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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 18 January 2011

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

Funding Formula

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Miss Chloe Smith.)

9.30 am

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): I am grateful to Mr Speaker for allocating me this important debate. It is a particular pleasure to serve under you, Mr Dobbin.

I have wanted to make this speech for a considerable time. As a member of a governing party with a bold and reforming agenda across large parts of Government, I hope that that spirit of boldness will also be applied to this issue and that it will be allied to a keen sense of fairness and justice so that we do the right thing by every part of the United Kingdom.

I speak as a committed Unionist and I want every part of the United Kingdom to be treated absolutely fairly as far as central Government funding is concerned. However, the formula that currently allocates funding between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for large parts of public expenditure is broken. Even the man after whom it is named, Lord Barnett, wants to get rid of it and speaks against it. It really is time for us to look at it, as I shall try to show in my remarks.

The formula dates back to 1976. It was decided, across certain parts of Government spending, to allocate 85p in every pound to England, 10p in every pound to Scotland and 5p in every pound to Wales. That was done on the basis of population figures from the mid-1970s. Those figures have never been changed; all that has been changed over the years are the annual increments. We are therefore working on a population baseline from the mid-1970s that bears no relation to the significantly increased population in England or the increased population in Wales. At the same time, the population in Scotland has remained broadly static. In the excellent debate on the Barnett formula in the House of Lords, Lord Sewel, a Labour peer, referred to

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important subject for debate, but his comments about the starting point for the Barnett formula give the impression that the 85%, 10% and 5% figures reflected the populations of the different parts of the UK at the time. Surely, that was not the case. Even at that stage, the formula reflected the different needs in the different parts of the UK by giving Scotland and Wales a slightly higher allocation per head. Population did not define the breakdown in different parts of the UK at the start.

Andrew Selous: The formula was fundamentally on a population basis. If the hon. Gentleman reads the excellent report by the House of Lords Committee on the Barnett
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formula, which came out in July 2009, he will see the significance of the population issue. I propose that we move to a needs-based formula, and that was the Committee's unanimous, cross-party conclusion, which was supported by its Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Cross-Bench members. I think I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I absolutely want to reflect the higher need that is clearly evident in Wales and parts of Scotland so that we are totally fair. The evidence is that we are not doing that now. The situation has become unfair, and that is a danger to the Union.

Let us see what the man after whom the formula is named has said. Speaking of the formula's creation in 1976, he said:

He also said:

He added:

or more than 30 years. Those who pray in aid the Barnett formula should be well aware that its author thinks that it is time we moved on to something that is fairer and that is built on a needs basis.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): Will the hon. Gentleman refer to the Holtham commission, which looked at the nature of the funding for Wales? It identified that Wales has been underfunded historically to the tune of about £300 million per annum.

Andrew Selous: I will most certainly refer to the Holtham commission. What the hon. Gentleman says is quite correct. He should have no fear about what I propose. The Holtham commission came to the same conclusion as the House of Commons Justice Committee report in July 2009 and the excellent House of Lords Committee report, on which there was a good debate on 11 March 2010. The commission really said the same thing as those reports: we need to move to a needs-based formula.

The money given to Wales and Scotland is distributed on a needs basis across the Principality and Scotland. It should not, therefore, be too difficult to put together a needs-based formula to allocate the money. That is difficult to argue against, and as I said, leading members of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties came to the unanimous conclusion in the House of Lords Committee report that we should move to such a formula.

I want to spend a little time explaining why the situation is unfair for England. We sometimes look at the Barnett formula as if it is just about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As a committed Unionist, however, I think we also have to remember the English. I do not, in any sense, say that apologetically; I just think we need to be fair to everyone, because poor people in England have similar rights and should also be treated fairly.

Council tax in Scotland has been frozen for a considerable number of years. Many of my constituents have worked hard all their lives to buy the home they love, but some are forced to sell their homes because they cannot afford the council tax, which goes up year after year. Is that fair?

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I also think of business rates. I represent a town called Dunstable, which recently had 56 empty shops in its high street. Many shopkeepers told me time and time again that business rates were driving them out of business. Hon. Members might therefore be interested to know that business rates in Scotland were reduced by 80% for businesses with rateable values of up to £8,000 in 2008-09 and scrapped entirely in 2009 and 2010. Business rates were cut by half for businesses with a rateable value of up to £10,000 and by up to 25% for those with a rateable value of up to £15,000. Of course, I commend the Minister for recognising that unfairness as far as England is concerned and for bringing some relief, although it is not as much or as generous as elsewhere. I thank her and her Treasury colleagues very much for what they have done, but there are businesses that would still be operating in my constituency and paying tax revenue to the Treasury had we applied that relief earlier and more fairly across the United Kingdom.

Since 2002, personal care in Scotland has been given without reference to need, whereas it is time limited and not available in the same way in England. Prescription charges are much lower in Scotland and will be abolished completely by April. They do not exist in Wales. Why should people in the same circumstances in England have to pay prescription charges? On hospital car parking charges, it costs £2.50 per visit to park at my local hospital. If someone on a low income has a family member in hospital for a long period, those charges will be significant. Again, such charges are not paid in Scotland.

This year, the situation with tuition fees and education maintenance allowance really was the straw that broke the camel's back for a lot of people in England. English Members have been receiving lots of letters about education maintenance allowance and the fact that it is to be replaced by a discretionary grant; but of course it is being kept in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There will continue to be no tuition fees for Scottish students and there will be no increase in the fees for Welsh students, while those of English students will double. Therefore, in a few years' time a Scots graduate, a Welsh graduate and an English graduate, working in the same company and the same office, perhaps having done similar courses, and earning the same salary under the same taxation system, will be paying back hugely different amounts of debt. How are we supposed to explain to our constituents that that is fair? My children are already giving me considerable grief on the subject, as they look to the university fees that they will no doubt pay in a few years. It is frankly not fair, and I defy any Scottish or, indeed, Welsh Member to say that the system is fair to the English.

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman got this important debate, and pleased to be able to contribute a little. There is a one-word answer to the question that he has raised: devolution. In the spirit of fairness in which he has framed his remarks I entirely agree that we need to move to a needs-based formula, and the Holtham report and all the other empirical data we have about Barnett point in the same direction. We need to move in that direction. I am encouraged to hear a Parliamentary Private Secretary thinking in such ways. However, is it
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not invidious to cherry-pick ways in which citizens in Wales may be better off, when they are less well off in other respects? The hon. Gentleman mentioned the relative deprivation in Wales and Scotland. That is reflected in the empirical evidence, which shows that a needs-based, deprivation-based formula would afford more money to Wales than we currently enjoy.

Andrew Selous: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is with me in wanting a needs-based formula. He is right that the evidence of the Holtham commission, and the evidence that the House of Lords took, suggests that Wales would benefit from such a formula and that if it is to be applied fairly there should be some reduction in what Scotland currently receives.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is up to the Welsh Assembly Government and the Scottish Government to spend their money as they see fit. What is not fair and right is the allocation of money in a block grant on a bust formula from 1976, whose author no longer thinks that it is fair, when there is clearly in many cases such an imbalance between what the English and the Scottish can be offered. That is an entirely reasonable case.

Mark Lazarowicz: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Selous: I will, but I want to finish my list-I have not got to the end of it yet-of what we do not get in England. It is really worth listing, because even the Library did not have a comprehensive list. I was adding to it as I went along.

Certain cancer drugs were available earlier in Scotland than in England-we are just catching up. Concessionary bus travel is more generous in Scotland. People can go on long-distance journeys there and take a companion, if they are disabled, which they could not do in England. I think that hon. Members who are fair and who consider the issue dispassionately and want to do the right thing by every part of the United Kingdom will agree that we cannot allow the situation to continue if we are committed Unionists.

Several hon. Members rose-

Andrew Selous: I cannot remember who wanted to intervene earlier; I give way to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz).

Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, but it is an important debate. I welcome the tone in which he presents his case, even if I disagree with some of the conclusions. Would it not be better if he were to mention not only the areas where residents of Scotland and Wales appear to get a better deal, but those where, because of a choice made under devolution, spending is less? There is now a debate in Scotland and Wales about university funding and the effects of different tuition fee levels on university fee income. In some areas of health and transport, provision is less than in England. It is not right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) said, just to cherry-pick the areas where Scotland and Wales seem to be doing well, without referring to choices that have resulted in different consequences, which can be easily pointed out as examples of relatively lower levels of service than in England.

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Andrew Selous: I will now move on to what I think we should do about the situation. I am proposing a needs-based way of allocating the block grant, reflecting current populations and needs, which are worse in England in some cases than in Scotland, and significantly worse in Wales than in some parts of England. That should be recognised because there is a fair, open and transparent way of proceeding, but at the moment much of what the Treasury does is not transparent. Crossrail, for example, was at one moment a UK project, designated by the Treasury. The next minute it was designated an English project so that there could be a Barnett consequential, and Scotland could get an extra £500 million. That may or may not have been right, but what was the process? Was it open to transparent scrutiny so that people in Wales and England could see that it was fair? In one year the Treasury suddenly said that there was a £900 million underspend for 2007; that was allocated to the Scottish budget. That may have been correct, but at the moment everything is done deep in the bowels of the Treasury. I do not say that there has not been fair play, but there is a need for the process to be more open and transparent. The Treasury is judge and jury in its own court, in a process that is not open to scrutiny. I do not think that that is right.

Hywel Williams: I agree largely with what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. I want to point out the value of considering not only differences between Scotland, Wales and England but the interesting regional differences in England. It would be very useful for hon. Members from the north-east, for example, to look at those. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will refer to them later.

Andrew Selous: The hon. Gentleman is right. There are significant differences. I am an east of England MP, and that region has the lowest spending of any region in England. Perhaps that is why I get increasingly angry communications from my constituents on the matter.

Having outlined the problem and some of the unfairness, I want to talk more about what we can do. I direct my hon. Friend the Minister to the excellent conclusions of the House of Lords report of 2009 on the Barnett formula. The report looked across the world to Australia-I declare an interest in that my mother was Australian, but that does not affect whether I think the Australians have a fair and good solution, from which we could learn. In Australia, the Commonwealth Grants Commission is an independent body charged with the responsibility of dividing the cake between the Australian states and territories. It is an advisory body to the federal Government and its impartiality is completely accepted by the states and territories of Australia. I understand, and agree with Government colleagues, that we are not looking to set up extra quangos. If my hon. Friend does not want an extra quango my proposal is that we should add the specific responsibilities in question to the remit of the Office for Budget Responsibility. However, if she says that that is too much for the OBR, it is not fair to tell me that we should not have an extra quango. I would be happy to go either way, with whichever option seemed most sensible and would cost the Government less. We could add the responsibilities to those of the OBR, but if we wanted a separate body we could have one. Given the figures involved-the sums of public spending-it would be a serious body.

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What the Committee in the House of Lords proposed was only illustrative. If the Government have other or better ideas, or if colleagues from either side of the House want to contribute ideas about what the needs-based formula should include, let us start the debate now. Let us get ideas rolling into the Treasury, so that we can proceed with total fairness.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I too congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. I welcome the direction of travel that he has outlined, but I want to ask about timing. He has alluded to the impatience in England, whereas I and colleagues from Wales and Scotland would allude to the shortfall, such as that in education; there is £500 less per child in Wales than in England. There is impatience about that. The coalition Government have said that in a Welsh context a Calman-style commission will be set up after the referendum. What are the hon. Gentleman's views on that? Do they reflect that impatience, or is he more on the go-slow track?

