§ 6. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
If he will make a statement on the future of the post office network. 
§ The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers)
The Government are committed to maintaining a nationwide network of post offices. That commitment was clearly demonstrated when we accepted all 24 recommendations of the performance and innovation unit report, "Counter Revolution: Modernising the Post Office Network", which was published in June. A key recommendation was to develop the role of sub-postmasters and mistresses as government general practitioners. I am pleased to inform the House that, later today, the contract will be signed to begin the government general practitioner project.
§ Miss McIntosh
Is the Secretary of State aware of the number of post offices and sub-post offices in the Vale of York that have closed under his stewardship? Is he also aware that utility companies such as Northern Electric and Gas have written to sub-post offices such as that run by Mrs. Holden in Huby to say that they are passing on the climate change levy to post offices and sub-post offices? I am not aware that they are heavy industrial users of electricity. Is that not another hammer blow against sub-post offices, which will put them out of business in rural areas such as the Vale of York?
§ Mr. Byers
I shall certainly examine the hon. Lady's example with great interest and concern. On the wider issue of the post office network, we have recognised the important role that post offices play in rural and urban communities. That is why, for example, we have introduced measures to provide a subsidy to the network. That is the first time that that has been done and it clearly demonstrates our commitment to maintain a nationwide network.
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)
Post offices in central Scotland are going through a period of renewed confidence as a consequence of the announcement that 1127 was made in the summer. They are already benefiting from being online, and there has been a reduction in the tedious work load that so troubled post offices in the past. Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that there is a genuine feeling in many areas of the country that the post office problem is on the way to being resolved?
§ Mr. Byers
I am pleased to hear that the network in central Scotland is responding positively to the measures that the Government are introducing. There is no doubt that we need a modernised network to meet the new demands that are being made. I believe that the more than £500 million that we are investing in the computerisation of every post office will pay enormous dividends in the future, and will allow post offices to extend their facilities and the range of services that they offer the public. That would never have happened under a Conservative Government, who were prepared, through neglect, to see the network decline. We believe that we now have a clear process in place that will support the network and ensure that it can meet the challenges that lie ahead.
§ Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)
Does the Minister recall his recent answer to my written parliamentary question, which confirmed that the annual rate of decline of post office branches has accelerated from 200 a year to 333 in the first six months of this financial year? Is not a major factor in the uncertainty of the branches the lack of confidence in the concept of the people's bank? Although it is welcome that the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation has this week endorsed the people's bank, are not other leading clearers rubbishing it in the press? As Treasury Ministers have declined the opportunity to put the social obligations of the banks on a statutory footing, what confidence has the Secretary of State that the people's bank will take off and provide income for the banking system?
§ Mr. Byers
It is worth reflecting on the fact that in the first half of this year closures in rural areas were 20 per cent. down on the corresponding period for last year. There are clear indications that people are responding positively to the programme that we have outlined.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the important role that universal banking services can play in a modernised post office network. Like him, I welcome the announcement by HSBC earlier this week of its broad support for the concept of a universal bank—a post office-based solution. However, the hon. Gentleman should not believe all he reads in the press. The discussions and negotiations with the banks are proceeding well, and I hope that an agreement will be concluded in the not-too-distant future, so that we can provide banking services through the post office network.
§ Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)
A couple of weeks ago, the Minister responsible for the Post Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson), met sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in my constituency, and he went a long way towards satisfying many of their concerns. However, he was unable completely to satisfy their concern about the perception that the Department of Social Security is still encouraging benefit recipients, including pensioners, to have payments made direct into their bank accounts. 1128 May I urge my right hon. Friend to have further discussions with his colleagues to ensure that all sections of the DSS understand Government policy in this area and realise the importance of maintaining the post office network?
§ Mr. Byers
I am aware of those concerns. I ask my hon. Friend to provide any evidence of such action by the DSS. I had the pleasure of addressing the national council of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters last Friday, when this issue was raised. I invited them also to provide evidence. The agreement in government is clear. Although from 2003 there will be a progressive move towards automated credit transfer, that will not be the case between now and then, so we have a period in which to ensure that new revenue streams are developed within the post office network.
§ Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire)
Is the Secretary of State aware that, with two sub-post offices closing every day, with the universal banking service looking increasingly flabby and unlikely to plug the gap, with the rural White Paper acting as a fig leaf of support for sub-post offices and with the savage introduction of ACTs, he is presiding over the meltdown of our sub-post offices?
Bearing in mind the embarrassment of the dome, the confusion on the railways, the collapse of our textile industry and the climate levy which will destroy business after business, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us when we shall have a Minister who will take responsibility for his or her actions? When will he do the decent thing and resign?
§ Mr. Byers
That was almost worth waiting for.
There is a serious point here—I have been trying to find out what constitutes Conservative policy on the Post Office. One of the issues with which we have had to deal in government is the problem of years of neglect of the network, over which the Conservative party presided.
Yesterday evening I consulted "Believing in Britain" to see whether there was a page about the Post Office, a paragraph about the Post Office, a sentence about the Post Office, or even a word about the Post Office. The Tories' programme for the future did not include a single word about the Post Office.
That stands in stark contrast to what we have done in office. There is now a statutory requirement to protect the network, and we have the ability to give it a subsidy. More than £500 million is being spent on computerising post offices up and down the country, and £270 million is guaranteed in this year's spending review. We are a Government committed to the post office network and delivering it with a real vision of a network of the future.
That, as I have said, is in stark contrast to the Conservative party, which says nothing about the Post Office. Ours is a party with a vision for the future, which we intend to deliver.