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Mr. Darling: The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes, if somebody decided to close their post office with the result that the national criteria were not met—for a deprived area, in the case that she mentions—the Post Office would have to look to replace it. That is the whole point of having criteria. That was not the approach adopted last time; a slightly
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different approach was taken then. Having national criteria means that when unplanned gaps appear in the network they need to be filled so that the national criteria are met.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Following the announcement today that the Government intend to close a further 2,500 post offices in addition to the 4,000 that have already closed, does the Secretary of State understand the great concern and depth of feeling throughout the country about this catastrophic proposal? Furthermore, does he not recognise that the difficulties faced by the post office network have in large part come about as a direct result of this Government’s policies, in particular taking business away, such as in the form of TV licences, passports, driving licences and the card account? Does he not accept the relationship between cause and effect?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That was a lengthy question.

Mr. Darling: I shall make just one point. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that he should go to his constituents who are perhaps trying to renew their tax disc on line and say that they cannot do it? If he thinks for just a few minutes about what he has been saying, he will realise that there is nonsense in it.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): This remains a bitter pill for some of us to swallow, in particular the potential conflation of the rural subsidy into the social network—but may I urge my right hon. Friend to support the Sustainable Communities Bill? It is good to see the Government taking this private Member’s measure through. Does my right hon. Friend now see the benefits of getting the Post Office to engage with local communities to see whether there are social answers to running these services, rather than pretending that the Post Office has all the answers?

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend on that point. It is important that the Post Office should speak to councils and others so as to collaborate wherever possible. The object is to ensure that as many people as possible come in through the front door of post offices, because that is their best guarantee for the future.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am grateful to Post Office Ltd for keeping the Crown post office in Macclesfield as part of its network. Having sat here throughout the whole statement, I should like to know when we shall see details of the approximately 2,500 sub-post offices that are being closed. When will the list be published? As a Conservative, may I exhort the Government to use their great influence and purchasing power to help the Post Office more, because it is such an essential public service?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support—if that is what it was. As for the timetable, from this summer the Post Office will start to publish plans for about 50 to 60 areas across the country. It is best to deal with the proposals on a manageable basis so that people can understand all the issues. I think that the process will take about 18 months, and it will start this summer.

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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): More post offices will close than new outreach services will open. In rural areas, what factors will determine which areas get an outreach service and which do not? Will they be more than just the access criteria?

Mr. Darling: The access criteria are there to ensure that there is reasonable access to post office services across the whole country. There will be areas, more likely rural than urban, where an equal or perhaps even a better service can be provided by outreach services using community halls, and in some cases delivering services directly to people’s homes. There are one or two examples of where services have been set up in pubs and seem to be working well. The object is to make post office services more flexible than they have been in the past, especially in areas where the population is spread more thinly, but equally needs access to post office services. What happens in each area will depend on the facts and circumstances of each area, so I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any specific assurances. When the Post Office publishes its proposals in respect of his area, I hope that he will look at the opportunities that there might be, and there will be ample opportunity for discussion with the Post Office to try to improve services as well as maintaining existing services.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I invite the Secretary of State to expand more fully on the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) about the new Post Office card account and its availability in island communities? Our recent experience with the removal of television licences has left hundreds of my constituents with no over-the-counter services available to them. Will the right hon. Gentleman fight the Post Office’s corner with the Department for Work and Pensions in this regard, and obtain a commitment that islands where people can currently use a Post Office card account will still have that service when the new card account is introduced?

Mr. Darling: It will be possible to use the Post Office card account, both now and with its successor, in post offices wherever they may be, whether in the Highlands and Islands or elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) referred to the BBC decision in relation to Paypoint. It is true that the Paypoint network is not as widespread as the Post Office network. That is why we want to maintain a national post office network where people can use their Post Office card accounts.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Despite the welcome announcements on broadband, Credit Union and POCA, the bleak reality is that for hundreds of rural villages the cornerstone is
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being removed in the interests of saving the public purse about one twenty-fifth of one penny for every pound that is expended. My experience of sub-post offices is that those who run them are astute and creative business people, but there is a paucity of entrepreneurial flair in the upper echelons of the Post Office regional and national management. It is like putting vegetarians in charge of a butchery chain. Is my right hon. Friend confident that the right people and right structures are in place to ensure the network into the medium term?

Mr. Darling: I am not sure that the analogy is entirely appropriate. My hon. Friend is right to say that throughout the country postmasters and post mistresses show an extraordinary amount of flair and commitment. I mentioned the new chief executive of the Post Office, who is showing admirable flair and winning new business, such as broadband, to which I referred. There is always room for improvement in any organisation, and where that improvement is necessary I hope that someone will make sure that it takes place.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Does the Secretary of State understand the gloom that will descend on small rural communities throughout the south-west as a result of this announcement? What weight will be given to the availability of public transport? Most of the small post offices under threat in my constituency are in villages where the sight of a bus is as rare as a phoenix. Will that protect them? Or is that idea simply a token gesture to the isolation of those communities?