Andrew Selous: I am naturally quite an impatient person, and I want to get things done when I see something that I think is not right. However, we are in difficult times financially, and it will be incredibly difficult to move from one formula to another in these challenging times.

A sensible time scale would be for the Government to start doing the work now, setting out how we are to allocate money fairly between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a needs basis. Once we agreed on it, there would need to be a transitional period. We cannot get away from that, because we have to do such things fairly and in a way that does not cause undue difficulties in any part of the United Kingdom.

I would be a happy person at the end of this debate if I had a sense that the Government would move toward setting up a system that allotted funding on a needs basis, and that they would agree to create some sort of body to do that, and consider a transitional period. The beauty of that is that by then we would have got through these difficult financial times, and more money would be available as we started to implement such a system. It would also make the transition easier for the parts of the United Kingdom that did not benefit.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con) rose-

Andrew Selous: I shall give way for the last time; I have been generous in giving way, but I need to move on in order to let others speak.

David Mowat: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. What he says about the time scale is important, particularly vis-à-vis Scotland. Next week the Scotland Bill is coming before the House. In my opinion, it will enshrine the current level of the Barnett settlement for ever, as it will link the Barnett amount that Scotland receives directly to the level of income tax paid in Scotland. As a consequence, future reforms will be difficult. I am not sure that time is on our side.

Andrew Selous: I hear what my hon. Friend says. He refers in part to the Calman commission and the fact that the block grant in Scotland will be reduced to 65%
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and that Scotland is to raise 35% of its income through tax-raising powers given under the Bill. What I am talking about will still apply, however, as 65% of Scotland's public spending will be allocated. Everything mentioned in this debate is relevant, although we can argue about the time scale. I shall listen carefully to what the Minister has to say. I have outlined a possible way to proceed.

I touch again on the different needs that the House of Lords Committee found. They are four: we should move to an assessment method that takes account of the age and structure of the population, as a significant number of older people require extra spending; we need to consider low incomes; we should take account of ill health and disability; and we should consider economic weakness. All of us would probably have some sympathy with those four indicators. There would be value in setting up an independent commission, as it would allow people to make representations, and extra factors could be taken into account to deal with the particular situation in Wales or Scotland. Indeed, it has been done successfully in Scotland.

The House of Lords debated the Barnett formula report on 11 March 2010. Lord Moser, a former head government statistician who was appointed by a previous Labour Government, said:

He was talking about the task of setting up a new needs-based commission.

Baroness Hollis, a distinguished Labour peer, spoke of the differences in funding for personal care:

Lord Newby, a Liberal Democrat from Scotland, said:

I note that Lord Davies of Oldham, then a Labour Treasury Minister, wound up the debate by saying of the report's authors:

That brings me back to my opening remarks. I am proud to be part of a reforming Government, and I hope that we will not be dilatory in this matter.

Baroness Noakes, then our shadow Treasury Minister, said in response to the debate:

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She also spoke of

I thank all Members who wish to contribute to the debate, and I shall listen with interest to what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say in response.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): A number of hon. Members wish to speak. I remind the House that the wind-ups will start at 10.40 am, so I ask Members to keep their contributions brief.

9.56 am

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. Before the debate started, I forewarned you that I may have to leave early because of my Select Committee responsibilities, and I apologise for that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate. I recognise and support the spirit in which he has raised this sensitive matter, which affects all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. He has underlined the point that we have a reforming Government and that bold steps need to be taken to come up with a formula that will serve all the nations and regions in a positive and constructive way that is dependent on need. The debate has been going on for some time in Wales. Even before the evidence was as stark as it is now, there was a view that relative deprivation in Wales meant that the Barnett formula was not serving Wales well.

A mathematical formula, such as the Barnett formula, offers significant advantages. The first advantage is that it offers a guarantee of funding, particularly to devolved Administrations, who need such a guarantee to plan, which prevents, for example, the Welsh Assembly Government, or the Wales Office on its behalf here in Westminster, becoming involved in horse trading year on year. Such a mathematical formula obviously offers that guarantee. The second advantage is that in times of limited or reduced spending, the Barnett formula offers protection to the devolved Administrations.

On the other hand, there are significant disadvantages with the formula being so far out of date, and I regret the time that it has taken to get to this point. The previous Government should accept their responsibility for leaving it so long. Despite Lord Barnett's strong view that the formula needed reform, it was not accepted. He plainly said that the formula was unfair.

Hywel Williams: My memory of that slightly pre-dates the hon. Gentleman's. I draw his attention to numerous debates over many years when Front-Bench spokesmen on both sides used the formulation, "The Barnett formula serves Wales well." The hon. Gentleman should concede that both Conservative and Labour Governments were staunch defenders of the Barnett formula. My party, of course, took another view.

Alun Cairns: I shall square that point in a moment, but I do not want to let the previous Government off the hook for their delaying tactics in resolving the matter because of its sensitivity. Whereas Lord Barnett plainly said that it was not fair, the then Chief Secretary
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to the Treasury said that it was fair enough. That certainly was not good enough for Wales. I regret to say that despite 13 years in office, the previous Government did not have the opportunity to resolve the formula.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): It is important to point out that back in 1999 and 2000, Wales, on average, received £125 for every £100 in England. In 2010-11, Wales receives around £112 for every £100 in England. Therefore, the Welsh treatment under the Conservative Government is significantly better than it was under the Labour party, when there was a significant decline in funding for Wales.

Alun Cairns: I will come on to the convergence in a moment. None the less, it is a point that is well made and that should be recognised by the Labour party. It is important not to confuse freedom of devolution, which enables nations to pursue their own policies, with funding. There is naturally a link, but because there is a policy, subsidy or generosity in one particular area, it should not then be used as proof or evidence of over-funding when we consider the whole context.

Owen Smith: I was rising to make precisely that point. Does the hon. Gentleman fear, as I do, that the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will not be happy when we have a needs-based formula, because those examples that he cherry-picked earlier will still exist? The politics of envy, which underpins some of his concerns, will still play into this debate.

Alun Cairns: That point only demonstrates the hon. Gentleman's misunderstanding of the spirit and tone of the debate presented by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire. My hon. Friend identified the differences, but recognised that that freedom needs to take place when we consider devolution. The obvious things in Wales are free prescriptions and-this one has focused attention of late-tuition fees. To those hon. Members who are critical of the Barnett formula because it is advantageous to Wales, I say that our NHS waiting lists are much longer and that the cancer drugs fund does not apply, so there are considerable drawbacks, and they need to be taken in the context of the whole funding settlement. It is far too easy to pick a policy that has been prioritised by the Welsh Assembly Government without accepting the areas that may not have been prioritised. Health is the obvious one. In England, for example, there is a guarantee of no cuts in NHS spending, whereas in Wales there will be real-term cuts and financial cuts to the health service. That point should be recognised in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) has referred to the positive contribution of the Holtham commission. The two volumes of the Holtham commission can be brought down to a few figures. At the moment, Wales receives £113, which will drop to £112, for every £100 that is spent in England; Scotland receives £120; and Northern Ireland receives £124. Holtham concludes that Wales needs £115, which is marginally more than it is currently being awarded; Scotland needs £105, which is a significant reduction from its £120 now; and the figure for Northern Ireland is not far from what it already receives. That is the first needs-based assessment that has taken place. If that is not accepted in general terms, it is certainly an exceptionally useful starting point of where the needs lie.

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The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) has said that, historically, Wales has been underfunded by £300 million, but that fails to understand the convergence that has taken place over the past 13 years or more. That £300 million is the current level, and it would have been a much smaller level in the past.

A very good point has been made about Crossrail. Despite the view that the Labour party in Wales is taking at the moment, we can compare the spending on Crossrail with that on the Jubilee line. The spending on the Jubilee line was Barnettised, but the spending on Crossrail by the previous Government was not, which highlights another way that Wales was treated unfairly by the previous Administration. It is far too easy to point the finger, when a real debate is taking place on satisfying the needs-based requirement.

My closing points-I am conscious of the time-relate to the way forward. All the nations and regions need to engage in the debate about this extremely sensitive area. Those who are allied with the Scottish National party are a block not only to any form of debate-that position is natural, because of the way in which Scotland would lose out-but to changes elsewhere in the United Kingdom. As the hon. Member for Arfon builds up a strong relationship with the Scottish nationalists, he must recognise that that is blocking reform in Wales, because every part of the UK needs to engage in this debate if we are to come up with a needs-based formula that satisfies all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

10.6 am

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I will make a few brief remarks, because I, too, am on the Select Committee to which the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) has referred. I must leave early, for which I apologise.

I welcome today's important debate. Although the issue has been debated many times in this House-there was a recent debate in the House of Lords, which produced an excellent report that is well worth reading-it is worth debating again. The issue was not resolved by the Labour Government. I accept that we were tardy in addressing the issue. Once we saw the firm evidence in the Holtham report on convergence-the so-called Barnett squeeze that resulted in a reduction in the relative benefits to Wales over the past 10 to 15 years-we responded to that at the last election. The previous Labour Government were keen to see fair funding for Wales, and we went into the last election fighting for that pledge. Had we won, we would have delivered fair funding. I hope that this current Government will be true to their word and look to deliver a different form of funding for Wales and the other devolved nations and regions of the UK, and I hope that it will be needs-based, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has said.

My caveat-I did not mean to personalise the debate earlier in referring to the politics of envy-is that at some level, the hon. Gentleman's underpinning concern is that parts of England do not benefit. In particular, he points to the fact that historically the east of England, which he represents, has featured towards the bottom of the league table of public expenditure over a long
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period. That is, in itself, reflective of the relative needs of the east of England. We have for the English regions, as Holtham and others have pointed out, a needs-based formula. Indeed, one of the conclusions of the excellent House of Lords report is that a quick interim measure would be for Wales and Scotland to go to a needs-based formula based on the English version.

As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, aspects of policy in the devolved nations and regions can ferment a sense of envy. When one looks at the responses in the Daily Mail and TheDaily Telegraph on tuition fees, which range from outrage that the Welsh are doing something different through to incredulity that such a policy can be afforded in Wales, one sees that they reflect the lack of understanding that persists across the House about the way in which devolution works.

Current Government Members, such as the hon. Gentleman, have highlighted examples of how Wales and citizens in Wales appear to benefit financially from the devolution of powers and the policies that are pursued in Wales, whereas hon. Members from Wales have highlighted other areas, such as the health service, where-according to those hon. Members-people in Wales are not benefiting.

Andrew Selous: The evidence from Holtham and from the House of Lords Select Committee is that Wales would gain from a needs-based formula. So there is no part of what I have said that would cause problems as far as the Welsh are concerned. It appears that Scotland is more generously funded than a needs-based formula would suggest, but that is what we need to set up a commission to look into.

Owen Smith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I fully appreciate that point; I heard him say very clearly that Wales would benefit. My point is simply that I fear that in much of the debate on this subject there is a concern that English regions do not benefit where other parts of the UK, particularly the devolved regions, do. Traditionally English Members from both Houses have expressed that view, which underpins and unfortunately colours debate on this subject.

