I begin by thanking Keith Nicholls, who runs the post office in Stalham, and John and Christine Page, who run the office in Cromer, for coming to lobby me today. They appreciate the seriousness of the Government's proposals, even if the Government do not. They recognise that to lose 30 per cent. of their income, and possibly more, will damage the capital value of their businesses, put new entrants off going into the business, and lead to widespread closures of sub-post offices.
Many other people have written to me over the past two months. Many do not have bank accounts. Even when they have them, many want to take cash out every week and spend it in their local villages. In addition, many of them have a real understanding of and sympathy for those who live in the countryside.
A Miss Rowe from Gimingham in my constituency wrote to me to say that, over the past 35 years, her local village school has been closed, and the local shop. The local policeman no longer lives in the village, the resident priest has gone and the forge has closed. All that is left in that village—and in many others in Norfolk and elsewhere—is the post office. The post office is a vital hub of local services, especially in rural areas.
I want to draw three key facts to the Minister's attention. First, 2 million adults in this country, most of them pensioners, do not have bank accounts. If they live in the country, the frail, the elderly and those without access to transport often cannot get to a bank. Many of those pensioners are worried that they will not be able to get their weekly cash because their local post office will no longer be there. What choice do they have?
Secondly, 19 million people receive weekly cash benefits from local post offices. If they are forced to go elsewhere, much of the business that they currently
conduct in their village, or locally, will go with them. As Mrs. Browning from the small village of Langham in my constituency put it:
The weekly pension I collect gives the cash to pay the milkman, the coalman, and buy my paper and bread. If the Government's proposed changes are implemented, I will have to travel 12 miles to the nearest bank, which means I will spend less money in my local shop.
The knock-on effects on the local economy of closing a sub-post office are very significant.
In the country above all, poor transport means that local post offices are crucial for local people. Online banking and travelling long distances are not options for many, especially for old people.
My third fact goes to the heart of the debate. Most sub-post offices receive at least 30 per cent. of their income from benefit and pension payments. The footfall effect in offices that are in shops or which provide other services may increase that to more than 50 per cent.
How will that income be replaced? Nothing that we have heard today gives me confidence that the Government have thought through the implications of having to replace as much as 50 per cent. of the income of a sub-post office. We have been offered only the Secretary of State's vision for the future. There have been no concrete proposals, and those who run sub-post offices cannot exist on his vision. They need to know where the income is to come from, and how much it will be.
Many sub-post offices operate on the bread line, and are run more for love than money. People run such offices because they want to contribute in a practical way to their local community.
Two sub-post offices in my constituency have closed in the past year, at Tunstead and Saxthorpe. There is a growing suspicion that the Government are closing sub-post offices by stealth. The magazine Saga stated:
There is a time bomb currently ticking away in Britain's villages and towns.
I am not sure that the Government fully understand that post offices are hugely important local community centres, where people can meet and chat. They are a vital part of local communities. It is no good giving people the right to choose automated bank transfers or weekly cash if there is no post office left from which to receive their weekly cash payments.
The uncertainty about the future caused by the Government's proposals for automated credit transfer is undermining the confidence of sub-post offices, destroying their capital values, putting off new entrants and accelerating their closure. That will have significant knock-on effects on local communities.
This project should be put on hold until the future viability of sub-post offices can be assured.