Sub-post Offices

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 5:28 pm on 12th April 2000.

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Photo of Geraldine Smith Geraldine Smith Labour, Morecambe and Lunesdale 5:28 pm, 12th April 2000

They certainly are not. Privatisation would have completely wrecked the sub-post office network. We have heard that sub-post offices are private businesses. They are, but they depend on the public side of Post Office Counters. I used to do stock requisitions for sub-postmasters, and used to send money to sub-post offices and do audits. I worked for a public organisation, the Post Office, not for a private company.

Sub-postmasters face problems that need to be resolved. Last Friday evening, I held a meeting with sub-postmasters in my constituency. The fact that more sub-postmasters were at that meeting than there are Members in the Chamber says something about the strength of feeling.

Sub-postmasters are concerned because there is a period of uncertainty. I understand that. No one likes change; it is difficult, particularly if people do not know what the future holds. I accept that some sub-postmasters may be having trouble selling their businesses because the future is uncertain. At the earliest opportunity we need to give as much information as possible to those people, so that they can carry on with their businesses.

ACT is already happening. To do nothing about it would leave sub-post offices to wither on the vine. They are already losing business. We know the arguments. All hon. Members know that, every year, sub-post offices lose business and close. We have to do something about it, and we have to offer them new business.

There is no point in Conservative Members going on about the payment of benefits, because we have to find other types of business, such as banking, for sub-post offices. Sub-postmasters and postmistresses do not want subsidies or hand-outs. They want new business, and I believe that we can help them to find it. Barclays and other banks are closing many branches, creating a real role for sub-post offices to play, especially now that they are being computerised and have the technology necessary to link up with other systems.

I visited a post office in my constituency and saw its new computer system, which is very good. Although of course they are having some teething problems, the system—it is a simple one—is generally working well. However, it needs to be connected with other systems, so that the sub-postmaster can offer banking facilities.

At my meeting on Friday, most of the sub-postmasters said that they would like to have a people's bank, which would not only be a community facility, but would offer a whole new opportunity. We need to help provide that opportunity. Sub-postmasters and postmistresses should be able to offer a cash-back facility to those who pay with a Switch card. We should examine the possibility of placing more lottery terminals in sub-post offices. We also need to provide more information to sub-postmasters on precisely how automated credit transfer will work. Until we can answer those questions, and until sub-postmasters have that information, there will be fear and uncertainty.