I am grateful to be called so early in the debate. It was clear from the Secretary of State's response to the speech by my hon. Friend Alan Duncan that the Secretary of State does not have full control of what is going on. In answer to my question about the alleged one-for-one policy—that if one post office was saved another had to be added to the hit list—he said it was not happening, yet he then listed a number of areas where it clearly did happen, and a number of my hon. Friends have been openly told by Post Office management that that policy does exist.
Some remarks made by Labour Members, including the Secretary of State, serve to underline the existence of a fundamental gulf between their approach and ours—and I am sorry to say that in this context the views of the Liberal Democrats are shaped in the same mould as those of the Government. There seems to be an all-pervasive attitude that the entire debate must revolve around parties outbidding each other on how much subsidy they will give—how much they are going to guarantee. That is nonsense; that is not what the issue is about. Instead, it is about how we can best use what is available, and I shall offer some ideas on that. I should just add that, like Richard Burden, I do not have any special pleading to make, as I do not yet know the proposals for Cambridgeshire.
The Government's approach to this matter is marked by four characteristics. There is almost an intention to create confusion about who is responsible: is the Secretary of State driving this, or the Post Office? Whenever a problem arises, it seems that it is automatically the other's responsibility. There is also a determination to micro-manage this whole process from the centre; as is typical of this Government, there is a refusal to accept that there just might be a better way. Attached to that, there is an aura almost of infallibility: the Government think that they know best, instead of accepting that they may have got this wrong and they have failed to convince anybody of their argument.
My remarks will come entirely from a rural perspective. I do not intend to refer to urban post offices simply because there are none in my constituency and I do not have a depth of knowledge about them. There are some 7,700 rural post offices, and about 65 per cent. of all rural communities have a post office. By comparison, only 10 per cent. of rural communities have a branch of a bank. That is an important distinction, because it shows that in most rural communities the post office is the only local "financial institution".
Of course, we have to accept that the majority of post offices are loss-making from a purely Post Office perspective—it would be unrealistic to deny that—but we should be looking for solutions. Before coming to that, however, I wish to emphasise the community and social role of a post office. As has been said, it is for many people a gathering place. It is also often combined with a shop and each part of the business gains from the other; attention has rightly been drawn to the amount of money people spend in the shop if they have just drawn money from the post office. Post offices are, of course, the outlets for the Post Office card account. I am sure I am not the only hon. Member who has received a lot of letters from people complaining that British Telecom now charges £4.50 when people do not pay their phone bill by direct debit. That demonstrates to me the number of people who still want to do everything by cash. That is another important reason why post offices are important, as is people's access to their benefits or pensions through them.
We have a policy, as, I believe, does the whole House, of wanting to encourage people to work increasingly from or close to their home to reduce travel. That again provides a need for rural businesses to have access to a convenient post office. Even things such as eBay, which is all-pervasive these days, generate more and more business.
The final point to make on the community and social role relates to the access criteria—the belief that the objective should be that virtually everybody is within 3 miles of a post office. We are talking about that distance as the crow flies, but in many rural areas the real distance may be double that—at least 6 miles, if not more—and it may be down narrow lanes, across motorways and so on. The proposal will certainly lead to far more car usage. A few weeks ago, I asked the Secretary of State a parliamentary question as to what assessment had been made of increased car usage and carbon emissions as a result of the proposals. Unsurprisingly, the answer came back that no such assessment had been made. I simply add that people who do not have a car will face a 2-mile walk—a 4-hour walk there and back—and that making such a journey is a near impossibility for somebody who is elderly and vulnerable.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and is being characteristically generous in giving way. My constituency, like his, has not had the closure announcements yet. Does he agree that if the Tenbury Wells post office were nominated for closure, the nearest post office for people would be in Leysters, which is 3.5 miles away? A bus runs between Tenbury Wells and Leysters, but it does so on the third Wednesday of the month and although it takes only 10 minutes to get to Leysters, one then has to wait five hours before one can go back. Does he agree that that makes the 3-mile criterion, or any of the criteria, completely inappropriate in constituencies such as ours?
My hon. Friend makes his point admirably. I am sure that everyone who represents a rural area could recount similar situations.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about the social element of what a post office provides, particularly in a rural community. Given that postmasters and postmistresses provide such a valuable service, does he share my concern that the threatening letters that they have received as part of this process show that they have been treated very shabbily indeed?
I do, of course, agree. I am sure that all hon. Members who represent constituencies where the consultation process has been taking place will fully understand that the way in which the consultation and the closure process are being carried out involves seriously bad practice.
My main criticism of this whole sorry saga is that it is a top-down decision. Of course some post offices are very badly run—we have all been to see them, so we cannot deny that. The simple reality is that they could be more successful if they were under different management. Many of them will never be profitable in a purely commercial sense, which is one reason why I have just discussed the social aspects.
However, we ought to help and encourage the better ones to succeed, and the consultation appears to ignore that approach. Some excellent and apparently profitable post offices are being closed. Despite what the Prime Minister said earlier today about the post offices that have only 16 or 20 customers a week—a tiny minority of post offices have such a low level of usage—the reality is that many of them will remain open because of the access criteria and the fact that they are located in the most remote areas.
What should be happening is that the Post Office should simply set delivery standards and requirements of a sub-post office and tell people how much they will get paid for the work; the figure should be one that does not incur a loss for the Post Office. That would allow the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress to make their own judgments about whether they can operate on that basis. It may depend on what other business they attach to it. Many may say that because they value their community and own the local shop or pub, they are happy to accept a small loss, because the village needs a post office. They may want to talk to local authorities—we have heard of the example of Essex—or other voluntary bodies and the local community. It is not a question of accepting continuous losses—no Government should do that—but of letting the individuals decide whether they can run a business on the basis of the standards and finances laid down by the Post Office, including perhaps subsidising it from other activities.
All the discussion about new business for the Post Office—the Secretary of State went on and on about it this afternoon—is focused on what is being decided by the Post Office nationally. It is the Post Office in London that is deciding to look out for insurance business, currency exchange or whatever. That is top-down thinking. Instead, the entrepreneurial sub-postmaster should be able to look for his own business. He may want some help from the Post Office nationally, if that can be done, but he should be set free to find other forms of business, perhaps in conjunction with local authorities, that could be related to the post office activity and help to make his business more viable. That is why I wholly condemn the arrangement that will prevent those closing with compensation from providing similar services through other providers. It is true that such constraints are often applied for a year or two in commercial law when someone ceases an activity, but we are not talking about purely commercial situations. The Minister fully accepted that many post offices play a vital social role and the whole issue of commerciality should be pushed to one side, in terms of allowing those businesses to offer PayPal or other services. The issue is access to public services, especially in our rural areas, and is accompanied by the issues of the quality of life and social gain.
We need a much more flexible approach to the network to accommodate post offices that fail, or what happens when a sub-postmaster wishes to retire or sell up. The system should facilitate a replacement in those circumstances, and that should be self-evident if we want a comprehensive network. We need to review urgently the planning and rating systems to encourage multi-use of our premises. I know that there are good examples of pubs, churches and village halls providing post office services, but they experience difficulties, including in the ratings sector, that need to be considered carefully. In many cases, the post office is part of the only remaining shop in the village and if the post office element is closed, the shop may go down too, especially with the restraint on trade that I have mentioned. The village is then left without any service. The implications for that on the need to travel, car usage, carbon emissions, and the sheer difficulty and harassment for individuals, are obvious.
If the Government really care about the post office network, and do not take just a purely mechanistic view of it, the first thing that they must do is get a grip on what the Post Office is doing. Other hon. Members have raised the threats to sub-postmasters and mistresses who face closure. They have been told that if they get early information that their post offices are on the hit list, they must not tell anyone; otherwise, they will not get their compensation. This is all blackmail. It is wrong, and the Government have to get a grip on it. They could do other things. They could make it a condition that the lottery provider ought to enable all post offices, at least in rural areas, to have a terminal. They could say to the Post Office, "Just tell sub-postmasters and mistresses what you want from them, what the services are and how much you are prepared to pay. Let them decide whether they can take it on on that basis and let them go out and look for extra business."
The Government could do all those things. They could reverse the whole process to a bottom-up system, but they will not. That was clear from what the Secretary of State said. No one in government really understands our rural communities. The Government believe in central decision making and that no individual can be trusted to make the right decisions. The main reason that they will not do these things is that they would have to admit that they are wrong.
The Government have continued to waste billions of pounds with little to show for it, yet when they have a chance to do something good for no extra money they refuse to do so. It is typical of a Government who have had their day.
It is an honour to follow Mr. Paice. We normally end up debating the future of pigs, so it is nice to move on to another subject, even if it still begins with the letter P.
When the announcement was first made some months ago, I was a Government Whip. It is good to be able finally to stand up in the Chamber and make some comments about how the decision has affected Brigg and Goole. I am reminded of the first time I stood for election in 1992 in the old Brigg and Cleethorpes seat—unsuccessfully, I hasten to add—against the Tory MP Michael Brown, who is now my good friend. One of the big issues was post office closures. It seems almost like groundhog day; here we are, still discussing it—[Hon. Members: "More pigs!"] There will be no more pig analogies. That is the end of it.
Thousands of post offices have been closed under Conservative and Labour Administrations. They would probably be closed under a Liberal Democrat Administration, too, if there ever was one. As Alan Duncan candidly said, we cannot control everything in the way that we would perhaps like to.
Let me tell the House something about the experience in Brigg and Goole and how it has been handled. We are at the end of the process now and we were in the first tranche that was announced. When the announcement was made, it was proposed that Westfield Avenue post office in Goole, which is an urban post office, would be closed, and that the rural post offices in Reedness, Wroot, West Butterwick and Eastoft would change to outreach. We then went into the consultation.
A lot of hon. Members have said that the consultation was a complete sham. I would say that it was a curate's egg in some respects. It is very difficult to understand how some of the decisions were finally reached, even though some of them were definitely improvements on the original proposals.
Whether the consultation was a sham or not, did not the hon. Gentleman's constituents have the same experience as mine? First, some of the rationale that the Post Office put forward in its explanation was factually wrong. Secondly, the process was truncated to a shorter time than is usual for such consultation procedures.
I would agree with that, based on my experience.
Goole is a good example. We were told, "It's an urban area. There is another post office only 400 yards away, it is a big town centre that could take the capacity, and there is a regular bus journey of only 10 minutes." We could see the rationale. However, when I met the Post Office I pointed out that the bus ride, which takes only seven or eight minutes to get to the post office, is not the same on the way back. The people in the Post Office dealt with that with great incredulity. They said that they had never heard of a bus that took seven minutes to go down the road one way and then took longer to come the other way. The point was that the bus does not go that way—it is a circular route. A short journey to the post office becomes a tour round the town to come back. That had not registered on their radar at all. When we reached the final conclusion, which was that that post office should be closed, all I got was a nice little paragraph in the reasoning, something like, "The MP put up a decent argument. We looked into it but we are not doing anything about it."
We made some progress with the outreach services. It was decided that the services covering Reedness and Wroot would remain in the shops where they are presently located, and that they would continue to be delivered by the people who deliver them now. Moreover, the fact that the outreach for Reedness was to come from the Goole post office meant that it could provide more services, including road tax and foreign currency. That shows how much had changed since we started our campaign, and that the decisions amounted to a bit of a curate's egg.
What happened next has been described by other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. A final recommendation was made: the Goole office was to close and the others would be outreached, with two offices remaining in the shops where they were located. It was then announced that a complete hash had been made of one of the outreach offices in Lincoln—what was claimed to be a short walk across level ground turned out to be on a very steep hill.
The result was that there was a change of mind about the office involved, and that the office at Wrawby was suddenly put up for closure, even though it was fine in the initial consultation. I met Post Office representatives and said that that decision was wrong because it meant that people had had to go through the mill twice, when once was bad enough. However, despite my great admiration for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I was told that saving one post office meant that another office would have to go.
The hon. Gentleman is reinforcing the point that I made earlier—that all the access and other criteria used to decide which post offices should close in the end mean nothing because the Post Office is determined to achieve the target of 2,500 closures.
A few weeks after being told that the office at Wrawby was viable, I was told that it no longer was. When I asked why, I was told that most of the offices that the Post Office proposed to keep open were not viable, but that it would propose closure only for offices that were not viable.
The hon. Gentleman is touching on a problem that I have encountered in the north of Lewis. The postmistress at Skigersta is very anxious to save her office, but she is worried that solving her problem might cause difficulties for the Port of Ness office just a little way down the round. The closure programme is putting postmistresses and postmasters in a very invidious position.
I understand exactly where the hon. Gentleman is coming from.
What transactions are undertaken in post offices? All hon. Members will recognise that question from their discussions with the Post Office. What one is told—on a confidential basis only—when one asks is that the number of transactions that post offices carry out is very low. I was shocked when I found out how low the number is: as a local person, I had thought that it would be much higher.
There is no doubt that a significant change has taken place. Some of it is due to demographic changes, and no firm can lose 4 million customers in a relatively short period without such changes being part of the reason. In addition, people are making different decisions about how they get their pensions and benefits. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that 80 per cent. of pensioners had stopped getting their pensions from post offices before Labour was even elected. The demographic change is therefore not new, but has been going on for some time.
I picked up a petition at one of my local post offices that appeared to have been signed by everyone in the village. I said to the sub-postmaster that he had done extraordinarily well, but he replied, "Yes, Ian, but if everyone who signed the petition used the post office I would not need it." That is another common problem.
Questions have been asked about the adequacy or otherwise of the Post Office's management. I sometimes think that they have created problems for themselves, and that they continue to do so. For example, I said earlier that I was very pleased that the office at Reedness was to stay in the shop where it is presently located. The local sub-postmistress is willing to work more hours, but to do so she requires a relatively small amount of IT and a laptop computer. Without that equipment, she is forced to rely on the time that the person from the main post office can give, but the Post Office has refused to provide it.
The Post Office is making week-by-week, month-by-month savings on the hours that the Reedness sub-postmistress works, but it will not meet the one-off capital cost involved in giving her the kit that will allow her to work extra, voluntary hours while her shop is open. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs on the Front Bench, as I have raised this matter with him previously. I hope that he is able to help.
