HC Deb 13 July 1988 vol 137 cc344-5
4. Mr. Jim Marshall

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he expects to respond to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's report on Post Office Counters.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

The Post Office will be producing an initial response to the findings of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission within three to four months of the date of publication of the report. I will then consider that response and report to the House.

Mr. Marshall

Does the Chancellor accept that there is wide scope for the expansion of services at Post Office Counters within existing services and in the provision of new facilities? Why does he not welcome such initiative and enterprise by the public sector, as he would undoubtedly do if the same enterprise and initiative were being shown by the private sector?

Mr. Clarke

I hope to have a further discussion with the chairman of the Post Office and some of his colleagues about that very subject this afternoon if other matters do not intervene and delay the meeting. We accept that it is right for the management of counters to take a more commercial approach and look for other activities which may be brought into the Counters business. We must ensure that the result will be fair competition with other private sector competitors and that we are not needlessly extending the Post Office, with its cross subsidy, into areas where that is not necessary.

Mr. Key

As my right hon. and learned Friend will no doubt be aware, there is considerable concern in rural areas about Post Office Counters management of rural sub-post offices. Does he agree that the only way to ensure that sub-post offices continue to exist is for people to use those sub-post offices and the village shop usually associated with them? Will he also agree that it would be helpful if new initiatives could be taken, like that at Laverstock near Salisbury, where the local pub has taken on the business of the sub-post office?

Mr. Clarke

The Government are entirely committed to the maintenance of the sub-post office network in rural areas. I have a rural constituency and I agree that it is right to remind the residents of villages that they should use the local post office and associated store if they want it to remain. We are constantly on the lookout for imaginative ways in which to strengthen the rural sub-post office network. Anything that increases the prospect of the network's survival will be welcome.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Chancellor of the Duchy aware that many years ago the Prime Minister used to work in a little shop in Grantham in which cross-subsidisation used to take place? That shop was owned by Alderman Roberts, who did not believe in Sunday trading—

Mr. Speaker

Order. But was it a post office?

Mr. Skinner

Yes. In the corner of that little entrepreneurial outfit there was a post office. In those days the Prime Minister, along with her father, used to believe in the public sector and milked it if necessary.

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman has studied the biography of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister more closely than I have. Off the cuff I am not sure whether Alderman Roberts ran a sub-post office. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, together with other members of the Government, is committed to the maintenance of the sub-post office network. We are encouraging the Post Office to take a more commercial view of the management of the network, which will enhance the prospects and future of all the offices.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Post Office's insistence that a rural post office should be a full mile from another post office can be unduly restrictive and cause hardship? For example, at Cabus in my constituency the only suitable premises, a newsagents, is 0.8 of a mile from the nearest post office, but many elderly people must struggle a long distance to get to the existing post office. Will he consider bringing the problem of the mile restriction to the attention of those who run the counter services?

Mr. Clarke

Depending on events, I might have the opportunity to raise that matter with the chairman of the Post Office this afternoon. It is a matter for him. I am sure that he will take steps to ensure that sensible rules are applied which improve the prospect of survival of rural post offices and their continued contribution to the network.

Mr. Stott

The Chancellor of the Duchy will be aware that among the largest customers of the Post Office counter services are the 2 million people with individual Girobank accounts. In addition, Girobank has large corporate accounts which also use the post office counters. Recipients of DHSS pay and unemployment benefit also use the counters. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an absolute guarantee that whoever buys Girobank when it is privatised will honour the five-year contract that the Post Office board has negotiated with Girobank for the continued use of Post Office Counters?

Mr. Clarke

Yes, I will. Any purchaser will be bound by the contract that has been freely negotiated between the Counters business and Girobank.

Sir Anthony Grant

When my right hon. and learned Friend meets the chairman of the Post Office, will he raise the subject of security for the people who work in sub-post offices, who are at risk from criminal assaults? In my constituency there have been the most appalling attacks on sub-post offices in the rural areas, one of which involved a Most horrific murder.

Mr. Clarke

Again, I will undertake to raise that point with the chairman. That is a serious problem for the Post Office, because sometimes substantial sums of cash are handled in quite remote rural areas and the Post Office must help sub-postmasters to protect themselves against risk.