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Sub-post Offices

8. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): What recent representations she has received from rural sub-post office operatives; and if she will make a statement. [16477]

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Douglas Alexander): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry receives correspondence on a range of issues from numerous people working in the rural sub-post office network.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Minister for that most unhelpful reply. Despite the tinkering at the edges by his Department to try to ensure that the rural network of post offices remains, 929 post offices have closed in the past two years. That is twice as many as in the two previous years. That means that the Government's initiatives are failing, and I question whether they really want to keep those post offices.

Mr. Alexander: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we do wish to maintain the rural network and I can clarify the figures for him. I welcome in particular the reduction in the rate of closures that we have witnessed recently—175 in the first half of this year, compared with 299 in the first half of last year. The Welsh figures may also be of interest to him. There were 13 closures in the first half of this year, compared with 68 last year.

I would argue that the Government are determined to take real action to address some of the challenges that have been mentioned today. We commissioned the PIU report and accepted all its recommendations. There is now a formal requirement on the Post Office to maintain the rural network. We have established a new £2 million fund for community ownership, and rural transfer advisers are now working in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and many others around the country.

The contrast could not be clearer between this Government's actions and the inaction and negligence of the previous Conservative Government, under whom 3,500 rural post offices closed between 1979 and 1997.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): I have represented my largely rural constituency for 22 years, and I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that post offices have always been under pressure. The rate of closure of rural post offices was far greater under Conservative Governments, when most rural services deteriorated substantially too. I am delighted with the Government's plans to ensure that rural post offices do not close as quickly as has been the case, but I hope that my hon. Friend will not underestimate the very big backlash that will be felt in rural areas if we fail in what we are trying to do.

Mr. Alexander: I certainly accept what my right hon. Friend has said, not least in terms of the importance that

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rural communities attach to their sub-post offices. However, the contrast could not be clearer between the actions of this Government, who have ring-fenced £270 million to meet the challenge, and those of the Conservative party, both in government and out.

Last night, I took the opportunity to look at the Conservative election manifesto to find out what active proposals that party had for supporting the rural network. The Opposition had one proposal—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I advise the Minister that it is not for him to tell us the policy of the Conservative party.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Will the Minister confirm that the date for the transfer of benefit payments to automated credit transfer remains April 2003? If so, when does he expect the systems for the Post Office card account to be operational?

Mr. Alexander: I can confirm the timetable for the universal bank, and that a great deal of detailed work is being done on the specific issues of systems and of the migration strategy that will ensure a smooth transition.

Pay Claims (NUM)

9. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): What correspondence her Department has received in the past three months concerning claims for equal pay for National Union of Mineworkers cleaners and canteen workers. [16478]

The Minister for Industry and Energy (Mr. Brian Wilson): The Department has received in the region of 250 representations on this issue.

Mr. Barnes: I am aware of the squabble between Arthur Scargill and my hon. Friend the Minister on this matter. Arthur Scargill claims that promises were made by my hon. Friend's predecessor that have not been lived up to. The Government have said that the claims from the former cleaners and canteen workers were not submitted in time by the NUM.

Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the matter, should not the cleaners' and canteen workers' claims be met? We are not talking about people who are wealthy, unless the odd one happens to have won the lottery.

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Mr. Wilson: I do not accept that there has been a squabble. The simple fact is that 1,300 claims were registered and have been met, at a cost of £14 million. Unfortunately, many claims were not registered. Sad to say, the responsibility for that lies not with this Government or even their predecessors, but with the unions representing the workers. That has left the ladies involved in a difficult position. I continue to meet them and to search for a rational solution to the problem. I have no doubt that the people concerned suffered unfairness, but my basic problem is that the claims were not registered.

I am sure that all hon. Members know that many claims, with different circumstances but equal validity, are made to industrial tribunals and are time-barred. To create one category of time-barred claims that are accepted because we feel that the people involved were hard done by would leave another category of people—many tens of thousands of them—whose claims had been time-barred for different reasons in an equally anomalous and unfair position. We are trying to find a solution, but it is not easy.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I fully accept what my hon. Friend the Minister says, but there are a number of elderly canteen workers in my constituency who failed to get their compensation claims in in time. They see the colleagues with whom they worked receiving generous compensation, and it was not the workers' fault that the claims were not submitted in time. Does the Minister think that he could come up with a small amount of compensation to ensure that these people get a fair solution to the problem? It is within his power and he should do it in the name of fairness.

Mr. Wilson: As I have just explained, in resolving one unfairness I would create another unfairness—unfairness to everybody else who has a tribunal claim time bar. There is no general power to waive the fact that no claims were registered. There must be specific grounds that would give a basis for these claims that would satisfy any accounting officer or auditor. We are looking at this and constantly meeting miners' representatives. I recognise the sense of injustice, but the fundamental problem is that these claims were never registered. Perhaps the people who failed to register these claims should begin to take some responsibility. I simply point out that the NUM has had a generous payment made to it for its administrative role in what would appear to be generally not registering claims.

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Business of the House

12.31 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): May I ask the Leader of the House for the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 3 December—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day] until 7 o'clock on a subject of which we have yet to be notified. Followed by a debate entitled "The Government's Mismanagement of Wembley Stadium, Pickett's Lock and the Dome", also on an Opposition motion.

Mr. Forth: Ah!

Mr. Cook: I presumed that the right hon. Gentleman was aware of that.

Tuesday 4 December—Second Reading of the Education Bill.

Wednesday 5 December—A debate on European Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 6 December—A debate on the Common Fisheries Policy Reform and Sustainable Fisheries on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 7 December—The House will not be sitting. The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

Monday 10 December—Second Reading of the Tax Credits Bill.

Tuesday 11 December—Estimates Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on waste management policy until 7 o'clock followed by a debate on the staging of the world athletics championships in the United Kingdom. Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 10 o'clock the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates. The estimates to be agreed are as follows: Winter Supplementary Summary Request for Supply (HC 391), Vote on Account (For Generality of Government Departments) (HC 392), Vote on Account (House of Commons) (HC 393), Vote on Account (National Audit Office) (HC 394) and Vote on Account (Electoral Commission) (HC 395).

Wednesday 12 December—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

A Debate on International Terrorism on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

Thursday 13 December—Remaining stages of the Animal Health Bill.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

Friday 14 December—The House will not be sitting.

The House will wish to know that on Monday 3 December there will be a debate relating to the European arrest warrant and the surrender procedures between member states in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant document will be given in the Official Report.

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[Monday 3 December 2001:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union Documents: 13425/01, European Arrest Warrant and the Surrender Procedures between Member States. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-vii (2001-02) and HC 152-viii (2001-02).

Further to my earlier announcement about the Christmas recess, I can now confirm that the House will rise for the Christmas recess on Wednesday 19 December.

The House will also wish to know that subject to the progress of business the House will not sit during the week commencing Monday 18 February 2002.

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