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Post Office Network

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:24 pm on 14th December 2006.

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Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 12:24 pm, 14th December 2006

If the hon. Gentleman has been reading about these matters for the past week, he seems singularly unprepared for today. I am bound to say that I am confused. He seems to be saying at one and the same time that no post offices should close and that 7,000 should close, which is what he says the Royal Mail wanted. He must be aware that post offices have been closing for years. During the time that his party was in office, 3,500 post offices closed in a completely haphazard way with no help being given to enable them to restructure.

Let me deal with one fundamental point. It is a matter of fact that, for various reasons, people's shopping habits and banking habits have changed—for example, they are using the internet more—and that is affecting every single business in the land. It is completely irresponsible simply to ignore that and hope that it will go away. People had the option of paying their benefits or pensions into a bank account during the Tory Government years as much as they have had that option during the years that we have been in power. As more and more people get bank accounts, they are asking that their money be paid into them. It is our job to respond to that and to support the Post Office.

Let me make another point to the Tories. I said today that we are ready to put £1.7 billion into the Post Office. If the hon. Gentleman's position is that there should be no closures, he has to tell us where he would find the additional money to go into the network, especially given that his party is committed to £20 billion-worth of tax cuts, as well as unfunded, uncosted spending commitments across the board.

The hon. Gentleman raised several specific matters, which I shall tackle. I agree that we, along with the Post Office, must do our best to get more business into the Post Office. That is why the new chief executive is doing more to get additional financial services business into the Post Office. I have already mentioned foreign exchange, which is extremely important business. I agree—and said in my statement—that we should encourage local councils to do more business through post offices if they can. Our commitment today to continue with the Post Office card account will go a long way towards encouraging people to use post offices.

The hon. Gentleman asked about consultation. There will be a consultation for three months on the principles that I set out. After that, assuming that we decide to proceed, the Post Office will determine the post offices that need to be in the network. It must be for the management of the Post Office to decide about the appropriate network.

The hon. Gentleman asked about those who volunteer to go. We believe that many postmasters and mistresses want to go. The consultation document makes it clear that the Post Office will try to match those who want to leave the service with its rationalisation of the network.

Let me emphasise to hon. Members that the Post Office has a problem and it is up to the Government of the day to try to help manage it. We are willing to do that and we have the means to do it. That is the difference between us and the Opposition.