Sub-post Offices

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 12th April 2000.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 6:32 pm, 12th April 2000

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I must press on.

Let us concentrate on the one crucial issue to which we need answers from the Minister this evening—the income that individual sub-post offices will either continue to enjoy or be denied. This is all about income. If the Minister gives us decent answers on that issue alone, we will be satisfied with his response. It is the crux of the matter. Under the policy that the Minister is gradually implementing, the vast post office network—roughly 19,000 or more post offices—may suffer a loss of income of between 40 and 60 per cent. In practical terms, the Government are replacing a guaranteed Government-sourced income, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk said, with an uncertain, commercially negotiated income. Not only will that income be uncertain but it will be one of which the Government intend to wash their hands.

As the Minister's letter to every hon. Member said: The amount that subpostmasters will receive will depend on the contracts that the Post Office Groups strike with banks and on negotiations between the group and the NFSP. These are commercial matters and it would not be appropriate for the Government to become involved.

However, it would be appropriate for the Government to tell the House and—more important—all those who have risked their money and dedicated their lives to the preservation of a widespread Post Office network what that income will be. Where will it come from? How will those people be able to continue in business? In the present climate, they do not need a crystal ball to work out that they face a certain reduction in their income, with no certain plans for its replacement.

The Secretary of State refused point blank to answer questions on that detail. It is shameful that, whenever the right hon. Gentleman is asked a question, he obfuscates and diverts the argument to something that is wholly irrelevant—privatisation or the fact that people can withdraw cash, in full, without deduction. That is good—as far as it goes. However, if, when a person withdraws 100 per cent. of their entitlement, the agent or intermediary who is providing the service that delivers that money receives the square root of diddly-squat in return, there will not be a Post Office network through which to deliver 100 per cent. of benefits. The Minister smiles. He always enjoys my use of language—we had "scragging" in Committee; now we have "diddly-squat".

If the Post Office network does not have an income that is sufficient to maintain its commercial viability, there will be no network. The only issue that matters is what the income for the Post Office network will be following the implementation of the Government's policy. The Minister does not need to divert the argument; he does not need to talk about anything else.

Let me summarise the matter for the Minister's benefit, so that he will be under no illusions. We know that the Secretary of State has not had a good month. With his failure to answer our questions on this issue, things are getting even worse for him. I have a few specific questions for the Minister. What will be the income of the sub-post offices—be they in urban areas or in rural areas, such as those that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends represent? How will that future income compare with that which they currently enjoy? Much of their present income is derived from a Government source, of which the Minister has control. It does not derive from a commercially negotiated arrangement over which they have less control and which is bound to produce a lower amount. What will be the components of their future income? In the new Labour world, how will the Post Office network income be made up?

To follow up my question to the Secretary of State—who replied, in effect, "Don't worry, they will all have a reasonable income"—what is a reasonable income? How much lower will a sub-post office's income have to be before the Secretary of State, in all his wisdom, would consider it unreasonable? What income does the Minister think is required to sustain a Post Office network of roughly the same size as the present one? How will the new arrangements be sufficient to replace the income that he is taking away from the network?

Given the activities carried out by post offices, and the services they deliver, does the Minister agree that income is much better than subsidy? I suspect that, in order to atone for much of what the Government know will happen, they will try to slew the arrangements away from income towards subsidy—I think that will come into next Tuesday's Report stage of the Postal Services Bill. They know full well that, if that is done, subsidy will wither on the vine in due course—away the network will go. If there is no income, there will be no post office: no income—no network. We need to know what the income of sub-post offices will be in new Labour's future world, when their policy is implemented. We want detail on that point.

Tomorrow is the Secretary of State's birthday. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said that 18,000 birthday wishes are winging their way towards him—even as I stand here. I hope that he will give proper answers to all those 18,000 hard-working people. In the meantime, it would indeed be appropriate if the Secretary of State got his cards.