On 17 May my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the Government’s response to the public consultation on the post office network. Post Office Ltd is now carrying that forward through local implementation plans, and there will be six such plans for Scotland. The first area plan for Scotland, for the Greater Glasgow, central Argyll and Bute area, is out for local consultation. The plan covering the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is scheduled for consultation in August next year.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but given that the Government have announced 2,500 closures across the country, can he assure the people of Edinburgh that that will be a genuine consultation? Or has he already decided on the number of offices to close, so that all he is prepared to discuss is the method of execution?
The announcement on 17 May did indicate the number of offices that would close, so the consultation, in the hon. Gentleman’s area and in others, is about how that is to be implemented. Postwatch and the local authorities will be involved, and the hon. Gentleman and his constituents can be involved, but the direction of travel was set by the announcement. The reasons are clear: as a society, we are using the post office less than before. Some 4 million fewer customers a week are going through the doors of post offices, which are losing, collectively, some £3.5 million a week.
My hon. Friend knows only too well that it is usage of, and footfall in, sub-post offices that will ensure that they continue to operate. Is he in a position to speculate as to how many Members of Parliament will, on reaching retirement age, open a Post Office card account to receive their state pension?
I would not like to speculate on that. At the moment, eight out of 10 pensioners choose to have their pension paid into their bank account—and among new retirees, that figure is nine out of 10. My hon. Friend is right to point to the trends in lifestyle that are driving many of the changes. However, we should give credit to the management of the Post Office for innovating and developing new products, such as broadband services, selling foreign currency and—of relevance at this time of year—the recent launch of the Christmas pre-payment scheme, which will offer a secure outlet for people who want to save for Christmas in that way.
Despite what the Minister says, the Post Office has made it clear to campaigners in Scotland that if a post office is saved from closure after a local campaign, another post office in the same area will simply be closed instead. Will that not pit community against community? Does it not demonstrate that the whole consultation process is a sham, and that the Post Office is simply engaged in an exercise to cut the network—an exercise that is being pursued in Scotland, despite reports that it has been put back in many areas of England because of the local elections in May?
The announcement on 17 May made it clear that the size of the network would have to reduce. There is no secrecy about it. The local consultations are about how that is to be done. It is true that the network must reduce in size, and that is accepted by the Federation of SubPostmasters, and by most witnesses to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry when it examined the issue.