I thank my hon. Friend Marion Fellows for securing the debate, and I commend her for all the work she is doing on this important issue. As she mentioned, the SNP pushed hard for the banking industry to provide a fair price for banking transactions over post office counters, because the rate was simply unsustainable. I am glad that a substantial increase was agreed; it is only right, given that in many places the banks are completely reliant on the Post Office to deliver their services. I am delighted that that has been resolved.
One thing that unites Members of different parties—I say that despite the lack of Tory Back Benchers present—is the future of our post offices in our constituencies and local communities. My constituency has 14 post offices and each is vital to its communities, from Ferguslie Park to Bishopton, Gallowhill to Houston, and Linwood to Bridge of Weir—I thought that I, too, would go on a tour of my constituency.
The post office in Bridge of Weir is an example of a community seeing the real value that a post office provides to the village and working hard to secure it. It was closed in 2011 but, through the hard work of the local community, The Bridge charity was set up to take over the former library and repurpose it as the village’s post office and community centre, with a peppercorn rent from the council. From day one, however, the charity faced an uphill struggle. Its income runs at barely half of that projected by the post office, knocking the projections that the trustees made completely out of kilter. It is a matter of some anger that the post office did not qualify for community status due to the proximity of other post offices in other villages, even though Bridge of Weir public transport links can be charitably described as patchy.
Any closure of the post office would result in substantial inconvenience for service users and the wider community, which has a significantly older than average demographic. The Bridge is able to keep the post office only through cross-subsidisation of counter trade by the associated retail unit, which provides a fairly narrow retail offer in order not to conflict with any other retail operations in the village. That cannot be sustainable without a real change to the criteria by which local community post offices qualify for additional support. It is simply preposterous that every other shop in the village would have to close and lie empty before this community asset becomes eligible for consideration for the Post Office funding streams.
In the last few months Post Office Ltd has provided a one-off grant to support The Bridge. If it recognises that need, ongoing support should certainly be offered to The Bridge. I have discussed this issue with the previous Minister; if she will allow, I hope to discuss it with the new Minister. I hope that she will take away what I and many other Members are saying, and that she speaks to the Post Office about amending the criteria to introduce more flexibility—we need a bit of common sense in designating the units of the network that need support.
Post offices such as that in Bridge of Weir, and in thousands of communities across the country, need real support and recognition from the UK Government that they are not just places to collect pensions and post birthday presents; they are the lifeblood of places that have had facilities taken away from them over the years. Sadly, we know that our postmasters have been poorly served by the Post Office and its management.
The Horizon IT fiasco is not just a damning indictment of the Post Office management and its inability to resolve problems competently; it is a devastating judgment on the “Upstairs, Downstairs” culture that seems to pervade the organisation. Dozens of victims have had their livelihood and liberty stripped from them at the behest of management, who denied for nearly two decades that there was any problem at all. We now know that there was a problem entirely of the Post Office’s making, which has cost a high price, and not just financially; the human victims will never get back the weeks and months they have wrongly spent behind bars, and families will never get their loved ones back.
My constituent was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 13 months. Her life was turned upside down. She lost her marriage and house as a result. No level of compensation is adequate for the damage that Horizon has done to her life. That episode demonstrates the fundamental cultural issues within the Post Office management that need to be addressed, and it highlights the lack of governmental oversight that led to that management culture.
For too long the Post Office has been treated like an old armchair: too useful to throw out, but unloved, battered and kept out of obligation rather than enthusiasm. I wish the Minister well in her new role, but that attitude has to change if we want a post office network that is fit for the remaining years of the 21st century. That attitude left some sub-postmasters living below minimum wage earnings due to the paltry sums paid to them to maintain a link in the post office network, and it has left the Bridge of Weir post office continually fighting for its future rather than receiving the support it deserves.
We need recognition from the Government that a post office is more than the sum of its parts. It is a vital cog in our society and communities that helps to bind us together, and it cannot be yet another piece of social cohesion that is left to be stripped away by the mantra of market forces.