House of Commons
Thursday 17 May 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our manifesto commitment was for a Bill in this Parliament, and I am confident that we will deliver that. Our White Paper, the precursor to the Bill, was published in March.
I am grateful to the Minister, but could he possibly expand a little on the reasons for the delay? Several environmental groups are campaigning for the Bill, and the Minister must be more forthcoming as to what the problem is. Does he think it important that the devolved Administrations should introduce a piece of legislation to run in parallel with his proposed Bill?
There is not a problem. Governments are elected for five years, and we are just two years into this Parliament. I fully appreciate that many organisations, individuals and Members of this House would like a Bill as soon as possible, but I want to ensure that we get a good Bill instead of moving unnecessarily fast. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the importance of the engagement of the devolved Administrations. I hope that the new Administrations in Scotland and Wales will engage positively in furthering the legislation and that it will not get bogged down in unnecessary discussions about the devolutionary settlement.
Langstone harbour in my constituency has a thriving commercial wharf that imports about 500,000 tonnes of recycled aggregate. There is a sewage treatment plant at the top of the harbour and a storm water outfall at its mouth. The harbour is an important breeding ground for gulls and terns, and has a thriving marine leisure industry. Does my hon. Friend accept that we will need a strong regulatory body in the Bill in order to manage those conflicting interests?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. The situation that she describes in her constituency is a good example of why we badly need to modernise our marine legislation. She correctly outlines the diverse interests and pressures on the marine environment and why it is so important that we develop the marine Bill in a comprehensive way to deliver all the economic and environmental benefits to places such as Portsmouth, for which she fights so strongly.
Will the Government use the marine Bill as an opportunity to review the operation of the Crown Estate Commissioners as owners of the seabed? May I suggest to the Minister that there is a contradiction between a sustainable management regime for marine resources and the owner and operator of the seabed being a landlord whose statutory duty is to maximise the financial return to the Treasury?
We all want sustainable development of our marine environment. We want a Bill that does not damage economic prospects, particularly in areas such as renewable energy, but that at the same time preserves the environment. I see no conflict whatever as regards the role of the Crown Estate Commissioners; in fact, we have worked closely with them on the development of the marine White Paper, and I am sure that we will continue to do so as the legislation comes before the House.
Do not we need fully to protect our inland waters? The Marine Conservation Society points out that full protection from damaging, and potentially damaging, activities is in place in the UK only around Lundy island—an area of about 3 sq km, or 0.002 per cent. of the area that needs protection. Will the Minister liaise closely with the society to promote and extend the very limited area of protection that we have at the moment?
Yes; the society gave a warm welcome to the White Paper when it was published. The Bill will make it easier to develop a network of marine protected areas around our coasts such as that which my hon. Friend describes. That does not mean that we are being inactive in the meantime, but the new legislative tools that the Bill will provide will help us to give the protection that he seeks.
Given the continuing decline in species and habitats in UK waters and the hugely complicated and ineffectual measures that are in place to protect them, may I confirm for the Minister that we strongly support the introduction of a marine Bill? Indeed, we have done so for several years. The consultation on the marine White Paper ends on 8 June. Surely that allows enough time for a marine Bill to be introduced in the next Queen’s Speech. I know that we need to get it right, but no one could accuse the Government of acting with undue haste.
Equally the hon. Gentleman will understand that no Government ever give a commitment about what will be in the Queen’s Speech before any measure is actually in the Queen’s Speech, so he would not expect me to do that. He is wrong to paint a picture of catastrophic decline in all our marine environment. Some of it is doing especially well. Of course, some fish stocks are over-exploited and we take steps to tackle that wherever can. However, the seas around many parts of our coastline are in better shape than at any time since before the industrial revolution. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that.
I am pleased to tell the House that, after several years of talks, agreement was reached at an EU Council meeting last Monday week on new rules to improve the welfare of meat chickens. The United Kingdom played a crucial role in securing that agreement and in preventing a minority of countries, led by France, from watering it down.
They will be, but they already exceed the requirements because, by their nature, free-range chickens do not live in the sort of stocking densities that the regulation is designed to secure. The regulation is about protecting chickens that are not free range to ensure that the stocking densities are good and other welfare considerations are met. My hon. Friend will also be pleased to know that the UK has the highest proportion of free-range and organic chicken production of any EU member state. I am sure that he and the House welcome that.
May I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) about free-range chickens? On chickens that cannot roam around farms but remain in very large sheds with artificial light, I understand that the European Commission was recently going to make a statement about requiring UK farms to increase the pulse of stun guns, given that many of those chickens are not fully stunned and therefore suffer.
I am afraid that I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman about stun guns. We constantly review the welfare of not only chickens but all animals at slaughter. We have made considerable progress in recent years, but I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman, if he does not mind, to clarify the detail of the required voltage of the stun guns.
The Minister will understand that the welfare of broiler chickens and animals in general is affected by good investment in appropriate agricultural buildings. What representations did the Department make about the removal of the agricultural buildings allowance, especially the short phasing-out period of four years? It will clearly affect farming’s ability to invest in good-quality buildings for high standards of animal welfare.
The right hon. Gentleman, as Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, will know that we already have high standards of broiler welfare in this country. Our poultry industry was keen for there to be a level playing field throughout the European Union—that is one of the reasons for its support of the agreement. It will not affect our industry and the quality of its buildings. However, I understand that the right hon. Gentleman refers to an independent report by Lyons. It is not part of my responsibility, but I shall look into the matter and write to him.
Our compliance with the EU emissions trading scheme has been excellent and is worth some 65 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2005 to2007. Phase 2 is set to deliver an additional 29 million tonnes of carbon reduction every year. The scheme is a key part of our strategy for tackling CO2 emissions to meet our long-term goal of at least a 60 per cent. reduction on 1990 levels by 2050. We are also working with other countries that want to develop similar approaches.
I certainly will. This morning, I had meetings with the premiers of two Australian states—South Australia and Victoria. They are pushing hard for the development of Australian schemes that are based on the cap and trade system that we have used in Europe. It was interesting to hear from them that they want an Australian scheme, or a state-by-state scheme in Australia, to follow the European model. They want not necessarily to join the EU scheme but to create the possibility of enabling the schemes to be linked. That is a positive development. In the United States, as well as Australia and elsewhere, an urgent debate is taking place about how those countries develop their own schemes and expand the range of industries that are involved. I know that my hon. Friend is interested in that.
My constituents tell me that they are a little cynical about the trading schemes. They are anxious that people might be able to use them in order to make a few bob or get rich quick. What assurances can the Secretary of State give my constituents on this matter and can he assure me that people who abuse the system will be dealt with severely?
My hon. Friend raises two important points. The first guarantee is by making sure that there is a proper carbon price. She will know that at the moment the carbon price for phase 1 of the emissions trading scheme is €1 or below, which is not the sort of price that we need. However, it is very significant that for the period 2008 to 2012 carbon is trading at €19.5 to €20 a tonne—a much steadier and more significant price.
Secondly, my hon. Friend refers to the importance of offsetting schemes genuinely reducing the amount of carbon dioxide. She will agree that Government standards are important in that area, although the Government obviously do not run all the schemes. When we in DEFRA produced a standard earlier this year, on which we are currently consulting, we found that 56 of the 60 available schemes did not currently meet the standards that we wanted. Only four did; all the details are on the DEFRA website. We certainly want to move to a situation in which anyone offsetting their emissions knows with confidence that it will lead to genuine emissions reduction around the world.
May I suggest to the Secretary of State that any carbon trading scheme will and should benefit indirectly those who efficiently manufacture methods and systems that enable us to deliver renewable energy very cheaply? May I therefore thank through him the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment for yesterday meeting me and representatives of Converteam, a renewables manufacturer in my constituency? Will the Secretary of State undertake to do all he can with the Government to ensure that those who are able to produce renewables technologies efficiently are encouraged by the standards that the Government set and by any other support that can be given?
I am always delighted to congratulate my ministerial team on the excellence of their meetings and their performance. I also like to congratulate British companies that are developing in new markets. It is striking that environmental industries are now one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, with 500,000 people currently working in environmental industries as compared with just 175,000 five years ago. I will not pre-empt next week’s discussions on energy, which I am sure will be heated—not too heated, I hope—and robust. However, the point about incentives for new technologies is being discussed in the context of the renewables obligation, and I very much hope that we can ensure that this country is at the forefront of renewables technology.
Given that the range of estimates for the social and environmental cost of carbon is anything from a minimum in the Stern review of €25 up to €70 or so, and even though we have seen a welcome tightening of the price, as the Secretary of State says, at €18 in the second phase, the reality is that as we came into the Chamber this morning the current price for the current phase was 31 cents per tonne, which sends out a pretty appalling signal. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Council needs to try to tighten the price in the current phase as well as deal with the next phase? Is, indeed, the tightness of the next phase adequate, and what measures is he urging on his colleagues in the Council to improve the scheme?
The tightness of the next phase will be clear only when all allocations have been agreed with all countries. As the hon. Gentleman will know, that has not yet been done, so it would be ridiculous for me to reach a conclusion now. What I can say is that the European Commission’s determination to ensure that, for every country, the allocation is, first, below the current level of emissions and, secondly, in line with the Kyoto commitments is exactly the sort of tough negotiation and decision making that we wanted from the Commission and that has been urged on it on a cross-party basis over the past few years. I think that it is a good example. The Commission, which oversaw the first phase of the scheme where there were genuine problems, deserves credit for delivering what is now the world’s most effective carbon market—the second phase of the EU emissions trading scheme. Given that it covers half of all emissions in this country, the fact that we have a tighter scheme with the price going only in one direction should be applauded.
Will the Secretary of State continue to resist the attempts of some European countries to oppose the tighter national allocation plans on carbon levels in phase 2? Will he also examine the potential for a sector-by-sector scheme to recognise the different basic carbon potential for different sectors of industry, so that one does not suffer in relation to another?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The short answer to the first part of his question is yes. We need to keep urging the European Commission to take a tough line with any country that is trying to have slack allocations. He will be aware that this Government have decided that any sector exposed to international competition should be protected from any burdens that are imposed. However, his point about sectoral agreements is important, particularly in the light of the international negotiations that will reach a peak in June at the G8 plus 5 meeting and in December at the United Nations meeting in Indonesia. One of the items that the Government have put on the agenda is to consider, if developing countries are not yet ready to take on binding emissions reduction targets, sectoral schemes that can take a global role in ensuring that all sectors are playing their appropriate part in emissions reduction.
In the light of the United States’ failure to sanction a federal emissions trading scheme, and of Angela Merkel’s frank admission yesterday that pre-negotiations with the United States on the G8 summit are going very badly, with the United States not even accepting the 2°C target for global warming, has the Minister asked the Prime Minister to use his farewell love-in with George W. Bush to pressure him to accept the 2°C target? Will he also back the German Government in insisting on that target?
The Prime Minister does not need my instructions, because he has his own determination to work with the United States and seek to persuade its Administration that a central role by America in the global drive to reduce emissions is essential, and that America has not only a lot to contribute but a lot to gain from being part of the emissions reduction drive. We have two or three weeks before the G8 plus 5 summit. The fact that American states and cities are moving as fast as they are, and that American business is now demanding a federal response, makes it right to say that it is a matter of when, not if, the United States becomes part of the global deal, and the sooner the better.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that the scheme must be credible and tied to the Kyoto targets. What consideration has been given in Europe to using auctions for the allowances in the next phase, and to having a back-stop price related to the cost of carbon abatement?
