I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate as a supporter of a publicly owned post office network and a campaigner against the tide of financial exclusion that has engulfed many communities because of post office and bank closures. I also welcome it as a former deputy leader of Reading borough council, one of the few that installed a sub-post office in its civic offices and that was expanding postal services in its area.
Labour Members will not be impressed by the crocodile tears of some Conservative Members. Their party presided over an unprecedented decline in the post office network. Over the past 25 years, one fifth of the network closed down. We all remember, to our horror, that we had a Conservative Government for 18 of those years, and it was that Government, in 1983, who introduced ACT.
I am partly reassured by statements from Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, that cash payments will be available after 2003. I welcome the announcement that a new clause will be inserted in the Postal Services Bill on Report to provide subsidy, and I welcome the £1 billion capital modernisation of the post office network. Even a luddite like me can see the value of equipping post offices with modern online information technology.
It would be nonsensical for the Post Office to continue to rely on purely paper transactions. However, it would also be nonsense to suggest that the future of the post office network should be predicated on huge benefit payments resulting from the kind of mass unemployment that happened under the Thatcher Government.
There is an urgent need to find new business to strengthen the Post Office and guarantee its future. Having been broadly supportive so far of the Government's approach, I want to sound a couple of warning notes. We have, to be honest, come to this matter rather late. Cash machines have their place, but I first came to the fight on bank closures in local communities because Lloyds TSB was installing cash machines instead of cashiers in banks in my constituency. What use are cash machines to someone who is blind or disabled? What use are they to a jobbing builder who needs more than £200 a day? Machines are welcome, but they have their limitations.
We need more than talk from Ministers, and from politicians of all hues, if we are to provide the vital new business of banking services in the post office network. Bank closures, which are engulfing many communities, present an opportunity to open up the post office network. Last Friday, Barclays shut 172 branches, leaving 84 communities without a bank, and that is the tip of the iceberg. We have seen 4,000 bank branch closures over the past 10 years. Deloitte and Touche Consulting Group anticipates a similar number of closures over the next few years—1,000 more communities will be bankless. Barclays's last-minute, face-saving deals with the Post Office are fooling no one.
We need measures to support small, district shopping centres in general because post offices face the same pressures as they do. A review of services currently available only at Crown post offices, but which could be available at sub-post offices, is also necessary, as is proper regulation of the banking industry. Access to redundant bank premises—or the capital receipts, where appropriate—would help post office modernisation and extension. A co-ordinated approach is needed by the UK banking sector, Post Office Counters and the Government to ensure that basic banking services are available the length and breadth of the land.
The Post Office is the best loved of all our public services. It belongs in the public sector. It is the fulcrum of community life. All we ask is that it should thrive and prosper in the 21st century. All that my constituents want is access to their own money. It is not too much to ask.