My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The network is made up of businesses that provide a range of services and they often combine the post office with the village shop. Like everyone else, sub-postmasters have to make business decisions and plan for the future. In the uncertain world that the Government have created, many choose to get out altogether rather than sell their businesses on. That is an indictment not only of the Government's arbitrary decisions a year ago, but of the way in which they have subsequently handled matters.
I want to place Conservative achievements on record. When we were faced with a choice between more savings for the Treasury and ensuring the survival of the post office network, the previous Conservative Government, by contrast with Labour, opted for the more expensive benefit card project to ensure the survival of the sub-post office network for rural and urban communities.
As the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters said in its submission to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry:
the decision of the previous Government to automate the delivery of benefits payments using the benefits payment card was based on the need to reduce costs, eliminate fraud and ensure beneficiaries would be able to continue to receive their payment in cash from the post office, thus ensuring they retained a choice as to the method of payment which best suited their individual circumstance …
The submission continued:
this was recognised to be the only way to ensure the future survival and prosperity of the post office network.
Earlier today, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) introduced a debate on sub-post offices in Westminster Hall. It is not the first time that he has spoken on this subject in the past year. The fact that he puts on record the background to the way in which the Conservative party introduced the switch from the book to the payment card, and the proposals that this Government inherited, clearly identifies the previous Government's priorities.
My right hon. Friend speaks with the authority of someone who has been Secretary of State in the two key Departments—the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Social Security. He said:
When I moved to the Department of Social Security, my interest deepened further, as I saw how essential the network was to the effective delivery of benefits to many of the most vulnerable people in our communities. I helped to ensure that that delivery mechanism and the network would continue by agreeing to the horizon project, about which the Government are now trying to rewrite history … —[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 12 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 52WH.]