My hon. Friend speaks with some expertise on these matters. Significant consideration has been given to auctioning, although it is for each national Government to decide the level of auctioning that will take place. In this country, it will be 7 per cent. There is a widespread view that the use of auctioning is an important part of the future of the scheme, and it is significant that the European Commission should now be encouraging nation states to take that forward. Phase 3 of the scheme will be under discussion soon and, given the united UK position across business, non-governmental organisations and Government on the EU ETS manifesto, I believe that we shall see further discussion of the issue that my hon. Friend has raised.
Legislation requiring an increasing proportion of packaging to be recycled and outlawing excessive packaging is helping to reduce packaging. The supermarkets have agreed voluntary measures to reduce packaging. We will announce further measures shortly when we publish our new waste strategy.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I have received correspondence from a constituent, Chris James, who has recently come back from a family holiday in America, where he compared shopping in Wal-mart in America with shopping in his local supermarket in Swansea. He was particularly struck by the fact that in America there was so little packaging and that all the fresh produce was displayed with a minimum of packaging. When he got back home, he noticed a significant difference in the amount that he had to dispose of or recycle. Will the Minister speak to the supermarkets with a view to reaching an agreement on some kind of standardisation for packaging? We need to encourage them to take these steps.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend: the experience of her constituent in the United States mirrors that of many people who travel to other countries and find that produce is not so heavily packaged as they are used to here. We are in constant touch with the supermarkets on this issue, and we have seen a new will on their part to address the problem. One or two of them have not only signed up to the agreement to which I referred, but are going further in reducing and minimising packaging. We shall pay close attention to that issue when we publish our new waste strategy shortly.
The Minister will know, however, that supermarkets are not exactly forthcoming in dealing with regulations: we need only think of the way that they are hammering the dairy industry and the farming industry generally. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) raises an important point, because we do suffer from far too much packaging. I commend to the House the initiative of Waitrose in not handing out plastic bags for the next week or two. That is a good start, because our streets are littered with totally unnecessary plastic bags.
Personally, I would rather that Waitrose never handed out a disposable bag again, and I think that all other retailers should adopt the same policy. Those in this country that have adopted the policy have seen a dramatic fall in the issue of one-way disposable bags—not just plastic but other bags. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the fact that, a couple of months ago, we got the supermarkets to sign up to an agreement to reduce the environmental impact of all disposable bags by 25 per cent. over the next two years. Consumers also have a role, and he and other Members may like to reflect on their behaviour as consumers in relation to packaging and bags, to complain to retailers and to make it clear that packaging is sometimes excessive.
The issue is reducing not just the amount of packaging but the materials used in that packaging. Many councils will not recycle much plastic packaging. Is there pressure on supermarkets to think about using the type of packaging that can be easily recycled in preference to that which cannot?
Yes, there is. A slight misconception exists, because the vast majority of plastics used by supermarkets are recyclable, but the recycling of plastics around the country, from local authority to local authority, is patchy. Some local authorities that got the recycling bug later have concentrated on other materials that help them improve their figures more quickly. We are mindful of the issue, and we will consider it closely when we publish our new waste strategy.
As well as wanting the physical volume of packaging reduced, consumers want to know the carbon footprint of packaged products that they buy. So far, however, that approach seems totally beyond the ambition of the Government. Part of the problem, as the Green Alliance has noted, is that no single body is driving progress in this area. Will the Minister therefore consider constructively the submission of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment to the Conservative quality of life policy review—[Interruption.] It would be helpful if the Minister calmed down a little and listened to the question; it is Question Time, after all. Can that submission calling for an independent packaging watchdog be considered constructively, so that real progress can be made in this area?
I always want to consider interesting and constructive ideas. It may have passed the hon. Gentleman’s notice, although not that of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) who chairs the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made such an announcement at the Oxford farming conference earlier this year. The difficulty in relation to the carbon footprint of different foodstuffs is that we simply do not have the evidence base yet to introduce a credible system that would be adopted by all the retailers. Retailers are also interested in the issue, and we are working with all of them to try to agree a standard measurement, so that we avoid the problem, which was mentioned earlier, of having a plethora of carbon offsetting schemes but no real standard in which consumers can have confidence. We have wanted to introduce such a scheme for a long time, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has now jumped on the bandwagon.
Standards are one thing—and I welcome what the Secretary of State said in his Oxford speech—but we still need an independent regulator with real teeth. We have the Waste and Resources Action Programme, for example, but that is working with the industry, not policing it. Currently, responsibility is split between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Who will be responsible for enforcement and making sure that progress happens?
The hon. Gentleman is calling for more red tape. We are confident that, just as we have used independent advice to come up with a standard for carbon offsetting, it would be perfectly possible to use independent advice, based on independent research, to come up with a good carbon footprint scheme for foodstuffs. However, we do not need a new independent regulatory body to police it. That is a ludicrous idea. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman have a word with his right hon. Friend the Member for—
No, not the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I have forgotten the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I am not allowed to use his name in the Chamber. Anyway, I think he would be very concerned about the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we need yet another regulatory body to regulate something that—[Hon. Members: “Wokingham!] Yes, I meant the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He would be very concerned about the idea of establishing yet another regulatory body to regulate something that we are perfectly capable of regulating ourselves.
May I declare an interest, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the packaging manufacturing industry? I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the requirements and needs for some of the packaging that we use. I agree with my hon. Friends that fresh produce should not need packaging—except, of course, when consumers want to shop weekly at a supermarket, and want the produce that they buy to last for more than two or three days. Therefore, there is a requirement for certain types of packaging for the purposes of hygiene and labelling, and to keep produce fresh. Will my hon. Friend use his good offices and try to find time for a full-scale debate in the House, in Government time, so that some of these issues can be discussed and we can avoid some of the recent campaigns in, for instance, the Daily Mail—
You have made very well the point that I was about to make, Mr. Speaker. We have spent a considerable amount of time on the subject of packaging, and quite right too.
My hon. Friend is right to remind the House, and some in the media, that some packaging is good for the environment. Food does not go to waste that would otherwise go to waste, which in itself would be wasteful. However, other Members are right to say that there needs to be a balance. Enough of us come across enough examples of produce that is over-packaged to make it important for retailers and legislators to address the issue.
Climate Change (Air Travel)
The best way available in which to tackle the climate-change impact of aviation is to bring it within the EU emissions trading scheme. However, we continue to explore and discuss the use of other economic instruments, within Government, with stakeholders and with other countries.
Let me say first that I am very sad that the Secretary of State decided not to stand for the leadership of his party. [Interruption.] I think there are other members of the Labour party who think the same, but let me turn to more substantive issues. Does the Minister agree that emissions from aviation are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, rising potentially from 5 per cent. today to a possible 25 per cent. by 2030? What changes does he think should be introduced to make aviation play its part in helping to tackle rising carbon dioxide emissions?
I agree that aviation is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions, but it is not just a question of carbon dioxide emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the non-carbon dioxide impact of aviation is two to four times as great as the carbon dioxide impact. That is why the Government have been leading the way in bringing aviation into the EU emissions trading scheme, and why we strongly back the proposals that have emerged from the European Commission, which by 2020 could save 183 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.
I think that it will be the Labour movement that, in time, will be sad that the Secretary of State did not stand for the leadership of the Labour party.
In February this year the Government increased air passenger duty, but it has been described by one of the Government’s own members as
“a blunt instrument…not…designed for environmental ends.”
Can the Minister tell us when the Government will tackle the issue properly?
I accept that air passenger duty may not be the most effective policy instrument when it comes to influencing environmental behaviour, but it is one of the best we have. It is certainly far better than the Tory proposal to impose VAT on domestic flights. The simple fact is that the rise in APD announced in the last pre-Budget report will produce more carbon savings in a month than the Conservative proposals will in a year.
The growth in air travel has had a very good impact on the economy of such places as Greater Manchester, which has a rapidly expanding international airport, but has also had a massive impact on carbon emissions. The Minister briefly mentioned the UK’s efforts to have air transport included in the EU emissions trading scheme. Could he update the House as to where the Government are on this?
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of aviation to the UK economy and he gives a good example of the growth and success of Manchester airport. As a Government, we must have a sustainable policy on aviation. We should not be against aviation any more than we are against the cement industry, aggregates, construction, telecommunications or chemicals. Clearly it is important for aviation, like other sectors of the economy, to take responsibility for reducing its carbon emissions, which is why putting aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme is the best way forward. We have been responding to the European Commission’s proposals on aviation and we hope to see significant progress later this year, in accordance with the timetable laid out by the Commission.
Irrespective of whether the Government choose—I hope they will—to use other policy instruments in advance of the EU emissions trading scheme, which is still some years off, and given that the UK already submits information on emissions from international bunker fuels under the Kyoto provisions, should not emissions from both aviation and shipping be included in the Climate Change Bill from the beginning?
Domestic aviation is included in the UK’s greenhouse gas inventory. International aviation and shipping are not, because there is no international agreement on definitions. There is scope to amend the Climate Change Bill to allow the introduction of aviation and shipping, but we need international agreement on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from aviation and shipping. In the meantime, putting aviation into the EU ETS—the UK would support the inclusion of shipping—has to be the next best step. If we can achieve agreement through the International Civil Aviation Organisation to get global action on aviation, that would be much the best for everyone.
There is broad agreement that green taxes do help to change behaviour and I very much welcome the Government’s announcement of their intention that we enter the emissions trading scheme. However, there is also deep suspicion that green taxes are being used to raise the overall level of taxation, rather than simply to combat climate change or to change behaviour. Will the Minister confirm that if Britain does enter the emissions trading scheme, air passenger duty and many other green taxes affecting aviation will be reduced to offset those new taxes?
It is incredible that Opposition Members oppose the climate change levy, which will have more of an impact in a week in terms of reducing carbon emissions than the current Conservative proposal to put VAT on domestic aviation would do in a year, while also opposing the increase in air passenger duty, which will save 2.75 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2010-11—more in one month than putting VAT on domestic flights, as the original question suggests, will do in a year. This is a nonsense of a Conservative policy—
May I add my condolences to the Secretary of State on his decision not to stand in the Labour leadership race—although there is another hour to go before the period for nominations ends? His campaign to be Prime Minister might be dead, but his ideas on climate change live on in the form of his mini-manifesto, a detailed letter written to the Chancellor in which he calls for increasing passenger awareness of the impact of flights, raising air passenger duty and making flights subject to VAT, which the Minister has just condemned. If we all agree that aviation must play its role in combating climate change and if the Secretary of State believes that that is the way forward, when will we get the opportunity to debate those ideas in this House?
We shall have plenty of opportunities to discuss climate change in the future, particularly in relation to the Climate Change Bill. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box and congratulate him on his debut performance; it is just a shame that his task is to defend the Opposition’s shabby policy on aviation—
Single Farm Payments
As I confirmed in my written ministerial statement on Tuesday of this week, at 11 May a total of £1.229 billion, representing about 80 per cent. of the estimated total fund of the 2006 single payment scheme, had been paid in either full or partial payments to about 92 per cent. of claimants—some 100,599 farmers. Eligibility penalties—the subject of Question 7—have been applied to about 10 per cent. of 2006 single payment scheme claims. Further detailed analysis of payments made under the SPS is not yet available.
