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Decisions on matters of policy on which a new Government might be expected to want an opportunity to take a different view from the present Government should be postponed until AFTER the Election.
So it is official that no major decisions can be made during the four weeks of an election campaign but, following the Prime Ministers recent performance, I am led to believe that he might not be aware that it is just those four weeks. He seems to be doing it all the time.
No such rule applies to local authorities. It could be argued that we do not need such a policy, because we know when the election date will be and if we are all fair about it councils can ensure that no ambiguous, controversial or large financial decisions are made during that election period. Guess which party in local government decided to exploit that loophole and to take advantage of the absence of policy? Yes, I am afraid that it was our dear friends the Liberal Democrats, who will do anything to get elected. They will cuddle you during the daytime only to cross you by nightfall. They scandalously seek and practise power without responsibility.
By way of illustration, let me take the House back to last years local elections and the night of 3 May 2007. It was a great evening, as you may recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when the Conservatives gained 921 seats. The Liberal Democrats, I am afraid, lost 246 seats, but it was described by the then leader of the Lib Dems, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), as a mixed bag of resultsnot an accurate judgment, I think, of the days events.
In Bournemouth, the big issue on the campaign trail was a proposal by the incumbentsthe Lib Demsto build a multi-million pound development on Bournemouths
sea front. Such was the unpopularity of the proposal that it contributed to the Lib Dems losing control of the town hall. They lost 23 seats, returning only seven councillors out of 51.
On the election night itself, long after the working day was over, the Lib Dems tiptoed into the town hall, not to clear their desks or pick up their sandals, knowing that they would not be back in office, but to place the final signature on a controversial contract that committed the people of Bournemouth to a massive seafront development that they did not want. Why did they do this? Nobody knows. Even cross-examination by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight could not get the chief local Lib Dem plotter, the aptly named Councillor Fudge, properly to explain that malicious, selfish and vindictive behaviour. Yes, there were inquiries. Even the Electoral Commission got involved, but it was eventually determined that nothing illegal had been done. Morally and ethically speaking, however, I believe that the Lib Dems are guilty as charged as they deliberately burdened a town with a development that it did not want and the new administration with the costs that it campaigned so hard to avoid.
My Bill would prevent such scandals from being repeated and other councils from being subjected to such tactics. How would it work? It would require all local authorities to introduce a policy preventing major financial or controversial decisions being made in the four weeks leading up to an election. It would be up to the individual councils to determine the size of the budget and the other parameters. All that would be required would be that the matter be debated locally and local decisions be made.
Local authorities need not wait for my Bill, which I hope will be passed, but can adopt an appropriate policy themselves. I encourage them to do so. However, the purpose of the Bill is to ensure that no council would be subjected to the costly, time-consuming and completely avoidable dramas endured by Bournemouth. I urge hon. Members to support the Bill.
I just want to say a few words that show that the Bill is unnecessary. I have not followed the Bournemouth events in detail, but my understanding is that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has not given the full picture of what happened before the local elections last year. My understanding of the position is that the political decision was taken entirely properly before the election period and that all that remained to
be carried out was the implementation of that which was in the hands of officers. No new political decision was taken later at all.
If that is the case, which is what I am led to believe, the normal rules were followed in Bournemouth as they have been in many local authorities up and down the country. In Southwark back in the 80s, the outgoing Labour administration, thinking that it might be defeated at the polls, entered into a controversial planning application and a land property deal just before the election. The political decision was taken earlier, but the documents were signed on the day before the elections. I understand that that is legitimate if it is a matter of administration rather than political decision. If that is the case, the Bill is not necessary. We have plenty of legislation and plenty of controls on local councils, with an absolute guarantee that purdah applies in local government up to local elections in England.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who normally argues from his partys position, which is that we do not need more legislation, will reflect on the fact that more legislation restricting local government is the last thing that any party in local government wants and any council in administration wants. That includes his party, which now runs Bournemouth council.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tobias Ellwood, Sir John Butterfill, Mr. Desmond Swayne, Mr. Eric Pickles, Mr. Richard Benyon, Andrew Rosindell, Mr. Hugo Swire, Mr. David Evennett, Mr. Edward Vaizey, Greg Clark and Anne Main.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood accordingly presented a Bill to impose restrictions on the types of decisions that local authorities can take during specified periods prior to local elections; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 90].
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): We now come to the main business, the Opposition day debate on post office closures. I have to tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister and has placed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
That this House regrets the proposal to close up to 2,500 post offices; recognises the vital role post offices play in local communities; notes the concern and unpopularity amongst the general public of closing such a large portion of the network; has concerns that the access criteria laid down for the closures consultation do not adequately take into account local geographical factors and public transport networks; is concerned that the consultation period is only for six weeks rather than three months, as recommended by Cabinet Office guidelines; believes that post offices must move with the times in the services they offer and that options for business expansion and developing business opportunities with local authorities should be explored further; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to instruct Post Office Limited to suspend the compulsory closure of sub-post offices while these issues are re-assessed.
This matter affects both sides of the House in equal measure. I was concerned a moment ago that only two Labour Back Benchers were sitting in the Chamber but I see that the numbers are now swelling. I shall try to keep my remarks to a minimum, because I know that Members from all parties want to speak.
We are entering a critical phase of the Governments closure programme. Half of the countrys constituencies have now gone through the process of consultation and as a result approximately 1,120 post offices are already destined to close. The network change is well on its way, yet the chorus of dissent that surrounded the then Secretary of State, now the Chancellor, when in 2006 he published his proposals for the most radical programme of cuts in the Post Offices history has not faded away, as his successor will have hoped. In fact, the more people encounter the process at first hand, the more they realise that it is not just unfair, but in many respects illogical; not just badly thought-through, but in some cases even avoidable.