Mark Lazarowicz: Is it not the case that moving to a needs-based formula would receive universal support, would be value-free and would not allow any political interference is an illusory hope, because even with a needs-based formula the question arises of how one assesses needs? For example, how much importance should be given to rural diversity and to the length of communications in Scotland? If a high priority were given to ferry links to the Shetland Isles and Western Isles, there would obviously be a high result there. When it comes to funding that depends on age, there are some parts of both Scotland and Wales where unfortunately, because of ill health, some people do not live to an older age, which would not be reflected in the formula. The idea that we can move to a value-free system with a needs-based formula is somewhat illusory. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

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Owen Smith: I agree with my hon. Friend-that is essentially what I was trying to say a moment ago. An arm's-length independent organisation, which Holtham considered-whether it is the Office for Budget Responsibility or whether it is some other body-is an excellent idea that we should take account of.

David Mowat: The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) has said that it is not easy to conduct a needs-based analysis, but that does not mean that it should not be tried. He has raised the issue of sparsity in Scotland and the fact that many people live in the Western Isles, Orkney and such places, which makes a difference. There is a precedent for such an analysis, which was carried out by the Scottish NHS and which is referred to in the report by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Barnett formula. The cost was about 15% extra for that component of the population. However, the point is that that component of the population is very small and the overall impact is less than 1.5%. So it is right that that factor is taken into account, but it is not material to what we are discussing.

Owen Smith: The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) has made-that it will be very difficult to introduce a needs-based formula-is valid. The aspects of a needs-based formula that ought to be taken into consideration and the weighting that ought to be placed on those aspects individually will not be incontestable. So it is easy to bracket them under "deprivation and sparsity", or "deprivation" and some other criterion. Within that, there will be all sorts of eminently contestable notions related to the number of children in a country, the number of older people who are dependent, sparsity and all sorts of other aspects, which will be eminently contestable.

The simple point that I was trying to make is that even if we shift to a wholly independent-or ostensibly independent-and wholly needs-based formula, we will still see divergences and differences between the relative spending priorities and the relative quantum spent on individual aspects of public services across different parts of the country. That will still fuel a sense of resentment in certain quarters, when parts of the country are perceived as doing better than others. I therefore caution that we would not all be happy with a needs-based formula and I suggest that the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire-

Andrew Selous: We would be happier.

Owen Smith: "Happier"-okay, well perhaps we would be "happier". I, too, would be "happier" if we went to a needs-based formula; I will concede that much.

In conclusion, I simply add that at last we agree across this House that a fairer funding formula ought to be pursued and that Barnett has seen its day. I therefore commend the Government for considering how we might do something important about it in the future.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): There are still three hon. Members who want to contribute, so I remind hon. Members of the time.

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10.14 am

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I will be very brief, Mr Dobbin. Thank you very much for calling me. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning. I also want to apologise in advance for the fact that I might have to leave before the conclusion of the debate, because of Select Committee responsibilities.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate. In my view, the debate has been very positive and the spirit in which it has been conducted is something that we should be proud of, because it has not been a case of people complaining about the unfairness of the funding system in relation to England. Instead, the debate has highlighted real concerns about the fact that the current system is possibly unsustainable, because we are creating anomalies that are very difficult to justify in the long term.

I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), inasmuch as the fact that some of the examples that have been given about the differences, for example, between Wales and England in terms of spending is in danger of confusing the issue of Barnett with the actual effect of devolution. As a Member from north Wales, where one can get to Cheshire in less than an hour along the A55 on a good day, I am very aware of the fact that, for instance, the decisions made by the Welsh Assembly during the past 12 years have resulted in spending on education being significantly less per head in Wales than in England. That is a real concern for people in north Wales, because we can actually see the differences between spending in Cheshire and the spending in north Wales. That is an effect not of Barnett but of the decisions that have been made and the priorities that have been set by the Welsh Assembly. As I said in my contribution to the debate on the issue of student funding, I personally feel that the decision made by the Welsh Assembly, within the Barnett block grant, in relation to funding student fees in future is actually an attack on the Welsh university system, which will be disastrous in the long term for Wales. Again, however, that is a decision that has been made within the funding formula. It is important when we have this debate on the funding formula to be aware of the fact that, on some clearly beneficial spending priorities established by the Welsh Assembly, there are counter-arguments, in terms of examples of spending decisions made in Wales that are actually quite damaging.

There are things that we need to be aware of about Barnett. In the Welsh context, there is concern that there has been a real change in the way that Barnett works in Wales. I have already highlighted the fact, in an intervention, that in 1999-2000 Wales received on average about £125 for every £100 spent in England. That figure has reduced to about £112 for every £100 spent in England and obviously that reduction has been highlighted in Wales regularly. Therefore, I genuinely applaud the Welsh Assembly for commissioning the Holtham report, because the argument that Wales was underfunded and was being unfairly treated in some way was one that we had heard a lot about. I think that the Holtham report gave a very secure background to that debate and explained that Wales was, in comparative terms, being underfunded, if one takes into account the needs of Wales. That point has been acknowledged in this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, so it is a genuine issue.

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Therefore, there is now a growing need to address the fact that the Barnett system is out of date and is creating a real problem. That situation has been made much worse by the implications of the Barnett squeeze; because of the way that the system works, as spending was increasing, the allocation to Wales on a pro rata basis was not increasing at the same rate.

That brings us to another important point. It has been highlighted by Holtham, and I do not think a single Member of this House would argue against this fact: most analyses of the Barnett formula seem to indicate that, if we try to move to some needs-based formula that is not dissimilar to the one used in England, the effect will be to increase the funding to Wales slightly-even if it is only a slight increase, it would be most welcome-but there would be a significant difference to the funding for Scotland.

That is an issue that we need to think about very carefully, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan pointed out there is currently a block on consideration of the issue. Quite clearly, the Scottish Parliament is not looking to implement any changes, because the advantage is given to it by the current system.

Nevertheless, in my view there is a real issue here, which is the continuation of the happy relationship between the four component parts of the United Kingdom, because ultimately an ongoing sense of unfairness, which has been highlighted from an English point of view, is not compatible with the sustainability of the Union. There is a genuine need to consider coming up with a new formula that will replace Barnett and that will try to be fairer to all parts of the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) made the point that no new system would necessarily result in everyone being happy, but that is not in itself an argument against sticking with a system that was implemented in 1976. Ultimately, it is important that the present Government take the issue in hand, to ensure that we have a system that is fairer to all parts of the United Kingdom.

Finally, I need to make a point about the Welsh context. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) is a Plaid Cymru Member, and his party has certainly been very vocal about the unfairness of Barnett. I think that it is fair to say that when the Holtham report was published there was genuine disappointment among some members of Plaid Cymru that the highlighted shortfall of £300 million was significantly lower than some of the figures that had been bandied around. Shortly after the publication of the report, I took part in a debate in Bangor university with the former president of Plaid Cymru and, in view of the evidence that had been collected, he could not argue that Wales was extremely hard done by under the current system.

Hywel Williams: Did I hear the hon. Gentleman say that the possible £300 million increase in funding for Wales was minor?

Guto Bebb: It is minor in the context of the unfairness that has been claimed by the hon. Gentleman's party in the past. Currently, we spend about 112%, compared to the Holtham recommendation of 115%. In view of the fact that in 1999-2000 we were spending 125% compared to 100%, I think that my description is fair. The important
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point is that it is odd, to say the least, to hear a nationalist party, which now advocates independence, arguing very strongly for a needs-based formula that takes into account the need for transfers from England to subsidise the situation in Wales. I would fully subscribe to that. One of the hard lessons that I have learnt in life is that Wales is part of the United Kingdom, and as a result we accept that there can be transfers between the regions and nations of the United Kingdom to reflect their different needs. I find it odd that a party that advocates breaking that link can also stand up and argue for increased funding from the English taxpayer, to subsidise the situation in Wales.

Hywel Williams: I do not want to engage in what might be an internecine struggle, given the hon. Gentleman's previous membership of my party and his strong advocacy of our policies, many years ago before he jumped ship-apparently on the matter of the currency. Does he accept that the Holtham report makes a three-step recommendation: first, a floor is established; secondly, there is then a needs-based formula; and thirdly, which is the point that the hon. Gentleman mentions, a differential taxation system for Wales is considered? The snapshot that he presents as our policy is certainly not our policy; it is one point on the journey.

Guto Bebb: The problem with the hon. Gentleman's point is that it would require the agreement of the Scottish Parliament and we would have to look at the matter on a UK-wide basis. He is perfectly right to highlight my background regarding the single currency. The crucial issue was that one of the arguments against a single currency was that it was difficult to see how transfers from Germany to Greece, for example, to subsidise that currency could be justified. We now see that situation, and it has been highlighted in a book by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood). My view is that we can still justify transfers within the United Kingdom to the different regions of England and to the nations, on the basis that we have a shared heritage and a shared belief that we are part of the United Kingdom. I was of the view that that shared heritage would not be there at European Union level, and we might see that issue tested to destruction this year. I do not want to see the situation that we have in the United Kingdom, with transfers within the Union, destroyed by a clear unfairness in the system. Wales will probably benefit from a needs-based system, but we certainly need to look at the issue during this Parliament because I think that otherwise there will be a growing disenchantment with the system on the part of the English taxpayer, and that would be bad for the needs of people in Wales.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Hon. Members might be interested to know that Lord Barnett was a predecessor of mine. I did not realise that my constituency had such an impact on government funding.

10.24 am

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): I very much welcome this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing
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it. The issue has been possibly an obsession of my party for many years, and so I am glad to see other people sharing that obsession-or disability.

I should like to focus briefly on the Barnett formula and on Wales, rather than on the English regions, because there are clear implications for the English regions, as I have already said. There are great differences between the funding for the regions within England, and the debate on that can be informed by looking at what has happened in Wales for many years. We have already heard that the Holtham report points out the requirement for Wales now to have a needs-based assessment. In fact, such assessments have been needed in Wales for many years, and they are already carried out in some English regions. The Barnett formula was developed in the '70s and implemented in 1978-not in 1976, as has been said. It was based on historical spending and the size of the population-basically on the success of Ministers in extracting money from the Treasury pre-1978. It is a converging formula, and we have seen it in operation for many years. Between 1999 and 2007, public spending in England rose by 33%, and in Wales by 28%. That is the nature of convergence: public spending rose, but less quickly in Wales.

Mark Lazarowicz: The hon. Gentleman's point needs to be underlined, because although many people suggest that the Barnett formula gives an unfair bias towards Scotland and Wales, it is in fact designed to level their expenditure down to the English average. It is not in any sense a formula that protects Scotland and Wales.

Hywel Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but my point is that it is a converging formula, and that Wales is gradually losing out. Jumping forward to one of my later points, Holtham called for a floor to be established, and the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) referred to that before the election. We have consistently called for public sector funding in Wales to be based on needs, and our calls have been ignored and rejected. I do not know how many times I have heard the right hon. Member for Neath, and current Government Members, saying that the Barnett formula has served Wales well. Joel Barnett himself said, in a statement on 11 January 2009:

I note, however, that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) used his appearance at the Wales Labour pre-election conference last year to call Barnett a needs-based formula. It is, of course, no such thing.

The report produced by Gerry Holtham has received the support of all the main political parties in Wales, and I am glad there is a measure of cross-party consensus this morning. The report calls for a floor to prevent further erosion of Welsh funding, for the reform of the formula to make it a needs-based one, and to at least stop, if not necessarily correct, the historical underspend on Welsh services. It then calls for differential taxation to be considered, to ensure that the Welsh Government take greater responsibility for their own spending. As I have noted many times in speeches in this place, the
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Welsh Government get a very large amount of money and are responsible for raising not a single penny piece of it, which is, I think, a fundamentally bad situation.

