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House of Commons

Tuesday 9 July 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Postal Services

1. Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): What recent discussions she has had with Postcomm regarding deregulation of postal services in Scotland. [65298]

4. Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): If she will make a statement on the reform of postal services in Scotland. [65301]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scotland Office (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The Scotland Office has regular contact with Postcomm and other organisations involved in matters connected with the operation of postal services in Scotland. Regulation of postal services is a matter for Postcomm.

Mr. Reid: Quilters on the island of Islay found last month that their prices had been almost tripled by Parcelforce. Before that Parcelforce had an arrangement with the mail order company that the quilters deal with to the effect that Parcelforce delivered to any part of the country at a uniform rate. Parcelforce has withdrawn from that arrangement and is now charging almost double for deliveries to the highlands and islands compared with other parts of the country. Will the Minister step in now and stop that discrimination against the people of the highlands and islands by the Post Office and guarantee a universal service to all parts of the United Kingdom at a uniform price?

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman is well aware that there is a uniform delivery service for letters throughout the whole United Kingdom, but I note from the nodding on his side of the House—and, using the eyes in the back of my head, the nodding behind me—that there is an issue and I will take it up with Postcomm at our meeting next week.

Mr. Duncan: The Minister should be aware that the former Under-Secretary in the Scotland Office, the right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), confirmed to me on 7 December that reforms would not lead to any avoidable sub-post office

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closures. Will the hon. Lady confirm exactly what "avoidable" means? My constituent, Mrs. Cronie, who runs the sub-post office on the Isle of Whithorn, tells me that she has no idea

Is that not avoidable? Does it not show that the current chaos is an entirely avoidable Government policy failure?

Mrs. McGuire: As I said last month in reply to another question from the hon. Gentleman, he should stop scaremongering about some of the things that are happening. He is well aware that the Government have supported the rural post office network and that Postcomm is working closely with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. If he wants to talk about the postal service in his area, perhaps he would like to use in his news release this week the information that the figure for first-class deliveries in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale is one of the highest recorded—94.9 per cent; and that second-class deliveries are 93.3 per cent. That is good news about the Post Office—perhaps he would like to start telling it.

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): The Minister will be aware that the finances of the Post Office are very, very serious indeed and that unless there are significant reforms to the urban post office network, we shall hear a great deal of protest. Great ideas were proposed in the report of the performance and innovation unit, but they are only coming out sluggishly: talking about pilots in Rutland does not convey the urgency of the need to change post offices. Will my hon. Friend assure me that all her energy will go into speeding up the rate of reform of urban post offices?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is well aware that there are ongoing discussions about the urban network. He should not be so dismissive about the roll-out of the pilot schemes in Rutland and Leicestershire. The schemes have to be evaluated but, as I have already pointed out, I will meet Postcomm in the next week or so, and I shall certainly raise his concerns.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): When my hon. Friend meets the regulator, will she have something to say about the number of closures that have already taken place in the postal service—one of which was in my constituency and has adversely affected mail deliveries in Ayrshire as a whole? Will she bring some common sense to the situation and tell the regulator that competition in the postal service is not welcome?

Mrs. McGuire: I hear what my hon. Friend says. No doubt he will give me exact details about his question after Question Time and I shall certainly take the matter up as part of my wider discussions with Postcomm in the next few days.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): In the Minister's original answer, she again referred to the universal service obligation. Will she explain how the Government intend to guarantee that obligation to rural and remote areas of Scotland, given that the Postcomm proposal will inevitably lead to the cherry-picking of profitable urban services?

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Mrs. McGuire: Of course I can give the hon. Gentleman and the House reassurance about the way that the universal service obligation will be protected, because it is enshrined in primary legislation in the Postal Services Act 2000.

Future of Europe

2. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): What steps she is taking to ensure that Scottish women's views are fully represented in the debate on the future of Europe. [65300]

5. Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North): What steps she is taking to represent Scottish interests in connection with the Convention on the Future of Europe. [65302]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): The Government wish to encourage a wide-ranging debate on the future of Europe in advance of the intergovernmental conference in 2004. I will continue to contribute to that debate, as I have been doing. My Department is working with the European Commission office in Scotland on planning a conference on women and the changing European Union. I will also shortly discuss the subject of women and the EU with editors of the women's media, together with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe.

