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19 Mar 2008 : Column 956

Furthermore, we know that hon. Members, including Ministers and Cabinet Ministers, are campaigning in their own constituencies. I entirely accept that there are occasions when the Government—even the Government of their own colour—do something and hon. Members want to make a stand for their constituents, but what we are seeing are not just a few scattered examples of an hon. Member saying, “I must defend the interests of my constituents”; we are seeing a wholesale operation across the entire map, with almost every Member doing that. Thus, wholesale activity makes a mockery of what should be collective responsibility. Collective action has driven through collective responsibility.

Of even deeper concern is the fact that the Secretary of State revealed in an interview

He said:

he happens to be in charge of them, but never mind—

Fair enough, except for this: when everyone is doing it, it is not just representing our constituents; it is collectively denying the entire policy of the Government.

There is a more perturbing point. As we all know, if a Member succeeds in keeping one post office open, under the current plans another one will shut. We can but ask whether a Secretary of State who is in charge of the shareholder executive that owns the Post Office might perhaps have more clout in those negotiations than a mere Back Bencher. If the Secretary of State can keep one or two post offices open in his constituency, where does that leave his colleagues in a neighbouring constituency?

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): A few moments ago, if I understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, he was arguing for more predictability in the framework in which shopkeepers operate, depending on whether or not they have a post office. Part of that predictability relates to the level of subsidy that they can expect from the Government. What level of subsidy for the sub-post office network is the hon. Gentleman suggesting?

Alan Duncan: The same as is proposed, but the purpose of our argument is that it can go further if people are not bulldozed into closure by a misguided compulsory plan.

Chris Ruane rose—

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab) rose—

Alan Duncan: I will not give way. I want to conclude so that hon. Members, such as those on their feet, will get the chance to speak. I note that there are probably three times as many on the Opposition Benches as on the Government Benches.

Chris Ruane: It is an Opposition debate.

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Alan Duncan: Yes, but it affects every constituency. That is why it is pertinent for me to point out that 90 Members on the Government Benches have been campaigning in their constituency against post office closures. That is about a quarter of the parliamentary Labour party, and includes seven Cabinet Ministers. It will be interesting to see how they vote tonight.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): My hon. Friend says “every constituency”. Can he offer any logical explanation why four post offices should be closed in Mid-Sussex but none at all closed in Crawley, the most marginal Labour seat in the land?

Alan Duncan: I cannot give any polite logical explanation for the perceptive observations of my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State knows that our arguments are valid. He is very uncomfortable about the closure programme that has been forced on the Post Office. He knows, because he will have heard it every day from right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Benches, that there is deep unhappiness across the entire House about the way that is progressing. He has a reputation in the Government. As shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, I think that occasionally he speaks a lot of sense. However, the problem that he faces when he speaks that sense is that it is not necessarily popular with his Prime Minister—the very man whom he once described as someone who would make a “bloomin’ awful” Prime Minister— [Interruption.] I translate for the sake of decency.

Hugh Bayley rose—

Alan Duncan: Today, however, we learned something else, and the finger of suspicion points at the Secretary of State. We are told that somewhere in Downing street, someone—thought to be a member of the Cabinet—is a poet, a bard. Given the flavour of the language, it can be but one person. The four lines published on the website of The Spectator today are clearly the Secretary of State’s:

Hugh Bayley rose—

Alan Duncan: Today is an opportunity for the Secretary of State to enjoy a massive political revival. He could make himself one of the most popular and rational men in the Government by instructing the Post Office to suspend the closure programme and give much hope to the many hard-working postmasters whose enterprise, hard work and service to their communities deserve better than they are getting from the Government.

Hugh Bayley: He’s frit! Frit!

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows better than that.

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2.11 pm

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). The poetry that he has just quoted is not mine. I say that for one simple reason: I would write better poetry. Those are absolutely not my words. I do not mind my own quotations being attributed to me, but I fundamentally resent words that are not mine being attributed to me.

Right at the beginning, I should like to acknowledge the important economic and social contribution that post offices make in all our constituencies. They play an obviously important role in cities, towns and villages right across the country. It is perfectly right and proper that hon. Members on both sides of the House should today have the opportunity to express our appreciation for the work that thousands of sub-postmasters do day in, day out.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hutton: I shall in a minute. I shall give way to as many hon. Members as I can, but I ask for the House’s indulgence for a few minutes so that I can begin to make my argument; I suspect that that is all I shall be able to do this afternoon.

Having acknowledged the importance of post offices, I should say that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), I believe that we should acknowledge one other inescapable fact, however difficult it is. The role of post offices is changing, first as a result of technology and much greater use of the internet, and secondly because of different patterns of consumer behaviour. Both those factors have combined to reduce substantially the numbers of people using their local sub-post offices and to increase substantially the losses being incurred by the Post Office. We have a responsibility to address the reality of those changes.

Mr. Baron rose—

Mr. Borrow rose—

Mr. Weir rose—

Mr. Hutton: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), and then to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow).