The underspend in Wales has been recently estimated at around £300 million-a significant sum-and there has been a knock-on effect on the private sector, as I am sure the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) knows. The public sector in Wales is so large and is such a significant purchaser of goods and services, that if it were to have more money there would be a knock-on effect on the private sector. Because the formula reflects a historical position rather than an assessment of need, it has put Wales in a fundamentally weak position. We are funded on the basis of proportional Government spending in England and Wales, or in Great Britain, depending on the circumstances. Spending in Wales has been largely subject to changes in Government priorities on an England, England and Wales or GB basis, so we follow those priorities. We now have a Government in Cardiff who cut the cake as they see fit, but of course the size of that cake always depends on other matters. Hospital parking and prescription charges have been referred to, so I will not pursue those issues given the time.

How to define need has been discussed somewhat. I point hon. Members to the Holtham commission's report, which suggests six steps based on such considerations as the number of old and young people, rurality and so on. The point was made that that might be complex, but that does not mean that we should not do it. I point hon. Members to an interesting example: the Welsh index of multiple deprivation, which has replaced the Townsend index of poverty. The Welsh index is complicated, but it is very effective. It can be done.

The Government have been clouding the issue by considering Wales's funding as something that can be postponed until the recession is over. It must be examined now, for good reasons of governance in Wales and to eliminate the reasonable feelings that the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire mentioned. Will the Minister tell us when the Government intend to start considering the Holtham inquiry's recommendations for Wales and, more broadly, for the rest of the UK?

10.31 am

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): This is a timely debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for securing it. I will keep my comments brief to assist one more Member to speak.

Public funding effectively comes in two chunks. The largest is spending through central Departments; the smaller comes through the grant formula for local government. The emphasis today has been on the application of the Barnett formula to the local government grant, but the reality is that Barnett has had a creep effect and has become the default mechanism for making decisions even in mainstream Departments. Reforming Barnett is about reforming it as it is applied not just in local government but elsewhere.

The particular problem in my south-western constituency of Newton Abbot, in Devon, is that we are one of the geographically largest regions in the country. Consequently, we have huge transport challenges, but the sparsity effect is not taken into account when funding formulae
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are determined for our local authorities. Some 20% of the south-west is rural, and it is a well-known and well-researched fact that our rural deprivation is high, which carries a heavy cost: 22% of people in the south-west live on the state pension, the highest number in the country as a whole. We all know the impact of the elderly in terms of local government spending. In the south-west, 10% of people are over 75. I am pleased to say that they have a high life expectancy, but unfortunately that does not help the coffers.

We were fortunate this time around. Devon county council suffered a spending power cut of only 1.77%; in Teignbridge, my district authority, it was 5.89%. For that, I am grateful, but looking forward, the issue must be addressed. As I said, Departments have used Barnett when considering health funding and other devolved sums of money, and as a result, the south-west has fallen down the league tables. In 2009-10, the south-west was allocated only £42 billion across Departments, the third lowest regional spend in England. It has caused an awful lot of problems. We have 12.5% of the population, yet only 12% of the spend, even before aggravating factors are considered.

Children in Devon are particularly underfunded. We are 146th of 152 in the spending league tables. It has been calculated that in health care, we are £12 million short of the figure that would have been fair. We have the lowest spend per head in England on transport infrastructure, yet we are extremely rural and 14% of the population have no car. I urge the Minister to consider seriously the request for a needs-based formula, as it is clearly the way forward. I commend the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire.

10.35 am

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): This has been an important debate, focusing more on Wales than on Scotland. There is a disparity in Wales-the figure of £300 million has been mentioned-but it is dwarfed by the Holtham estimate of the disparity in Scotland, which is £4.5 billion. Many English Members of Parliament, particularly those from the north, are being forced to go back to their constituencies and defend an austere budgetary environment. It is tough to do so when £4 billion a year over and above the needs-based amount is being sent to Scotland.

I have two quick points to make; I will finish by 10.40. We use the term "needs-based" a lot. The real issue is not need; it is population movement. We could continue to use the Barnett formula of 1976 if we adjusted it for the population changes that have occurred since then. It would be a simple arithmetical adjustment. It is true that a needs-based analysis could be complex, but that change is not required. We need only to adjust the formula for relative population movement, and it would eradicate two thirds of the current imbalances.

Hywel Williams: The hon. Gentleman is coming to the point that I wished to make. It is a converging formula, so there are issues other than population change to be considered.

David Mowat: It is not wholly a converging formula; I do not agree. For example, if the baseline population is not adjusted in arithmetical terms, it means that if the
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population of Scotland fell to one, that person would get all the money. We do not change it for population, which is indefensible. As I said, I regret the fact that there are no Members from Scotland here, unless I am misinformed.

Andrew Selous: There are two.

David Mowat: What defence of the situation is made in Scotland? I have heard two defences. We have heard the sparsity defence; I have also heard the defence in terms of oil revenues. It is argued that somehow, the £4.5 billion Barnett imbalance roughly compensates Scotland for the additional oil revenue that it has had to give up to the Union or whatever. That is a poor argument.

Mark Lazarowicz: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David Mowat: I will finish my point. Other affluent areas of the United Kingdom are liable for relatively higher levels of income tax, and we do not necessarily expect those areas to have better services.

Finally-I would like the Minister to address this point in her closing remarks-I am concerned that the Scotland Bill, as it is currently configured, will institutionalise the Barnett formula for ever by creating a link between income tax levels in Scotland and current levels of Barnett settlement. In other words, that extra £4 billion will be linked for ever to income tax levels in Scotland. What that means in broad terms is that in order for the Scottish income tax base to make up the £4 billion that Scotland receives over and above a needs basis, additional Scottish income tax of between 12p and 15p in the pound would be required. That will never happen.

For the same reason, it will be difficult to review the formula significantly after the link to income tax has been created. If that is the case, we seem to be stuck with the imbalance, which means that every constituent of mine-my constituency of Warrington, in the north of England, is not overly affluent-receives some £5,000 less over the lifetime of a Parliament than his equivalent in Scotland, which would not be the case if the funding were needs-based. That is not to say that England and Scotland should be the same. Holtham did not say that. The figure that Holtham used and that currently exists is 120% of the English settlement in Scotland, but 107% would probably be a fairer figure. That is not the same, but it is a lot closer than it is now. I am concerned that if the Scotland Bill passes unamended, we will institutionalise the matter for ever, which, frankly, will be bad for the Union.

10.40 am

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): As ever, Mr Dobbin, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a pleasure to see so many hon. Members present. Some have left to attend a Select Committee, but this has been a good debate in which a lot of people have had an opportunity to participate.

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is passionate about the issue and has raised it on a number of occasions in Parliament. I accept that the
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issue is complex and that it is worthy of debate. However, although it is easy to criticise the operation of existing mechanisms, it is more difficult to come up with an ideal solution. The hon. Gentleman stated that the Barnett formula is broken, and he has argued passionately for a needs-based formula. He is waving a hefty document at me. If he would like to pass me a copy, I will sit down and digest it with great enthusiasm at some point.

The Barnett formula has been criticised over the years and, as the hon. Gentleman has said, its inventor, Lord Barnett himself, has suggested that we might need to move towards a needs-based formula. The hon. Gentleman has highlighted arguments criticising the formula, but it is easy to conflate and confuse two issues: what happens in terms of spending within a devolved nation as a consequence of devolution, and what is a direct consequence of the Barnett formula. He highlighted the differences in devolved areas in relation to council tax, prescription charges, tuition fees, education maintenance allowances, hospital car parking and so on. However, I should like to question his comments on the differences in relation to bus travel. He said that it was not possible in England for the carer of a disabled person to travel for free with them, but that is certainly not the case in my local area. Perhaps it is up to local authorities to decide, but in my area people get free bus travel if they can show that they are in the company of someone for whom they are caring.

The issues raised by the hon. Gentleman remind us of the argument about whether devolution is about deciding the size of the cake or about allocating who gets which piece of the cake. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said, Scotland misses out in other areas as a consequence of policies on prescription charges and tuition fees that differ from those in England. Moreover, the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), who is no longer present, pointed out that waiting lists are far longer in Wales as a consequence of decisions taken, using devolutionary powers, to spend money elsewhere. He said that, as a consequence, there will be real-term cuts in the health service-in the cancer drugs fund, for example-in Wales.

We have to accept that our establishment of the devolved Parliament and Assemblies means that the basic principle of devolution will lead to differentials in spending. It may create a sense of unfairness, but I do not think that that is particularly germane to the issue of the Barnett formula and its grant.

Andrew Selous: I understand what the hon. Lady is saying and I do not disagree with her that how the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government spend the money they are given is up to them. I have no quarrel with that. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) has said, if Scotland is getting £4.5 billion more than a needs-based assessment might imply, does she not understand that that can fund additional services that are not available to her constituents and mine?

Kerry McCarthy: As I have said, the Barnett formula is not perfect. We have established the Calman commission and the Holtham commission to look at the more detailed issues of how devolution works and how we fund matters.

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Mark Lazarowicz: As we have already heard, the Barnett formula is essentially based upon historical levels of spending, which means that the relatively high levels in Scotland and Wales reflect the decades of argument between Government Departments making the case for higher spending in those areas. It has not appeared from nowhere. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a question not only of having to assess needs, but of the impact of Government spending? For example, there is no doubt whatever that the presence of Government in London is a major boost to the London economy. That does not apply to the Barnett formula, but it means that London benefits from Government spending in a way that other parts of the UK-not just Scotland and Wales-do not.

Kerry McCarthy: I agree entirely. Statistics are thrown around about public spending, its impact and who gets the most. It is not just about Government block grants, but about things such as welfare spending and the impact of locally raised funding, such as council tax, which is a separate issue. I think that people sometimes forget that.

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire argued that either a separate body or the Office for Budget Responsibility should administer and oversee the introduction of a needs-based allocations system. I agree that, if we are to move towards something like that, now is not the time to introduce radical change overnight. This is a difficult time economically, and the Scotland Bill, which is making its way through Parliament, will have a major impact on the tax-raising powers of the Scottish Parliament. There are decisions to be made about whether it will take up those tax-raising powers and the impact that would have on its spending. The impact of the comprehensive spending review settlements on the devolved nations is also an issue.

I accept-I think that there is cross-party consensus on this-that we need to examine the case for moving towards a needs-based formula. Some of my colleagues have said that, but it has to be done carefully. I do not want to return to line-by-line negotiations with the devolved nations whenever there is a spending round. There has to be a formula of some sort. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) said that a needs-based formula would be eminently contestable. It would be difficult to establish which needs should be taken into account and which needs should not.

Andrew Selous: Does the hon. Lady think that we are so much more pathetic than Australia? Queensland and New South Wales are at each other's throats to get more funding, yet they have a settled procedure which they all respect. Does she really not think that we can aspire to and achieve that in this country?

Kerry McCarthy: I am saying not that it is impossible to achieve, but that it is difficult. The Barnett formula was established in the 1970s and people have said that the implication was that it was intended to be in place for only a year. A Labour Government operated under the Barnett formula for 13 years, but a Conservative Government operated under the same formula for 18 years, so this applies to successive Governments. Although there were criticisms, they were unable to find the ideal solution to replace it. Devolution has bedded in and
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there has been a call from the devolved Assemblies for more powers, which is going to throw the issue into the spotlight again. It is time to re-visit it.

