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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

Apologies—that is one of the questions she was asking.

The hon. Lady asked about BEIS and Government oversight of the Post Office. BEIS has challenged the Post Office and, in fact, the new CEO and the chair personally to strengthen their relationship with postmasters and to take on board the lessons learned from the recent litigation. They have provided assurances that they will do so. BEIS has established, and chairs, a quarterly group with the National Federation of SubPostmasters and the Post Office.

The hon. Lady asked about Post Office card accounts. The POCA contract is a commercial matter for the Department for Work and Pensions and Post Office Ltd. It is no secret that the contract for the Post Office card account will come to an end on 30 November 2021, but the DWP is in the process of developing a replacement. The predecessor Minister with responsibility for small business, my hon. Friend Kelly Tolhurst, wrote to her ministerial colleagues in the DWP in full support of a full and open tender process to ensure the delivery of the best possible service to citizens and value for money.

I turn to franchising. There is a widespread misunderstanding that franchising is a closure programme, leading to redundancies and the deterioration of services for consumers, but that is not the case. I appreciate that the proposed changes to the delivery of post office services can cause concern in the communities affected, and that some constituents have a strong emotional attachment to directly managed branches and their staff. However, the franchising model has endured to this day, and the vast majority—more than 11,300 post offices—are successfully run on a franchise or agency basis with large and small retailers as part of a thriving business.

Since January 2020, the Post Office and Payzone network have become exclusive bill payment providers for British Gas, bringing more footfall for businesses and revenue for postmasters. Although it is important not to be complacent and to recognise the challenges ahead, I encourage Members to look closely and objectively at the facts, which show unequivocally that the network is more sustainable today than it was in 2010. All that has been achieved notwithstanding the challenging trading conditions in the Post Office’s core markets and the wider sector.

Delivering post office services as part of a wider retail offer is a proven model that brings benefits to the community, the local economy, postmasters, consumers and, ultimately, taxpayers. Let me reassure hon. Members that as part of its ongoing monitoring role, Citizens Advice will continue to track the impact of post office changes on consumers and customer satisfaction with franchised post offices. Citizens Advice also has a formal advisory role in reviewing changes to the Crown post offices across Great Britain that are relocated and franchised.

I note hon Members’ concerns about temporarily closed branches. Let me reassure the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw that Post Office Ltd is committed to maintaining the branch network, and there is no programme of closures.