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Lord Sainsbury of Turville moved Amendment No. 20:


On Question, amendment agreed to.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 20A:


    After Clause 77, insert the following new clause--

OPERATION OF SUB-POST OFFICES AND RURAL POST OFFICES REVIEW ETC

(" .--(1) Within not less than six months and not more than one year of the commencement of this Act the Secretary of State shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a report into the operation of sub-post offices and rural post offices in the United Kingdom.
(2) The report will, among other issues, cover the following subjects--
(a) the number and location of sub-post offices;
(b) the number of such offices as have closed or been opened in the preceding year, or in the period since the previous report under this section, whichever shall be less;
(c) the numbers employed, or working self-employed in such offices;
(d) an assessment of the reasons for the closure of such offices should they have taken place;
(e) what action the Secretary of State has taken, and proposes to take, to limit such closures;
(f) the effect of government policies, including the means of delivering social security benefits, on sub-post offices in the preceding year.
(3) The report will examine particularly the condition of rural post offices and will cover, among other subjects--
(a) the number and location of rural post offices;
(b) the number of such offices as have closed or been opened in the preceding year, or in the period since the previous report under this section, whichever shall be less;
(c) the numbers employed, or working self-employed in such offices;
(d) the nature of other services provided in rural post offices, including the supply of food and goods;
(e) the number of rural post offices which serve as the only shop or point of sale for food and goods in a village, other than farm shops;
(f) an assessment of the reasons for the closure of such offices should they have taken place;
(g) what action the Secretary of State has taken, and proposes to take, to limit such closures;

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(h) the effect of government policies, including the means of delivering social security benefits, on rural post offices in the preceding year.
(4) In compiling the report required by this section the Secretary of State shall consult such persons as he shall see fit, including--
(a) the appropriate district and parish councils;
(b) the Women's Institute;
(c) the Council for the Protection of Rural England;
(d) the National Association of Sub Postmasters and Sub Postmistresses
(5) After laying a report before Parliament in pursuance of subsection (1) the Secretary of State shall subsequently lay a report annually before each House of Parliament; and the other provisions of this section apply to a report under this subsection as they apply to a report under subsection (1).
(6) Where a report by the Secretary of State sets out proposals to take any action to limit the closures of sub-post offices and rural post offices no such action may be taken unless each House of Parliament has approved the proposals by resolution.
(7) For the purposes of subsection (3) above "rural" means post offices serving villages or towns outside Greater London or the Metropolitan Counties with a population of no more than 20,000 people.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, although in the past few days we have had much greater clarity in regard to the Government's thinking, especially with the Statement yesterday, we were obviously anxious to place on the face of the Bill a requirement that the Post Office should produce a report and that it should be required to state the number and location of sub-post offices.

Some of us are rather mystified as to the Government's perception of what is an acceptable base number of sub-post offices, whether in rural or urban areas. As I said earlier, we found it worrying when, at the Report stage of the social security Bill, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, referred to the United Kingdom having more sub-post offices than other countries; France and Germany were mentioned in particular. The Government have said that they will guarantee the retention of rural sub-post offices, but they have offered no definition of number, where those post offices will be located, or how many people they should serve. The amendment seeks some clarity on those points. I shall reserve my other comments until I speak to a later amendment that I have tabled, which may have a more direct bearing on this matter. Those are the thoughts behind the amendment, to which my noble friend Lady Miller and the noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, have also put their names. I beg to move.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, we still have a large number of amendments to consider and I do not want to detain the House any longer. I support everything that my noble friend Lady Byford has just said.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, perhaps I may repeat, because it seems that there is some misunderstanding, that yesterday the Government gave a clear commitment to keep open those post offices that currently exist and which fall within the criteria that we have laid down regarding the size of the population, subject only to the two specific situations

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of unavoidable closures. That is an absolutely clear commitment and it answers entirely all the queries raised on this point. So there is a clear commitment, subject to two very small practical points--and I cannot believe that there is disagreement about them because they are clearly specified.

I find it difficult to disagree with the sentiment behind the amendment. However, I do have difficulty with the level of prescription suggested by the noble Baroness. The Bill, as I have said many times, is intended to last for a generation, and the reporting requirements that might be needed in the immediate future might be quite different some years hence.

We gave a commitment yesterday with the publication of the PIU report that we accept its recommendation that the commission should publish an annual report on the network. That report would, of course, be available to Parliament. However, it is much better to leave the exact substance of the report to the discretion of the independent regulator, who is in a better position to judge what the report should contain.

As the PIU report has shown, we have consulted with a wide number of people in all kinds of organisations.

The amendment also requires the Secretary of State to seek the approval of Parliament before taking action that might limit the closures of sub-post offices. While I believe in proper oversight, it is possible that this could actually in some cases delay action that might benefit local post offices, as one would have to wait for the approval of Parliament before any action could be taken to limit closures. Finally, we have made it clear in the context of the PIU report that we are adopting the Countryside Agency's definitions in terms of the rural network, and therefore for a post to qualify as "rural" the number of people it would have to serve would be 10,000 rather than 20,000.

I hope that with the assurance that there will be reports the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his response. He did indeed speak earlier--and I accept his confirmation--about the two specific categories that the Government obviously cannot guarantee.

However, one thing is still missing, and I shall refer to it in a later amendment. Yesterday's Statement included the following passage:


    "This Government are committed to ensuring that the rural post office network is maintained".--[Official Report, 28 June 2000; col. 915.]

That requires money. The PIU report talks of money, but gives no idea of what money. We are told that we have to wait for the spending round. Here I am sure that the noble Lord will respond again. One of our concerns is that it is all very well--it seems to be on the horizon--but we have no indication whether it will be the responsibility of the Post Office to provide that money or whether the Government will give the Post Office the money to provide and how it will kick in.

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Everybody will be delighted if the money allocated in the spending review is sufficient, but some of us feel, although we may well be proved wrong, that it might be a one-off, pump-priming. The noble Lord and I agree that we are looking to the longer term. How does he envisage matters in that longer term? On the finance side we are receiving no answers.

I apologise to the noble Lord; I feel like someone trying to extract a tooth that does not wish to come out. I understand the constraints on him, but he will appreciate that those of us on the Opposition Benches are having a very difficult time and are only sorry that the PIU report came out so late, as recently as yesterday. We could have saved ourselves hours, not only in this debate, but in the debates on the social security Bill. If the noble Lord cannot give us guidance today, perhaps he can give some indication that he can be more constructive--within his brief; I appreciate the difficulty he finds himself in--before Third Reading. It would be greatly appreciated. I hope that he will be able to come back to me.

With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 4 [Transfer to the Post Office company: tax]:


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