I turn now to the provision of television licences. Why did the BBC decide not to let post offices sell the stamps that people use to buy licences? The answer is that the tender from PayPoint was £100 million less than the one offered by the Post Office. Why was it so much lower, and why has no one ever challenged the Post Office about whether it was serious and credible in its attempt to get the business?
John Taylor of the Rawcliffe Bridge post office told me that he wanted to install a PayPoint terminal when the decision about television licence stamps was taken but was told that he could not do so. I understand that the arrangements are more flexible now, but when the changes were all taking place he was told that he could not do it. PayPoint found other locations and that is not going to change now.
The same sub-postmaster said to me, "If you look at the back of a British Telecom bill, where it sets out how you can pay, it no longer mentions the post office." People can still pay through their post office, but it does not say so on the bill. I took that up with British Telecom, which simply said, "We're never going to stop people paying through the post office—obviously, we have links with the Post Office historically—but it is the most expensive way for us to collect our money from customers, and we ain't going to advertise it, although we'll continue to accept payments through the post office."
Only today, a constituent who wanted to pay her water bill told me that she would be charged more at the post office than at the local garage or the local shop. It makes me think: why is the Post Office creating these barriers to business? The report of the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has been referred to, said that poor management has been a factor over the years, but that there was greater confidence in the people who are in place now. I really hope that that is true, but we are still waiting to see.
Local authorities can and should play a role, and I welcome some of the recent developments. My area is covered by two local authorities, one of which is North Lincolnshire council. When the announcement was first made, all that time ago, I had a conversation with Liz Redfern, who was then leader of the council. I asked whether there was something that the council could do. It is fair to say that I met with a polite response but not a great deal of interest. However, in May last year, North Lincolnshire was the only council in the country that went from being Conservative to Labour; I am happy about that, although I am not happy that only one council changed in that way, but at least the council concerned was my local council. Mark Kirk, who is now the leader of the council, is in discussion with its offices on how they can work with local post offices. Perhaps there can be outreach to the villages, too, so that local government services there use the post offices, boost the number of hours, and so make the post offices more viable.
My other local council is the Tory East Riding of Yorkshire council, and I have to say that on many issues, including the one that we are discussing, it is very enlightened. Stephen Parnaby, the leader, is doing a good job there. We were county councillors together. He is a good bloke, and he will be pleased that he is in Hansard. He came up with the idea, which his cabinet supported, of the local council becoming a corporate sub-postmaster. If the Post Office approves the idea, the council will be able to deliver post office branch services via its mobile libraries, its customer service centres, which already exist, and village schools. That is a way in which local authorities can make a big difference.
The council does not pay the tax on its vehicles at post offices, but in the council's defence, it can be said that there is a Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency office right next door to County hall, so it is probably difficult to justify doing so. Again, that is a simple thing that councils can do: they can get all their fleet taxed at local post offices. All hon. Members should ask their local councils whether they do that.
I want to mention sub-postmasters. I welcome the package and the fact that, this time, sub-postmasters get something if they have to go, because no such provision was in place before, and that was a mistake. However, what about those who want to go? At least one sub-postmaster in my area—I will not say who it is, because that would set another hare running—really wanted to be let go, under the consultation, but he has been told that that cannot happen. What happens to those people when the process finishes? We need answers to that. We should always remember that in this debate, we are talking about the future and livelihoods of the people who run our post offices.
We are ahead of most areas; frankly, we are at the end. Goole post office is closed, and the Wroot and Reedness services are staying in the shop. We are trying to work with the council to boost services in those outreach locations. I was speaking to the sub-postmasters in West Butterwick, Eastoft and Wrawby, and for all sorts of reasons that are not the business of the House, none of them is seeking any further involvement with the Post Office. They have made their decisions about what they want to do with their lives, and they want to move on. Frankly, there would be no benefit to Brigg and Goole from the suspension being proposed tonight. Indeed, it would mean a further period of uncertainty for the sub-postmasters concerned.
We maintain a network across our area, which is big and rural. I remain as determined as ever to work with the two councils in my area, which are of different political persuasions, to ensure that that remains the case, and to ensure that, despite the odds, we have a vibrant post office network for the future.
Post office closures have hit many communities extremely hard. The Isle of Wight is no different. In Hampshire and the Isle of Wight consultations were held on 62 branch closures. However, despite many objections, only one branch was reprieved. Does not that call into question the whole consultation process? If a decision cannot be changed, it is not a consultation. The process taking place now is merely a sham.
Evidence that I have unearthed calls into question the closure process. Let us take the Isle of Wight as an example. Ten sub-post offices on the island were earmarked for closure. I worked with the rural community council and the chamber of commerce to draft a detailed response, which was submitted during the public consultation process. I should particularly like to thank Joanna Richards of the RCC for all her hard work. The first failure occurred when I did not receive an acknowledgement for the submission. That was put down to an administrative error.
My first confirmation that the closures were going ahead was a phone call the evening before the decision booklet was issued. In that booklet there appeared to be no reference to the issues that many other people and I had raised. It was as if our views did not count and the decision to close our local branches had already been taken. I am sure colleagues have had the same experience. We raised the matter with John Rattle, head of external relations at Post Office Ltd, who stated in an e-mail:
"All correspondence received is shared with Postwatch during and after the Public Consultation."
I have asked for documentary evidence from Post Office Ltd to show that my submission was taken into account. No such evidence has been forthcoming. I do not believe that any exists.
My office and I pay tribute to Gary Hepburn, south and west regional manager for Postwatch for his hard work on the current and previous closure plans. When we contacted Postwatch, Mr. Hepburn wrote:
"Postwatch finds it most unfortunate that many of our comments, and those made by you, were not mentioned in the branch summaries issued in the decision documents and we have raised this with Post Office Ltd."
Mr. Hepburn says that Postwatch does not receive all correspondence, in spite of what Mr. Rattle says. Mr. Hepburn reported:
"Post Office Ltd supply us with a summary sheet for each Post Office. . . We do not get to see individual letters and, indeed, we do not know the total number of letters received, only the number of times an issue has been raised."
Furthermore, it appears that petitions count as only one response. Postwatch stated:
"We understand that petitions and duplicated letters are either excluded from this list or count as one contact", so not only does Postwatch not see all the responses, but it is not made aware just how strongly people feel. For example, surely if 3,000 constituents sign a petition saying that a branch should remain open because of poor transport links, it should be recorded that 3,000 people, and not just one, raised the issue.
When we raised a specific matter about the bus service in Ventnor, Post Office Ltd allegedly said it was not responsible for the buses. I accept that, of course, but surely adequate public transport provision must be taken into account by Post Office Ltd. I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
The hon. Gentleman has revealed how Post Office Ltd seems uninterested in public demand. Does he agree that this mass closure, which will perhaps reduce the number of post offices to 4,500, is driven more by the requirement to satisfy the needs of Post Office Ltd than by the requirement to satisfy the needs of local communities?
I do. It is not the numbers that matter, but the cost. The company does not seem to consider that. It seems to be looking at pure numbers, for the Government.
If responses are not properly taken into consideration and a decision has already been made to close 2,500 branches, including Lowtherville, Calbourne, Meadow Road and Hunnyhill on the Isle of Wight, the consultation process is a shambles.
On the previous consultations, is the hon. Gentleman surprised to hear that in 98 per cent. of cases the process was a sham and the Post Office went ahead with closure? In only 2 per cent. of cases did it listen to the community.
I come to my second point. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister confirmed that only 7,500 branches are required to meet the minimum access criteria. We are told that after the network change programme, there will be a network of about 11,500 branches. What assurance can the Minister give to people on the Isle of Wight that in two or three years' time we will not be going through exactly the same process again? It would still be possible to meet the access criteria of 4,000 fewer branches, so when should we expect further closures?
My third point is about profitability. I asked Post Office Ltd whether any profitable branch had been closed under the current closure programme. In a letter to me, Alan Cook, the managing director of Post Office Ltd, wrote:
"Neither the level of profitability nor the level of saving achieved is the overriding consideration in proposing a particular branch for closure."
If branches are not closed because of lack of profitability—if so, I am glad—will the Minister tell us how they are selected for closure? That is not at all clear. Earlier in the letter, Mr. Cook also wrote:
"Only in the most exceptional circumstances would an office profitable to Post Office Ltd be closed under network change."
Taxpayers' money is being used to close what are effectively private businesses. Can the Minister clarify whether any have closed, and if so why?
On the whole closure issue, Post Office Ltd says that it is working to the Government's agenda, but then the Government say that decisions are an operational matter for Post Office Ltd. Surely someone is ultimately responsible. I should be grateful if the Minister told us who.
Consultations have not yet started in my constituency, just as they have not in that of Mr. Paice. As the area plan is drawn together, the local authority will no doubt be contacted to give its view. I have already started to contact my local authority and the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in my constituency to ask for their views.
I am writing to the chief executive of the local authority because I want to be sure that he has taken the geographical aspects of my constituency into consideration when he writes to Post Office Ltd to give it information on the area plan.
The Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was directed to consider the new post office plan because in previous inquiries, such as that into the urban regeneration programme, our attention had been drawn to the fact that financial losses and haphazard closures were resulting in a run-down of the sub-post office network in an unplanned way that could be greatly to its detriment. Consequently, our report of
In citing that figure, I must also draw the House's attention to a figure that Post Office Ltd used during the inquiry when it said that there could be as many as 12,000 post offices plus 500 outreach post offices. The eventual figure could therefore be anywhere between 11,500 and 12,200; perhaps the Minister will comment on that when he winds up. In any event, whether there are to be 12,200 post offices plus 500 outreach post offices or 11,500 post offices, there is no doubt that the network will require a great deal of support.
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's account of the Select Committee's inquiry. Did it consider options other than closure to maintain the 11,000 post office branches at a profitable level, such as finding cheaper ways of delivering some of the services that are delivered manually over the counter or alternative revenue-raising opportunities for existing branches? If so, what conclusion did it reach?
We were focusing purely on the network change programme, although we moved into other areas in considering how the Post Office may well be better prepared for the future.
During the inquiry we raised four major concerns, which are listed at the front of the report. We say that the six week consultation process was not sufficient. We go on to say that the merger between Postwatch and the consumer council may bring some disruption. We also said:
"Even with the restructuring, the long-term future of the network will depend on the entrepreneurial flair of Post Office Ltd".
That is one of the things referred to by John Penrose—how the Post Office may help to stimulate a more appropriate approach to the consumer in sub-post offices. Fourthly, we made a point about how the post office network should be sustained in future.
When we considered our first point, we were rather surprised about the lack of transparency in the consultation process. The process begins with an 11-week consultation, which draws up an area plan working with Postwatch—the necessary operating plan within that area. It is not until the 11th week that the local MP is approached, and between those times there is no contact or engagement with the community. We thought that that process needed to be changed.
Is the situation not slightly worse? As part of the evidence, we discovered that, on occasion, where a post office was scheduled for closure, and there had been a discussion about transferring business to another branch, business details were not shared between the two postmasters. The receiving branch did not know the closing branch's information, and vice versa. That seems a bizarre way of going about the consolidation of post offices.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and he raises an important aspect. Because of the opaqueness, there is no connection between the post offices that will be affected by the process. The situation must be clarified.
I have taken my two interventions. The clock is moving on and many others want to speak in the debate.
In the 11th week, the MP gets involved to ensure that details drawn up in the 11-week period are made available to the public during the six-week public consultation so that the rationale behind a sub-post office being identified for closure is known. We can then properly advance arguments for its retention. There is a need for change in the consultation process. The Minister may want to refer to this matter later: the appeals procedure is run through Postcomm, but neither the MP nor the local authority has the input that I believe they should have in that procedure. The MP should, for example, be able to get involved in the appeals procedure by making a submission.
On the merger involving Postwatch, the thing to remember is that Postwatch has played an important role. When we met the general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, Mr. Thomson, he paid tribute to the way in which Postwatch had played its part. We looked at other areas of the country, and in Glasgow, for example, we found that 24 per cent. of the post offices identified were changed as a result of Postwatch's input. Postwatch is an important part of the process. We must be aware of whether it will be able to retain its robustness if it is merged with the Consumer Council. If it loses its robustness it could disrupt the process that we want.
We have heard that some aspects of sub-post offices' business could be developed. We believe that Post Office Ltd could play a more important part in supporting postmasters who want to be more entrepreneurial.
We were concerned about whether the network could be sustained. If it is reduced to 12,200 with 500 outreach post offices or to 11,500, it will still need the Government's commitment of £1.7 billion until 2011. That is an enormous amount for sustaining the post office network. We must also be aware that there will be closures over which neither the Government nor Post Office Ltd have control. If a postmaster wants to retire, the post office could close if no alternative venue is found for it. Even though we believe that a minimum of 11,500 post offices, supported by the money that the Government have contributed, could be sustainable, there will still be fragility around the edges. We must be aware of that—I know that the Minister is.
The money that the Government are making available will make the network sustainable. The Opposition did not say whether they would make the same sort of commitment after 2011. They should be prepared to comment on that. Are they prepared to match the Government's commitment to ensure the continuity of the network?
The suspension for which the motion calls would merely delay the inevitable, caused by the change in market behaviour, which has been detrimental to the post office service. If we are to stop the haphazard and unplanned run-down, we need the sort of plan that the Government have proposed. When hon. Members decide how to vote, I hope that they will vote to ensure a sustainable post office network. That means supporting the Government's plan.
I am pleased to follow Mr. Clapham, although his view of Postwatch as a robust organisation does not reflect my experience. Several hon. Members spoke to Postwatch about closures in London, and it seemed to lie on its back and wait to be tickled by the Post Office. It appeared simply to accept everything.
