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His own party, therefore, accepts the need for closures, too.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): May I inform my hon. Friend the Minister that on Monday I met a Post Office representative at the start of the consultation period? He told me that 2,500 post offices were to close. I said, “I think you’ve got that wrong. It might finish up being 1,983, but every post office should be considered on its merits.” What is the point of having a consultation period when I, like many of my colleagues in the House, have been given a figure of three that will shut in our constituencies? Is it because there are three non-viable post offices in everyone’s constituency, or are we just sharing the misery out? While going through the consultation period with my constituents, I have recognised that one or two post offices might be non-viable, but not three. What chance of success—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has pointed out that he is not too pleased.

Mr. McFadden: Of the 14,000 branches currently in the network, some 4,000 would run as a commercial network. We do not believe that the network should be reduced to that size, which is why we subsidise it to the extent that we do. As the Post Office made clear last summer, the consultation concerns the detail of how the change is to be implemented, and the overall figures were announced to Parliament in May of last year.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I offer to the Minister as a working example the post office in Levenwick in the south end of Shetland, which is due for closure? It operates as part of the shop there, and if the post office closes, the community fears that the shop will not be far behind. If the shop closes, not many people will want to use the campsite in the summer months, and the campsite subsidises the village hall. When he was setting up this whole process in the
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first place, what instructions did he give to the Post Office about considering such a domino effect on local economies?

Mr. McFadden: The Post Office considered the special and specific circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As matters stand, there are more than 70 post offices—I believe that the figure is 73—there, and I understand that six are to go. The access criteria are specifically designed to protect rural and sparsely populated parts of the United Kingdom such as that that the hon. Gentleman represents.

National Minimum Wage

5. Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): How many cities were visited by the Government’s campaign bus promoting the national minimum wage in the last six months; and how many people used its services. [198415]

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): The national minimum wage bus visited 64 locations during a nine-week tour this year. The team spoke directly to approximately 90,000 people and distributed around 130,000 leaflets. The bus campaign also received extensive media coverage, which reached many more people. That is only one element of the minimum wage information campaign, which also includes posters, online information and radio advertising.

Mrs. Hodgson: The minimum wage guidelines have always recognised the special role of volunteers. Can the Minister do more to remove the barriers to volunteering that some voluntary organisations believe exist under the current minimum wage regime, without leaving the door open to the abuse of voluntary workers?

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend asks an important question, which many leading voluntary organisations have also raised with us. I am glad to tell her that the Government have tabled an amendment to the Employment Bill, which is currently being discussed in Parliament, to broaden the range of expenses that can be paid to volunteers without unintentionally triggering entitlement to the minimum wage. That will remove a hurdle to volunteering and assist volunteers, who may need help with, for example, child care costs. It is an important step to boost volunteering in the country.

Small Business Regulation

6. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What recent steps the Government have taken to reduce the burden of regulation on small businesses. [198416]

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): In December 2007, the Government announced that we had delivered £800 million of annual savings for business by reducing red tape. For example, from this Sunday, private companies will no longer need to have a company secretary, saving each of them an estimated £50 to £100.

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Mr. Cunningham: Has my hon. Friend any plans to reduce red tape, in addition to what he has just announced?

Mr. McFadden: Indeed, we have several other measures. For example, private companies no longer need to hold an annual general meeting, firms will have to apply for small business rate relief only once every five years rather than every year, and heavy goods vehicle operators can carry out their licensing transactions online. Those are examples of several measures that we have taken because, although the World Bank ranks Britain as the sixth best economy in the world to do business, we are not complacent. We want to ensure that Britain remains one of the best places in the world to do business.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): The Minister knows that a batty European directive has been quietly pushed through the House without a vote. It places pub landlords in jeopardy if customers call the staff “love” or “darling”; I personally use “angel”.

More seriously, the directive places a further burden of some £10 million on small business to enforce and monitor it. What steps did the Minister take to stop that farcical additional burden on small businesses? When will the Government start saying no to stupid European regulations, which are unenforceable, encourage troublemakers and generally bring the law into disrepute?

Mr. McFadden: There are certain rules about language in the House, but outwith those, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to call me anything he wishes and I assure him that I will not take offence.