Hywel Williams: Is the hon. Lady, as a Front-Bench spokesman for the Labour party, saying that the Barnett formula is serving Wales well now? If that is not what she is saying, what is her argument for not changing it as soon as possible?

Kerry McCarthy: The argument for not changing the formula as soon as possible is exactly as I have said. At a time when spending cuts are hitting Welsh people, as well as people throughout the rest of the UK, and when changes are afoot and the Welsh Assembly is arguing for it to be given similar powers to those of the Scottish Parliament, we have to look at all those things in the round. There is no immediate solution or magic bullet that will sort the matter out. I accept the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, who feels that a needs-based formula would serve the UK better.

I am conscious of the time so, to sum up, I shall just say that we accept that the Barnett formula is not perfect and that the situation needs to be reviewed. However, we would be very worried if there were a rush towards jettisoning the Barnett formula overnight. We must deal with the matter in a measured, considered way and with an acknowledgment that devolution is at the heart of the matter. There are devolved powers and we cannot expect Scotland and Wales to conduct their spending and financial affairs in exactly the same way as the rest of the UK.

10.50 am

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Justine Greening): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, particularly given your constituency's links to the debate today, which became apparent during the discussion. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on initiating an excellent debate. All hon. Members have made some articulate well argued points and I will do my best to try to respond to them during the next nine minutes. Given so many points have been made, if I do not cover all the issues, I will write to my hon. Friend afterwards to amplify them.

I shall start by being frank. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government's priority is to tackle the fiscal deficit. Although we do not have any current plans to review the Barnett formula, it is also fair to say that we accept it is not written in stone. Therefore, we look with interest at debates such as this one. The current statement of funding policy that we issued in October 2010 after the spending review was done in consultation with the devolved Administrations. Before I get on to some of my more detailed comments, I shall state a problem and then an observation about the issue. The problem is that, as the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury of the previous Government said, there is no money left. My observation on the debate is that I do not think anyone is arguing for a change in the Barnett formula on the assumption that their local community will come out of it with less money.

Those are the two challenges we face. Hon. Members are absolutely right to make the case for the funding that their local communities need. The challenge is to
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ensure that we get the most out of the constrained pot that we have and to ensure in the future that the formula works effectively, whether that is at the Barnett level or at the England local government level, not just in terms of the absolute cash that goes in-there has been much discussion about cash per head and various Government policy areas-but critically in terms of what comes out. Despite today's debate, we should never lose sight of the importance of discussing the quality of policy alongside the quantity of money that is going in. The cautionary tale is that the Barnett formula, which Lord Barnett said was only ever intended to be a short-term measure, has actually had a longevity that no one anticipated. It is worth while Ministers of today and tomorrow pondering the fact that, even if we think the decisions we take today are short term, they might ultimately prove to be far more long term than we realise.

Hywel Williams: Is the Minister saying that underfunding in Wales will be addressed only when the economy grows and when we can afford to do so in a way that we currently cannot? Does she accept that that is irrelevant to the fact there is unfairness now?

Justine Greening: I shall make two points about the hon. Gentleman's intervention. First, Wales is well funded. Secondly, let us consider how the Government have approached the spending review. It turns out that, because of how the formula works, the decisions we took to protect the NHS budget and the education budget in cash terms and in terms of schools has meant that the Welsh Assembly Government have probably received a more generous settlement out of Barnett than they would have if the previous Administration had stayed in office.

On the points raised today, clearly there have been a number of inquiries and reports on the Barnett formula and the devolution settlement. One such review is the Calman report on Scotland. As we have heard, the Scotland Bill is passing through Parliament and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) is right to say that the legislation will devolve some of the financial management of income tax to the Scottish Government. However, I can assure him that it will not fix the Barnett formula in stone for the future. A further aspect to the Barnett formula is the Holtham commission, the findings of which illustrate the point I made at the start of my speech. The Holtham commission considered how a needs-based formula would work for Wales and said that such a formula would mean Wales got more, which would put more funding pressures on settlements for other areas. That shows that there are no easy answers to the debate.

David Mowat: On the point I raised about the Scotland Bill, it does not explicitly say that the Barnett formula can never be changed in future. The point I was making is that, once we link a baseline Barnett assessment to the level of Scottish income tax, it becomes extremely difficult to change. The £4 billion additional money that Scotland gets through Barnett is equivalent to 12p
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to 15p of income tax. In theory, the Scottish Government could reduce their income tax levels by 12p and go down to a needs-based analysis and it would be hard for us subsequently to change that.

Justine Greening: I understand my hon. Friend's point. However, in many respects, the point of devolution is to allow more local decision making to take place across the different devolved Administrations.

Just to finish off the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), clearly there will be a referendum in Wales on whether primary legislative powers should be held by the Welsh Assembly Government. We will wait to see the outcome of that referendum before deciding how to take forward some of the points of the Holtham report.

On some of the specific issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire about transparency, the chapter and verse of the funding formula is in the current statement of funding policy. I admit that it is not the most riveting read in the world, but it does explain clearly how the various settlements are reached. The funding approach is agreed in consultation with the devolved Administrations of the rest of the United Kingdom.

On my hon. Friend's suggestion about the needs-based formula, I can absolutely understand why people and hon. Members think that such an approach would be better. A needs-based formula allocates local government spending across English local authorities, but many hon. Members and different communities consider it to have flaws. That illustrates how there are no easy ways in which we can reform local government funding, whether in relation to local government across English local authorities or in relation to devolved Administrations. The common ground we have in the points made is that any changes should absolutely be approached with real caution over a period of time.

Of course, the Treasury has clear control over the process, as it deals with public spending issues. However, there are avenues through which disputes can be remitted to the Joint Ministerial Committee. Therefore, the Treasury is not always judge and jury. There is absolutely a process through which disputes can be resolved if the Treasury cannot do so. On the involvement of the Office for Budget Responsibility, that organisation is a forecasting rather than a policy-making body. My hon. Friend is right to point out that other countries, such as Australia, have a different approach, but they come with pros and cons. Yes, that authority may be independent, but there is no Minister such as me to stand in Parliament, listen to the issues and respond to them democratically and with some sense of accountability; Australia does not have that in the same way. There are still problems with how that authority operates and questions about whether it allocates funding fairly. Such an approach is not without its challenges.

In conclusion, although we do not plan to change the Barnett formula, we will continue to consider all aspects of public spending, how they operate and how effective they are. As I said, the points made today were highly relevant and interesting, and I have no doubt that the debate will continue over the coming years.

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Royal Mail Privatisation

11 am

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Dobbin. I am pleased to have secured this timely debate on the implications of the proposed privatisation of Royal Mail for our post office network. There will, of course, be many repercussions if the privatisation goes ahead, but the subject of this debate is, perhaps, the aspect about which the public are currently most concerned.

No other country in the world has separated its mail service from its post office network, and I hope that the Minister will accept that there is genuine concern that this privatisation will have a negative effect on an already vulnerable post office network. Many of the issues that I will raise today have already been raised with the Government during the proceedings of the Postal Services Bill in this House, and I suspect that they will be raised again in the Lords. I have given the Minister notice of what I will say today-I will ask him many questions that have been put to the Government but that have not, as yet, been answered adequately.

We heard many warm words from the Government during the progress of the Bill about their commitment to the post office network, and, indeed, an announcement of a short-term subsidy. However, my contention is that those warm words will not be sufficient to protect our post office network and that the legal framework that the Government are putting forward with a privatised Royal Mail, which will have a legal duty to its shareholders to maximise profits rather than any duty to the general public, provides no guaranteed protection in law for the post office network as we currently know it, and will put our post offices at risk.

We have read in the media that some fear that the privatisation will result in 4,400 post office closures. That figure comes from the fact that the current access criteria mean that we would have a post office network of 7,500 post offices, and we also know that approximately only 4,000 post offices are currently considered to be financially viable. There is, therefore, a great deal of concern that privatisation could lead to the closure of post offices. There is also concern about whether the standard rate for stamps will be able to survive in a uniform way throughout the country, and that there could be a serious deterioration of the service provided, particularly in rural communities, deprived urban areas and in any part of the country where the postal service is expensive. There is a concern that a privatised Royal Mail will cherry-pick the business and that the post office network will be left with what was left.

During the passage of the Bill, the Government were asked to guarantee the size of the network. The Minister will be well aware of those calls being made to him. We currently have 11,905 post offices. The access criteria laid down by the previous Government would, according to Post Office Ltd, mean that there would have to be a minimum of 7,500 post offices. The Government have said, in the course of proceedings, that they are committed to the post office network and would like to see a network of 11,500 post offices. In her evidence, Paula Vennells, the managing director of Post Office Ltd, said:

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That call has been made repeatedly to the Government in the past few months. I ask the Minister again today whether he agrees with that statement by Paula Vennells and that a central plank of the Government's policy is that there should not be post office closures, and whether he will undertake to ensure that the size of the network will remain at 11,500 post offices, as opposed to outlets, which is something that I will come on to in more detail later.

When those questions have been put to Ministers, the response has been an explanation of how the post office network operates-that, as we all know, post offices are run by private individuals who may decide that they do not wish to continue in the business for a whole range of reasons and that such decisions may not be in any way connected with Government policy or, indeed, the framework in which those people are operating. We all appreciate that, but we are asking the Government to confirm that their policy will be to create a framework that enables existing post offices to continue. It would assist if we had a specific answer on why legal guarantees would not be helpful. Surely the Minister agrees that it would be helpful to the post office network if he came forward with a legal guarantee on post office numbers, given the huge concern. If he is not willing to do so, will he explain why it is such a priority to get a quick sale-probably to a foreign buyer-but not a priority to find a way to give legal guarantees to our post office network?

We also know that the Government are being pressed by a wide range of organisations to guarantee the inter-business agreement between Royal Mail and the post office network. The National Federation of SubPostmasters, the Communication Workers Union and Consumer Focus, as well as a whole range of other organisations, have made that call and, in particular, are asking that a 10-year contract be entered into by Royal Mail to ensure some kind of security for at least that time. Consumer Focus has said that it is concerned about how few safeguards the current legislation proposes. Andy Burrows, its postal services expert, has said:

That really goes to the nub of the concerns that many people have about the future of our post office network.

Will the Minister respond to the allegation, which has been made again and again, that many of those who run post offices will view the future of work in a privatised Royal Mail to be so uncertain that they will be more likely to leave the business? The Government must respond to that allegation. There is huge uncertainty about what will happen if Royal Mail is privatised, which is bound to lead to individuals making business decisions that will take them out of the trade.

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Will the Minister say what steps the Government would take if a privatised Royal Mail decided to award the work to supermarkets rather than to post offices? I want to know whether the Government would allow that to happen. If Royal Mail were to decide not to award work to post offices but to another organisation or range of organisations, would they allow that to go ahead?

My final request to the Minister-again, it has been put to the Government on many occasions-is that we use the opportunity of the Postal Services Bill to guarantee the access criteria in law, so that there is more certainty about the future. I have already referred to the view that the access criteria guarantee only 7,500 post offices, but even that is subject to uncertainty given the legal framework.

I ask for all that because our post office network is already so vulnerable. More than 150 post offices closed on a long-term basis over the past year, and 900 are up for sale. Over the past 30 years, the number of post offices has almost halved, and the trend has been consistently downwards, irrespective of which political party or, as now, combination of parties is in power.