I shall be brief because I am aware of the number of Members who want to speak. We are considering a highly emotive subject. In my constituency and those of many hon. Friends and colleagues, it causes as much concern as any other local matter in recent times. Two post offices in my constituency are down for closure. My constituency is small, so that is a high number and I know both post offices well. Without going too far into individual merits—we could all do that—I will make a robust response to the consultation about Moorfield Road and Uxbridge Common Park Road post offices because they are as much a part of the community as the post offices in hon. Friends' rural communities. In suburbia, a parade of shops is exactly like village shops. Moorfield road is on a council estate and the post office is a vital part of the community. Masses of people have written to me about it. I agree that it is not good enough just to get a petition going and to try to make what we can out of the situation. I want to be pragmatic. I want to ensure that my constituents still get what they want.
In Uxbridge, we have had the experience of a Crown post office being moved into a branch of WH Smith—the experience has been shared elsewhere—although the move has not happened yet. We had a consultation period, during which I and members of the public raised serious concerns—the move is to the first floor, and we were worried about disabled access—and we received assurances. The post office will open next month and we will be watching it very carefully. However, the important thing is that those services will still be available. I hope that the post office will give the same service, if not a better one.
I want to speak as a retailer. As many hon. Members know, my family business has been in operation for a long time, and we have had to deal with changing patterns of what people want in the way of services. Anyone who has been in business for 120 years has to adapt. I therefore accept that things have changed and that that has not been all for the bad. Earlier we talked about eBay, for example, which has meant a lot of people wanting to post things that they are selling on.
A few years ago, we started selling stamps in my shop, when the Post Office allowed us to. They proved so popular that people started arriving with parcels that they wanted us to send, but of course we could not do so, because we are allowed only to sell first and second-class stamps, which is fine. However, I thought it would be a good idea to open a sub-post office in my shop. I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, so I was not thinking entirely of the community; I was thinking of business considerations. My shop is big enough, and a sub-post office would have brought lots of people in. However, I was told that I would not be able to have one. What amazed me, however, was that I would have been paid to have one. At that stage, I thought that I would have pay to get the franchise and have that excellent brand—the Post Office—in my shop.
I understand that it is important for a sub-post office to exist in some communities, but that that might not be economical. However, I cannot help feeling that the Post Office has certain services to offer.
Would the hon. Gentleman be surprised to find that, like many other hon. Members whose constituencies face closures, I visited every sub-post office in my constituency in the 11-week period? In virtually every sub-post office I found substantial openness to modernisation and entrepreneurial flair, but from talking to Post Office management at the regional level, I found a gap between wishing the Post Office to succeed and having the vision and creativity to plot a way forward that can save the 11,500 post offices that were mentioned earlier. I am not confident that the management have that vision.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. It is a great shame and a disgrace that those entrepreneurs are not being allowed to provide the services that they want to provide and that they know their customers want. We are getting a flavour of that from, for example, the talk about the one-for-one closures—I add my name to those who have talked about it. It was less than two weeks ago that I was told about that by the Post Office. If I managed to stop one closure in my constituency, that would be one thing—the Post Office would probably try to find another post office—but actually that did not matter, because there could be another one or even five post offices in London, and then the Post Office would come looking around in Hillingdon. The situation is ridiculous.
Does my hon. Friend agree with me about the flawed consultation? When I met the Post Office to discuss the three closures proposed in my constituency, it did not even know that one post office had been closed 100 yd away, in the neighbouring constituency of Epping Forest, because it was not in London. No thought has gone into the process whatever.
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. We have been hearing repeatedly this afternoon that the consultation is flawed. That is a point that the Minister must go away with. If one thing is to make the whole process a mockery, it is when the examples that my hon. Friend has come up with are proven to be true. I question whether the Post Office knew this or that thing about this or that post office—frankly, I do not think it did know.
Another example would be the Lower Richmond Road post office, which is threatened with closure. Post Office management were apparently totally unaware that the Putney hospital site, which is now derelict, was about to be redeveloped as a primary care centre.
The fact is that these sub-post offices provide something that we all agree is unique and very special. People want them, but some management team comes in and starts to close them completely randomly. This is being done because there are too many in an area; it has nothing to do with which is the most profitable. It is hard to imagine the representative of a chain of retail stores saying, "We'll close this one and that one because they are making a loss. Those two are making a profit, but it doesn't matter. We'll close one of them anyway." Those involved are not even bothering to look at this.
No, I must keep going. The hon. Gentleman can have his own turn later if he manages to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I understand the visceral hatred that Labour Members feel when asked to vote for a Conservative proposal. I also understand that they are trying to find a good reason not to vote for this motion, which is why this has become about a suspension. We have heard some excellent ideas today, including the one suggested by my hon. Friend Mr. Paice. We should now go back to the Post Office to say, "Don't close anything. These are the ideas that have been put forward. Let's think about them." As soon as I heard about the Essex county council initiative, I phoned up the leader of the London borough of Hillingdon, Ray Puddifoot, and he said that he would look into it.
I am not sure whether the Post Office actually wants to be helpful with these initiatives from local authorities. When I asked a Post Office representative how much each post office would cost, the first figure I was given was £20,000; then I was told that it could be more. I asked whether it might double to £40,000, I was told that that would about cover it—maybe. I am not sure that the Post Office wants local authorities to succeed in these initiatives. That is what upsets me, and that is why I am making a plea to Labour Members, many of whom are as upset about these closures as we are, to put aside their hatred of voting for anything proposed by the Conservatives just this once. Many of them have signed early-day motions. It is now time for us, the House of Commons, to say to the Post Office, "Stop! Let's look at how we can save these post offices. Don't just contract your business. If you keep selling everything off, it will just get smaller and smaller. Why not be adventurous? Why not be entrepreneurial? Why not try to expand the network?" That is the message that we should be sending.
There is a kind of wake going on in Hastings and Rye this week, because three of our post offices have closed. There is still hope, however, because resuscitation work is going on in respect of the Old Town post office, and I hope that common sense will prevail. Having said that, I can tell Mr. Randall that I shall not be voting for the Conservative motion today, because it does not provide a solution.
The Labour Government have given more stability to the network than anything that went before— [ Laughter. ] Yes, more stability than anything that went before.
Yes, I do believe that there might be alternatives. Indeed, there might be other methodologies that could save some of the post offices that are now under threat. The Essex option—and perhaps an East Sussex option—could play that part. However, all such options would require funding.
The fact is that it is this Labour Government who have provided record funding for Post Office services— £150 million, as we have already heard, on a regular and ongoing basis for subsidising social need and £1.7 billion over the five-year period. Despite what has been said today, I am still unsure whether the Conservative Opposition are pledging that amount of money. What I am sure about is that they are not pledging anything more than that, but more will certainly be required if we are to support the sort of motion that the Conservatives have proposed today. They say no closures should happen, but some post offices will still have to close. I am not cherry-picking here and saying that our post offices should not close while everyone else's should, but it is surely a fact that some post offices will be unviable. That must be the case. Suggesting, as the Conservative motion does, that there should be no closures at all is unrealistic and therefore purposeless. For that reason, I will not support it.
Having said that, I do not believe that the present consultation or the closure programme have been right. I want to impress on the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs that other things could have happened and I certainly want the next round of considerations to be dealt with very differently.
The first thing to establish is Conservative policy. It appeared—I say "appeared", but I am not sure what tense I should be using—to be that only profitable post offices should be retained. In and of itself, however, that is faulty. If we simply maintain profitable post offices, 4,000 or thereabouts will remain throughout the country, but they will all be in urban areas, able to compete alongside each other while still making profits, but at the expense of other more socially deprived areas. That does not amount to a comprehensive universal service across the nation. For that reason, the premise must be wrong.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend's point. Does he agree that we have to fight for a sustainable post office network, but that what we should not do is give out false information about post offices when they may not be closing? Mr. Suppiah Suren of the Kensal Rise post office said:
"There are no plans to close my branch. The Liberal Democrats have sent out the wrong information", which resulted in his losing 15 to 20 per cent. of his business. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to work together in a sensible manner to ensure that we have a sustainable network?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the sort of vintage hypocrisy that we hear on the Opposition Benches, which is certainly not the way to make progress on what we all believe is an important part of our British way of life. We will not be enticed to support the Tories' gesturing until they are prepared to come up with the bucks to make it possible. At the moment, that does not seem to be likely. The Tories' banners and petitions do not impress me and will certainly not get me to support their motion this evening. We recognise that modern lifestyles and technology mean that things will change. That is inevitable. I will not deal with the Lib Dem propositions, mainly because to do so would be a waste of valuable time, but in any event, it is not yet bedtime so it is inappropriate to listen to their "happily ever after" stories.
The reality is that the post office network has to change, but how? That is where I would like to embolden the Minister to take a more robust view of what should happen. Some time ago, I spoke about post offices in my own constituency in an Adjournment debate and had discovered that the Post Office was being subsidised to the tune of £18,000 for each loss-making outlet. That is an amazing sum of money, which had never been available before. It seemed to me then that it would not be necessary to close very many post offices, so I think the Government have been rather unambitious in respect of that 2,500 figure. I know that they often say "up to" that number of closures, but it has been used as the number that the Post Office has taken as necessary.
Of course not, and if it is wholly profitable, that is great, but it should not be subsidised. The issue I want to come on to is what counts as profitable. What is the proper definition of "profitable"? This is where I want to encourage the Minister to look further into the facts. In connection with the Adjournment debate that I mentioned, I looked into exactly how much it cost to run some local branches in my constituency.
The Post Office was happy about handing me the figures until I decided to use them, but as I had not received them in confidence, I was able to share them with everyone. I was told that the post office in Tilling Green, Rye, was costing £18,000 a year to run at postmaster or local branch level, but that the on-cost or central cost—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister still thinks I have not understood the position, but I think I have—was £24,000. In other words, it was costing £18,000 to run the show and £24,000 to support it.
Then I began to look at the other figures, and I thought "How can this be? I know that this is not McDonald's or Pizza Hut and that the expertise at its centre is somewhat greater than it is in enterprises of that kind, but £24,000 to support an £18,000 outlet? It just cannot work like that." I wanted to know precisely what central costs were making a profitable outlet unprofitable, so I asked a parliamentary question about it. I am going to press my hon. Friend the Minister a little further in the hope that he can help me now.
At the beginning of February, I asked how the figures were made up. Being not entirely sure of the answer, my hon. Friend the Minister rightly said that he would ask the Post Office. A month later I asked when I would know the answer, and my hon. Friend asked the Post Office again. My question has still not been answered. Does the Post Office actually know how much it is costing to run the central administration? I do not think it does.
I want to embolden my hon. Friend. I think he has done great in ensuring that the right subsidies have been placed at the disposal of Post Office. The Labour Government have made it possible for the Post Office to maintain a network that it would not otherwise have been able to maintain. I do not know whether the Post Office's management are incompetent, and I will not accuse them of incompetence until I do know, but I cannot know that until I know how the central costs are made up and whether enterprises such as this are profitable or unprofitable.
I ask my hon. Friend now to insist that the Post Office give the information. It is owned by us. We are the shareholders, and we demand to know how its costs are made up so that we can determine whether the closures that are planned at present, and will be planned in future, are necessary. The Government are very bold in the main, but were they bold enough when they allowed the Post Office to consider as many as 2,500 closures? My guess is that it need not have gone as far as that. Certainly it will not need to go as far as that if we can do something about the amount that is apparently being spent by Post Office Ltd, perhaps through incompetence and perhaps not. In any event, the matter needs further investigation.
I am delighted to have been called. I am particularly delighted to follow Michael Jabez Foster, and perhaps to represent the voice of sanity at the other end of Sussex, where we stand up for our post offices and for our constituents. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that he will not have "done great" himself this evening unless he supports the motion tabled by members of my party.
It is extraordinary that the focus of the Liberal Democrats' attack today has been not on the Government or their closure programme, but on the Conservatives. The same happened in my constituency when we were fighting for our post offices: the Liberal Democrats' attack was entirely based on what the Conservatives were doing, which was standing up for the post offices. It is the Liberal Democrats who are merely playing politics, and who have the audacity to claim otherwise.
I think I should declare an interest. I am pleased to speak soon after Mr. Cawsey, because earlier this week I was told by someone investigating my family tree that one of my ancestors, Joseph Loughton, and his father-in-law Ebenezer Easting ran a sub-post office in North Somercotes near Hull, just outside the hon. Gentleman's constituency, in 1892. Perhaps a more relevant interest for me to declare, however, is that my constituency contains the headquarters of the National Federation of SubPostmasters. I must say in response to what has been said by the Secretary of State and other Members that there is considerable disquiet among many sub-postmasters about the way in which they are represented by that organisation, which appears to have caved in and almost taken the Government's shilling in going along with the exercise. The new general secretary has certainly not been as robust in standing up for the future of our sub-postmasters as his predecessor, who lived in my constituency. He lives in Scotland, and comes down to Sussex every week.
In Lancing and Sompting in my constituency, the post offices are all to be closed, with the exception of the Crown post office, which has to provide a service for 28,000 people, although it is already struggling to deal with its increased business. The impact of the closure programme is not about nimbyism but about unfairness and unsustainability. Despite the petition signed by 6,200 people that I presented in the House, the hundreds of letters, the marches and public meetings, and the consultation exercise, which ended on Christmas eve and was truncated to six weeks, we got absolutely nowhere. On
I have never dealt with a more duplicitous, bullying, self-serving, incompetent, arrogant and out-of-touch public body than the Post Office proved itself in the consultation. I do not use those terms lightly, and I am happy to justify my claims. You will judge, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Post Office is off my Christmas card list, although those cards would probably only get lost in the post in any case. It is duplicitous, because it has proved itself a willing henchman following the Government edict that set in train the latest closure programme of 2,500 branches, based on spurious, ill-conceived and self-destructive criteria. Its duplicity is exceeded only by the actions of Government Ministers and Labour Back Benchers, who are happy to pose for the cameras in front of post office branches in their constituencies, pleading a special case for keeping those branches open.