This country has led the way in making the European Union alive to the need to ensure that regulation is proportionate and not over-burdensome. We have pushed hard for the European Commission to adopt a similar position to the one in this country, where we have a target of reducing the administrative burdens from the European proposals by 25 per cent. We intend to continue to push that with the Commission and other member states.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): In his Budget speech, the Chancellor announced that there would be

Given that regulation is six times more burdensome on small business than on large business, can the Minister throw any light on when those radical new proposals will be brought forward?

Mr. McFadden: The hon. Lady will also have seen the enterprise strategy that was published alongside the Budget, which precisely discussed consulting on, for example, the introduction of regulatory budgets. She raises the burden of regulation, but let me remind her to look at her party’s policy programme, where she may find extensive proposals for additional regulation. Perhaps we should bear that in mind, as well as the Government’s record.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) is absolutely right. The burden of regulation and bureaucracy falls far more heavily on small business than on large business, which can afford to employ the staff to deal with it. Does the Minister agree that regulation is damaging for
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smaller business because it takes the attention of the sole proprietor—or perhaps he and a co-partner—away from the purpose of their business, thereby causing the business to suffer and the Government’s tax take to fall?

Mr. McFadden: I outlined several measures that are a specific help to small businesses, such as the requirements on AGMs and the lightening of the requirements on company secretaries. We are alive to the burdens on small businesses. That is why we have brought forward those measures and why we have introduced commencement dates, so that people know when any regulations will be introduced. We published the enterprise strategy alongside the Budget precisely to work with business to ensure that any regulatory burden is not over-burdensome.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): Since 1997, the total burden of regulation has risen by £65 billion, according to the British Chambers of Commerce. Of that total, more than £32 billion has come from one Department—the one represented by those sitting opposite on the Treasury Bench. So despite the Minister’s earlier claims and offers for future action, his record shows that his Department is responsible for nearly half the total regulatory burden on small businesses. Given that, will he now stand at the Dispatch Box and tell us exactly how much of his £32 billion he will cut in the next 12 months?

Mr. McFadden: The Department has a commitment to reduce its burden by £700 million. However, I take issue with the allegation that business burdens have risen by £66 billion, because that includes a number of measures that I would not classify as a burden, but which the hon. Gentleman might, such as access to transport for the disabled. Does he think that that is a burden? Those measures also include controls over asbestos. Does he think that health and safety measures such as those are a burden? Some of those measures are not burdens on business, but appropriate regulations, which are a mark of a decent and civilised society.

Post Office Closures

7. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the managing director of Post Office Ltd on the process of consultation on the closure of sub-post offices. [198417]

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): I regularly meet and discuss issues relating to the post office network with the managing director of Post Office Ltd, which of course include the current consultation process, which we are in the middle of, and the proposed new outreach services.

Mr. Heath: There is a widespread and increasingly desperate view that every conceivable question on post offices has already been asked, with not a single acceptable answer given, but let me try this. Of the nine closures in my constituency, at least two—Bayford and Charlton Horethorne—are close to the border with Dorset, which has a different consultation process. Many communities in Dorset will be affected by those closures, but their views are not being sought. Do people not count if they live the wrong side of a line?

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Mr. McFadden: Of course they count, but any proposal based on a geographical area will involve people on either side of a line. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I am sure that the Post Office will do its best to take local views into account in what is a difficult process. I say again, however, that without the extensive subsidy that the Government are putting in, thousands more branches could be under threat. We have given financial certainty to the network over the next few years, which is something that it did not always enjoy in the past.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): In its report of 8 February, the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee expressed concerns about certain aspects of the consultation process, many of which could be addressed quite quickly. Despite the significant funding that the Government are putting into the network, we are concerned that there is apparently no policy in place to prevent the further shrinkage of the network from 11,500 to the 7,500 figure that meets the access criteria. Does the Minister therefore understand my disappointment that despite the early indications that the Department would expedite its response to the report, it so far looks unlikely even to meet the informal deadline, which is normally two months?

