I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing this matter for the debate on the Adjournment. It particularly concerns old people. There has been great concern in my constituency because in recent months there have been two closures of sub-post offices. However, it is a matter that transcends mere constituency interest.
I ask the Minister to re-examine the criteria that are used by the Post Office in deciding whether to close a sub-post office. He is aware of those criteria. When a decision is reached on the question whether to close a post office the decision is usually reached at or about the time an existing postmaster decides to retire. Consideration is given to the question whether there is another post office within a mile. If there is another post office within that distance the die is usually cast and all other considerations appear to be irrelevant.
My argument is that the criteria used by the Post Office are far too inflexible and that not sufficient regard is given to the requirement of modern town living. I know that the Post Office argues—it has done so in letters to me—that it must balance its obligation to provide a service to the public with what it describes as its obligation to operate commercially and, if possible, profitably. That argument has been expressed to me repeatedly. I have had it from the Managing Director of the Post Office.
Whenever I have raised the matter with the Minister he has said that it is not his responsibility and that it is the sole responsibility of the Post Office. Invariably, my letter are passed to Mr. Currall, the Managing Director of the Post Office. It is obvious that when considering the question the Post Office tries to strike a fair balance. My argument is that insufficent weight is given to other considerations. Much greater emphasis should be given to human factors such as the age of the population. In some areas where a post office is situated there is a high density of old people. There may be a high proportion of people calling for their pensions. The physical features of the area should be taken into consideration—for instance, whether there is a hilly terrain. More weight should be given to weather conditions. In my area, for example, the weather tends—if I may describe it politely—to be inclement. That is an added difficulty for people who have to walk great distances to collect their pensions. More weight should be given to the availability of transport.
I am not saying that such factors are ignored. I am saying that they are given insufficient weight. The mile ground rule is applied far too rigidly and other factors are dwarfed as a result.
I ask the Minister to consider the criteria. I ask him bluntly whether he considers they are the right criteria and whether the balance is right between the Post Office's obligation to provide a public service and its obligation to act commercially and profitably.
My constituency has suffered from two post office closures in the last three months or so. This follows on the close of the Upper Antley post office some two or three years ago. The sub-post office in Enfield closed in July. This is in Clayton-le-Moors, an urban district in my constituency, an area where there is a high proportion of old people.
There were protests by the old people's welfare committee. The local authority protested. I met the Managing Director of the Post Office after I had met the Chairman of the North-West Postal Board. The chairman of the council, Councillor Hill, and the deputy clerk, Mr. Wells, and Mr. Barrow, a councillor, came to London and met the Chairman and Managing Director of the Post Office. But, regrettably and inevitably, the post office closed. There was a great deal of resentment amongst my constituents as a result. The Clayton-le-Moors Urban District Council passed a resolution urging me to take parliamentary action, and circulated it to all members of the Association of Municipal Authorities. As a result, I have had support from several urban district councils, including Huyton, which I particularly mention because it is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I am grateful for that support.
I am not knocking in any way the representatives of the Post Office I met. They were invariably courteous. But one could not help getting the impression that their minds had already been made up because they had applied, first and foremost, this wretched criterion of the mile distance between post offices.
The misfortune for my constituency did not end there. In November, following the July closure in Enfield, the sub-post office in Spring Hill closed. Again there were protests from old people. There was a residents' meeting at the Spring Hill Club. Two of the residents met Mr. Creed, the local head postmaster. Councillors met the Post Office advisory committee. There was a petition of residents, and a particularly important petition signed by about 700 employees of Rists Wires and Cables Limited, a large works in the Spring Hill area, 90 per cent. of whose employees are women. They pointed out that they used this sub-post office to collect their family allowances. Obviously, the closure was particularly hard on the working women in an area where a high proportion of women go out to work.
In addition, the local council representatives of the area met the advisory committee. The petition was passed to Mr. Currall. I am afraid that once again there came the same inevitable reply. I also contacted the Minister who, predictably, told me that it was not his responsibility but that of the Post Office.