Will the Minister confirm this whole question whether the Government told the Post Office that it had to close up to 2,500 branches; or does the Post Office really have to close 2,500 branches? That is a serious question that has not been answered. Let us not forget that the closures of those 2,500 branches, in contrast with what happened under previous Governments, are compulsory. They are not voluntary—they are compulsory closures. The Government and the Post Office are duplicitous in saying that they have to close those branches because business has reduced. That has happened because the way the Government have instructed the Post Office has taken business away from post offices, following changes to the payment of pensions, the post office card account, about which the Government have dithered, and the changes to car tax discs and television licences. They are bullies, because they have virtually blackmailed sub-postmasters into accepting compensation terms at the outset, otherwise they may end up getting nothing at all. Those postmasters have, under this Government, already lost retirement tax relief, which was often based on their business. Their life savings are based on those businesses, and they cannot afford to lose that compensation if their business closes. They have been sworn to secrecy and scared out of lobbying to keep their post offices open, and, as we have heard, the compensation is linked to their not providing any competing services for at least a year: no lottery tickets, no foreign currency, no accepting payment for utilities. How is that acting in the interests of the people, rather than of the post office network, which is supposed to be there for the people? As every Member has said, the consultation was a complete and utter sham.
On the county council negotiations, I pay tribute to Essex, which has led the way, and my own West Sussex county council is currently trying to negotiate with the Post Office. I say "trying" because the Post Office is being very tardy in producing information that will allow the negotiations to go forward. All the while branches are closing down, however, and the equipment will be taken out of them, and it will be very hard to get them back up and running again if there is an eventual deal. The Post Office is clearly dragging its feet and not producing the necessary facts and figures, despite the Minister's warm words that he wishes to encourage such negotiations. Will the Government support a moratorium on closures while negotiations go forward? That is a crucial question.
I also accused the Post Office of being self-serving. It is supposed to be a community service. Its services are located within shops that are the heart of our communities, but there has been a complete lack of transparency in the consultation and closure programme. We just do not know which are the unprofitable branches, how unprofitable they are, or how much money it would take to make them profitable. Sub-postmasters have offered to take cuts in their remuneration, but, again, they have been completely rebuffed. The reasons for this lack of information on closing branches and for the Post Office dragging its feet on negotiations with other providers are that it is interested only in maximising the profitability of its remaining branches and it wants to get rid of the rest of the competition. Profits before people and public service is the hallmark of the whole enterprise.
The Post Office is incompetent because many of the facts in the consultation documents were full of holes. In the response to the consultation, in respect of one of my branches, there was a reference to the problems of crossing busy roads such as the A27. However, the A27 runs nowhere near that branch—but that was in the "facts" the Post Office used to justify the closure of that branch. When it was notified of the branch closures, one of the Worthing branches was described as being in East Sussex, but it is in West Sussex—and that from an organisation that specialises in addresses. That is completely bizarre. The response to this consultation was a total sham. In only a few lines, the future of our community post offices, the livelihoods of sub-postmasters who have dedicated themselves for many years, and the hopes of hundreds of thousands of pensioners who rely on them, were dashed without any come-back at all.
Serious question marks hang over all the access criteria as well. People are supposed to be within a mile of alternative post offices. That is all very well for a crow who lives in the post office that will be closed down, but many people live a mile the other way from the post office that will be closed down, so that could mean a two-mile trip, as the crow flies. Those criteria are also full of holes.
The consultation also ignores deprivation figures. During the consultation in Sussex, the new deprivation figures came out and they showed that my councils had slipped further down the deprivation league and that they now ranked above average for deprivation. All such factors were ignored.
The Post Office is arrogant, too. It seems to believe, with the connivance of the Government, that it should be above the scrutiny of Parliament and the parliamentary process on behalf of the people. All the claims are about the survival of the post office network. It has stuck two fingers up at pensioners, local businesses, the communities of which many post offices form the heart, environmental considerations, councils, councillors and Members of Parliament—yet it has the temerity to call itself the people's Post Office.
This whole consultation has been about blackmail and bullying. If we give in now, that will be a form of appeasement, and in a few years the Post Office will come back and say, "We need to close yet more branches in order to make the network sustainable." It is not on, and it is not fair, and we should continue to object in the fiercest terms.
It is a pleasure to follow the impassioned plea by Tim Loughton. I share some of his frustration about how this process has been handled. Even Labour Members who support the Government think that it is fair to say that the consultation process has been less than transparent, and at times shambolic. The data that have been used do not bear scrutiny.
I gave careful consideration to the motion that stands in the name of the leader of the Conservative party—after all, like all hon. Members, I am a supporter of the post office network—but I do not believe that there are market solutions to every problem and I support the use of public subsidy to sustain the network for social reasons. Although it is not particularly fashionable in new Labour circles, I also believe in state intervention to create trade for the network. That is why I would have tried a lot harder to keep many services, such as dealing with TV licences and some benefits collection, within the Post Office's purview. I believe that because I do not think that post offices are just about providing vital community services; I think that they are an embodiment of civil society at the heart of our communities, and we need to intervene to ensure that they have a future.
Of course none of that philosophy sits easily with the Conservative party and its policy of laissez-faire economics, which would allow unprofitable businesses simply to go to the wall. I was looking for some merit when I scanned the Tory motion, but I found it not only wanting but profoundly hypocritical. It was hypocritical because the Conservative party would put no extra money on the table to sustain the network—that fact was drawn out in earlier exchanges that other hon. Members and I had with the shadow spokesman.
In fact, the Conservative approach is worse, because the shadow spokesman failed even to match the Government's commitment to provide the £1.7 billion in subsidy and investment pledged to the post office network up to 2011. Not only is the motion hypocritical, but it is incoherent. The shadow spokesman started well but ended badly. Although he accepts that in this changing world, where an increase in online transactions has undoubtedly impacted on the Post Office's business, the network would shrink, he failed to tell the House what level of shrinkage would be acceptable to him.
As my hon. Friend knows, Alan Duncan said during those earlier exchanges that he would look at the same number of closures. Many Labour Members have examined the Conservatives' position and feel, like my hon. Friend, that it offers nothing new. It is a disgrace to suggest that it contains something new. The Conservatives would provide no new money, they are making no further promises and their approach is disingenuous to constituents, whose hopes may have been raised.
I found the attitude of the Conservatives' motion not only hypocritical and incoherent, but profoundly cynical and dishonest. How can they will the ends but not provide the means? How can they accept that closures are inevitable, but fail to put a number on how many branches should close? Let us also bear a history lesson in mind. Some 3,500 post offices closed under the previous Conservative Administration and, to my certain knowledge, Tory MPs in Berkshire campaigned to defend their local post offices at that time, so how can they criticise Labour and Liberal MPs for wanting to do precisely the same thing? That does not add up.
No. Before I criticise the further irresponsible tactics of the Opposition on this issue, may I just say how much I appreciated the thoughtful suggestions made by Mr. Paice and other hon. Members as to how the post office network could be better organised? I hope that rather than defending the barricade in this debate, Ministers will take on board some of the suggestions that have come from all parts of the House.
On profitability, we know that only 4,000 of the 14,000 post offices can survive without some form of annual subsidy and that annual subsidy is running at about £159 million a year. We know that the size of the network is likely to shrink, and that shrinkage has been reluctantly supported by the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which the Conservatives pray in aid from time to time. We also know that 3,500 post offices have closed under previous Administrations, when not a penny piece of subsidy was provided to support the network.
No one should support the Tory motion, because there is no hiding place for their arguments while they remain light on policy and financially free in their commitments. There is not a Tory MP who was not elected on the pledge to cut public expenditure in line with the James review. Only this week, we read that James is alive and well. I note that it was claimed on
In a sign of his determination to cut taxes, Cameron has authorised his shadow Treasury team to dust down the so-called James review of 2004-05, which identified £12bn of potential government savings."
Said a Tory source:
'"We are still committed to many aspects of the James review...It has some very sound ideas. Savings will go into the pot and will be used for tax cuts or spent elsewhere."'
Not only are the Tories failing to match the existing commitment, but there is a very real prospect that budgets will be slashed still further.
Does my hon. Friend agree with Billy Hayes, the CWU general secretary, who says that we should not forget that the Conservatives tried to privatise the Post Office in 1994 and that the Lib Dems are now committed to selling off 50 per cent.? He also says that the Lib Dems are a right-wing party that will say leftist things in pursuit of a vote.
I am aware of the battle royal in Brent between the political parties, and I could never be as horrible to the Lib Dems as my hon. Friend is, but I certainly acknowledge that they will say one thing in one place and something else in another.
In Reading, West, we went through an especially tough time in 2004 with the network reinvention programme. Other hon. Members will also bear the scars of that time. In my constituency, we faced the proposed closure of branches in Lyon square, Whitley Wood, Beecham road and the Meadway—all areas of west Reading. But with the strong support of Postwatch and the engagement of the local community, and by focusing on two of the four branches that were clearly pushing at the envelope of the published criteria, we were able to achieve at least one success: we were able to stop the closure of the Whitley Wood branch in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency. While I was not happy to see three post offices close, I accepted that at least the process had some integrity.
That was in 2004. Let us fast forward to 2008. One of the arguments that allowed the Post Office to go ahead with the closure of the Meadway branch—I realise that the names will mean little to other hon. Members—was the fact that there was another branch within one mile, in Wantage road, also in my constituency, and we had to accept that argument. How surprised was I to find, in 2008, that as part of the current programme the Wantage Road branch was scheduled for closure, along with a branch at Lower Tilehurst in Kentwood Hill. Like any good constituency MP, I sprang into action. We have all done it, and other hon. Members will do it when it happens in their constituencies. I raised the petitions, lobbied Postwatch and tested the proposals against the criteria. Once again, I thought we had a case on at least one of the branches.
Let this be a warning to everybody engaged in this process. I wrote to the regional chair of Postwatch, having measured the distances, considered the deprivation indices, and examined the promises that had been made before about additional counters to deal with queuing as a result of the previous closures in 2004. I wrote:
"The criteria which the Post Office use to determine whether or not to close a local post office is whether people have another post office within one mile, except in areas of significant deprivation. In these areas post offices can remain open if the residents live less than a mile from another branch. The Dee Road estate is in part served by the Wantage Road Post Office and significant data is available from Reading Borough Council to demonstrate that this is an area of deprivation. Should Wantage Road be closed, some areas of Dee Road Estate"— that deprived estate in my constituency—
"would be 1.2 or 1.3 miles away from their nearest post office."
In addition, it was proposed that a post office at the bottom of an extremely steep hill with an intermittent bus service would be closed. The replacement post office was already overcrowded, with many pensioners queuing out into the street. We had been promised additional counters in 2004, but they did not appear—certainly not as regularly as we wanted.
We challenged the fact that no account had been taken of additional housing that was being built in the local community, with another 400 new chimney pots coming on stream—another 400 potential customers. I believe that we had put together a strong and powerful argument and I was confident, as I was in 2004, that we could deliver—or save—at least one of those post offices.
Our consultation closed on
The reviews were then announced, and it turned out that Postwatch did not mean what it said. Although it expressed serious reservations and had asked for reconsideration, it had failed to trigger the formal process. The lesson for hon. Members is that if they get Postwatch on their side—and they need to—they should please make sure that it means what it says. Weasel words alone will not save a branch in any of our constituencies.
Finally, throughout the process the local Liberals remained silent. We do not have too many of them in west Reading, so there was no danger of their colonising the issue. The local Conservatives were noisy but spectacularly irrelevant. As I said earlier, my opposite number, the Tory candidate, launched a campaign a month before the publication of the closure programme to save three branches in Southcote, Purley and Hildens drive that were never at risk and were never going to be at risk. Yet he and his campaign failed even to lodge an objection with Postwatch or to engage in the campaign to help those branches that were earmarked for closure. This is the sort of irresponsible behaviour that has been mentioned by my hon. Friend Ms Butler, and means that local people, pensioners and disabled people who rely on their post office to provide vital services end up frightened and distressed.
Scaremongering and unnecessarily frightening pensioners in my constituency is no substitute for good, honest campaigning. The dishonesty, incoherence and hypocrisy in the Conservative motion are no substitute for honest politics and there is no case for going into the Lobby tonight for the Conservative party.
Order. I judge that on such an occasion it might be more important for hon. Members to be able to get something on the record rather than to have the full 12 minutes, so I propose with immediate effect to reduce the time limit to seven minutes. I hope that on that basis we should nearly get there.
Mine is a large rural constituency in the highlands and islands, but the Post Office decided to lump Argyll and Bute in with the Greater Glasgow area in its closure programme. I could not understand the logic of that at all. Originally, seven offices in my constituency were proposed for closure. That was bad enough, but it could have been worse and the customers of the other offices breathed sighs of relief.
However, their relief was premature: as part of the consultation process, the Post Office decided to spare four offices elsewhere in the Greater Glasgow area. They all happened to be in Labour-held marginal constituencies—something that, if it happened by chance, was a remarkable coincidence.
Those reprieves in Labour marginals meant that an extra four post offices were proposed for closure in a further so-called consultation process. One was the office serving the village of Clynder in my constituency. We still do not know the outcome of the further consultation, but the Clynder office is a typical village post office. The hub of the local community, it is in the same building as the village's only shop. Closing it is therefore bound to have an effect on the shop's business, so there are sound economic reasons for keeping it open.
If the Clynder post office closes, it will—like all such closures—be to the detriment of village life. I simply do not understand why that office must be closed in order to spare an urban post office in a completely different environment. If the four post offices in Greater Glasgow that were originally considered eligible to be saved deserve it, that is fine and they should be saved. However, the Clynder office—which only last October was deemed worthy of staying open—should not be closed simply as a means to achieve the Government's artificial target of 2,500 closures.
The postmaster at Clynder, Douglas Nicolson, has given 40 years of loyal service to the local community. He is a source of help and advice to all his customers. Such benefits cannot be measured in profit-and-loss terms, and I hope that the Post Office will relent and save the office at Clynder.
Although some post offices in my constituency are facing the axe, that does not mean that the others can relax. There is concern about the long-term viability of all the ones that have escaped the axe, especially those in small communities. For example, the post office in the small village of St. Catherines in my constituency suddenly shut its doors a few weeks ago. I contacted the Post Office and was assured that it is actively seeking someone to take over the business, but several other offices in the highlands and islands have been in a similar position for a long time. I am therefore very concerned that the St. Catherines office may never be reopened and that, gradually and over time, many other post offices in small communities in my constituency may also close.
