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15 Oct 2002 : Column 240continued
Mrs. Browning: There is a problem for the remaining sub-postmasters in urban areas who want to invest a large amount of capital. Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that the Government have yet to tell us their intentions regarding the Crown office network, which is centrally funded? When the Labour Government first entered office, their declared policy was to increase the number of Crown offices. Given that they are starting to close private businesses, is it not about time that they put the Crown offices into the private sector as well?
Postwatch has also highlighted the fear that urban reinvention will benefit only the multiples and that it will serve to squeeze out small business men. If so, what guarantee can the Government give that multiples, such as supermarkets, will not then reorganise and close the post office branch in the multipleas happened in the
I recall how, as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, one could sit in on meetings and know what Ministers' genuine thoughts were, even if one's own contributions were not always listened to. It was therefore with some concern that I learned that on 4 September, at a meeting of Cheddleton parish council, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), who was until recently a PPS at the DTI, said that
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters in Northern Ireland is extremely concerned about what they regard as unfair competition being created by Government agencies promoting high street bank accounts? Does he agree that the time has come for a review of the way in which Government agencies and Departments in Northern Ireland and elsewhere have promoted universal banking to benefit claimants?
Mr. Robathan: I agree entirely. That illustrates the lack of a coherent approach and an absence of understanding of whatin so-called joined-up governmentall Departments could do to help the Post Office, if they wanted to.
Postcomm, the regulator, Postwatch, the protector of consumers and customers of the Post Office, the Post Office and Consignia themselves, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and the British public are all deeply concerned about Government policy for the Post Office. The order is about shrinking the urban network, but the crisis will remain because of the lack of a serious and coherent Government policy that would make the network sustainable. There is a crisis in the Post Office which deepens with each day that passes. Allan Leighton understands that, and it strikes me that he might be the best chance for the future of the Post Office, but if the crisis becomes a disaster, there is no doubt where the fault liesat the feet of the Government.
We condemn the Government's delay and dithering for the past five years. It has led to uncertainty, confusion and distress among employees and sub-postmasters. The DTI has not persuaded other parts of the Government of the merits of its plans. The inadequate package before the House today does not
The network of sub-post offices is a national asset, and we should value it properly. But it has been dogged, for months and years, even before 1997, by rumour and uncertainty, which affects sub-postmastersour constituentsand their customers, who are also our constituents. The questions have come thick and fast. XWill I still be able to get cash over the counter?" We have dealt with that issue at last, quite rightly, by guaranteeing that people will get cash over the counter, but I have some questions about the method by which that will be done. Sub-postmasters are asking about the way in which the Post Office has approached consultation with them in the past few months. I am not sure how helpful the Post Office's approach has been. For instance, sub-postmasters have been asked to accept compensation and go or, if they prefer, invest in their businesses or consider taking over a business that may be closing. However, sub-postmasters in my constituency have recently asked me, for instance, how the compensation package will operate in relation to tax. There has been no clarity on that question whatever.
Will the sums available to invest take local factors into account, as #10,000 will probably go a lot further in some parts of the country than in Brighton and Hove, part of which I represent? Many of those sub-post offices are in small buildings, which are constrained because they are of Victorian or Edwardian design and are in the city centremodernisation may need a lot more investment than #10,000, even when matched by the sub-postmaster. What will happen if someone transfers from one sub-post office to another? Will they be able, for instance, to take their lottery point with them if they move from one premises to another? There is a lack of
There is public uncertainty as well. People want to know the future of their own sub-post office. Tonight's package will at least move us out of that uncertainty because we now have agreement on the funding that is needed. I am glad that the decisions to be made when consultation is completed will take into account issues such as the social make-up of the area, its age profile, geography, the availability of public transport and so on. However, I wonder whether the proposed one-month period of consultation will be long enough, and I am seeking guarantees about the way in which it will be publicised in the locality. It is not enough just to know who will be written to formallywe need to know about publicity on consultation as well.
A vital part of the Post Office's role will be the universal banking system. There is genuine concern about the failure to realise the full potential of the post office card scheme, which is a way of ensuring that cash can be provided over the counter and, as Age Concern says, could be a great budgeting aid, as people will not need to draw out all their pension or benefit in one go. Why, however, are many obstacles being placed in the way of sub-postmasters? Yes, it is good business for them, if they can attract customers, but why are obstacles preventing them from publicising and encouraging the take-up of the post card scheme? They have been told in the document issued by the Post Office that they must not advise their customers on what method of banking to use. There is also a complicated system in which customers must phone a helpline for a telephone consultation, then receive a personal introduction document or whatever before they can open an account. We are talking about many elderly customers who may be hard of hearing or may not be good at detailed telephone conservations of that type. Why cannot sub-postmasters undertake the business of signing people up to an account over the counter?
Most sub-postmasters are franchisees. At the weekend, one of my sub-postmasters asked me to imagine McDonald's, a franchised business, launching a new range, then forbidding people in their franchises to publicise it. There is some justice in that description of the way in which the Post Office is tying the hands of sub-postmasters, preventing them from fully realising a system which, as I have said, could be of real benefit to many customers in deprived parts of the country who, for whatever reason, do not have bank accounts. It will help them in their budgeting and, indeed, ensure the security of their money.
The PIU report argued that the Post Office should develop a role for post offices as Government general practitioners. We have heard tonight that the XYour Guide" scheme is not to be pursued in its piloted form, but I believe that the Minister said that the Government still pay allegiance to the notion of the Post Office as their general practitioner. I am pleased about that and look forward to hearing more about the way in which that role will develop; by developing that role we will continue to ensure that the Post Office remains an essential part of our everyday life.