As someone who represents many deprived mainland communities, many small towns in areas of unemployment and rural island areas, it is clear is that the public are well aware of the vulnerability of the post office network. They are rightly suspicious of the Government's assurances. That may be why people express a great deal of concern about the proposal to privatise Royal Mail whenever they are asked about it, whether it is through opinion polls or in other ways. The fear is that post offices will be at risk, particularly in deprived and remote rural communities. The Government may say that there will be no closure programme-indeed, they have said that-but that does not mean there will not be post office closures.

We know that the majority of work for post offices comes from either Royal Mail or the Government, but business from those providers is not secure. Royal Mail provides post offices with about one third of their work, and we are told that it is unthinkable that it would not use the network. However, it is clear that many competitors may be interested in the work, including supermarket chains, PayPoint-they are the two most obvious options-and a range of other providers. Surely it is a real possibility that a privatised Royal Mail would tender the work, either in whole or in part, to the cheapest provider in the future.

The reality is that because of how Royal Mail will be constructed legally, it will be under an obligation to ensure that it gets best value for its shareholders. There will be nothing to make it use post offices to the same extent. As a private company, its duty will be to its shareholders, which would put the work that many post offices currently rely on at risk. It is only common sense to think that more post offices would be in greater financial difficulty and that more of them would find it difficult to justify their existence.

We have heard a great deal about alternative sources of work for post offices. Indeed, the previous Labour Government were doing a considerable amount of work to develop a people's bank, which was dropped by this Government. Will the Minister explain why the Government are not proceeding with some form of post bank or people's bank? We would like an explanation as to why
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they do not accept that local post offices would be on a stronger footing if the post bank work had gone ahead. I also understand that the Department for Work and Pensions green giros contract is under threat. Will he explain why DWP work is not being channelled to the Post Office?

The reality, of course, is that the historic link between Royal Mail and the Post Office means that Royal Mail supports post offices in a range of different ways. The Royal Mail chief executive has said that, in effect, Royal Mail subsidises the post office network by £150 million a year through the central provision of services alone. Obviously, if the two organisations were to separate, that would be another way in which funding and support would be taken away from the network.

The previous Labour Government put substantial funding into the post office network, and this Government have announced a £1.34 billion subsidy, which I welcome, although I have been told that it will not increase the level of annual social subsidy to the post office network. However, my greater concern is that the funding is not guaranteed beyond 2014-15, and, even more, that the Government's stated policy is that the subsidy will reduce over time. That must give us great concern. I do not know whether post offices will be able to survive in the future.

Does the Minister expect that the number of post offices or outlets will shrink over the coming period? Also, does he believe not only that the number of post offices or outlets will reduce but that the quality and extent of the service operated at post offices will shrink? The Government's plans for changing the network over the next four years include replacing 2,000 post offices with "essentials" or "locals", which will provide a more limited range of services, often from a venue such as a shop. I understand that the scheme is designed as a pilot, but many of us will already know from our constituency experience of examples of a Crown post office closing down and the service moving into, perhaps, a local newsagent. It is clear that our constituents feel that the quality and range of the service has decreased, even if it is simply because there is less space in the post office area. There is less ability to take in wheelchairs-the conditions are more cramped. That is a great concern to our constituents.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. There is great potential for a more flexible approach to the format of post office that people want. I have one in my constituency that is in a convenience shop. A point has been opened in the shop itself, so people do not have to wait for post office opening hours. The number of open hours is phenomenally greater, so everyone who wants to cash in their lottery winnings goes to the shop. There are great opportunities, and not everyone needs all the services or wants them at specific restricted times.

Katy Clark: There may be some benefits in certain circumstances. The example that I was thinking of is a local one. The small town of Kilwinning in my constituency previously had a spacious Crown post office that was heavily used by the local community. When the service moved into a newsagent, the quality of service experienced by constituents became much worse. However, there may well be other situations that are success stories.

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One of the concerns at present is that many of the proposals would actually mean a reduction in the number of hours that postal services will be available in some communities. That is the point that I have put to the Minister. There may be exceptions where the service improves, but my contention, and the evidence from the work that has been done, is that the trend is for the range and quality of services to diminish. The reason for that is the difficulty in making post office services pay, which is why we are having this debate. For public policy reasons, post offices are essential parts of our communities, and we should be finding a framework within in which post office success would be most likely.

Related to that, a great deal of concern has been expressed about the network size being affected by the extension of outreach services, which are often provided by a van and often mean a substantial reduction in the hours a postal service is available in a specific community. Instead of having a post office, which would be available all week, a van might come once or twice a week, for a relatively small period. Those vans, or many of the facilities to which the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) has referred, often do not provide the whole range of postal services that might have been available in a more traditional post office. I ask the Minister to respond to the considerable concern expressed about the quality of services provided by some outreach services.

The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, for instance, made submissions to the Government after taking evidence in Scotland on such issues. An extension of such outreach facilities leading to a continuing deterioration of service is a concern. I have to declare an interest, because of the kind of constituency that I represent. I have many remote rural areas in my constituency, in particular the island of Arran, the kind of area for which outreach services are often proposed. As we know from the evidence given by members of the public and by hon. Members, often the view is that the level of service is far less good than that which was previously provided.

Huge concern has been expressed about the universal service obligation and whether a postal service could be maintained in all parts of the country, no matter how remote. What is perhaps more at risk is the continuation of the universal service as a six-day service everywhere and of a uniform affordable price throughout the UK. Can the Minister give an assurance on that continuation and whether there will be legal protection? The proposed legislation, similar to current legislation, allows Ofcom to waive the universal service obligation given exceptional geographic or other conditions. Will the Minister outline when that opt-out would be used? What guidance would be given about when Ofcom is allowed to say that the universal service obligation need not operate?

If the Postal Services Bill becomes an Act, we are creating a legislative framework in which it would be quite possible and highly likely that Royal Mail will move its work in the future. MPs of all political parties are concerned about their local post offices and wish them to survive. I urge the Minster to ensure that we organise our postal services in a way that enables them to have the business to make that a realistic possibility in the future. In particular, I ask that he uses the opportunity of the legislation to ensure that we have a legal framework whereby post offices can continue. There is huge concern that a privatised Royal Mail will
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operate in a manner that will undermine our post office network. Will the Minister please respond to the points made today and over the past few weeks?

11.23 am

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) for securing an excellent opportunity to talk about the future of the wonderful post offices that we all love and need and upon which our constituents-in particular, some of our small businesses-are dependent. However, I am surprised that the hon. Lady raised the issue of post offices when the Bill we are talking about and have been debating recently is about Royal Mail. The debate is meant to be about Royal Mail, rather than about post offices, but I was encouraged by the response that the Government gave, indirectly, with regard to post offices, effectively guaranteeing that we would be able to retain post offices, which we all value. I was absolutely delighted.

The other measure in the Bill, which the hon. Lady did not mention but which I find exciting, is the concept of mutualisation. It is a huge opportunity.

Katy Clark: There have been many opportunities over the past few weeks to make all sorts of points about Royal Mail privatisation. The debate today is about the implications of Royal Mail privatisation on the post office network. There are genuine concerns. Does the hon. Lady share any of those concerns?

Anne Marie Morris: I thank the hon. Lady for her comment but, to be honest, hearing her discussing the concerns about the future of the post offices was very reminiscent of the concerns felt by Opposition Members under the previous Administration. Our concern in opposition, when there were mass closures of post offices, was that the Government of the day had failed to recognise that such post offices were crucial to communities and were providing a social service as much as anything else.

I am delighted that both parties supporting the coalition Government are determined to ensure that post offices have a bright future. I do not share the hon. Lady's concern about the future of post offices; they are far better off under the new coalition Government than they ever were under the previous Administration.

The hon. Lady made some points about universal delivery, but I am very heartened. It is important. The Government look on it as fundamental and will retain it.

Turning to post offices, we must remember that 99% of the population live within three miles of a post office. In the grand scheme, that is not a bad position to be in. The Government subsidy to non-commercial post offices is currently £150 million, but I am pleased that it will increase to £180 million in the next financial year.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Is the hon. Lady suggesting that a three-mile access criterion would be sufficient? In other words, as long as someone was within three miles of a post office, that would be acceptable. Is that the sort of network of post offices that she envisages?

Anne Marie Morris: I thank the hon. Lady for her comment. Clearly, we need to have as good access as we can for every individual. Therefore, we need to look at a
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good service and a good distribution of post offices. The sort of figures talked about, and where we are now with the number of post offices, will give a good service. What I would like to comment on, and will come to in my contribution, is what more those post offices could do.

Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): I am interested in what my hon. Friend says about the provision of post office services not only to individuals but also to businesses. Businesses in my constituency are concerned about how the post office network can help them in the current economic downturn. Does my hon. Friend have any thoughts on that?

Anne Marie Morris: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. When we are looking at our small micro-businesses to lead the drive to put the economy back on its feet, post offices have a key role. In my constituency, in the village of Broadhempston, there is a delightful situation. Local volunteers run a small community shop-absolutely an example of the big society-in which they have effectively ensured that the post office can be retained. The challenge-the point made by my hon. Friend-is to ensure that we can grow that service. The shop currently opens in the morning between 9 and 12, but if it opened in the afternoon, it would really be able to offer services to local businesses. I have been looking at that and championing it. Looking at such post offices being able to support small businesses must be the way forward; my hon. Friend's point is extremely well made.

Post offices are at the heart of the community. With regard to concerns expressed in all parts of the Chamber, post offices need to be able to provide more, not less, to individuals and to small businesses. Indeed, the Federation of Small Businesses has said that it would be an excellent idea to have a dedicated business counter or business advertising. Could not such post offices provide meeting rooms or wi-fi hot spots? As discussed, we could be moving towards providing banking facilities.

The opportunity for post offices is enormous, and I am delighted that they have that opportunity. The big society and the overall push to help small businesses should make that opportunity a reality. Nineteen per cent. of small businesses visit post offices on a daily basis, and 47% visit twice a week. That is excellent news. As I said earlier, mutualisation could be the way to make things possible. I have found a real will to work together in the community, whether that is the business community or the community within a geographical area. Mutualisation is a real opportunity and it may be the solution to the position in Broadhempston.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I am a supporter of mutualisation. Many people, however, are concerned that from mutualisation comes demutualisation. Would the hon. Lady be in favour of building a way of preventing demutualisation into any plans for mutualisation, as far as that is possible? People are wary of mutualisation given some of the experiences of the past 20 years concerning building societies and other mutual organisations.

Anne Marie Morris: I understand the hon. Lady's point, but the devil is not in the legislation but in the detail and particular circumstances. I am not a great
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believer in regulating and legislating; I believe in the free market. It is right to empower communities and businesses, but not to tell them how to do what they do.

In conclusion, I would be delighted to see the Government look carefully at what post offices can do, and then empower them so that it happens, perhaps by looking at how we can improve the number of Government services in post offices. At the moment, people cannot always sort out vehicle taxation at post offices or pay their utility bills-they might not know that they can pay in a post office because it does not say so on the back of the bill. There are things that the Government could do to ensure that where it is financially sensible, more services are provided through the local post office network. There is much that could be done by the business community, and I commend to the Minister the suggestions made by the Federation of Small Businesses.

11.32 am

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I too congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this important debate. We both have rural constituencies that contain islands, and post offices are important in such rural communities.

