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15 Oct 2002 : Column 251—continued

7.52 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): I want to express a number of concerns about the programme and to seek some reassurances from the Minister.

We are being asked to support a package that appears to involve spending about #210 million on what is, in effect, a closure programme. I am extremely concerned that the whole programme appears to be led by the aim of compensating those running sub-post offices for loss of business rather than that of supporting the business of the sub-post offices in continuing to meet the needs of mainly excluded communities.

In my constituency, a large number of sub-post offices—some 23 of them—are at risk. I was reassured by the Minister's answer to my earlier question, in which he stated that an additional #15 million would be available to support those post offices. Before voting in support of the motion, however, I should like to have more information about that #15 million and about the #30 million that has already been mentioned.

I accept that something must be done and that the situation that we face has not arisen in the past few years but is the product of years of neglect by those who were in control in the past. Nevertheless, those of us who represent deprived communities are acutely aware of the impact that the closure of post offices and sub-post offices would have on our already suffering populations. Post offices in deprived urban areas are as important as those in rural areas. They are often a lifeline to the poor and excluded, and provide services not only in terms of essential benefits, but by assisting people in paying bills, getting information, obtaining important forms, securing licences, conducting money transfers and many other important activities. The importance of post offices in deprived urban areas goes beyond that and often relates to the businesses alongside them. Such businesses will not necessarily be located in the same building. The livelihood of essential retail businesses that are situated near post offices often depends on people going to post offices and spending their money nearby.

I hope that the Government will ensure that the future of our sub-post offices is seen in the context of dealing with social exclusion. Will the Minister again give me a clear assurance that the future of our post offices and sub-post offices will be seen in terms of providing essential services and important issues of social exclusion?

I am also concerned about the consultation process and the role of Postwatch, which covers extremely wide areas. I was extremely concerned to discover that Postwatch's northern sector includes areas as diverse as Carlisle, Newcastle, Sheffield, Lincoln, Preston,

15 Oct 2002 : Column 252

Liverpool and Manchester. Many millions of consumers are represented in that area, and I should like an assurance that Postwatch will be able to conduct itself so as to take heed of the views of people in those areas. I should also like an assurance that, when the future of individual post offices and sub-post offices is considered, the Government will ensure that a proper consultation is carried out and that no given number of offices will be set down for closure irrespective of circumstances.

In short, I recognise that the Government face a very difficult problem and that something has to be done, but I want assurances that the issue of deprived communities such as mine in central Liverpool will be given full attention and that the programme will be led not by compensating people who wish to leave the business, but by the need to ensure continuation of services for those who are in need.

7.56 pm

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): In this world of Labour spin, it will surprise neither the House nor the Minister to find that the current Department of Trade and Industry website makes the remarkable claim that the Government aim to ensure that the

Why is that network not flourishing and why are record closures occurring? The answer is the Government's staggeringly inept performance in introducing automated credit transfers without a parallel programme to provide revenue and support to our sub-post offices. After the consequences have finally sunk in for the Government and the Department, they have been running around like headless chickens trying to find means to prop up the sub-post office network. The answer is there in the shape of the universal bank, but it is still not up and running and I grave doubts about whether it will be in time, before the guillotine of the ACT falls.

The Government calculated that there would be 3 million post office card accounts, but 16 million people go into post offices every week. That implies that there will be a reduction of 13 million people, but what will happen as a result? The revenue of sub-post offices will fall and they will pack up. No wonder half of them want to get out of the business—and it is this Government's fault.

7.58 pm

Mr. Timms: With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have had an interesting debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) for his kind words at the beginning of his speech and for his apology about disagreeing with some of the points that I made. I was puzzled by his conclusion, however, as he said that he regretted that there had been delay and he wanted uncertainty to end,

15 Oct 2002 : Column 253

but he also told us that he would lead Opposition Members in voting against the measure that will ensure precisely the certainty for which he called. If he reconsiders the briefing of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, he will see that the last thing it wants is the blocking of the compensation that he urged his hon. Friends to support.

Mr. Robathan rose—

Mr. Timms: Given the short time available, I should like to continue.

The hon. Gentleman complained about inadequate publicity for XYour Guide". I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for drawing hon. Members' attention to the good publicity for XYour Guide" that the Post Office used. The post office in Leicestershire used in-store marketing, articles in the local press and leafleting. The matter was also well covered on local radio. However, the conclusions were those that I set out.

The hon. Member for Blaby made a point that it is important to correct. He suggested that there would be a limit of 3 million post office card accounts. That is not the case; I assure him that there is no such limit. However, I share his confidence in Allan Leighton as chairman of the Post Office and in the vigour with which the organisation is pursuing its bid to return to profitability.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) made some important points. I want to stress that I agree with him and with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) about the important social role of urban sub-post offices. That is why we are supporting a careful, planned programme of change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion, however, asked why it could not be left to sub-postmasters to persuade people to take up post office card accounts. Many people who do not currently have bank accounts, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) outlined, would be better off if they did, so that, for example, they could pay bills by direct debit. That may not be the sub-postmaster's calculation. It is therefore important that people have access to advice about their options—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16.

