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GOOD NEWS FOR WELSH POST OFFICES - PAUL MURPHY

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Government measures to help post offices mean good news for the post office network in Wales, the secretary of stat...
Government measures to help post offices mean good news for the post office network in Wales, the secretary of state for Wales, Paul Murphy, said today.

He was commenting after trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers announced the measures and publication of the Performance and Innovation Unit's (PIU) report on the future of the post office network.

Mr Murphy said: 'This is particularly important for Wales with our large rural population.

'The government is keen to support post offices in both urban and rural Wales through access to new technology and new markets. We want to work closely with the post office and the national assembly, where appropriate, to ensure a bright future for the network, which currently comprises more than 1,500 post offices in Wales.

'There will be new opportunities for post offices to offer more financial services, including banking facilities.

'I strongly support the universal bank concept. This offers a post office-based solution to provide a new type of bank account, which can tackle issues of financial and social exclusion and help fulfil the government's commitment that people who want to receive their benefits in cash over a post office counter can continue to do so.

'The government is requiring the post office to maintain the rural network and to prevent any avoidable closures. And the government will provide financial support to back up its commitment.'

Mr Murphy said there would also be new opportunities with one-stop shops for government information and services.

'The national assembly has a key role to play in this, and I am going to meet the first secretary, Rhodri Morgan, to discuss this and the other matters in which the assembly has a role to play,' he said.

'While most of these proposals are for the UK government to take forward with the post office, some will be for the assembly to decide. In areas that fall within the assembly's policy remit, Wales will receive a share of any new funding, and it will be for the assembly to decide how it uses that money.

'The government will provide funding to improve post offices in deprived urban areas and to sustain post offices and retail facilities in such areas. The assembly will be responsible for deciding whether it wishes to implement similar proposals in the urban post offices in Wales.

'I want the post office to work creatively to seize the new business opportunities suggested in the PIU report, such as the universal bank, one-stop shops and the opportunities offered by e-commerce, so the network is not dependent on subsidy. However, government funding will be available to support our proposals.

'While a more independent and competitive post office is desirable, we recognise there could be cases where subsidies are necessary in order to allow post offices to continue providing their valuable social role. We have therefore made provisions for subsidising rural post offices if necessary, on the basis of powers taken in the Postal Services Bill.

'Iam confident that today's package will provide a long-term solution for post offices in Wales.'

The report says the post office and the government should work together to draw up a business case for schemes by September 2000, with pilot schemes in place by early next year. It also says an action plan should be drawn up by the post office management in order to maximise the commercial potential of the network.

The government has pledged it will help the post office modernise to attract new business and that no-one will have to open a traditional bank account to receive state pensions and benefits.£480m has already been invested in HORIZON, a project to automate the entire post office network by next spring.

NOTE

The measures, which Mr Byers announced in the commons this afternoon, will:

- ensure that benefits and pensions can still be received in full, in cash at the local post office

- require the post office to maintain the rural network and to prevent any avoidable closures of rural post offices

- provide financial support to modernise the rural network

- provide funds to improve offices in deprived urban areas where they can be used for shops for the local community - funds could be used to install security measures and modernise the premises;

- support the development of the proposed universal bank - giving banking facilities for up to 3.5 million extra people and allowing customers, including pensioners to get cash out of the post office and set up direct debit arrangements, enabling them to benefit from discounts on gas, electricity and telephone bills;

- support pilot projects - backed by government funding - to develop plans for internet learning and access points in post offices;

- also support pilot projects so post offices can become one-stop shops - or general government practitioners - for advice and information on government services; and help the post office reverse the years of under investment and develop an urban network of bigger, brighter post offices, providing better services alongside thriving retail businesses.

Copies of the PIU report are available from the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit (020 7270 5286/6950) or from the PIU website.

The Postal Services Bill, currently going through its parliamentary stages, was published on 28 January 2000. It includes a clause which enables the government to provide subsidies for the post office network if considered appropriate and necessary.

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