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That is not being taken into account.

Mark Williams: My hon. Friend has talked about rural areas and about deprived areas. I represent a convergence zone area that receives funding from Europe, because Ceredigion is both rural and deprived. Does my hon. Friend agree that the problems to which he alludes are exacerbated in areas such as my constituency?

Greg Mulholland: That is true but, equally, what about areas such as Otley, north of the river? It is not necessarily a deprived area, yet the wonderful work done by Otley Action for Older People will be undermined by the recent closure of Newall post office. People in that area will simply not be able to access the services they need. The simple fact is that if the Post Office loses this tender, that will leave huge numbers of older people both financially and socially excluded.

The Government have not faced up to the reality that if they do not follow through and ensure that the post office network is the recipient of POCA, that will sound the last post for a genuinely national post office network, as 3,000 more post offices have been predicted to go, which would leave about 8,500. That is simply not a sustainable amount, so the post office network will not be able to continue.

I shall conclude by specifically addressing my friend, the hon. Member for Chorley, by saying that although he does not feel he should vote with our party this evening, the reality is that this is the last opportunity this House has to send a clear message about POCA. Labour Members are all too happy to march in local
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protests against post office closures, but they have the chance this evening to put their money where their mouth is and to march into the Lobby with Members from across the Opposition Benches to send the clearest possible message we can from this Chamber that POCA must be retained with the Post Office, as the consequences of not doing so are grave.

9.18 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): As chair of the all-party group on post offices, I want to say that there has been considerable all-party support on this issue over a period of time, and it is sad that, although there is a huge amount of agreement on it in all parts of House, we all have to start playing a bit of party politics when it comes to the vote—although I suppose that that is what this place is like.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so he should not be too upset that the wording is precisely what we all signed up to. I also want to say that the report by the Business and Enterprise Committee that came out this morning and the previous reports produced under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) have been very good indeed, not just on this issue, but on all the issues. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley is also a member of that Committee, so I am praising him, too, there. The National Federation of SubPostmasters is very concerned about this issue, and tomorrow afternoon it will be contributing at an emergency meeting of the all-party group, so Members might want to come along to that.

No one listening to this debate will understand how we as a Government and a country can have spent the period from March, when the tender process closed, until now with all this uncertainty and lack of transparency regarding the contract tender. That seems amazing in this day and age. I know that there are rules governing the various aspects of tendering, but there must have been a lot more that we collectively could have been told. I still do not understand why we needed to tender the contract, and I will not accept that we needed to.

Mr. Flello: Does my hon. Friend share my puzzlement at the fact that in 2003, when we introduced POCA, as far as I am aware—I may be wrong and I stand to be corrected—we did not tender it then?

Kate Hoey: I agree with my hon. Friend, but I expect that somebody somewhere will say that some new European regulation—I am sure that we in this Chamber did not vote for it—came through at some stage saying that we must do this. The Secretary of State mentioned the Republic of Ireland. Yes, its Government were taken to court, but the decision was unproven, so they got away with it, if we want to put it like that; I would say that they stuck up for their citizens, which is what our Government should be doing. It is time that we stood up to some of the ludicrous rulings and directives that come from the European Union. Instead of making people feel that the Union is helping them, such measures make them feel that all the Union cares about is a bureaucracy at Brussels that is telling people in this country how to run their lives. However, I do not want to get diverted into that.

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Ms Katy Clark: My hon. Friend is of course aware that the Government recently set aside the competition regulations in relation to HBOS and Lloyds TSB. Given the importance of the post office network to the whole country, does she agree that this is a matter of overwhelming social significance and an overriding public policy reason why the competition regulations should be set aside, and that we should not have entered into this tendering process?

Kate Hoey: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I still have not had a proper answer to that question; perhaps the Minister will return to it in summing up.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that discussions are going on between Departments about this issue. Clearly, there has not been a unified view. We will obviously get a unified view at the end of the process, but it should come very quickly indeed, and I hope that it will be in line with what the vast majority of Members have said tonight that they want to see happen. As everyone has said, winning the POCA contract will not be a solution to the many future challenges that the post office network will face. However, it is absolutely crucial because it will provide the extra breathing space that will allow all the extra work that needs to be done to bring in extra services, including the various new services. Some are ready, but a lot more work needs to be done on others.

We will therefore need time, and if the POCA 2 contract does not go to the Post Office, we all know that that will be the end of at least 3,000 post offices, not just in rural areas but in areas such as mine. I and my local community worked very hard to save a sub-post office in Lambeth walk from closure under the recent changes. It was such a vital thing to save that everybody put in a huge amount of work to make sure that that happened. There is absolutely no doubt: if that post office does not have the card account, it will close. I cannot understand how any common-sense Government or politician could not want to do everything that they could to keep the contract with the Post Office.