Post offices are important in the communities they serve. No other retail outlet has such a range of shops that cover the rural parts of the country to the same extent as the post office network. Post offices provide an important social function and assist vulnerable people with help and advice. I am pleased that the Government have recognised that by making a big investment in the post office network, and I am delighted by the guarantee of no closure programme, which is a complete reverse from the position of the previous Government. During the previous Parliament, debates such as this happened practically every fortnight as hon. Members tried to stop post offices being closed. This debate takes place in a completely different atmosphere as we have a Government who recognise the importance of post offices and back that up with investment.

For post offices to stay open, not having a closure programme is not enough. It is essential that as small businesses, post offices remain profitable for the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress. Changing lifestyles mean that what was once one of the core businesses of post offices-people taking their pension book to collect their pension-is no longer so important. When people retire, they are more likely to have their pension paid directly into their bank account, as that is what currently happens to the vast majority of people of working age. Therefore, it is inevitable that business will decline. One postmaster put it to me succinctly when he said, "Many of my customers are dying off." When people retire they do not collect their pension at the post office to the same extent, and that service must be replaced by other Government work.

It is essential that Departments, the devolved Administrations, local government and public bodies give work to post offices. Otherwise, in the long term we will see a gradual decline. There is no immediate threat to post offices, but unless the Government provide commitments to more work, in 10 or 20 years' time we will see the gradual decline of post offices.

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I am pleased to note the Government's stated policy of giving more work to post offices, but it is vitally important that every Department follows that policy with action. Often, giving a contract to the Post Office will cost more than giving it to another provider, but that is because of the social benefits of post offices. Post office staff will take time to explain things to vulnerable people and give them help and advice that they would not often get in a supermarket or filling station. One can imagine the impatient queue at a filling station if people wanted to pay for their petrol but the assistant was taking time to give advice to an elderly person. Such advice is provided in a post office, but I cannot see it happening to the same extent in a filling station or supermarket. I hope that Departments will not be tempted to save money from their budgets by taking contracts from the Post Office.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says but when it comes to the crunch, sometimes a local post office will close, no matter how unfortunate that is. One of the biggest areas of growth is in supermarkets, whether metro stores or small stores. If a new supermarket contains a post office, would that not keep some of the services, even if they are in a supermarket?

Mr Reid: I agree with my hon. Friend; there is no problem with a post office being located in a supermarket and I was not saying that was a bad idea. My point is that a different type of outlet-PayPoint, for example-could be in a filling station but not in a dedicated post office that is part of a supermarket or filling station. In such situations, a person will not receive the same help and advice as they would in a post office located in a supermarket. I have no problem with a post office being located in another outlet-in my constituency, almost every post office is within a shop, filling station or supermarket. However, I would be concerned if the contract for benefit cheques was given to PayPoint, for example, because if an elderly person is in the same queue as people who are waiting to pay for their petrol, they might not receive the same quality of advice and help. A post office in another outlet is great, but if the facilities are simply part of that other outlet they will not offer the same social benefits to the customer.

The benefit cheque contract of the Department for Work and Pensions is for paying pensions and benefits to vulnerable people who are considered unable to use the Post Office card account. That contract was put out for renewal by the previous Government and I understand that the Post Office and PayPoint have bid for it. I hope that once the DWP has weighed up all the factors involved, including social factors and access criteria, it will keep the contract with the Post Office. PayPoint has a large number of outlets, including in my constituency, but nearly all those outlets are in towns and it does not have the same coverage throughout rural areas and islands as the Post Office.

If the contract were taken away from the Post Office and given to PayPoint, it would mean that on several of the islands in my constituency, there would be nowhere for people to cash the cheques. Also, in the rural areas of north Argyll, there would be nowhere for people to cash their cheques, because although there are plenty of PayPoint outlets in Oban, once people go outside Oban,
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they have to go all the way to Ballachulish or Inveraray to find another PayPoint outlet. It is therefore very important both for social reasons and for access reasons that the contract remains with the Post Office. I hope that the Minister will go away from today's debate and knock on the door of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to tell him just that.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that the Government on the one hand are giving much-needed subsidies to the network-£1.3 billion over four years; £50,000 per location per year-yet on the other hand are taking away some of the contracts? No other shareholder or business would act in that way. It just is not joined up.

Mr Reid: I hope that the Government will not react in the way that my hon. Friend fears. I share his concerns, however. What worries me-I hope that these fears are ungrounded-is that there may be silo thinking within the Government. Clearly, in these very difficult financial times, with Departments having to make huge savings, it must be very tempting for Ministers to go for the cheapest contract, but I hope that they will resist that temptation, that there will be joined-up thinking in the Government and that the Post Office will be given work because of the good service that it provides. I hope that that will be the case for social reasons and because of the access provided by having a network that is unmatched throughout rural Britain and on many of the islands in my constituency.

Let us consider other Government work. When I tour my constituency, as I do every summer, one bone of contention that keeps cropping up in the rural parts of it is vehicle excise duty. Vehicle excise duty can be renewed only in certain post offices. I understand that that is because the Department for Transport decided the number of outlets that it wanted. However, it means that people living in rural areas must go into the town if they want to renew their car tax at a post office. Clearly, the temptation, then, is to use the internet, and if people do that, the work is lost to the Post Office completely.

My understanding is that the computer system is the same in all post offices, so there seems to be no reason why vehicle excise duty cannot be paid in any post office. Again, I hope that the Minister takes that point away from the debate and has a word with his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport, so that when that contract comes up for renewal, the restriction on the number of outlets can be removed.

I also want to refer to the BBC. As we all know, during the last Parliament, the contract for renewing TV licences was taken away from the Post Office and given to PayPoint. When Ministers are questioned on that, we just get indignant responses that the BBC is not part of the Government. However, it is a public body, and I hope that the Government are explaining to all public bodies the benefits of the Post Office and the Government policy of supporting the Post Office, and are encouraging the BBC and other public bodies to use the Post Office.

I was delighted with the commitment given during last week's Report stage of the Postal Services Bill by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation
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and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), who is responsible for postal services, that Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail would sign an inter-business agreement for the longest legally permissible period before they become separate companies. That is important to give post offices time to adapt to being part of a separate company from Royal Mail.

I do not share the concerns of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran about Royal Mail in the long run taking business away from post offices. I do not believe that supermarkets or other shops could replicate what the post office does. Post office staff undergo a tremendous amount of training. There is also the computer system. One of the hon. Lady's fears was that in urban areas, supermarkets would take over the contract, but in rural areas the post office would be responsible. That would mean two separate computer systems and training other staff. I simply do not see that happening. As I said in response to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), I see no problem with post offices being located in supermarkets, but I simply cannot see the benefits to a privatised Royal Mail of having a different arrangement in towns compared with rural areas. Many post offices are located in supermarkets. In the towns in my constituency, that is the norm and I see no problem with it, but I simply cannot see a situation in which there would be separate arrangements in towns and villages.

Nia Griffith: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned training, the quality of post office staff and the different reception that people may have in supermarkets and garages. Does he not think that it is precisely that type of thing that makes it possible for supermarkets and high street chains to undercut the price that the Post Office will probably be tendering at, and that therefore there is a real danger that the Royal Mail could switch to a cheaper option, which might be a much poorer-quality service? It may even be a loss leader for some of the big chains.

Mr Reid: I simply do not see that happening, because those organisations would have to develop a computer system and train staff. At the moment, in the towns in my constituency, the post offices tend to be located within supermarkets. I do not see any benefit to Royal Mail or a supermarket from developing its own system rather than encouraging a post office to be located in the supermarket.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to speak. I find that exactly the opposite happens in connection with supermarkets. When I was fighting to save a post office near my own home in my constituency, the real problem was that Tesco did not want a post office on its premises because it took up too much space. We had to move the post office and have a community arrangement a few doors down. The essential problem is that supermarkets will not necessarily want a post office on their premises. I therefore agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the post office network is safe and the relationship that it has with Royal Mail will continue.

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Mr Reid: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree: I think that the post office network is safe. The attitude of the supermarkets in his constituency and mine just shows the diversity that we have in Britain. He mentioned space. One thing that my constituency does not lack is space; there is plenty of it, but I can understand that in a crowded urban area, the situation might be very different.

The reason why I came along to the debate this morning was to say that what is very important to the long-term future of our post offices is more Government work and the Government acting in a joined-up fashion, with all Departments being encouraged to give work to the Post Office. I hope that the Minister, in his reply to the debate, will assure us that that is what the Government are doing, that there is joined-up thinking in the Government and that work is in progress to ensure that more Government work is given to post offices, because post offices are in an ideal position to be a front office for Government throughout the country.

11.48 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) has rightly initiated this debate today. It is important that we ensure that the Post Office is protected and that legislation such as the Postal Services Bill does not have an undue effect. She asked many pertinent questions of the Minister and, like her, I look forward to hearing the answers.

Having worked for some years on issues within the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, under its various names, I have attended numerous statutory instrument Committees whereby the Government of whom the hon. Lady was a supporter put in subsidies year after year to support the Post Office. That was absolutely right. However, what happened under the previous Government was that they managed a decline. The very important social value of the Post Office has been recognised. Nevertheless, it has not necessarily been given the legs to be able to compete in a changing business situation in this country.

The new coalition Government are taking a different approach to the Post Office. We have no less desire than the Labour party to ensure the Post Office's future, but we are trying to adopt a different approach to enable the Post Office to stand on its own two feet. Several hon. Members have mentioned the £1.34 billion that the Government have committed to protect the network of 11,500 post offices, which we have said will remain. That is considerably better than managing the Post Office's decline. We do not want any more post office closures. We want the Post Office to remain in public ownership, unless it goes for mutualisation itself.

The hon. Lady mentioned the inter-business agreement at a little length. The chairman of Royal Mail has said that such an agreement will be drawn up for the maximum legal period before any sale. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) raised the issue in a new clause for the Postal Services Bill. It was argued at some length that a long period would benefit the Post Office, and I totally agree. Where I perhaps disagree, however, is on the practicalities. We are talking about an agreement between two commercial companies, which need the flexibility to negotiate an inter-business agreement that benefits both; if it does not, it will not necessarily hold
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together. There was also some discussion of how such an arrangement could be implemented, and the conclusion was that it would not necessarily work well under existing EU law.

The hon. Lady mentioned the post bank, and I, too, was disappointed that we did not go down that path. However, we have secured the ability for people belonging to virtually every bank in the United Kingdom to conduct transactions. That is a very good second best, which will at least make sure that the banks start to play ball and respond to the need to be more flexible in conducting their financial transactions.

What about the Post Office's future? My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) mentioned some of the losses that we have seen, as well as some of the potential losses. A little while back, the Post Office card account went out to competitive tender. Lord Mandelson, who had just been appointed Business Secretary, stopped that straight away. I thought, "Brilliant.". We really cannot afford to lose the Post Office card account in that way. Like my hon. Friend, I hope that it will continue.

Sheila Gilmore: The hon. Lady mentions the Post Office card account, and those who are active in promoting financial inclusion have suggested that introducing more functions into the Post Office card account might be one way of assisting people who do not have access to mainstream banking. Another issue, which is much discussed, and about which I have heard a lot of discussion since I arrived in the House in May, is the possibility of linking credit unions with post offices. I have to say that there has been more discussion than actual tying things down, and I understand that there are cost issues, but does the hon. Lady agree that those two additional functions would be useful for post offices and contribute to the financial inclusion agenda?

