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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words about my colleague Anne McGuire, who has been very active in promoting the convention. I should also state that whatever reservations may come forward in due course must not be incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty. A lot of work has been undertaken which is coming to a conclusion and it is hoped that my honourable friend Anne McGuire will be able very shortly to make a Statement on this issue. I should also say that it is helpful to be able to have reservations because it facilitates a country’s ability to ratify the convention when it may otherwise be precluded from doing so, so there is a positive aspect to reservations as well. History

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also shows that reservations that are entered over time are removed, as pressure builds up domestically to effect the changes that are needed.


11.29 am

Baroness Northover asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the crisis in Zimbabwe continues. It is understandable that opposition parties and civil society organisations should call for peaceful protest. In a country with inflation at more than 165,000 per cent and unemployment above 80 per cent, it is not surprising, however, that many people who have jobs continue to go to work if they can in order to support their families. This crisis will continue until credible presidential election results are announced that reflect the will of the people.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Some members of the defeated party are already using violence to try to hang on to power. What action can be taken through the region, the African Union or the UN to stop additional weapons getting into Zimbabwe? Given the quantity of arms already in Zimbabwe, which from what we are hearing are clearly being used, what can be done, particularly by those in the region, to try to bring this situation to a peaceful conclusion?

Lord Malloch-Brown:My Lords, the noble Baroness focuses on the current arms shipment on a Chinese ship, which still remains on the waters off southern Africa and has been refused entry to South Africa and Mozambique for unloading. I met the ambassador from Angola this morning and I believe that the ship will not be allowed to unload in Angola, either, so it will effectively be sent home. We will see huge action by civil society and the Governments of the region, if necessary through the UN and elsewhere, to make sure that no more arms arrive and reach this illegitimate Government to allow them to suppress their people.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has just awarded a seat in Parliament to Mugabe’s party on the ground of an alleged miscount? Should we not bear in mind that the Electoral Commission is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mugabe’s party? The proposal that a number of people have put forward for a rerun of the election is regrettable at this time, because the violence of Mugabe’s party to the population is as fierce as it has been at any time in recent years. That had a bad effect on the turnout of MDC voters before the recent election and on previous occasions and it is likely to have a bad effect for some time ahead unless the violence stops.

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Lord Malloch-Brown:My Lords, while it remains the position of the Opposition to press for the immediate announcement of a presidential election result, the news that the noble Lord brings of an election seat being turned over and awarded to the government party, ZANU-PF, is a further indication that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the election process itself lack credibility. After a month of silence, we can conclude only that.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, is my noble friend satisfied with the actions and the words of the South African Government in relation to this crisis?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, as I have said before in this House, President Mbeki deserves credit for having created the conditions in which this election took place, which has begun the process that will lead to the departure from power of President Mugabe. The people of Zimbabwe have voted and the putting of ballot tallies on the doors of the polling stations, a reform for which President Mbeki pressed, means that it has been impossible to hide the result. Obviously, we would have wished for clearer public statements since the election from the leaders of the region that this stalemate cannot be allowed to last. We are impressed by a number of private statements that are being made, but the time has come for ever clearer public statements by the leaders of the region, including President Mbeki, that this election stalemate must be ended in favour of the people of the country.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, further to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and the Minister’s comments, did he get the impression from talking to Mr Zuma, who is now in London, that South Africa will back an international arms embargo to prevent the coming genocide? That is an important part of the jigsaw building up to prevent the horrors to come. Secondly, the American authorities say that they would like to see Nigeria and, indeed, any country that has some influence on the situation weigh in to try to control the deteriorating situation. Does the Minister agree with that approach, which is outside the UN? What links can we establish with the Indian authorities and, indeed, with the Chinese authorities, as well as over the shipment issue, in order to bring global pressure on to this situation before it turns into a major bloodbath?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the American position, like ours, is that it is important to engage the broader AU beyond the immediate neighbouring countries of SADC and, within the AU, countries such as Nigeria that are traditionally leaders in the region. It is clear that more straightforward public statements about the situation in Zimbabwe can be made by those countries not immediately adjacent to it. The initiative to press for broader AU engagement is very welcome. Just last week I raised in Beijing the broader issues of Zimbabwe with the Chinese authorities. I am confident that no Government—not the Chinese or any other—believe that this situation can be allowed to last. A month has passed without a result being announced. That is

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almost unique in the annals of elections. I do not think that any serious person anywhere can say that the status quo is sustainable. We need a result. Everybody needs to press for that in their own way.


11.36 pm

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Vadera will, with the leave of the House, repeat the Statement on industrial action at Grangemouth at the end of the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn.

