Sub-post Offices

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 5:39 pm on 12th April 2000.

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Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Conservative, South Norfolk 5:39 pm, 12th April 2000

There are two ways of approaching the matter. Unfortunately, because I have not been party to any of the internal discussions and negotiations, I do not know what went on. However, my hon. Friend is right—one approach would be to go back and look at the matter again. I suspect that the DSS and the DTI came up against a problem with the project itself. The Treasury realised that there was an opportunity to grab the whole £400 million. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden resisted that because he recognised the impact on sub-post offices. If I were in the position that my right hon. Friend was then in, I would still be driving exactly along that line. The other approach is to look to replace the sums of money that would be lost, which my right hon. Friend would have protected.

This afternoon, I took down some of the Secretary of State's words with care. He said—this is in the context of an amendment on Report next week—that financial assistance may well be offered. To take the powers to offer financial assistance but not indicate the scale of it or the way in which it will be delivered will not help any of the sub-post offices. By the end of next week, we shall be in the same position.

The Minister must find a way of firming up that announcement so that it will bring comfort to sub-postmasters, who are thinking of getting out of the business. After all, the Government are proposing that quite substantial sums of public money should go to rural areas for rural diversification over the next few years. It does not make much sense to introduce subsidy schemes to encourage new small businesses when existing small businesses are being driven out through lack of financial or other support.

We know that the Government, in the case of Rover and BMW, are proposing that substantial sums should be made available to help the west midlands deal with the loss of jobs. The loss of jobs as a result of losing rural sub-post offices will be substantial as well.

The Minister needs to firm up the Government's position. He said in Westminster Hall this morning that the previous Government backed down in the early 1980s and 1990s on ACT proposals. I well recall those moments because I was then in government. There is sometimes a tension between the technological advances that we all want to see and the preservation of essential community services in rural areas. There is a balance to be struck. In the early 1980s and 1990s, we struck the balance in finding a way to protect essential local services in rural areas. At present, the Government have not done that, and I urge them to do so.