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Rural Post Office Network

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2007

In December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry set out the Government’s strategy to preserve a national post office network, putting it on a strong footing to deliver a better service today, and increasing its sustainability to ensure that it can meet the challenges of the future.

I also thank the Minister for giving a delegation of postmasters the opportunity to meet him. At that meeting, it emerged that individual postmasters and postmistresses have not been sent a copy of the Department of Trade and Industry consultation document that could so dramatically impact on their future. What discussions has the Minister had with the DTI to ensure that that situation is remedied, and that the views of those so drastically affected can be taken into consideration in the next two weeks?

The Government package, which is now £1.7 billion up to 2011, is there to sustain and rationalise the existing network and ensure that we have a network that serves its purpose. I have already raised the issue that he points out with the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), and I am awaiting a response concerning the distribution of that document.

Does my hon. Friend have views on the antics of Denbighshire county council, which criticises Government support for post offices, yet encourages council tax payers to desert post offices and switch to paying by direct debit?

Yes, I have seen those reports, and it is incumbent on the entire public sector to consider the issue of innovation and how they can use the post office network to ensure that a significant customer base is maintained. I am afraid that without that customer base, the network is no longer sustainable.

What epithets would the Minister use for those of his hon. Friends who voted for money to shut post offices, and then whinge in the newspapers when post offices are shut? There is a name for that, but I will not use it, Mr. Speaker, out of respect for you. What does the Minister say?

The Government have put £150 million a year into the rural network and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. On top of that, there is money for rationalisation and to pay redundancies. The hon. Gentleman must accept that the current number of post offices is unsustainable—a view shared by the National Federation of SubPostmasters. We have to have rationalisation and innovation from the Post Office, in order to provide the customer base that will protect the network.