Business of the House: Debates Today

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, that the debate on the Motion in the name of Baroness Byford set down for today shall be limited to three hours and that in the name of Lord Colwyn to two hours.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Post Offices

11.36 am

Baroness Byford rose to call attention to the role played by post offices in local communities and the public reaction to plans to close a portion of the network, and to the case for a review of the operations framework of the Royal Mail and post offices provided by the Post Office Act 2000; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the situation with regard to post offices is a shambolic mess. The Government have succeeded in uniting town and countryside in a roar of protest, backed by government Ministers, that comes from a sense of outrage. Three million people signed the petition in October last year. They feel, and rightly so, that post offices are an important part of everyday living, particularly for the less wealthy, old-age pensioners, single mums and dads and small businesses.

Let us start at the beginning. Sub-post offices used to be profitable. The Post Office had a savings account that was accessed through a book and carried no rights other than to put money into it over the counter and to take cash out of it. There was no automated payment, no overdraft facility, no credit card, debit card or cash card. Then the Government announced that giros, pension books and cheques would all have to go. The Post Office savings book was abolished and pressure was applied to each payee to accept their benefit payment into a bank account. The Post Office could not, apparently, use automated payments as there were no slots left in the bankers’ automated clearing system.

Millions of people who owned a bank account needed their benefits paying into the Post Office because they had an overdraft and did not want the bank to have first call on that money. Millions more who did not have a bank account were either unable

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to use one or did not have the documentation to open one. A surprising number of people have neither passport nor driving licence. Moreover, the banks made it very difficult for those on low incomes. The citizens advice bureaux fought for improvements but I understand that it is still not easy. The banks prefer to have as customers those of us from whom they can make a profit rather than those from whom they just cover costs.

Jeff Rooker—now the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, but then a Minister in the other place—stated in a Written Answer:

At that time 95 per cent of the population were within one mile of a post office and 60 per cent were within a mile of a bank, but most of those lived in town as only 9 per cent of villages had a bank.

At Second Reading of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill on 17 April 2000, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that 96 per cent of parents who were separated or divorced have care responsibilities for their children or adults and earn less than £100 a week. That statistic exemplifies the poverty of large numbers of people, even in this new century. It was into this situation that the exponents of joined-up government dropped the bombshell of automated payment. On 2 May 2000, the move was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, when he rejected the idea that post offices should go into the future with a paper-based system. He argued that the continuation would place the Post Office in a totally defensive and unacceptable position, particularly with regard to gaining new business. We argued against that. Had the Government allowed sub-post offices to diversify at that stage, we might not be in the situation that we face today.

At the time, there were many statements about financial losses in the Post Office, the cost to the Government of the existing systems and the amount by which the taxpayer would benefit after the changes had gone through. There was, for example, a quote of £140 million annual loss due to fraud. I wonder whether that was due to malpractice by certain members of the public between the point where the benefit reached the post office and was withdrawn by the payee, or whether it was due to incompetence in the department.

After the revelations of recent weeks, will the Minister confirm that none of that annual £140 million loss was caused by transfer errors between the Government and the Post Office? At that time, we were told that it would cost 1p per transaction for an automated payment as against 49p for a payment by an order book, 79p for a giro payment and 67p for a payment card. What costs were included in those figures? Will she confirm the current cost of automated payment and the basis on which the calculation is made? Exactly how much money was saved by the DWP, and where did that money go?

I have good reason for querying this figure, because at that time I was coming up to a certain significant birthday, and I decided that I wished my state pension

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to be paid into an account in the post office. This is what I encountered. I was contacted by the DWP, which asked me if I had a bank account, to which I said that I did not think it was really relevant, but I did have one. I was told that my payment would be made into that account. I said, “No, I do not wish it to be paid into that account; I wish it to be paid into the post office”. Had I got a post office account? No, so I needed to get one. I put the phone down and I went to my local post office. I asked the postmaster whether I could have the form to apply for an account. He said, “This is the form, but I cannot give it to you. You need a letter of invitation from the DWP before I can give it to you to fill in”.

I went back home and rang the DWP. Sure as anything, I did need a letter and a letter would be sent. Several days elapsed, and a letter eventually came. I returned to the post office, presented the letter, and the postmaster gave me the form. I filled it in, and I said, “Now can we open the account?”. He said, “Oh no, it has to go back to the DWP again”. It took another two goes before that account eventually came through. I am fairly tenacious and a bit bolshy, but think of the other people who do not have the time or the temerity to make that point. If I had not got my account there, that was one fewer person who would be using that post office for the purpose it was there to serve. I share that experience with noble Lords to share the frustration and the difficulty—nay, near bullying—that one is put through to be able to get an account in the Post Office.

