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the advert specified 10,000—

It is important to understand that. Paragraph 15 states:

That is important.

Mr. Weir: Paragraph 14 makes the point that, under the LINK network, the nearest free ATM, apart from that in a post office, can often be many miles away. If that post office goes, it will be difficult in rural areas to get free access to cash.

Peter Luff: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend for these purposes—who is a valuable member of the Committee, even though he was not with us last week; I believe that he had other business in Glenrothes. However, he makes an important point, which I would like to have made, if I had time. Our report is short, but I cannot read it out in 10 minutes, even at the speed at which I normally speak.

Only the Post Office offers guaranteed access to cash. The ATM network cannot be guaranteed, because many of those machines are located in post offices that might close if they do not get the Post Office card account business. Only the Post Office has the cash and transit operation to take the cash to the post offices so that it is there when pensioners, whose most basic financial inclusion right is having access to cash, want it on a Monday morning. There is no guarantee that any other provider could deliver the cash at the moment that it is needed. In our view, that is a crucial criterion.

The problem appears difficult for the Secretary of State to resolve, but I do not believe that it is. I am pleased that he remains in his place—it is typically
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courteous of him to be here, listening to the debate, rather than leaving after making his contribution, and I greatly appreciate that. There is a solution. The contract has been advertised on the basis of the most economically advantageous tender. That is important, because it is not a simple question of cost. Even if one bidder offers a cheaper option than another, the Secretary of State has the right to choose the one that will give the best overall result. As the report states:

We had an exchange about access criteria during the Secretary of State’s remarks. Those criteria should underpin his judgment. Anything that falls short of them is, according to the Government’s judgment, inadequate and wrong.

We conclude our report by saying:

It would be strange, when this country is in a recession and many thousands of small businesses face a difficult and challenging time, for the Government, who claim that they support small businesses—they did so in the amendment to the previous motion—to make a decision that directly threatened the future of at least 3,000 businesses.

I do not understand the reason, but the Department for Work and Pensions and its predecessor have never liked the post office network. Those of us who were Members of Parliament between 1992 and 1997 remember that the Conservative Government played with the same idea and speculated about ending payments through post offices. There was a huge outcry from those of us who then sat on the Government Benches and the Government quickly retreated, realising the error of their ways. Clearly, civil servants in the then Department of Social Security kept the idea in the back of a drawer, brought it out and offered it to a new set of Ministers, who willingly and unthinkingly embraced it. They were wrong to do so. The civil servants in the Department have something against the network. It is the job of Ministers to say “No. There is something immensely important and valuable here that we mustn’t allow the country to lose.”

I therefore say to the Secretary of State: fight the prejudice and enable the Post Office, which has fine new leadership, strong commercial ambitions and a genuine prospect of making a go of it again in the harsh new environment in which we live, to succeed. Please help the Post Office do that—do not get the decision wrong.

8.58 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. The motion that the Liberal Democrats tabled is a carbon copy of the early-day motion that I tabled on 9 July. I am only sorry that naked opportunists did not have the decency to tell me that they intended to copy my early-day motion. That is the least that should have happened.

Two overriding concerns motivated me to table the early-day motion on 9 July: first, the future viability of the post office network and, secondly, the future of the
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Post Office card account. Those two issues were at the forefront of my mind. I must tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that there is no way that the majority of hon. Members support any body other than the Post Office delivering POCA 2. I cannot speak strongly enough in favour of POCA 2 coming through the post offices. Indeed, the decision is such a no-brainer that we should not even consider anybody else distributing POCA 2. There is no way we will accept anything other than the Post Office.

I say that to make it clear where we stand now and where we will still stand when the issue comes back to us. I know that my right hon. Friend will get that message and that he has taken it on board. We have all sent letters to the Prime Minister to ensure that our voices are heard as Back Benchers and, more importantly, that our constituents, whom we represent and who are the users of the Post Office, have their voices heard loud and clear. That is the point that I want to make this evening.

This debate is about our concern and using our best efforts. We have to ensure that pensioners and people on benefits have that choice. We have had that reassurance this evening, and I was pleased to hear that from the Secretary of State who is listening. He is willing to ensure that people know that POCA is available and can use it. I am pleased to hear that, because it is very important that we do not strangle the system or turn off the oxygen to POCA.

POCA is important because the Post Office is so dependent on that business. Whether the figure is 2,000, 4,000 or whatever, as many as 80 per cent. of post office counters throughout the UK could close without POCA 2. That is what we are talking about. It is why 2010 is so important, and why I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has said that he will advertise POCA.