The problem is that the Government must ensure that post offices are given enough business and support to remain viable. I hope that Ministers will provide an assurance at the end of today's debate that the offices that have escaped the axe in the current closure programme will have a secure future in the long term.
In that respect, the successor to the Post Office card account is vital to the future of our post offices. The Government must ensure that the Post Office retains the contract when the current one expires in two years' time. Only the Post Office has the rural network needed to deliver the contract, and there must be no repeat of the TV licence fiasco. Then, the contract was taken away from the Post Office and given to PayPoint, a company that does not have a rural network that can match the Post Office's. For example, several islands in my constituency have a post office but no PayPoint outlet, with the result that TV viewers there cannot renew their licences over the counter.
The future of the Post Office card account is a vital issue, but POCA must be given more facilities. It should be developed into a basic bank account with functions such as the ability to make cash deposits. That is the route that French and German post offices have gone down, and I hope that the Government will take this country down that route, too. A Post Office bank account with basic banking facilities would, I am sure, make the network sustainable and contribute towards meeting the Government's aims as regards financial inclusion. I hope that the Government will adopt that as the long-term solution.
As for today's debate, I will certainly support the motion calling for a suspension of the post office closure programme. If the programme were suspended, it would allow the Essex proposals to be investigated, and it would give councils and local community groups the time to explore opportunities for sharing services with the post office, put together business plans and secure funding. I believe that there is scope for making savings by sharing post office services with the services of councils and other local agencies. I hope that hon. Members will support the motion, as that will allow time for all the options to be explored.
Not only do I have a constituency interest in the debate, but I worked for the Post Office for 18 years. Indeed, for a time I worked in the chairman's office, answering MPs' letters, and I am very glad that I am not there now, because I am sure that I would have had quite a few.
I received a letter from Charles Hendry, the shadow Minister for postal affairs. I ask him not to make a habit of sending me letters. I have enough problems with my own party's Whips without the Opposition trying to whip me, too. However, I will be supporting the motion; I have given the matter careful consideration. I support the wording, but I detect a whiff of hypocrisy from the Conservative party on reinvestment in the network. If the Conservatives were in government, postal services would be in a worse position. I know that because I had to fight, along with the Secretary of State for Health, who led a magnificent campaign, to save Morecambe post office—a Crown post office—and a post office in Lancaster from closure when the Conservatives were in power. Indeed, they tried to privatise Royal Mail and the rest of the Post Office, so I will take no lessons from them on what we should do to save the network. However, I have read the motion, and the wording mirrors my thoughts on the issue, so for that reason only, I will support it.
My hon. Friend speaks for many Labour Members who have engaged with the consultation and worked with local communities and local authorities only to be ignored, and who have had the support of Postwatch only for that to be ignored. I wrote to Allan Leighton, too, only to get a reply from the woman who sent out the original closure notice. The fundamental issue at stake is how Parliament holds the Post Office to account for a closure programme that makes no sense.
Yes, I agree completely. The consultation has been a complete sham. I think that everyone in the House agrees with that. On the post office closures, I have not been able to get commercial information relating to my constituency from the Post Office. There is a village post office that is open for two mornings a week, and the village would settle for one morning a week, but the Post Office will not tell me how much that would cost. One of the post offices in my constituency, on Kellet road in Carnforth, is a viable office; I know that because I know the sub-postmistress personally. She has given me the information and there is no way that that office should be closing.
I declare an interest: I am from the fourth generation of a post office family, and have two post offices closing in my constituency in the next few days, including one in my home village. My hon. Friend talks about figures; the Government tell us that the average saving from each of the 2,500 closures is £18,000. That is a total of £45 million, which does not lop off a substantial amount from the subsidy that is allegedly needed to keep the post office network going. Does she agree that over the next few years, irrespective of what happens, there will be further economic closures—
Order. It is an abuse to take so much time on an intervention when we are very tight for time and many hon. Members who have been in the Chamber for the entire debate are waiting to speak.
The key to helping the post office network survive is making sure that new business is found for it. We talk about the subsidy for the Post Office. Let us have fewer consultants across Government Departments. We could save a fortune.
It is wrong that viable post offices are being closed. That is clearly what is happening in some cases. That information is not being made available to Members of Parliament. As I said, I have asked the Post Office for the information but it has still not given it to me. That is wrong.
Another office in my constituency, Nether Kellet, is a village shop—the last shop in the village. If that office closes, the nearest one, although it may be within the recommended distance, is very hard to get to because there is no direct public transport. No thought has been given to the proposals by the Post Office. That is why we should take a step back and rethink them.
I have concerns also about the Crown office network and what will happen to that. Crown offices across the country give a reliable service to the public. The staff are highly trained and we must be careful that we are not franchising them out. We should ensure that they are protected.
I saw a press release from the Communication Workers Union and I agree with what it says. It calls on the Government
"to suspend the deeply unpopular closure programme and provide lasting investment to secure the future of the Post Office network".
However, the union also says that it is
"concerned that the Conservative Party does not have the best interests of the network at heart, as its policy effectively calls for it to be dismantled".
Let us have a bit of honesty in the debate. Let us not have complete opportunism from the Opposition.
It is a pleasure to follow Geraldine Smith, who has already demonstrated in her career that she is a Member of principle. Tonight she is yet again doing the right thing, unlike many of her colleagues.
The Post Office proposes to close a third of the post office network in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton—five post offices in Bognor Regis and one in Littlehampton. The truncated consultation process has caused a real problem. We have had petitions and public demonstrations. We held a public meeting in Littlehampton which someone from the Post Office attended, but when a big public meeting was held in Bognor Regis, where five post offices are to close, no one from the Post Office was able to attend. Why? Because they were busy attending public meetings in London. If that consultation period had been longer, the Post Office would have had people available to come to Bognor Regis.
Does my hon. Friend agree with Geraldine Smith that the length of consultation does not make much difference if the consultation was a complete sham?
My right hon. Friend makes a telling point. The view is shared by many people in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that the whole consultation process is a sham and that no notice will be taken by the Post Office of the views of local residents. The fact that no one from the Post Office attended that public meeting in Bognor Regis compounds that view. The Select Committee said of the process:
"The lack of transparency also leads to a misunderstanding of the nature of the consultation among local residents, and has engendered the belief that the public consultations are a sham."
The branches proposed for closure in my constituency are in areas where a high proportion of the residents are elderly or very elderly, by which I mean over the age of 85. The Craigweil-on-Sea branch serves a population in which 38 per cent. are retired and the Aldwick branch serves a population in which 36 per cent. are retired. Nearly 40 per cent. of the residents of Aldwick and Craigweil are over the age of 65 and 5 per cent. are over 85.
In Littlehampton the Beach branch in Norfolk road serves a population in which 27 per cent. are retired, more than a quarter are over the age of 65 and more than
"one in five people have a Limiting Life Long illness."
The people who use the Norfolk road branch tend to be very elderly people who live close by and who can just walk the short distance to the post office and the grocery store, but no further. As the Select Committee report said:
"We have had numerous complaints that proposals failed to take account...of high concentrations of elderly or disabled people living close to offices scheduled for closure."
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. I speak for Henley, where we face closures in Stanton St. John and Crowmarsh Gifford, but the closure of post offices affects the elderly population not only in rural communities; I also have direct experience of the issue in London, where elderly people are being deprived of vital services. By closing post offices, we not only deprive the elderly of those services, but rip out the lynchpin of the local economy. That applies not only in the villages, for which—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important intervention. He will make a great advocate for London, and I wish him all the very best.
It is clear that the Post Office has failed to take into account high concentrations of the elderly and very elderly. The very elderly tend to have abandoned the use of a car, owing to failing eyesight or poor general health, and they struggle to make their way to their local shops and post office on foot, by wheelchair or by scooter. Travelling to the next nearest post office will be impossible for many elderly residents. The next nearest post office to Craigweil is at Rose Green, and getting there would mean walking nearly a mile along a route parts of which have no footpath.
Residents in the Beach area of Littlehampton will find themselves having to use the main Crown post office in Littlehampton if the Beach branch is closed. As well as being difficult to get to from there, Littlehampton's Crown post office is notorious for its lengthy and time-consuming queues; that is consistent with other Crown post offices around the country. The Select Committee said:
"Queuing times at Crown Offices were longer than in most franchised operations (a consideration for frailer customers)".
If the Beach branch is to close, I hope that Post Office Ltd will give an undertaking to put extra staff in Crown post offices and provide seating and help for elderly and disabled customers.
Public transport in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is very poor. Many of the bus services that do exist are infrequent and depend on subsidies from West Sussex county council; those are often reviewed and services are often withdrawn. If the Hawthorn Road and South Bersted branches closed, a large area of residential Bognor Regis would be devoid of any post office branch. Part of that area encompasses two of the most deprived wards in west Sussex; only one third of residents in Pevensey, for example, own a car. Given poor public transport, there is great reliance on post offices remaining local. Closing those two branches would present real difficulties for many residents in the area.
Like many towns in the area, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton have grown from smaller communities that have merged over time. The Beach Town area of Littlehampton was a separate town until development joined it to the rest of Littlehampton. The small parade of shops in that area is a community in itself. If we lose the post office branch run by Bharti and Raj Shah at the back of the grocery store, and if the grocery store goes as well, we will lose the hub of a community in Littlehampton. The same will happen if we lose the post office in Craigweil, which has a parade of shops near the sea and which is cut off from other parts of Bognor Regis. If we lose the shop and the post office, which is run by Barbara and Robin Doe, the whole hub of that community will go as well.
In conclusion, the proposed closure plan for the post office network of Bognor Regis and Littlehampton involves a third of the branches—almost double the national figure of 18 per cent. The area has a much higher proportion of the elderly and very elderly, who are the section of the population most dependent on the existence of a locally sited post office. Although the Post Office will have recorded the proportion of retired people living in the area, the closure programme has not taken into account the numbers of very elderly people. I urge the House to support the Opposition motion this evening, to suspend the compulsory closure of the sub-post office network.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Gibb. Many of the characteristics of his constituency also apply to mine, in that we have the third highest number of over-85-year-olds of any constituency in the country.
The first few words of the amendment say that the Government
"recognises the vital social and economic role of post offices, in particular in rural and deprived urban communities".
Let us see how they live up to that pledge in the Cotswolds. With a nationwide loss of 18 per cent. of post offices, the Cotswolds region is losing 12 of its branches—four completely and eight through outreach. That is a quarter of its post office network. Many local businesses depend on their post office. The bus service in the Cotswolds is, in many cases, almost non-existent, so this will hit the elderly and vulnerable particularly hard. Eleven of those 12 post offices—I would like the Minister particularly to listen to this point—have a shop attached to them. If the story first broken in The Daily Telegraph is true and the Post Office intends to restrict the business that those shops are allowed to offer as a result of the post office closing, because it might duplicate what the post office originally offered, that would be a further devastating and possibly destabilising blow wreaked by the Government on the highly rural areas in my constituency.
My hon. Friend's description of his constituency mirrors much of the experience in mine, where local shops would also close. Moreover, the absence of alternative financial services outlets, with very few banks, means that the post office provides access to financial services for some of the most vulnerable in our community. With that gone, the whole financial inclusion agenda is in serious trouble in rural areas.
As always, my hon. Friend makes pertinent points on behalf of his constituents. He looks after them very well in this House, and he has done so again on this occasion. I entirely agree with what he said.
The closures have resulted in the biggest single constituency campaign that I have dealt with in 16 years as a Member of Parliament. I have received more than 500 letters, all of which have been summarised, and 12 separate representations had been made to Post Office Ltd at the end of the closure of the consultation period at the beginning of this week, with copies sent to the Minister. I have organised eight well-attended public meetings, and we had a march in the centre of Cirencester at which 500 residents turned up to demonstrate about the fact that if a vast number of extra people have to go to the Crown post office in Cirencester, it will not be able to cope.
I want to provide the Minister with a brief rural tour of the Cotswolds to demonstrate some of the problems with the consultation, beginning with the very northern and southern edges of my constituency, on the Worcestershire-Warwickshire boundary in the case of Weston-sub-Edge, and on the Wiltshire boundary in the case of Meysey Hampton. The problem there is that because the consultation was done for different areas in different parts of the country, and neither Worcestershire, Warwickshire nor Wiltshire has yet been reviewed, residents are having their post office closed without knowing what the future of the post office in the adjoining county is going to be. I believe that the Government and the Post Office have deliberately staggered the closure programme on that basis to avoid the national outcry that would otherwise take place.
I should like now to go to the most rural part of my constituency—Temple Guiting and Guiting Power. Those two villages expected that one of their post offices would close and were completely taken aback when they both closed. One of those post offices has just two hours of outreach. I have made representations to the Post Office and to the Minister about the alterations that could be made to that outreach. Will he comment on how it is going to be funded, how long it is likely to last, and what provisions there will be to review it once it is in place and we find that it is not working as well as it might? Those two villages will be joined by residents from Longborough, who are extremely vociferous about their closure, and Blockley, where they are trying to form a co-operative village shop in order to keep their post office open.
In the highly likely event that any of the residents affected by all five closures find themselves needing a post office out of outreach hours, they will be forced to go to Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow or Moreton-in-Marsh. I defy the Minister, in the middle of a summer afternoon with a large influx of visitors, to find a car-parking space within two miles of those post offices.
I come to two other rural post offices—those of Sherborne and Aldsworth. One of the young schoolchildren in Sherborne managed to get 200 names on a petition in just two hours, such is the strength of feeling in that village.
In the limited time left to me, I want to talk about Cirencester, which currently has three branches: one Crown post office, and two sub-post offices. The two sub-post offices are Stratton, which serves 5,400 residents, and the Beeches, which serves 12,300 residents. In the case of Stratton, at my well-attended public meeting of 250 people—I hope that the Minister will bear this in mind—the sub-postmaster, John Lafford, reported two amazing facts. These are on the public record. In January alone, he had a turnover of £468,000—in just one month—and he was offered a payment of £100,000 if he took the post office closure payment, but he wants to stay open because he enjoys serving the community. What a way to go about a closure programme. The Beeches serves 12,300 residents, with another 750 new houses about to be built, but it is scheduled for closure. Surely the Government can think of a more sensible programme than closing such profitable post offices, which is really the politics of the madhouse.
