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Post Office Network — [James Gray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:44 am on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 10:44 am, 10th March 2020

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

I congratulate Marion Fellows on securing this important debate on the Post Office. I was taking notes all the way through and sincerely hope that I manage to address many of the questions that have been asked. The Minister with responsibility for small business, my hon. Friend Paul Scully—he is the fifth of the Ministers the hon. Lady referred to—would have been present but could not be here today. I assure the House that I will pass the messages on to him.

It is encouraging to see the shared passion we have for this vital asset—the post office network is, absolutely, a national treasure. I was delighted to hear Ruth Cadbury talk about new premises, and to hear the wise words of all Members—including Gill Furniss, who described the post office network as a “national gem”. I thank Jim Shannon for his kind words. He is always incredibly kind to me, and what he said was lovely. It was great to hear his wise words. It was interesting to hear from Richard Thomson, who had positive things to say about the Post Office, and Gavin Newlands, who talked about the flexibility we have.

I assure the House that the Government fully understand that the Post Office is an organisation like no other. Post offices up and down the country contribute enormously to the life and soul of the community, providing a convenient access to vital services and infrastructure that our constituents and businesses need to prosper. Since 2010, therefore, successive Governments have invested more than £2 billion to safeguard and modernise the post office network, to ensure that it is sustainable for the future.

I will address some of the specific questions asked by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw. Since 2010, the Post Office has turned a corner, but colleagues should not take my word for that. In 2016, it became profitable for the first time in recent history, culminating in a pre-subsidy profit of £60 million in 2018-19. Winning new business has contributed to the improvement of the Post Office’s official financial performance and, consequently, the Government funding required to sustain the uncommercial parts of the network has drastically decreased. The network transformation programme that took place from 2012 to 2018 enabled the modernisation of more than 7,000 branches, adding more than 200,000 opening hours per week and establishing the Post Office as the largest network trading on a Sunday.

A new chief executive officer was appointed in September 2019. He is committed to resetting the Post Office’s national relationship with postmasters. One of the questions that the hon. Lady asked was about that relationship, and we will continue to ensure that it thrives.

In addition, rather than branches closing, the overall number of post offices grew by 91 in 2018-19, and 653 branches have opened as part of the new network locations programme, supporting our high streets and providing customers with a better and more accessible service while making the network more resilient. Furthermore, the Post Office’s agreement with high street banks enables personal and business banking in all branches, providing vital access to cash and banking services for consumers, businesses and local economies while bank branch closures continue apace.

Post Office Ltd has taken further steps to incentivise prospective postmasters to take on a post office. That includes an increase to postmaster remuneration of 10%, year on year, in 2020-21. That is one of the questions you were asking—