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Post Office Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:16 pm on 15th May 2002.

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Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page Conservative, South West Hertfordshire 5:16 pm, 15th May 2002

I can see many advantages, but I have pointed out that there could be some disadvantages. What is incredible is the Government's insensitivity in announcing to all sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, "By the way, you will lose, on average, 35 per cent. of your income. We will come along sometime in the next two or three years and let you know how we will supplement it through this universal banking scheme." The details of the universal banking scheme are not universally clear. I hope that the hon. Lady is right and it is win, win, win, but sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses do not share her optimism. The difficulty of selling on sub-post offices is a serious worry. If it is such a win, win, win situation, why are they closing at record rates? Perhaps she will ponder that reality of life. Rural post offices are closing at a worrying rate and before funding is allocated to tackle the problem.

There are rumours of a plan to allow sub-post offices to close until they number about 12,000, when each will have enough income to make them viable. The hon. Member for Southport talked about the move towards bigger sub-post offices, but if they have a limited throughput of work, there will be fewer of them. When I mentioned the 12,000 figure, the Under-Secretary shook his head. At what number does he think the sub-post office network will stabilise? When will it reach an equilibrium? The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness is giving him advice, no doubt using words to the effect, "Don't you dare give an answer because it will be too embarrassing." I see that the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness is shrugging, and it is clear that they do not have an answer. We are obviously flying into the wild blue yonder.

We also need to understand how the £15 million fund to support post offices in deprived rural areas is functioning, because it is shrouded in mystery. The Government remove money quickly, but it is less than clear how they are going to replace it.

Postal services are being opened up to greater competition, which I welcome, but sub-postmasters want to know how likely it is that Consignia will ensure that local sub-post offices continue to hold cash deposited by businesses. If financial difficulties force the organisation to put its cash handling out to tender, will the new postal services be encouraged to locate their boxes at or in existing sub-post offices, where the flow of customers may be critical to their survival? Those are not academic issues.

We heard that handling costs will determine whether sub-post offices survive or die. Handling charges have to be realistic and set at the right level. Only today, however, someone approached me to say that the sub-post office charge for handling payments for her utility services had gone from well below £1 to more than £1. She is actively considering whether to make those payments in a different way.

My constituents have made their views clear. I have a petition from a small post office run by Mr. John Hayden in Tudor parade, Moneyhill, in my constituency. It is just three short of 300 signatures. Everyone who signed it is concerned about the closure of sub-post offices, the fact that they are losing 35 per cent. of their income and that more than 500 closed last year. They want to know where the line will be drawn. I hope that I get specific answers to my constituents' concerns on those wider issues. However, experience has taught me that I must not raise my hopes too high.

In recent years, the Post Office has become a symbol of the confusion at the heart of the Government's strategy for the public sector. We had a Post Office that was the envy of the world, but instead of a brave new world of modern services and commercial and financial freedom, what have we now? We have a Post Office that, in the words of the former general secretary of the Labour party, is suffering from inherent faults and crippling levels of inefficiency.

It is too much to expect Ministers to accept any blame for the situation. I have noticed that this Government are prepared to accept only credit, not blame, but the country, and my constituents, will hold them to account. We have to reverse the decline in our sub-post offices and put them back on the map, with security, and that is what my constituents are looking for.