It was key to get something from the Secretary of State this evening—he said that he would look to set up a taskforce, and that is important. A taskforce is needed to find the extra work for the Post Office—real work and real alternatives, because however strongly I or the rest of us in the House might feel about POCA, it is short term. POCA is not the future of the Post Office. That is where we are failing.

We are talking about a short stay of execution—death by a thousand cuts eventually in the post office network. The problem is that as more people retire, the older generation that uses POCA is dying off and the new people coming into the system use their bank accounts. They do not go near a post office. We have to find an alternative, so that people will go back into the post offices. We have to find the work and bring it back into the post offices.

Peter Luff: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as he gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to his excellent work on the Committee on which we both serve and which I chair. Does he accept that Post Office Ltd has a plan to do precisely what he describes, but that POCA needs another five years to enable it to work? If Post Office Ltd gets those five years, it can do exactly what he says and move on. That is what we need to work towards.

Mr. Hoyle: The hon. Gentleman is the Chair of our Committee, so how could I disagree with him? That is what I am saying: it is important that we introduce
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POCA 2 now, so that we have another two, three, four or however many years after 2010. However, we cannot rely on that to save the Post Office. That is why we have to come up with alternatives and go through other Departments to see what other work we can bring into the Post Office. That work must be sustainable and long term.

I believe in the network. I believe in Royal Mail and the Post Office. I also believe in it being publicly owned, unlike the Opposition, who on the one hand say, “We want to privatise the Post Office,” and on the other say, “We want to save the post offices.” Surely they cannot indefinitely put so much taxpayers’ money into a private company. There is something wrong with their argument this evening. What we need to do is look for that real alternative.

I believe that there is such an alternative. We have invested and saved Northern Rock. We know that a true community bank operating throughout the country is lacking. That is a system that we could use, by introducing a community bank that would offer all the services to the people who cannot access them unless they go through the internet or are willing to travel to the nearest town. We will replace the banks that have been lost throughout the towns and villages in this country. We now have a great opportunity to do just that. We can sit down, look to the future and find the right formula for introducing a community bank, because that is what is lacking. It is also lacking for businesses. Why should the few remaining milkmen, for example, have to bank their money in the town, when they should be able to bank at the post office? There are many small businesses that could use a Post Office bank, and this proposal is about putting such a bank in place and giving people a real assurance of the future.

I also want to tell the BBC, which is quick to tell us that it wants more money for the TV licence, that I want to get my TV licence from the post office. What right does the BBC have to take that ability away from us? That was an absolute disgrace, and a complete shambles. It is willing to take taxpayers’ money, yet it is not willing to support taxpayers’ business through the Post Office. Those are wrongs that we can put right. They are the things that can really begin to save the post offices. Yes, we can do so much.

Will I be supporting the Liberal Democrats tonight? Will I heck as like! This is the cheek with which they operate. They really have not given us an alternative, and they will never do so, because they are not going to be in government. What they have not told us tonight is that their motion is a copy of my early-day motion, which aimed to ensure that the Government were getting the message. That message was: rethink, look again and deliver. Supporting the Liberal Democrats tonight will not save anything; far from it. I have achieved more by saying this tonight from these Benches than they have done. We have already reached agreement on a taskforce and on the advertisement of POCA. We have made great strides tonight, and that is because we are willing to fight for the future of the Post Office. If people are serious about voting to save the Post Office, they should not follow the Liberals into the Lobby tonight. If they are serious, they should back the Government, who are willing to listen.

I give the House the assurance that I will continue to fight for the Post Office and for the future of Royal Mail, because I believe in them. I believe in the work
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that we have done on the Business and Enterprise Committee, and I believe that what we did under the Department of Trade and Industry was right. We have got it right, and what we need now is for the Government to listen. I believe that they can do that, and I am with the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) when he says that there is only one alternative: it is the Post Office and it is Royal Mail. I say to the Government: please listen, and please deliver. Let us back the Government tonight.

9.7 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the impassioned plea made by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). I enjoyed his speech, as I often do, although I cannot understand his logic, which reflects the Government’s lack of joined-up thinking and their contradictions over this whole issue. It illustrates their inconsistency, accompanied by a real lack of leadership and will. We have seen service after service withdrawn from the post office network over the past few years, and the services that remain—on which the post offices rely absolutely—are not advertised. The hon. Gentleman made that point in his speech.

