I am pleased to be granted this debate on the closure of post offices in South Manchester, because it is a matter of extreme importance to my constituents in that part of the city, as well as to people throughout Manchester who are similarly suffering from post office closures.
May I make it clear at the outset that I am not challenging the urban reinvention programme? I supported it in the House and I recognise the need for a proper, effective strategic review of urban post offices to ensure a comprehensive spread of that service throughout the city of Manchester. What I am challenging is the consultation process undertaken by Post Office Ltd., and the decisions on the closures that have been taken as a result of that consultation process.
In south Manchester, in my constituency, Manchester Withington, three post offices were identified for closure in the latest round of such closures. I shall briefly discuss each of them. First, I want to make a general point. When the three post offices were announced, one of them was already temporarily closed, but I immediately visited the other two and found that, prior to any consultation process beginning, arrangements had been made for potential pay-offs to those sub-postmasters. They already knew that the intention was to close those post offices before any consultation process had begun. Already there was an intention by the Post Office to identify and make arrangements for those post offices to close.
The consultation process began with Beech road in Chorlton. Beech road is a lively local shopping area that has become more and more popular in recent years. The post office on Beech road is at the heart of that community. The plan to close the post office was greeted with great dismay by local residents and a campaign to keep it open was immediately launched. Petitions were compiled and a public meeting was arranged locally. I pay tribute to the two local ward councillors—Labour councillors—Sheila Newman and Val Stevens, who did so much work to properly gauge public opinion on the proposed closure.
Several key points came out of that consultation exercise. First, a significant number of elderly and disabled people who live in that immediate area need local access to post office services. Secondly, the closure of that post office would have a serious impact on other local traders—the area is vibrant and expanding and the post office is part of that local economy.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Post Office's view that the majority of current users of the Beech road branch would transfer to Hardy lane post office has no credibility. Anyone who understands the local geography of that part of south Manchester knows that if local people lost their local post office in Beech road, they would look towards Chorlton main post office, because of the natural flow of the population towards the centre of the city. Even now, however, Chorlton post office is incapable of dealing with the number of people who use it. Queues are long and no parking facilities exist, particularly for disabled people. If Beech road post office closes, it is a long walk to Chorlton main post office.
When the decision was taken to continue with the post office closure, the Post Office provided this justification:
"From our planning assumptions, we would expect the majority of customers to migrate to Hardy Lane branch and others to Chorlton-cum-Hardy branch. I know you are doubtful about Chorlton-cum-Hardy branch being able to cope with any additional business and I hope that when my colleague, Helen Jachim, wrote to you last month she allayed your concerns."
She certainly did not, because the planning assumption that only a minority of people would transfer to Chorlton main post office was wrong.
Even if a minority transferred, the capacity problems would remain, because there is also a proposal to close another post office, which is just outside my constituency in Upper Chorlton road, with those customers transferring to Chorlton main post office. The arguments that have been advanced have no validity and the consultation, which showed local people's genuine feelings, was totally ignored.
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that the story that he is describing in south Manchester has also taken place in north Manchester. The consultation was a sham and a disgrace, and false and misleading information has been put out about alternative post offices and the facts and figures in north Manchester. Today, Collyhurst post office is closed, leaving the people of Collyhurst without any obvious alternative—one of the two alternatives identified is not on a bus route, while the other, the Crown post office, is in the city centre. The situation is unsatisfactory, and I look forward to the Minister's response.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's view. The key phrase is "sham consultation", and my second example will underline that point.
The second proposal was to close Mauldeth road west post office and Burton road post office, both of which are in the Old Moat ward in my constituency. As I said earlier, Mauldeth road west post office was already temporarily closed, and there were issues surrounding the location of that particular post office. It was only acceptable to confirm that temporary closure as permanent if the Burton road post office was still available to the people of Old Moat, and particularly those in the south of that ward.
As a result of hard work by Labour councillors, again, we had an opportunity properly to gauge public opinion during the consultation exercise, and, again, key points emerged. First, and most importantly, a previous closure had occurred in that area on Barlow Moor road in west Didsbury. The justification for that closure was that the Burton road post office would be the receiving post office for those customers. When I did not oppose that particular closure because of circumstances in that area, I made it clear that it would not be acceptable for the Post Office to return at a future date and close the Burton road post office, which is the receiving post office for the one that closed. That is typical of what is happening around the country. And it has been completely ignored by Post Office Ltd.
Secondly, Old Moat is one of the most deprived wards not only in Manchester but throughout the country. The closure of Burton road and Mauldeth road west would mean that the whole ward would have no post office service available to it. That is completely unsustainable in terms of the deprivation factors that should apply when considering closures.
Does my right hon. Friend share my utter dismay that although Members on both sides of the House voted for specific money to be allocated to areas of deprivation where sub-post offices were under threat, the Post Office admitted to me that it is closing such sub-post offices, but has passed the buck to my hon. Friend the Minister and to other Departments instead of owning its responsibility to find solutions in areas of deprivation?
