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22 July 2008 : Column 188WH—continued

Those changes reflect the way we live. To do nothing in the face of such challenges was not an option—I alluded to that during an intervention—and we are talking about long-term trends. Between 1979 and 1997, some 3,500 post offices closed, but on a random and unmanaged basis. We are trying to put some organisation into that. To be fair, Opposition Members should address the long-term decline of our post office branches for social, economic and internet reasons. Instead of walking away and leaving the network to decline with no plans for where or how branches would close, the Government have provided a subsidy of £150 million a year. That supports 7,500 non-commercial branches that would
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otherwise close. That subsidy is part of an overall programme of public support for the Post Office of £1.7 billion until 2011.

I was listening carefully when the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) said that the Conservative party, if it is in government one day, would continue to subsidise the Post Office, and I believe he said that that would be at the same level. I listened to that with interest. It is precisely because we recognise its important social and economic role that the Government are committed to a national network with reasonable access to post office services, and are putting in this level of financial support. But Governments also have a duty to taxpayers and subsidies cannot be unlimited.

The challenges facing the network are widely recognised and, at the start of the programme, George Thomson, General Secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, said:

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, in a debate on the post office network in March, said that

That was a perfectly understandable and sensible statement. Indeed, if I understood her correctly, the hon. Lady herself said that she did not blame the Post Office.

Mrs. Gillan: I blame the Government.

Malcolm Wicks: Does the hon. Lady blame the last Government, this Government, or both, because they have both presided over a decline in the post office network? I thought she recognised the reality that some post offices will have to close. Is she going to make it clear which Government she is blaming?

Mrs. Gillan: I made it very clear that I blame the Minister’s Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) has made clear, the rate of decline and the closure of post office branches under the recent Labour Administration has been far greater—[Interruption.] In fact, as I have just been prompted to say, it has taken place at three times the previous rate.

More importantly, although this debate was called to deal with specific issues in relation to our post offices, the Minister is dealing in generalities. I appreciate that there are some difficult decisions to make, but our taxpayers in our constituencies want part of their taxes to go towards sustaining a viable post office network for them to use. I hope that the Minister will move off the generalities, because we have rehearsed those debates, and come on to the specifics in relation to all our constituencies. Frankly, there are many things that the Government have not done—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. That was a long intervention.

Malcolm Wicks: It is important to put the matter in context because although it could be said that the rate of closures has increased in recent years, the internet
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and patterns of drawing pensions have become more of a reality in recent years. Those things cannot be avoided.

The county of Buckinghamshire is covered by two separate area plan proposals: south Essex, south Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire area plan; and Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and south Lincolnshire area plan. Under both area plan proposals, nearly 92 per cent. of customers would see no change to their nearest post office, which is a fact worth underlining.

The access criteria set down by the Government last year are designed to ensure a national network with reasonable access to post office services throughout the country. Broadly speaking, those criteria mean that most people should be within 1 mile of a post office branch in urban areas, and within 3 miles of a branch in rural communities. I think I am right is saying that that has not been measured as the crow flies, but that it has been done the proper way.

Charles Hendry: Although account has been taken of rivers—in other words, someone would be taken across a bridge, rather than expecting them to swim across the river—and of mountains, no account has been taken of wiggly roads.

Malcolm Wicks: I am advised—but I shall check my facts and write to the hon. Gentleman if I have this wrong—that the distances quoted in the public consultation documents are calculated by road distances. That is what I am advised, but I want to get this right and if am wrong, I will write to him.

When drawing up its change proposals, in addition to taking account of the access criteria, Post Office Ltd considers many other factors, including the availability of public transport, alternative access to key post office services and the impact on local economies. When drawing up its plans, Post Office Ltd also actively sought the views of key stakeholders, including local councils, and asked about plans for regeneration.

During the local public consultation, there is a further opportunity to make Post Office Ltd aware of any other factors. However, it is important to be clear what the consultation is about. The consultation is not a vote or a referendum on whether a particular post office should close; it is about ensuring that Post Office Ltd has the best available knowledge on which to make informed decisions about which offices should close. The consultation is about how that is to be done, not whether it is to be done.

