Previous Section Index Home Page

The question whether a post office is profit-making should be a consideration. Post Office Ltd should be willing to tell Members of Parliament, with the agreement of the postmaster or postmistress, what an office’s commercial viability is—it is far too secretive about such things. It should share all the information that is relevant to a post office, with the agreement of the postmaster or postmistress. If it did that, a business case could be made for many post offices, although not necessarily as free-standing offices—they might be linked to a grocery or other store on the premises or nearby. Now that the London post office consultation information has been submitted—I submitted mine in full yesterday, as did colleagues—I hope that we can have a real
3 Apr 2008 : Column 971
dialogue with the Post Office, rather than a dialogue of the deaf or a dialogue of non-communication. We want information, and I hope that it will be forthcoming.

My second proposal, which I should like to make through the Deputy Leader of the House to her colleagues in the relevant Department and to the Post Office, is that we consider in every case the effect on the immediate business community. There can be devastating effects on parades of shops and in areas where there is deprivation. We need to consider that. The local authority is in many cases willing to be helpful, and the Post Office must take that into account.

Turning to my second local issue, I gather that a decision has been made, although nothing has been made public yet, about the world-famous poisons unit at the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. That is the unit to which people refer poisons, or potential poisons from all over the world for analysis and assessment, both in the context of crime and in the context of general medical treatment. It is to have its funding withdrawn, which is not a central Government matter, but a matter devolved to the Department of Health. The unit is well-established, and has an excellent national and international reputation. I hope that the final word has not been said on whether the money will be withdrawn, and I hope that the unit can remain in place in view of the quality of the service. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to help me to find out what is going on, so that we can get some information and debate the subject in the open rather than behind closed doors. I hope that we can put, and win, the case for the unit to stay open.

Thirdly, I am pleased to say that my local authority, Southwark council, and the private construction company Berkeley Homes have at last come to an agreement about the site called Potters Fields, which many hon. Members will know. It is on the right when one comes over Tower bridge from the north, next to London City Hall. It has been a derelict car park for many years, and is next to a very nice park. Southwark council and Berkeley Homes, both of which own part of the site, have at last come to an agreement to go back to the drawing board and together plan a new design for a cultural centre worthy of a landmark world heritage site. We have just heard a speech about an eminent landmark world heritage site in Shropshire that I know and admire. The design will replace the horrible eight pillars—a more vulgar name has been given to them—in the design that currently has planning permission. I hope that the Government and the new Mayor of London, whoever that will be, will support the new agreement, and that it will provide something to which the community can sign up, instead of the horrible monstrosity that we were to have inflicted on us, and which the community almost universally opposed.

I have a couple of final points to make, as other colleagues have many issues to put on the agenda. I wish to raise an issue that straddles constituency and national business, which has been raised by many colleagues on both sides of the House and by colleagues down the Corridor in the other place. My constituent Mehdi Kazemi, a 19-year-old Iranian, is at this minute in detention in the Netherlands. He came to the United Kingdom to study and was led to believe that if he went
3 Apr 2008 : Column 972
back to Iran he could be in severe trouble, or worse, because it had been announced publicly that he had had a gay relationship in Iran. I am not sure of all the historical facts, and it is not appropriate to share all of them now, but he makes the case that a former partner of his has been executed on the basis of his sexuality and sexual behaviour in Iran.

It is unarguable that the Iranian regime behaves in that way to gay people, as well as to other categories of people, including women and political dissenters. The request being made to the UK Government is that they review the policy in relation to sending people back to places such as Iran and, still, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia, when it is obvious that because of Government policy particular people are at particular risk. It is unacceptable that there is a policy under which people are expected to go back to certain countries of the world under certain regimes at certain times and to believe that they will be safe, and I hope it will be reviewed.

In the case that I mentioned, the Home Secretary, to her credit, said to me at the beginning, when I requested a stay after the initial hearing, that the Home Office would look at the case again. My constituent fled to mainland Europe, thinking that that might be a safer place, but if the Dutch authorities, as I expect, send him back to the UK, I am sure the Home Secretary will do that job properly. However, that job would be much easier if there were a general moratorium on deportations in such cases, where the vulnerability is established without argument and where people would be at huge risk if they were sent home.

My final request is topical. This is our last break before the May elections in London, much of England and Wales. May we bear in mind two things that are not working at all well?

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): The Lib Dems.

Simon Hughes: The Lib Dems are working, often very well, but I am well used to the hon. Lady’s partisan comments.

First, on electoral registration and the avoidance of electoral fraud, we still believe that there is huge under-registration across the country and in London in particular. I know that the Leader of the House is exercised by that. The figures are probably 10 per cent. across England and 20 per cent. in London. There cannot be free and fair elections if so many people are not registered to vote.

The Slough case the other day, where the judge was hugely critical of the system after the conviction of a Conservative councillor in Slough for electoral fraud and his disqualification, reminded the House, I hope, that we must have a system of individual registration—not registration by household—so that people can be individually checked. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House understands the importance of that. We need to maximise turnout and participation and minimise fraud. We are not there yet; it is work in progress.

