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Post Office Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:40 pm on 15th May 2002.

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Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne 4:40 pm, 15th May 2002

I want to make a little more progress, then I shall be happy to give way again.

The Government seem to be involved in managing the decline of the network, and this process is being supervised by Postwatch, the consumer watchdog. I would like the Minister to deal with an issue raised, I think, by the hon. Member for Twickenham. Does he think that Postwatch is being properly resourced to carry out that task?

We have 10 months in which to complete the transition to automated credit transfer. Most people in the industry are very dubious as to whether that will be possible, from a technical point of view, within that time scale. The reality is that an awful lot of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have to be trained, and their customers have to be put in a position to be able to use the new equipment. At the same time, however, despite the Minister's repeating the promise that there is to be no cap on the number of people holding post office accounts, we have now discovered that the Government have a working figure of 3 million, by contrast with the 16 million potential customers, on existing figures.

We also know that the Government are now pursuing a policy of actively managing choice. That is a wonderful civil service phrase, but to me it sounds a bit like persuading people—possibly elderly or vulnerable—that they need one sort of account rather than another. If the Government are successful in their policy of actively managed choice, that means that, on any view, the footfall for the average post office will not return to anything like the levels of the recent past.

I think there are serious concerns here, and so does the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. The Minister enjoyed quoting some things said by Mr. Colin Baker of that organisation, but in its briefing for the debate the organisation also says this:

"We shall campaign vigorously against proposals to influence people's choice or make pensioners and child beneficiaries justify why they want a post office card account".

It goes on to say:

"We share the concern of many parliamentarians that the Universal Bank may not be in place by April 2003, in time for the introduction of ACT".

Those are very worrying statements.

The NFSP also says:

"Twenty-eight million customers currently make 45 million visits to post offices every week."

The briefing concludes:

"The UK's 18,000 SubPostmasters remain extremely worried about their future and their continuing ability to provide their services to 18 million customers."

I can only assume that the Minister was quoting a different Colin Baker.