Good morning, Mr. Speaker. DTI Ministers and officials have regular discussions with other Government Department colleagues on matters relating to Royal Mail and the Post Office network.
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), who was previously Under-Secretary at the DTI with responsibility for postal services, met Ross Finnie, Minister for Environment and Rural Development at the Scottish Executive, on 6 March to discuss a range of issues relating to post offices.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he and his ministerial colleagues encourage the chief executive of Postcomm to engage better with communities on the future of Royal Mail and the Post Office? I recently wrote to her inviting her to attend a function in my constituency to discuss the future of postal services, and she told me that she felt that she could learn all that she needed to know by holding seminars in Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee. We in the Isles have some difficulty with that attitude, because there is genuine concern about the issue and people want to engage in the debate. We need better responses from Postcomm than that.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I know that he will have a seminar in Orkney in due course. My understanding is that the head of the rural network in Scotland for Post Office Ltd will attend the Orkney seminar, and that it will also be represented at the Shetland event. The Department is keen to do what it can to maintain a sustainable network. We have committed £2 billion to Post Office Ltd, including £750 million up to 2008 to support the rural network in particular. We will be very interested in the outcome of his seminar.
The Minister may not know that the post office in Irvine in my constituency, which serves some 30,000 people, is to be franchised. One of my reservations about that proposal is that the franchise will include licensed premises. Many elderly people in the area are opposed to that concept and fear the whole idea. It is also almost bizarre that staff have only recently undergone a training programme to help to widen the scope of the business of the Crown post office, which will now be of no use whatsoever.
I can understand my hon. Friend’s concern, although I have to confess that I did not know about that initiative until he mentioned it to me earlier. The Post Office has to look at modern ways of working, and franchising works in other parts of the country. Having conducted a £25 million pilot to determine modern ways of providing services, we will examine closely anything that has a positive effect on the sustainability of the service. I am happy to hear more from my hon. Friend on the issue. If he drops me a line, I will look further into the initiative that he mentions.
Does the Minister understand the fear in rural areas of Scotland when Adam Crozier, the chief executive of Royal Mail, talks about a “radical transformation” of the network as a result of the collapse in Government work, such as benefits payments? In the recent deal between the Government and the Royal Mail, it was made clear that
“the level of any support after 2008 will depend on decisions on the future of the post office network”.
Who will take decisions on the future of the post office network? Will it be Royal Mail or the Government, depending on the amount of money that they put in?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the lack of Government support, and I hope that I have rebutted that by demonstrating the £750 million that we have committed to the rural network in particular. It is not the Government’s fault that people are not choosing to use the post office. Habits are changing and the internet is available: there are many reasons why people are not using the post offices—[Interruption.] Some 1,200 post offices have fewer than 60 customer visits a week and 800 have fewer than 20. The issue of sustainability has to be addressed, and I will be happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman in due course in respect of his local post offices.