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Post Office Closures

Part of Opposition Day — [7th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 3:22 pm on 19th March 2008.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield 3:22 pm, 19th March 2008

Let us hope not, but I am not holding my breath. This is a serious issue, and I hope that Opposition Members will think about doing the right thing by their constituents and mine, and telling the truth about it.

Turning to the situation in Birmingham, and the proposals that are likely to be published in June, I am pleased that criticisms that we made in the Select Committee some years ago have, in theory, been addressed by the Post Office in the access criteria that it has laid down. I say "in theory", because the evidence is that they have not always been followed through in practice, which is something that Post Office Ltd must address. As a local MP I will only know what the proposals are, and whether there is a problem with the methodology, towards the end of the pre-consultation phase and just before the formal consultation. If and when proposals are produced, and if there is consensus about the methodology and confidence in the way in which Post Office Ltd has drawn up its plan, even if there is disagreement about its substance, the six-week consultation is probably not too bad. In fact, the National Federation of SubPostmasters says that six weeks is probably okay, if the aim is to minimise the period of sub-postmasters' uncertainty. However, problems will arise if there is not consensus about the methodology and people end up having to argue simultaneously about the methodology and the proposals themselves during that same six-week period. My message to Post Office Ltd is that it should be open with stakeholders at an earlier stage, and I do not think that that contradicts the framework that it has laid down. I do not buy all its arguments about commercial confidentiality, and I certainly do not think that they should take precedence over letting the public know the things that they need to know.

Finally, as we approach the publication of proposals on Birmingham, access criteria will apply, as elsewhere, guaranteeing the maximum distances from post offices. That is important, and it is an improvement on existing measures. The problem that we face in Birmingham, however, does not relate to distance. Birmingham's neighbourhoods are often compact in size, but they are far from compact in population numbers. There is an average of 377.2 people—I do not know where the 0.2 comes from—per square kilometre in England. In Birmingham, the average is 3,649 people per square kilometre. Under the current post office provision, that is 7,088 residents per post office, which has resulted in unacceptable queues in a number of places in my constituency. The people queuing outside in the rain are often old, frail and vulnerable, and if Post Office Ltd further reduces the number of post offices without taking into account population density figures as well as distance, those queues will lengthen. That will hit customers even more, and it will hit the very trade that Post Office Ltd and the Government are trying to protect.

I hope that Post Office Ltd will look at that, and that Ministers will have another word with it about taking those things into account. The framework and the access criteria do not need to change. They are not exhaustive, but they are a guide to what Post Office Ltd should take into account, and population density in urban areas is an important consideration. When Post Office Ltd draws up its plans for Birmingham, it should be open with stakeholders earlier, as there is nothing in the access criteria or the framework that prevents it from doing so. It must rethink the sequencing of involving Postwatch, local government, local MPs and the public. If there is a problem with the methodology, that will have consequences for the extent to which it sticks to the framework.

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