The House is aware that that is a complex and sensitive issue. I have chaired a Cabinet Committee a number of times to discuss the future of the post office network. The Government will make an announcement very shortly.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s work on the cross-departmental ministerial Committee on the post office network. What value does he place on the social and community aspects of the work of post offices in both rural and urban areas across the country?
I recognise that my hon. Friend has made clear in an early-day motion the importance of post offices providing social access for people in rural and urban communities. That is the major consideration in the Cabinet Committee that I chair. I can assure her that the decline occurred under both Administrations—about 50 per cent. of the decline took place under the previous Administration—and there is a real problem achieving a proper balance between cost and social access to those facilities. We will take that into account, and it will be included in the consultation document that we will shortly announce to the House.
In the Deputy Prime Minister’s co-ordinating role, can he say what action he took when four separate Government Departments announced their intention to take business from the Post Office, leading to closures? Did he do nothing, or did he intervene but was overruled by his colleagues?
I think the hon. Gentleman knows that when those decisions were taken, I was a member of the Government but did not have responsibility in the Cabinet Committee for that. I was given that responsibility when I was given my present job. I can tell him that the matter causes real concern. All Governments have examined the expenses of Departments and asked them to get value for money. However, under this Government we have spent about £2 billion supporting the post office network, whereas nothing was put in by the previous Administration, so we will take no lectures from the Opposition about that, and as for the Liberals, they are never in power to make any decisions anyway.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall telling the Labour conference in 1999 that he would protect post offices against closures? Is it not the case that since then the Government have taken away the traditional business of post offices and that the fastest rate of closures has been in the past two years? Since it is his responsibility to co-ordinate Government policy on this, is the devastation of our post office network the intended result of a brilliant piece of co-ordination or the unintended result of a staggering piece of incompetence?
Always clever with words, but the facts never measure up. Nearly 50 per cent. of post office closures took place under the Government of whom he was a member. He gave no money or financial support to the post offices; we have given nearly £2 billion. We established the Post Office card account, which everybody agrees was a good step forward. Our actions in government have shown our support for the maintenance of a post office service, which has to be sustainable and to have public support. I note that neither the right hon. Gentleman nor the Leader of the Opposition offer any guarantee of giving subsidies to a future network if they were to get control in here.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the report published recently by the Communication Workers Union into the future of the post office network? During the course of his review, will he meet representatives of that union to ensure that post offices continue to be a valued part of our community?
As my hon. Friend knows, we have had discussions with several stakeholders about our responsibility for the post office network and their concerns about it. We will shortly publish a consultative document. When that is announced to the House, the debate can start on the Government’s proposals on the Post Office and the maintenance of its network.