My hon. Friend makes a sound point. That flows through all the consultations that we have experienced in Greater Manchester and the north-west.
A second key point about the Old Moat ward is that many elderly people live in that area, and if these two post offices closed, leaving the ward with none, they would have to travel to the centre of Withington, which for some elderly people is well over a mile away, to get post office services. That is unacceptable.
Thirdly, the justification for closing the Burton road and Mauldeth road post offices was that a significant number of customers would transfer to Hart road post office. That view beggars belief. If the Post Office understood the geography of this part of south Manchester, it would know that the people of Old Moat would not even have Hart road on their radar. When I challenged it about that, it informed me that it had a state-of-the-art modelling system that had helped it reach its conclusion. When it failed to send me the details of that, I suggested that it might be better to ask local people what they thought about transferring to Hart road. The people to whom I spoke would probably need an overnight stay before returning home if they used that post office. It is a completely unacceptable alternative.
I thank councillors Bernard Walsh and Kevin Welsh for their hard work in Ridge Hill in my area, where we faced exactly the same problem as my right hon. Friend describes. We thought that we had luckily found a solution whereby the mini-market next door would be able to take over the franchise, but the Post Office refused even to meet its owner, on the basis that it wanted to be able to transfer all the business to another post office. Is not that completely unacceptable when someone else is prepared to take over the service for a deprived estate that is on top of a hill and a long way from the town centre?
The only conclusion that we can draw from these examples is that the consultation exercise is a complete sham, as my hon. Friend Mr. Stringer said. The Post Office knew what it wanted when it embarked on the exercise, and public opinion and the sound arguments that were put by representatives would only be ignored at the end of the consultation process. I ask the Minister to intervene in order carefully to consider the way in which these closures are being undertaken and the process that Post Office Ltd. is employing to arrive at its conclusions.
Will the Minister consider the precise role of Postwatch in this exercise? At a local level, I have received extremely good co-operation from Postwatch. Dario Cottingham has been extremely helpful. He has attended meetings with me, and he attended the public meeting and tried to represent the views expressed back through Postwatch to Post Office Ltd.
However, I question whether Postwatch is meeting the objectives that it set itself. Judith Donovan, the regional chairman of Postwatch Northern England, said to me:
"As the independent consumer watchdog Postwatch want to ensure that a sustainable network of post offices is achieved and that any closure should cause the minimum inconvenience to local consumers. Postwatch is also ensuring that remaining branches are making the necessary improvements to create the network of 'bigger, better and brighter post offices'" for the local area. I question whether Postwatch can justify the closures and its views on them and also fulfil its commitment as the representative of the consumer in the process. Should not it challenge the decisions? Will the Under-Secretary therefore consider its role in the process?
I strongly believe that we must ensure public confidence in the urban reinvention programme, for which the Under-Secretary is ultimately responsible. I am sure that my hon. Friends from Manchester and Greater Manchester agree. It is not acceptable for Post Office Ltd. simply to ignore the views of local communities in constituencies such as mine. It should set about trying to protect the most vulnerable, the elderly and the disabled in our local communities to ensure that they have proper and efficient access to Post Office services and that south Manchester, Manchester and Greater Manchester have a proper network of post offices that meet the needs of local consumers.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. Bradley on securing the debate. As we heard from his contribution, he has been assiduous in voicing, on behalf of his constituents, all the local concerns about Post Office Ltd.'s urban reinvention programme in his constituency. I pay tribute to his work and that of others in the community in Manchester in trying to come to terms with an emotive and difficult issue.
My right hon. Friend has expressed his depth of feeling and that of other hon. Friends about closures in Manchester. He knows that I met my hon. Friend Mr. Stringer, Councillor Jim Battle and Mr. Eddie Smith from Manchester council yesterday, when similar concerns were expressed to me about the role of Post Office Ltd. and that of Postwatch.
My right hon. Friend knows that responsibility for postal services has come to me only recently and that there have been many Adjournment debates, other debates and questions in the House about the process. I was grateful for his opening remarks about his support for the principles behind the urban reinvention programme. He is aware of the state of Royal Mail and post offices that we inherited from the previous Government. He will acknowledge and welcome the £2 billion that the Government spent on developing Royal Mail and postal services. He also knows that the Government are committed to maintaining a viable nationwide network of post offices for the future. In a wider context, he knows about the massive challenge for everyone involved in achieving that viability.
Under the previous Government, there was no planned programme, and unplanned closures and many gaps appeared in the system. That clearly affects the whole country. My right hon. Friend knows that the Government's policy for the post office network was based on the performance and innovation unit's report, "Modernising the Post Office Network", which was published in 2000. The report was widely welcomed as squaring up honestly to the challenges that the network faced. It made 24 recommendations for the future, all of which the Government accepted. It showed starkly that our network of post offices had not kept pace with the changing needs of its customers.