Obviously, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way that he has got on with dealing with this problem. He inherited a chaotic mess—there are no two ways about that—and at least he has ensured that the farmers are starting to get the money. However, 8 per cent. are still waiting for payments. Will he consider helping them by means of compensation if that continues over a longer period? Will he also come up to Chorley and meet the farmers there who think he is doing a very good job?
An invitation to meet some farmers who think that I am doing a particularly good job is an invitation not to be refused. I am sure that there are a large and growing number of them, in Chorley and elsewhere.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last year, for those payments delayed beyond 30 June interest payments were available. We are not yet at the stage where we have to consider that again, but I can assure him that we are trying to get as many payments out as soon as possible; I reaffirmed our commitment to make payments as fast as possible in my statement on Tuesday. Obviously, we take our responsibilities very seriously towards those who have not received payments.
I commend the Secretary of State for the work that he is doing. However, he amusingly stated in his written statement that the Rural Payments Agency
“chief executive is taking a number of other steps to further streamline processing of claims.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 29WS.]
Does he find it acceptable that 22,000 claims from 2005 have still not been sorted out? Is part of the problem that two agencies are involved—the Environment Agency for the compliance aspect and the RPA for the payments aspect? Please will he ensure that whoever the next Prime Minister is, they make this matter the responsibility of a Minister in this place rather than the other place, so that we can scrutinise that Minister on the Floor of the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words about the work that I have tried to do. I hope she will agree that Lord Rooker has done exemplary work in this area. I am very happy to speak in this House on the successes and failures of the RPA, and it is right that the hon. Lady should question me on these issues.
In respect of the specific point that the hon. Lady raised, from what she said an inference could be drawn by people following this debate that 22,000 people had received no money at all for 2005. That is not the case. I want to make it clear that there remain 22,000 people who have appealed against the level of claim that they have been given—in other words, their claims are being reviewed. There are 24 who received no money in 2005, mainly because of cases of probate, which have always arisen. In respect of the 22,000, of course we want to get the reviews completed as quickly as possible. I was able to report on Tuesday that the number had decreased from 25,000 to 22,000.
The hon. Lady is right to be anxious and passionate on behalf of her constituents to get the money paid. I assure her that I am equally anxious and passionate to do that. I want to do so in a way that is consistent with our 2006 payments, and also with the rules that we have urged on the European Commission for a long time for careful and appropriate payments under the common agricultural policy. We want to stick to those rules so that we can urge them on others.
Will my right hon. Friend, with the help of Lord Rooker, look again at eligibility with regard to commoners associations and grazing on commons? At the instigation of the scheme it was possible for commoners associations to be the vehicle through which payments were made. For some reason that has now stopped, which is causing consternation. I know that other hon. Members are also affected. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter urgently and report back to me?
Many English hill farmers are still uncertain about their entitlements under the single payments scheme relating to common land. That applies right back to 2005, bringing uncertainty into 2006 and 2007. That is unacceptable because the hill farming allowance also depends on a properly validated SPS claim. Given that hill farmers are particularly dependent on the subsidy and have marginal financial stability, will the Secretary of State ensure that resources are put in place so that this outstanding issue is dealt with and hill farming can have more confidence in future?
The hon. Gentleman, who follows this matter carefully, will know from previous statements that we have tried to make special provision for the payment of hill farm allowances and related allowances. He said that some groups are living on the margin and I understand what he was saying about the pressures that they face. We have tried to give them certainty about some of the transitional measures that are in place and we will continue to do that. I certainly take heed of his warnings about the need to ensure that this vulnerable group is properly protected.
My constituency has a number of hill farms and marginal pieces of land. Will the Secretary of State respond to the question put by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), because interest payments are different from compensation? The right hon. Gentleman will know that farmers are under huge pressure financially and in dire financial difficulty. Where payments are long delayed, will he ensure that there are alternative methods of giving some form of financial help, not just by paying interest—although little has been paid out—but by compensation?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we discussed compensation when I made my statement last June on interest payments. No Government have ever paid compensation and that remains our position. Our priority is to get the payments made. I hope he will not mind if I pick him up for referring to the “dire” state of the agricultural industry. Although just across the Pennines, I am sure that he is as avid a reader as I am of the Yorkshire Post and will have seen this week’s report of the important information that UK agricultural industry total borrowing had fallen by £253 million in the quarter to March—
No, I am sorry but the Bank of England report shows that to claim that the whole of the UK agricultural industry is in a “dire” state is not backed up by the facts. Particular parts, notably livestock and especially dairy, are having a hard time. However, I gently say to the hon. Gentleman—I am sure he will agree—that it is not right to paint a picture of UK agriculture across the piece as being in a “dire” state. Many parts are prospering and winning in world markets.
If the Secretary of State is to visit Chorley, perhaps he could leave a little time in his diary to come next door into the Ribble Valley, where he may hear a different story. One of my farmers wrote to me:
“how can any business plan for the future, or even a month ahead, without knowing when monies owed to their businesses is going to be paid? Farming is hard enough, with livestock prices the same, or even less than they were twenty years ago.”
That is the point. If people who work for the Rural Payments Agency were told that they were only going to get part payment of their salaries and that they would not know when they were to receive it, would that focus their attention on ensuring that the moneys that farmers are owed are paid on time?
The hon. Gentleman could actually be quoting from what I said when I first came to this job last year about the imperative of giving farmers confidence about how much money they will get and when. I completely agree that they are absolutely right to say that basic business planning depends on basic competence on the part of DEFRA and all its agencies. I am in complete agreement with him about that. This year, as promised, farmers received 70 per cent. of total funds paid out by the middle of March, compared to 15 per cent. last year, but they are right to continue to want 100 per cent. as fast as possible and the hon. Gentleman will not be able to outbid me in the rhetoric he applies to the importance of getting that done. As for future campaign visits to Ribble Valley, I look forward to taking on many of the marginal Conservative seats in a future election.
May I—unusually—commend Lord Rooker for his excellent and welcome policy of holding meetings for Members of Parliament? I am a farmer, an interest which I declare, and receive the single farm payment, so two weeks ago I telephoned the Rural Payments Agency in Newcastle where a charming young lady told me, “I’m afraid there’s a huge backlog of pre-populated forms for the single farm payment yet to go out, so I’ll send you an empty one.” I eventually received my form but it was only half filled in, so I am afraid that the Secretary of State must acknowledge that the RPA system remains poor. I know the process is not easy, but the system remains poor so I hope he will tell the House that he will examine it very carefully.
I shall certainly draw to Lord Rooker’s attention the hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks. My noble Friend’s surgery meetings for Members of this place and of the House of Lords are an excellent innovation. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are real issues to be tackled, in respect of not just the pre-population of the forms but the other data, which are constantly being updated and some of which I referred to in my written statement on Tuesday. We will not be satisfied until we have a system that accurately delivers stable, reliable, competent payments to farmers at the right time of year. That is what we are trying to deliver.
Even though I come from south of Watford, I, too, am an avid reader of the Yorkshire Post. The Secretary of State may have overlooked the front page headline in yesterday’s edition: “British farmers £90 million worse off in subsidy fiasco”.
When the Secretary of State took over his role about a year ago, he brought to it a refreshing candour—he started going round apologising for the rural payments fiasco—but we have recently learned that the Government’s performance during the year that he has been in charge has actually got worse. If he goes on like that, he will be Foreign Secretary by July. Does he remember telling the Royal Show last year that he would find it difficult to look farmers in the eye until the single payment scheme was properly sorted out? When does he expect to look farmers in the eye? To put it another way, when does he expect to be able to start using the gents toilets at farmers’ events rather than the ladies—for fear of meeting angry farmers in the gents—and, finally, does not the fact that he does so show how little he understands the nature of farmers’ wives?
I know that a special unit has been set up at Tory central office to track my activities—clearly it is being taken to rather ridiculous lengths—but since the hon. Gentleman asks, and although this may be shocking to the House, at the National Farmers Union I actually used the gents toilets. As it happens, at the gents toilet I met a farmer from Wales who subsequently entered into correspondence with me—[Laughter.]
Was he a Tory peer?
He was not, but for the sake of completeness, I should point out that he was concerned that he did not have long enough in the gents toilets to put his points to me.
I am afraid that I would urge the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) to stick to matters of fact and policy for the future, although his question has helped to enliven the proceedings. The population at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions can only increase on the back of what he said.
I wish I could remember rather more accurately what the hon. Gentleman actually asked. He alleged that the situation now is worse than it was a year ago. I utterly refute that. Given that 70 per cent. or so of payments were paid by mid-March compared with 15 per cent. last year, I do not understand how he can describe that as a step backwards.
We have a range of policies and practical measures to help individuals adopt lower carbon lifestyles. We will soon be launching a web-based CO2 calculator, which will allow people and households to find out their CO2 footprint.
I very much welcome the Minister’s response. It is important that we as individuals are encouraged to monitor our carbon footprint and to reduce it by doing things such as recycling, but it is also important that we know the impact and the effectiveness of different recycling methods. Will the Minister support the campaign for real recycling in its calls for an audit of the different recycling schemes in use across the country?
We are constantly trying to improve the quality of recycling in the United Kingdom. The current recycling effort is roughly equivalent to taking 3.5 million cars off the road. We have made significant progress over the past 10 years, but we need to do more. The waste strategy, when it is published shortly, will take significant further steps forward.
Does the Minister agree that the key to individuals’ action on these issues is individuals’ understanding of them, and that the concepts of carbon footprints and carbon emissions are quite difficult for many people to comprehend? Does he agree that the fact that the terms carbon dioxide, carbon, and greenhouse gas emissions are used interchangeably by his Department and others does not add to people’s understanding of the issues? Does he agree that there is a need for consistency in the use of terminology and in the use of measurement?
My hon. Friend has a point when he says that the Government talk sometimes about carbon, sometimes about CO2 and sometimes about greenhouse gases. It would be helpful if we could have more consistency and talk about carbon dioxide. Interestingly, the research work that we have done tends to suggest that people understand the concept of CO2 and a carbon footprint. That is why we have launched the “Act on CO2” campaign. The work that we did before we launched it confirmed that that has a resonance with people, but my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to take steps to make it easier for people to measure their CO2 footprint. That is what the new web-based calculator that we are launching soon will do.
In January, I visited New Delhi and Mumbai and met the Minister of Environment and Forests. We discussed how to strengthen our bilateral co-operation on climate change and issues relating to future climate change agreements. I am pleased to say that that Minister also attended the G8 plus 5 Potsdam conference on biodiversity and climate change in March, where I had a further opportunity to discuss these issues with him.
I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that international agreements are the only way forward when it comes to our goal of tackling climate change? Does he also agree that the UK has a responsibility to ensure that the developing nations do not go down the same faulty road that we did when our economies were developing? Does he accept that the opportunities offered by climate change technology allow a great possibility of a boom in the UK economy?
My hon. Friend makes an important point—a point that I have discussed with him before—about the potential for new industry and new employment in the environmental sector. Perhaps it is not well known that India is one of the top promoters of renewable energy—especially wind energy. I hope that we can take forward our work on technology transfer to developing countries. I know that that is one of the top five issues that the Prime Minister has put on the table for the G8 plus 5 summit in Germany, which the Indian Prime Minister will attend.