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Mr. Baron: I hear what the Secretary of State is saying. However, he has to accept that we have a ludicrous situation in south Essex, particularly in my constituency. Post offices that are profitable and serving an expanding population are being closed. Essex county council has put £1.5 million on the table with a view to trying to allow a number of those post offices to continue in service for the benefit of the local community. Will the Secretary of State at least delay the decommissioning of those branches to give the council the time it requires to explore that possibility further?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue about Essex; I want to say something specifically about the Essex proposal later. I hope that he will allow me to do that in my own time.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hutton: Let me finish my point. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House will be interested in exploring whether the proposal opens up a new opportunity. I hope that it does. Obviously, the discussions need to continue. I shall come later to the detail of the proposition, but it might be helpful if I make it clear now—I was going to do so later—that today I have written to the chief executive of the Post Office about these matters. I have placed a copy of the letter in the Library so that hon. Members can refer to it if they choose.

Mr. Borrow: In Lancashire, the consultation process finished two and a half weeks ago. When I received a letter from Opposition Front Benchers, I was tempted to consider voting with them today. However, I have read the Opposition motion. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we approve it, we will simply delay the whole process? In the absence of any new money, the same number of post offices will close in the end as are scheduled to close now.

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful for that point. In a few minutes, I want to come to the substance of the motion.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con) rose—

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD) rose—

Mr. Hunt rose—

Mr. Hutton: I shall give way in a moment. I want to come to the substance of the Opposition motion. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble has rightly identified, there is a significant problem with the proposition that we should simply postpone making decisions. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton has made it clear—this is important for my hon. Friends, who I am sure heard what he said—that he is not prepared to match the subsidy that we propose to invest in the Post Office. Somehow, he believes that that will allow the subsidy to go further, but of course it will not—it will mean a significant diminution in the effectiveness of the subsidy that is going in.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Mr. Hunt rose—

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Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD) rose—

Mr. Hutton: I give way to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who is my constituency neighbour.

Tim Farron: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; he and I share an interest in some of the post offices scheduled for closure, including Greenodd post office. Does he agree that this should not simply be a case of pushing the issue off into the far future? There is a perfectly good framework that we could use to suspend the process and give local communities the chance to make decisions that affect their lives. I am thinking of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which comes into force as of this September/October. We have the ridiculous situation in which the Government would write to local authorities such as South Lakeland asking what they could do to make communities more sustainable. The response would be, “Well, we would have said that our post offices should be kept open—but you’ve shut them.”

Mr. Hutton: We have not prevented local authorities from making arguments about how there could be a sustainable future for the local sub-post office network in my or the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, for example. I do not accept that there is a legal conflict between the process now under way and the future legislation to which he has referred. We are not preventing local authorities from making any contribution to the debate about a sustainable future.

Hugh Bayley: Will the Secretary of State confirm that three quarters of post office branches are not profitable and that many more would close if there were not £150 million a year of public subsidy? Has he noticed that the Government’s amendment explicitly supports that subsidy, whereas the Opposition motion does not? Will he issue a challenge to the Opposition, at least when they come to vote on the substantive motion, to support the Government amendment and the public subsidy to the Post Office?

Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend must have had a sneak preview of my speech, because I am going to make that point soon. It is an important issue for my hon. Friends to consider during this debate. They are being invited to support a Conservative motion that might will the ends but does not provide the means. I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, but he has to be able to stand in this place and say that he is willing to make the investment in sustaining the network for which he now claims to be the champion. He has completely failed to do that.

Alan Duncan: As the Secretary of State well knows, I have. The spending plans have been publicly announced. They are there, and remain unchanged.

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman was specifically invited to comment on the issue at the beginning of the debate; we will have to check the record in Hansard. He will have to deal with what I am sure will be in Hansard tomorrow. He was specifically asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) to say whether he would commit to the £1.7 billion. We all heard him say clearly that he was not going to do that.

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Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): I should like to reassure my right hon. Friend that I have no intention whatever of voting for the Conservative amendment, which comes from a party that when in government had absolutely no compunction about closing post offices, schools, hospitals, mines and heavy industry. However, there is real concern in my constituency about the proposal to close three highly efficient and consistently well-used post offices. I entirely accept that the usage of post offices has changed, but the people who use them most consistently and will be most severely affected if they are closed include the elderly, the disabled and single parents with small children. Is it not possible for the Post Office to put forward a proper cost-benefit analysis of what it is proposing as regards closures so that the consultation is genuine?

Mr. Hutton: I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend, who, like all other Members of this House, is perfectly entitled to put her argument to the Post Office, which has the responsibility for making these decisions in individual areas. Ministers are not making decisions about which particular sub-post office should or should not stay open. I am grateful to her for acknowledging that there has to be change in the network. My advice to her—I am sure that she does not need it from me—is that if strong arguments can be put, they should be. The Post Office has a responsibility—

Mark Pritchard: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hutton: When I have dealt with my hon. Friend’s point. When she has made those arguments, as I am sure she will, the Post Office, working together with Postwatch, will have to address them seriously. We acknowledge the substance of her point; that is why we are making £150 million-worth of subsidy available to support a much more extensive network than would have been supported if we were simply considering these issues on the basis of profit or loss—which post offices were making a profit and which were not. That is not part of the access criteria. We are trying to explain how the new network will work, how it can be sustainable and how it can address the concerns that my hon. Friend and others have raised.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being very generous. Given that seven Cabinet Ministers are campaigning with faint protest against the closure of post offices in their own constituencies, will he give an undertaking to the House that there will be no special access arrangements for Government Ministers visiting either him, other Ministers or officials in his Department, and that there will be equal access for all Members of this House campaigning against post office closures?

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