If the closures go ahead, and the two closest post offices to Cirencester—Rendcomb and Colesbourne—are also closed, a population of 19,000 people in the town of Cirencester and the surrounding 21 villages, across 100 square miles, will be left with one inadequate Crown post office. I do not know of anywhere in the country where such a monstrous proposal is in place. I ask the Minister if he will seriously reconsider the proposals, particularly in the case of Cirencester.
I end on this note. Much has been made in this debate about the services that have been run down in our post offices, but I want to ask the Minister what positive proposals he has to introduce new services. I think that I was one of the first Members to mention the idea of having a broadband connection in every post office. If such a connection were provided, a huge amount of information would be available to all my constituents. It is amazing that even elderly constituents are becoming more computer literate every day—a surprising factor. With a little invention, the Post Office could offer a lot of other things. It could offer ATMs, which could be further refined so that they were compatible with the Post Office benefit card; benefit claimants could then draw cash from their own post office. A lot of services could be provided by the Post Office, and as other hon. Members have said, it should be much more free in the amount of services it allows sub-postmasters and mistresses to offer.
In closing, I say to the Minister that the consultation is flawed. I am not a luddite. The system cannot remain exactly as it is, and it needs some rationalisation, but the way in which the Government have dealt with the consultation is flawed. It is wrong, and the wrong branches are being closed. I ask him to think again, particularly about the two branches in Cirencester.
I shall be very brief. Any member of the public reading the Opposition's motion would find it strange that anyone could vote against it, particularly those who are concerned about their own post offices and what is happening in their constituencies. The suspension of the compulsory closure of sub-post offices while all the issues are reassessed is common sense, and no one should feel that they are being disloyal to their party or the Government in voting for it.
All of us feel strongly about the closure programme, and, as many hon. Members have said, this Parliament is ultimately responsible for the matter. I would have preferred a Government motion calling for such a suspension, which we could have supported, but it is an Opposition one, and I shall support it. As chair of the all-party group on post offices, I have done everything in my constituency absolutely by the book. London is in the middle of its very short consultation period—I am not sure whether that makes a lot of difference. A suspension would give us more time to oppose the closure of particular sub-post offices. I have gone through all the criteria for my Lambeth Walk post office on Vauxhall street. I have measured everything, had Postwatch down and held a public meeting. The local community is totally involved and supportive.
Huge amounts of regeneration are coming into our area about which Royal Mail and the Post Office did not know. We are presenting all the information, including the deprivation figures and the fact that there are eight sheltered homes within a few hundred yards of the post office. It would be a disgrace if, under the existing criteria, the post office did not stay open. I will wait and see.
I have done everything by the book and I am sure that that applies to many colleagues. By voting for the motion, we send a little signal, which tells the Government that they are responsible for determining the figures— arbitrary figures that have been plucked out of the air.
Today, all sorts of ideas have been expressed about possible changes, including legal action that might happen in London, proposals that Essex and other local authorities have made, and the Government using the Post Office more and instructing the BBC to allow television licences to be bought in post offices. Many things can be done, but we need more time. The motion is sensible and I hope that many of my colleagues will join me in the Lobby tonight.
I am pleased that we are holding a debate on a subject of considerable concern to my constituents and I am glad that I can make a brief contribution to it.
I was disappointed in the Secretary of State's speech, which failed to deal with the genuine concerns of all our constituents about the changes in the postal service. I congratulate my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State on a constructive and logical approach to examining those issues and highlighting the flaws in the action that is being taken.
My hon. Friend Mr. Randall made a speech that I strongly supported, which covered most of the issues that face suburban and Greater London post office closures. We hope that the Government will listen today and propose a rethink. We also hope that the Post Office will suspend the closure programme to consider the possible alternatives. For example, we have discussed Essex county council's proposal, which could ameliorate the problems.
In the past few years in Bexleyheath and Crayford, we have lost many of our sub-post offices—in Barnehurst, Lesnes Abbey, Brampton and on the boundary between Barnehurst and Collier's ward. Today, we are threatened with yet another closure in the Brampton ward of my constituency. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, we have experienced the closure of a popular and busy post office and its relocation to the upstairs of WH Smith in the centre of the town. It has just opened, and we were genuinely worried about the relocation because of the lifts, the staff, the location and mobility problems for those who are disabled or have children in pushchairs and prams. We will wait and see how it works out.
I want to highlight the Brampton road post office, which is threatened. Its closure is subject to consultation. It opens for 51 hours a week and completes between 750 and 990 transactions a week at its two service positions. It has level access, provides euros on demand and has an external ATM facility. There is unrestricted parking and a bus stop 100 yd away. Many of those who use the post office are pensioners who do not own a car and do not find mobility easy. The closure of the branch would cause genuine hardship to people in and around the area that I represent in Brampton. There are alternative branches, but they are a considerable distance away—in Long lane, which is more than a mile away, and Wroughton road, which is two thirds of a mile away. They are open for less time and do not have easy access via buses.
One of the issues raised by Melanie Corfield, who is head of external relations for the south-east, was the opportunities for new products that the Post Office wants to promote. One of those, which was in its business plan, was financial services. The Post Office extolled the new bond backed by the Bank of Ireland, which it hoped people would buy, thereby creating new development services for it. However, I made the point, strongly and forcefully, that it was difficult for people to get to post offices and therefore difficult for them to use the new services. If post offices are not in communities, there will obviously be a disincentive for people who do not have cars or easy mobility to take up those new opportunities.
There are serious concerns about closing branches without considering the needs of local communities. Many local businesses are also concerned about the loss of a facility that they use. I had meetings with many local shopkeepers and businesses that were great users of the services offered by the Brampton road branch. They were concerned about how their businesses would suffer if the branch closed.
I intend no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, but we do not have much time and I know that everyone wants to get in. I therefore feel obliged not to take any interventions.
The decisions to close local post offices are misguided and will ultimately damage the Post Office's business and its reputation. The consultation exercise, which I raised in an intervention on the Secretary of State, is flawed and a sham. Previous consultations, which were well supported by my constituents who want to keep the branch open, have been ignored and rejected by the Post Office. Logical and reasonable arguments about why a post office should remain—because of business, pensioners, transport, distance or community—have all received a blanket rejection.
It is no wonder that people feel disengaged from community political activity, when they feel that their voices are not being heard. The fear remains that the Post Office and the Government, who control the service, are out of touch. Both will suffer if we do not place a moratorium on the closures and consider the alternatives. The issue is important throughout the country, no more so than in my constituency and across suburbia and Greater London. The Government should think again.
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.
I shall be very brief, but I want it put on the record that I will vote for the Conservative motion this evening. I can see nothing wrong with it. I read it through two or three times in case I was missing something. I see nothing in it that my friends or colleagues on this side cannot vote for. I listened with interest, as I always do, to my friend from Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), who spent 18 years working in the Post Office. She will be voting with the Conservatives. I am pleased to see my friend from Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who chairs the all-party sub-post offices group and will also be voting with the Conservatives. There is no need for anyone on this side to feel at all frightened about the prospect of voting with the Conservatives. Let me explain that it is the only option left open to us. It is the only option we have left to stop or suspend the closure programme.
Let me tell you this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I participated in a Westminster Hall debate with my Lancashire colleagues, including my friend from Morecambe and Lunesdale. In Lancashire, we face 59 closures and many of my friends spoke about that in the debate. I spoke, too. If I did not vote for the Conservative motion now, I could not look my constituents in the eye; I simply could not, because I railed against the closure programme in that debate. It is no good my colleagues, tucked away in Westminster Hall, speaking with great passion on
Now is not the time to slag off the Conservatives—[Hon. Members: "Go on!"] I spend so much of my life doing that, I know, but this is not the time. Let me say this, however. The Conservatives would get more support from the Labour Benches if they were more open with us about the level of subsidy that they would put into the post office network. My friend on the Front Bench here has told us—he told us in Westminster Hall on
I believe that post offices are a social good. They are not just about selling people stamps. The network could not be recreated; if it were smashed, it could not be put together again. There are all sorts of exciting, innovative things we could do with a revivified post office network. Let me finish on this point. I hope that my friends swallow the prejudices of decades or whatever and do the right thing, which is to support the Conservative motion.
We learned three weeks ago how many closures Somerset would face. The figures are very clear: in the present Somerset county council area, 30 will close, with another seven downgraded; in the historic county of Somerset, a further 18 will close, making a total of 55 closures across Somerset. Anyone who wants to know what villages are involved could find them in my early-day motion 1036.
I shall concentrate on the seven direct closures in my constituency—in Bayford, Bower Hinton, Holcombe, Keinton Mandeville, Kingsdon, Sparkford and Yeovilton—and two that will be replaced by a van service in Charlton Horethorne and North Cadbury. I feel that I have been fighting the same campaign for 20 or more years—in the House, previously as a county councillor or before that as someone involved in local community politics. It seems to me that we are seeing a constant reduction in the post office network.
I know that there were 3,500 closures under the Conservative Government, but I think that the main reason for that was neglect. Now it is happening by design: we are deliberately closing down large parts of the rural post office network. I hear Labour Members talk of the "stability" of the network. It is a strange sort of stability that closes 6,500 sub-post offices. At medical school I used to be told that there was a difference between stability and morbidity. What the Government are proposing is the stability of a corpse. Through a process of bullying and moving business away from post offices, they have created circumstances in which they can say that those post offices are not profitable and must be closed down. I thought that we had won the battle for rural post offices back in 2002. How wrong I was—that was only a temporary lull before the storm that we now face.
We know from what has happened so far that public opinion is not enough. We can collect all the signatures that we like. Four million people signed a petition against post office closures, but it did not mean a thing. We can organise local petitions—every parish council in my constituency signed a petition that I presented to the House—and they do not mean a thing. All our local petitions and letters do not mean a thing, because the Government have decreed that the closures will go ahead.
I do not think the Government understand why we fight so strongly for local post offices. There are all the social reasons which we have heard already today. We have heard about the people who do not have the comfortable option of getting into their second Volvo to drive to the next town because they do not have that second Volvo, or even the first, and could not drive it if they had it because they are elderly or infirm. Those people cannot find a substitute for the local post office. They do not want their money to be paid into a bank account, because they have never worked on the basis of a bank account. I think the yuppie Ministers have forgotten that there are people in this country who still budget on a week-by-week basis with cash in hand. That is the way those people want to stay, and they need their sub-post offices.
There is, for instance, the community aspect of post offices. The post office is the centre of many village communities, and in many instances it is all that we have left. It is not just postal services that are affected, but all the other activities that are centred on the post office, which is often the last shop in the village. I have been considering the effect of the planned closures in my constituency. As a result of the closure in Bower Hinton, people will have to walk two to three miles to Martock, down a steep hill which they will have to climb up when they return. The post office is the last shop in Bower Hinton, so that is in danger as well. When those people arrive in Martock they will find a very successful little post office, but one with permanent queues which is unable to provide any further capacity. Where is the logic in that? Where, moreover, is the environmental logic? We are supposed to have a joined-up Government who take the environment seriously. Where is the environmental logic in people having to drive for miles to reach a post office?
Holcombe has sheltered housing directly opposite the post office, but apparently Post Office Ltd was not aware of it. The post office has always provided a prescription service for the local surgery, and that too will go. As for Kingsdon, I went to a public meeting there at 9 o'clock on Saturday morning. More than 100 people were there; practically everyone in the village had gone to make their point. They were irate, because one of the things that the Post Office had said in the letter it had sent was that there was an alternative in Yeovilton. There are two problems with that alternative. First, it is on the royal naval air station base. People could not get past the two large Marines with machine guns at the gates, but even if they could, Yeovilton is one of the other post offices that are due to close, so it is not a great alternative.
Charlton Horthorne and North Cadbury have been offered a van alternative. Vans are great—I would love to see mobile post offices dealing with many of the communities that have already lost their post offices—but the problem is that there is no commitment beyond three years, so we will lose our permanent post offices in return for the promise of a mobile service that may disappear.
We have six weeks in which to make all those points, and we have been told that we will not have a result at the end of that period because of local elections. As we are not due to have any local elections in Somerset, we understand perfectly well that this is another example of the Government trying to cover their backs.
The key issue is whether we regard post offices purely as commercial undertakings or as a public service. I regard them as a public service. When I hear people say that a particular post office has a small number of customers, I think that for those people it is an essential service, and it does not matter that they live in the country rather than, as would be convenient, in a big city. They should have access to the services that they need. When I am told that post offices have to make a profit, I wonder whether that will soon apply to our schools, roads and our military involvement in Basra. Must they make a profit, or else be closed down? Perhaps we should look at those post offices as a genuine people's post office. What an insult to run that campaign, when the post office is anything but the people's post office. It is the Minister's plaything, and it provides a profit for Post Office Ltd.
We do not ask for much in our rural areas, but we rely on our village hall, our village school, our village shop and our village post office. I do not think that is too much to ask, and we should keep those post offices open as a genuine people's post office and a service for the people of this country.
Given the limited time available, I shall refrain from criticising the illogicality and stupidity of the network change programme, because any credibility that it ever possessed has been comprehensively demolished by Members on both sides of the House.
I shall focus my attention on the impact that the programme is likely to have on my constituency. The closure programme for north Wales has not yet been announced, because of the politically motivated purdah imposed by the Post Office. It will be announced in July this year but, given the pattern that is evident across the country, post offices in my constituency will certainly close. I should like to draw the House's attention to circumstances in the southern part of my constituency, which largely consists of scattered villages. They may well fall within the three-mile limit of the rather silly access criteria in the programme, but as few people fly as the crow does, they are, in fact considerably further apart. I should like to use the village of Pentrefoelas as an example. Its post office will not necessarily close, but the post office in the village of Llanarmon yn Ial may well close, as may post offices in Llanfalteg, Llansanan, Llangernyw and any other village in the immediate vicinity.
