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I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman and the House that assurance. The ministerial code makes it very clear, and rightly sothis has never been contested across the Housethat Members of Parliament, even when they are Ministers, are perfectly entitled, as Members of Parliament, to make representations, in this case not to Ministers but to the Post Office, which is making decisions on closures. It would be an outrage if they were not able to do that. Of course, if any right
hon. or hon. Member wants to come and discuss this issue with me, I am always available to have such discussions. There will be no special accessthat would be quite wrongand I can assure the hon. Gentleman that no one has sought such special access.
Mr. Andy Reed: Rightly, many Members have made specific representations on behalf of individual post offices, and progress has been made in some cases. Does my right hon. Friend think it significant that although the Opposition motion makes no commitment on additional moneys, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) seems to have hinted at the same number of closures taking place? Will my right hon. Friend expand on the implications of that dichotomy and the contradiction whereby the Conservatives want the same level of closures without committing to provide the same amount of money? That sends out false hope to many of our constituents who will have been misled by the Conservative motion.
Mr. Evennett: I am listening carefully to what the Secretary of State is saying. My constituents in suburbia believe that decisions have already been taken and that the consultation procedure is just a PR sham. What is his view on that?
Mr. Hutton: The decision has been taken that the post office network needs to be reduced. The consultation is about the details of that in every local area and how it can be most sensibly dealt with. That is a decision of the Government, and that is why the Post Office is now conducting the consultation.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) says, there is a widespread view that this whole consultation process is a complete farce and a sham. What advice should I give to the postmaster at the Minley estate in Farnborough in my constituency? The Post Office says that the footfall in his branch is 591, yet he has conducted a survey that shows a 50 per cent. increase, without encouraging people to come in to make up the numbers. Is the Secretary of State saying that this consultation is going to make no difference whatsoever or that the Government are going to listen and look again at the figures, because this will apply to constituencies across the country, not only in rural areas, but in urban areas?
I would regard it as the duty of the Post Office to look seriously at arguments such as the hon. Gentlemans. If there is evidence that the figures are wrong or inaccurate, there is an opportunity in the consultation processthis is why it is happeningto make those arguments and for those representations to be taken into account. Postwatch is there to ensure, as a neutral umpire, that the process is being undertaken
fairly. [ Interruption. ] Hon. Gentlemen who are scoffing at Postwatch need to be very clear about what lies behind that scoffing. Postwatch is a neutral, independent observer. If the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), whom I heard scoffingI do not think he would deny that it was himwould like to give the House evidence to suggest that Postwatch is in any way acting unfairly or improperly, I would like to see it now.
Mr. Hutton: Postwatch is going to form part of a new, invigorated national consumer council. [ Laughter. ] Let me remind the hon. Member for Rayleigh, in case he has forgotten, that his Front Benchers have supported that policy. I do not understand the mirth that he is concocting; it is nothing other than a concoction. This debate does not need ridiculous rhetoric and phoney arguments of the type that he is putting forward. We should have a debate about the reality, not the bogus truth and distortions that he and others are bringing to this debate.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will the Secretary of State accept that there is genuine concern about the validity of the consultation process? The Southern Daily Echo is a politically impartial newspaper but nevertheless felt it necessary to publish a leader entitled Post Office plan was a farce from the beginning, pointing out:
In many ways it would have been better if those in authority had simply announced their targets and then closed the book. All that this exercise has achieved is to deepen the anger amongst so many communities who now feel doubly cheated over this issue.
One of the MPs whom the article quoted in support of that view was the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), the Secretary of States Cabinet colleague, who is protesting about the ridiculous closure of a post office in his constituency, where the alternative, as he points out, is at the top of the steepest hill in that constituency.
Mr. Hutton: I am sure that there is such a thing as a genuinely independent newspaper. I personally have not read one, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has found one. I do not think that his argument is the same as that of the hon. Member for Rutland and Meltonthat we should have just closed the post offices without any consultation. Todays argument is about the consultation process.
I accept, of course, that people have expressed criticism of the consultation process, and they are perfectly entitled to do that, but my job is to try to ensurewe have tried very hard to do thisthat people have the opportunity
to pose a counter-argument. However, we have made the decision, which I am inviting the House to support, that the post office network will need to reduce in size. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton has acknowledged that there needs to be a reduced network; the question for us today is how we can best manage that.
Mr. Hutton: If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise the same point, then I have already dealt with it, although he might not like the way that I did so. If he has a different point, we will come to that later.
Mr. Hutton: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, and then I really would like to make progress. So far, I have got to page one of my speech. I do not want to intimidate the House, but I have 28 pages left to deliver.
Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, albeit with reluctance. The serious point is that the consultation concerns which post offices to close, and my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) made the crucial point that if, as a result of consultation, local pressure and new figures, it is decided not to close a post office, the policy that the Secretary of State is pursuing means that somewhere that is not on the original hit list will go on it. Will he explain to the House how that can be justified, and how the notion of the consultation being genuine can be correct if we are talking about such a trade-off? If it is possible to prove that a specific post office has a justified future and is viable, surely that should be the end of the matter.
Mr. Hutton: I accept that that is an important point. I was going to deal with it later, but I shall try to deal with it now. The criticism that the hon. Gentleman has made of the one-for-one rule is not true. We argued that up to 2,500 sub-post offices need to close, but we have never said that precisely 2,500 post offices must close.
