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Kali Mountford: The hon. Gentleman is characteristically generous in giving way. However, does he not recognise the possibility of a win, win, win situation? Some people are kept out of the formal economy because they do not have access to bank accounts. It will benefit them to be in the formal banking system and to be able to run their affairs appropriately. Such a system could also benefit post offices, because they might benefit from the extra services that they can offer the public and will be better able to sustain themselves. The banks also believe that the system will be commercially viable. Once they have a new customer, they rarely lose them. Customers stay with the banks
Mr. Page: I can see many advantages, but I have pointed out that there could be some disadvantages. What is incredible is the Government's insensitivity in announcing to all sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, "By the way, you will lose, on average, 35 per cent. of your income. We will come along sometime in the next two or three years and let you know how we will supplement it through this universal banking scheme." The details of the universal banking scheme are not universally clear. I hope that the hon. Lady is right and it is win, win, win, but sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses do not share her optimism. The difficulty of selling on sub-post offices is a serious worry. If it is such a win, win, win situation, why are they closing at record rates? Perhaps she will ponder that reality of life. Rural post offices are closing at a worrying rate and before funding is allocated to tackle the problem.
There are rumours of a plan to allow sub-post offices to close until they number about 12,000, when each will have enough income to make them viable. The hon. Member for Southport talked about the move towards bigger sub-post offices, but if they have a limited throughput of work, there will be fewer of them. When I mentioned the 12,000 figure, the Under-Secretary shook his head. At what number does he think the sub-post office network will stabilise? When will it reach an equilibrium? The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness is giving him advice, no doubt using words to the effect, "Don't you dare give an answer because it will be too embarrassing." I see that the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness is shrugging, and it is clear that they do not have an answer. We are obviously flying into the wild blue yonder.
We also need to understand how the £15 million fund to support post offices in deprived rural areas is functioning, because it is shrouded in mystery. The Government remove money quickly, but it is less than clear how they are going to replace it.
Postal services are being opened up to greater competition, which I welcome, but sub-postmasters want to know how likely it is that Consignia will ensure that local sub-post offices continue to hold cash deposited by businesses. If financial difficulties force the organisation to put its cash handling out to tender, will the new postal services be encouraged to locate their boxes at or in existing sub-post offices, where the flow of customers may be critical to their survival? Those are not academic issues.
We heard that handling costs will determine whether sub-post offices survive or die. Handling charges have to be realistic and set at the right level. Only today, however, someone approached me to say that the sub-post office charge for handling payments for her utility services had gone from well below £1 to more than £1. She is actively considering whether to make those payments in a different way.
In recent years, the Post Office has become a symbol of the confusion at the heart of the Government's strategy for the public sector. We had a Post Office that was the envy of the world, but instead of a brave new world of modern services and commercial and financial freedom, what have we now? We have a Post Office that, in the words of the former general secretary of the Labour party, is suffering from inherent faults and crippling levels of inefficiency.
It is too much to expect Ministers to accept any blame for the situation. I have noticed that this Government are prepared to accept only credit, not blame, but the country, and my constituents, will hold them to account. We have to reverse the decline in our sub-post offices and put them back on the map, with security, and that is what my constituents are looking for.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this important debate. I am committed to a publicly owned and publicly managed universal postal delivery service, and to the maintenance of a comprehensive network of well equipped post offices.
That said, I am greatly disturbed by the style and standards of much of the management of Consignia that I have encountered since I entered the House in 1997. I know that Consignia's statistics demonstrate that postal delivery standards are improving, but my postbag, like those of other Members, deals with individual cases, not statistics. My experience is real, not statistical, and it includes loss, delay and misdirection.
The management style of the Post Office seems frozen and unyielding. The Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, has several times taken evidence from the Post Office. On the most recent occasion, a list of post offices in Wales was requested from the company. It provided the list, but clearly with some reluctance because it asked that it should not be released to the public. That is a novel way to conduct businessto set up thousands of outlets but not let the public know where they are. Fortunately, the company agreed with the Committee that it was being over-zealous. Perhaps by then it had seen the list published, for all to see, in the Yellow Pages. The list that the company provided to the Committee appeared to be in an entirely random order; it was set out neither alphabetically nor geographically, so the post offices in my constituency were distributed throughout a 25-page list.
I had earlier asked the management for a list of the post offices in my constituency. I was told that it was cost-prohibitive to provide it. In fact, from a list of all Welsh post office locations and their postcodes, it should be possible to produce such a list for all constituencies in Wales without any difficulty. It may surprise hon. Members that although the Post Office uses postcodes for the efficient delivery of mail, and an excellent system
Other hon. Members have commented on the closure of post offices. In Wales, the Post Office has appointed rural advisers, but there are only four for the whole of Wales and they have yet to prove themselves. Closure also affects urban post offices, and they are outside the remit of the advisers. Post office closures are not always handled well by management. Standards of communication between management and sub-post offices appear to be less than satisfactory.
I am aware that the National Federation of Sub- Postmasters has concerns about the future of the post office network, and I understand the remarks made by the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) about rumours. Let me quote a letter from one sub-post office proprietor, who said:
Closure of the sub-post office in Mostyn street, Llandudno, was announced in November 2001, to take effect in March 2002. It was caused by the franchise partner deciding not to renew the contract. There was considerable local opposition to the loss in that town centre location. The mayor of Llandudno, Councillor Brian B. Bertola, and Llandudno town council raised a petition of more than 3,000 signatures. When asked to receive the petition from the mayor and myself in the town of Llandudno, management in Wales declined to do so. They also declined to receive it in Westminster, saying that it was