It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Gray. I congratulate Marion Fellows on securing this important debate. She has played a key role in keeping the viability of the post office network in the minds of Ministers and the public. I have been pleased to work with her, the Communication Workers Union and many others on the important issues facing post offices across the country.
My hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury and Jim Shannon both spoke eloquently about their local issues, many of which are reflected throughout the country, particularly access to cash, the loss of community post offices and the plight of sub-postmasters, who are not adequately recompensed for the very important services they provide.
The Horizon trial and its fallout have clearly put the debate in a different context from last April’s debate on the network. We have had opportunities to discuss Horizon, and there are more opportunities to come, but I appreciate that the subject of the debate is somewhat distinct from that. Some essential context from the trial must be mentioned, though, with warnings from Post Office Ltd about the “existential threat” that the trial posed to the future of the company. The implication is that the financial consequences of the scandal may have an impact on the funding available to the network.
In the fight for justice for wronged sub-postmasters, we must not lose sight of the rest of the network. Ensuring that it is properly funded for the future is key. It is clear, even before we understand the full impact of the trial on the finances of Post Office Ltd later this year, that the network is hugely reliant on the network subsidy payment. The legal and compensation costs that the business will bear will make the Post Office hugely reliant on Government support.
The Government are hiding behind the idea that the Post Office is an independent commercial business, but the need for public support at critical moments means that the Government can and must play a far greater role in shaping the future of the Post Office, rather than simply providing credit and monitoring basic targets. In truth, since the separation of Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail, the Government have not taken their strategic role seriously. We have not had a comprehensive statement of strategic direction for that vital service since 2010, and we have reached the point where the long-term future of the network is at stake.
The Minister will undoubtedly argue that the numerous consultations, funding announcements and statements illustrate the Government’s commitment to the Post Office’s future direction, but none of those pronouncements sets out any real vision for the future. Many communities have already lost vital services because of closures by Post Office Ltd or, increasingly, because can no longer afford to run the services. The Government must set out a true long-term plan that details how post offices can thrive in a changing world. Without such a plan, the network will drift further towards a model of postal counters in larger multiples, as opposed to a network genuinely rooted in communities.
The growth of Crown post offices being delivered by WHSmith and others points towards a possible future in which the public elements of our post office network are continually reduced, so that it becomes a network led by larger private businesses. That is not the future of the network that the public want to see. In previous debates, I have highlighted many concerns about disabled access and adequate numbers of well trained staff, which many of my constituents report to me and many other MPs.
By contrast, we have a clear vision of the future of the post office network. First, the network would receive far greater protection if it were reunified with Royal Mail in public control. The disastrous decision to split the two and to sell off Royal Mail threatened both businesses. As high streets and the postal market develops, we have missed great opportunities to unify the management and services of those businesses. Working together, post offices and Royal Mail delivery offices could provide a much more comprehensive network of local points from which to send and pick up parcels, driving growth and delivering sustainability for the Post Office and Royal Mail. Britain’s post should be public.
Labour would also set up a proper post office bank to bring 21st-century banking services into every community. High street bank closures are happening across the country, and while many post offices work hard to provide basic banking services on behalf of banks, they cannot offer many essential services that local bank branches can. Furthermore, the thankfully reversed decision by Barclays to withdraw its services from post offices shows that the existing relationship is neither sufficient nor stable. A post office bank, by contrast, would bring full banking services to every post office, meaning that people who value a local branch service would have reliable access to branches. Such a bank would offer a vital new line or remuneration for sub-postmasters, helping to protect them for the future.
Not only that, but smaller loans could be available through a post bank, enabling thousands of bottom-up transformational changes for start-ups, small businesses, local co-operatives and community projects in towns and villages up and down the country. A post bank would also be the location for much needed local business development support, further ensuring a sustainable customer base for post offices for generations to come. The proposal would also support the Post Office’s key functions of making cash accessible. Many people, especially those who are vulnerable or elderly, rely on cash in their day-to-day lives, and bank branch closures mean post offices are one of the few places that it can be accessed free of charge. A strong local network of free-to-use cash machines also helps to support small local businesses, which may not have the facilities to accept other forms of payment, and provides a lifeline to our struggling high streets.
Will the Minister commit to bring forward a comprehensive strategy for the Post Office? I know that she will not agree with every element of the plan I have laid out, but the House and the public must be able to see and scrutinise the Government’s plans for the future. Will she also set out what steps she will take to address the governance of the Post Office to ensure that sub-postmasters and the public are assured that the management of the company is able to take the network forward into the future with openness and transparency? Any strategy must identify the desperate need for fair remuneration of sub-postmasters, which will help to maintain a viable post office network, as highlighted by Gavin Newlands, who fondly referred to the Post Office as an “unloved” armchair, which I found very touching.
The post office network is a national gem, valued by many up and down the country. It can provide a bulwark against a retail downturn and essential protection for the digitally excluded, but it must have the correct vision and investment to achieve that. In recent weeks, the Post Office has faced great challenges. The Government must react and lead the Post Office forward for the future.