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Post Office Network — [James Gray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities) 9:30 am, 10th March 2020

I totally agree. Across the House, in all the debates that we have had, there has been consensus and unanimity about what needs to be done. Time and again, folk have urged the Government to take action; many Members present have attended many such debates, and I welcome some new Members too. The Government have sat on their hands and done very little to improve post office network viability.

The National Federation of SubPostmasters said in November:

“It is imperative that we anticipate and adapt to future changes in the marketplace to ensure that subpostmasters are equipped and incentivised to grow their footfall and income. That is the only way we will be able to guarantee the long-term success of the overall business. This year we have looked to stabilise, next year and beyond we can look to sustain and grow.”

Sub-postmasters cannot do that on their own. They need support from Post Office Ltd and the Government, who are the single shareholder in that business.

There are major questions about the handling and oversight of the Post Office by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, under its various guises, over decades. The Department has failed post offices, and change is needed. For example, in 2016-17 the former chief executive officer, Paula Vennells, received a major pay increase, while postmasters took a pay cut. At a time when the network is damaged, that seems unwise. I might even put it slightly more strongly than that. I asked the previous Minister for postal affairs for an independent review into postmaster pay. I know I have said this already, but I will keep saying it: we want a review. Will the Minister commit to one?

I will talk briefly about the Horizon cases. We had a debate in Westminster Hall on Thursday, during which we heard some appalling stories. The Horizon scandal is not just the fault of this Government; it has been going on for years, under Labour and under the Lib Dems in coalition. I do not want to make it a party-political issue. Mistakes have been made and they need to be rectified. We cannot just say that a big boy or a big girl did it and ran away. It does not matter who caused it. This is the point that we are at, and we have to move forward and secure a future for our post offices. I do not care who does it; I just want it done, and so do my constituents.

The Minister was in the Chamber last Thursday, when Lucy Allan led the debate on the Horizon scandal and its impact on postmasters and post office workers. We heard of appalling cases of injustice in which victims were imprisoned, were given community service, or lost homes, businesses and reputations. Victims were pressurised into paying money to Post Office Ltd to avoid criminal charges, even when they knew they had done nothing wrong. Post Office Ltd covered up what it knew about the Horizon system and recklessly spent public money trying to avoid blame. The Minister’s response to all of this was lacklustre.

As I have said, since I was elected almost five years ago, I have faced five Ministers—as of today, six—in an effort to get Tory Governments to understand the importance of post offices and those who run them and work in them. I feel as though I have been battering my head off a brick wall, but rest assured that I will continue to fight for our post offices, alongside colleagues from across the House, because our communities need them. Victims of the Horizon scandal must be recompensed. Will the Minister meet Post Office Ltd to ensure that those who run and work in our post offices will not be the ones who pay the price for this scandal?

The Government once said that the Post Office should be the “front office” for Government services. Is the Minister still committed to that, and is she aware that the BEIS post office subsidy, which is paid to Post Office Ltd to ensure there is funding to maintain post office networks in rural locations, has tapered off? The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s inquiry into the post office, which was published in October last year, said:

“A re-think of how the Post Office is being funded for its role in supporting wider social and community goals is urgently required. This includes valuing the sub-postmasters and Post Office staff who deliver the services. It means making the Post Office a key channel for Government to reach customers. It requires ensuring that the Post Office brand continues to maximise opportunities with commercial partners, such as the banks and Royal Mail, so fees can be reinvested into the network and sub-postmasters fairly paid. Finally, it requires creative thinking on how the Post Office can continue its social purpose and maintain the high regard in which it is held by the communities it serves.”

A national post office network provides an essential public service. I do not think this Government and previous Governments get that; they do not understand that although many of us Members will go months before we cross the threshold of a post office, that is not how it works for the majority of our constituents. I have talked a lot about rural areas, but my constituency, in which I live, is an urban constituency, and a number of post offices have closed in Motherwell and Wishaw. Two Crown post offices have closed, numerous post offices closed in 2010 or thereabouts, and thereafter there has been a continual drip, drip, drip of closures and postmasters handing back keys. To provide that essential public service, a national post office network needs Government subsidy. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has expressed concern about what will happen if the network subsidy payment that supports the operating costs of the post office network is withdrawn after 2021. The Committee said it was concerned that

“the PO and many sub-postmasters and retailers who run POs will not be able to fill the gap in funding with other revenues. Many sub-postmasters are already struggling and thinking of leaving their POs and the removal of £50 million in subsidies could tip many over the edge. It could also convince some retailers and retail chains who host POs that it is no longer viable. This would have a damaging effect on the PO network. It should be avoided at all costs.”

I agree with all of that.

That Select Committee report was published in October 2019, but I do not think it has gone anywhere. We have had an election, which has represented another step back. There has not been a continuous push from Government to do what is needed, and although I understand that the general election had an effect, we need the Government to take up the reins again. What is the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee doing an inquiry on this morning? Post offices—isn’t that strange? That only underlines the importance of the post office network. If I do just one thing today, I want to convince the Minister that this is so important that we require something other than platitudes and warm words from Government. If I can do that, I will feel that I have at least done something.