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13 Nov 2008 : Column 961

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): This is going to sound very trivial, but it is actually quite important to our landscape and countryside. May we have a debate on conkers or, perhaps more properly, on invasive pathogens on native British trees? Horse chestnuts are being assailed by Phytophthora, leaf miner caterpillar and, most seriously of all, by Pseudomonas syringae—a new and very aggressive disease, which has affected possibly 50 to 75 per cent. of the native horse chestnut population. We do not want to see the same sort of depredation that happened to elms as a result of Dutch elm disease, so may we have a debate to discuss what can be done?

Ms Harman: Just as elms were part of and defined the landscape of England, Wales and Scotland, so, too, do horse chestnuts after the demise of those elms. The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is partly to do with viruses and partly to do with the effect of climate change. Indeed, this is just one manifestation of climate change, which is why we must step up all-party action on it, both nationally and internationally.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): For the best part of 40 years, since the Government of Harold Wilson established the excellent Girobank, the Post Office has been involved in one way or another with banking services. In view of last week’s interesting suggestion by Lord Mandelson about a possible future role for the Post Office in banking services, and regardless of what our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions says in his statement at 12.30, does the Leader of the House agree that the credit crunch has completely transformed the debate about the future of the Post Office? Once we have absorbed what our right hon. Friend’s statement means in its entirety, would it not be useful if we had a topical debate on the future role of the Post Office in the banking system?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right that the credit crunch has provided an imperative to think afresh about the delivery of financial services. He mentions the Post Office’s role in providing such services, but there is also the issue of credit unions. My hon. Friend referred to the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, who is already aware of those issues, and our hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) has also made some proposals; they will be under active consideration.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Returning to the theme of being in a learning environment, several of my constituents are as a result of computer problems having difficulty getting into one because they cannot get the education maintenance allowance to which they are entitled. I took their cases up with the Learning and Skills Council on 7 November and I recently received a reply saying simply that all providers will be kept up to date. We need to do a bit better than that, so may we have a specific date and will the Education Secretary come to the Dispatch Box to tell us when it will be?

Ms Harman: The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will answer questions on Monday. The hon. Gentleman can raise the matter then to establish whether the Secretary of State has anything to add to the written ministerial statement that he has already made on this topic.

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Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Last Tuesday I had the honour of opening the new search and rescue force headquarters at RAF Valley in my constituency. On that day, an international conference took place enabling delegates from all over the world to learn from the British way, which is the best way when it comes to rescue.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the search and rescue force works with a number of partners, including the police and agencies such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Will she join me in applauding that agency’s professionalism? May we have a debate on the wages and conditions of those professional people, many of whom survive on an income just above the minimum wage?

Ms Harman: I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the search and rescue organisations and the partnership which, as he said, includes both the police and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I also join him in acknowledging the work of that agency, which is not just about search and rescue but about regulation—not red tape, but important regulation that preserves the safety of vessels at sea and protects the environment by ensuring that goods are transported safely.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May we have an early debate, in Government time, on the losses of depositors in the Isle of Man banks? I realise that we had an Adjournment debate on the subject last week, but that is not sufficient. I myself do not call for Governments to compensate in the absence of fault, nor are Governments the guarantors of last resort; but the House must have an opportunity to explore whether or not the Government were at fault. There are issues of parity to be considered. Furthermore, the question arises of whether the Government should loan money to the compensatory authorities in the jurisdictions, to enable those jurisdictions to compensate to the extent of the schemes then in place.

Ms Harman: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made a substantial point about a situation that is both very complex and, for the people whose money is frozen or lost or who are worried about it, very simple indeed. I shall raise it with my colleagues in the Treasury to establish whether a written ministerial statement is necessary in respect of those with deposits in Isle of Man financial institutions.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Along with many other hon. Members, I met firefighters yesterday. May we have a debate on the Floor of the House about the conditions in which our firefighters are now expected to work? I was extremely concerned to learn that there has been no hot-fire training for established firefighters in Hertfordshire since 2001, and that many are still expected to use communication equipment that does not stand up to heat. I understand that there are 40 outstanding policy recommendations relating to firefighters and firefighting incidents, and I believe that we need an urgent debate to discuss the future of our firefighting services.

Ms Harman: I welcome what the hon. Lady has said, and will draw it to the attention of relevant Ministers.

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Once again we have heard about the beneficial effect of regulations. This is not red tape or a health-and-safety culture, but proper regulation to protect people who are doing a very important job, and I welcome the fact that an Opposition Member has supported that rather than decrying it.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The Leader of the House will be as concerned as I am to learn that troops who are being deployed with ever-increasing amounts of heavy equipment are exceeding troop flight weight limits, which means that their personal kit must be left behind to be sent on at some later date. I have also learned, from a memo dated 10 October 2008 from General Richards, that good will parcels sent by generous members of the public may not be dispatched, which is not good in the run-up to Christmas. Will the Leader of the House ensure that there is a debate in Government time on the common factor, namely the inadequacy of the United Kingdom airbridge?