I ask the Minister whether he feels that the time has come to change these rather stiff criteria. I accept that the Post Office generally gives a very good service. Certainly, with postal deliveries, it gives an infinitely better service than that provided by most other countries. I accept that private organisations would not keep a sub-post office going any more than they would keep a department store going if it were not making sufficient profits. I take the view, along with many others, that in an organisation of this sort public service ought to be the No. 1 criterion. If it is not, the criteria should be changed. I therefore ask the Minister to use his good offices to help.
When the Post Office talks about profitability, what exactly does it mean? I do not expect the Minister to go into details about the two local issues; they are dead and gone now. The die has been cast, and even the Minister cannot save them at the eleventh hour. When the Post Office talks about profitability, does it mean the saving on the sub-postmaster's salary or does it mean that the Post Office is not making a profit? As I understand it, when it talks about a saving in the £1,000 range—which was the saving in both the cases referred to—it means the saving of the sub-postmaster's salary. Surely this would in some way be redistributed among the other sub-post offices in paying for the increased staff which would result from a greater work-load.
All in all, the closure of a sub-post office is a matter of great concern. It invariably hits old people and those who have got into certain habits. The habits of old people are particularly hard to break. I ask the Minister to say that he will re-examine these criteria, and to say that they are too rigid and inflexible. The process of trying to convince the Post Office that a closure is not in the public interest is invariably useless. I should like him to say how many post offices have been saved since these criteria were brought into existence. I hope that he will deal with these matters seriously, because they are of great concern. I do not expect him to deal with the local issues but with the general topic that I have raised.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) for raising this subject. He had written to me about the closure of sub-post offices in his constituency. I am glad he has raised the issue in the House tonight because it gives me an opportunity, which I welcome, of setting out and, I hope, clarifying the main issues which bear upon the whole question.
I am sure the House would wish to be reminded of the statutory position. I take the opportunity to emphasise this because sometimes even hon. Members misunderstand the position in which the Minister finds himself in such issues. The 1969 Post Office Act made the Post Office into a nationalised corporation, with full responsibility for running its day-to-day affairs.
The Act gave it powers to provide postal services, including counter services, and imposed upon it a duty:
so to exercise its powers as to meet the social, industrial and commercial needs of the British Isles".
while having regard, among other things, "to efficiency and economy". Although the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, whose office was created by the same Act, has certain reserve powers, it is clear that the nature and scale of counter services in a given locality are management matters for the Post Office. Successive Ministers of both parties have taken the view that it would not be right for them to intervene on detailed sub-office questions. To do otherwise would be to act contrary to the will of Parliament, as expressed in the 1969 Act, and
to cut across and so undermine the competence of the Post Office Board in this field.
In short, my rôle is to ensure that the Post Office does its job properly and in accordance with the Act; it is not my function to usurp the Post Office's own rôle as a public authority.
Second, I am sure that hon. Members would wish to be reassured about Post Office policy in relation to the provision and closure of sub-post offices. I hope to mention the criteria which the Post Office observes and about which the hon. Gentleman asked. Essentially, as the Act requires, the Post Office seeks to maintain a balance between the reasonable needs of the local community, on the one hand, and the cost of meeting those needs, on the other. Translated into practical terms, this means that a post office is not normally opened within one mile of an existing office in a town or within two miles of an existing office in the rural area. The hon. Gentleman was critical of this method of measurement. In fact, it is extremely generous. It has been in operation since 1948. It is not intended to be rigid or inflexible. It is intended to provide a yardstick by which the requirements are judged.
These standards, which were defined many years ago and are already generous by comparison with most advanced western countries, are not applied rigidly, and many other factors are taken into account before any sub-office is closed. They include the volume of business transacted at the office concerned, the nature and terrain of the area its serves, and the availability of local bus services I emphasise, in view of what the hon. Gentleman said about old people, that full consideration is given to the needs of local residents and retirement pensioners in particular. Well before the event, local authorities and Post Office advisory committees are advised of any impending closure and the reasons for it; and any views they, or other interested parties, express are given full weight before a final decision is taken.
