Sub-post Offices

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:10 pm on 12th April 2000.

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Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Labour, Kilmarnock and Loudoun 6:10 pm, 12th April 2000

I cannot compete with the large number of sub-post offices that the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) has in his constituency. Nor can I compete with the years of experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) and the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), nor with the experience of the Post Office that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith) brought to this interesting debate. However, I can articulate some of the concerns of my constituents. I welcome the spirit of all-party good faith from the hon. Member for West Dorset. We must put aside recriminations and move forward together on an all-party basis to get the best for our network of sub-post offices. Many right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about sub-post offices in glowing terms this afternoon and we all support them, or else we would not be here.

Talking down the network is damaging it. I know that there are concerns about a crisis of confidence among sub-postmasters, and I accept that that means that people make business decisions in that climate. However, I see a crisis of confidence among the customers of sub-post offices. When I met my own delegation of sub-postmasters today—and I shall not resist the temptation of naming them at a suitable point in my speech—Mrs. Nan Haswell, who has been communicating with me about this issue for some months, told me that she can, in her small sub-post office in the village of Dunlop, collect council rents. One of her regular customers was issued with a new rent book this week. She said to Mrs. Haswell that as the sub-post office would not be there any more, she wrote to the council saying that she would pay her rent directly through the bank. That is the effect that the crisis, which is to some degree generated by deliberate campaigns to undermine the network for political purposes, is having in some areas on the network of post offices.

Millions of people are signing petitions to keep post offices open, and tens of thousands of them are at the same time signing bank forms to carry out transactions that could easily be done through the post office. They are using banks to receive benefits or pay for services. The irony of that is not lost on me, and I hope that it is not lost on Opposition Members.

My delegation consisted of Mrs. Haswell, Mr. Mohammed, who runs an urban post office in a housing scheme in Whatriggs road in the Bellfield area of Kilmarnock, and Mrs. Dunlop who is the sub-postmistress in the small village of Fenwick. Their message was that they do not want any favours, they just want a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. That seems a reasonable request from honest working people and I, as their Member of Parliament, feel duty-bound to help them achieve it.

The complications of this issue have already been mentioned and concern the nature of the businesses. I do not propose to repeat what other people have said, but I think that there is potentially an important and bright future for these businesses in providing community services. However, I believe that that future depends on a partnership between the businesses, the Post Office—which is sometimes all too separate from those businesses—the communities, local councils, community councils, parish councils, local enterprise companies, training and enterprise councils and other local businesses. We have to work together to generate that community spirit, and the view that the resources are important to the community life not only of small villages and rural areas but solid urban communities, which are sometimes small villages within urban settings. The post office provides an important hub for some of those communities.

That cannot happen unless we do several things, including breaking up the centralised approach of the Post Office to the way in which deals are done for post offices rather than by them. Post offices in my constituency are told by Cascade telephone calls that services that they previously provided can no longer be provided because the Post Office has concluded the contract. That happened in one case with Scottish Power. No one explains to sub-postmasters that this important aspect of their business and income stream will be lost—they are told by a Cascade telephone call. They were told in my constituency last week by such a call that they have lost the right to sell BT stamps because BT has moved on to plastic.

I make a plea for the Government to engage with the Post Office to devolve power to the post offices so that the network, which is not a homogeneous lump of rural post offices or two homogeneous lumps of rural and urban post offices but a number of individual businesses, can work with the local communities, councils and local enterprise companies to generate the local partnerships that are needed to provide services.

Another example of how centralisation has worked against the post offices in my constituency is Girobank' s recent insistence on a £1 charge for a transaction relating to the collection of council tax. The council has absorbed that cost for some time but can no longer and has had to tell people who pay their council tax that way that they will have to pay an extra £1 when they go to the post office. Sensibly, those people will not do it, because some of them are paying small sums such as £4 a week towards their council tax. Again, decisions are being made centrally that affect the income stream of individual businesses. There needs to be some flexibility.

My final point relates to the opportunity of post offices to take advantage of the current negotiations with the major banks to design and produce a bank account that can be operated at low or no cost, which will prevent people with small amounts of money from going into overdraft. It is important that the deal, which can, I understand, be done within weeks is properly funded by either the banks or the Government so that it can be put in place now. In that way, it can be ready for customers in time for the ACT changes. I understand from the managing director of retail services at the Post Office that that alone could generate £200 million of the £400 million income that the network receives from benefits payments.

In short, I do not believe that this valuable network of post offices should be made to depend on the payment of benefits or pensions in future. That is an unsustainable and unviable future. However, there are many opportunities out there. We must all co-operate to generate such opportunities, but we need considerable assistance from both the Government and the Post Office.