Ms Harman: A priority for us in Government is the support and protection of our troops in theatre. I will raise the specific points made by the hon. Gentleman with my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, and will ask them to write to him.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Treasury Ministers have been extraordinarily generous with their time in allowing themselves to be held to account in the House, given that they are trying to manage one of the most significant financial crises in the last 100 years. When might I have an opportunity to raise the important issue of pensioners who have suffered a considerable reduction in their incomes? HSBC is currently targeting pensioners with a bonus-option account paying just 1.5 per cent. in interest.

Will the Leader of the House also tell me when we can raise another important issue? The Paulson plan in the United States seems to be failing. It has now begun bailing out credit card and student loan debt, which is a sign that the financial crisis is becoming a great deal worse.

Ms Harman: As I have just told the House, the Chancellor will present his pre-Budget report on Monday week. I am sure that the important points raised by the hon. Gentleman can be raised again on that occasion.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In September 2006, a 16-year-old child came to this country from eastern Europe expecting to be given work in a bar. In fact, she was sold into sex slavery. She was raped,
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beaten, held at gunpoint, and moved from brothel to brothel. Thankfully, the Metropolitan police unit that deals with human trafficking rescued that young girl, and I am pleased to say that the trafficking gang were given a total of 52 years in prison. What is very disturbing, however, is that the unit has now been disbanded. May we have a statement from the Home Office explaining why it has done that?

Ms Harman: There is no lessening of the work done by not only the Metropolitan police, but police authorities throughout the country, to deal with the trafficking of young girls. I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has consistently done on the issue, both as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on trafficking of women and children and in raising it in the House.

The case to which the hon. Gentleman referred is the Plakici case, which I referred to the Court of Appeal. That is why there was such a large increase in the sentence. A sentence of 22 years sends the deterrent message that the courts in this country will not tolerate human trafficking.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced that she will be presenting legislation to deal with human trafficking. We must not only tackle the traffickers—who must be prosecuted and given big deterrent sentences—and protect the victims, but recognise the responsibility of the men who pay for sex in brothels up and down the country. We must tackle what is described as the demand side of this terrible trade. My right hon. Friend’s legislation will ensure that men who have sex with victims of trafficking are prosecuted, found guilty and brought to justice.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): This week the independent monitoring board for prisons highlighted the problems caused by the use of mobile phones by prisoners in prisons for the purpose of organising crime, particularly relating to drugs, both inside and outside prison walls. When may we have a statement from the Ministry of Justice about the action that it intends to take to tackle the problem, which I hope will include the installation of mobile phone blockers in Her Majesty’s prisons?

Ms Harman: I shall raise the hon. Gentleman’s important point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, and will ensure that my right hon. Friend writes to him. Obviously prisoners need to communicate with their families to ensure that they do not break down while a family member is in prison, but the last thing that anyone wants is for them to organise crimes from their mobile phones in prison.

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Post Office Card Account

12.28 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the future of the Post Office card account.

The Government created the Post Office card account in 2003. We announced that there would be a successor in 2006. On the basis of the legal advice that we received at the time, we put the contract out to tender. During that process, I have been unable to comment publicly or privately on the matter. I know that that has been frustrating for hon. Members, and I thank them for their patience and understanding. [Laughter.]

I also know that all hon. Members would agree that the Post Office is at the heart of their communities. It reaches the places and people that no one else reaches. That is why the Government have invested £2 billion in the Post Office since 1997; why we have, for the first time, set out access criteria to preserve its reach; and why we will invest another £1.7 billion between now and 2011.

There is no doubt that the Post Office card account is central to maintaining a viable post office network. It not only generates a key part of the Post Office’s income, but brings with it a footfall that is vital to individual sub-postmasters. Post Office card account customers have shown how much they value the service through the postcard campaign that has resulted in large postbags for hon. Members over the last few months.

It is also clear that maintaining a viable Post Office network is even more critical now than it was two years ago. The financial turbulence that began in America and the string of consequences that followed it have understandably made many people, particularly the most vulnerable in our society, more concerned about financial transactions. The Post Office, with its trusted brand, is seen as safe, secure and reliable as a provider of financial services.

So I believe that now cannot be the time for the Government to do anything that would put that network at risk, particularly as post offices are often the only providers of banking services in both rural and deprived urban areas. The Post Office also has a proven record of being able to move billions of pounds in cash safely around the country and prides itself on meeting the needs of vulnerable customers. Sub-postmasters know their customers and provide a social service as well as a banking service. Delivering this vital social service for groups in our communities who need it most is not only an objective of the Post Office. It is an objective that the Government share passionately as well. To safeguard that service, we must help and support a viable post office network.