Support is provided in many ways, both for the fabric of rural community buildings, including village halls, and for those who are responsible for running them. Over the past five years, through a variety of DEFRA programmes, including the rural social and community programme, the aggregates levy fund and the rural enterprise scheme, DEFRA has invested more than £10 million to support a wide range of rural community assets.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, not least because I have an unusually high number of village halls and community centres in my largely rural constituency. They are used by a variety of voluntary and community groups, who are often nowadays the lifeblood of their communities. Will my hon. Friend give a commitment to the House that he will work with the Cabinet Office to ensure that those groups can continue their valuable work, thereby ensuring that they make full use of the investment that has been made in our community centres and village halls?
I am very glad to be able to reassure my hon. Friend that we intend to continue to do precisely that. The rural social and community programme provides funding for a diverse range of local projects in the manner that she suggested. Of course, in the light of recent announcements, we may need to look afresh at how best we can maintain other community facilities such as former grammar school buildings, for which the Conservative party no longer seems to have a use.
Business of the House
The business of the House for the week commencing 21 May will be as follows:
Monday 21 May—Second Reading of the Further Education and Training Bill [Lords]. There is also expected to be a statement on the planning White Paper.
Tuesday 22 May—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, followed if necessary by consideration of Lords Amendments.
Wednesday 23 May—Opposition Day [12th Allotted Day], there will be a debate entitled “Independent Inquiry into the Conduct of the Scottish Parliamentary Elections”, followed by a debate entitled “Effectiveness of the DTI”. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion. There is also expected to be a statement on the energy White Paper.
Thursday 24 May—Motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.
Friday 25 May—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 4 June will include:
Monday 4 June—Second Reading of the Legal Services Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 5 June—There will be a debate on Darfur on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
I want to make two brief statements. First, I draw Members’ attention to the fact that the House agreed last night the dates appointed for the tabling and answering of written questions and for any written ministerial statements in September. We will remind the House about that in due course, but questions can be tabled on 3, 5 and 10 September for answer on 10, 12 and 17 September respectively.
Last week, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on freedom of information, I made comments in which I said that
“the way that some journalists and the Information Commissioner are acting means that”
the intention of the Freedom of Information Act
“is not being met in practice”.—[Official Report, 10 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 298.]
Those remarks reflected a general concern that I have about the scope of some of the decisions interpreting the Act, but my comments were ambiguous and could have implied that the Information Commissioner had made rulings on the issue of MPs’ correspondence or that he was acting in some way beyond his statutory responsibilities. He has not done that in any way, and he has made no rulings in respect of MPs’ correspondence.
If I may say so, the commissioner, Richard Thomas, does a difficult job very well. I would like to offer my sincere apologies to him.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business.
I note that the right hon. Gentleman says that a statement on the energy White Paper is expected on Wednesday, the day of an Opposition debate. As he knows, Government statements should not be made in Opposition time, so will he look again at the timing of that statement?
This week, John Howard instructed Australia’s cricket team not to tour Zimbabwe. That firm decision contrasts with the lack of direction from this Government when England’s last tour went ahead. The right hon. Gentleman was then Foreign Secretary. England is due to play Zimbabwe later this year, in 2008 and in 2009. Meanwhile, the appalling crisis in that country is getting worse. Will the Foreign Secretary make a statement to clarify the Government’s position?
On Tuesday, the Department for International Development published its first annual report to include the requirements of the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006. Many hon. Members want the report to be debated every year on the Floor of the House, and last week, in response to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), the Leader of the House said that he would give “active consideration” to the idea of a debate. Can he now give a date for the debate?
Can we have a debate on standards in government? The Secretary of State for International Development owns shares in a company that works for his Department. That appears to be in breach of the ministerial code. Almost a month ago, I wrote to the Chancellor—
In that case, can we have a debate on police targets? While more serious crimes go unpunished, Home Office targets are forcing the police to arrest more people. A bride was arrested on her wedding day for criminal damage after crashing into a car park barrier, a child was arrested for throwing buns at a bus, and a man was cautioned for being in possession of an egg with intent to throw—presumably the police were called before the Deputy Prime Minister could get to him.
Can we have a debate on the relationship between the trade unions and Government policy? It is reported today that the trade unions will effectively decide the Labour party leadership and in return, a union official has revealed, they expect a successor to the Warwick agreement. That agreement led to taxpayers’ money being given to unions, which in turn, of course, give money to the Labour party. We need a debate.
The average accident and emergency unit serves 250,000 people, but an NHS report says that an A and E department needs to be supported by between 450,000 and 500,000 people. That would mean the closure of A and E departments across the country. The Health Secretary denies responsibility, but that report was described as national guidance. When it suits her, the Health Secretary says that she is in control of the NHS; when it does not, she says that she is not responsible. Will the right hon. Lady come to the House to clarify the Government’s position, and can we have a debate on the meaning of ministerial responsibility?
It is now certain that the Chancellor will be the next Prime Minister, but because of Labour party rules we have to wait weeks for him to take office, with the country and the Cabinet in limbo. Who will make prime ministerial statements in this House for the next few weeks? [Hon. Members: “The Prime Minister.”] Which one? The pensions system is in crisis, the NHS is in deficit, and the Prime Minister will negotiate a European treaty that the Chancellor spins he will reject. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to go, and go now?
On the right hon. Lady’s first point about the energy White Paper statement being on the same day as an Opposition day debate, as she knows, my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip does her best to avoid such clashes and generally succeeds. The success of Government Chief Whips over the past 10 years in avoiding such clashes compares extremely well with the practice during my 18 years in opposition—
The hon. Gentleman says, “Too short”—but time and again during that period, when we announced Opposition days, additional statements were prepared by the Government to blot out all prospect of any coverage for our business. We have tried to avoid clashes, and I hope that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) concedes that we now give advance notice of statements so that everybody can prepare for them.
We will have a debate on Zimbabwe—I promised that to the House and it will happen. As for suggestions that the Government should ban a cricket tour, I made it clear in 2004 that we disapproved of the England team touring Zimbabwe and that we would have preferred the England and Wales Cricket Board not to have gone ahead with the tour, but this is a democracy and we do not have any power—[Hon. Members: “So is Australia.”] Australia’s Government obviously have different powers; we do not have any power to direct the behaviour of a separate, voluntary organisation. Not once during our debates in 2004 did I hear any suggestion to the contrary, nor did I hear of any power that I or any other Minister had that could have led to such a ban.
As for holding a debate on the Department for International Development report, of course we will look at that carefully. I simply say that we are the first Government to have such a proud record on international development, and it is only thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) that the requirement for an annual report is now law.
In respect of police targets, there is no requirement on the police to prosecute or arrest trivial offenders and to ignore serious offenders. The Government’s overall record on crime is outstanding. Crime is down 35 per cent., but it doubled under the Conservatives. I say to the right hon. Lady that I have learned, over many years, that it is always rash to go to a newspaper headline for the real truth about any allegation of crime.
No, Mr. Speaker, I was talking about the allegation made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead that the police were chasing trivial criminal acts. I crossed the other matter off my list the moment that you ruled it out of order.
It must be remembered that in one case, a fatal accident involving a bus was caused by a person doing something apparently trivial, namely, throwing something at a bus and distracting the driver. The scare stories that appear in the newspapers are not always as they seem.
On trade unions and Government policy, I am sure that I heard the right hon. Lady say that the trade unions would decide the Labour party leadership. Well, that is wrong—Members of Parliament have, in practice, decided the Labour party leadership, and if I may do so from a position of total independence, I offer my congratulations to our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the overwhelming vote of confidence that he received.
I have two last points, one of which concerns the issue that has been raised about accident and emergency departments. That is a Conservative scare story that has no basis in fact. What the right hon. Lady needs to understand is that accident and emergency provision is changing because medicine is changing. There is more care closer to home, wherever that is safely possible. For example, in emergency care, practitioners from ambulance trusts are treating people at home, rather than those people having to go to accident and emergency departments. Some care takes place in specialist centres, and those centres have a far better record in dealing with people who face serious conditions such as stroke and heart attacks. The question for the whole House is whether we want to freeze the existing confederation of accident and emergency provision services in the knowledge that patients will suffer, or whether we want to ensure more local accident and emergency service provision, but some specialist centres, too. There is no national plan whatever.
Finally, the right hon. Lady said that the Government were now in limbo, and asked who would make decisions and statements as Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) is the Prime Minister and will stay Prime Minister until 27 June, when there will be a transfer. The right hon. Lady often leads with her chin; today is not the day to talk about a party being in limbo or disarray, because the disarray caused to the Conservative party by yesterday’s announcement on grammar schools is quite extraordinary. It has been damned as a rehashed announcement by the former Opposition leader, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), and damned again by an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who said,
“I have always supported more grammar schools”.
It has been condemned by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who said that the announcement was unforgivable—
I am about to offer the Conservatives a debate in Government time on the disarray in the Conservative party. [Hon. Members: “Very generous.”] Yes, we are very generous.
May I make two final points? The hon. Member for North Thanet asked a very important question of Conservative members of the shadow Cabinet that should be included in this debate. He said:
“I ask every Conservative member of the shadow Cabinet who has endorsed Mr. Willetts’ view whether they will give a clear undertaking that they are not sending and will not send their own children or grandchildren to public schools.”
That is a very important question. No wonder The Spectator—the house magazine of the Conservative party—is saying in this week’s edition that the Conservative party is now “in the grip of” Tory “toffs”.
Will my right hon. Friend provide time for a debate on early-day motion 1466, which stands in my name and those of other Members, so that this House can debate the crooked activities of SCS, unit 2, the Peel Centre, Stockport, in cheating a constituent of mine out of £2,000 and failing to honour a warranty that does not expire until 2009? It states:
[That this House warns potential customers to steer clear of S.C.S., Unit 2, the Peel Centre, Stockport, and Valspar Industries, Abingdon, which crooked traders have between them cheated a constituent of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton who bought furniture costing 1,998 from S.C.S., found it damaged, and has been refused recompense from Valspar Industries even though she spent another 200 on a five-year warranty which is not due to expire until 6th March 2009; believes that such cheats should not be allowed to be in business; and calls on the Office of Fair Trading to investigate their activities with a view to providing justice for the right hon. Member's constituent.]
Will my right hon. Friend also refer the matter to the director general of fair trading?
In the light of what the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said about cricketers going to Zimbabwe, will my right hon. Friend also provide time for a debate on a previous Conservative Government’s record in allowing a rogue English cricket team to go to apartheid South Africa, in refusing to impose any sanctions on that country, and in the then Prime Minister calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist?
I have always wished to accept the advice of my right hon. Friend and on the latter point, I am warming to two debates in Government time: one on the Conservative party’s disarray and another on the record of previous Conservative Governments. That would be to the benefit of the whole House, and especially to the preparation of the Opposition party for government, because it is not very far down that road at the moment.
I accept that the matter dealt with in early-day motion 1466 is very serious, and I will certainly refer my right hon. Friend’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, so that he can consider a reference to the Office of Fair Trading. We will of course look for an opportunity for the matter to be debated.
I suppose that it is appropriate to offer congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman, in his role as campaign manager, on finally winning the “marginal seat” through the vote of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), which, as I understand it, secured victory.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for notice of the statements on the planning and energy reviews, consistent with what he said earlier. It is however a great shame that we were not given proper notice of the statement following business questions today on the Post Office review. We all knew that it would happen some time this week, but Members, who have a great interest in this matter, were not given proper notice of it. Is it not therefore inevitable that we need a debate on the Post Office review, as well as the statement? Apparently, the review will involve the closure of 2,500 post offices, a disproportionate number of which are located in rural areas such as mine. We want our opportunity to have a proper debate on the consequences.
