§ 12. Mr. Steel
To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whether, following the recommendations of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in its report, "Post Office Counter Services", he will ensure that the board of Post Office Counters has received prior commitments from its major clients that its services will continue to be used by them before a multi-million pound investment is made in automating the network; and what are the implications of the absence of such long-term commitment for this investment.
§ Mr. Newton
The Post Office will conduct a comprehensive financial appraisal of the proposed investment before deciding whether to seek the Government's approval to proceed. The appraisal will be 309 based on a full evaluation of a pilot scheme, to begin later this year, and will take into account the possible future use of counter services by existing major clients.
§ Mr. Steel
I appreciate all that, but surely the point is that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was quite explicit in saying that we must safeguard this public investment by ensuring that, if automation goes ahead, the DSS, the DVLC at Swansea and other users will guarantee that they will use it. Otherwise, public money will be wasted. Why has that recommendation not been accepted by the Post Office?
§ Mr. Newton
For the reasons set out clearly in the Post Office's response to the recommendations of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission it thinks that it is entirely right to seek the maximum possible commitment from potential customers, but to fall short of the absolute prior commitment of the kind that the right hon. Gentleman suggested. Frankly, I believe that few businesses would not wish to take account of customers' intentions as declared in investment decisions, but they would not regard firm commitments as an absolute sine quo non before making any such decisions.
§ Mr. Soames
I note what my right hon. Friend has said, but does he agree that the Post Office counter services are by and large quite disgraceful? It is ridiculous that members of the general public should be kept waiting in some cases for hours at the only times when they are able to get to the Post Office to get what they need. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, whatever the results of the investigation, he will ensure that services are greatly improved?
§ Mr. Newton
I note what my hon. Friend said. The Post Office is seeking ways of improving the efficiency of its services, including, as my hon. Friend will doubtless be aware, proposals for the future involving a number of offices being organised in a different way. I will certainly encourage the Post Office to pursue every way in which better services can be provided.
§ Mr. Henderson
Does the Minister recognise that since major changes have taken place in financial services in recent years, Post Office Counter Services has been operating with its hands tied behind its back? Does the Minister agree that if the Government want Post Office Counter Services to become more competitive in the high street marketplace, he should authorise an expansion of services to include such things as travel, financial services and ticket agency services?
§ Mr. Newton
We are prepared to look at specific proposals, if they make sense, on a case-by-case basis. The hon. Gentleman will probably be aware that I have recently agreed to the part of the Post Office dealing with television licensing taking on subscription management services in relation to satellite broadcasting because that was a sensible proposal. In general terms, one of the important things is the proposal to which the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) referred in his initial question, and we have authorised the pilot scheme for the automation of some aspects of counter services.