciding how best to provide post office services to the public.

In addition, the Post Office wants to expand its financial services. It is already the leading supplier of foreign currency exchange and has already increased the availability of its euro-on-demand service to 6,500 branches. It is the third largest provider of travel insurance; it insured one in 50 cars on the road last year; and one in every 25 credit cards were issued by the Post Office. The instant saver account, introduced in April last year, has 175,000 accounts with deposits totalling £1.8 billion. In addition, cash will be available through some 4,000 free-to-use ATMs being introduced at branches across the network. Paystation terminals are also now in 7,500 post offices. All those measures should encourage greater use of post offices.

The current Post Office card account contract ends in March 2010. As the House is aware, the Government have decided that a new account will succeed it after 2010. It will be available nationally and customers will be eligible for the account on the same basis as they are now. I can confirm that the Department for Work and Pensions will today invite tenders for a successor to the Post Office card account to be available nationally, and customers will be eligible for that account on the same basis as they are now. Customers using the successor product should be able to get their cash at ATMs, as well as across the counter. It is our aim that the opening of the new accounts will be streamlined and the process made simpler for customers. 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 there is a range of Post Office accounts available, including the Post Office card account, to make that possible.

The Post Office is determined to increase its range of products and business. I can tell the House today that the Post Office will be launching a broadband service later this year in partnership with BT. That will enable it to become a key player in the broadband-based services market, offering Post Office broadband services to the public.

The Government have invested £2 billion since 1999 to support the network. Subject to state aid approval, we will now provide a further £1.7 billion up to 2011, including support of up to £150 million a year for the social network. Beyond that, there will be a continued need for public funding of the social network. Where it
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makes sense, the Post Office will accommodate the wishes of those who want to leave, and the national federation has now come to an agreement over how the compensation package will be administered.

These measures are complemented by steps that the Post Office is taking to modernise the commercial network, returning Crown post offices to profitability and providing new products. As I told the House last year, of the 14,000 post offices in the UK, only the 458 Crown post offices are actually owned by the Post Office, which has to address the huge losses in this part of the network—£70 million last year alone. The network has always relied on other businesses to complement the postal business, so in order to keep open as many post offices as possible, it has entered into an agreement with WH Smith to transfer 70 Crown post offices into their shops. That will ensure that those post offices stay open.

The changes that I am outlining today will be implemented over an 18-month period from this summer. In order to manage the process, there will be around 50 to 60 area proposals based mostly on groupings of parliamentary constituencies, but the Post Office and Postwatch will be able to adopt different approaches where it would be better to do so. In developing its proposals for public consultation, the Post Office will develop plans together in consultation with Postwatch, sub-postmasters and local authorities.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be given advance notice of area proposals in line with the arrangements made in relation to the urban programme three years ago. That will be followed by each plan being subject to a six-week public consultation, providing people with an opportunity to give their views. After the consultation, Postwatch will consider the responses and the specific issues raised. There is also provision for further discussions and review by the Post Office and Postwatch before final decisions are reached. Final closure decisions will be made by Post Office Ltd.

I said last year that we wanted to give local authorities and devolved Administrations a greater say in shaping the future network. We will therefore work with them to consider how we can best make that happen. The majority of people in this country want us to maintain a national network of post offices. I believe that the proposals set out today will do that and I commend them to the House.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement. Nothing much seems to have changed since he outlined the proposals in December, and I am afraid that his statement confirms many people’s worst fears that our post office network is about to be decimated. Will he tell us how many of the 2,500 responses to his consultation actually supported his proposals?

This Government already hold the record for closing post offices faster than any other, and today’s announcement amounts to an acceleration of that rate of closure, shutting a further 2,500 branches over the next two years. By the time of the next election, this Government will have closed more than one third of the entire post office network. What is more, 2,500 is
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not even the upper limit. As the Minister confirmed last month, it is the lower limit. Will the Secretary of State confirm that 2,500 is the number of compensated closures, and that he is offering no guarantee that other post offices will not close as well, without compensation? What is his estimate of the highest number of closures that we will see by 2010?

This is a programme for compulsory closures. The design of the scheme means that even successful post offices might have to close just because of their geography. Successful sub-postmasters who have spent years building up their businesses might now be forced out by the Government. For some years, the Government have provided a subsidy to rural post offices. Today, they trumpet the continued subsidy, but it now goes to all post offices. It is therefore spread more thinly and will be far less focused on rural Britain. Is it not therefore the case that this statement signals the near-certain death of the village post office?

The Government dress the closures up as meeting their proposed access criteria. The truth, however, is that those criteria are not entirely beneficial. They are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Of course we welcome the Government’s decision to include public transport considerations, but the access criteria still protect only about one third of the network, and the Government have rejected the very idea of access criteria in the past.

The Secretary of State announced 500 new outreach locations, but will he say a little more about how they will operate? Will they be anything more than just a van available for a couple of hours a week?

It is now five months since the Secretary of State’s original statement that 2,500 post offices were to close, yet the Government have still not told us which ones are for the chop. When will the list of closures be announced? Will he ensure that they are not carried out in such a way as to set post office against post office?

What the Government should be announcing today is a policy of giving sub-postmasters greater freedom to find new business opportunities, encouraging local councils to see what services they can provide through post offices, and making the Post Office card account, which is so vital to the future of the network, a more flexible financial tool with much greater scope. Will the Secretary of State explain to the House why the Government have rejected those options—[Hon. Members: “They have not.”] Yes, they have.

What this statement really means is the closure of more than one third of the post office network under this Government, countless villages losing their only shop, and millions of vulnerable people losing a service that they depend on. Little or no account will be taken of the needs of the elderly, the disabled or the most disadvantaged, and there is too little appreciation of the dedication of our sub-postmasters, who spend years building up their businesses and serving their communities. This announcement is a counsel of despair. This statement has no vision, and it signals the decimation of a network on which so many people depend.

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