If the Leader of the House had been here earlier for questions to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he would have heard a lively exchange on excess packaging. May we have a debate on that issue, and not only on the absurdities that we hear about such as coconuts and swedes being wrapped in plastic and a melon being labelled as “produce of more than one country”? Is there not at least a suspicion that a lot of such excess packaging is based on a commercial imperative of making people purchase more of a product than they actually need? That being the case, may we have a debate, and will the right hon. Gentleman give parliamentary time for the Retail Packaging (Recycling) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), which will give us the parliamentary opportunity to do something about it?
Like the right hon. Gentleman, I was disappointed that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) did not ask for a debate on education, but as the right hon. Gentleman rather did the subject to death, I shall not pursue it. However, we ought to give an opportunity to Conservative Back Benchers to have their say about the change in the policy on grammar schools.
Lastly, I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman noticed the perplexing comment by the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday—[Interruption.] Indeed, there were many, and let us hope that we never have another session quite like that. He said at one point that he was hoping to delay time. That opens up a new future for him as a time lord.
If the Government are in the process of delaying time during the interregnum when we have two Prime Ministers, one in office and one waiting, is it not an opportunity for the Leader of the House to clear the decks and enact some of the thoughts that he has been putting forward to improve the performance of Parliament, in addition to the U-turn on the royal prerogative that he announced last week? One of the interesting things about U-turns is what is left washed up on the beach when the tide comes in. In this case it was the Lord Chancellor who was left washed up. Can the Leader of the House find time for a review of parliamentary procedures on a wider scale, so that we can make this Parliament more effective and more relevant? He has the time to do it. Will he make sure that it happens?
In respect of the Post Office, we are doing our best to give advance notice of statements. Sometimes that is not possible. It has been well known that there would be a statement about the Post Office at some stage. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will make it shortly. The issue is one for the whole House, not just the Government, because it reflects changes in the circumstances in which the Post Office has to trade.
The hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on excess packaging. To some extent I thought I had already announced a debate—my offer of a debate on the disarray in the Conservative party. Part of the Conservatives’ problem is an excess of packaging of their policies and an insufficiency of content. We are also working on a statement on waste strategy. There will be one shortly.
On education, the hon. Gentleman said he thought that I had exhausted the subject of education with reference to the Conservative party. That is quite wrong. Had I had the opportunity, I would have drawn attention to the astonishing number of improvements that have taken place in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead since 1997—203 additional or refurbished classrooms, three schools where 50 per cent. to 80 per cent. of the area has been refurbished and one where more than 80 per cent. has been refurbished.
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point about delaying time, I shall let him into a secret. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister had in mind that interesting discussion in Stephen Hawking’s book, “A Brief History of Time”, about how, the further one goes from an area of gravity, the more slowly time goes.
Will my right hon. Friend heed the call from 216 Members of the House who signed early-day motion 866 in my name to find time to debate and give a Second Reading to my Safeguarding Runaway and Missing Children Bill?
[That this House believes that protecting vulnerable children is core business of Government; notes research by the Children’s Society indicates that 100,000 children each year runaway or go missing from home or care, of whom 12 per cent. are running from abuse and around eight per cent. are hurt or harmed while away; further notes the contents of the Ten minute Rule Bill which would safeguard runaway or missing children; and calls on the Government to seek a legislative opportunity for the House to consider the Bill at an early date.]
The Bill comes before the House tomorrow in its second attempt to get a Second Reading. I hope my right hon. Friend will look carefully to find time, so that we can achieve essential progress on the Bill and protect vulnerable children who need us to be professional and speedy in response to their needs.
First, I put on the record our appreciation of all the work that my hon. Friend has been doing over many years in respect of missing children and the need to provide better safeguards. I know that she is to meet our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education shortly. I will take full account, as will my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, of what she has just said.
On a serious note, the Leader of the House knows that on 11 December 2005 my constituency in southern England was rocked by the explosions at Buncefield. The following day the Deputy Prime Minister kindly came to the House and gave a full statement. He promised to keep the House fully informed. We are 18 months on. An inquiry is going on behind closed doors. While that is happening, my community is suffering with blight, yet the Government have proposed 18,000 new homes around the Buncefield site, whether it is rebuilt or not. We have a water shortage and our hospital is about to close. May we have a statement on Buncefield to tell us exactly what is happening?
All of us understand the horrific nature of that fire. I remember flying very close to it. It was appalling. I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and look at whether a statement—perhaps a written statement—could be provided to the House to update him and the House as a whole on progress.
May we have a debate on the increased teaching and use of British Sign Language? Last week I visited Archdeacon John Lewis primary school in my constituency and was pleased to see children as young as three and up to the age of 11 not only singing in English and Welsh, but using British Sign Language, along with all their teachers. As there are two profoundly deaf children in the school, all at the school have taken responsibility for learning British Sign Language. Is that not a subject that we should be rolling out throughout our schools?
As, at last night’s deputy leadership hustings, all six candidates, five of whom are senior Ministers, pledged an inquiry into the war in Iraq, is it not time next week for the Prime Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and tell us when that will happen?
Today is the international day against homophobia. Will my right hon. Friend find Government time for us to debate the great progress that we have made in restoring and giving civil rights to gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the past 10 years, and also to debate the fact that in 75 countries being gay is illegal, and that in nine countries the penalty is death?
I should be delighted to do so and will look for an opportunity. My hon. Friend may be aware that some of us were at a private function earlier in the week at which Mr. Stephen Fry spoke with fantastic eloquence of what we, in the past 10 years, have been able to achieve on behalf of gay and lesbian people. It is one of the great prides that I have in the record of this Government.
Order. I see that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) is standing, but I noticed that she was not in the Chamber for the statement. Even though she is my own Member of Parliament, I cannot do her any favours. She must hear the statement. I call the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison).
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Is the Leader of the House aware that last Thursday was the fifth anniversary of the Potters Bar derailment, which took place in my constituency? Is he aware that since then there has been no public inquiry? A coroner’s inquest is still awaited and some of the families have experienced grave difficulty in obtaining proper compensation. We have had a number of Adjournment debates on the subject. Can the right hon. Gentleman find time for a fuller debate on the Floor of the House on railway safety and the compensation system?
I am well aware, not least because of the representations that were made to me a few weeks ago about legal aid in respect of a rail crash elsewhere, of the problems that have arisen with the inquests in Potters Bar and the delays, which are extremely distressing to the bereaved relatives. I shall take up the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion about the case for a debate, and in any event I will draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Transport.
May we have an urgent debate in Government time about the current state of the manufacturing sector? In the past couple of weeks in my constituency another 50 jobs have been lost due to a local employer deciding to relocate to Hungary. Such a debate would allow us to discuss how best we can safeguard the jobs that remain and how we can maximise the assistance we give to people who lose their jobs as a result of this worrying trend.
We will look for an opportunity to debate that; it may have to be in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment. All of us who have a manufacturing base in our constituencies know that our constituents sometimes suffer from redundancies, which we do all that we can to avoid. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) raised this the other day in her Standing Order No. 24 application. Although there has been a fall of 54,000 in manufacturing employment in the year to February 2007, which is greatly to be regretted, that is very much lower than the drops in manufacturing jobs of the 1980s and 1990s. For example, there were 673,000 redundancies in 1981 and 422,000 10 years later.
In a spirit of magnanimity, will the Leader of the House agree that when a truly great occupant of No. 10 Downing street has ceased to be Prime Minister, broadcasting the legacy is important? May we therefore have a debate on early-day motion 1367, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and 24 other MPs from all parties?
[That this House welcomes the recent transmission by the BBC on Radio 4 of the outstanding Falklands Play by Ian Curteis; and calls on the BBC to transmit the film version of the play on BBC1 at prime time on 14th June to mark the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands and as a tribute to those, both military and civilian, who worked to restore freedom to the Islanders and uphold British sovereignty.]
The EDM calls on the BBC at last to broadcast in prime time in June on BBC1 its excellent “The Falklands Play” as a tribute not only to those who fought in the campaign but to the great Prime Minister who initiated it?
I would like it to be re-broadcast. I backed the military action against the Argentines in the debate on 3 April 1982, and that was my consistent position throughout the conflict. I applaud the courage and fortitude of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
In 41 days’ time, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will drive to the palace with the seals of office and a letter of resignation—not, I hope, including an honours list associated with that resignation, on lavender paper or otherwise. Has No. 10 asked for an opportunity, as an alternative, to make a statement in this place to express gratitude and to describe the special contributions that people have made to the 3,708 days of this Administration? Would not that be a more economical and satisfactory way of acknowledging their special contribution?
The Leader of the House has already mentioned Zimbabwe, with particular reference to a possible cricket tour at some time in the future. Will he give me an assurance, here and now, that while he is Leader of the House there will be a full debate on Zimbabwe in Government time on the Floor of the House?
On a second very important point, the Leader of the House referred, in an apology to the House, to freedom of information. Does he accept that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is not working, that private confidential correspondence between Members of Parliament and Ministers is being released, and that we need some assurances if we are to carry out our job as people expect us to?
On the first point, let me make it clear that I have said, on behalf of the Government, that there will be a debate on Zimbabwe before the summer recess. I am happy to tell him that I have been discussing this with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade to ensure a date that is acceptable and convenient to the House and to him.
On the second matter, I am aware of the profound concerns of many right hon. and hon. Members about the risk that their correspondence might be disclosed, thereby compromising their relationship with their constituents. That will of course be the subject of debate tomorrow.
It is characteristic of the Leader of the House to apologise whenever he considers it appropriate, and I welcome what he said at the beginning of his statement. However, is it not rather strange that the Government are doing all that they can—including three-line Whips, “unofficial” though they may be, to get Parliamentary Private Secretaries to come in—to support a Tory Member’s Bill that is completely inappropriate, given that MPs’ correspondence is already well protected? [Hon. Members: “It is not.”] I suggest that hon. Members who disagree read the Data Protection Act 1998 and today’s edition of The Times. Does my right hon. Friend really believe that the reputation of this House would be enhanced by our taking special privileges to exempt ourselves from a law that applies, and will continue to apply, to every other public body? It is a grubby little Bill, and it should be thrown out.
First, I thank my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. Secondly, there is no whipping, official or unofficial, on either side of the House, in respect of the Bill, which is a private Member’s Bill. There is an issue here. My hon. Friend has expressed one point of view; many Members on both sides of the House have expressed a contrary point of view. I simply put it on the record that the matter was first raised with me by two Members—they happened to be Conservative Members, but they could have been from any other part of the House—who wrote to me, in my capacity as Leader of the House, to express their profound concern about the possible imminent release of correspondence in such circumstances.
Given that a majority in the Scottish Parliament now supports further powers for the Scottish Parliament, may we have a debate on the advantages of devolving to the Scottish Parliament more, or indeed everything, pertaining to Scotland, with the aim of ensuring that Scotland can catch up with nations such as Norway, Iceland and Ireland? They are smaller than Scotland but have greater gross domestic products per capita than the UK.
