Sub-post Offices

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 12th April 2000.

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Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Trade and Industry) 6:45 pm, 12th April 2000

No; I am not giving way any more.

We are not saying that ATMs are the answer to the problem that has been suggested by Conservative Members. However, we are saying that, in a network of 18,500 post offices, the fact that 3,000 ATMs are now being installed where there were fewer than 200, will be a great help to the rural economy. We are not suggesting that we move to ACT, then look to modernise the network and then look to attract new work. We say that the first step, by 2001, is to computerise the network, the second step is to attract new work and the third step is to move to ACT.

We have had a very important opportunity today to debate the real issues that face the future of sub-postmasters throughout the country. An argument was made about the income of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. One of the aspects of the Post Office's being a publicly owned service is that, every year, there is a negotiation between the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and the Post Office to determine the unit payment per transaction. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton left out the part of my letter in which I pointed out that, currently, the figure negotiated with the banks was 17p. There is no reason whatever why that should change under the arrangements that we are proposing.

Furthermore, about 10,000 post offices do not depend on the transactions at all; they receive a minimum floor payment as part of a publicly owned Post Office's commitment to keeping post offices in rural areas. That does not depend on income.

The future lies in the Horizon project, and in the performance and innovation unit study. We have been criticised because the PIU has taken four months to produce a report; the previous Government were reviewing the Post Office between 1992 and 1997 and still did not come up with a response, and it cost £1.6 million of taxpayers' money.

The PIU report meets some of the points made by Members on both sides of the House, in that it will look across Government at ways in which we can utilise an under-utilised network, promote an under-promoted network and find new ways to attract people to come into the Post Office that do not depend on the constant battle against ACT, to which people are moving in increasing numbers, year by year. We can bring back network banking to rural areas. We can provide a modern Government service through local post offices. The very fact that the move to ACT is taking place in 2003–05 has galvanised the Post Office, the Government and everyone else into action, to see how we can bring new work into the Post Office. At the end of that, we guarantee that any benefit recipient or pensioner who wants to receive the payments in cash, in full across a post office counter and weekly—as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reminded us this afternoon—will continue to be able to do so. That is the future for the Post Office network.