Post Office Network

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 28th June 2000.

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Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 3:30 pm, 28th June 2000

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State is making a statement on the sub-post office network. It would have been so much better if he had found some solutions to the problem that he caused when he scrapped a scheme last year simply by circulating a letter on a "Dear colleague" basis. We know that his announcement means that £400 million of income will be removed from the sub-post office network from the year 2003.

As a result of the uncertainty that the Government have created among sub-post offices, over the past year there has been an escalation in sub-post office closures to about 500. That uncertainty has been demonstrated by the sub-postmasters themselves, who attended a rally on 12 April and presented one of the biggest petitions ever to a Government, when 3 million signatures were handed in at No. 10 Downing street.

We have devoted two Opposition days to debating this matter. The Secretary of State's statement is light on detail and particularly light on fact and financial detail. I hope that, when he comes to answer specific questions, he will not duck the issue but will say how much money is on the table as part of the package that he has announced. Can he guarantee that what he has read out will make up the £400 million shortfall that the Post Office will suffer from 2003?

On the universal bank, will the Secretary of State please explain—I have asked this before, and we really need to hear the detail now—where the charges will fall? Supposedly, 3.5 million new account holders will be members of the new bank. Do the charges fall on the customer, on the Post Office, on the bank or on the taxpayer? Who will bear the transaction costs of money from existing bank account holders who may still want to draw their money from their post office? He and the Government have given guarantees in the past that those people will not have to bear the transaction costs. Who will bear them?

The Secretary of State paid much attention to the rural post office network. Some of the most fragile post offices are in rural areas. What minimum number of sub-post offices will he guarantee to keep open in the network?

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned information technology. Conservative Members welcome the opportunities that IT offers the sub-post office network, because it was our policy to put computers into sub-post offices in the first place. Given the increase in e-commerce and, we hope. the rapid escalation of home deliveries—but to a population in which so many people are now out during the day—is it his intention to allow the sub-post office network to handle parcels from private sector parcels companies other than Parcelforce, as that would certainly increase the sub-post office income?

What additional government services has the Secretary of State already discussed in relation to this one-stop shop that he talks about? The Government are pledged to deliver electronic government by 2005–50 per cent. is supposed to be ready by 2003—so Departments must be well advanced in knowing what services they will deliver electronically. Rather than just giving generalities, will he tell us exactly what Government services the sub-post office network will be allowed to tender for, so that people can plan for their financial future and know where their income is coming from?

We have heard a lot from the Secretary of State about subsidies. Exactly what does he mean by the Government using subsidies? The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, with which he says he has been in contact, has said in terms that it is looking not for subsidy but for genuine alternative forms of income. If he intends to subsidise individual post offices, what analysis has he made of the distortion that such a subsidy would create for either the next nearest sub-post office or, for that matter, for the village shop, which may not be a sub-post office but may sell products in competition with it? Is he not at all concerned about the small business aspect of creating artificial competitive distortions in the market?

I know that sums are not the Secretary of State's strong point, but he will have to address the figures eventually. The Post Office had to bear a £571 million write-down as a result of his policy change in this financial year's annual report. Will the sums that he is talking about, albeit in general terms, be another write-down in next year's accounts for the Post Office itself, or is this some new money that he has got from the Chancellor, which the taxpayer will have to provide through the Treasury?