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4 Mar 2008 : Column 371WH—continued

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is no longer in his
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place, raised the important issue of stock density. The directive will provide a level playing field for broiler production across the EU. Stock densities in some member states are well in excess of 39 kg per square metre. However, stock density cannot be viewed in isolation. An Oxford university study shows that husbandry and management factors are, within limits, more important than stock density.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked about planning and how it impacts on farms, and I am interested in following that up. Of course, we in DEFRA are not directly responsible for that, but if I could be furnished with further information on that, I shall take it up with my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. It seems as though there might be a blockage in the system or an attitudinal problem. He asked me to give him some encouragement before his meeting with the House authorities, and I am happy to put that on the record. I have a similar attitude towards the use of bottled mineral water. Perhaps he could raise that issue in his meeting. Thank you for allowing me that plug, Mr. Atkinson.

Let me lay out the wider policy issues. If there are specific questions that I have not covered, I hope that hon. Members will inform me of them so that I may follow them up. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has done much research for this debate on a non-partisan basis, and I should like to respond accordingly. The statutory framework under which we operate in England consists of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007. As I have said, the Government do not accept that extensive free-range farming is automatically better than intensive farming, which is not inherently cruel or unacceptable in and of itself. It is important to recognise that poor and good welfare can be provided by both intensive and extensive systems. The stockkeeper has the most significant influence on the welfare of livestock. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, who is a farmer himself, said, the most important factors are the stockkeeper’s skills, abilities and intentions, not the system in which animals are reared.

That view was reflected by the Government’s independent committee, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which produced a report last year on stockmanship. I urge hon. Members to familiarise themselves with it. It states that in any production system, the knowledge, skills, ability and attitudes of the stockkeeper are integral to the standard of welfare. Oxford university research—again, funded by DEFRA—investigating the complex relationship between the welfare of meat chickens and a range of stocking densities, concluded that husbandry, as well as management factors such as temperature and litter moisture levels, is, within limits, more important to animal welfare than density. I am not at all denying that density can be a part of the problem, but it is not the only part.

The Government spend £3.4 million a year of taxpayers’ money on research into animal welfare to try to ensure that the approach to animal welfare at home and in Europe has a sound scientific base. That money has supported a range of research, including research into the welfare of laying hens in different production systems, as we have heard. There is clear scientific evidence that conventional barren cages are detrimental to the welfare of laying hens. That is why the Government are so
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committed to banning their use across the European Union from 2012. On the other hand, the fact is that no scientific evidence available to us favours free-range systems over the other production systems that will remain legal after 2012.

Each system has its own strengths and weaknesses. Free-range systems can have the capacity to offer the hen more opportunities to display normal behaviour. However, as we have heard, there is evidence from both research and practical experience that free-range and barn systems can lead to higher mortality and increased occurrence of potentially painful fractures, and can involve a greater risk of feather-pecking, cannibalism and predation than the enriched cage system, which provides an increased space allowance, claw shortening devices, nest boxes and litter.

Both the FAWC report and a recent European Commission report recognise the benefit of enriched cages. The FAWC’s recent opinion on enriched cages concludes that

which we must never forget, of course—

In forming that view, the FAWC considered the five freedoms. Although it considered that the enriched cage offers a severe challenge to the welfare of laying hens in terms of freedom to express normal behaviour, it recognised that freedom from hunger, thirst, pain, injury and disease are catered for as well or even better in a cage environment than in other commercial production systems. Similarly, the majority of hens in appropriately designed cages may be considered to enjoy more freedom from distress than is the case for many birds in other systems, particularly free range.

The debate over the benefits of one production system over another is complex indeed. Take meat chickens as an example. The different systems in which the birds are raised will involve different costs, different benefits for the welfare of the birds, different economic costs for the consumer and different environmental impacts. Extensive indoor and free-range systems using slow growth rates may have high welfare potential, but they may also lead to increased risk of exposure to injury, disease and environmental stress when compared with production systems that use higher stocking densities and modern, environmentally controlled houses. This is a complicated area, and it is part of the bigger debate on agriculture, its environmental impact and its contribution to climate change.