The House divided: Ayes 271, Noes 170.

Division No. 320
[8:01 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Irene (Paisley N)
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE)
Allen, Graham
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale & Darwen)
Armstrong, rh Ms Hilary
Atherton, Ms Candy
Atkins, Charlotte
Austin, John
Bailey, Adrian
Banks, Tony
Barnes, Harry
Beard, Nigel
Beckett, rh Margaret
Begg, Miss Anne
Beggs, Roy (E Antrim)
Benn, Hilary
Bennett, Andrew
Benton, Joe (Bootle)
Berry, Roger
Blackman, Liz
Blears, Ms Hazel
Boateng, rh Paul
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Bradley, rh Keith (Withington)
Brennan, Kevin
Brown, rh Nicholas (Newcastle E Wallsend)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Browne, Desmond
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burgon, Colin
Burnham, Andy
Burnside, David
Cairns, David
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Caplin, Ivor
Casale, Roger
Caton, Martin
Cawsey, Ian (Brigg)
Challen, Colin
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Clark, Mrs Helen (Peterborough)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Clelland, David
Coaker, Vernon
Coffey, Ms Ann
Coleman, Iain
Connarty, Michael
Cook, rh Robin (Livingston)
Cox, Tom (Tooting)
Cranston, Ross
Crausby, David
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Cummings, John
Cunningham, rh Dr. Jack (Copeland)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington)
Dalyell, Tam
David, Wayne
Davies, rh Denzil (Llanelli)
Dawson, Hilton
Dean, Mrs Janet
Denham, rh John
Dhanda, Parmjit
Dobbin, Jim (Heywood)
Dobson, rh Frank
Donaldson, Jeffrey M.
Donohoe, Brian H.
Doran, Frank
Dowd, Jim (Lewisham W)
Drew, David (Stroud)
Drown, Ms Julia
Dunwoody, Gwyneth
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs Louise
Etherington, Bill
Farrelly, Paul
Field, rh Frank (Birkenhead)
Fisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flint, Caroline
Flynn, Paul (Newport W)
Follett, Barbara
Foster, rh Derek
Foster, Michael (Worcester)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings & Rye)
Foulkes, rh George
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Galloway, George
Gapes, Mike (Ilford S)
George, rh Bruce (Walsall S)
Gerrard, Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gilroy, Linda
Goggins, Paul
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Grogan, John
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Hamilton, David (Midlothian)
Hanson, David
Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart)
Healey, John
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Hendrick, Mark
Hepburn, Stephen
Heppell, John
Hermon, Lady
Hesford, Stephen
Heyes, David
Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Hodge, Margaret
Hood, Jimmy (Clydesdale)
Hope, Phil (Corby)
Hopkins, Kelvin
Howarth, George (Knowsley N & Sefton E)
Howells, Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Lindsay
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hughes, Beverley (Stretford & Urmston)
Humble, Mrs Joan
Hurst, Alan (Braintree)
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Ingram, rh Adam
Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead & Highgate)
Jenkins, Brian
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Jones, Kevan (N Durham)
Keen, Alan (Feltham)
Keen, Ann (Brentford)
Kemp, Fraser
Kidney, David
Knight, Jim (S Dorset)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Laxton, Bob (Derby N)
Lazarowicz, Mark
Lepper, David
Leslie, Christopher
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Love, Andrew
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham)
Luke, Iain (Dundee E)
MacDonald, Calum
MacDougall, John
MacShane, Denis
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Mallaber, Judy
Marris, Rob (Wolverh'ton SW)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Martlew, Eric
McAvoy, Thomas
McCartney, rh Ian
McDonagh, Siobhain
McFall, John
McGuire, Mrs Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McKenna, Rosemary
McWalter, Tony
McWilliam, John
Meacher, rh Michael
Meale, Alan (Mansfield)
Michael, rh Alun
Miliband, David
Miller, Andrew
Moffatt, Laura
Mole, Chris
Moonie, Dr. Lewis
Morgan, Julie
Morris, rh Estelle
Mountford, Kali
Mudie, George
Mullin, Chris
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Murphy, rh Paul (Torfaen)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
O'Hara, Edward
O'Neill, Martin
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr)
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Perham, Linda
Picking, Anne
Pickthall, Colin
Pike, Peter (Burnley)
Plaskitt, James
Pound, Stephen
Prescott, rh John
Primarolo, rh Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Ken
Purnell, James
Quinn, Lawrie
Rammell, Bill
Rapson, Syd (Portsmouth N)
Raynsford, rh Nick
Reid, rh Dr. John (Hamilton N & Bellshill)
Roche, Mrs Barbara
Rooney, Terry
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Roy, Frank (Motherwell)
Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Ms Christine (City of Chester)
Ryan, Joan (Enfield N)
Salter, Martin
Sarwar, Mohammad
Savidge, Malcolm
Sawford, Phil
Sheridan, Jim
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe Lunesdale)
Smith, rh Andrew (Oxford E)
Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast S)
Southworth, Helen
Spellar, rh John
Squire, Rachel
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Steinberg, Gerry
Stewart, David (Inverness E Lochaber)
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Sutcliffe, Gerry
Tami, Mark (Alyn)
Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Timms, Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Todd, Mark (S Derbyshire)
Touhig, Don (Islwyn)
Trickett, Jon
Truswell, Paul
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton Kemptown)
Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Tynan, Bill (Hamilton S)
Vaz, Keith (Leicester E)
Vis, Dr. Rudi
Walley, Ms Joan
Ward, Claire
Wareing, Robert N.
Watson, Tom (W Bromwich E)
Watts, David
White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Williams, Betty (Conwy)
Winnick, David
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Woolas, Phil
Wright, Anthony D. (Gt Yarmouth)
Wright, David (Telford)
Wyatt, Derek

