§ 14. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
What plans he has to safeguard the future of rural sub-post offices. 
§ The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson)
The Government are fully committed to the maintenance of a nationwide network of post offices and will, for the first time, publish access criteria, which the new regulator will have a duty to monitor. The criteria will aim to ensure that everyone in the UK has reasonable access to post office counter services. The Government are making a substantial contribution to the costs of automating the counters network to strengthen its longer-term viability and the performance and innovation unit in the Cabinet Office is carrying out an urgent study on the Post Office network. Various rate relief schemes apply to many rural post offices.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
The Minister says that he is carrying out an urgent study. The Government have decided that all benefit claimants will have to have their benefits paid into a bank account by 2003. Given that 33 per cent. of the work of sub-post offices is related to the Benefits Agency and the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters estimates that 100 of my 201 sub-post offices are likely to close as a result of the measure, how will the Government reassure my sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses that their businesses are secure?
§ Mr. Johnson
Perhaps by avoiding the risible hyperbole that we hear from the Conservatives. In government, the Conservatives suggested that the way forward for the Post Office was to split the counters network from the rest of the network, even though it accounts for 40 per cent. of the work. The Conservatives now come forward as the defenders of rural post offices. We are not making the payment of benefits through automated credit transfer compulsory. We have said that the migration to ACT between 2003 and 2005 will happen along with the establishment of an automated counters network that will ensure that we can bring network banking back to rural areas.
The Conservatives have expressed concern about how benefits are paid. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who is one of their Front-Bench spokesmen, had a novel solution to the problem. He was not so concerned about how benefits are paid. In a pamphlet for the no turning up group or the no turning back group or whatever it is, he said:One Parent Benefit, Guardian's Allowance and Child's Special Allowance should be abolished".One of the many damaging effects of that would be to reduce work over post office counters.
§ Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)
I thank the Minister for his support for a nationwide network of post offices, which stands in stark contrast to what happened under the previous Government. In my constituency, the post office in the village of Sheering has closed and has yet to be replaced. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in those circumstances, it is essential that the Post Office should 987 proactively seek an alternative provider, and make it clear that that provision can take place in many different venues and many different ways? Does not the Post Office need actively to promote that availability?
§ Mr. Johnson
My hon. Friend raises an important point. If he writes to me, I shall make sure that the Post 988 Office looks into it. It has a good record of keeping postal services going in areas where it finds difficulty in recruiting sub-postmasters. I remind my hon. Friend that, for the first time, we will be putting into legislation access criteria that will ensure that people have reasonable access to the Post Office network, enforced by an independent regulator.