Consumers are absolutely right to care about the welfare of animals raised for meat production, and the hon. Member for Winchester made his points with great force. Consumers need to be able to make informed choices about their food purchases and decisions that are right for themselves. Current labelling helps them by differentiating between chickens from, for example, different production systems. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale put it very well when he said that it is all
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very well for some of us to preach about these issues, but that we have to take into account the cost pressures on individuals.

Mr. Drew: I thank the Minister for giving way one last time. He has been very generous. Of course, DEFRA is going through its own problems with cost pressures, as he knows better than I do. Would he say something about the impact of animal disease on the huge area of animal welfare? It cannot be completely without coincidence that the two things need to be looked at in tandem. Clearly, there is a problem with animal disease, and perhaps we could bear down on it if we were to look at higher welfare standards.

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend makes a telling and accurate point. If I may say so, his intervention has hit the bull’s eye. The costs of dealing with animal welfare have been taxing the minds of Ministers in DEFRA in recent weeks. We must balance our budgets, notwithstanding the above-inflation increase that the Treasury was able to allocate to DEFRA, which, in turn, resulted from the Government’s successful economic policies.

To return to the debate, it is not for the Government to tell people what to eat. I believe that there is consensus on that. It is important to remember in the midst of this debate that the UK has a higher standard of animal welfare today than it has ever had before. In fact, we have among the highest standards in the world. We have been at the forefront of implementing higher welfare standards domestically, and we have been active on European and wider international levels.

The UK took the lead in encouraging Europe to follow it in implementing a ban on the use of veal crates. They have been banned in the UK since 1990, and a ban across the EU came into force at the end of 2006. The UK stopped the use of close-confinement sow stalls in 1999, and the EU pig directive was adopted in 2001. It contains several provisions to improve the welfare of pigs: minimum space allowances, access to environmental enrichment for all pigs, and a ban across the EU on the use of sow stalls by 2013. Given time, I could mention other policy measures that we have taken across the EU and, more widely, internationally.

Animal welfare is an issue to which the public pay increasing attention. Hon. Members may be interested to know that it tops the list in DEFRA postbags. It is of concern not just to young people, although, as we have heard, that is especially the case, and it is one that the Government take very seriously indeed. We believe that we are moving in the right direction in terms of the balance of the different policies that are available. There are no simple solutions, and, as I have tried to explain, animal welfare depends on a combination of stockkeeping skills and getting the right balance based on scientific understanding. That is why we carefully spend taxpayers’ money on research. We wish to ensure that we base our policies on sound science, as well as carry public opinion with us.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester on securing this debate, and I shall pass on the points made in it to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw).

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Post Office Network (Lancashire)

11 am

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Atkinson, for allowing this debate to go ahead and for giving an hour and a half of your time this morning. This important debate relates to the whole of the United Kingdom, but we are talking about Lancashire, and there is no better county. Lancashire is a proud county—it is the red rose county. It is good to see that so many hon. Members—some are leaving, but some are joining us—have turned up today to show their commitment to the Post Office in Lancashire. It is important that we are allowed to express that view. Once again, I thank you, Mr. Atkinson.

The future of the post office network has come under considerable scrutiny following the announcement that 2,500 post offices are set for closure. This debate will focus on Lancashire and on the proposals put forward under the Lancashire, Fylde and Southport area plan, so we have two other areas to consider—it is important that we mention that. Under the proposals, 59 post offices—20 per cent. of the existing network—will shut, following the previous closures throughout the’80s and ’90s and up to the present day. The problem is that there is nothing new in this. However, we suffered due to the major closure programme in the ’80s and we are suffering now.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He has raised an important issue in respect of the cumulative effect. Does he agree that, as post offices have been closed over the years, fewer people live within a mile of a sub-post office, making their lives increasingly difficult and putting more pressure on post offices in town centres, which may be equally inaccessible?

