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9.13 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Obviously, the debate is very important and many hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken part. There seems to be an interesting discrepancy between the views of the various members of the Opposition Front-Bench team. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said that she did not want to commit herself to privatisation, and that we must wait and see what the Conservatives would be saying at the next general election; but the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) was bouncing up and down saying, "Privatise, privatise, privatise." It is always very interesting to note the variation in the messages that are communicated by the Opposition.

We should be talking about the future of the Post Office, which is very important. I welcome what we are achieving, or hope to achieve--a greater and better universal Post Office. I hope that we can take on the rest of the world and that we can continue to be proud of the Post Office. The Post Office has a proud history and we want it to expand and to have the freedom to allow that to take place.

People shout that we should fully privatise the Post Office, but they then ask about sub-postmasters and postmistresses. They want the best of both worlds, but they are not facing up to reality. For 18 years, 40 sub-post offices closed every week. No matter what they say, the previous Government did not bat an eyelid. We take the future of rural post offices seriously, so much so that we believe that there must be an alternative approach. We cannot allow them to wither on the vine as previously happened.

We should recognise that we now live in a plastic society. There are no two ways about that. New pensioners will use a post office less, because their pensions will be paid directly into their bank accounts.

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We must grasp the nettle and ensure that the Post Office can provide alternative services. We must give it a viable future and that must be done through new technology. That is the new gateway for its benefit and its future.

I am in contact with the owners of rural and urban post offices in my constituency. They are important and they recognise that they need a future. The future is not to do nothing, but to give them an alternative, and that alternative will come from new technology. We need new rural and urban banking facilities, and we want post offices to be able to offer a full range of services. They will be offered because we are willing to take up the challenge of new technology to provide a future for a Post Office of which we all can be proud.

We shall stop what the previous Government allowed to happen--post offices withered away and not one Conservative Member who supported the previous Government for 18 years was even bothered. They might shed crocodile tears now, but that is all that they can do. In reality, they do not care. They say, "Privatise, privatise", but they do not say what would happen if they privatised the Post Office. That is a worry.

Perhaps the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton will be willing to tell us how privatisation would help sub-postmasters and mistresses. We all know that it would not help them in the slightest--far from it. It would make their futures totally uncertain, but would do nothing about their problems. We recognise that the problems exist and that they must be addressed. However, talking about them will not help. We want a Bill that will help the Post Office in general--the new universal Post Office--and that will give a viable future to the rural and urban post offices that would have closed, as they did under the previous Government.

I want the Bill to enable the Post Office to provide new enhanced services. What is wrong with small urban villages of 8,000 to 10,000 people having a second delivery? That does not take place at present, but I hope that not only will we maintain the service that we have now, but that it will be improved by a double delivery. People should expect that. We should not say that deliveries should be made before 2.30 pm. Instead, we should say that people will have a first delivery before 10 am and a second delivery before 5 pm. We should be pushing the service forward and enhancing it.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take my points on board and that he will say that the Bill will lead to an enhanced service that we will all welcome. I know that the Government take seriously the future of the Post Office, and urban and rural post offices in particular. They have been allowed to close, but that should not have happened. We do not want it to happen again; we want a Post Office of which we can be proud.

I am constantly in touch with the post offices in my constituency. I want to ensure that they have a viable future, and the Government will ensure that through the use of new technology and alternative services.

9.19 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): A good deal of concern has been expressed in this debate, as in three previous debates in this Session, about rural post offices and small post offices in general. We are dealing primarily not with a party political issue, but with a Government who are over-dominated by their Chancellor of the Exchequer. We all understand the problem.

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The Chancellor and his officials communicated to the Department of Social Security the great apercu that they had come across 15 or 20 years earlier and of which they have been repeatedly notifying the Secretary of State for Social Security for all that time, which is that the Government could save an enormous amount of money if only they would pay benefits through the banks.

In previous years, we have had, without an announcement, the introduction of something that I believe is now popularly called joined-up government. Under this present joined-up Government there is, alas, no joined-up government, and the Department of Social Security said yes to the Chancellor's proposal without checking what the effects would be, and reported to the poor old Minister's Department of Trade and Industry, saying "Jolly D. The Chancellor has said this and what the Chancellor says rules in this Government. Let it happen."