Pentrefoelas is not untypical, and its post office is operated by Mr. Mark Tuck and Ms Sonia Taylor. It is a profitable business, and it is combined with the only shop in the village—it, too, is profitable—and a small guest house, which is also profitable. Unless those three profitable businesses are operated together, there is not sufficient business to maintain an income for the postmaster and his wife. Pentrefoelas is a village of 300 people, most of whom are elderly and many of whom do not have motor cars. The nearest village is Cerridgydrudion, which is about 6 miles away by road. If the closure programme hit Pentregoelas, the people who live there would be obliged to travel by road to Cerridgydrudion. The comments of some of the residents Pentrefoelas are telling. Miss Rita Davies, who is 79, said:
"The nearest post office from here is Cerridgydrudion, which is six miles away. I would have to get a community taxi, costing in the region of £5, as the bus service is not very good."
Mrs. Linda Bolger said:
"As a single parent with five children and no transport, I rely heavily on the post office to cash my giros, and the local shop for buying bread...The closure would affect me greatly."
Perhaps most tellingly, Mrs. Maureen Rice said that the closure of the post office
"would mean the end of village life."
In the past few years, rural communities in Wales have suffered a great deal as a result of the downturn in agriculture, most recently following foot and mouth disease. They have sustained school closures, and they have experienced rising fuel prices. In fact, over the past few years the stuffing has been knocked out of village life in rural Wales. The rural post office—in most cases, the only shop in the village—is the last bastion of rural life in many parts of Wales, but the residents of rural Wales now see it being removed. That will have an effect not only on the cohesion of communities, but on other things in Wales, too, such the culture and the Welsh language, which is very important. In those circumstances, I find it odd that the Government's amendment to the motion purports to recognise
"the vital social and economic role of post offices, in particular in rural and deprived urban communities" because in my constituency it is precisely those communities that will suffer at the hands of this programme.
I am glad that some Labour Members will join the Conservatives in the Lobby this evening. It is evident that many more than those who have spoken in the debate support the general thrust of the motion; in fact, 35 have already signed early-day motion 997, and, as we know, several Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers, are lobbying actively for the retention of post offices in their constituencies.
This is probably the single most important issue I have experienced since I was first elected to this place. It has attracted more consternation, anxiety and worry than almost any other. I am glad that there are Labour Members of principle who will join us Conservatives in the Lobby this evening. I hope that many more do, and that the Post Office receives a signal from the House this evening that this sham programme is utterly unacceptable and that it is damaging to the social fabric of this country, and that the Post Office and the Government will have to think again.
I begin by referring to a letter from Charles Hendry. It was addressed to me, but at the top of the letter it says, "Dear Gordon". I think the hon. Gentleman must be confusing me with the Prime Minister. If I did not find it amusing to be sent such a ridiculous letter, I would find it offensive.
Many Members have talked about the impact of technology on the use of postal services—for example, people can now buy their road tax disc over the internet. However, I recently went to a post office in London to try to buy my television licence, and I was told that I had to go to a PayPoint. It is ridiculous that the Post Office is not still doing a deal with the television licence people so that we can get our licences at post offices.
I do not think any Members are in favour of post office closures, but what we are in favour of is the best use of resources and maximising the economic and social benefits for our constituents. I can therefore see that the many Members representing rural constituencies who have argued for the retention of post offices have a strong case. In urban areas such as mine, I can perhaps see a case for the closure of the odd post office. Some post offices in and around Preston might be unprofitable, but it might also be too far to the next one. In particular, I make reference to Deepdale Road and Acregate Lane post offices and Moor Nook post office on Pope lane; they are popular and used by many people, but not all of them are profitable. The Opposition motion refers to 2,500 post offices being outlined for closure. I do not think there is any case for closing that many, but there would be a case for closing some of them. I would not expect this process to result in the closure of every post office that has been earmarked, and I include among them my own in Preston.
Let me refer to another example of a petition, this one containing hundreds of names on the Manchester Road post office. I understand that there is a sign in its window saying, "Say no to closures". However, when my office rang that post office, its postmaster told us he does not want a campaign against closure. He is angry about people going round with a petition campaigning to keep his post office open, because he wants to take the £60,000 offered to close the post office in his property. There are two sides to the story. It is important that hon. Members value post offices and the services that they provide, but the case for no closures cannot be made.
I shall be as brief as possible in order to allow colleagues to make some brief remarks. It was encouraging to hear that hon. Members in all parts of the House appreciate the importance of the branch network of the Post Office, given its social function as well as the Post Office functions. We seem to have complete consensus on that. Rather less encouraging has been the fact that the only vision that many, but by no means all, Labour Members seem to have for the future of the post office network lies in taxpayer subsidy. The whole point of the motion is to suspend the closure programme so that we can examine the possibility of providing additional business opportunities or additional functions for post offices, in order to expand what they are doing, rather than shrink them, as has been happening over the past few years.
In 2004, my constituency suffered three closures as a result of the absurdly named "urban reinvention programme". Somebody—I do not know who—was probably paid a large sum to think up that name, which actually translated as, "We're going to close your post offices." My constituency now faces another three closures. The customers who suffered because of one of the first closures were sent to one of the post offices that is in the second round of closures. The distance to walk is much too far, in particular for elderly people. They cannot possibly walk 1 mile on a hill and then have to walk 1 mile back again. For elderly people or for young mothers with buggies and toddlers such distances are simply too far. I have spoken to a lot of elderly people who miss the social aspect of going to the post office every week. They now have to rely on neighbours, friends and family to go to the post office for them because it is no longer accessible for them.
I should like to express my extreme disappointment in Postwatch. A week or so ago, London Members had a meeting with the Post Office—
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a fundamental inconsistency in the Government's plans? On the one hand, they argue that more than 2,000 post offices need to close for what they claim are rational economic reasons, but on the other hand, the decision about which post offices to shut is not made on the basis of whether the individual post office is itself viable. As a result, viable post offices, such as those at Walton-on-the-Naze and Kirby Cross in my constituency—I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituency contains similar examples—are being shut. Is that not totally inconsistent?
My hon. Friend is right. I was expecting customer representation from Postwatch, but at the meeting to which I referred its representative set out the Government and the Post Office's plans and the reason for them. I began to think I was in the wrong meeting, because there was no pretence of representing the customer. Fortunately, I had another meeting to go to; otherwise it would have got quite heated. I do not know how much Postwatch costs—it is paid for by the taxpayer—but whatever it is, the money would be better spent on supporting the branch network.
The consultation has been mentioned, and I discussed that with Postwatch and, subsequently, the Post Office. Both of them admitted that the consultation was not about whether people wanted their post office to close, because one could anticipate 100 per cent. of people saying that they did not want their post office to close. Postwatch told me that the post offices would be closed even if there was a 100 per cent. response. The Post Office said that the consultation was being undertaken to tease out whether or not the right ones were being closed. There is a great misunderstanding among post office users about the meaning of the consultation. The consultation is a sham, people feel cheated and I have no confidence that the petitions I am raising will have any more influence that the ones that I raised during the urban reinvention programme.
Of necessity, I shall be brief, as I have to address the issue of six potential post office closures in my constituency in just three minutes. We have 62 post offices, more than any other constituency in Wales, and I want to talk about the social effects of closure on local communities.
The irony is that, sitting in the post offices in Devil's Bridge and Pontrhydfendigaid are awards recognising the services given by the post offices to the local community, including services to the elderly and other businesses. They have also had a joint partnership with the Dyfed Powys police promoting the police force in what is a scattered community. The timing of this closure programme flies in the face of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which should empower local people to make decisions on their own post offices and to reflect on the services that they need. The timing is also against the National Assembly's re-enactment of a post office development fund, which will come into effect next year, after the post offices have gone. Commendable efforts have been made by county councils in England, such as Essex, and they warrant consideration.
I am especially concerned about those businesses in which a post office and a shop operate together, such as in Talybont, Devil's Bridge, Llanfarian, Llangeitho, Llanddewi Brefi, Talgarreg and Pontsian. As Mr. Jones said, once the post office or shop goes, the heart of the community is taken away. The village hall, the pub and the garage have probably already gone, and little is left. It is an issue of social cohesion.
My constituents have no alternatives. I look at the criteria and I am told that 95 per cent. of people live within three miles of an alternative. I had an e-mail from a constituent today whose nearest alternative will be a round trip of 15 miles, if she wishes to access basic core post office services.
We hear a lot about urban deprivation, but the rural deprivation factor has not been taken into account. West Wales and the valleys are a convergence funding area for good reason. Large tracts of Ceredigion are also Communities First regions, comparable with any other deprived area in the country. We face three closures in those areas.
We have heard about outreach. My hon. Friend Mr. Heath talked about the three-year limit on the provision of services, but we are losing three outreach post vans. They were a sop to the community three years ago, but we are now losing them.
My hon. Friend mentions several good reasons. The Far Headingley post office in my constituency is another profitable post office that will close. Services such as outreach have not been taken into account, and nor has the effect on local businesses that will also suffer. It is absurd that we are closing profitable businesses and failing to consider the effect on the community.
My hon. Friend is right. In Ceredigion, we have the largest proportion of small businesses of anywhere in Wales, and they rely on the services of the post offices, including the expanded service that hon. Members have mentioned. It is also important to note the lack of public transport. It simply is not an option in large tracts of rural Wales, as well as much of England. Some 11 per cent. of rural households have no access to a car.
The most dispiriting aspect of the debate—and I have been here since the start—is the sham consultation. Tomorrow night, in the community of Talybont, there will be a huge public meeting. I have started petitions and had meetings with the Post Office. I have been told that there is no domino effect and that if we save one, another will be closed. The most dispiriting aspect is that I will be collecting signatures and talking to managers, and the signatures and the words will fall on deaf ears. That is why the motion is important, and why a moratorium is critically important. That is why we have to continue to make the case. It is just like Beeching: in 30 years' time, people will be asking how we allowed this to happen.
It may be that the Conservative motion is opportunistic and cynical, but I happen to agree with every word of it. In my constituency, the consultation on the closure of two post offices in Walnut street and Francis street—I do not have time to go into details of the devastation that would be caused by those closures—was a sham. Postwatch was dreadful, and the Post Office itself was appallingly ill informed about the post offices and the likely effects of closure. They made no serious attempt to engage in any meaningful dialogue with those who were to be affected. As a consequence, all involved felt entirely frustrated by the process. In my constituency, it came on top of the closure of a Crown post office that has been moved into the basement of a local newsagent. That has compounded the difficulty for those who want to use those vital services.
I will support the Conservative motion. I will not be able to support the Government amendment. The amendment calls for
"a viable and sustainable network for the future" but means, in effect, further closures that could be avoided at remarkably little additional cost. It could save those post offices, which are undoubtedly vital community services in urban areas as much as they are in rural areas.
It is a great pleasure to follow Sir Peter Soulsby, who gave the shortest and probably the best speech of the entire debate.
This has been an important, well attended and articulately argued debate. It is of great interest that not one person stood up to defend the closure programme and how it is proceeding. Some Labour Members stood up and told us that things are going badly wrong in their constituencies but then said, "Let's just keep on doing it." Indeed, Martin Salter—I am glad to see him back in the Chamber—spent the second half of his speech telling us how badly things were going, having spent the first half condemning us for saying that there should be a suspension on those grounds. As Mr. Prentice said, this is the last chance. There are no options left for trying to stop this misguided closure programme.
We all agree on the crucial role of the post office and its vital role in communities up and down the country. My hon. Friend Mr. Paice spoke about the particularly important role that it plays in so many rural communities. My hon. Friend Mr. Randall said that the issue was causing as much concern now as any that he can remember. He spoke, he said, as a retailer of 120 years' experience. I had not realised that he was as old as that. I knew that he was wise, but that puts it in perspective.
It is right that we should use this occasion to pay tribute to sub-postmasters and mistresses up and down the country. They serve their communities with tremendous dedication and work hard for long hours. They serve those communities well and they want it to be recognised that they do not just run businesses. They are part of the social fabric of their communities, too.
Only two things have been missing in the debate. First, no voices have been raised in support of the closure programme. Secondly, we have not heard those Labour MPs who have been so eloquent in their local newspapers and on their websites but did not come to repeat those words today.
The motion does not suggest that we do not need change. Of course we need change. We recognise that. The post office network needs to move on to reflect the way that people live their lives. The motion is also not about an absolute solution for the post office network. That is a serious long-term issue, which will take a long time to sort out. The motion recognises that the closure programme is failing, that it is opposed by almost every Member of Parliament in their constituencies and by almost every national newspaper. If it is not suspended, it will result in massive, permanent, unnecessary damage to our communities.
I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), for Pendle and for Leicester, South. They have said that they will vote with us tonight. That is not an easy decision, and I recognise that. It is undoubtedly the right decision, however.
Let me make a couple of other points absolutely clear, too, particularly in response to the comments made by the Secretary of State. We are committed to putting £1.7 billion into the post office network over the next three years. We have said that we will honour the Government's spending commitments when we come into government. That is part of the process. We would expect the amount to be less if more post offices can be kept open, because part of that figure includes the compensation package. We are also committed to spending £150 million a year on the continuing subsidy, although the central point of our approach is that we should allow the post offices to develop new businesses and new income streams, so that the £150 million can be used to keep more post offices open.
The Secretary of State made many points. If he were really convincing about his closure programme, though, I wonder why it is that half of his Cabinet colleagues are openly campaigning against it. He talked about what happened under the Conservatives, when 3,000 post offices were closed in 18 years. That compares with the 6,000 that have been closed in just over 10 years of this Labour Government—a rate of closure that is three times as high as previously.
However, the fundamental difference is that the closures under the previous Conservative Government were voluntary, whereas the current ones are enforced. People are having their businesses taken away from them, and they have no choice and no way to stop the process.
The Secretary of State also said, rather proudly, that there was no subsidy for post offices when the Conservatives were in government, but the figures are clear. In the last few years of our time in office, the Post Office made a profit of between £22 million and £35 million a year. It did not start losing money until 2000, when this Government had had the chance to interfere for a bit. Since then, it has been losing £50 million, £100 million and nearly £200 million a year. The Government do not recognise the difference between the conditions that prevailed when we were in power and those that obtain today.