Mr. Hoyle: I cannot disagree with my hon. Friend. As somebody who lives in her constituency and who is a strong advocate of all the people, she knows better about such things. If we follow the programme of closures, the most vulnerable will find it most difficult of all to access a post office. Hon. Members must ensure that that point comes across loud and clear, and no one does so more than her.

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, as ever, for the people of Lancashire. Is not the problem the scale of the proposal, which goes way beyond closing uneconomic post offices? For example, Longshoot post office in Haslingden in my constituency is successful and has a good business plan. There are 800 names on a petition to save it. In such circumstances, is it not time that the Post Office thought again?

Mr. Hoyle: I totally agree. My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for community post offices and for the people who use them. I could not agree more with him. He has been standing up for the Longshoot post office: he has made a powerful case in the past and will continue to make powerful representations in future.

It is important that this debate takes place. We are not saying, “Let’s save everything”, because that would be naive. We are trying to make a constructive case where there is room for manoeuvre and for decisions to
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be changed. Personally, I would go further: I would like to see no post offices closed, but even I have to be realistic about what we can achieve. We are here today to try to achieve something for post offices in our areas and for those in special circumstances, such as Longshoot post office.

Lancashire has been hit hard by the closures, as we have just heard, with more than a quarter of the post offices in the county closed since 2003. We have already had a big hit and, prior to that, throughout the ’80s, we were hit just as hard. That is an inordinate amount of closures for an area with a diverse population, a significant number of deprived areas and a large rural footprint to bear. We should also remember that, despite “Coronation Street” and people’s image of Lancashire being cobbled streets, the truth is that we have a large rural area. My constituency has 22 parishes in more than 80 square miles, with a large farming area. That is so from the south of Lancashire to the north. We have a great rural area, but we have the great urban areas as well, with a high concentration of people living in them. We ought not to think that Lancashire is purely a built-up area: we have a built-up area, but we have the rural areas, too. That is why it is not appropriate to hit Lancashire as hard as we are doing at the moment.

I am sure that hon. Members will wish to highlight individual examples in their respective constituencies. I should like to talk about the closure programme in Chorley in more detail. The Post Office has proposed five closures in the Chorley constituency. We have contacted the sub-postmasters of each of the post offices and three of them—in Charnock Richard, Withnell and Eccleston—have expressed their desire to close. It is impossible to try to keep those post offices open if the sub-postmasters wish to close them; after all, the buildings are theirs. Some may argue that they have a contract, but if they close the door there is not a lot that we can do about it.

It is a little bit ironic and a touch hypocritical—I will not say that it is childish—for the sub-postmaster at Withnell to ask people to sign a petition to save the post office. Why could he not have been honest and said, “No, it is time for me to go. I wish to close”? To do that under the banner of a Conservative councillor is rather silly. If the council and the councillor were more serious, they would be putting in more services to help to save the post office.

Of course, there is little that we can do when a sub-postmaster wishes to close. However, as we have heard already, we ought to get up and start shouting when a sub-postmaster wishes to remain in business and there is a strong business case to keep a post office. In such a case, the Post Office should reconsider its current proposals. For example, the Bolton street post office is successful: between 1,000 and 1,500 customers per week access it, sometimes increasing to 2,000 a week. That is a viable operation. It is an important post office. In fact, it is one of the few post offices where people can park directly outside, both in front and across the road, with a car park nearby too. It is wrong even to consider closing it, because there is so much parking. People cannot park outside many post offices these days. Bolton street post office is within walking distance for many, but parking outside is also available.

Many elderly residents living near Bolton street post office do not have access to a car—the area has low car ownership too—so it is difficult for them to go to the
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Crown post office or the one on Devonshire road, which is more difficult to access. The bus does not go from the Bolton street area to the Crown post office or the one on Devonshire road. We ought to reconsider the Bolton street issue.

