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Mr. Miller: I have followed the Horizon project in detail under the previous Administration and under this Government because of my interest in technology. There is a programme of training that involves all 19,000 sub-post office staff. At my most recent visit to ICL's Feltham operation, where Horizon is being developed, I was told that sub-postmasters, from those aged 16 to those in their 80s, had already been trained and that the target was to hit every potential sub-postmaster.

Mr. Cotter: That is very good. It is easy to say that training has been carried out, but I am questioning the quality of the training and whether it addresses what people need to know.

We are holding this debate because the Government have been reactive rather than proactive. The PIU's consideration of socially desirable objectives was referred to earlier. The Post Office White Paper could have addressed many of the issues. However, as a result of concerns that have arisen since then, the PIU has been set up. We look forward to what it will say. However, the Government seem to react too late, and to do so when people have decided not to use the post office to collect their benefits.

The Minister talked about access criteria. It is all very well to have criteria, but people may not be ready and willing to run sub-post offices because of concerns about profitability. When a sub-post office is closed now, it is difficult to find another site, as well as finding someone willing to run it. Postmasters and postmistresses are extremely concerned now--let alone in two or three years' time when it may be difficult to find staff to run sub-post offices.

I have received more letters on the issue since last week's debate. I appreciate the fact that the Minister has stayed to answer the debate, and I very much hope that he will come up with something more tangible than his initial response.

9.16 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Clearly, all parties are concerned about the future of sub-post offices in urban and rural areas. However, I take issue with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who said that everything was rosy during the 18 years of Tory Government--that was far from being the case. Let us have the facts. Some 40 post offices a week have closed over the past 20 years. There was no great debate then in this House, saying that something must be done about that haemorrhaging of rural post offices. Nothing actually happened. It is a bit rich for the hon. Lady to come to this House shedding crocodile tears about the future of the Post Office. If we believe in the future of rural post offices, we must address what went wrong before.

Part of the problem has been the modern culture of banking. Pensioners have their pensions paid automatically into their bank accounts, and people on

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child benefit have had it paid into their bank accounts. That has reduced the number of post office users, and rural post offices have suffered in particular. We ought to discuss how we can save the Post Office and reopen rural post offices.

I visit my local post offices. I was lucky enough to reopen the Chapel Lane post office in Coppull, and I have been in contact with Mrs. Foster at Wheelton post office in Chorley and Mrs. Friend at Hoghton post office, and with all the users. The belief that only Conservative Members care about post offices, after 18 years of not caring, will not wash with me.

All parties share the belief that something must be done. I have belief in the Minister, and I hope that others will. I know that the Government take the future seriously. The rural community is important to the Government, and we must ensure that the vitality of villages continues through their post offices. We ought to be embracing new technology in rural areas, as that is where the future will be. We ought to have that new technology, and bolt on additional services. It is all very well people saying that rural post offices can have a bit of this and a bit of that. They need to be able to offer full financial packages, lottery tickets, passports, tax discs and a whole range of services.

People who work hard in rural post offices and are the backbone of their community will then be rewarded financially and, crucially, will be able to sell on the business. People have been very worried about the future and have rightly questioned their Members of Parliament. I welcome that questioning and the support that we can offer. We have to tell people that we take their concerns seriously and will try to ensure that they have a bright future in which they can sell on the business when they retire.

If we do that, further post offices might reopen. There is no doubt that there was a haemorrhage, and the number of villages without a post office is significant. Thankfully, 60 per cent. of villages have a post office, although only 5 per cent. have a bank. We should consider how to encourage more post offices to open. We must ensure that we have a practical rural banking system throughout the United Kingdom.

We have a Minister who is confident that he can deliver a rural bank and ensure that those who are currently excluded from banking services are welcomed, with the promise that people will still be able to draw cash if they wish to. We must tackle social exclusion. To open an account in a high street bank in Chorley, people have to produce either a passport or a driving licence. That rules out a lot of people. We must give people the benefits of having a bank account: those services must embrace those in the rural community so that the farmer who collects money for his milk can pay it in at the local post office.

The rural banking service in the post office will be a high-tech service. We must watch out for luddism and embrace the new technology.