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Nick Ainger and Mr. Jim Murphy


Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)
Allan, Richard
Amess, David
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)
Bacon, Richard
Barker, Gregory
Baron, John (Billericay)
Bellingham, Henry
Bercow, John
Beresford, Sir Paul
Blunt, Crispin
Boswell, Tim
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)
Bottomley, rh Virginia (SW Surrey)
Brady, Graham
Brazier, Julian
Breed, Colin
Brooke, Mrs Annette L.
Browning, Mrs Angela
Bruce, Malcolm
Burnett, John
Burns, Simon
Burstow, Paul
Burt, Alistair
Butterfill, John
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Calton, Mrs Patsy
Cameron, David
Campbell, rh Menzies (NE Fife)
Cash, William
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Chope, Christopher
Clappison, James
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Collins, Tim
Conway, Derek
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Cotter, Brian
Curry, rh David
Davies, Quentin (Grantham & Stamford)
Davis, rh David (Haltemprice & Howden)
Djanogly, Jonathan
Dodds, Nigel
Doughty, Sue
Duncan, Peter (Galloway)
Duncan Smith, rh Iain
Evans, Nigel
Fabricant, Michael
Fallon, Michael
Field, Mark (Cities of London & Westminster)
Flight, Howard
Forth, rh Eric
Foster, Don (Bath)
Francois, Mark
Gale, Roger (N Thanet)
Garnier, Edward
George, Andrew (St. Ives)
Gibb, Nick (Bognor Regis)
Gidley, Sandra
Goodman, Paul
Gray, James (N Wilts)
Green, Matthew (Ludlow)
Green, Damian (Ashford)
Greenway, John
Grieve, Dominic
Gummer, rh John
Hague, rh William
Hammond, Philip
Harvey, Nick
Hawkins, Nick
Hayes, John (S Holland)
Heald, Oliver
Heathcoat-Amory, rh David
Hendry, Charles
Horam, John (Orpington)
Howard, rh Michael
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Jack, rh Michael
Jenkin, Bernard
Key, Robert (Salisbury)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Lamb, Norman
Lansley, Andrew
Laws, David (Yeovil)
Letwin, rh Oliver
Lewis, Dr. Julian (New Forest E)
Liddell-Grainger, Ian
Lidington, David
Lilley, rh Peter
Llwyd, Elfyn
Loughton, Tim
Luff, Peter (M-Worcs)
MacKay, rh Andrew
Maclean, rh David
Malins, Humfrey
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury & Atcham)
Maude, rh Francis
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McLoughlin, Patrick
Mitchell, Andrew (Sutton Coldfield)
Moore, Michael
Moss, Malcolm
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Oaten, Mark (Winchester)
Öpik, Lembit
Osborne, George (Tatton)
Ottaway, Richard
Page, Richard
Paterson, Owen
Pickles, Eric
Portillo, rh Michael
Pugh, Dr. John
Randall, John
Redwood, rh John
Rendel, David
Robathan, Andrew
Robertson, Angus (Moray)
Robertson, Hugh (Faversham & M-Kent)
Robinson, Iris (Strangford)
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Rosindell, Andrew
Ruffley, David
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Salmond, Alex
Sanders, Adrian
Selous, Andrew
Simmonds, Mark
Simpson, Keith (M-Norfolk)
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns Kincardine)
Spicer, Sir Michael
Spink, Bob (Castle Point)
Spring, Richard
Steen, Anthony
Streeter, Gary
Stunell, Andrew
Swayne, Desmond
Swire, Hugo (E Devon)
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, John (Solihull)
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, Dr. Richard (Wyre F)
Taylor, Sir Teddy
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Thurso, John
Tredinnick, David
Trend, Michael
Turner, Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Tyler, Paul (N Cornwall)
Tyrie, Andrew
Viggers, Peter
Waterson, Nigel
Watkinson, Angela
Weir, Michael
Whittingdale, John
Wiggin, Bill
Wilkinson, John
Williams, Roger (Brecon)
Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon)
Willis, Phil
Wilshire, David
Winterton, Sir Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Wishart, Pete
Yeo, Tim (S Suffolk)
Young, rh Sir George
Younger-Ross, Richard

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Mark Hoban and Mrs. Cheryl Gillan

Question accordingly agreed to.

15 Oct 2002 : Column 257


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