I applied for this Adjournment debate because of the strong concern felt in Willenhall, in the borough of Walsall, about the closure of the Crown post office. It is one of 70 such post offices that I understand are listed to be closed—[Interruption.] Perhaps I could have the Minister’s attention for a second.
Willenhall has been known over centuries for its lock manufacturing, and locks such as those by Yale are recognised everywhere and must have been used in every part of the country. Many of those lock firms have closed or move abroad, but Willenhall remains a thriving, residential, industrial place, and certainly needs to retain the Crown post office. Many people come to Willenhall market and frequently use the post office facilities, and the traders are obviously busy customers. The post office is located in the centre of the town, opposite the police station, and is very much part of the character of Willenhall. It certainly has no shortage of customers, and when I look in from time to time there is usually a queue. As far I understand, the argument for closure is not that the post office lacks customers, because that would not stand up.
I have no complaint about the way that the senior stakeholder manager—I think that is how he describes himself as part of the post office management—has kept me informed of developments. He has done so in a courteous way with e-mails about various developments, which I appreciate. Moreover, he has been willing to meet me and the councillors, including at a public meeting where he and his colleague were virtually in a minority of two.
My strong opposition to the closure is shared by those who live and do business in Willenhall. Willenhall should have its post office; it should be retained and I am totally opposed—obviously, hence this debate—to the decision to close it. As far as is possible, opposition to the closure is simply unanimous. I do not suppose the Minister is particularly surprised, because if a post office was to close in his area, there would no doubt be the same reaction. When I collected signatures for the petition, no one said, “I’m not interested,” which often happens with other issues. Indeed, they were only too willing to sign and knew what they were signing for. They were customers of the post office, or they were passing on the day that I was around collecting signatures, or on other days, and they took the view that the petition should be supported.
I do not take the view that the proposed alternative—a retail outlet—is an adequate replacement. The Post Office says, “The Crown post office will close, but before that happens a replacement will be found,” but as I set out, that will be along the lines of a retail outlet. I simply do not accept, any more than the elected representatives, the councillors, and those who live or do business in Willenhall, that that is a viable alternative.
The Communication Workers Union has also been active in supporting the community to oppose the closure. It will, of course, be said, “Well, one would expect it to do so; it is safeguarding jobs,” and even under this
Government it is not considered a sin to try to preserve jobs. Nevertheless, we appreciate CWU support. Indeed, some of those in the CWU live locally and support the opposition to closure as residents as well as union members. The CWU makes the point that, in a recent report published in November 2012, Consumer Focus said that WH Smith was the worst performer on queue time, and that it scored badly on quality of service and accessibility. The report said that Crowns, on the other hand, perform the best on accessibility and show the most significant improvement, as well as scoring highly on quality of service. Perhaps that, too, can be taken on board.
Post Office management say that, once a transfer to a retail outlet is negotiated, there will be a public consultation over a six-week period. That seems nice and democratic. We are all in favour of consultation and going out asking people their views—I doubt whether anyone in the House would object to that—but the snag is that the consultation will be on anything but the crucial issue. It will not be a consultation on whether people want the post office to close. Indeed, at the public meeting I attended, I asked the person representing Post Office management I have mentioned whether there will be any paper on which people can give their preferences, so they could say, “We want the post office to continue,” but there will be nothing of the kind. It is an odd form of consultation. The major issue is whether the Crown post office remains open. What is the consultation about? Will it be about whether there is enough car space in the proposed retail outlet or whether it is near toilet facilities and the rest of it? The crucial issue is the one I have described, but the people will not be asked.
The Minister—fair enough—might say in reply, “That’s not the normal practice.” I accept that and cannot say that things have been different elsewhere, but it would be a good idea to consult the public when a Crown post office is going to close, even if, at the end of the day, the decision remains the same. In that way, at least the people can give their views, for what that is worth.
A petition signed by many people, which I have mentioned, was handed to the Post Office. Walsall council, the local authority, at its meeting on
The latest information sent to me is that the franchise proposals, as they are described, will not occur in this financial year. There is not much left of this financial year, but the intention remains for franchising to occur in 2014-15. I wrote to the then Minister, Jo Swinson, who replied on
Since the Minister of State is responding to the debate, the invitation extends to him too. In Willenhall, he would be treated in a courteous manner, as one would expect, and he could have a look at the situation for himself. Would that do any harm? I do not think so. Perhaps in his reply he can state whether he will take up my invitation.
