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Post Office Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:40 pm on 15th May 2002.

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Photo of Betty Williams Betty Williams Labour, Conwy 5:40 pm, 15th May 2002

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this important debate. I am committed to a publicly owned and publicly managed universal postal delivery service, and to the maintenance of a comprehensive network of well equipped post offices.

That said, I am greatly disturbed by the style and standards of much of the management of Consignia that I have encountered since I entered the House in 1997. I know that Consignia's statistics demonstrate that postal delivery standards are improving, but my postbag, like those of other Members, deals with individual cases, not statistics. My experience is real, not statistical, and it includes loss, delay and misdirection.

The management style of the Post Office seems frozen and unyielding. The Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, has several times taken evidence from the Post Office. On the most recent occasion, a list of post offices in Wales was requested from the company. It provided the list, but clearly with some reluctance because it asked that it should not be released to the public. That is a novel way to conduct business—to set up thousands of outlets but not let the public know where they are. Fortunately, the company agreed with the Committee that it was being over-zealous. Perhaps by then it had seen the list published, for all to see, in the Yellow Pages. The list that the company provided to the Committee appeared to be in an entirely random order; it was set out neither alphabetically nor geographically, so the post offices in my constituency were distributed throughout a 25-page list.

I had earlier asked the management for a list of the post offices in my constituency. I was told that it was cost-prohibitive to provide it. In fact, from a list of all Welsh post office locations and their postcodes, it should be possible to produce such a list for all constituencies in Wales without any difficulty. It may surprise hon. Members that although the Post Office uses postcodes for the efficient delivery of mail, and an excellent system it is, its management is incapable of using them in its business, so it is happy to tell me that post offices in Dyserth and Holyhead are in my constituency. That may surprise my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) because, as intelligent people will know, neither of those places is in my constituency. Those are just two examples of such errors.

Other hon. Members have commented on the closure of post offices. In Wales, the Post Office has appointed rural advisers, but there are only four for the whole of Wales and they have yet to prove themselves. Closure also affects urban post offices, and they are outside the remit of the advisers. Post office closures are not always handled well by management. Standards of communication between management and sub-post offices appear to be less than satisfactory.

I am aware that the National Federation of Sub- Postmasters has concerns about the future of the post office network, and I understand the remarks made by Mr. Page about rumours. Let me quote a letter from one sub-post office proprietor, who said:

"I am afraid the people at the top of the Post Office, who are the people who can actually make the changes and are often those who reply to you, seem to have little or no first hand experience of what actually happens at a Post Office counter. It is not surprising therefore to find that the real reason so many Subpostmasters are trying to leave the organisation is because they have such little confidence in the hierarchy. The ACT threat is of course very real, but most Subpostmasters also run another side to their business and are used to competition and challenges. It is when they see the constant floundering exhibited in the managing of the Post Office and the utterly disgraceful failure to develop the business to meet a long known about challenge that Subpostmasters become despondent about their future livelihood."

That is the view of a practitioner delivering a service to the customer over the counter.

Closure of the sub-post office in Mostyn street, Llandudno, was announced in November 2001, to take effect in March 2002. It was caused by the franchise partner deciding not to renew the contract. There was considerable local opposition to the loss in that town centre location. The mayor of Llandudno, Councillor Brian B. Bertola, and Llandudno town council raised a petition of more than 3,000 signatures. When asked to receive the petition from the mayor and myself in the town of Llandudno, management in Wales declined to do so. They also declined to receive it in Westminster, saying that it was

"not cost effective to do so."

I have used the expression Post Office rather than Consignia because the name Post Office is known to the public. In Wales, the Post Office has a long history of providing reliable delivery of mail to households, many of which are in remote locations. I have nothing but admiration for Post Office staff, who on occasion must deliver in weather that can be understood only by hon. Members with mountainous constituencies. The universal postal obligation is essential to my constituents. Mr. Martin Stanley, chief executive of Postcomm, knows of my concern through correspondence and early-day motions 797 and 827. Cherry-picking of rich urban areas must not be permitted.

Equally important is that the management of the Post Office become more responsive to their staff, their sub-post offices and to the users of their services. So far, management have hardly begun to demonstrate a willingness to do so. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that it is too simplistic to say that throwing additional funding at the issue will be sufficient. The attitude of management must change.