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Post Offices

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2006

6. What discussions he has had with colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry on the number of post offices in Wales. (81353)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that enlightening answer. From 1998 to December 2005, 331 post offices—one in every four—closed in Wales. A further avalanche is expected with the loss of the TV licence contract and the phasing out of card accounts. Yet the main campaigning tool in Blaenau Gwent was a Labour petition to re-open the post offices. Was that not a rather cynical exercise that saw through by the people of Blaenau Gwent?

Talking of Blaenau Gwent, I do not think that anyone takes the hon. Gentleman seriously any more.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that in some instances post offices close because the postholder is retiring and the property is no longer available? Will he discuss with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry whether, when it is difficult to find a building to carry on a post office service, it would be possible to provide a mobile service so that our constituents do not suffer?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point and a compelling argument that mobile post offices could be slotted in to fill gaps in the circumstances that she describes. That could provide a viable alternative in many rural areas across Wales. I will certainly take up her request and do as she asks.

In Brecon and Radnorshire, 6,800 people hold post office accounts and the demise of the facility will lead to financial inconvenience and reduce the viability of post offices. On top of that, Rev. Marian Morgan from New Radnor reports to me that a recently re-housed homeless person is unable to save up for a TV licence because the savings scheme has been abolished, and he will have to travel 10 miles to the nearest town to get his TV licence. In those circumstances, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the continuing viability of rural post offices?

This is a real issue, as it was under the previous Conservative Government, when 3,500 post offices closed, mostly in rural areas. It has been a continuing problem for all Governments as a result of different consumer patterns and so on. However, we need to do as much as we can to deal with the sort of examples that the hon. Gentleman describes in his constituency, which is largely rural. That is why we have made unprecedented investment since 1997 of more than £2 billion to help maintain the post office network. That includes £150 million this year. We look to provide what extra support we can.

Post Office card accounts and credit unions have successfully helped people in Wales to stay out of debt. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and I held a recent workshop on financial exclusion, which was targeted at people in the Ogmore and Bridgend constituencies. One of the suggestions that people attending the workshop made was that we should build greater links between credit unions and post offices, whereby additional income could come in to post offices and credit unions could provide access to low-cost loans. Will the Secretary of State examine the potential in Wales to build on that partnership?

I would be happy to do that. I am a member of my local credit union in Neath Port Talbot. Credit unions do an important job, and there is scope for those who use post offices for banking services to bring extra income and customers into post offices, especially as credit unions offer low interest rates to many people on low incomes. As my hon. Friend suggests, it is a win-win situation for credit unions and local post offices.