In the area that I am talking about there are elderly people’s flats and old people’s bungalows, and many elderly people living to the south of the post office. It is critical that we stress the area to the south of the post office, because the alternatives are in the north. If people reach Bolton street post office from the south, they have a minimum of another half a mile walk north to the next post office. We have to emphasise Bolton street’s geographical position, because if the post office were closed people would have to go three miles to the nearest post office in the south. This closure has not been well thought out.

We must also consider new housing estates. Within five minutes’ walk of Bolton street—less than quarter of a mile—Multipart, part of the old Leyland Trucks parts centre, has been demolished, making way for new houses. In fact, 400-plus new houses will be built on that site, some of which will be low-cost homes. That area fits the plan of growing a post office, not closing it. Those 400 properties must be taken into account. The demolition has taken place and the builders are now setting about the reconstruction of houses in the area. That is additional development: houses are not being taken away; new houses are being put in. That is happening less than quarter of a mile away—only five minutes’ walk—from Bolton street post office.

In addition, several other planning permissions have being granted. The local development south of Bolton road has planning permission for 1,000 properties, which will be built as part of the Government’s plans under the old Commission for the New Towns, if anyone remembers that. We were a central Lancashire new town, and the Government left land for housing development. A new road was built, and to pay for it they gave that land, so the housing development is paying for the new bypass. Those 1,000 houses have not been taken into account, and that is a further reason why the post office should not close. That is all to the south, where there is no other post office for three miles.

I mentioned the 2003 closure programme. We were all led to believe then that that would be the end of post office closures, and I remind hon. Members that the Bolton road post office was the reason that the other post offices had to close. It is absurd that both the Moor road post office in Pall Mall and another south of Eaves lane were allowed to close on the ground that the Bolton road post office was an alternative. We cannot pretend that circumstances have changed between then and now. The fact is that customers were driven to the Bolton road post office, and now the Government propose to take that post office out of use. That is a farce and a disgrace; it is shambolic. The reason given is that it is a different closure programme, but that has nothing to do with it. The fact is that people were told to use Bolton road post office; because the Government have jiggled the figures, they now want to close the one that was recommended for use. Come on—let us have some reality in the Post Office. We need reality, because there has been none in the closure programme, which is nonsense.

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When we look at the alternatives, they are not that good. I shall continue to argue against the Bolton road post office closure. The Crown post office is in the centre of town and, as we all know, Crown post offices are an important part of town centres. In Chorley, the Crown post office is key to the town centre. I do not believe that closing Bolton road post office will assist the Crown post office. We already have long queues in the Crown post office, which is well used because Chorley is a great place, and people love to shop there and to use Chorley market. The Crown post office serves not just the local community, but Wigan and other areas whose inhabitants want to shop in Chorley. As it continues to develop, the footfall through Chorley town centre continues to increase year on year, and the beneficiary is the post office.

The Crown post office is struggling to deal with the business that it already has. There are great proposals for the town centre with redevelopment and plans for a new shopping centre, which will bring even more people into Chorley who will access the Crown post office. Let us have a little common sense, and let us use it to ensure that we do not give 1,000, 1,500 or 2,000 people from Bolton road an unacceptable service, because the Crown post office is not capable of providing an acceptable service.

Charnock Richard is a small village and had a post office within a supermarket, which decided that it did not want the post office because it was not viable as it had only 50 to 80 customers a week—I am being generous. I understand that it costs money to operate it and that it does not make economic sense for the village to have that post office, but I care about those 50 to 80 people who use it. Charnock Richard has many bungalows for older people, who should not be neglected. Although the numbers may be small, they could access the post office through a mobile service.

My hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), and even the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) have all come to hear this debate because they care about the post office. If a post office does not make economic sense, and closing it would leave a community without access to a post office, a mobile post office could serve all our constituencies, and would be viable and ensure that the people we represent, including the old and most vulnerable, would have access to a service. We must provide that access. That is a way forward, and we are not asking for the baubles to go with it. Far from it. This is a realistic debate, which recognises that, although I do not want any post office closures, if we are to have them we must put something else in place to ensure that we do not neglect the people whom we represent.

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