The decision to reduce the size of the network was taken by the Secretary of State in May 2007, but that does not mean that changes cannot be made to the plans. For example, in the two area plans that cover Buckinghamshire, between 15 and 16 per cent. of the initial closure proposals were changed as a result of detailed pre-consultation input from key interest groups—including the consumer body Postwatch—before they were put out to local consultation.

Mr. Lancaster: Given that the process has supposedly taken place during the past six months, why was the location of those post offices that are to be closed leaked last November?

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Malcolm Wicks: I do not know about that leak. I will look into the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman, if that seems sensible to him.

Concern has been expressed about the closure of allegedly profitable post offices, but caution is needed in equating busy branches with profitable ones. There are two factors to take into account when assessing the profitability of a particular post office. First, the business done in a post office and the level of payment from Post Office Ltd directly into that branch has to be considered. Secondly, consideration should be given to the central support costs from Post Office Ltd that are attributable to a branch. That might include IT costs, cash handling and other services not paid by the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress. Taking both factors into account, three out of four post offices are loss-making for Post Office Ltd, including many relatively busy offices.

Although it is difficult for Post Office Ltd to give specific detailed financial information on individual branches without breaching commercial confidentiality or obtaining the sub-postmasters’ permission, Post Office Ltd has confirmed that the average saving it makes for closing a branch is around £18,000 a year. In addition, Post Office Ltd will share an estimate of the total individual branch saving with the relevant Member of Parliament on a confidential basis.

Lorely Burt rose—

Malcolm Wicks: I do not think that I should give way because I need to spend five minutes replying to the points made.

The issue of card accounts was mentioned, which I remember clearly from when I was the Minister for Pensions. I appreciate that there are concerns about that. The facts are that the contract for the Post Office card account runs out in 2010 and the Government have agreed that there will be a new card account beyond that. I say to the hon. Member for Wealdon that, legally, we had to put that out to tender. It is not possible simply to award the contract to the Post Office. The Post Office is in a strong position to bid, but it would be inappropriate to say anything more without potentially jeopardising the tendering process. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that.

There has been some talk about what sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses can say, and that they have been told not to speak to the press. I think that that matter has been clarified by the hon. Member for Wealden. The situation is that some sub-postmasters are asked to maintain confidentiality about closure proposals until
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plans have been finalised for publication. After publication and throughout local consultation, sub-postmasters are free to make their views known to the public and the press, which many have done, and rightly so.

I think that the matter of compensation has also been clarified, but I shall just make it clear. Last summer the Post Office issued a letter that wrongly suggested—I think this is where the misunderstanding began—that compensation could somehow be effected. A letter was re-drafted to state that there was a clear commitment to there being no link between compensation and sub-postmasters’ views. I hope sub-postmasters are clear about that.

In looking to the future, as I said at the beginning, the process is not easy. I appreciate the concerns that have been raised by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and by her colleagues, but I repeat that post office closures are not new; they have been happening for some years. I also repeat the point that some of the socio-economic changes and technological developments in relation to the internet have speeded up in recent years. It is therefore not surprising—

Mrs. Gillan rose—

Malcolm Wicks: In the final minute I shall give way to the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Gillan: I think the Minister is pleading new technology in defence. There are plenty of initiatives that could have been taken by the Government that would have meant that post offices would not be in the situation that they are in today when so many of them are closing in Buckinghamshire. Will the Minister give us some glimmer of hope? In his estimation would he say that there is a possibility of saving some of my post offices from closure?

Malcolm Wicks: I have said that some post offices have been saved from closure through the consultation process. I recognise that this is difficult territory and I do not think that any of us can hide from the sheer level of change—not least in telecommunications. That is not an excuse; it is a fact that any serious party must address.

I congratulate the hon. Lady and her colleagues on the way in which they have presented their cases. We understand the importance of the local post office network for communities—not least for frail and elderly people—and I hope that I have given some indication of what lies behind the Government’s policy on this complex but important subject.

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Bovine Tuberculosis

10.59 am

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Olner, for calling me to open this important debate on bovine tuberculosis.