The Scottish Parliament and Executive have certain functions in respect of the economy; that is a matter for them. The United Kingdom Parliament and Government have other functions. It might help if I state that the terms of the devolution settlement have been altered neither by the election results in Scotland or Wales nor by the election of a new First Minister in Scotland yesterday. It has always been recognised in the devolution settlement, not least because of proportional representation, that parties different from the Westminster Government can and will hold office. For example, over recent years mechanisms have allowed Liberal Democrat shadow Ministers to work effectively with their Labour counterparts at Westminster.
The Leader of the House has just heard that opponents of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill are claiming that MPs’ correspondence on behalf of constituents is not subject to disclosure thanks to the Data Protection Act 1998. Will he confirm that that is wrong? In fact, Members on both sides of the House have already found that their correspondence to a public authority has been revealed to a third party, which is completely unacceptable.
In his answer to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about our having two Prime Ministers, the Leader of the House gave a technical, black-letter lawyer’s answer, which I am sure was procedurally absolutely correct. Does he accept, however, that there is a wider constitutional question about what may happen, for example, if during the next six weeks there is some kind of crisis—national or international—and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister disagree on what must be done? Who will be in charge, and how are we to avoid paralysis?
I do not accept that for a moment. There have often been such transitions. There has been a change of Prime Minister between general elections on five previous occasions, four of which happened to take place under Conservative Administrations. [Interruption.] The period was shorter, but it was not non-existent. No problems arose then, and I do not anticipate any problems arising this time.
May we have a debate on the non-implementation of electoral law? I refer specifically to Bradford metropolitan district council and to early-day motion 1435.
[That this House congratulates the individuals and organisations, secular and religious, who have over many years worked assiduously towards community cohesion and integration in Keighley; but condemns in the strongest terms the behaviour of certain Keighley Conservatives who, under the direction of their candidate Zafar Ali, used the tactics of intimidation, threatening and discriminatory propaganda to secure electoral victory in Keighley Central ward on 3rd May 2007; further condemns the failure of officers of Bradford Metropolitan District Council to take action against such activities; expresses the hope that no authority in future will allow such activity to take place; and urges the Government to review electoral law as it applies in these circumstances with a view to tightening up regulations and providing for sanctions in future.]
It raises complaints about the Conservative campaign in Keighley Central ward on and before 3 May, and mentions
“intimidation, threatening and discriminatory propaganda”,
in which the electorate were invited to vote for their “Muslim brother.” Would it be appropriate for my right hon. Friend and me to invite our electorates to vote for their “Christian sister or brother”? I believe it would be inappropriate.
I know of my hon. Friend’s serious concern and I hope that all parties in the House treat such practices as unacceptable. We are making arrangements to draw to the Electoral Commission’s attention the unacceptable practices that took place in her constituency and several others.
May we have a statement from the Transport Secretary on the future of the driving test centre in Kettering? I wrote to the chief executive of the Driving Standards Agency but have yet to receive a substantive reply. I have written to the Minister of State for Transport this week. I raised the matter with the Leader of the House on 26 April, when he kindly said that he would draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport, but I have heard nothing.
As my right hon. Friend knows, discussions about the German presidency’s final summit are well advanced. Hon. Members are finding out what is going on in them through leaks to newspapers—yesterday’s Financial Times had a long article about the justice and home affairs section. Should we not have an earlier debate before the summit, so that hon. Members can be informed of the Government’s proposals, instead of the usual debate that takes place the day before the summit? That does not genuinely give us an opportunity to know the Government’s position in advance and to inform them of the House’s position on those important issues.
I note my right hon. Friend’s point. There is always a debate before the biannual European Councils. I accept that it normally happens on a Wednesday and the meetings start on the Thursday. I cannot make promises, but we will consider whether we can bring the debate forward.
Is the Leader of the House aware of the increasing concern in the construction industry—in my constituency and elsewhere—about the Department of Trade and Industry’s continued delay on late payments? The House was promised an answer, and proposals, in September, then December, then January and then March. I now have a written answer, which says, “Well we haven’t got a date, but we’ll have a second consultation on the previous consultation.” Does the Leader of the House agree that the construction industry deserves far better? Will he undertake to speak directly to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—preferably before that title and office are abolished by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown)?
There is a big, continuing problem, which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—[Interruption.] Here he is, bearing good news as ever. The matter is not directly the Government’s responsibility but, of course, we will follow it up.
May I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and other members of the Parliament Choir on being in great voice at yesterday’s performance of Mozart’s “Requiem”, and say how well he delivered the bouquet to one of the fine singers at the front?
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the system whereby pubs are tied to a specific company or brewer? Under the tied system, Marston’s is stopping pubs in my constituency selling a locally brewed beer, Cameron’s Strongarm, which happens to be the best beer in the world. The tied system restricts choice for consumers and limits access to markets. Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate that feudal system?
Will the Leader of the House reconsider the request of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on policing priorities? The right hon. Gentleman told the House that there is no requirement for the police to arrest for trivial offences, and he is right about that, but does he none the less accept that there is pressure on them to do so because of targets that the Government impose? As perhaps a future—certainly a former—Home Secretary, the Leader of the House knows that the police do their job only with the public’s consent. Does he accept that that consent may be damaged by the perception that I have described? That is why we need a debate.
The hon. Gentleman is out of touch with the public’s feelings about so-called trivial offences, which might explain Conservative Members’ reluctance to back the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and their pouring scorn on antisocial behaviour orders. All the evidence—from the United States, here and other countries—shows that so-called low-level crime must be nipped in the bud. What might be trivial to the hon. Gentleman, living away from estates, can be serious for the people who suffer from those crimes. Police officers make the judgments and, far from their making decisions without the public’s consent, pressure from the public to deal with low-level disorder is typically the reason nowadays why the police, properly, arrest people. The offences might seem “trivial” to an out-of-touch Conservative Member of Parliament, but they are important to those who have to live with that stuff.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on finding time for a debate on Darfur when we come back after the Whitsun recess. Sadly, in all the months that it has taken to arrange to hold the debate, the position has got worse. I hope that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development can give some positive news on what the British Government are doing to try to bring about an effective peace settlement, given that the existing one is not worth the paper it was written on.
I express my appreciation to my hon. Friend for all his work on Darfur and the expertise that he has developed through several visits to that benighted area of the Sudan. I visited in August 2004 and again when I attended the negotiations in Abuja in January 2006, and it was bad then but there was hope for improvements. Sadly, they have not happened. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development will make a full report to the House when the debate is held.
Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Defence to give some thought to the media handling of individual service deployments? It is surely wrong that the deployment of any young serviceman or woman to Iraq should become a matter of public debate. If one thing emerges from the sorry events of recent months, it should be that they never happen again.
May we have an early debate on relations with Russia? Many hon. Members, and the Leader of the House, will have seen the front page of The Guardian, which reports Russia’s declaration of cyber war on an EU member state. That country has already declared economic war by not allowing trade in food products with EU member states. Energy wars have been talked about—perhaps even polonium wars, with the as yet unresolved problem of the death of Mr. Litvinenko here. I have a letter from the Duma that was sent to all hon. Members who serve on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which meets in 10 days. Frankly, its language of hostility to the western democracies takes us back to 1939 and 1940. I want good relations with Russia; we want open trade with Russia—my right hon. Friend worked hard as Foreign Secretary for such good relations—but something bad and sad is happening. We need to discuss it and send a clear message that good relations with Russia must be two-way.
I accept entirely the comments of my right hon. Friend, who as Minister for Europe worked hard for good relations with Russia. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), there will be a debate in Government time on the European Council at the end of June and I hope that will be a good time to raise those concerns.
Last week, my father passed on. For many years, he was a distinguished public servant who frowned upon politics. A few years ago, he displayed early signs of Alzheimer’s and was given a drug that reversed—well, certainly halted—the condition. He had no problems in his last few years. I understand that the drug has, unfortunately, been withdrawn and is not available to people showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. Will the Government reconsider the matter?
First, I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I express my condolences to the hon. Gentleman. Secondly, we are all aware of the difficult issues associated with whether new or experimental drugs should be made generally available within the health service. My understanding is that patients who have already been prescribed this drug will continue to receive it. I do not know of any system better than the establishment of an independent clinical body, whose acronym is NICE, to make these judgments, removing them from politicians who are inappropriate to make them. Such judgments are now made on clinical grounds. They are very difficult to make and I accept that in some cases they can cause distress, but they have to be made to ensure that the drugs available to patients in the national health service—and, indeed, elsewhere—are efficacious.
I will raise a pint of Thwaites to the Leader of the House to mark his great success in the leadership election campaign, but he should clarify who now really speaks for this country. Prime Minister A will go to Germany to discuss the EU constitutional treaty, which will be handed as a fait accompli to Prime Minister B, who, we understand, might not hold the same views on European matters as Prime Minister A. Perhaps the best way to resolve the problem would be for Prime Minister B to announce that the British people will be given a referendum, as Prime Minister A promised in the first place.
The whole Cabinet promised a referendum and I was pleased to make that promise myself when the appropriate moment came—Easter 2004, I recall. The proposition is not yet clear, however, and the Government will have to take a decision on it as a whole. I reassure the hon. Gentleman, who is a constituency neighbour and has some good opinions on some things—[Interruption.]
Post Office Review
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Post Office. Last December, I published the Government’s proposals on the future of the post office network. We then consulted and received more than 2,500 responses. I am today publishing the Government’s final proposals and can now set out how we intend to proceed. Copies of the Government’s response to the consultation and our response to the Trade and Industry Select Committee’s report are available in the Vote Office.
Post offices play an important social and economic role in the communities they serve and the Government are determined to maintain a national post office network, allowing people to have reasonable access across the whole country. New technology, changing lifestyles and wider choice of ways of getting services mean that people are using post offices less. The network’s losses are now running at almost £4 million a week—double what it was two years ago—and that will increase further unless action is taken to make the network more sustainable. As the National Federation of SubPostmasters and others have recognised, the present network is unsustainable, which is why change is needed.
Without continuing public support, a purely commercial Post Office would see fewer than 4,000 branches. That cannot be allowed to happen, which is why the Government are providing substantial financial support to maintain a national network. Although the proposals I am confirming today will see the closure of about 2,500 branches, the remaining Post Office network will still be larger than all the UK’s banks and building societies put together. We want to maintain a national network, so we are putting in place rules that will provide for reasonable access across the whole country. We will give Post Office Ltd the ability to shape the network for the future with clearly defined access criteria to ensure that the right post offices are in the right place to maximise their business. The rules governing access are set out in detail in the response we are publishing today and will guarantee reasonable access in both urban and rural areas, with additional protection for more deprived urban areas and some of the more remote rural areas.
People were understandably concerned that these changes should be implemented in a sensible way. So, in addition to taking into account obvious obstacles such as rivers or motorways, the Post Office will also consider, in putting forward its proposals, the availability of public transport, alternative access to key post office services and the impact on local economies. It will have to demonstrate how those factors have been considered in each local consultation.
Most respondents welcomed the proposal to extend outreach arrangements to provide postal services to small and remote communities. The Government will therefore ensure that, building on the success of mobile post offices and postal services provided in village halls, community centres and even pubs, 500 new outreach locations will be provided. In some areas, it will be possible to deliver services to people’s homes. We also want to encourage community ownership. There are already some 150 thriving community-owned shops, many of which already incorporate post offices. It is clear in the comments received that there is widespread interest, so the Post Office will work with interested parties to encourage expansion. We also want the Post Office to work with credit unions to develop services further.
