While the Government set the strategic direction for the Post Office, they allow the company the commercial freedom to deliver this strategy as an independent business. The 74 Crown branches are being franchised to WHSmith, either on-site or through relocation to a WHSmith store. There will be no reduction in the number of branches from the franchising with WHSmith.
I am a proud member of the Communication Workers Union and a former postal worker. The Minister has said in written answers to Members that the privatisation of the Post Office is a commercial decision for the Post Office and that the Government only set the strategic direction. Nevertheless, the Post Office has decided to privatise these Crown branches and is using tens of millions of pounds of public money to bankroll it. This is a disgraceful situation. When will the Government start exercising some basic financial oversight?
I am sorry, but I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We have no closure programmes. I should add that under Labour’s management of the Post Office its network shrank by 37%, which resulted in 7,000 closures, and that in the first five years of Labour Government the Post Office went from being in profit to having losses of more than £1 billion.
Let us have another look at this, shall we? Seventy-four of the public’s post offices are being privatised without the permission of the public. WHSmith is already advertising minimum wage part-time roles to take over post office counters, while consultations on those jobs have yet to be completed. Can the Minister imagine what it must feel like for your job to be under consultation and to face possible redundancy, with the job already advertised for someone else? Will she intervene and call this practice out, as a matter of principle?
Let me first highlight the fact that there are no Crown post offices in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Franchising is one of the measures to support and maintain the long-term sustainability of our network of 11,500 post offices throughout the country. As I said, the network was reduced under the last Labour Government, but we are committed to the Post Office and to keeping those branches open.
Restrictive practices are preventing my constituent Mr Avi Bungar from providing various post office services because he runs a sub-post office. Why are the Government giving big business WHSmith a sweetheart deal and preferential Crown post office terms, and preventing sub-postmasters from having the same?
I respect the fact that the hon. Gentleman has experienced issues in his constituency in relation to a particular post office, but to set a long-term sustainability programme for the Post Office against potential postmasters is quite frankly wrong. This is part of a sustainable programme that will enable us—this Government—to keep 11,500 post offices open, to increase, via the Post Office, the pay to which post office workers are entitled, and to give them longer hours and better locations.