Those who live in rural areas invariably have to have a car, because that is the only way that they can get from point A to point B. This is particularly true if they have a sickly child or an old person in their household, or have a job in town. Those who do not have a car have to rely on family members, friends and neighbours and a bus service that is at best infrequent, but often non-existent. Now they will have to cope with the reorganisation of the Post Office.

The Government have set a number of parameters which define how the service will look: 90 per cent of people nationally must live within a mile of a post office; in urban areas 95 per cent must live within one mile, and in deprived urban areas that rises to 99 per cent. However, in rural areas 95 per cent of the population must be within three miles of a post office, and in remote rural areas there will be a journey of six miles. How many of us who are fit would choose to walk six miles every week to draw a benefit, let alone those who are not well? What happens to those who are pushing young children in buggies when they have to go that distance? Often there are no pathways on rural roads.

The Government are planning to close post offices that have been newly opened and are owned by the community. Some are profitable or in areas earmarked for massive housebuilding. Has anyone mapped those offices which are making serious losses, calculated the effects of closing most of them and costed the funding necessary to support the remainder?

Back in 2000, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury—described the then working methods as,

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I prefer a system that requires efforts on the part of its employees to one that puts pressure on millions of people as a result of the loss of their post offices and the advice freely given by sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, and destroys the local community cohesion. One of the greatest benefits of regular visits to the post office, particularly for older people is that they get out and about and meet other people.

I had taken with a pinch of salt reports on the consultation process. As one knows, it was cut from 12 weeks, which is the norm, to six weeks. In another place on 28 February, Mark Lancaster, MP for Milton Keynes North East, asked a Question on the consultation. Following the Oral Answer, he said:

That is no consultation. That is a decision taken in advance. He went on to ask why the Government were insisting on the closure of these post offices when they were forcing expansion in the area.

The travails of the Post Office are mainly due to the Government, whose advertising stresses that people have a right to benefits. But it surely must also be the right of people to draw those benefits at a place convenient to them. The Government have said that the Post Office card account will continue until 2010. I suggest that it should be a universal account. It should, at the very least, be available to those who need small sums of money—particularly those of old age, single parents, the unemployed and children. There should not be a presumption against other members of the public from having an account, given that every time there is such a presumption, it decreases the footfall going into those post office branches.

In the past five parliamentary Sessions there have been 417 Written Questions in the Commons on Post Office closures. A number of those asked for data on the costs saved by the DWP, the costs incurred by the DWP, the costs incurred by the Post Office and the costs incurred by the Treasury. To the best of my belief none of those facts has been made public and I am wondering why. Simply dealing with that number of Written Questions has cost more than £250,000 and there have been several debates, which have cost valuable time and money. Surely we should have answers to those Questions. Can the Minister tell us whether anyone has analysed the extra time and travel that will be involved in people accessing their benefits? Has that been translated in any way into an increase in the amount of carbon emissions and fuel consumption?

I have doubts about the process of post office closures, particularly with regard to consultation. Why has the figure for closures, which remains at 2,500, not been looked at again since late 2006? Why is the number of outreach units set at 500? Will they all be in rural areas and is there a breakdown of that figure? Looking to the future, what research has been done into the possibility of those outreach units being in churches, which are usually everywhere within communities in both towns and rural areas, or in village halls or other places within the community? Is the Minister not concerned that those who are forced

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to withdraw several weeks’ money in one go because of the distances they will have to travel—they will not be able to go on a weekly basis—will run the risk of muggings?

Finally, I should like to borrow from Frank Field a comment that he made about the removal of the 10 per cent tax band, which I think applies equally well to the post office closure programme. I agree wholeheartedly with him that it is wrong that we should penalise the lowest-paid and that they should pay for the simplification. Post offices should be freed to seek new business opportunities, and both national and local government could aid this development.

I am deeply grateful to all who follow me in the debate and I greatly look forward to hearing their contributions. I beg to move for Papers.

11.51 am

Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will be that happy about what I have to say because I do not agree with everything that she said. There is sometimes a degree of forgetfulness in contributions on the Post Office and Royal Mail; the blame or credit can rarely be laid wholly at the door of one party or one Government. I notice that my noble friend Lady Vadera will be replying to this debate. I think that this will be her first contribution on the subject but it certainly will not be her last. It is the kind of issue that keeps coming; it is a dripping roast and, as we get near to elections, so the opportunists will swarm around and make local political advantage of it. If they have any claim to be politicians, they should be doing nothing else.

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