Key to ensuring the success of the Post Office, of course, is encouraging greater use of post offices. The Post Office will be given every opportunity to pursue Government business and the network changes will put it on a stronger footing to do so. We will encourage the Post Office to look at further scope for co-locating with other community services, including local government services. Councils will be involved in the proposed changes to the network and that should provide an opportunity to explore ways for them to play a greater role in future in deciding how best to provide post office services to the public.
In addition, the Post Office wants to expand its financial services. It is already the leading supplier of foreign currency exchange and has already increased the availability of its euro-on-demand service to 6,500 branches. It is the third largest provider of travel insurance; it insured one in 50 cars on the road last year; and one in every 25 credit cards were issued by the Post Office. The instant saver account, introduced in April last year, has 175,000 accounts with deposits totalling £1.8 billion. In addition, cash will be available through some 4,000 free-to-use ATMs being introduced at branches across the network. Paystation terminals are also now in 7,500 post offices. All those measures should encourage greater use of post offices.
The current Post Office card account contract ends in March 2010. As the House is aware, the Government have decided that a new account will succeed it after 2010. It will be available nationally and customers will be eligible for the account on the same basis as they are now. I can confirm that the Department for Work and Pensions will today invite tenders for a successor to the Post Office card account to be available nationally, and customers will be eligible for that account on the same basis as they are now. Customers using the successor product should be able to get their cash at ATMs, as well as across the counter. It is our aim that the opening of the new accounts will be streamlined and the process made simpler for customers. The Government remain committed to allowing people to get their pension or benefit in cash at the post office if they choose to do so, and there is a range of Post Office accounts available, including the Post Office card account, to make that possible.
The Post Office is determined to increase its range of products and business. I can tell the House today that the Post Office will be launching a broadband service later this year in partnership with BT. That will enable it to become a key player in the broadband-based services market, offering Post Office broadband services to the public.
The Government have invested £2 billion since 1999 to support the network. Subject to state aid approval, we will now provide a further £1.7 billion up to 2011, including support of up to £150 million a year for the social network. Beyond that, there will be a continued need for public funding of the social network. Where it makes sense, the Post Office will accommodate the wishes of those who want to leave, and the national federation has now come to an agreement over how the compensation package will be administered.
These measures are complemented by steps that the Post Office is taking to modernise the commercial network, returning Crown post offices to profitability and providing new products. As I told the House last year, of the 14,000 post offices in the UK, only the 458 Crown post offices are actually owned by the Post Office, which has to address the huge losses in this part of the network—£70 million last year alone. The network has always relied on other businesses to complement the postal business, so in order to keep open as many post offices as possible, it has entered into an agreement with WH Smith to transfer 70 Crown post offices into their shops. That will ensure that those post offices stay open.
The changes that I am outlining today will be implemented over an 18-month period from this summer. In order to manage the process, there will be around 50 to 60 area proposals based mostly on groupings of parliamentary constituencies, but the Post Office and Postwatch will be able to adopt different approaches where it would be better to do so. In developing its proposals for public consultation, the Post Office will develop plans together in consultation with Postwatch, sub-postmasters and local authorities.
Right hon. and hon. Members will be given advance notice of area proposals in line with the arrangements made in relation to the urban programme three years ago. That will be followed by each plan being subject to a six-week public consultation, providing people with an opportunity to give their views. After the consultation, Postwatch will consider the responses and the specific issues raised. There is also provision for further discussions and review by the Post Office and Postwatch before final decisions are reached. Final closure decisions will be made by Post Office Ltd.
I said last year that we wanted to give local authorities and devolved Administrations a greater say in shaping the future network. We will therefore work with them to consider how we can best make that happen. The majority of people in this country want us to maintain a national network of post offices. I believe that the proposals set out today will do that and I commend them to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement. Nothing much seems to have changed since he outlined the proposals in December, and I am afraid that his statement confirms many people’s worst fears that our post office network is about to be decimated. Will he tell us how many of the 2,500 responses to his consultation actually supported his proposals?
This Government already hold the record for closing post offices faster than any other, and today’s announcement amounts to an acceleration of that rate of closure, shutting a further 2,500 branches over the next two years. By the time of the next election, this Government will have closed more than one third of the entire post office network. What is more, 2,500 is not even the upper limit. As the Minister confirmed last month, it is the lower limit. Will the Secretary of State confirm that 2,500 is the number of compensated closures, and that he is offering no guarantee that other post offices will not close as well, without compensation? What is his estimate of the highest number of closures that we will see by 2010?
This is a programme for compulsory closures. The design of the scheme means that even successful post offices might have to close just because of their geography. Successful sub-postmasters who have spent years building up their businesses might now be forced out by the Government. For some years, the Government have provided a subsidy to rural post offices. Today, they trumpet the continued subsidy, but it now goes to all post offices. It is therefore spread more thinly and will be far less focused on rural Britain. Is it not therefore the case that this statement signals the near-certain death of the village post office?
The Government dress the closures up as meeting their proposed access criteria. The truth, however, is that those criteria are not entirely beneficial. They are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Of course we welcome the Government’s decision to include public transport considerations, but the access criteria still protect only about one third of the network, and the Government have rejected the very idea of access criteria in the past.
The Secretary of State announced 500 new outreach locations, but will he say a little more about how they will operate? Will they be anything more than just a van available for a couple of hours a week?
It is now five months since the Secretary of State’s original statement that 2,500 post offices were to close, yet the Government have still not told us which ones are for the chop. When will the list of closures be announced? Will he ensure that they are not carried out in such a way as to set post office against post office?
What the Government should be announcing today is a policy of giving sub-postmasters greater freedom to find new business opportunities, encouraging local councils to see what services they can provide through post offices, and making the Post Office card account, which is so vital to the future of the network, a more flexible financial tool with much greater scope. Will the Secretary of State explain to the House why the Government have rejected those options—[Hon. Members: “They have not.”] Yes, they have.
What this statement really means is the closure of more than one third of the post office network under this Government, countless villages losing their only shop, and millions of vulnerable people losing a service that they depend on. Little or no account will be taken of the needs of the elderly, the disabled or the most disadvantaged, and there is too little appreciation of the dedication of our sub-postmasters, who spend years building up their businesses and serving their communities. This announcement is a counsel of despair. This statement has no vision, and it signals the decimation of a network on which so many people depend.
The hon. Gentleman might have received my statement an hour or so ago, but he clearly did not read it. I hope that he got the formal response some time before that, but if he had read it, he would have seen that I agree with him that we should encourage councils to consider whether they can provide services through post offices. Because they will be involved in these proposals at an early stage, they will have ample opportunity to consider that.
I said last December, and I repeated today, that we want to see a successor to the Post Office card account. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has published the public invitation to tender for that new card today. In relation to the other financial services, I mentioned foreign exchange, which is a hugely successful business in post offices. I also mentioned the announcement today between the Post Office and BT—I heard the hon. Gentleman scoffing at that before he stood up to speak—which will mean that the post office network will be able to sell access to a new product: Post Office broadband. That will give people another reason to go into post offices. BT recognises the value of having a shop-front up and down the country.
Those are examples of how the Post Office, whose new chief executive is determined to open up new opportunities, is going out to find new business. The value of having a national network is that there can be national agreements to provide travel insurance, broadband services and so on, which individual postmasters could never negotiate on their own. That is something that the National Federation of SubPostmasters supports.
As I said earlier, the Post Office will make roughly 50 to 60 area proposals. The whole objective is to ensure that the right post offices are in the right place for each area. At the moment, part of the problem is that two post offices can compete for a small amount of business in the same area. Any other business would organise itself so as to maximise opportunities for business, and that is what the Post Office will do.
Yes, it is five months since I published my proposals, but it is absolutely astonishing that, in that time, the hon. Gentleman has not come up with a coherent position on behalf of the Conservatives. He has no answers to the problems. Everyone knows that the Post Office has a problem as a result of people changing their habits, having their benefits paid into a bank or building society account, or renewing their tax discs online. Something had to be done about that. We are prepared to do it and, above all, we are prepared to make money available. The hon. Gentleman’s real problem is that he knows full well that he cannot promise any such additional expenditure, because the Conservatives’ economic policy would require him to cut public expenditure. That is why he cannot match what we are proposing today.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement today. I regret that the consultation process has not led to a fundamental rethink. The Liberal Democrats have a fully funded rescue strategy for the Post Office—[Interruption.] It is most unfortunate that the consultation proposed by the Secretary of State remains brief and unwieldy. Will he at least agree to delay the abolition of Postwatch so that full and proper support can be available for constituents attempting to deal with the crisis that will confront them?
The Secretary of State has provided the number of voluntary closures, but will he confirm that I have read correctly that a post office that has closed voluntarily will not be re-opened unless it is required by the criteria? That would be incredibly bad news for many communities.
Government business is absolutely key to the survival of the Post Office. Can the Secretary of State give a commitment that no more Government business will be withdrawn from the Post Office? If not, what further losses does he estimate?
On new business, is my reading correct that Royal Mail’s restriction on other delivery companies working with the Post Office will continue and has the Secretary of State’s support? If not, that would remove many such new opportunities for post offices.
The Post Office card account—POCA—goes out to tender today, but will the Secretary of State confirm that there is no absolute certainty that the tender will be won by the Post Office? If it is not won by the Post Office, what contingency plan is in place?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is no consultation on the closure of Crown post offices and their transfer to WH Smith, but only on what type of facilities will be available in WH Smith? Does he agree that that is outrageous? Will he please use his influence to make sure that a consultation does take place?
How many small communities will lose their one remaining shop, which, essentially, survives only because of co-location with the post office? Has the Secretary of State done that work, and can he tell us the results?
What work is the Secretary of State doing with the Department for Communities and Local Government on attracting local council activity into post offices, given that, as I understand it, he has now abandoned the “Your Guide” pilot, which was his main thrust for ensuring that that process took place?
First, the hon. Lady criticised the Post Office’s decision to enter into a deal with WH Smith in relation to 70 Crown post offices, which means that those post offices will stay open. She contradicted herself a few moments later by saying that it was important that rural post offices had other businesses co-located with them, to get additional business. Surely we should do everything possible to get more people through the front door of post offices. I would have thought that the proposal for 70 Crown post offices to go into WH Smith would be welcomed, as more people are likely to use those post offices, and they will stay open.
On the hon. Lady’s point about access, which was also raised by the Conservative spokesman, the purpose of national criteria is to ensure that urban and rural areas have reasonable access to a post office. Therefore, if a post office closes, and the access criteria are no longer met, the Post Office will be required to open a new post office to take its place. I am trying to ensure that there is a coherent national network, which will have the opportunity to compete for Government or other business as well as providing services.
The hon. Lady asked me to promise not to abolish Postwatch and to delay its transfer into the National Consumer Council. I am happy to tell her that I will do everything to ensure that Postwatch can discharge the functions that I want it to discharge. She might, however, want to have a word with her predecessor as trade and industry spokesman, as he called for the abolition of Postwatch, because, he said, it was useless. Now she is calling for it to be maintained. I suppose that that typifies the Liberal Democrats’ problems.
We do have to put the Post Office card account out to tender—the hon. Lady and the Liberal Democrats are good Europeans, and they would surely agree with the European requirement that such things must be put out to tender. Neither I nor my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions can simply award the contract to the person we want. A fair competition must take place.