Lorely Burt: I certainly agree that it is important that we extend the range of services available to people who do not have a traditional bank account, and the Government are actively considering how that can best be done. I certainly applaud the work of credit unions, although I am not entirely sure whether they have sufficient coverage and continuity to form a national service at this stage. However, the Government are actively considering these matters, and we are doing all we can to reach a practical solution on increasing financial inclusion for those who are unbanked.

The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) described all sorts of different ways of introducing flexibility, and the Government are fizzing with ideas about how we can be more flexible. We can adapt to the changing commercial landscape and to the internet. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute mentioned vehicle excise duty licences, and I am sorry to say that I am guilty of using the internet to renew mine, because it takes five minutes. The point, however, is that there are many other functions that post offices can carry out; they do not have to exist in their traditional format to deliver a postal service to their customers.

I am very hopeful that some of the pilots that are being undertaken will prove successful. It is good that schemes are being piloted, because we can iron out some of the problems that might otherwise ensue. We will take the best ways of responding to the changing
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landscape. We do not want to continue giving subsidies to the Post Office; we want it to be vibrant, commercial and profitable and to stand on its own two feet.

11.57 am

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I want to add just a couple of quick points to what has been said.

To put these issues in context, there were 20,000 post offices a decade ago; now, there are fewer than 12,000. The Government have committed to keeping 11,500 of those open for the next four years. I do not share the confidence of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) that the network will be stable for the next decade. Unless action is taken, it will be stable for only the next four years-that is, for the period of the subsidy that is currently going through. Although I welcome the £1.3 billion subsidy in terms of keeping the network open, 7,000 of the 11,500 post offices that remain are loss making. Unless that is fixed, the prognosis cannot be positive. We have 7,000 loss-making post offices, and that is with the inter-business agreement in place. It is worth telling Opposition Members that. The issue is not the IBA, but sustainability over the medium term.

Will the Minister answer two questions? I want to know more about the modernisation programme that will be put in place over the next four years, which involves something like £350 million. I also reiterate the point that Members on both sides have made about joined-up thinking in the Government. It is not sustainable that we are, on the one hand, investing millions of pounds in trying to make the network better, albeit in ways I am not sure I fully understand, while Departments are, on the other hand, tendering business in a way that no commercial organisation would. I have heard EU legislation being used as an excuse, but I do not accept that and think that the argument should be tested. I do not intend to reiterate the types of Government business that are being removed or that could be removed, but it is anomalous that so much work is potentially threatened, while on the other hand we are spending £50,000 per location, per year, to keep post offices open.

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I shall be particularly interested to hear from the Minister, in relation to the modernisation programme, about who is accountable for its success and what the measures of its success will be. In particular, what is his estimate of the number of post offices that will be in profit after the four-year period has elapsed? At the moment, the number is 4,000. We are to spend £300 million on modernisation. What number would he, at this stage when the money is being committed, expect to be viable after the modernisation programme? The corollary to the answer to that question is what level of subsidy the Government and the Minister expect to be payable after four years to maintain, for the purpose of argument, 11,500 post offices.

12 noon

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this debate on a very important topic. Her worries and concerns are shared by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, as we saw
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from the number who attended and participated on Report in the debate on the amendment to guarantee a 10-year inter-business agreement.

Post offices are at the heart of our communities and are well loved by the people they serve. Hon. Members will remember the postcard campaign lobbying MPs to keep the Post Office card account; many were contacted by more constituents on that issue than on any other, before or since. They received cards from constituents who used Post Office card accounts, and from people who did not have one but who realised the value of the facility to other members of the community and the account's value to the post office network, because of the work it brought in, directly and indirectly, through increased footfall in post offices and increased business for the corner or village shop where the post office was situated.

Consumers and sub-postmasters alike recognise that any drop in post office business or footfall could have an impact on the economic viability of the post office or village shop. Yet the Government are complacent about the potential loss to the post office network of some 37% of its current business. The loss of all or even some of that business will inevitably mean a dramatic reshaping of the post office network on an unprecedented scale. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) has not explained that complacency. He has hidden behind some potential barriers, which he seems unwilling to try to shift and which may be more a figment of his imagination than a reality. I hope that the Minister will today be able to give us a better explanation for that complacency.

The Under-Secretary did not tell us, either in Committee or on Report, about any detailed work or discussions that have taken place to secure future Royal Mail business for the post office network. There are many ways in which that might be achieved, but I shall concentrate my remarks on three of them, namely the inclusion of a specific number of access points in the Bill, the inclusion of an inter-business agreement in the Bill and other ways of securing an inter-business agreement. In Committee, the Under-Secretary steadfastly refused to consider any mechanism to protect the post office network or the number of outlets where consumers can access post office services. One of the issues that we debated at length in Committee was including in the Postal Services Bill measures to guarantee the number and geographical spread of access points to postal services, which would guarantee the public a number of outlets across the country to post parcels or register letters. Without that guarantee of a specific number of outlets to serve consumers, there will be nothing to stop a privatised Royal Mail from drastically cutting the number of outlets, and limiting them to the larger centres only, whether through high street chains or part of the post office network.

Mr Reid: Under the Bill, Ofcom has a duty to ensure that there are enough access points to meet users' reasonable needs. Surely that is the guarantee. The Post Office will either remain in Government hands or it will be mutualised, so the Government have a role there. The regulator has a role in ensuring enough access points-that is post offices.

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Nia Griffith: If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully, he will see that there is much flexibility in the Bill about what can be changed by the regulator and where things can be moved to, so the guarantee is not robust.

Returning to putting more robust access criteria in the Bill, if that does not happen consumers will have to travel much further to access Royal Mail postal services, and inevitably those who have least access to transport will miss out-those who do not have cars and those who are served by an infrequent bus service or by no bus service at all. A reduction in the number of access points would also have a negative impact on small businesses in rural areas that make frequent use of the parcel service and whose costs, both in fuel and time, would increase significantly if they had to travel many extra miles to use postal services. There is nothing to stop the Government including in the Bill that vital guarantee for consumers. Only a simple guarantee of a number of access points similar to the current number of post offices would ensure that consumers would continue to have access to the same sort of availability of counter services as they enjoy at present.

Mr Reid: Legislating for a specific number of post offices does not help, because they could all be moved into cities. The problem is writing the requirement for a spread of post offices into legislation. The previous Government's access criteria could, as we know, be satisfied by closing 4,000 post offices, so the difficulty is writing the spread into legislation. No one-neither the official Opposition nor Back Benchers-tabled such an amendment on Report, because devising the formula is impossible.

Nia Griffith: The hon. Gentleman rightly mentions geographical spread, which is important. Provision should be made for it. Perhaps we should look to the Australian model. There it is guaranteed that 90% of the urban population will have a post office within 2.5 km; and almost unbelievably in such a large continent it is guaranteed that 85% of the rural population will have a post office within 7.5 km. If they can manage that in Australia, we could introduce a guarantee that is much more robust than what we now have. The irony is that, if Deutsche Post were to purchase Royal Mail, consumers here could have a reduced service, while they contributed to the profits of a company which must provide a specified number of outlets in its own country. In other words, we could have a poorer service here, while propping up a better service in Germany-a scenario we might associate more with 19th-century colonialism than modern Britain.

The Under-Secretary did not give convincing answers on Report about what exactly the legal obstacles are to the inclusion in the Bill of a guarantee of an inter-business agreement. He did not tell us about any legal precedents on which he was drawing, or what research his team has done on any relevant challenges in EU law.

The Under-Secretary has also failed to tell us about options outside the Bill itself. Currently both Royal Mail and the post office network are in public ownership. Both the chief executive and the chairman of Royal Mail speak favourably of the post office network. They recognise the respect it commands, the trust it enjoys in our communities and its value as a business partner. What, therefore, is preventing the signing of a new inter-business agreement now, while Royal Mail is still
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in public ownership? I am not now talking about a new clause in the Bill, but a new business agreement: an agreement that goes beyond the end of the current inter-business agreement, which could run out within a couple of years of privatisation, depending on the time scale, and that lasts for an additional 10 years. Has the Minister explored that possibility with Royal Mail? What would be the legal difference between an inter-business agreement with just a couple of years to run and one that was to last five or 10 years? Has he sought to capitalise on the warm words of Moya Greene and Donald Brydon about the post office network? Has he had any talks about an extended IBA between Royal Mail and the post office network?

I am sure that the Minister does not need to be reminded that Royal Mail is currently in public ownership. He must realise how serious the loss of business would be to the post office network. Even though any decision by Royal Mail to abandon the Post Office will be taken after privatisation, and therefore will technically not be a Government decision, he knows that the people of this country will not be slow to make the connection between the privatisation of Royal Mail and the demise of their local post offices.

The pity is that the Minister does not seem to want to take specific action. He seems to think that he can rely on warm words to guarantee Royal Mail business for the Post Office, but people are wary of warm words. There have been warm words about no rise in VAT and warm words about no increase in tuition fees-people are becoming very cynical about warm words. No shrewd business person would trust future business security to warm words. Surely, in his enthusiasm to privatise Royal Mail, the Minister has not overlooked the fact that it is currently in public ownership, and that he therefore has every opportunity to influence the way forward and to negotiate a longer IBA, here and now, before proceeding to privatisation.

Indeed, the Under-Secretary told us on Report that the Government

I ask the Minister to enlighten us about what talks he or the Under-Secretary have had with Royal Mail about drawing up a longer IBA with the Post Office before privatisation. What was meant by the "longest legally permissible contract"? Is there a legal limit on such a contract? If so, what is it? As I said in last week's debate, purchasers take over existing contracts and responsibilities in all sorts of takeovers, and such arrangements can be long-lasting.

The hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) rightly questions what joined-up thinking has taken place on the subsidy. In our debate on the subsidy on 20 December, I said that the taxpayer is paying a large subsidy to the post office network, of which only 48% is necessary to continue the subsidy that Labour introduced to maintain the operation of the current post office network. We have been told that the remainder includes money to convert post offices to the post office local model, which involves paying the sub-postmaster by transaction, but that has been criticised by the Rural Shops Alliance, which questions why anyone would want to work longer hours for less income. It predicts
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difficulty in attracting new entrants to the post office local model; indeed, a similar pilot in Linlithgow ended with the shopkeeper saying that it simply was not worth his while to provide post office services.

Taxpayers will rightly ask what is the point of so much taxpayers' money going into the post office network, particularly when they are seeing savage cuts in other services, and given that the Government are doing absolutely nothing to help secure the 37% of post office income that comes from the IBA with Royal Mail.

David Mowat: The Opposition continually talk about the IBA as if it were some kind of nirvana. Even with it in place, 7,500 post offices in the network are making a loss. At least the Minister has proposals on fixing that and on modernisation. Do the Opposition have any proposals other than the status quo?

Nia Griffith: Frankly, despite the Government's fine words, the Post Office has no new Government contracts and no new streams of business, and it faces the possibility of losing all its Royal Mail business. Taxpayers will ask why they have to pay for that.

Taxpayers understand the idea of investment that brings returns and the value of business start-up funds, which can help to launch new businesses that subsequently stand on their own two feet, and they accept the need for some subsidy to make the network a truly nationwide service. However, if the post office network does not provide nationwide access to postal services or develop new business streams to improve its viability, the taxpayer may well ask what is the point of allocating £1.34 billion to the post office network. The taxpayer has every right to ask what steps the Minister is taking to ensure that the Post Office continues to do for Royal Mail business that provides 37% of its income.

In its recent report, the Scottish Affairs Committee stated:

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