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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

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. When a service of that kind is withdrawn, the transition is rarely seamless, as I have seen in my constituency where banks have withdrawn and even post offices have reluctantly had to close. There is always a hiatus and an interruption in service, and it is difficult to quantify the degradation in that function that people experience as behaviour changes.

It is not difficult to map out a socially useful and sustainable future for the Post Office. Each of us has spoken at length about the socially useful role that it serves. The challenge is to make that role sustainable for those who provide and operate those services. It should not come as any surprise that as the level of direct financial support to post offices has declined in recent years, there has been a similar decline in the number of post office businesses.

The foundation of a sustainable post office business has to lie in making the everyday transactions sustainable and worthwhile for postmasters to carry out. That aspect of the business is potentially profitable; in 2016, it made a £35 million trading profit. Post offices must continue to be the access point—or the front counter, as has been said—to Government and other public services for people for whom digital is not and will never be the default option.

Postmasters should be properly compensated for the role that we expect them to perform. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw made the excellent point that a review of the current contract is absolutely essential. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

Although we need at least to maintain the network subsidy payment at its current level, we should also allow a new business model to develop. As I said, the Post Office has a trusted reputation, which it has used to leverage, grow and expand the business into areas such as telecoms and financial services. It should be allowed to expand its retail offering.

We have spoken about the Post Office’s importance as a distributor, collector and mover of cash; it should be able to develop the Post Office Money side of the business. We have heard about the constraints put on the Post Office card account and about the access that the Post Office allows to business banking for eight banks and to personal banking for twenty banks. The Post Office must be allowed to develop and build revenue from its own offerings in current accounts, business accounts, credit cards, saving products and domestic and international cash transfers. That will make the business sustainable.

The Post Office is a much-valued institution and service, but it runs increasingly on goodwill, which is not enough. I look forward to hearing the Minister set out her vision of the future of the service and how it can be made sustainable, not just in goodwill, but in the finances behind it.