In conclusion, it is to be hoped that this decision is not set in concrete and that it can be looked at again. It is to be hoped that the views of the people of Willenhall can be taken into consideration in the proper way, and that it is recognised that this is a Crown post office with plenty of business. It is not a question of keeping it open out of sentiment. As I said, it does not lack customers. It is always busy and every time I go there is a queue. We talk about localism. I hope that the views of the community can be taken into consideration on all these matters.
I do not have a great deal of hope. I will not pretend otherwise. I am sure, unfortunately, that the Minister will more or less state what was said to me in the ministerial reply. If that is so, I regret that, but I have no regrets at all—absolutely none—at raising on the Floor of the House of Commons an issue that is very important to my constituents. I believe I have a responsibility to do so. In doing so, I have the very strong feeling that there is hardly anybody in Willenhall, whether they are residents or traders, who would wish otherwise than to see the Crown post office remain open. I hope that that can somehow be taken into account by the Minister when he responds to my remarks.
Let me begin by saying that Mr Winnick has certainly discharged his responsibility to his constituents by raising Post Office Ltd’s proposals to seek a franchise partner to operate Willenhall Crown post office. He has set out very clearly his concerns, and the concerns of his constituents, on the proposed changes, and I fully appreciate those concerns. As Members of Parliament, we all recognise that post offices are a vital part of the local community, and I understand the real issues and worries that some constituents may feel when changes to our post offices are proposed.
Such concern is not surprising given that there were two major closure programmes between 2003 and 2008, when six branches in his constituency were permanently closed. Five branches in my constituency were also permanently closed. I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that this Government are taking a different approach. There is no programme of post office closures under this Government and there will be no such programme. We recognise the important social role that post offices play in our communities. Since 2010, we have committed nearly £2 billion to maintaining the post office network at a minimum of 11,500 branches. We are providing for the modernisation of up to 8,300 branches by 2018, bringing improvements such as longer opening hours for the Post Office’s millions of customers. We are also protecting 3,400 community branches and providing an investment fund to deliver improvements to those branches.
The post office network is made up of nearly 12,000 branches, the vast majority of which are owned and operated by private businesses and individuals more commonly known as sub-postmasters. Just 3% of the network—approximately 370 branches—is directly operated by Post Office Ltd. That is the so-called “Crown” network that the hon. Gentleman has spoken about. This small segment of the much wider post office network has historically incurred heavy losses, which amounted to some £37 million in the last full financial year. They account for nearly a third of the losses incurred by the whole network. That is not sustainable, and those losses cannot continue. They are a drain on the company, but, more important, they are a drain on the taxpayer. No business, including the Post Office, can continue to allow some of its high street branches to cost substantially more to run than they bring in. That, I am sorry to say, includes the branch at Willenhall, which I understand costs £1.44 for every £1 of income that it generates.
In return for the historic financial commitment that the Government is providing for the Post Office, we require the company to eliminate Crown losses by 2015. That is good commercial practice, and it is also fair to the taxpayer. The Post Office has a plan to end the losses, which includes working with retail franchise partners in 70 locations to provide continued access to post office services where the Post Office cannot do so viably itself.
As for the franchising proposals, it is important to be clear that Willlenhall is a loss-making branch. Following a process of careful consideration and modelling, the Post Office does not believe that it can operate the branch profitably or sustainably. However, it does believe that another retailer in the community can do so. It has therefore advertised the opportunity to local businesses and retailers, and has received expressions of interest from a number of parties. It is assessing those responses to ensure that the most appropriate partner is chosen to provide access to services, but until we know more details, we cannot take a proper view of how the franchising proposals will affect residents of Willenhall. However, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that this is not a branch closure. Customers will continue to enjoy access to post office services at a new branch close to the existing one.
The Minister says that it is not a closure, but it is a closure, to the extent that the existing building will close. There is no doubt about that, and indeed the Minister has not said otherwise. What he is saying is that the post office facilities will be transferred to a retail outlet, and I have not challenged that.
While I am on my feet, may I ask the Minister a simple question? Are the views of the local community on the role that the Crown post office in Willlenhall plays and has played for so many years being taken into account?
As the hon. Gentleman himself mentioned, a consultation will take place, and the views of local residents will be important. I think he will concede that the post office is not in an ideal condition, in terms of the state of the building. It could also be argued that it is not in an ideal location. The key, surely, is to ensure that customers can continue to access post office services at a new branch that is close to the existing one. What we do know is that the full range of services that are currently offered will continue to be available at the new branch.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that before any changes are made, there will be that six-week local public consultation, under the terms of the code of practice agreed between the Post Office and the organisation Consumer Futures. The consultation will focus—perhaps this answers the hon. Gentleman’s question more directly—on the specific and detailed proposal to relocate the service. That will include issues such as the accessibility of the branch, the layout of the store, and the parking that would be provided. Anyone can express an opinion, and all responses will be considered carefully by the Post Office before a final decision is reached.