Too often, post offices had become dingy and shabby through lack of investment and were losing business. The business had lost touch with its customers' needs, which are different now from those of a generation ago. Following years of underinvestment, the Post Office business was in a spiral of decline.
It is important to detail the circumstances that led to the company's rationalisation programme, which includes the closure of some offices, including those that we heard about from my right hon. Friend, and some in my own constituency. He knows that a number of post offices closed in my constituency of Bradford, South and that two days before I achieved this responsibility there were issues surrounding the Crown post office in my city of Bradford. I too have been heavily involved in the process that the Government set up to try to ensure that consultation was adequate and real.
My right hon. Friend will know that in February our hon. Friend Mr. Timms, who had these ministerial responsibilities before me, actually changed and detailed more fully the guidelines for the consultations that he expected to be undertaken.
My right hon. Friend and hon. Members will know that the Government are Royal Mail's principal shareholder, and that this Government gave Royal Mail the commercial freedoms that have allowed it to turn the business round, as it is doing. We are expecting to hear in the interim results this week that the situation is far better than it has been in the past. That does not help my right hon. Friend in respect of the closures in his constituency, but it is important to put on the record the general position, which I know that most Members of Parliament support—the need for a viable post office network within a viable Royal Mail.
I shall pick up some of the points that were raised. I too, in that meeting with elected representatives from Manchester, was very concerned about the role of Postwatch, because there is a clear procedure for Postwatch to use if it believes that closures are unnecessary, and I had concerns about the matters that were raised yesterday, and tonight by my right hon. Friend. So I will undertake to contact Postwatch to see what was done to find out why perhaps the next stage proposals were not achieved. I want to know from Postwatch its role in this matter, because as my right hon. Friend has said, it is the consumer watchdog in this case and it should be putting consumers' interests first.
I am also concerned to hear from my right hon. Friend's speech and from the meeting yesterday that the local authority, which has a wealth of information, was not included in the discussions and the final outcome. I will be speaking to Post Office Ltd. about that and I will ask the local authority to furnish me with information about the meetings that it had.
I hope that that helps my right hon. Friend in the detail of the constituency issues that he faces. He will understand why the Government, and I as the responsible Minister, cannot and should not intervene in every case, because obviously, as my right hon. Friend showed great foresight in acknowledging, one post office could close because it was no longer viable.
Postwatch has, up and down the country, made representations and resolved to the satisfaction of certain communities some of the closure proposals. I want to know the detail of what is going on as far as Postwatch is concerned and the relationship between the local authority and Post Office Ltd. That is the best that I can offer my right hon. Friend.
In addition, now that this programme has been going on for some time, Postwatch is undertaking a survey to look at what has happened to those post offices that have closed, to see whether any gaps have emerged. It may be possible, indeed desirable, for the situation in Manchester to be examined, and we can ask Postwatch to do that.
My right hon. Friend used very emotive language, which I know from our dealings on many issues in the past must be sincere, because he does not use such words without great care and cause, and he said that the consultation process was a sham. I would be very upset if that was the case. If the consultation process was a sham, we will need to investigate that, and we will do so.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the post office closures came about because Post Office Ltd. tested the water with many of the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses about their individual positions with regard to the future of their businesses. Many of them felt that their businesses could not continue and were happy to seek part of the payment for closing them voluntarily. That was the basis on which Post Office Ltd. looked at those post offices and their viability.
With regard to the consultation process, however, there is supposed to be a post office within a mile of any post office that closes. In the most deprived wards, there should be one half a mile away. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the funding that came from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to look at post offices in deprived areas and the support that was given to them.
In general terms, I am quite confident that the principles that have been laid out to support the viable network being put in place are there. What worries me is if those principles have not been followed. Clearly, that is the basis on which we should look at the position outlined this evening. If my right hon. Friend wanted me to do so, I could go into even greater detail about a large number of other things, but I do not think that that would help at this stage.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend can comment on this point. Does he think that there is merit in the Post Office investigating someone else taking over a franchise if that is possible? Does he agree that there should at least be discussions on that issue if the consultation is to be real?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but if I dealt with it, it would confuse this matter. His point about franchises relates to directly managed offices and Crown post offices, with regard to which there has been lots of press speculation about what might or might not happen. I am happy to enter correspondence with him about the detail of the case that he wants to raise.
It is important that we have a viable post office network for the reasons that my right hon. Friend has given. The Government are committed to that, and we believe that it should be done in a planned way. We have offered financial support of £2 billion since 1999, and it is crucial that we have a viable network. It is also crucial that the consumer interest is looked after. With the provisos that I have outlined to him, I look forward to ensuring that we get to the bottom of what went on in his constituency.