Mr. McFadden: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the serious work that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Select Committee has done on this issue. It has now issued three reports, and we will respond very soon to the report that he mentioned. I note the Committee’s specific proposal to make it clearer that the basis of the consultation was the implementation of the programme rather than it simply being a referendum on whether there should be closures. As we now know, both parties accept the need for closures. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson made that clear in the debate on the subject a couple of weeks ago. The hon. Gentleman’s Committee made a very good point on that subject, and I hope that Post Office Ltd will take it up.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Eight post offices in my constituency are threatened with closure. Two in particular—at Primrose Hill in Lydney and at Ruspidge—have a strong case for remaining open. Will the Minister confirm what the Prime Minister is reported—in one of our excellent local newspapers, The Citizen—to have said, namely that, if people had a strong case against the planned closure of their local post office, they could appeal and take the matter right to the top and to the chairman of Royal Mail, Allan Leighton, if necessary? If those two post offices are told in early May that they must close, will the Minister confirm that Allan Leighton will meet me, and any other Member of Parliament who wishes to meet him, to discuss in person the case for keeping those post offices open, as the Prime Minister promised?

Mr. McFadden: The Prime Minister was absolutely right to say that a review process is built into this procedure. As I have said before, it is triggered by Postwatch and begins at local level. He was also right to say that the process can ultimately go right up to Allan Leighton, the chairman of the Royal Mail Group, if need be. The question of Mr. Leighton’s diary commitments will have to be answered by him, rather than by me, however.

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Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): The Minister will be aware that Essex county council has committed £1.5 million to keep certain post offices open, including two profitable branches at Billericay and Wickford in my constituency. Despite assurances from the Minister—which I do not doubt—that he would get in touch with Post Office Ltd, and despite the Secretary of State’s letter of 19 March, Post Office Ltd is still dragging its feet in its negotiations with Essex county council by not releasing essential financial information. Will the Minister now personally ensure that Post Office Ltd does not drag its feet further, and that it engages in full and frank conversation with Essex county council? Will he also ensure that Post Office Ltd does not decommission branches that are set for closure until those negotiations are complete?

Mr. McFadden: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have encouraged Post Office Ltd to talk to Essex county council. I have spoken to the chief executive personally about this on two occasions, and I hope that those discussions will take place.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the decommissioning of equipment, he will understand that post offices are normally private businesses owned by their sub-postmasters. The Post Office has said that it will extend the period of notice, at no cost to the sub-postmaster, when there is a local authority expression of interest. On some occasions, however, the sub-postmaster might want the equipment removed so that the rest of the retail premises can be made use of. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but we need to take into account the fact that these businesses are privately owned in most cases.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I am sure the Minister is aware that many other councils share Essex county council’s frustration at the slow progress of their attempts to save some of their local post offices from closure. First, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), they are finding it very difficult to obtain the realistic costings that they need to decide whether to proceed. Secondly, there is a complete lack of clarity from the Department on whether such support would fall foul of European Union state aid rules. Thirdly, in some cases, equipment is removed from post offices while the discussions are still taking place. That is not happening only in post offices that the postmasters wish to close. Will the Minister get a grip on the situation, and ensure that councils receive immediately from his Department any information that they need to proceed? Will he also ensure that no post offices are closed if they have a realistic prospect of being saved?

Mr. McFadden: It is for Post Office Ltd and individual councils to negotiate the details of the process. As I told the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained in his letter of 19 March the basis on which the discussions should take place to both the Post Office and the Local Government Association. That letter refers to the state aid rules. That is the Government’s position, as set out by my right hon. Friend.

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Street Trading

8. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the regulatory framework for street trading. [198418]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): No recent assessment has been undertaken of the regulatory framework on street trading. However, the Government are aware that my hon. Friend has tabled a Bill that seeks to extend local authority powers. Our Department is in the process of undertaking research to establish more firmly the evidence about the effectiveness of the current legislation. That will help us to make decisions about how to proceed in a way that balances the interests of business, consumers and, indeed, pedlars.

Dr. Iddon: There have been seven local authority-promoted private Acts of Parliament to control the street trading activities of pedlars. As we have heard this morning, six almost identical Bills are before the House at present, with the possibility of up to 50 more in the queue. Will my hon. Friend consider allowing my Bill to proceed on the grounds that clause 2 would allow councils wishing to adopt it to do so? That would overcome any human rights-based objections that might apply to a blanket Bill.

Malcolm Wicks: I know that my colleague Baroness Vadera is prepared to discuss the matter further with my hon. Friend. He has persevered on this important matter. We are aware of a number of local authorities with an interest in it, which is why we wish to establish the evidence base. We need to understand the issue more clearly.

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