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Universal Bank

11. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): What progress has been made in agreeing a memorandum of understanding with banks concerning the universal bank. [159071]

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): Discussions with the banks are at an advanced stage. I hope that they will be resolved shortly.

Mr. Blunt: I cannot say that I am particularly grateful to the Minister for that answer. In January, the Secretary of State said at DTI questions:

However, in March, in response to a written question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), the Department gave precisely the same answer as the Minister has just given, and stated:

It is about time we had some answers from the Government, not least in view of the report produced by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which states that the Committee

Will he tell us just how much this will cost the taxpayer? The House has a right to know.

Mr. Johnson: We are in discussions with the 11 major financial institutions, 10 banks and a building society--

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Still!

Mr. Johnson: Yes, still. We are doing so because we have something that is worth arguing for. They are all talking constructively with us about setting up universal banking services that will allow pensioners and benefit recipients not only to draw their money in cash, in full, every week at the post office, but to access network banking there. That is an important development for the

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Post Office and in the war against financial exclusion. We will continue to work on this matter over the weekend--apart from Monday, of course, which is a universal bank holiday.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Will the Minister confirm the significance of the concession that he is reported to have made to the banks, and to Halifax in particular, on not allowing branded bank accounts to be opened in Post Office branches? Does not that mean that the very large number of financially excluded people in inner-city and remote rural areas who do not have access to a bank branch will be restricted to the limited facilities of the card account and will not have the bill-paying accounts that they had anticipated?

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Mr. Johnson: No; the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The discussions are subject to commercial confidentiality. When they are concluded, they will be revealed. Our aim is that people will not have to go to banks to open their accounts. They can start the process at their post office without needing to visit a bank. A very important point that was made in the Cruickshank report is that many people feel inhibited by having to go the banks, whereas they trust the post office.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members that the universal banking services will be a major step forward, and that the very people whom he mentions--the socially and financially excluded--will be able to have the benefits of direct debit, which we assess at up to £200 usage a year, as a result of being able to access those services.

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Ballistic Missile Defence

12.33 pm

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Government policy towards ballistic missile defence.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met President Bush at Camp David, he stressed the importance of taking forward proposals for missile defence through close consultation with allies and through dialogue with Russia.

On Tuesday, President Bush made a statement--[Interruption.] If I may say so, this is a serious matter that I am endeavouring to take seriously. On Tuesday, President Bush made a statement on his Administration's plans on how to proceed with missile defence. We warmly welcome the strong emphasis placed by President Bush on consultation with close allies. We look forward to discussions next week with the high-level team that he is sending to Europe.

We also welcome the commitment to dialogue with Russia in order to develop a new co-operative relationship that is based on openness and mutual confidence. President Putin has also demonstrated his concern about the missile threat from rogue states, and his security adviser recently briefed NATO on Russian proposals for missile defence. We will encourage both the United States and Russia to have constructive dialogue to reach agreement on how to tackle the problem that both have identified.

We also warmly welcome the commitment by President Bush to further cuts in nuclear weapons. We want nuclear arms reduction to be a feature of the new relationship that the United States seeks with Russia.

It should be stressed that President Bush's speech was a commitment to a future goal. The technology for missile defence will take some years to develop and the United States has yet to confirm which technical option it will pursue. Nor do we yet know the diplomatic context of any final decision, such as the potential for agreement with Russia.

However, we must recognise the reality that there is a growing challenge of missile proliferation. A number of states, of mutual concern to the US and the UK, are developing ballistic missile technology. At Camp David our two leaders agreed:

In the years that it will take for missile defence to be developed, we will work closely with the US, both to reduce proliferation of ballistic missile technology and to enhance security against those ballistic missiles.

Mr. Maude: Ballistic missile defence is a subject of intense interest and concern throughout the House. Yesterday, the Prime Minister deliberately equivocated when questioned on the subject in the Chamber by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Not 10 minutes later, his official spokesman said that missile defence was a good idea. The House is entitled to feel extremely angry that it is treated in that way.

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Next week, a delegation from Washington comes to London to discuss precisely this matter. Given the overwhelming importance of the issue, and the absolute necessity of the British Government speaking with a single and authoritative voice, will the Foreign Secretary now repeat, word for word, what the Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday? How otherwise can Britain expect to have influence with either America or our European partners? Does he believe that British people should have less protection against missile attack than people in America?

Mr. Cook: I am entirely happy to endorse everything that was said by the Prime Minister in the House yesterday when he stressed that it is impossible to give a firm answer until we have firm details. The Opposition's position is that, although we do not yet know whether the system will be sea-based or land-based, whether it will attempt to hit an incoming missile in the boost phase or in the re-entry phase, or whether it will be done with or without agreement, they know the answer that they would give. That is a betrayal of the national interest and of any influence that one may hope to have on the proposal.

Yes, I do think--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Minister reply.

Mr. Cook: I do think that it is a good thing that the United States President should be able to say to the United States people that they are secure against any ballistic attack. It may or may not be that missile defence will play a part in that, but, as the Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday, nothing is inevitable and no answer can be given by Britain until we know the details; and, in that context, the position taken by the Government to look at the detail and the international context and to take a decision in the national interest compares responsibly and favourably with the position taken by the Opposition, who have adopted an attitude that plainly means that they do not expect to be in government, do not have any intention of taking a responsible approach to the issue, and would put their own party prejudice first rather than the national interest.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Last August, the all-party Select Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously agreed a report in which we urged the Government to make it clear to the US Administration that they should not necessarily assume unqualified UK co-operation in national missile defence and urged the Government to articulate Britain's strong concerns about NMD.

The Government, in their reply in August 2000, said, in terms, that they value the stability that the anti-ballistic missile treaty provides. Is that still the Government's position? What does consultation mean in practice? What is the agenda? Will my right hon. Friend say clearly that the position taken by the Leader of the Opposition, giving a blank cheque--a yes--to whatever the US Administration says, is absurd?

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