Alan Duncan: I have hardly got off first base, but I will. If I may, I will set the scene and then give way to a series of interventions from Members from both sides of the House so that I do not end up taking 40 minutes. The quicker I get through this, the better it will be for allowing everybody to have the chance to say what they want to.
I agree with what the Secretary of State has said on numerous occasions: we have to face the facts about the future of postal services in this country. The debate has not been convened whimsically. We understand that the Post Office is haemorrhaging around £4 million a week; that the development of online mail has eviscerated part of the Post Offices traditional customer base; and that in this difficult business climate, uncertain times lie ahead.
Although the closure of post offices is one of the most emotional political issues, we in the Opposition do not lead with our heads. Let me make it clear that we fully expect the network to shrink in size. We have never given a guarantee that no post offices will close, because such a guarantee is not ours to give.
Sir Robert Smith: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I thought that he might have been giving the Government too much of a defence in respect of the problems facing the Post Office. The effect of online ordering has been to increase the amount of delivery work undertaken by post offices. People order goods online, but delivering those goods is a new business opportunity for Royal Mail, with post offices as collection points.
Alan Duncan: The hon. Gentleman is potentially right, but we must distinguish between the post office network and Royal Mail, as it is the latter that makes those deliveries. That is an important distinction, and it must be admitted that the internet has displaced much of the revenue-earning activity previously enjoyed by post offices.
Mr. Ancram: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. He was talking about the process by which the decision about closures was made. One post office to be closed in my constituency is in an area where a significant new housing programme is about to begin. The alternative post office is already notorious for being overcrowded and incapable of being expanded. Does that not suggest that the consultation process was a farce, and that what we are seeing is a lottery in order to meet a Government target?
Alan Duncan: My right hon. and learned Friend illustrates exactly the sort of example that is driving Members of this House to distraction. There appears to be a lack of commercial logic to many of the decisions being forced on the post office network.
My hon. Friend said that the consultation process was unfair, but is it not also fraudulent? In my area, we have been told that all that will happen if we succeed in persuading the Post Office to keep open one of the post offices that are threatened with closure in the Cherwell district is that it will simply go ahead and
close another office in the district. It is clear that the Government are determined, come what may, to close all the post offices in Cherwell, however good the arguments against doing so may be. The consultation process is therefore wholly fraudulent.
Alan Duncan: My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. It is something that I want to expand on, ever so briefly, in a few minutes. If I may put it this way, we are involved in a game of pass the parcel. All hon. Members have in their constituencies post offices that are due to be shut, but if they succeed in keeping one office open, another one elsewhere will be closed. Therefore, what might appear to be a local success for one hon. Member becomes a local difficulty for another. That is one of the main problems that we face.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee has reported on post office closures. I put in a very detailed draft of evidence, including nine recommendations for changing the closure programme. However, 50 other hon. Members from both sides of the House also put forward evidence, and they included Front Benchers from the Conservative party. If the hon. Gentleman feels so strongly about this matter, why did he not offer any evidence to the Select Committee?
Alan Duncan: Because I think that it is improper for a Front Bencher to try to pre-empt and influence a Select Committee in that way. The proper way for me to speak about these matters is at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons. That is what I am doing now, on a day when the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to vote with the Opposition.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): My hon. Friend is wholly right about displaced closures, but the problem is worse than he suggests. In my constituency, the county council is negotiating about taking over the post office at Laverstock on the edge of Salisbury, but despite that, the Post Office is insisting on closing it on 1 April and on removing the post office equipmenteven though it might be taken on by the county.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committeewhat used to be the Trade and Industry Committeehas looked into the matter quite deeply. The Committee is chaired by his colleague the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). It looked at the cost of haphazard closures, and reluctantly accepted that the Governments plan was the only way forward. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) knows full well what the Committee recommended, and it looks a little sneaky to have this debate today, at a time when the Select Committee is away and the Chairman has no opportunity to reply. Is he afraid that some Conservative Back Benchers might have been persuaded by the Committee Chairman?
Alan Duncan: Much more sneaky is the fact that the hon. Gentleman is trying to hide behind the supposed conclusions of the Select Committeewhich I think are not as he describedwhen he has signed the early-day motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). The wording of that early-day motion is exactly the same as the motion under consideration today, so he can have no option but to vote with usalong with the 35 other Labour Members who have echoed, word for word, what we are calling for in this debate.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I was not one of those who signed the early-day motion that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but is there not an element of hypocrisy in his approach? The previous Tory Government closed 3,542 post office branches. Why did they do that?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, I advise the House that the word sneaky is just about allowable, as is the right hon. Ladys use of the word hypocrisy. However, we must be extremely careful about the words that we use. I know that hon. Members care very strongly about these matters, but we should nevertheless choose our words with care.
I do not understand what the, so called, public consultation was for...I want Post Office Ltd to explain how this can amount to a meaningful public consultation, when they have ignored the views of 2,203 people.
We are seeing a picture of inconsistency, but my purpose today is not to keep on pointing out the inconsistency between what Labour Members say at a local level and how they might vote tonight; rather, I want to urge them to vote with us so that they can prove that they are honest and consistent.
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that one concern for people in constituencies such as mine in West Dorset is that the Post Office has absolutely refused to enter into discussions about how we might provide the voluntary effort that would cut its costs and keep the services open? Is that not an extraordinary state of affairs?
Alan Duncan: My right hon. Friend is right, but only half right. The Post Office has declined to embrace both voluntary efforts and legitimate commercial efforts. Even worse, it is discriminating against the commercial options that post offices and shops should be allowed to enjoy.
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