For that reason, I can announce today that the Government have now decided to cancel the current unfinished procurement exercise and to award a new contract for the continuation of the Post Office card account directly to Post Office Ltd, within the terms of the relevant EC regulations. The contract will run initially from April 2010 to March 2015 with the possibility of an extension beyond that.

I recognise, of course, that this decision will disappoint those other bidders who had reached the final stage of the competition. I want to emphasise to the House, as I
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have done to them personally, that my decision does not reflect in any way on their ability to have provided the services in question. Nor is it a step we have taken lightly. We recognise the importance of competition in the awarding of public contracts, but we have concluded that, in these circumstances, protecting vulnerable groups by preserving a viable Post Office network justifies the award of a contract outside the competitive process. These are exceptional times and we believe that this is a proper and proportionate response. The Post Office considers that this decision, along with the extra money invested by this Government, will ensure a commercially viable future for the post offices that will be in place after the modernisation and network change programme is complete.

I said that I would make a decision as soon as I could. I said that I would not rush the decision. I said that what was important was that we made the right decision. I believe this is the right decision. It is good news for our constituents, good news for Post Office Ltd and good news for sub-postmasters. I trust that it will be welcomed by hon. Members, and I commend it to the House.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): May I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of the statement?

Although this is a work and pensions contract, it of course has massive implications for the Post Office. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) is in the midlands today, so I am pleased to take his place at the Dispatch Box.

Today’s statement is disarray dressed up as decision. The announcement is long overdue. We expected it in July, we were promised it for October but we have it only now. It is clear that the Government were looking for every possible way of giving the contract to someone other than the Post Office, but in the end, they simply did not dare. Today marks a great success for those who have campaigned for the Post Office and a humiliating climbdown for the Government who have done everything they possibly could to find a way of awarding it to somebody else.

The Government insisted on having a tender, and today, after months of an expensive process, they have simply binned that tender altogether. Why did the Government not do from the start what the Irish did and award it without a tender? What has changed since the beginning of the process? How much did the aborted process cost? Will the Secretary of State be compensating those other bidders who were not successful?

Is it not the case that the tender terms were a complete mess and opened up the award of the contract to great confusion? Can the Secretary of State confirm that the legal status of the decision is 100 per cent. watertight? Can he tell the House that there is no risk of or scope for any legal challenge from anybody who was not awarded the contract? What is his estimate of the revenue that Post Office branches will enjoy from this new contract compared with the one that currently exists? Is it not the case that the POCA is absolutely essential to some of the most vulnerable, and as unemployment rises—in large part thanks to the Government’s incompetence—even through the 3 million mark, that POCA will become even more significant during the economic downturn?

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We have proposed expanding POCA so that it can be used by account holders to pay their utility bills by a form of direct debit, not only ensuring lower tariffs for the most vulnerable customers but giving a £20 million boost to Post Office revenues. Will the Secretary of State pledge to look again at this sensible proposal and undertake to adopt it?

Can the Secretary of State also confirm that the proposed new contract fully complies with all the requirements and stipulations laid down by the EU and that the EU has already signified that this is the case? [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The House listened with courtesy to the Minister and I think it should do the same for the Opposition spokesman.

Alan Duncan: We are still waiting for the results of the Hooper review into the future of the Royal Mail, which will have serious implications for the whole network, but this keeps being delayed too. Will the Minister confirm when the Hooper report will be published?

Over the last two years, the Government’s handling of the Post Office has undermined its business, and caused painful turmoil and growing pain for postmasters and communities. We have seen the compulsory closure, on a highly arbitrary basis, of thousands of branches. The new Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, who is unaccountable to this House, has spoken recklessly of privatising the Post Office. His letter to the Prime Minister has been leaked, The Guardian has been briefed and the talk of opening up the post office to greater financial services is exactly the policy we have been advocating for two years, but which at every turn the Government have opposed.

Post offices, communities and many of the country’s most needy people will today be breathing a sigh of relief that the card account has been re-awarded to the Post Office, but they will know that the Government have been shamed into taking this decision from a mixture of internal weakness and division in their own ranks. This is not a success for the Government, but a triumph for which campaigners deserve the credit.

James Purnell: I wish that, just once, the Opposition would come to the House and say that a decision is the right one; they could have said they supported this decision and that they would now get on with supporting post offices. The hon. Gentleman took churlishness to new levels, I think, but I will nevertheless try to answer his questions.

This is the right decision for our customers and for communities around the country. Unfortunately, I thought that the hon. Gentleman was trying to unpick the decision rather than saying that it was the right one and moving forward. I am glad to be able to say that the decision will not be unpicked, and I will answer his points in order.

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