Lastly, whatever else the Liberal Democrats have, they do not have a coherent public spending programme that would allow them to finance the Post Office. It is disingenuous of the hon. Lady to suggest that she has such a programme.
If the proposals go through, many people will be concerned that if the same pressures continue on the post office network, we will back here in another five years considering the need for more public expenditure to meet the access criteria. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee that, should further pressures continue on the post office network, the access criteria laid out today will be kept, and additional public expenditure will be found to ensure that the network is maintained in the future?
First, the access criteria are important because they provide reasonable access, and I hope that those criteria will endure. Secondly, in relation to public expenditure, as I told the House, were there no public financing, about 4,000 post offices would be left. That is not likely to be acceptable to anyone in the House, so I made clear in my statement that the need for public support is likely to continue for some foreseeable time.
Although there are things to welcome in the Secretary of State’s statement today, especially the improved access criteria, does he understand the disappointment that will be felt by the Trade and Industry Select Committee, which I chair? He has effectively rejected the majority of our recommendations by offering only a patchy response to improved entrepreneurial innovation for the network, not clarifying the future of Postwatch, diluting the social network payment, offering no safeguards on unplanned closures, sticking to a very short consultation period for local plans, and not addressing the shortcomings of the Post Office card account. I suppose that I should at least welcome the downgrading of Crown post offices—such as Worcester’s Foregate street office, which will move to the first floor of WH Smith—because their total inaccessibility will mean that some offices in Worcester have a lot more custom.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have attempted to deal with many of the suggestions in the Select Committee on Trade and Industry’s report, which was quite helpful. I know that the Committee wants a longer consultation period, but I am mindful of the fact that postmasters, who have had a period of uncertainty, want to know where they stand, and understandably so. I have set out a process that allows for those matters to be considered, even after the consultation process ends.
In relation to unplanned closures, nobody can legislate against a postmaster or postmistress giving up their business. We should remember that the vast bulk of such shops are owned as private businesses. The access criteria mean, however, that if a post office closed, and the criteria were no longer fulfilled, the Post Office would have to open a new post office in its place. That is the assurance that the hon. Gentleman and his Committee sought.
In relation to other measures, such as the Post Office card account, people were understandably concerned a few months ago that we were not going to replace it. We have done so, and as I explained to the House today, there are signs that the Post Office will now aggressively pursue business, which I wish that it had done in years gone by. That is the best protection for the future.
Given my right hon. Friend’s announcement, this is a very sad day for post office users. He ought to realise the deep concern across the United Kingdom about the announcement. On average, four post offices across each constituency will close. That is bad, because the post office network is a lifeline to many pensioners. The language that he uses is about allowing the Post Office to pursue further work. Cannot we instruct and persuade Government Departments and even the BBC to use the Post Office rather than other shops? Chorley building society is meeting the Post Office tomorrow to see how it can help, and whether it can franchise the building society into post offices, to keep the post office network going in Chorley. Can he use that as a good example?
That illustrates how, with a suitable degree of enterprise, the Post Office can attract new business. I ask my hon. Friend to reflect, when he has the opportunity to do so, on the problem that the Post Office has been losing business for a long time. It is not open to a Government to say to people, for example, “No, you can’t have your pension paid into your current account,” or, “No, you can’t renew your licence from the comfort of your own home.” As with so much else in the world, things are moving, and we must respond to that. The option of doing nothing makes no sense whatever.
I welcome the decision of the Post office to retain the Crown post office in Haywards Heath. First, in examining proposals, will the Secretary of State consider adding to the demands on the Post Office those of demography? In my constituency, the age profile is getting older and older, and post offices are greatly valued by elderly people, and young families. Secondly, as the Government dismantle the social infrastructure in the south-east, such as accident and emergency departments, while imposing bigger and bigger unwanted developments in places such as East Grinstead, will they make sure that there are sufficient post offices to cope with the demands of young families and elderly people in the future?
As I have said, the Post Office needs to show a degree of flexibility, and to give reasons for its decisions to show that it has considered the issues. One issue that it will consider is how often post offices are used, which is a problem not just in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency but elsewhere. I want to encourage people to use their local post offices, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, eight out of 10 pensioners are now having their money paid into bank and building society accounts. I hope that other factors will encourage people to visit their local post offices, because that will help to keep them open.
People in my own city will strongly welcome the commitment to a role for the local authority. The Post Office does not have a good reputation for dealing properly with groups such as local authorities. In Manchester we have tried to engage in meaningful dialogue with the aim of keeping viable businesses open while also ensuring that post offices are part of the regeneration and community infrastructure of the city, but the Post Office has not been a good partner so far. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that, in the course of consultation, it will now act as that good partner?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. I know that Alan Cook, the chief executive of the Post Office, is mindful of the fact that in some parts of the country there could be much more co-operation, and I will draw his attention to what my hon. Friend has said about Manchester.
I agree with the hon. Member for Crawley that this is a very sad day for our constituents across the country. [Hon. Members: “Chorley?” “Mid-Sussex?”] It is a sad day for both Crawley and Chorley, but I apologise to the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). In any event, we all agree that this is a sad day for our constituents.
The consultation period is very short. Will the Secretary of State have another look at what the Select Committee says about how long it should be? Will he also ensure that when negotiations on the closure of sub-post offices take place, sub-postmasters are not gagged as they were last time? On that occasion a penalty clause prevented them from defending the post offices they represented, because if they had done so they would have lost their money.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the consultation period. As I said earlier, the National Federation of SubPostmasters has itself pointed out that the longer uncertainty continues the more difficult things become for their businesses, and I must take account of that.
It is very easy to say “This is all too difficult: let us do nothing”, but I do not think that is an option. Whichever party is in government, we must deal with a real problem. We must ensure that we put the national framework for the Post Office on a proper footing. But—as I told the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan)—the difference is that this Labour Government have, and are prepared to make available, the money to support that framework.
Companies such as BT and Severn Trent impose a surcharge of £4.50 a quarter on those who make payments through post offices rather than by direct debit. Is that not a real disincentive, particularly for elderly people who would otherwise be reluctant to pay by direct debit? What can the Secretary of State do to encourage such companies to reverse their decisions, and increase business at local post offices rather than reducing it?
I take my hon. Friend’s point, but those are commercial arrangements between companies and the Post Office. It is not open to the Government to tell power companies, for example, what rates they should charge. However, we are all acutely aware that, especially in the case of people on low incomes, every penny matters. I shall have more to say about that when I announce the White Paper on energy next week.
Many of my constituents are deeply concerned about the plan to move Kirkintilloch post office to WH Smith. Given that communities have lost out in the past when Tesco and Morrisons suddenly decided to close many post offices in their stores, would it not be far better to invest in a post office network that would increase the profitability of branches than to hive them off to a large chain where the threat of mass closures will always hang over them?
The Post Office is entering into a long-term commitment with WH Smith. I know that there was great concern when Morrisons, in particular, abandoned the policy pursued by Safeway and effectively evicted the post offices, but WH Smith sees their services as complementary to the goods that it sells. The main objective must surely be to keep as many post offices open as possible. As I said earlier, the Crown post offices lost £70 million last year alone, and the Post Office must do something about that.
The Liberal Democrats—who do the same in other contexts—cannot say that they want more to be done to persuade people to walk through the front door of the post office, and then object every time a proposal comes along that would cause more customers to walk through that front door. To my mind, joint ventures and collaboration that make more people go into post offices must be a good thing.
I too am deeply concerned about the proposal of Post Office Ltd to close 70 Crown post offices and replace them with inadequate alternatives—in Leicester’s case, in the basement of a nearby newsagent, which makes the branch far less accessible and is wholly inappropriate for such an important public service in a major city. I hope the Secretary of State will encourage Post Office Ltd not just to discuss the details of the move, but to engage in proper discussions with the local council and local people about the principle of the serious erosion of an important local service.
I understand that most of the pilots conducted with WH Smith have been warmly welcomed. Of course in some cases the service on offer will need to be improved, and if that is a particular problem in Leicester it will need to be examined. However, as I have said a number of times today, in the face of the problem that the Post Office has been losing business, any opportunity to secure new business and persuade more people to visit post offices must be a good thing. I think it odd that people are turning their backs on that opportunity, because I do not see how we can keep those 70 post office branches open otherwise. Collaboration and joint ventures must be a good way of securing additional business.
This is a bleak day, not just for the post office network but for rural villages up and down the country. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) said that an average of four post offices were closing in each constituency. If that were the case, we would at least know roughly where we stood, but I suspect that some constituencies will be left untouched while post offices in rural villages are attacked. The closures seem to be taking place on a cost basis, because the post offices are losing £4 million a week. How much money does the Secretary of State expect to save at the end of the exercise, and what protection will rural post offices be given?
I realise that the hon. Gentleman will not have had an opportunity to read the Government’s final proposals—although, having heard his question, I suspect that he would probably say the same if he had read them. The proposals set out access criteria for rural and urban areas that will safeguard post offices. Safeguards have been added, partly at the suggestion of the Trade and Industry Committee, to ensure that areas are not disadvantaged. In some parts of the country—I do not think they include the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—there are so few branches that the Post Office may have to open new ones to ensure that the national criteria are met. I believe that those criteria are the best way in which to guarantee access.
My right hon. Friend has emphasised the importance of access criteria to ensuring that the Post Office has the right post offices in the right places to maximise business. In Woolwich, we have a Crown post office that is incredibly well located and extremely busy at almost all times of the day. It is difficult to envisage even a half-competent management not being able to run that post office successfully and profitably, yet out of the blue, with no prior consultation with local people, comes a proposal to move it to a far less well-located WH Smith branch that is already very crowded. The consultation proposals seem derisory to me. Will my right hon. Friend please instruct the Post Office, as part of the access criteria, not to move needlessly post offices that can operate profitably in their existing locations?
As my right hon. Friend says, the decision was made by the Post Office. As he has raised the matter, I will see whether it is possible for him to sit down with Post Office representatives and discuss the logic and the rationale behind the move, but, as the House will appreciate, I am not in a position to make detailed comments about that particular branch.
I share the deep cynicism of my constituents about any public consultation these days, believing that it rarely results in any change at all. Post offices are the social glue that holds our communities together. They offer an essential lifeline to many people and their presence keeps open many parades of small businesses. Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be devastating consequences if these proposals go ahead? Is he aware that my constituents in Guildford and Cranleigh do not believe that the public consultation will have any impact at all?
The facts that led me to come to the House to make these proposals have not changed: the Post Office is still losing £4 million a week, double what it was losing two years ago. As I have said, the option of sitting back and doing nothing is not sensible, and the National Federation of SubPostmasters has said explicitly that the present situation is unsustainable. That is why we need to do something. On consultation, many points were made, especially in relation to the criteria, on which we have strengthened the position. I hope that that will protect people in both urban and rural areas. Frankly, it is disingenuous for people to say that somehow we do not have to make any changes, and that everything will be all right. It will not.
I welcome what the Secretary of State has said about the future of the Post Office card account, but the concern of many small businesses in the Lanes and North Laine area of my constituency—the main customers of the Crown office, currently in Ship street—is that its transfer to a WH Smith branch some distance away will make it less rather than more accessible for them. I believe that they are right. They are also concerned that consultation will not take place until July, on a decision that clearly has already been made.