HC Deb 22 March 2001 vol 365 cc479-80
13. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

If he will make a statement on the rural post office network. [153643]

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson)

By accepting all 24 recommendations of the performance and innovation unit's report on the future of the post office network, the Government have demonstrated their continuing commitment to maintenance of a national network. We are working closely with the Post Office, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and other stakeholders to implement the PIU recommendations. These measures are designed to modernise and improve post office services and to strengthen confidence in the future of the network. We have also established a new fund to support initiatives by volunteer or community groups to maintain or reopen post office facilities in rural areas where the traditional post office is closing.

The Post Office has accepted a formal requirement, placed on it by the Government, to maintain the rural network and to prevent any avoidable closures of rural post offices.

Miss McIntosh

The Minister will be aware of my keen interest in this matter. I am grateful for the briefing given to me by the Leeds regional office. That briefing proved that the rural post office network is virtually non-existent. It is hopelessly inadequate. The whole network is geared to urban and suburban post offices. Does the Minister accept that the Government have failed rural post offices and the countryside?

Mr. Johnson

I realise that the hon. Lady takes an interest in that matter, but I am bemused by her response following a briefing. Rural closures are 20 per cent. down on the same period last year—[Interruption.] That is the first time there has been a reduction of any sort in the past 18 years. Many of the initiatives that we announced last month resulted from suggestions made by rural sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. So we are providing protection through Government subsidy—as specified in the Postal Services Act 2000. We have abolished the 25 per cent. of salary up-front fee that new sub-postmasters had to pay when they first took over a new post office—that was introduced by the previous Government in 1989 and we have waived the fee—and set up a £2 million fund to allow parish councils and local communities to meet the capital costs of opening a village hall as a post office. We predict that that will lead to the reopening of 200 offices that cannot at present find a location.

The hon. Lady asked a genuine question and has a genuine interest, but we should have a better dialogue on the subject because the rural part of the network is doing better than the rest.