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The Government recognise the social and economic role of post offices in local communities. Our subsidy to the Post Office of £150 million per year until 2011 will help to maintain a national network with national coverage, ensuring that all areas, including rural and deprived urban areas, will continue to have reasonable access to post office services.
I am pleased that the Minister recognises the contribution that post offices make in both rural and urban communities—I have both in my constituency. But does he understand the anger felt by residents of Little Brickhill when they discovered, through an inadvertent leak on the Post Office website, that their post office was to close some nine months before the consultation was due to start? Does that not expose what a complete sham the consultation is?
It is not appropriate for me to comment on any individual post office. However, the hon. Gentleman must recognise that the present subsidy of £3.5 million a week is unaffordable. He is making representations on behalf of his constituents, but I would like to know why, between 1979 and 1997 when his party was in power, 3,500 post offices closed and not one penny of subsidy was given to post offices.
"we will...retain and renew the rural Post Office network and make banking, internet, pensions, benefits, prescriptions, health and other services available from rural post offices".
That is precisely the reason why we are giving a subsidy to the network of £150 million a year until 2011. I notice that the Opposition have significantly failed to make a commitment to match that subsidy. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to make a serious point about this, I would like to hear from his Front Benchers whether his party supports that level of subsidy.
Could the Minister find out what is happening in my constituency? The post office in Blyth has to move out of the Co-op, because it is closing, and no one seems to know what will happen to the post office. We wonder whether it is part of the closure programme that we do not know about.
I cannot comment on individual cases, but the national criteria mean that 99 per cent. of the population in the top 15 per cent. most deprived areas will be within one mile of a post office. On a case by case basis, the Post Office has to take into account local geography, the availability of local transport and other socio-economic factors when making a decision about a particular post office. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to take back those criteria to his local post office for the negotiations.
I had a rural post office close in Rodmersham, so I wonder whether I could persuade my hon. Friend to speak to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform about merging the rural library service with a rural post office service, so the rural hamlets and villages in my constituency could have such a service at least once a week.
Innovative proposals of that kind can be discussed and negotiated locally. I would encourage the Post Office to engage with local authorities and other third sector organisations that may wish to step in and fund or support particular branches or introduce innovative approaches to delivering services. However, in doing so, the Post Office will need to consider all the costs, not only at branch level, but the support it gives to post offices. I would encourage every local partner to get involved in such innovative proposals and see whether they can find a way forward.
When the Post Office and the Government announced the most recent round of closures, there was also a commitment to reopen a limited number of post offices, especially in areas of social exclusion that were underserved because of prior closures. I now understand from conversations with the Post Office that that will not apply in any urban areas, including areas such as Ham ward in my constituency, which is most deprived and does not have a single post office. Will the Minister please take up that issue with his colleagues?
I am sure that the hon. Lady can champion her own constituency perfectly well. The criterion being used nationally for urban areas is that 99 per cent. of the population should be within one mile of a post office in the top 15 per cent. most deprived urban areas. That is an important commitment. At the beginning, that commitment applied to only the bottom 10 per cent. of deprived urban areas, but we have increased it to 15 per cent. My difficulty in responding to the hon. Lady stems from the fact that the Liberal Democrats appear to be saying that they will fund every post office no matter what the cost. Frankly, that is fairyland economics.
Is it not now clear that the crucial access criteria for the closure of post offices will leave thousands of elderly and vulnerable people isolated from the services on which they depend, with walking routes that are dangerous to the alternatives and no public transport available? Were Ministers in the Cabinet Office consulted on the social exclusion implications of those access criteria? If they were not, what is the point of their having responsibility for social exclusion? If they were consulted, why did they make such a Horlicks of it?
Once again the right hon. Gentleman lays down a challenge about the extent to which older people are being included in the discussions, but I notice that once again he has signally failed to match our commitment to provide the exact subsidy that he seeks, which will enable the post offices to remain open. I will give him more time at the Dispatch Box to answer my question: will he match our £150 million a year subsidy to support the rural and urban network?
It would be great to get an answer to the question that I asked and I am sorry that the Minister has failed to do that. It is perfectly clear that the total incompetence of this process is leading to hundreds of completely viable post offices facing closure, creating huge problems for thousands of vulnerable people. What does the Minister think that his constituents in Corby will make of his fulminating in his local paper against post office closures in his constituency when those closures are being forced through by his Government? Will they not conclude that the Government are now shot through with hypocrisy?
My Corby constituents hold me in extremely high regard. They like the fact that I stand up and campaign on their behalf. The fact that we now have a new town centre, a new railway station, two new secondary schools, a new hospital, brand new housing and a regenerated growth economy with low unemployment and higher wages might give some indication that the people of Corby are very pleased with the conduct and performance of their local Member of Parliament. They will not be persuaded by a sham campaign by the Conservative party, which is pretending to support post office openings at the same time as failing to commit to match the Government's pledge of a £150 million subsidy until the year 2011.
Many people across the UK and in Northern Ireland are alarmed at what appears to be a sustained campaign for the demise of the post office network, particularly in rural areas. When will the Government go back to the drawing board and invest in a campaign to sustain and rebuild the rural post office network?
The hon. Gentleman is right to press for a subsidy for the post office network to maintain those post offices that are not financially viable. I am pleased that he will support the £150 million a year in subsidy that we are giving to the Post Office until the year 2011. I assume that he will support that, and I hope that he will persuade some of the other parties in this Chamber to support that £150 million subsidy, too.