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Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is a listening Minister.

Mr. Hoyle: That is right.

Without doubt, the Government will deliver on behalf of the postal workers and the postal service. We recognise the need for future investment and understand that the quality service that is provided should not be destroyed.

7.21 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). He made a passionate plea that the Government should not take money from the Post Office, or demand a dividend from it, at a time when the Post Office is making a loss. He attacked the Conservative Government for taking a dividend when the Post Office was making a profit. Should the Post Office be paying a dividend to the Government when it is losing money? When it is losing money, it is interesting to know whose money it is losing. There is a difference between that approach and saying that the Post Office should make a contribution to the Exchequer when it is making money.

Clive Efford (Eltham): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. How does he explain his party's position on the money that it thinks should have been given to Railtrack?

Mr. McLoughlin: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that issue. I am about to deal with that matter.

I am minded of what was said by the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. On Second Reading of the Postal Services Bill, he said:

The right hon. Gentleman concluded:

I am worried that those words were used by the man who is now the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. He made a hash of dealing with the Post Office and its future, and he is now doing the same with Railtrack. We have seen the implementation of his words. As a result, the Post Office is in more serious trouble now than when he embarked on his policy.

I was disappointed when I read the report of a debate that took place during July 1994. At the end of her speech,

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the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), who is now the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said:

How does that fit in, now that she is in a position of some responsibility in the Cabinet, with how Post Office workers must have felt when they heard the remarks of the chief executive shortly before Christmas? He said, off the top of his head, that there could be about 30,000 redundancies.

The Secretary of State accused Conservative Members of scaremongering. We have heard scaremongering from many people. The chief executive certainly indulged in it in his evidence to the Select Committee shortly before Christmas.

Mr. Challen: The hon. Gentleman quoted an Opposition day debate that took place in 1994 on the then Government's plan to privatise 51 per cent. of the Post Office. Given that none of his colleagues has been able to say whether the Opposition support privatisation, will he have the courage to say that he supports 100 per cent. privatisation of the Post Office?

Mr. McLoughlin: The hon. Gentleman is slightly wrong. I was quoting from the report of a debate to which I replied on behalf of the then Government. That being so, I know what it was about. It was about a Green Paper that had been published that gave three options for the future of postal services.

I thought that we were in a new mindset from the one in which the hon. Gentleman finds himself. According to the Prime Minister, we should not denigrate the public sector or the private sector. I understand that we should work together to follow the third way. The hon. Gentleman must get the mood music right. If he does not, he will remain on the Back Benches for a long time.

The hon. Gentleman seems to be asking what the Conservative party's policy will be at the next general election. That is a question to which I shall gladly respond. When we come to the next general election, we shall publish a manifesto, upon which we shall fight the general election. We shall set out the policies that we shall put before the public in that manifesto. We shall not say what those policies are until we are ready to do so.

We are not discussing what the Opposition's plans will be in three and a half years' time. We are here to hold the Government to account on their policy for the Post Office and for the people who work in it. We want to know what will happen to the organisation over the next three and a half years. Instead of trying to score silly little party political points, perhaps the hon. Gentleman should question the Government about the future of those who work in and rely on the Post Office.

Dr. Kumar: My hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Challen) was not making a party political point, but trying to get some factual information from the Opposition.

Mr. McLoughlin: The hon. Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Challen) has just been given it. The factual

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information is that we shall tell him and others in due course. At present, as I have said, we are holding the Government to account for their policies and for what they are doing. It is the Government who make appointments to Post Office boards.

We are accused of scaremongering. I was disappointed when the Secretary of State would not tell us whether she had read the report that was alluded to in The Sunday Times. She told us that we should not believe everything that we read in the newspapers, but that is the only way that we manage to get information these days. The Government are reluctant to make statements in the House, so we sometimes have to rely on what we read in the newspapers.

Those of us who rely greatly on the rural post network in our constituencies are extremely worried, and I am in that category. The report referred not only to rural post offices but to urban ones.

The Government amendment refers to the closure of about 3,500 post offices under a Conservative Government during 18 years. I am not prepared to say that there should never be any post office closures. Of course there are such closures. On average there were about 180 a year under the Conservative Government. Sometimes people who have run a post office in their homes, sometimes in rural communities, want to retire. They want to move out of the district, and they cease running the post office unless somebody else can be found to take over. Sometimes it is difficult to find other people to take on the business, and if they cannot be found the post office closes.

No Conservative Member is saying that we shall never see a post office closure, and that we must keep 19,000 sub-post offices always in operation. However, although 3,500 sub-post offices closed over 18 years at an average of 180 a year, 1,564 have closed since 1998. I omit reference to 1997 because of the change of Government half way through that year.

The Government's amendment implies that there were an average of 180 closures a year under the previous Conservative Government. The Government stand condemned by that amendment, as an average of around 350 sub-post offices a year have closed under this Government.

It is no good the Secretary of State saying that Conservative Members are scaremongering. A briefing paper from the NFSP stated:

I urge the NFSP to be careful about assurances from this Government. As I have shown, the assurance that they would not close post offices meant only that they would close twice as many as the previous Government, than whom this Government always like to show that they are better.

I hope that the Minister will give the House some reassurance on the matter. It is one of the reasons why we were right to call for today's debate.

I hope that the Minister will also give his attention to the range of services that sub-post offices can offer. At the moment, sub-post offices can offer no services that are in competition with those offered by the Post Office.

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I think that they should be able to offer such services, especially in respect of the delivery network. For instance, if the Business Post group wanted to operate through the sub-post office network, it should be allowed to. Similarly, some of the delivery companies should be allowed to deliver material to post offices, possibly for onward distribution. In rural areas, that could be a useful service, especially given the growth of buying over the internet.

I have received many letters from the villages of Curber, Carver and Froggatt in my constituency. People are very worried about the future of post office services in that area. One constituent wrote:

Many people, especially those in rural areas, want to be reassured that the POCA service will not be available only at a few post offices. It is very important that it is much more widely available.

The sub-post office network can be a vital lifeline, especially in rural areas. Sub-post offices are often located in integrated village shops, and in rural communities they provide essential services for people who, for whatever reason, are confined to villages. The sub-post office is also a critical element in the village shopowner's financial plans.

Although I welcome some of the schemes introduced by the Government, the overall picture is very worrying. There is still great unease about the transfer to ACT and the effects that that might have. The Government have said that extra money has been made available for the network of sub-post offices, but that money will come on stream only in 2003. We would believe the Government's commitment more readily if the money were made available now. Moreover, the money being made available is a lot less than the amount that is being devoted to establishing ACT.

I hope that I am not accused of scaremongering. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) told me earlier about the circumstances in Ashford in the Water, of which I am well aware. I thought it amazing that a Parliamentary Private Secretary associated with this Department should tell me to celebrate the fact that a sub-post office had not closed, and not to dwell on the many sub-post offices in my constituency that have closed.

I accept that some sub-post offices have closed because it was difficult to find someone to take over the business. In such circumstances, closure is inevitable. However, whether the Government like it or not, it has become more

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difficult to find people to run village sub-post offices in part because there is great doubt about their future viability. What we have heard so far from the Secretary of State has done nothing to reassure people that they can rest easy about the future of village post offices.

If I am scaremongering unnecessarily, I will apologise in three and a half years' time, when no more post offices in my constituency have closed. I doubt that I am going to have to apologise.

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