Rosemary McKenna: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and I congratulate her on her efforts to involve all civic Scotland—and women, in particular—in the debate on the future of Europe. Does she agree that Scotland has much to gain from a more transparent and efficient Europe?

Mrs. Liddell: I fully agree with my hon. Friend. This is a key time for crafting the future of Europe for the next decade and beyond. Everyone's positive involvement is to be welcomed. I pay particular tribute to the role that my hon. Friend has played, not least because of her involvement in Europe before she came to this place.

My hon. Friend is right. Women need to become involved in the debate. Dare I say it, as the head of an all-female Department, the macho posturing that surrounds the debate on Europe often puts many women off.

Mrs. Adams: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on achieving an all-women Front Bench. In fact, I know that we will have made gains when people comment on all-men Front Benches.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Scotland and the Scottish economy have much to gain from enlargement of the European Union? Does she further agree that an enlarged EU will deliver most for all the peoples of Europe when the future of Europe debate produces greater accountability in Brussels?

Mrs. Liddell: I thank my hon. Friend for her congratulations, although my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) is looking a little shamefaced in his place as a Whip.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams) makes an important point of great significance to Scottish business. EU enlargement will

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mean that the Union will go from 300 million to 500 million consumers. That will offer great opportunities, but present great challenges. I encourage everyone, particularly those in the small business community, to look to the opportunities that enlargement can bring and to prepare for it. The benefits will be great for businesses, but the challenges are significant.

Angus Robertson (Moray): On the future of Europe, is the Secretary of State aware of the apparent efforts by the Scottish Executive to seek more independent influence for Scotland, as reported in The Scotsman yesterday? Can she give the House details of how independent that representation will be, assuming that Scotland does not have the full status of a normal member state? Is she concerned that the report of the Scottish Executive's initiative was described as not even second-rate spin by the Minister for Europe in this morning's Westminster Hall debate?

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman's questions are as predictable as the appearance of a streaker at Wimbledon, and they have exactly the same purpose.

The First Minister is very much involved in the debate on the future of Europe. Indeed, he is taking a leading role. However, he of all people knows that Scotland benefits much more from being part of the United Kingdom's representation in Europe. If the hon. Gentleman looked around, he would see that we are not just well represented by the Scottish Executive in Europe, but that a considerable number of the UK Ministers who represent us in Europe are Scottish.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): Will the conference of women in Scotland report to her or to the First Minister?

Mrs. Liddell: It will report to the European Commission, which is the organiser.

Mrs. Lait: I assume that it is the conference that the Secretary of State announced on 9 May that she—and not the European Union—was organising. Was she involved in the discussions between Jack McConnell and the Foreign Secretary on Scotland's voice in Europe? Why was this women's forum set up if she was not involved in the issue? Was she cut out of the loop altogether? What does it say for the future of women politicians in Scotland if Scotland Office Ministers were not involved in the discussions? [Interruption.]

Mrs. Liddell: A killer question indeed.

The First Minister, myself and Foreign Secretary take part in the debate on the future of Europe, because we recognise that it is a serious debate. We are united, and that is the big difference between us and the Opposition, who seem unable to agree on anything to do with Europe—whether it involves women, men or whatever.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): Unlike those on the Opposition Front Bench, my right hon. Friend obviously understands Scottish politics, so will she accept that, in the convention, the question of privileged access remains to be discussed between the Scottish Executive, their civil servants and the Commission? Will she assure us that she will do whatever she can to make sure that

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the partnership—on which our relations with Scotland and Europe is based—will be strengthened? Will she do everything in her power to ensure that no dissatisfaction is felt by Members of the Scottish Parliament about the relationship with Europe?

Mrs. Liddell: I contacted the Deputy First Minister, who is the Minister for Europe in the Scottish Executive, and asked whether he is confident that he and his officials are getting the exchange of information that they require to process policy on Europe. He tells me that he is, but I am anxious to ensure that the very sound and stable arrangements that we have made on the joint ministerial committee on Europe are enhanced. There is little doubt among politicians who have some say in the governance of Scotland that our involvement in the European Union is significant for Scotland's future prosperity.

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