Dr Julian Lewis: What recent representations she [The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Patricia Hewitt] has received regarding the future of the sub-post office network?
[Patricia Hewitt: … We have significantly reduced the number of post office closures, especially in rural areas – [Interruption.] We have significantly reduced the number of post office closures. Two years ago, we lost more than 500 sub-post offices across the country, most of them in rural areas; last year, we halved the rate of closure, and more than halved it in rural areas. We are already seeing the benefits of our decision to put a duty on the company to prevent avoidable closures in rural areas. That is already benefiting customers of the Post Office… ]
[SUPPLEMENTARY:] That answer sounded rather like Stalin claiming credit for the fact that he was running out of victims in the great purge. Is it not a fact that, up and down the country, hundreds if not thousands of communities fear the loss of their sub-post office, and hundreds if not thousands of people who invested their life savings in building up the business of the sub-post office network are wondering what is going to happen to their career? When those post offices close – as they will continue to do – what compensation will the Government offer those people who have invested their life savings in building up businesses that are about to be destroyed?
[Ms Hewitt: The previous Conservative Government did nothing to reduce the rate of post office closures, nor did they do anything to compensate sub-postmasters and mistresses who needed and wanted to close their business. What we have done is to agree with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters a compensation package that will include not only compensation for sub- postmasters and mistresses in urban areas whose post offices are closing but investment grants for sub- postmasters and mistresses to improve the remaining offices so that we can deliver a much better service.
The fact is that there are too many underused post offices in some of our towns and cities. Indeed, a sub-postmaster in a part of my city – Leicester –said that there were 10 sub-post offices within a square mile. They were all competing against each other and none was able to make a sensible living or deliver a good service. That is why, under urban reinvention, the Post Office will be making proposals for a reinvention of that network, which will mean a better service for customers and a much better future for the sub-postmasters and mistresses.]