The Government underestimate the public’s anger and sheer exasperation at the way in which they have handled the post office network in recent years. They also underestimate the exasperation of the people who are running our post offices—the sub-postmasters. My constituency has suffered over the past few years, as has every other area in the country. In 2004, we lost four post offices, and in 2008 we lost another three. None was reprieved, although we have a rather surreal situation at Bramhope in that the Post Office now says it will sit down with the local parish councillors to talk about whether a local consortium might be able to open a post office, even though it has let the closures go ahead. That is another case of an extraordinary lack of consistency and joined-up thinking.

Mr. Hoyle: The hon. Gentleman and I support the great game of rugby league, and we also support and believe in the Post Office. Does he not agree that he should not be proposing to privatise the Post Office, because that is not the future? This illustrates his inconsistency. He wants to support Post Office Counters but, at the same time, he wants to privatise Royal Mail. Does he not agree that that will not work?

Greg Mulholland: The hon. Gentleman and I agree on many things, and I am sure that we both felt real hurt over England’s woeful performances in the rugby league world cup. I am sure that we both agree that England will improve hugely in the semi-final at the weekend. However, he does not actually know what Liberal Democrat policy is on this issue— [ Interruption. ] Let me make it very clear, so that he and others can understand it: our policy is simply to inject a large amount of private capital into Royal Mail and properly support it, and to leave the post offices and let the network continue. [Interruption.] It is what is called the proposal for enabling the network to continue. Nothing has been proposed by the Conservatives, and the Government have eroded the network over recent years. I will take no lectures from Labour Members.

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Never mind the voices of politicians chuntering from sedentary positions; let me allow the voice of those who run our post offices to be heard properly in the debate. I was approached by Sandra Jarvis, sub-postmaster of Ireland Wood post office in my constituency. She said that the Post Office card account was very important to her business, adding:

She went on to say:

That will hit them, she says, and

She asked:

Those are questions that the Government simply have not addressed.

Mark Williams: Is not the question “Where will people go?” particularly relevant to the most rural and isolated communities in the country? As for access to supermarkets and other shops, for many of those communities the last shop has gone as a result of the recent closure programme. People cannot gain access to benefits through shops because they have all gone, and there is no public transport. What is my hon. Friend’s solution?

Greg Mulholland: I entirely agree, and I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend has done in regard to rural issues in his community. Let me give another example of the lack of joined-up thinking. I think we would all agree that the Sustainable Communities Bill was an excellent idea, but the Government’s action is eroding precisely what it aims to do. Sandra Jarvis also asked:

I shall restrict my comments in order to allow others to speak, but let me say a little about the most vulnerable members of society. I refer to older people, disabled people, and people who find it hard to access services: people with learning difficulties and people with mental health issues. Those people were marginalised in the so-called network change programme. The Post Office spin doctors came up with that extraordinary phrase to describe what was, in fact, a closure programme. How very new Labour! Now the same people have been marginalised by the confused process involving the Post Office card account. The issues relating to access have been glossed over again.

Has there been any assessment by the Department of the impact that its action will have on the lives of people who need to obtain the many benefits and services that they may need? There has not, and that is, quite simply, a scandal. Figures from Age Concern reveal
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that 76 per cent. of older people fear that they will lose essential services if there are more closures, 73 per cent. fear that they will not be able to access similar services in the local area, and 88 per cent. would have to make special travel arrangements to reach alternative services.

A pensioner in my constituency to whom I spoke on Friday, Mr. Wilf McCombe of Bramhope, simply does not understand why the Government will not allow the Post Office to continue its card account. He said that one of the wonderful things about the account—let us concentrate on the positives—was that pensioners could go anywhere in the country to pick up their pensions from the post office. That is very useful when he is away on holiday or visiting relatives. He also not only made the point that people feel that through POCA they can access services in post offices they know and trust, but asked where the machines will be sited if the contract goes elsewhere. They will be sited in places that older and vulnerable people do not necessarily know or feel comfortable accessing, and they will probably simply not want to do so. Awarding POCA outside the Post Office will therefore be a blow from a business point of view—apart from the clear absurdity of doing that when it is supposed to be called the Post Office card account, as several Members have pointed out.

We know there is a particular problem for older people and the most vulnerable. We have heard about the issues for rural areas and deprived urban areas, but there are pockets of people everywhere who will find that the problems of access mean that they might not leave their homes. As Sandra Jarvis said:

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