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Post Office

Volume 447: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2006

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but six out of 10 of the sub-postmasters in my constituency are concerned about the viability of their businesses once they lose the income from the Post Office card account in 2010. That has major ramifications for the wider community across rural Wales, which are some of the remotest communities in the country. I urge the Secretary of State to encourage his colleagues to undertake, at the very least, an urgent review of post office service provision in rural areas, and preferably to scrap the proposals to abolish the Post Office card account.

We are looking closely at the matter, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are providing £150 million a year to support rural post offices, as part of a £2 billion investment in the post office network since 1999. None of that would have been made if his party’s policy of privatising the Post Office had been implemented.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is the Government’s rules on matters such as automatic credit transfer and the failure to support Post Office accounts that have led to post offices closing in rural communities the length and breadth of Wales? Will he apologise to the communities affected and tell us what the Government intend to do now to ensure that the post offices that remain continue to be viable?

I have just described what we are doing. This is a difficult issue, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that it costs the Government 1p to pay a benefit into a bank account, but £1 per transaction to a Post Office card account. I know that in many villages in my constituency and, I expect, in his, there are senior citizens who depend on the local post office, and we want to see them kept open if at all possible. That is why we are providing the investment. But the issue is not as simple as just keeping the Post Office card account, and it is certainly not acceptable to support privatisation of the Post Office, as the Liberal Democrats advocate.

Banks have closed branches in rural and valley communities, and one adult in seven in Wales does not have a bank account. Does not the Secretary of State see that the Post Office card account, which is used by 360,000 people, is vital to combating financial exclusion in disadvantaged communities?

I agree that the card account has played an important role in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman’s and mine, and that is why we are looking at it so carefully. However, another 25 different accounts, including bank services, can be accessed at post offices. This is an issue that we are going to address.

How do the Secretary of State’s warm words square with what the Post Office chief executive said when he reckoned that he could do without 10,500 post offices? The Government are making that easier by removing income from post offices, and by the end of this month people will no longer be able to buy a TV licence at one. At present, they can use the cheque-and-send service to obtain a passport, for example, from the Bethcar street branch in Ebbw Vale, but will the introduction of the new biometric checks for passports mean that another service is to be lost, under Labour, to post offices and local people in Wales?

Talking of Ebbw Vale, the Labour party in Blaenau Gwent is calling for the Welsh Assembly’s post office development fund to be reopened. That is part of Labour’s commitment to local post offices right across Wales.