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman does not seem to be aware that the decision to put computers into post offices was a Conservative policy which the current Government inherited. Nobody is saying that technology

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is not important, but it is no good giving post offices technology, with all that it affords them, while chopping 30 per cent. off their revenue with another policy.

Mr. Hoyle: It is interesting how the Conservatives wave the flag on the last couple of years of their Government. That commitment was not delivered; it was something that they were only beginning to embrace. They are saying that, after 16 years of doing nothing, they should be congratulated on two years of being bothered about rural post offices. We will not allow them to rewrite history in that way.

The Government are trying to sort out the previous Government's mistakes and to ensure that we put in the right technology. We have the right Minister to do it. We should welcome the fact that the Government have assured the future of our rural and urban post offices.

9.23 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I have heard some rewriting of history, but the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) takes the biscuit. I listened with interest to his speech.

The Minister drew attention to the number of times we have discussed the Post Office since July, with a full day's debate inspired by the official Opposition, a half-day debate inspired by the Liberal Democrats and a debate last week in Westminster Hall. I once had responsibility for the Post Office. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) and I have been trying to recall the number of times that we discussed the Post Office--there was certainly a major debate on it when we presented our Green Paper--but I cannot recall a time when we had to hold a debate because of the closure and the threat of closure of sub-post offices. If such threats had existed, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats would have shouted the need for debates from the rooftops. The very fact that such debates were not requested is evidence of how carefully we considered the future of the rural post office network, so I will take no lectures from the Government today.

I accept the Minister's commitment to the Post Office and I readily acknowledge that he has a record unmatched by previous Post Office Ministers. However, I wish to raise several points that I hope he will address when he winds up. Today's debate is not about the Post Office and the delivery of letters: it is about the sub-post office network and 18,000 privately operated businesses. Those businesses provide a vital lifeline, especially in rural areas. There is no doubt that the post office remains the most attractive element in the village retail structure. It is invariably located with integrated village shops. Rural community sub-post offices provide essential services for those confined to the village for whatever reason. The sub-post office is a critical element of village shop owners' financial plans.

In my constituency, West Derbyshire, which covers a huge rural area, I am concerned about how many closures have taken place in the past few years. For example, post offices have closed in Cubley, Longford, Roston, Flagg, Lea Bridge, Knifton, Quarndon, Fenny Bentley, Clifton and Taddington. That is a massive escalation of closures. Of course closures take place over time when someone has run a post office for a long time and wishes to retire, and it is always very difficult for them to find someone

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else to take the post office on. However, I believe that Post Office Counters is partly responsible for that situation.

I was so concerned about the future of the sub-post office network that I did a survey of all the post offices in my constituency last year. I thought that Cubley post office was still open--until I received a letter back from Mrs. Wilton of 4 Long Meadow, Cubley, who closed the post office. She said:

A further issue arises from the contract that people are required to sign before they take on a post office. A new sub-post office could have opened in Idridgehay, when some new people took over the village shop in which the post office used to be located. However, they found the requirements to which they had to sign up too burdensome. On top of the money that would have to be spent on decorating the outside of the shop in the corporate colours, as the Post Office insists on, the last sentence of the contract they were sent caused them great concern:

    "At the time of your resignation your successor will be appointed at your premises"--

let us remember that people run these businesses in their own homes--

    "unless the Regional Manager has stated that he wishes to close or reinstate the office on vacancy or no acceptable candidate can be found to take over the appointment in your existing premises".

Village post offices are often run from home. Who is likely to sign a contract that allows the Post Office to put someone else in a person's home to run the local service?

Rightly or wrongly, many people in rural areas believe that the network of village post offices is under threat. The evidence in my constituency leads me to agree. That threat is not in the interests of the Government or the country, so I hope that the Minister will encourage a new approach from Post Office Counters. For example, why are carriers in competition with Parcelforce not allowed to operate through the post office system? Why do not the Government open up the services provided by village post offices?

The Minister has a golden opportunity to make the progress that many hon. Members have attempted over a number of years. I hope that he will take it, and secure the future of our vital village post office network. If he manages to help that network, he will ensure the survival of offices in the other, urban areas mentioned by other hon. Members in this debate.

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