What recent discussions she has had with colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry about the continued viability of rural village post offices.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had very productive discussions with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the rural post office network last summer. Since then, I have been closely involved in discussions and decisions leading up to the DTI's announcement in December of a £450 million support package over three years for the rural network. That is a very significant and welcome announcement, and I will continue to work with that Department on this issue.
In the DEFRA public service agreement, which the Minister probably has on his bedside table, target 4 specifies that the Department must improve the accessibility of services to people in rural areas. How will the progress report on public service agreements, which is due to be published this spring, deal with the fact that 1,000 village post offices have closed since 2000?
The target is to improve accessibility to cash in rural areas. Post offices make an important contribution to achieving that target, and DTI officials have been fully involved in drawing up our plan for how we will achieve it, but that is not the only way of doing it. Increasingly, if we are to provide the service that people need in rural areas, we must recognise that sometimes people make choices that do not involve using local services. They might access services when they visit town or travel to work, reducing the call on local public and commercial services. We will therefore have to find new ways of making sure that we achieve such objectives. I assure my hon. Friend that the support to the post office network is an important part of making sure that we improve the accessibility of services for people in rural areas.
Will the Minister take an early opportunity to look at the forms and leaflets produced by the Post Office on how to apply to receive child benefit and pensions in cash rather than through a bank account? If he does so, he will discover that the Post Office seems to be directing people intentionally towards the bank account option, making it extraordinarily difficult for them to get benefits in cash. A particular point of concern is that the forms will only be produced on
I have discussed that issue with colleagues and the Post Office. What the Government are seeking to do is to make sure that choice is available to people, not to push them in one direction or another. People in rural areas should be able to exercise choice, as should people living in urban areas. The hon. Gentleman should not trivialise the very difficult issue of making sure that services are available to people in rural areas. I am sure that his comments about forms will be considered by those who design them. It is a question not just of forms, but of availability of services.
Obviously, we welcome the discussions that are taking place. Can further discussions take place to support rural post offices, and what role can my right hon. Friend's Department play in that? Will he also ensure that there is a continuation of next-day delivery, and that discussions take place with Postcomm as soon as possible to ensure that that happens?
I understand my hon. Friend's concern. Although I do not intend to stray into areas that are the responsibility of other Departments, we are keen to work with them to make sure that a high quality of service is provided to everyone. On the provision of post office services, several pilot projects up and down the country—I have referred to the Waters Upton initiative, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will open in a few weeks' time—are bringing together a number of commercial and non-commercial services. As a result, more services will be viable in rural areas than would be the case if they stood alone. That is the way that we need to approach the provision of services in rural areas. I share my hon. Friend's concern about ensuring that there is equity of service for people in those areas.