Linked to that, we still have a nonsense system for counting people, especially in urban areas where there is a big turnover of population, and in other parts of the country as well, where the census and other ways of counting population are very much behind the reality.
3 Apr 2008 : Column 973
The director—I think that is her title—of the Office for National Statistics, the new boss of the ONS, has made it clear that the system is not sufficiently robust or up to date. The Greater London assembly carried out a survey which suggests that in a borough such as Southwark we probably underestimate our population in official figures by between 5,000 and 10,000.

When population figures are wrong, there is a knock-on effect on the local government settlement. Ministers accept that, but they say that they cannot do anything about the settlement that has just come into effect. We believe that boroughs get less support than they ought to, because the assessed population is lower than it should be. If we are to have a fair system for distributing funds around the country, we need a fair and up-to-date system for assessing how many people live in an area—how many adults, how many children and how many retired people—so that we have up-to-date figures.

My suggestion, which I have made before, is that every year we have, effectively, a census day combined with electoral registration day on a date that people can remember—say, 1 March, with a countdown throughout February that can be tied in with publicity—and that we use those figures not just for electoral registration, but as the latest best estimate on a rolling census basis. A big census would take place every 10 years; another census would take place on a five-yearly basis; and the annual figures would be fed in to update our population count. That would not disadvantage anybody. I hope that it would advantage everybody in Government and local government and be accepted as a good idea.

We welcome the recess Adjournment debate, whether it is the Easter, the April or the spring Adjournment. It is right that we should have a short break at this time of year, and I do not think that anyone opposes it. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pick up the issues that colleagues and I put on her agenda and pass them on to the right places for answers by the time we get back.

2.43 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I welcome occasions such as this, when we can raise issues that are important to our constituents. These debates are also useful for getting off our chest something that has been eating away at us for a long time. I intend to do both, and I hope to subtly link them together.

I draw the attention of the House to a 1920 Cabinet memo in which a prominent politician wrote about the occupation of Iraq, which was then Mesopotamia. He described it as

and he went on to say that

When I saw that, I thought it was some Marxist speaking, but it turned out to be Winston Churchill in a Cabinet memo. That encouraged me to penetrate Hansard further to see what the debates were like on the subject of Iraq in those far-off days, long before our time. I wish I had been alive and had participated in them, because they were much livelier. Members in all parts of the House were involved in discussing the issues. For example, we can see that Lloyd George’s Government and all his senior Ministers were involved in various debates over
3 Apr 2008 : Column 974
four years or more. The senior members were Curzon, Churchill, Chamberlain, Milner, Montagu, Bonar Law and the Prime Minister himself, Lloyd George—not a bad line up for a premier division team. One can imagine how heavily focused those debates would have been on the subject of the invasion.

I think that those debates were more entertaining and more interesting because they discussed the costs of the new territorial acquisition. Discussions took place in both Chambers and Army and Air Force estimates were looked at in open debate over several sittings. In those days, the essential feature of debates was that they occurred before the decisions had been made. They did not ratify something in an earlier estimate that led to spending; there was genuine discussion of how much should be invested in a particular year and in a particular foreign field. It was interesting.

Looking at our behaviour over the past few years, we see that there has not been complete lack of scrutiny—of course not; it happened elsewhere, in Select Committees and so on—but the financial cost has been pushed aside. It is not irrelevant to discuss that too. I tried to raise it the other night in a serious debate on the need for an inquiry and was told, quite sharply, that it was irrelevant. I do not think that it is entirely irrelevant, and I shall try to explain why.

It seems to me that people feel guilty about talking a lot about Iraq because we are letting the side and the soldiers down. I feel that, and I am sure that everybody round here does too, but I do not feel at all guilty about raising this subject. When I go back to Norwich, I get it all the time when I talk to constituents and hear that the pensioners cannot heat their homes. A few will write in—not a massive number—and there are always a few who come to see me. I always say, “Well, we can’t cost up everything.” Their answer, which I am sure all hon. Members have received, is, “You don’t have any trouble finding money for Iraq and Afghanistan.” I see heads nodding. People make a human response. Perhaps they do not understand the detail of it all—I do not think that I do, either—but I understand that kind of response.

I carried out some research with an old colleague of mine—a professor at the university of East Anglia—on the cost of the war to the British Government, which is about £9.9 billion at the minute. That is a minimum estimate, as it takes into account only operational capital expenditure, rather than indirect costs such as higher oil prices, loss of investor confidence and the possibility of a global recession—all the things in which the war has probably been a factor. I am not saying that it has been a major or a minor factor, but expenditure on the war has been a factor in such events across the world.

A book by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist, has just been published. I know that economists do not always agree with each other, but winning the Nobel prize is not bad; it is recognition by one’s peers. He claims that the war in Iraq alone will end up costing the UK more than £20 billion. His book is called “The Three Trillion Dollar War”. It is very significant and well worth a read in the next few weeks when people have the time to do that.

