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In my short time as a Member of Parliament, this is the third time I have spoken about the Post Office on behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. The direction appears no clearer, and we shall happily support the Liberal Democrat motion.
The position of sub-post offices in Scotland and Wales is precarious and causes great anxiety. It has already been said that the Government's determination to press on with automated credit transfer means that some 40 per cent. of post offices' income will vanish. It is difficult to understand how they will be replace that.
In opening the debate, the Minister spoke at length about network banking. However, the experience in my constituency is that banks, like many other businesses, have removed themselves from rural areas. In the past decade, banking services have retrenched out of rural areas. It reached the stage where one big bank was running an advertising campaign to try to gain a lead over its rivals on the basis that it was not closing branches.
In my constituency, several rural post offices have closed in the past few years. In the village of Farnell, the post office closed six months ago and is unlikely to reopen. The post office in Monikie keeps going simply because the current postmistress, who wishes to retire, has agreed to stay on in the hope that a new owner can be found. If that does not happen shortly, the post office will inevitably close. A third example is the post office in Marykirk, just over the border in West Aberdeenshire. It closed last month and will be converted into a house. The people of the village face a trip to Montrose in my constituency to obtain postal services. That may not seem a long way, but it is for those who do not have a car or are elderly or disabled.
The Minister cited the statistic, which Consignia also gave, that nine out of 10 people live within a mile of a post office. That is disingenuous when one considers the population break-up of rural areas. People in my constituency and in that of Mr. Carmichael face much longer trips to reach a post office.
Much has been said about the closure of post offices in the United Kingdom. In a rare bout of charity to the Government, I must say that it is not entirely their fault—the trend began some 20 years ago. In 1980–81, there were 22,475 post offices in the UK. That figure fell to just below 18,000 last year. It has been said that 547 post offices were closed in 2000–01. I appreciate that the rate has slowed, but that may be for various reasons. It is worth looking behind the statistics because they contain alarming messages for Scotland and Wales.
Most closures have occurred in rural areas, and 64 per cent. of all Scotland's post offices are in rural areas. In 2000–01, 89 per cent. of closures were of rural post offices. That is much higher than the UK average. The position is even worse in Wales, where 70 per cent. of post offices are in rural areas. That is the highest proportion in the UK. Last year's closure rate of 6 per cent. was again much higher in Wales.
It is not only rural post offices that are under threat. Consignia's latest restructuring plan, which was announced in March, foresees the closure of up to 3,000 urban post offices—one third of the total. The closure rate is higher in deprived urban areas. We cannot consider the Post Office purely in terms of business, balance sheets and profit and loss accounts. There is a social element to it, especially in rural and more deprived areas. That must be acknowledged.
I should like to know more about the "your guide" proposals, which are innovative, although in some ways they seem simply a more electronic form of doing what many sub-postmasters have done for many years. Post offices have been the hub of the community.
The motion also refers to delivery services and the universal service obligation, which is vital to Scotland and Wales. Both nations have large rural and remote areas, and delivery costs are higher to them than to densely populated urban areas. If the universal service obligation and the universal tariff are allowed to go, it will spell disaster for postal deliveries in those areas.
The Government have previously said that they would insist on the retention of the obligation, but I would like the Minister to tell me how that would be workable in a system with a multitude of operators. Many of the players will wish to go for profitable urban routes, and there is a clear danger that rural areas in particular will be left out in the cold. It does not seem feasible to insist that one carrier, Consignia, should have a universal service obligation when others do not.
What would such an obligation mean to a carrier operating only in an urban area? It would be very easy to fulfil the universal service obligation and guarantee a universal tariff in such a location. It would be much more difficult, however, for a carrier operating only rural deliveries. Most hon. Members on this side of the House believe that Postcomm's proposals will ultimately lead to the end of the universal service obligation and the universal tariff.
International comparisons give serious cause for concern. In Sweden, for example, prices have increased by 72 per cent., and deliveries in rural areas are made not to the door but to cluster points along the postman's route. The number of post offices in Sweden has halved over the past 10 years, and employment in the industry has fallen by 20 per cent. In spite of that, the Swedish postal service now runs an operating deficit approaching £20 million a year. Furthermore, postal deliveries to rural areas in New Zealand now take, on average, two days longer than before.
When Sir Rowland Hill introduced the penny post in 1840, he did so to reform a system in which many carriers were operating services of variable quality and charging whatever they liked. Mail was paid for by the addressee, and if they could not afford it they could not have it. The Postcomm proposals seem to take us back towards that system. For all those reasons, we shall support the Liberal Democrats tonight, and we urge the Government to reconsider this matter before it is too late.