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Post Office Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:55 pm on 15th May 2002.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith 5:55 pm, 15th May 2002

I am glad of the hon. Gentleman's support on that point, but I now come to a criticism of his position on the matter. Although I enjoyed his quoting from the briefing of the National Federation of Sub- Postmasters, he showed, I believe, that it is always dangerous selectively to quote from a briefing that is sent to all hon. Members, as others are invited to draw attention to the other points that are made in that briefing. The federation has a realistic approach to the problem facing the sub-post office network, by contrast with Opposition Members. It states:

"It is accepted that there is duplication and overprovision in some urban areas, making those post offices commercially unviable. There is an urgent need for restructuring."

It goes on to state:

"Tough decisions must be made in order to ensure a viable network for the future to create bigger, better and brighter post offices . . . The larger customer base for some offices following restructuring should enable sub-postmasters in many cases to invest in improved facilities, additional counter positions and longer opening hours."

That is a realistic approach. Of course, the federation makes other comments, as one would expect from a lobby group whose role is to be critical of the Government and which is likely to demand action that they may not be able to support. The basic point, however, is that the federation supports the urban reinvention programme, and that should be emphasised in this debate.

A dose of reality is required when we discuss sub-post offices and postal delivery services. Of course, all hon. Members support the universal service obligation; the Government and every hon. Member who has spoken support it. The universal postal delivery service must remain. Along with many hon. Members, I have signed a number of early-day motions strongly criticising the Postcomm proposals, as I do again today. At the same time, we must recognise that times have changed since the postal service was the only way in which communities—remote ones in particular—could stay in touch with the rest of the world.

Of course, the postal service still plays a vital role in communities throughout the country. We should be proud that, through the postal service, somebody in the Isles of Scilly can be in contact with somebody in Lerwick—or Leir-vik, as I believe we are meant to call it—just as easily and at the same price as somebody here in Westminster can communicate with somebody in the City of London a mile down the road. However, it is one thing to say that we should provide a cross-subsidy to enable people throughout the country and especially in remote areas to enjoy the same postal service as everyone else and allow them to stay part of the community and to stay in touch with friends and relatives, but quite another to say that we should give the same large cross-subsidy to enable direct mail marketing companies to send the same junk mail to everyone in the country—the sort of rubbish that finds its way into the bin whether it is delivered in Thurso or Truro, Edinburgh or London.

That is the reality of the changing way in which the postal service is used. There are no easy solutions. I am not calling for the abolition of the universal post; far from it—I want it to be retained. However, we must recognise changes in the marketplace and in the role that the postal service plays in our society.

The way forward is not to stay stuck in the past, but to rebuild a post office network to take account of changing needs, technologies and opportunities. The "your guide" initiative is an excellent scheme; like many hon. Members, I saw the display in Portcullis House. There are many opportunities to develop that system, perhaps by involving local government and other services that can be provided for communities.

The Liberal Democrats' approach seems basically one of managed decline of the sub-post office network. They do not have the same grounding in reality as the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. We are all concerned about change in our areas and communities, and all of us will speak up for the interests of our communities whenever they are threatened, but I recognise that fundamental change is necessary. I welcome the fact that the Government are taking that need seriously and putting in £270 million to back up what they say with actions.