Sub-post Offices

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 3:42 pm on 12th April 2000.

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Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 3:42 pm, 12th April 2000

The hon. Gentleman is right. It was also noted this afternoon that the Prime Minister made a point of saying that he made no apology. Those on the Treasury Bench are well known for making no apology when they close businesses, put people out of work and create chaos and confusion among some of the most vulnerable people in society. That is the hallmark of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

Let us consider alternatives to chaos—[Interruption.] I wrote the speech myself. Unlike the ones that come from Millbank tower, these are all home-made.

There are steps that the Government could take, and they should act quickly if they are to save the post offices. The big question is whether they want to save them. If they drag the process out long enough, the more difficult cases—those that open part time and those that are less viable—will be off the scene altogether by the time the Government produce proper suggestions to help the rest. Given the Government's track record, that seems to be the policy that they are following.

We read in the papers this week a suggestion from the Minister for Competitiveness that sub-postmasters are to become local consuls. We would welcome that, if it is recognition of the other services that postmasters provide in their local communities—the many things that they do, unpaid and unsung heroes and heroines in their communities.

However, apart from proposing that postmasters should be given a smart badge, which presumably was meant to flatter, the hon. Gentleman did not spell out whether there is to be any remuneration for them. If he has a practical business plan to put on the table that would help post offices by allowing them to provide services for which they would be remunerated, perhaps that suggestion would have some credence. This, however, is merely papering over the cracks to disguise the big problem that the Government have brought about.

As we all know, local people rely on sub-postmasters. If someone does not collect their pension one week, the sub-postmaster will notice. The sub-post office is often the calling-off point for the local doctor, who may leave a prescription there at no charge. The value that sub-post offices provide for communities is almost unquantifiable. That is why the last Conservative Government believed it was worth remunerating sub-post offices. We recognised the value of their contribution in the heart of vulnerable communities—unlike the Minister of State, Department of Social Security, who has accused sub-postmasters of telling porkies.

That does not sound to me like the view of a Government who are sitting down and talking to sub-postmasters about their problems. It is certainly not the opinion of the 3 million people who signed the Western Daily Press petition. Whatever the Prime Minister and other Labour Members say, there is now such a groundswell of opinion—clearly demonstrated by the size of the petition presented to Downing street—that the Government must either rethink, or come up with alternative suggestions pretty smartly.