I wish to express considerable concern that the Secretary of State's speech did not reflect the real fear of tens of thousands of sub-postmasters and mistresses about their future and that of their business. I must tell the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) that the biggest ever red herring is the idea that the Conservatives want to privatise the post office structure. Does he not realise that sub-post offices are already privatised because they are private businesses? I have never been in favour of the privatisation of the Royal Mail. Indeed, at this moment, that is not part of the Conservative programme. We must ignore that red herring.
There is a lack of understanding on the part of Ministers of the role that sub-post offices play in the community, whether in Liverpool or in my villages, such as Dolwood and Southleigh, way out in the country. Part of the role of sub-post offices in the community is the payment of benefit.
I circulated a questionnaire to the 36 sub-post offices in my constituency. I want to tell the House about the feelings of those postmasters and postmistresses. They want a guarantee that they will be able to sustain their businesses in the future. That is not an unreasonable request from any business, whichever party one supports.
Some realistic suggestions have been made, which have not received sufficient emphasis in the debate. Local authorities have the right to give rate relief to sub-post offices. In many areas, that is not done completely. In my area, East Devon district council gives rate relief of 50 per cent. It would be much better for sub-post offices if they were given 100 per cent., as that would assist them generally.
Sub-post offices need to be able to generate greater income, and there are ways in which that could be done. The Government should arrange for sub-post offices to issue vehicle tax licences. There is a demand for that service, especially in the countryside, where people are some way away from a major post office where they can obtain a tax disc. Passport forms should also be available from sub-post offices. Why not? These small matters are not being considered in the debate, but they are realistic and would help the remuneration of sub-postmasters.
There was talk of subsidy. How much? How is it to be dealt with? Has it been agreed with the Treasury? I hope that the Minister who replies to the debate will clarify the matter.
Few people know about the banking services that are already offered through post offices by Lloyds TSB, the Co-op and Alliance & Leicester. That is not advertised nationally on television, and only customers of post offices and sub-post offices would know about it. More publicity should be given to the availability of banking services.
The suggestion that cash machines should be installed in post offices overlooks the fact that the people most likely to use them are the elderly. I wonder how many elderly people who do not have a bank account or a piece of plastic understand the operation of a cash machine and would know the PIN number needed to operate it. Such matters must be considered when we speak about elderly people, particularly those whom I see in my constituency, whether in the better areas of Budleigh Salterton or out in Dolwood, Southleigh and such places.
What about the possibility of taking out of a bank machine cash other than in notes? Many pensions are not rounded to a sum that would be payable in notes alone. I do not know of bank machines that will deliver £56.50. What will happen when an account is overdrawn? Does it become overdrawn? How is anyone to know? None of that has been considered fully.
I do not think that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) would be at all happy if his constituents could not obtain their cash on a weekly basis. They need the money in order to run their homes, and they will not be willing to receive it on a four-weekly basis. That has not really been considered either.
The Government seem to gloss over the idea that all this will come about when ACT is operating in 2003 and 2005. I can tell Ministers that I shall not be in the House of Commons then, but I can also tell them that many small post offices will be out of business by that time. There is no point in preparing a system for a group of businesses that will not be able to sustain their operations.
Fear of what is to happen has driven down the value of sub-post offices. It is now six times more difficult for sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to sell their businesses than it was four or five years ago. Until now many people, on retirement, have bought sub-post offices, run them for some years using their savings as income, and supported themselves for the rest of their lives with the income from the sale when they have handed them on. Over the past few years, a host of post offices in my constituency have had to close because no one could be found to take them on.
I appeal to the Government to start being more practical, and to come to grips—as any business man should—with the problem of how to extend the incomes of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. It is possible, with a little lateral thinking. If the Government could do that, I believe that thousands of people who are outside Parliament today would be very much happier.