I remind those who go on about bank accounts that although some of our older people perhaps now have bank accounts, they still want their Post Office card account. Many pensioners in my constituency would not dream of having a bank account. The POCA and the cash that they get out is very much part of their budgeting process—they know that they are getting the money at a particular time on a particular day, they know how they are going to spend it and they know that they will get it again the following week. No bank account will give them that feeling that they have their albeit limited cash; they want to have access to that cash on their terms.

I know that many hon. Members from all parts of the House want to speak, so I shall merely add that the Government should not go around saying that the only way in which we will save the post offices—this is almost being used as a blackmail—is through identity cards. I am determined to do everything I can to prevent ID cards from being introduced in this country. Even if they were the only way to save the Post Office, I would not support them. It is a pity that reference is made to them in the Government amendment.

The Government should not have tendered in the first place, but when they did so, they should have ensured that all the parts associated with the tendering showed that this was a public service, that it had a social
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benefit and that it did all the things that my hon. Friends have mentioned tonight. Let us hope that tonight’s debate will be the last time that we have to debate this and that the Government see the sense of what we are saying—I do not care how they do it. The country—not just politicians—will not forgive any Government who allow this service of value to the Post Office to be taken away from it. We have to keep the POCA with the Post Office.

9.26 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Perhaps I should declare an interest, because my sister runs a sub-post office in the village of Eglwysbach, where she also has a small shop.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), who has done a lot of hard work on the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise. I fully endorse everything that the Committee said in the report that it published today and also what the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) had to say. It just goes to show that there is all-party support on this matter. I speak for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, and for members of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties—we are all agreed on this matter. There is a huge amount of feeling on it, and for good reason: the Post Office is a brand that we have all trusted and that we all know to be honest and forthright, and we need to maintain it at all costs.

As has been said, hon. Members have bank accounts and can make choices, but others cannot do so. For example, there are 4,480 Post Office card accounts in my constituency, 8,000 in Clwyd, South—in north Wales—7,500 in Caernarfon and 8,140 in Ynys Môn. Those are big figures for small rural constituencies. It has been pointed out that losing the POCA would be a disaster for rural areas. My home village of Llanuwchllyn near Bala—the name will be a challenge for some—has one shop, which is a sub-post office. It will be lost and we will lose the only outlet in our village. There is a social side to this. Some of us have cars, but others do not and they will have to rely on relatively expensive public transport to travel five miles to the nearest town just to get the basics of life. That is unfair and we can reverse that situation. The Post Office needs some breathing space to enable it to do this work—we need this card account to remain where it is. I, for one, cannot understand what possible benefit will ensue if it is sent to a private concern.

Peter Luff: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in a sense, we are trying to save the Government from themselves? The access criteria will guarantee only 7,500 post offices, but on 24 January 2007, when the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, came before our Committee, he said that

We are trying to save the Government and ensure that they get what they say they want.

Mr. Llwyd: That is absolutely right. The Chairman of the Select Committee knows everything about this subject—perhaps not everything, but he knows a lot about it, and more than I do.

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The other point that was made earlier related to the effect on other local businesses, and we need to consider that telling fact. We have bandied a lot of figures around this evening, but it is crucial that we maintain and develop this network for the future. We have seen double standards on this issue—Cabinet Ministers are voting for the closure programme but are then protesting vocally in their own constituencies. I will not call that anything stronger than double standards—there are other words, but I would probably be ruled out of order if I used them. If POCA 2 is not awarded to the Post Office, I believe that the situation will get quite near to being hypocritical. I hope that we will not see that act of betrayal towards those hard-working men and women who run the sub-post offices—often for long hours and little return. Yes, they are economic enterprises, but they also offer an important social service.

I asked the Secretary of State earlier about the access criteria and the tendering process. The point that I made about the Welsh Language Act 1993 was simply that the Act would cover the public delivery of a public service. If a private concern were to deliver the service, it would not be covered. The tens of thousands of people in Wales who would wish to access services in the medium of Welsh, as they do currently, will undoubtedly be denied. There will be no legitimate expectation that the organisation running POCA 2 should deliver that service. That is extremely important. If the Welsh language is undermined, there will be huge repercussions, not just in this place but in the National Assembly and elsewhere. Acts of Parliament in this place have been made to secure the future of the Welsh Language Act. This move will undermine it, and it is wrong.

There has been a huge amount of agreement on both sides of the Chamber this evening. I hope that Ministers will listen, as we have all put aside our political badges. We are all concerned about the future of our network. In those circumstances, I hope that we can have a positive announcement shortly to put many people out of what appears to be their misery as they worry about the future.

9.31 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): There is a glint of light in this debate, through the smoke and mirrors, from those on the Government Front Bench. They seem to have moved from hostility to uncertainty, and surely that is good as far as the card account is concerned. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), with his customary disingenuousness, suggested that the card account had been introduced by Labour along the lines of the national health service—as a miracle cure. May I remind the House that Labour brought the account forward with the greatest reluctance, because it was compelled to do so by the pressure in this House and in the country?

