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Post Office Network — [James Gray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:25 am on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business and Industry) 10:25 am, 10th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend Marion Fellows on securing the debate and on her earnest plea that post offices matter. They absolutely do. In each and every contribution to the debate, we have heard about many of the different ways in which post offices matter to our various communities and sections of them. My hon. Friend made a clear call for the sub-postmasters’ contract to be reviewed, and she pointed out that we need creative thinking about how the business model develops. It is a call with which I heartily concur.

I very much enjoyed the contribution from Ruth Cadbury, who spoke eloquently about the difficulty of maintaining the visibility of the service, about some of the problems with security and about the locations of people who are willing to take on the service, which are not always the locations where, in an ideal world, we would wish the service to be transacted. She made those points very well.

Jim Shannon spoke eloquently about the issues in his constituency, but he got right to the nub of it when he spoke of the post office as a core part of village and rural life. He hit the nail firmly on the head. My hon. Friend Gavin Newlands spoke of the importance of a good and effective public transport network in ensuring continued access to the network, and he said that the service is beyond the diktats of market forces. Again, I heartily concur.

Let us look at some of the positive aspects of our post offices. A survey conducted in 2017 showed that 81% of respondents described the post office as important to them; 49% described it as very or extremely important and 97% described it as trustworthy—an unprecedented high figure. That shows the tremendous standing of the institution of the post office, which is not something that has been created in a marketer’s sketchbook. It is a reputation that has been built up over generations of much-valued service to individuals and communities, with a high-quality service at its very heart. The post office is at the heart of both urban and rural communities, and it has provided a universal service and common experience that we have come to value, wherever we are from.

We all understand that changes in the ways that people wish to access the services offered at post offices are inevitable. There is always a temptation to try to take everyone down the route of digital by default, regardless of whether we have the technological capability and sufficiency of broadband access, or the willingness or personal ability, to do that. We have to recognise that digital is not the default for many people, nor will it ever be. It should not be the default for accessing post office services, and we must not overlook the vital role that post offices provide not just to individuals, but to local businesses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw referred to economics 101 and the importance of the circular flow of cash. That is of particular importance as many banks retreat from our communities and, in many cases, the availability of ATMs in our communities is dramatically reduced. That retreat affects not only rural communities, but urban communities. Lack of access to cash is particularly felt in some of the less affluent urban communities, where the post office’s presence as a provider of cash is vital.

In addition to ensuring the flow of cash, enabling it to be spent locally is important. Many post offices are located within retail businesses in the area, and they also provide direct support to other businesses on the high street. More than 2 million small businesses, or 62%, use the post office at least once a month. In rural areas, 36% of rural businesses use the post office at least once a week to receive deliveries, send products, pay bills and, with the banks retreating from the high street, to deposit cash, as the post office increasingly—willingly or otherwise—takes on the role of cash handler of last resort in many locations.

The network could certainly fulfil that task, but we have to proceed with caution. We must recognise that many post offices simply do not have the physical security to handle large amounts of cash, and that many sub-postmasters are perhaps unwilling to take on a task that carries an increased risk of crime. Although my SNP colleagues and I would very much like to stem the banks’ retreat from the high street, it is important that if and when they do retreat, they are held financially to their responsibility to support the transition and ensure that the post office network is suitably equipped to take on that role, should that be what we want to happen.