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Post Office

Volume 451: debated on Wednesday 1 November 2006

I have discussed this important issue with Cabinet colleagues and some postmasters, who lobbied all Members at Parliament on 18 October. The House recognises the important contribution that post offices make to the life of many urban and rural communities, and they will continue play that role in the future. Post offices need to adapt to change, as they are doing, and to offer new services. To support that, the Government have already invested more than £2 billion, and in the coming weeks, once the consultations are concluded, we shall bring forward our strategy.

Under this Government, thousands of post offices have closed, causing real hardship to the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society, people on low incomes and the disabled. Did the Deputy Prime Minister really come into politics to make the daily lives of those vulnerable groups in our society more difficult?

It is a matter of fact that the Post Office has declined considerably over a long period and thousands of post offices have closed, as the House knows from our many debates on the subject over the past 10 or 15 years. The hon. Gentleman should consider the fact that the Government have invested more than £2 billion in modernising the Post Office, whereas the Conservative Government gave it nothing. We have given almost £800 million to develop rural and urban post offices. We are consulting on the issue, we are well aware of the concerns and we will make a statement to the House. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that about 99 per cent. of people live within one mile of a post office.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister use his position as chair of the interdepartmental group on post offices to ensure that his different Departments know that they should give work to the Post Office instead of taking it away? Is not that the real problem—that while we are putting in subsidies, different Departments are not joined up in supporting the Post Office?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s point, but I have to say that many people’s choice has been—[Interruption.] Well, they have a choice whether to take their money to a particular account or leave it with the Post Office card account, and many people have decided to change, which Departments have to recognise. In reality, it is about the use of public resources, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the committee is actively debating how to secure a proper balance between technological change, available resources and customer choice.

Does not the Deputy Prime Minister realise that unless Government Departments give work to the Post Office, people will not be able to use post offices? The most important factor is the continuation of the Post Office card account after 2010. The Government must state soon that there will be a Government-supported successor to that account and make it easy for people to transfer—we do not want all the bullying and badgering to persuade people to go to the banks that happened when pension books were taken away. We want a Government-supported successor and an easy means for people to transfer from the Post Office card account to that successor.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point and I can assure him that these issues are actively being debated in the committees. A statement will be made to the House shortly, so all those questions can be properly answered.

Does not my right hon. Friend accept that what we really need is an early statement? What sub-postmasters and mistresses require more than anything is the security of knowing what is being planned for the network. Will my right hon. Friend include in the statement clear guidance on how local communities can play a part in providing greater support for the Post Office, including the role of social enterprise?

Again, I find myself in agreement with much of what my hon. Friend says. The postmasters who came here two weeks ago made it clear that the present system is unsustainable. We are trying to find a proper balance, as I said, and a statement will be made soon.

This is a classic example of the Government’s policy not being joined up. The Prime Minister says that he wants to keep post offices open, yet the Department for Work and Pensions has been bullying people to move their benefit claims from post offices to banks. People no longer know whether the Post Office card account will be maintained. Furthermore, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is in her place next to the Deputy Prime Minister, talks about social exclusion, when the sub-post offices most likely to be closed are in the most rural areas. Two sub-post offices in my constituency at Bolingey and Portloe have been closed and the buildings sold because a profit cannot be sustained. In those areas, however, one in four people do not have access to a car and it is pensioners, disabled people and those on benefits, particularly young mothers, who have the greatest need for a post office.

The reality is, as I have already pointed out, that 99 per cent. of people live within a mile of a post office. It is true that the number of post offices has declined, but the Government have put in nearly £800 million to sustain the existing service. If the Liberal solution is to privatise the Post Office, I suggest that that is made clear to the Post Office, but I am not sure that it will view that as a happy solution.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend recognises the important role that post offices, whether urban or rural, play in the community, but does he acknowledge that one of the problems has been Government Departments’ strong-arm tactics to get people to give up their Post Office card accounts? We also need a reversal of the BBC decision not to allow the Post Office to supply TV licences. I understand that the DVLA is reviewing its position on whether post offices should be available for car tax.

The Prime Minister made it clear two weeks ago that there has to be a balance in financing the BBC and the Post Office. As the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said, those matters are being given serious thought. We hope to make a statement to the House when the questions can be answered.

The Trade and Industry Committee report, which was published last week, found a lack of joined-up thinking between Departments. It is seriously concerned about the lack of urgency in the remit of the Cabinet committee on the Post Office that the Deputy Prime Minister chairs. If he hopes to leave our Post Office network a better legacy than the mess that he left in regional government and the strategic transport plan, should not the expected Government statement include a review of their decision to scrap Post Office card accounts?

As has been made clear in exchanges between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Government are considering all such matters, including the Post Office card account. We hope to make a statement to the House shortly, once the conclusions have been finalised.