It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank Marion Fellows for setting the scene so well. She is absolutely right; we have been here so many times on this issue. I hope that we do not have to return to it, but we all know we probably will. We hope that the Minister will give us the reassurance that we so desperately desire—I am glad to see her back in the House and congratulate her on her new ministerial role.
I am always concerned when I see a debate on post offices surfacing, as it gives me concern that there has been another round of culls as we are seeing with the banks, but I am thankful that that is not what I am facing in Strangford today. I have had a very good working relationship with the Post Office. On almost every occasion we have been able to find a solution, and I will refer to some of them later.
At the end of March yet another bank will close in Newtownards—this time it is the Barclays bank. Barclays has agreed to meet me about that. I am concerned about bank closures, as I know other colleagues are. Indeed, one of today’s early-day motions is about the closure of a Clydesdale Bank branch in Scotland. I think 10 banks have closed in my constituency, and I am concerned about the effect of those losses on communities. Hailing as I do from a mixed rural-urban constituency, I am very aware that local post offices are a necessity.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw referred to the debate in Westminster Hall last Thursday on post offices and the Horizon system. Some of the stories about the impact on people’s quality of life, health, finances and some of the implications we heard were horrendous. Something that came out of that debate was the cross-party, cross-political opinion that something has to be done—it is needed desperately. I believe that the opinion is the same today.
Post offices play a crucial economic and social role in our local and rural communities. One in five people face isolation if rural post offices close. Eight in 10 small businesses in remote rural areas would lose money if local post offices were closed and, nationally, there are more post offices than there are bank branches of all the banks combined.
The banks that have closed in my constituency are mostly Ulster Bank, alongside Danske Bank, Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish, and now we have the Barclays bank closing. Credit unions have filled some of the gaps and have done an excellent job, but they cannot be expected to fill it all. New credit unions have opened in Kircubbin and there is also an active credit union in Newtownards, which is doing exceptionally well. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Guy Opperman, had the opportunity to come over to Northern Ireland to visit that credit union, so he is well aware of its good work. The Irish credit unions and the Ulster Federation of Credit Unions have tried to bridge some of those gaps.
The Countryside Alliance has said:
“The post office network offers an important means of accessing cash, either using its own financial products or because it provides access to the current accounts of 20 other banks and the business accounts of 8 other banks.”
The expansion of financial services through post offices could replace lost banking and financial services to rural communities and small businesses, ensuring the long-term viability of the network and that the post office remains at the centre of rural community life.
There are currently 491 open post offices in Northern Ireland; 314 of them, or 63%, are classed as rural. In my constituency of Strangford there are 22 currently open post offices and 72% are classed as rural. That says it all. I have worked alongside the Post Office and we have been able to integrate post offices into shops in the constituency quite well. That has been successful in Carrowdore, Greyabbey, Kircubbin, Ballyhalbert, Portaferry, Ballynahinch and in two or three places in Newtownards, in Comber and elsewhere. That has worked because it is about knowing the community. The people who have been interested in retaining the post office have accommodated that within their shops, and have thereby ensured that the post office continues to be an important part of community life.