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Post Office Network — [James Gray in the Chair]

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

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:10 am, 10th March 2020

I thank my hon. Friend for his wise words. I agree that that has been a success story. Perhaps the Minister will be able to confirm in her response whether that is happening in other parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as well.

There is now no longer a bank the entire way down the Ards peninsula. It is the post office that enables not only pensioners but local workers and stay-at-home parents to access banking and their funds. The importance of that to a community cannot be overstated.

The Post Office has highlighted to me that it has consistently met all five national access criteria; at the end of March 2019, 99.7% of the population lived within three miles of a post office—that is probably true in my constituency—and 92.7% lived within one mile. Post offices are very much an integral core part of village life, rural life and community life.

In addition, there are legal access targets to ensure that at least 95% of the population of every postcode district are within six miles of their nearest post office. It was found on 31 March 2018 that that criterion was not met in seven postcode districts. I am informed that as of 31 March 2019 there were three postcode districts that did not meet that criteria, and they are being worked on. Good work has been done, but other Members have referred to the importance of post offices and there are anomalies that need to be addressed. The post office network is attempting to fill the gap left by the rural bank branches—an extra burden that it is doing its best to address. That should be welcomed and further secured with clear signals from the Government.

I echo the calls of the Countryside Alliance to deliver on three key issues, which I hope the Minister can respond on. The Post Office and banks need to standardise banking services offered over the post office counter. Post offices must remain relevant in modern times through supporting growth in activities such as online shopping through parcel collection and delivery, and to continue to pick up the slack as banks and shops close in rural areas. There should also be access to the banking protocol, to ensure that when a branch is moved or closed, customers are made aware of the banking services offered by the nearest post office. It is crucial that post offices are an option that people can fall back on whenever banks close. That has happened in my constituency and I would like to see it happen in other constituencies as well.

We are slowly but surely moving into a situation where someone who does not have broadband of a decent speed will be isolated from their finances as well as other services, and not every person has access to online services. Our post offices are the last line of defence and we need to stand with them to defend this last bastion against rural social isolation.