I wonder whether the Minister is aware that in Aberdeen 14 post offices have been earmarked for closure—a quarter of the total number in the city. Some serious questions need to be asked about the accuracy of the information that has been presented to justify those closures. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to encourage Post Office Ltd. to reconsider when it is presented with evidence that shows that in some cases those branches are viable and someone is willing to take over their running?
I know that my hon. Friend has welcomed Government support for both rural and urban post offices. Obviously there is a particular issue in Aberdeen, of which I am aware. I congratulate my hon. Friend and other Aberdeen Members who have alerted Post Office Ltd. to some of the difficulties that may be experienced in their communities. That is one of the reasons why the consultation period is so important: it allows communities, along with Postcomm and Postwatch, to examine ways of allowing the spread of post offices to continue after the end of the reinvention programme.
Is the Minister aware that as a result of automated credit transfer, 47 per cent. of Scots no longer claim benefit through the post office? Last year 89 post offices closed, 305 per cent. more than during the previous year. It has been estimated that when the rural fund runs out in 2006, as many as 1,000 post offices will be at risk. Given that Government policy caused this calamity, what will the Government do to prevent that from happening?
I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman should seek to impose on individuals the way in which they collect their benefit. What we have offered people is a choice, and in fact 42 per cent. of new benefit claimants are asking for their benefit to be paid through the new card system of direct payment. Moreover, there has been a massive investment in rural as well as urban post offices. We must ensure that following the investment programme, post offices offer people the services that they want. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that closing his eyes to the difficulty will not solve the problem.
I accept that there should be a choice, but will my hon. Friend acknowledge that automated credit transfer is a major factor in the post office closures? That means that a disproportionate number of urban closures are likely in areas of social deprivation, where a large proportion of people receive benefit. Will my hon. Friend have a word with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and suggest that rather more money should be spent on modernising and refurbishing the remaining post offices and rather less should be spent on the lump-sum payments that are encouraging some postmasters to give up?
I understand some of my right hon. Friend's comments. The Scottish Executive have also worked with the Post Office to ensure that money is invested in post offices in disadvantaged areas, as part of the social inclusion policy. With respect to my right hon. Friend, however, let me say that we must also deal with the reality, which is that many people are choosing to have their benefits paid through a direct system. At the end of April this year, nearly 3 million people had made that choice.
We are having to deal with the reality. We need to ensure that both urban and rural post offices are brighter and better, and deliver the services that people in communities want.
Constituents of mine who have written to the Post Office about closures have received a letter saying, among other waffle,
"We are reviewing our network as a whole, so that we can move away from ad hoc closures which result in large gaps within our network and in turn implement an organised restructuring programme."
Can the Minister tell us what strategic organisation there is in a system that appears to consist of the Post Office going to postmasters and saying "We have a tub of public money with which to close post offices. Which of you wants to go?"?
What the Post Office is doing, with the support of Government investment and backing from the Scottish Executive, is maintaining a network of post offices throughout our urban and rural communities. I am very disappointed that Members are not willing to face the reality. We saw wholesale post office closures across the network under the last Government; what we have sought to do—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
What we seek to do with that investment is ensure that we have good post offices in communities, and that they are well developed. Hon. Members should start looking at what is developing, rather than demonstrating short-termism that smacks of political opportunism.