As soon as the account was introduced, a series of bullying and inaccurate letters were sent to anyone who dared to apply for one, telling them to do something else. Of course, if that did not work, that letter would be followed up with a telephone call. I know that, because I have the letters and because my wife received the telephone calls. However, there was still massive take-up. Some 4 million took out the card accounts. Even this year—it might have been a clerical error, but it was an extraordinarily consistent clerical error—another letter
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went out, once again telling people that the card account was going to stop and that they should make alternative arrangements.

Despite all that, in the borough of Stockport, 18,000 people are on the card account—5,000 in my constituency. I want to tell the Minister and the Secretary of State that the nine post offices that they have left me with get, between them, about £30,000 a year of income from their handling of those accounts. That is equivalent to 50 per cent. of their business rate. If the Secretary of State takes that away from them, he will be putting a 50 per cent. hike on their business rate. They will go down. Whatever might be said about a move from hostility to uncertainty, that uncertainty is itself no help.

The Secretary of State quoted from a letter that he had received from Mr. Thomson of the National Federation of SubPostmasters. However, he did not quote some of the other parts of that letter, including the phrase

The Government face a doubled-edged problem.

Since the card was introduced in 2003, my constituents who have card accounts have resisted every threat and blandishment to switch to private sector retail banking. During most of that time, banks were the UK’s totemic success story, yet still my constituents did not want to switch. Some could not switch because they did not have the necessary credit rating. Many are unable to switch, because of mobility or disability problems, and for some of the other reasons that have been given already. Now that banks have never been more distrusted or reviled or more in disgrace, along come the Government, telling my constituents, “Leave the safe haven of a simple public sector system based on your local post office and put your trust in a nice big bright shiny bank where you can make a small contribution to a fat cat’s big bonus”.

The other edge of the problem is the banks themselves. I shall briefly mention two cases. The first concerns a constituent who has recently had a stroke and can no longer write his signature with his right hand. He wants to cancel his account but the bank will not accept the cancellation because his signature is wrong. What sort of bank will not cancel a card because a signature is wrong? My constituent was told that he could get power of attorney. Brilliant. It is not his mind that has gone, but his handwriting.

The second story is about an elderly lady who moved to live with her family and tried to switch money from her savings account to her current account in the bank she has used for 45 years. She was refused because she has a new address, is not on the electoral roll and has no utility bills, so the bank thought she might be a money launderer.

I have to tell Ministers and the Secretary of State that it is not just that my constituents do not want the retail banking sector—the retail banking sector does not want them. It is ironic that while UK banks went broke lending billions, perhaps trillions, of pounds to sub-prime citizens of the United States of America, a United States bank—Citibank—will be moving in to pick up the sub-prime accounts of my constituents via POCA 2.

In 1999, a revolt in the House forced the Government to set up POCA. In 2006, when the Government said the account would be cancelled, a second revolt forced them to continue it. We need a third revolt to make
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POCA permanent. The quality of life and convenience of POCA users must be maintained. The quality of our communities must be maintained. Retaining POCA is the way to do it.

9.37 pm

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): I am grateful for this short opportunity to speak in an important debate on an issue that is so long-running that a positive outcome for the postal service and postal workers seems more distant by the day. The sooner we have a conclusion to this fiasco, the better.

The context and backdrop for the debate is the Government’s long overdue decision on the Post Office card account. In 1999, there were 25 post offices in Crewe and Nantwich; we now have 11. A large swathe of the south of Crewe has no post office at all. The town of Nantwich, with a population of 12,000, now has only one post office. We need to remember that backdrop when we look at the future of the Post Office card account.

Why have the Government decided that the postal system is so unfit for purpose that they are considering trying to clip its wings even more? They claim support for the Post Office card account in their amendment, yet all the while they are encouraging customers to bank elsewhere. They seem either unwilling or unable to tell us who will run the second phase of the Post Office card account. I suspect that when they had the opportunity to make that decision in May they decided to put it off for other reasons.

The card account is only the tip of the iceberg; other services are being stealthily withdrawn from the sub-postmaster’s realm. We have heard about tax discs, and that renewal reminders do not even point out that the service is available at the post office.

In my discussions with members of the Communication Workers Union in Crewe, I have been told that confusion still remains about the Government’s policy on the Royal Mail, so this evening provides an opportunity for the Minister to clarify exactly what the Government see as the future role of the Post Office and whether the Post Office card account will be there to safeguard the future of those people. On behalf of my constituents, I therefore urge the Government to take a step back, to halt the post office closure scheme and the sorting office closure schemes, of which Crewe is a victim, and to sit down with the CWU to discuss a manageable and national strategy for the Royal Mail, rather than trying to dismantle it piecemeal. We need to review what services community hubs could offer people, rather than just taking them away, and to renew the Post Office card account to ensure that the Post Office has a safeguarded future. At the moment in Crewe and Nantwich, it really does seem that the Government are only there to take things away.

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