The Secretary of State also said that there are no constraints on the businesses that post offices can carry out, but he should come with me and talk to sub-postmasters. They want to offer PayPoint but have been told that they cannot. They want to work with carriers other than Royal Mail—for example, FedEx, UPS and others—but they have been told that they are not allowed to. Moreover, they must face the problem that Royal Mail will go to their biggest customers and persuade them into direct deals that cut post offices out by undercutting the stamp price that those offices are allowed to charge.
The Secretary of State missed the fundamental point about the constraints being placed on future business, about which so many colleagues spoke in the debate. It is bad enough for people to have their post office taken away, but it is obscene for the Government to put in place measures that will serve to close down the whole shop as well. To tell postmasters and postmistresses that they may no longer operate the national lottery, operate PayPoint terminals or offer the facilities that they have spent years understanding is to do massive damage to the communities that they serve.
It is one thing for the Post Office to say that people may no longer buy a stamp from a shop, but to say that they will no longer be able to buy their bread and milk there is to go way beyond its powers. In addition, many of the services offered by post offices will simply be moved to the shop next door, if there is one. That means that people will not migrate naturally from the post office that has closed to the one a few miles away; instead, they will simply go to the shop next door.
Also discussed were the talks about the one-for-one issue, and the implications of that approach. Perhaps the Secretary of State should look at those figures as well. So far, 671 closures have been announced in those areas where the consultation process has been completed. As a result of what has gone on, 26 offices have been reprieved, and 19 replaced by other post offices being added to the closure list. So seven out of nearly 700 post offices have genuinely been reprieved. Earlier today, the Prime Minister said that that proportion was about 10 per cent. of the total, although I think that it is about 1 per cent. However, if he makes it 10 per cent., maybe that explains why the economy is in such a mess.
Many hon. Members have spoken of their concerns about the consultation process. Richard Burden said that six weeks might be appropriate for a matter that was not controversial but that it was otherwise too short a period. My hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) spoke about the factual errors that had been made, and Mr. Cawsey mentioned the people who wanted to close their post offices but who were not being allowed to do so. My hon. Friend Mr. Turner—it is a great pleasure to see him speaking in this Chamber again—spoke for many when he said that there was a great sense that the decisions had already been made.
Excellent contributions were also made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson)—although I suspect that the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West reeled off the names of his villages was a nightmare for the Official Report.
Other hon. Members also contributed to the debate through their comments on their websites and elsewhere. For example, Mike Gapes says on his site:
"There are no direct bus routes to either of the alternative branches".
He states that one of them is
"on a red route! Your decision concerning Meads Lane is in my opinion driven by short term cost cutting dogma."
Glenda Jackson intervened in the debate and told us why she would not vote for our motion, but on her website she says:
"We really believe that these closures will affect the most vulnerable people in our community, particularly those who are elderly, disabled or those with young children."
"We shall oppose this as we believe the local Post Office is an essential part of any community."
The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Mr. Lammy—a Government Minister—said:
"I hardly think that six weeks is long enough to have a meaningful dialogue with the community about these changes."
Perhaps most deliciously of all, Mr. Davies, who in other days would have been supporting us, said in the Grantham Journal:
"this week, the Post Office broke new ground among public bodies in demonstrating either complete internal confusion or deliberate public two-facedness."
If anybody would recognise two-facedness, it is he.
When we put our points about the consultation process to the Minister, he said, "It's Cabinet Office rules; we've got to stick to them," but that same Minister decided to disregard those rules, which said that a consultation process should last 12 weeks, rather than 6 weeks, so one thing applies in the run-up to local elections and another during the consultation process. It is little wonder that the many people in our constituencies who have gone to public meetings on wet, dark wintry nights, who have signed petitions, who have written letters, who have gone on marches, and who have done everything that they can to preserve the facility that they care about, feel let down by the process.
There has been a lot of debate about the access criteria. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire talked about the fact that the distance as the crow flies does not reflect the true distance. My hon. Friend Bill Wiggin and the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole talked about bus routes, and how the buses do not go in the right direction, meaning that a journey takes much longer than would have been the case. Again, Labour Members have argued the point on their websites and in their local newspapers. Not all of them have been so assiduous, however; on his website, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said of his local post office closures:
"Member's of Ed's staff visited the Postmaster at Adwick on Ed's behalf".
Well, I bet they got the bunting out for that one. How privileged local people must have felt that their Member of Parliament was taking the issue so seriously. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Mr. Timms, formerly Minister with responsibility for small business, said it was important to pick
"the right one and not the wrong ones".
My goodness, one can see why he was made a Minister, and perhaps why he was moved on.
The problem with the access criteria is that they are fundamentally flawed. It is simply a matter of somebody at a computer deciding, as a matter of geography, which post offices should close and which stay open. They have failed to take account of major new housing developments and, worse still, they have not paid sufficient attention to hills, public transport links or unsafe roads. It will therefore be vulnerable people, older people and people with disabilities who suffer most. They are the people who depend most on their local post offices, and who will lose out most when the changes are made.
Let us be in no doubt: this is not the Post Office's policy. This is the Government's closure programme, because they decided how many post offices should close. They decided what the funding package and access criteria should be, and they decided which rules apply to the businesses that many people may continue once their post office has closed down. The Government can, if they wish, tonight instruct the Post Office to stop the programme.
We want a Post Office fit for the challenges of the 21st century, a Post Office not stuck in the past but able to take full advantage of the business opportunities present today. We welcome change, but we have a vision for the post office network; it should be sustained by new business, freed from the restrictions that tie it down today, and increasingly become a hub for local council and government services. However, that is not what the change programme is delivering; it is dismantling an important, much-loved service. We do not object to change, but we do object to the change that the Government are proposing, the flawed access criteria, the shortened consultation process, the lack of vision for future business and the appalling restrictions on future business activity.
At the end of the day, what people say on their websites and press releases will not save a single post office. If Labour Members of Parliament genuinely want to save their post offices, they have one chance, and that is to vote with us today.
This comes down to a question of trust. If we want people to have faith in their politicians, they must believe that politicians will not say one thing in their constituency on behalf of their communities, and vote against those words in the House of Commons. Constituents will not understand how MPs told them that they were on their side, but when they had the chance to vote against closures, they failed to do so. MPs will have failed their constituents, and they will have failed to live up to the standards that people should rightly expect of their Member of Parliament. Worse still, they will have turned their back on the elderly and others who are most in need. That betrayal of the most vulnerable people in their constituency will haunt them for the rest of their career.
We have seen from the debate today the strong feelings that post office closures can arouse not only in the House, but in local communities. I understand that, as do the Government. That is why the Government support the post office network with such significant investment, and why we have done so over many years.
There is the subsidy of £150 million a year, without which thousands more post offices would be under threat. There is other support in the package of £1.7 billion up till 2011—support to cover losses over and above those that the subsidy covers, support to enable new outreach services to provide post office services in new ways, and other support that adds up to significant backing for the Post Office up to 2011. That was acknowledged by some in the debate, including my hon. Friend Michael Jabez Foster.
The reason why we do that, as the Secretary of State said in his opening speech, is that we do not see the Post Office as a purely commercial concern. We appreciate its social and community role. Without the backing that the Government give to the Post Office, which was not there when the Conservatives were in power, a commercial network would consist of only about 4,000 branches. So when Mr. Heath says that it is not just a commercial service, we agree. That is why we have put so much public backing behind it.
Even with the high level of subsidy, because of the decline in custom and the level of losses, some offices are having to close. I understand that that is unpopular, but sometimes government is about taking difficult decisions.
The Minister visited a post office in my constituency last week which is housed by WH Smith in Kings mall, but is he aware that the other WH Smith housing a post office in my constituency was threatened with closure the very same week that it opened, owing to a planning application to demolish the building? Does he further think it is acceptable that the whole of London W14—
It is understandable that some people wish that the closures did not have to happen, but we are mindful of the amount of funding that taxpayers can put in to support a service that is facing profound change in terms of technology, how people live their lives and pay their bills, and competition.
Those issues used to matter to the Opposition, but faced with a difficult decision, what have they chosen to do? They have chosen to try to make it go away. They have chosen to say that the closure programme should stop. Thousands of post offices closed while they were in power. The sub-postmasters never got a penny in compensation. Today the Opposition have chosen to try to make the problem go away.
I shall come to the access criteria later.
Funding is a critical weakness of the Opposition motion. We have seen three different positions on funding in the debate. In his opening speech, Alan Duncan was not clear at all that the Conservative party was committed to matching our funding. Charles Hendry said that the party was clear on that, but if the motion goes through tonight the Conservatives will have to not only match our funding, but increase it. There have been three different positions on funding in one debate; that is the critical credibility problem with the motion.
I will not for the moment.
The divide is about whether we support the Government's investments or whether, like the Conservative party, we are utterly incoherent on financial support for the Post Office. The decision to close any post office is, of course, unpopular; worse, however, is the knowledge that when the Conservative party faces a problem, it simply asks for it to stop with an utterly incoherent financial position.
My hon. Friend asks a good question. Voting for the motion will not save post offices because the Conservative party has acknowledged that post offices have to close. All the motion would do is delay the decision, put sub-postmasters under further uncertainty, and then, the Conservatives have said, the closures would have to continue.
Let us consider some of the challenges that the Post Office is facing. Every day it is open for business, it loses £500,000. It has lost 4 million weekly customers in the past few years. Some of the least used post offices are subsidised at up to £17 per transaction.
The Minister says that some post offices cost £17 per transaction. Perhaps he could do what Allan Leighton could not do during a recent conversation with the sub-postmistress of Yatton Keynell in my constituency. When she asked him how many post offices made a profit, he said, "I don't know—I'm just waiting for my bonus when I give up my job at the end of my time." Will the Minister tell us how many post offices make a profit? Why is he closing them too?
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me say that the commercial network is made up of about 4,000 post offices.
The thing driving the closures is, of course, the loss of custom and money. That is what is behind the need to rationalise the network.
Eight out of 10 pensioners now choose to have their benefit paid directly into the bank; among new retirees, the figure is nine out of 10.
I am afraid that I want to make progress.
People have a choice about how to pay their car tax, and 1 million a month choose to renew it online—half of them outside the normal office hours of 9 to 5. More people are paying bills by direct debit and there is, of course, the issue of competition. My hon. Friend Mr. Cawsey made a serious speech about competition and its challenge to the Post Office. Unlike Conservative Members, he realises that that is a big challenge when it comes to winning business such as bill and television licence payment.
I want to make progress. [Hon. Members: "Give way!"] I have given way a few times, and I would like to make progress.
The Opposition say that they want to make the issue go away. The issue is not just about the profitability of the post offices, but about what the Opposition would do about how benefits are paid. Are they really saying that they will turn back the clock and pay benefits and pensions by girocheque when the vast majority of people choose to pay them directly into the bank? Doing that would add a further £200 million of costs a year. If they are not saying that, why do they not accept that the Post Office faces those major challenges?
Let me turn to some of the specifics raised in the debate.
I am afraid that I want to make progress.
Many Members raised the issue of consultation, including my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for Brigg and Goole, Mr. Turner, and my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and Hastings and Rye. I acknowledge that there has been dissatisfaction and disquiet about the consultation process. Representations have been made that we should extend it from six weeks to 12, but six weeks was the period used during the last period of post office closures and is the period agreed between Postwatch and Post Office Ltd in their code of practice— [ Interruption. ]
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but there is too much noise in the House. We have had a full debate and the Minister is entitled to make a reply that can be heard.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Many hon. Members talked about the consultation, which is about how, not whether, this is to be done. The Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform picked up on that in its most recent report, and it was right to do so. Post Office Ltd must be clearer that that is the question before the people, because that is what is producing some of the frustration in local communities. Hon. Members have expressed confusion about this. Let me quote the letter that was sent to all hon. Members back in July, before the process began. It said that the consultation
"would not concern the principle of the need for change of the network, nor its broad extent and distribution...rather consultation will be seeking representations on the most effective way in which government policy can best be implemented in the area in question".
Given that the Minister will not change his policy on delaying consultation, will he at least instruct the Post Office to ensure that it gives all the information to Members of Parliament so that the individual merits of every post office can be in the public domain and we can win an argument on the basis of the facts?
As I have said, the Post Office needs to be clearer about the consultation and about the question before people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone and the hon. Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) and for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), among others, mentioned the access criteria. Let me be clear. Those criteria represent a minimum, and Government funding is to fund the network to a much higher extent than that minimum would require. In plans so far—
I am afraid that I do not have time to give way again.
To give some sense of perspective, let me say that 99 per cent. of people will either see no change in the post office that they use or be within a mile of an alternative post office. If we followed the advice of Conservative Members by abandoning the access criteria and closing only the post offices that are least used, vast areas of rural Britain would be without post office provision at all, and those are precisely the areas that hon. Members say that they are interested in.
Some local authorities, for example in Essex—not in Swindon, unfortunately, despite the efforts of the local MPs—have expressed interest in taking over post offices scheduled for closure. We have said that the Post Office should sit down and discuss that seriously with those local authorities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the chief executive of Post Office Ltd today saying that that should happen, and if local authorities are interested they should have those discussions. The Post Office will expect to recover all costs, but that is a serious conversation that should take place.
On commercial freedom, let me quote the general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, who said
"why would the government want to use taxpayers money to give someone compensation for something that they are continuing to do".
They do not lose all compensation. An adjustment is made—
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added , put forthwith, pursuant to
The House divided: Ayes 290, Noes 251.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House recognises the vital social and economic role of post offices, in particular in rural and deprived urban communities; notes the decline in post office customer numbers in recent years and the financial losses of £174 million incurred by the network in 2007; further recognises the effect of changes such as direct debit facilities and increased use of the internet for payment and communication; commends the Government's action to support the post office network with investment of up to £1.7 billion up until 2011, including an annual subsidy of £150 million; further notes that this subsidy did not exist under the last government and that without it thousands more post offices would be under threat; and urges the Government to continue working with Post Office Limited to ensure a viable and sustainable network for the future.