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Post Office Closures

Part of Deferred Division – in the House of Commons at 5:53 pm on 19th March 2008.

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Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Opposition Whip (Commons) 5:53 pm, 19th March 2008

I shall try to be as brief as I can. I start by declaring an interest. I own a building that contains a post office that is due to be closed under the network change programme.

Five post offices in my constituency face closure. I disagree with every decision, as one would expect, but in every case I can find flaws in the process and many reasons why the post offices should not close. Two of the post offices proposed for closure are in urban areas; one of them is in Thatcham, an area that suffered the worst flooding in south-east England last July. The community faces not only the closure of its post office, but an enormous influx of new housing, through the redevelopment of an Army base that was vacated some years ago. It seems quite bizarre that the community in south Thatcham should face that closure.

Other branches are in rural settings, including in the village where I live. I have been using that post office since I could walk, and probably since before then. The anger and frustration at the lack of thought and understanding, and—as I shall explain if I have time—at the lack of humanity behind the process has been profoundly felt by the many thousands of people throughout the community who will be directly affected and by the many more who will be indirectly affected.

I had a pyrrhic victory in this process at the start of the consultation, in which we virtually got the consultation period extended. In an act that perhaps exemplifies the incompetence with which all this has been done, the Government decided that the six-week consultation period should include Christmas. Post offices are, of course, extremely busy at that time, and people have other things on their mind.

I would love to use my few minutes to rant and rail against what I perceive to be the wickedness of this decision. That might be cathartic, but it would not be particularly illuminating. To me, this is about much more than the provision of postal services or of post offices in communities. It is about the communities themselves. Those who oppose the motion tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron today will be demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of what makes a community, and of the complex web of relationships and interactions that are the fabric of those communities.

Later this year, the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 will come into force. I was proud to be a sponsor of that legislation. This is precisely the kind of issue that it was intended to address, and it had universal support across the House. It seems bizarre that the Government, knowing that the Act is about to come into force, cannot delay this process so that local communities can be empowered to make these decisions. That was precisely the purpose of the Act.

The closure programme fits into a pattern. I have bored the House at length on such matters in the past. In fact, my first faltering utterances in this place were about the loss of shops, churches, pubs—for which the Budget sounded another death knell last week—and sporting organisations. I spoke of how they had all been sucked out of smaller communities and moved into towns, and out of smaller towns into larger towns. Every community suffers as a result, as its life blood is sucked out.

We could shrug our shoulders and say, "Well, this is the way of things." That is very much what the Government have done. They have said that the internet has come in, that these post offices are not doing very well, and that that is just the way of things. Well, no. This is about vulnerable people, as has been pointed out by Members on both sides of the House. I have only to stand in the post office queue in Newbury—the queue is considerably longer following the suburban post office closure programme in 2005—to see just who those people are. They are the people who cannot buy online. They are the people who pay their soaring heating bills with hard-saved cash. In the Government's eyes, these people are inconvenient, because they will not conform. They will not go on the internet. They will not leap into a car and drive to the next town when their post office closes.

People who live in rural communities and have the temerity to need services—which are, of course, now more expensive and harder to deliver—are also considered inconvenient. I am sure that there are those not far from this building who would like rural communities simply to be places where people sleep, rather than places where real life takes place and where services need to be delivered.

I want to address the important issue of the access criteria. This has really frustrated me. The criteria have been calculated on an as-the-crow-flies basis. They do not take into account road networks or public transport facilities. The Government's need to hit their closure targets while also meeting the access criteria means that profitable post offices will close, simply because they are in the wrong location. I could take the Minister to post offices in my constituency that are not profitable but will survive. I will not do so, because they would probably then be zoned for closure as well. The lunacy of all this is that profitable post offices in my constituency are going to close. The access criteria, which involve drawing a straight line "as the crow flies", are utterly devoid of any understanding of how human beings really live and co-exist.

As we have heard, the consultation has been a sham. In our case, it has been a fig leaf for a decision that had clearly already been taken. In my last few seconds, I must ask the Minister to address the one-for-one issue. Some weeks ago, I heard him say in this Chamber—I have heard it again today—that the figure involved was up to 2,500. In this building, I had a briefing from the people who were processing the network change programme in my constituency. They said, "If you managed to save a post office in your constituency, that would be fantastic, but we would have to find another one."

Let me finish with a big plea for the bullying of postmasters and postmistresses in my constituency to stop. If they have put in a pay point, replacing the loss of a post office, they have done so for the vulnerable in the community. Nobody else but the most vulnerable is going to use it. They should not be threatened for doing that; the bullying must stop.

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