I want to make a contrast with the attitude of my constituents when they see the money being shovelled into that enterprise, be it good or bad as far as individuals and their parties are concerned. There is a local NHS walk-in centre on my patch at a place called Dussindale
3 Apr 2008 : Column 975
in Thorpe St. Andrew. Set up by the Government early on, it has had £531,000 taken from it. At the same time and over the same period, we have put in £3,297 million to service the work in Iraq and Afghanistan. That funding seems to have no end, as we heard this week with the continuation of the events in Basra and so on. We do not know where this will end up. Contrasting those things in the minds of the constituents whom we all serve, we can understand why there is a little feeling of unease about how well we perform in making financial assessments. The walk-in centre is successful: 5,000 people a month go for treatment of minor injuries and illnesses, skin complaints, muscle and joint injuries, minor cuts and wounds, and so on. It was very much opposed by GPs, on grounds that only they can handle such things, and is staffed completely by nurses. It is a great success—seven days a week, 24 hours a day—and it is wonderful. It sits next to a big supermarket, so people drift in with their problems.

A polyclinic may be set up central Norwich, which I see as a means whereby GPs can find their way back into the process. They may have a role to play, but it should not be at the expense of the walk-in clinics. Central Norwich had the opportunity to have its own walk-in clinic in the early days of the Labour Government and the GPs rejected it. I am all for progress, but in a big sprawling city, two centres are needed so that people can easily access treatment for minor complaints, so axing such services should not be part of our agenda. They are popular with the local population and they have received huge press coverage; there will probably be more of it during the next few months.

The nurse practitioners say that the centre can be run at a fraction of the cost of the war. We should be rewarding those places for the work that they do, encouraging and expanding it. When something is successful, we should not suddenly do away with it. I make a plea for the funding of the walk-in centre to be restored in full, so that the kind of services that the Government have been talking about this week, including pharmacies, continue. We do not need a GP for many of the functions at the primary level of our health service. I am not saying that we should take money from the war and put it into such services. We must find the right balance. I am not saying that troops should be brought back; that is an argument for another time and place. But the cost of the war should be balanced against these cuts. We have also heard about post office cuts, but in rural Norfolk and parts of Suffolk, as well as Telford, London and elsewhere, they are very important, and we should be finding the resources for them.

The House needs to debate how decisions are made on these issues so that we can strike a balance between where the money goes. The House fails badly when it comes to saying where the Treasury money should go. It is no use holding up our hands and saying that we will never get certain matters past the Treasury. We are in a position to get the Treasury to act in such areas and our constituents expect us to do so.

2.52 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I shall not seek to detain the House for long, but I want to raise two important issues that my constituents feel
3 Apr 2008 : Column 976
should be brought to the House’s attention before we go into recess. We have already heard during today’s debate about sub-post offices, but the first issue that I want to raise concerns Chelmsford Crown post office.

Until last summer, Chelmsford Crown post office was an extremely fine institution on the ground floor of a stand-alone building close to disabled car parking and accessible to shoppers in the centre of Chelmsford. Solely as a penny-pinching, cost-saving exercise, the Post Office decided to close down that post office and to move it to the first floor of WH Smith in Chelmsford High street. That is not a problem inasmuch as the location is still in the centre of the town with easy access from the outside of the building, but the problems begin on the inside, because as always with such deals the services are on the first floor. No retailer will give up its prime ground floor site where people enter the shop from the street to buy its products. The important issue is whether there is good and proper access to the first floor for members of the public—particularly those in wheelchairs, the frail and those with disabilities. As far as the Chelmsford Crown post office in WH Smith is concerned, the short answer is that there is not.

Before this happened, I warned the Post Office that there would be problems, but my warnings were brushed aside. Unfortunately, the Crown post office has been in WH Smith for six or seven months and, sadly, my fears have been fully realised. There is a staircase to the first floor and one escalator; there is not an up escalator and a down escalator, so that is a problem. However, the Post Office says that that is not a problem because there is a lift. Indeed there is: it is small, so if people in wheelchairs want to use it, queues form. Inevitably, the lift breaks down. It did recently, and that caused tremendous problems. In the past seven months, people—certainly on one occasion—have had to be carried down by paramedics to get from the first floor out of the building. It is unforgivable that such a service is being provided in exchange for the first-class service that we received when we had our own stand-alone post office.

There is another problem. People can get in through the WH Smith high street entrance from the same level, although if they are going to the Post Office they then have to use the escalator, go up the stairs or, if they can, get into the lift. However, the only way to come in through the other entrance—in the London road, where all the buses stop—is down four very steep steps. There is no access for wheelchairs, so wheelchair users have to go all the way round to the other entrance. For those with non-motorised wheelchairs, that is a long distance. That is unacceptable.

Next Section Index Home Page