Mr. Darling: That is precisely why we strengthened the criteria as a result of the consultations carried out.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Much has rightly been said about rural post offices in this discussion, but Hesters Way in my constituency is described by the Government as one of the most deprived urban neighbourhoods in the country. It is losing its local post office, located in a branch of McColl’s, at almost no notice within a matter of weeks. Now we are told that Cheltenham’s modern, purpose-built Crown post office is to be relocated in WH Smith. What guarantees do we have that that will not suffer the same fate?

Mr. Darling: As I said earlier, I very much hope that the arrangement with WH Smith will encourage more people to visit the post office. Judging by the pilots carried out a short while ago, that has been successful. The key to the future of the Post Office is that the more people use it, the better—and the more reasons for using it, the greater the chance for success. That is why these proposals are being made.

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Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

1.27 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I beg to move,

First Day
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses relating to the reduction of regulatory burdens, the National Partnership Scheme, and the repeal of section 99 of the Local Government Act 2003; new Clauses and amendments relating to Chapter 1 of Part 5; new Clauses and amendments relating to Part 13; new Clauses and amendments relating to Chapter 2 of Part 5; new Clauses and amendments relating to Part 8; new clauses and amendments relating to Part 1; new Clauses and amendments relating to Part 9.

The moment of interruption.

Second Day
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings

Remaining proceedings on consideration.

One hour before the moment of interruption.

We have a great deal to get through today, so I shall be brief. My reasons for moving the motion are straightforward and I hope that they will be welcomed in the interests of good debate.

The Bill before us is wide-ranging and important, and we have provided two days for the debate, today and next Tuesday. I believe that the debate in Committee was robust, but on the whole consensual. We have reflected on the constructive contributions of Committee members and brought forward many of the amendments on the basis of responding to the Committee. I have also looked at where most of the
17 May 2007 : Column 774
interest of the Committee debates lies and tried to provide time accordingly, as well as in response to the contributions of the Committee and the spread of interest across the Bill.

The motion departs from the normal order of consideration in that it allows for two days of consideration and spreads the areas of the Bill across the two days to ensure that the areas of most interest are given sufficient time for Members to contribute. The programme motion, as outlined in the five bullet points on the Order paper, amends the order that we passed on 22 January.

1.29 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): The Opposition have contributed to the Bill in a responsible, moderate and constructive manner, as befits a Conservative party that expects to be the next Government, so I have to say that I am a little disappointed that the Government’s Stalinist tendencies have been reinforced in the Bill’s return to the House.

We have just heard two statements on important issues. Many of the amendments are Government amendments so will take up an awful lot of time—and although my colleagues and I had the privilege of serving on the Bill Committee, the proceedings on Report should give all Members the opportunity to make a contribution, yet the consequence of the programme motion is, sadly, that ordinary Back Benchers who deserve to have their say—

Mr. Woolas: Where are they?

Mr. Syms: They are at lunch.

Ordinary Back Benchers will not have the opportunity to contribute and I fear that there are also elements of the selection list that we may not be able to discuss. We shall be as constructive as we can and will start by not dividing the House on the motion, as time is so valuable. However, I hope that the Government will reflect on the fact that tabling a programme motion on a day such as this can mean that issues of great public concern are not fully aired for the benefit of the House and the country.

With regret, we shall not divide the House, but I record our disappointment at the way the proceedings have started.

1.31 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I commend the Government for their helpfulness in the progress of the Bill so far, but I have a comment on their productivity. They have added 156 amendments, 56 new clauses and two new schedules—a 28 per cent. increase in the Bill’s original content—for us to discuss over a couple of days. We very much look forward to the Government quickly accepting our proposals so that we can make constructive progress to produce a better Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

17 May 2007 : Column 775

Orders of the Day

Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

[1st Allotted Day]

[Relevant document: The Eleventh Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2006-07, Legislative Scrutiny: Fourth Progress Report, HC424.]

As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

New Clause 29

Reduction of regulatory burdens

‘(1) The Secretary of State must—

(a) for the period of one year, beginning with the commencement of this Act, and

(b) for each year thereafter,

prepare a report on progress during the period to reduce the number of local improvement targets, plans and other regulatory burdens in the responsible authority’s area.

(2) A report under this section must (in particular) deal with—

(a) ring fenced grants and funding;

(b) the volume of guidance;

(c) approval processes.

(3) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament each report he prepares under this section.’.— [Andrew Stunell.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

1.33 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 30— National Partnership Scheme

‘(1) The Secretary of State shall, within one year of the coming into force of this Act, establish a body (“the Steering Group”) to draw up a National Partnership Scheme (“the Scheme”) between local government and national government, having regard to the European Charter of Local Self Government.

(2) The Steering Group shall comprise an equality of membership from central and local government, with an independent chair.

(3) The Scheme must set out recommendations about the respective powers and duties of local and central government in respect of (but not limited to) community engagement and participation, service delivery, finance and functions, and may set out such other matters as the Steering Group determines.

(4) The Scheme must include timetabled proposals for the transfer of functions and funding from central to local government where such transfer will—

(a) be efficient and convenient, or

(b) enhance local democratic accountability.’.

New clause 35— Local Government Act 2003: amendment

‘Section 99 of the Local Government Act 2003 (c. 26) (categorisation of English local authorities by reference to performance) is hereby repealed.’.

Government amendments Nos. 20 to 22.

Amendment No. 254, in clause 80, page 55, line 10, at end insert—

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