I have made it clear in previous contributions in the Chamber on this matter that, as a matter of urgency, the Government must come up with the details of how the system will work after 2003. They have a responsibility to ensure that post office network representatives can work out business strategies for sub-postmasters and mistresses over the next few years.
Recently, I addressed the annual meeting of the Preston branch of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. About 60 or 70 people attended a lively meeting, at which it was clear that federation members were not averse to change. Change is part of small business, and many post offices have had to change over the past 20 or 30 years and develop new lines. However, problems arise out of uncertainty.
That uncertainty cannot go on indefinitely. If the nuts and bolts of the proposals cannot be put in place quickly, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consult his colleagues in the Department of Social Security and to re-examine the time scale of the transfer. I have always made it clear that I support the transfer principle, but I want to ensure that my constituents in Lancashire villages have a viable post office network through which they can get their benefits and so on.
If it takes a bit longer than 2003–05 to achieve that, then so be it—that would be a small price to pay to ensure that the network is retained. In the months ahead, we must focus not on keeping things as they are but on ensuring that a robust new model for the sub-post office network is introduced. That model must be capable of being sustained, not for three or four years but for 30 or 40.