Mr. Hutton: No, that is not what the Post Office is saying. Let me try to deal with the point by referring to what is actually happening: 14 area plans have been signed off for closure and in six of those areas, there was no one-for-one replacement requirement, but in the other eight there was. That is the point that I am trying to argue. There is no absolute rule of one in, one out; that is not how the Post Office is seeking to deal with the issue.
Anne Snelgrove: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way; he is being very generous with his time. I share concerns about the consultation process, but does he share my anger about the fact that Tory-controlled Swindon borough council has not taken part in the consultation exercise, and did not attend any of the meetings held by Postwatch or the Post Office? The Conservatives in Swindon are now jumping on the bandwagon, but have made no representations to the Post Office or to Postwatch about the closures in my constituency.
Mr. Hutton: I am surprised that that is the case, given the arguments that the Conservative party has been trying to deploy in this debate. It is obviously for Conservative councillors in my hon. Friends constituency to explain themselves. In this place, Conservatives foam at the mouth about the injustice of post office closures, but when they are asked to contribute to the debate on how we can sustain the post office network, they make no contribution at all.
Mr. Hutton: No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman now. If he will allow me, I would like to make progress with my speech. I have been speaking for 20 minutes and, as I said, I am still on page one.
It is precisely because we want to support the network, and ensure that it can continue to play the role we want it to, that the Government, on behalf of the taxpayer, are investing unprecedented resources in the post office network. The sum of £1.7 billion was referred to, and it is true that that is going in until 2011, including a new annual subsidy of £150 million a year, which will help to keep open thousands of non-commercial branches that it would be impossible to sustain were it not for this intervention.
It is worth reminding ourselvesthe facts can sometimes be difficult and uncomfortablethat no Government funding or subsidy was provided at all during the period from 1979 to 1997, a period in which 3,500 sub-post offices closed. No effort was made by Conservative Ministers at any time in those 18 years to keep those sub-post offices open. Believe it or not, there are still a few hon. Gentlemen here who were Members in the House at that time, and we should hear from them at some point about the attitude they took in their constituencies when those sub-post offices were closing.
Alan Duncan: May I cite to the Secretary of State some figures pertinent to what he just said? From 1993 to 1994, the Post Office was in profit by £25 million; from 1995 to 1996, it was in profit by £35 million; and in 1996-97, it was in profit by £34 million. It was only with the arrival of his Governmentthis was not, I am sure, cause and effectthat it plunged into deficit.
I am not disputing the hon. Gentlemans figures about profit, but that is not the argument. The argument is that 3,500 sub-post offices closed and the Conservative Government made no effort to keep any of them open. If he wants to contest that fact, let him come back to the Dispatch Box and describe the actions
they always speak louder than wordsthat the Conservative Government took to keep the network at its existing size. They took no such action.
One other rather inconvenient truth for the hon. Gentleman is that the use of the internet poses the greatest challenge to the post office network. Every month, 1 million people renew their car tax licences online. They used to do that in sub-post officesthat is true. It was certainly true in the 1980s and the 1990s, because we did not have the internet.
Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head because we know that is what he is going to say. But that is why post offices have lost so much business. It is complete pie in the sky [ Interruption. ] He knows that. I do not remember him making that argument in his speech.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Post Office Ltd needs to compete for business. All that the Conservatives are saying is that they would delay the closure of 2,500 post offices, and all that would do is delay the inevitable. Prices would be dragged down in bidding for competition and business, and sub-postmasters and postmistresses would be paid less for transactions. It would destabilise the whole system.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton asked why the Post Office imposes restrictions on what sub-post offices can do and went through a long list of them, as did one of his hon. Friends. He might be interested to hear what Mr. Thomson, general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, said during the recent Select Committee inquiry in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone. He was asked why all these unreasonable restrictions were in place, and he said:
I make it absolutely clear, there are no restrictions on what existing sub-postmasters can do.
We have dealt with that canard as well. If the Post Office operated[Hon. Members: Wrong quote.] It is not the wrong quote; it was made only a few weeks ago. [ Interruption. ] It is entirely relevant because the hon. Gentleman argued that, if all the unreasonable restrictions could be lifted, somehow all these businesses could
suddenly move from making losses to making profits. That is exactly the hon. Gentlemans point, and it is entirely wrong.
Alan Duncan: The Secretary of State has got this completely wrapped around his neck. Our complaint is about what the remaining shop is or is not allowed to do, not about what current post offices are allowed to do.
Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman made specific reference to the lottery as well. It is important to recognise what the general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters had to say on that, too. He said that choices had been put in the way of existing sub-postmasters and went through the four main ones, but on the lottery he said:
If you think about it, if a sub-postmaster, for example, was earning £5,000 a year on the Lottery commission and he just wanted to move that Lottery to the retail side
so he is going to keep it, why would the Government possibly want to use taxpayers money to give someone compensation for something they are continuing to do?
If the Post Office operated on a purely commercial basis, with no external subsidy, it is estimated that up to four times as many branches would have to stop trading. However, we do not believe that the Post Office should be operated purely as a commercial service. That is why we have committed such a large public subsidy and why we are working with Post Office Ltd to secure a more stable network for the future. George Thomson, general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, also recognised that. He said recently that,
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