The poor old Minister and his Secretary of State got to work and started to make all the discoveries that people had made many years earlier, but which the Government had not been told about by the Treasury officials who now run things. They discovered, of course, that the massive saving had a few disadvantages. First, it was admitted in an earlier debate that the Government would have to subsidise the banks to get them to open accounts for people who should not have a bank account because the banks do not want them and the people themselves do not want a bank account.

It was then discovered that the people for whom the Government thought it would be nice if they could collect their cash through the post offices unfortunately would not have that option because there would be no post offices. They then came up with the whiz-bang solution, which is, as we now discover, to subsidise rural post offices and outlying post offices in towns and cities. Two of the net advantages of the idea were therefore to be a huge extra subsidy to the banks and a huge extra subsidy to post offices, but the Government discovered that that would not do because we still could not be sure that people would be able to get their cash, because the post offices would not be there.

The Prime Minister went on a tour to the south-west and said that he would put cash tills outside all the post offices. He happened not to notice that when there is a cash till outside a post office, people do not go into the post office, so they do not use the post office, so they will not have payments made into the post office, so the post office will not remain open. Now the Prime Minister will put 3,000 cash tills in other places in rural areas--we know not where and he knows not where--and of course we have no idea whatsoever how people will use the cash tills because they will not be bank account holders so they will not have any reason to use a cash till.

I could go on. I fear that what I am trying to describe is a right muddle. It is a muddle not because Ministers are evil or ill-intentioned or even because they are Labour Ministers, but because they have made a right mess of things by coming up with a policy that a certain set of officials has been promulgating for a long while but which has never worked and will not work now and will have to be got rid of sooner or later.

It will have to be got rid of sooner rather than later because there is a huge movement against the proposals in the countryside and increasingly in towns and cities.

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Hundreds of thousands of people are signing petitions. There is a cross-party group, of which I am proud to be a member, which takes in Members from all three parties represented in England. The fact is that the Government will give way.

Once the Government have given way, we need to know what we need. I regret to say that the Secretary of State gave a lamentable performance earlier, and he revealed that he has not the slightest idea of what we need. It is simple and clear: we need a mechanism by which small post offices will be able to compete with the banks and deliver, sensibly and rationally, at low cost, benefits to the people who need them without their having to hold a bank account, without having to subsidise the rural post offices and without the collapse of village society that is otherwise entailed. That is within our grasp.

We need an intermission. The arrangements will not be introduced by 2003; they could well be in place by 2005 and 2006. Technological problems have been encountered, but it is perfectly understood in principle how the task can be done. We must provide the average small post office with the electronic means to deliver benefits in the way that the Secretary of State for Social Security wants them to be delivered, and this poor old Minister would like them delivered, to keep open the network of post offices. That is perfectly doable if it is done slightly later.

What is the remedy? The Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Social Security must summon up their courage and remind themselves that they are not wholly in the hands of the almighty Chancellor of the Exchequer. They must go, if necessary on bended knee, up the stairs of the Treasury and say to the Chancellor, "Oh Chancellor, you are three years too early. Just give us a little intermission to install the technology in the post offices and there will be a miracle. You will not have to subsidise the banks. You will not have to subsidise the rural post offices. It is true that you will not save £400 million; you will save much more." I think that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, terrifying though he is--like my colleagues on the Treasury Opposition Front Bench team, I know just how awesome the right hon. Gentleman is at the Dispatch Box, and I have no doubt the same is true of him in his office--will turn out to be rational.

The Government will thus find a way to get off the awful hook. From the point of view of my colleagues and me, that is politically highly regrettable, as we stand to gain seat after seat in rural areas from the Government's awful mess. If we were cynical, we would desist from speaking a word about it and our friends on the Liberal Democrats Benches would be equally silent, because we all know that one of the best ways to encourage people to vote for us is to allow Ministers to pursue a lunatic policy. Nevertheless, I hope that Ministers will take the opportunity to go to the Chancellor, that they will win the debate and that they will not pursue the policy.

The reason why that is the right course of action is that it is in the interests of no party in the House to allow the widespread destruction of village communities that will ensue from the Government's proposals being implemented. It is in no one's interests if the hundreds of thousands of people who are benefit recipients find themselves in increasing social difficulty. We have a common interest as politicians in telling the officials at the Treasury to get back into the box.

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9.26 pm

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