I hope I have shown that the Post Office does not take lightly a decision to close a sub-office; indeed, it rarely does so at all unless the sub-postmaster resigns and in some cases—for example, when no replacement can be found—the decision is effectively taken out of Post Office hands. Even then it does everything possible to alleviate inconvenience or hardship, sometimes by sending staff from the nearest head post office to transact business at a local hall on one or two days a week. This is a costly way of providing service and can be only a temporary arrangement, but the Post Office willingly shoulders this burden when the need arises.
Similarly, in rural areas, the delivery postman will sell stamps, obtain postal orders, accept letters and parcels and help in other ways as he goes on his rounds. I accept that most pensioners would prefer to collect their pensions at a nearby post office, but the pensioner may choose, instead, to authorise a friend or neighbour to act as agent and to collect the pension on his behalf, or he can arrange to receive periodic payments through a bank account.
Over the last 10 years the total number of sub-offices has fallen only from about 23,200 to 22,500, so the net decline after taking account of openings and closures, is little more than 0·3 per cent. per annum.
These figures do not support the view that has been expressed from time to time that the Post Office has been engaged in a massive onslaught on its own counter services, nor do they suggest that the Post Office is failing in the duties imposed upon it in the 1969 Act. But if further assurance is needed I would remind the House of an exchange that took place last year between the Post Office Users' National Council and the Chairman of the Post Office Corporation. In commenting on Post Office proposals for service changes the council said that:
it would deplore any policy to thin out sub post offices on a substantial scale. These offices play an important part in the life of the community and it is difficult to see how the numbers could be materially reduced without a marked deterioration in the standard of service to the public".
To that the Chairman of the Post Office replied:
it is not in fact our intention to reduce the number of offices on such a scale that might in any way be regarded as substantial".
That assurance is a matter of public record and, while it cannot bind the Post Office for ever, I think we may safely leave it to the users' council, under Lord
Peddie's vigorous leadership, to maintain a vigilant and continuing interest in this aspect of Post Office activities. I should add that it is always open to any aggrieved party to make representations about sub-office closures to the Post Office Users' National Council. This procedure is used frequently, and brings to the attention of the council the situation affecting the particular area. It enables the council to explore the general proposition and the application of the general criteria to an individual locality.
Thirdly, I fully understand the views advanced by the hon. Member for Accrington in respect of the closures that have taken place in his constituency. I have had representations from Mr. Alan Fern, Mr. George Broadhurst, and other local leaders, so I recognise the strength of local feeling that lies behind those views. At the same time I hope that he will in turn accept that it is not for me to comment on the detailed aspects of the cases in question. I am grateful to him for making clear that he did not expect me to do so tonight. I have, of course, informed myself of the basic facts, including the fact that there are four other sub-offices within about half a mile of the Spring Hill sub-office. I am satisfied that it would not be right for me to intervene. I understand that the users' council has also reviewed the situation and decided that it cannot properly challenge the Post Office decision.
Speaking of sub-post offices and sub-postmasters and the service they give to the local community, I take this opportunity briefly but publicly to thank the sub-postmasters throughout the country for the valuable work they are doing. I know that the hon. Gentleman would wish to be associated with what I am saying. In addition to their other responsibilities there is the work they do on behalf of the Government, not only when providing normal agency services, but also in connection with the special Christmas payments to pensioners and—most recently—the issue of petrol coupons. Counter clerks everywhere, in Crown or sub-post offices, have helped magnificently to ensure that the issuing of petrol coupons was carried through with the maximum of efficiency and the minimum of inconvenience to the public. The Government are grateful to them and to the Post Office for a job well done.
I am confident that all who have followed this debate and who subsequently read it will be reassured about the policies of the Post Office in relation to sub offices. The Post Office has the difficult ask of balancing costs against needs and I know that it carries this through responsibly and with a proper regard to local circumstances.