I initiated the debate in my capacity as chairman of the all-party group on dairy farmers. I set up the group a few years ago, and we now have more than 170 Members. I am pleased to say that it is a cross-party group. We work together extremely well in fighting for the cause of dairy farmers. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) in his place, as he is an active member of the group.

The National Farmers Union has calculated that a total of 40,000 cattle will be slaughtered in our country this year as a result of bovine TB. In the county of Shropshire, the situation is equally dire. In 1997, 47 cattle were slaughtered there as a result of bovine TB. This year, conservative estimates put the Shropshire figure at 1,600. I have repeatedly mentioned the figures in the House. To go from 47 to 1,600 cattle slaughtered a year in Shropshire alone is phenomenal.

Many farmers in my constituency have been brought to their knees. I do not use that expression lightly, because I feel passionately about the issue. They have been brought to their knees not only by the Rural Payments Agency but predominantly by the rampant spread of bovine tuberculosis throughout Shropshire. The disease is clearly out of control. We need the Government to take immediate, well thought-out and strategic action. I was devastated when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced in the House that there would be no cull of badgers.

What really concerns me is that local communities and local councils are not allowed to make decisions, or at least to be party to the decision-making process. We should devolve responsibility and a certain amount of accountability to local councils. That is what happens in Germany and other countries. Their Governments understand that the situation varies throughout the country, and they allow certain regions to make their own decisions. I should have thought that the Government would want to devolve responsibility, as culling badgers is such a controversial issue.

In Shropshire, I would call for a limited cull of badgers in the triangle formed by Pontesbury, Minsterley and Westbury on the Shropshire-Wales border, which is where bovine TB is at its most acute and rampant. That would show whether a cull might work. If the Government had given us the power, that is where I would have used it. As it is, I have to joke with farmers in my constituency about chasing the badgers across the border into Wales.

The Government have given the Welsh Assembly autonomy and responsibility, but they will not give it to us in the west midlands. They give the Welsh the ability to deal with these things in their own way. Indeed, in conjunction with Plaid Cymru, the socialist Members of the Assembly have decided to have a limited cull of badgers. It is frustrating to live cheek by jowl with a Welsh community that has listened to the advice of scientists and is having a limited cull, when just across the border in Shropshire, we are not allowed to do so.

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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He was a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and will remember our discussions on bovine TB. We said that we were not against the culling of badgers but that it could never be the cornerstone of TB control. Does he agree? Does he believe that there is merit in considering post-movement testing, which needs high priority in order to identify infected animals, as 40 per cent. of TB outbreaks are restricted to a single animal in the herd and that animal is then culled?

Daniel Kawczynski: I concur. I hope that the Minister will reply to that important point. I agree that culling badgers is not a panacea. However, I would have liked the opportunity to discover whether a small, limited cull could have an impact on the disease.

Despite being devastated and disappointed by the Secretary of State’s announcement, I hope that the Minister will be able to give me and the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire a crumb of comfort on a subject that was raised by Barney Holbeche, the chief parliamentary adviser for the NFU. He wrote to me this week, saying that

I hope that the Minister will assure us that the NFU’s important victory will not be challenged, and that farmers with high-value cattle will receive proper compensation, a matter that I have raised on numerous occasions in Westminster Hall.

On 8 July, we held a demonstration outside Parliament. I brought together hundreds of farmers from all over the country. We planned the demonstration months in advance, but by sheer chance it took place the day after the announcement that there would be no culling of badgers. We were all outside demonstrating, and we brought cows with us. There were also cows outside Nobel house, DEFRA’s headquarters.

We were very English in our demonstration. We were reserved and polite, and we did not cause too much of a fuss, but we wanted to show the level of feeling that exists. The demonstration was followed by a question and answer session in the House, where Labour and Conservative Members were able to interact with farmers. I congratulate my constituent, Andrew Bebb, of the Shropshire Farmers for Action group, Stuart Jones, Mr. Jonathan Lovegrove-Fielden and the NFU on helping to organise the demonstration.

We need more intensive and radical action. We must not be too English. We should be more like the French, and ramp up our demonstrations and activities. We should make the Government sit up and listen to what we have to say about the state of affairs in the agricultural dairy sector. They must take more specific and proper action.

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