Already 17 former Crown branches have been reopened by the Post Office’s franchise partners. In these communities, customers are benefiting from continued access to the Post Office services they rely on, but in more modernised stores that deliver an improved customer environment and are fit for the 21st century. In all franchised branches customers are, importantly, also benefiting from longer opening hours, including in many cases on Sundays, too. That is important. It allows the Post Office to offer its customers the flexibility that they enjoy across the rest of the high street. Responding to its customer needs is the key to securing the long term future of the network.
It is also the case that these franchised branches are now no longer a financial cost to the Post Office network. Franchising branches presents an excellent opportunity for a business in the locality, or a sub-postmaster, to take on and improve the branch. As with the many thousands of branches already operated by sub-postmasters, these franchised branches are being successfully operated by the Post Office’s business partners and sub-postmasters who are meeting the needs of their customers. They are also helping the Post Office become more sustainable and viable in the long term and reducing the need for taxpayer handouts.
I was not aware that the Minister was conversant with Willenhall, and he will no doubt respond on whether he will accept my invitation. He said that the post office is not in the most central place, but it is in the centre of Willenhall town. It is very near the market. I do not know of any location that could be more central in the town.
I am certainly going to pass the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation on to the post office Minister, my hon. Friend Jenny Willott, and perhaps she can go and see for herself and establish beyond any doubt whether the location is optimal. Of course I stand to be corrected by the hon. Gentleman as he will know it far better than any of the Ministers, but it is my understanding that it is not on the main high street. All I have seen is a photograph of the location, but let me pass on his very kind invitation and we will see whether my hon. Friend is able to find time in her diary to take it up herself.
Order. May I just say to the Minister of State that we wish his hon. Friend the post office Minister an early recovery from her indisposition, but in the unfortunate event that it were to be lengthy, which we very much hope will not be the case, the Minister of State could always consider taking responsibility for the invitation and attending in her stead, and I am sure he would anticipate that with enthusiasm?
The House always benefits from your interventions, Mr Speaker, and thank you for your kind good wishes to my hon. Friend. I think the House has already guessed that my hon. Friend would normally have been answering this debate. I receive a number of kind invitations from all quarters of the House to visit, and I will certainly consider a visit to Walsall when I next draw up my regional visits programme.
The commitment I have outlined demonstrates that the Post Office has a plan that sustains and improves services. It is a plan that sees the introduction of new products and services. This is not a return to the closure programmes seen under the last Administration.
Alongside the plans to modernise and improve the Crown network, we are also delivering our network transformation programme, which is seeing the modernisation of up to 8,300 post offices by 2018. That includes Bloxwich post office in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which has converted to the new main model. The customers of that branch can now access Post Office services between 8.30 in the morning on their way to work and 7 o’clock in the evening on their way home. Across the UK, more than 3,000 sub-postmasters have signed up to convert, and nearly 2,000 branches, such as the one in Bloxwich, have already converted and are open and operating.
In 2010, we set out our commitments to the post office network in our policy statement, “Securing the Post Office network in the digital age”. I stand here three years later and tell the House that we are delivering on those commitments, and we will continue to deliver. We said then that there will be no programme of post office closures under this Government and there is not—and nor will there be. We said that we will provide £1.34 billion for the Post Office to modernise the network—we are providing that money and the Post Office is modernising. In November last year, we announced a further £640 million funding package to enable the programme to be extended to modernise and protect the whole network by 2018.
We said that we want to see the Post Office become a genuine front office for Government, and the company has so far won every contract it has bid for in the past three years, including the vital Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency front office contract. We said that we will support the expansion of accessible and affordable personal financial services through the Post Office, and we are doing so. My hon. Friend Jo Swinson was delighted to be one of the first people to open a Post Office current account last year when the company began a pilot in East Anglia. We also said that we will create the opportunity for a mutually owned Post Office. We have held a public consultation on that, and the company, alongside its stakeholders, is engaging the public to agree its public benefit purpose.
In summary, this Government’s track record on the Post Office speaks for itself. We remain committed to the network and we are continuing to invest in it to secure its future. The proposals of the Post Office to seek a franchise partner in Willenhall will ensure that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will continue to benefit from continued and improved access to vital post office services.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for that helpful point of order, as will the House be.
Question put and agreed to.