A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a members' business debate on the issue, which attracted a tremendous amount of interest from across the political spectrum. Subsequent to that debate, the UK Government announced that it plans to close 2,500 post offices throughout the UK, which will have a significant impact on Scotland. The issue is of such significance that it must be addressed by the Scottish Parliament. The matter is reserved, but the decision will have major consequences for a range of communities in Scotland.
Post offices play a vital role in our communities. They are often the hub of local activity and a gathering point for local people. They are an essential link in maintaining the viability of the last shop in the village or, in many cases, they are the only shop that provides a local service in isolated urban communities within our larger cities. Whether they are in urban or rural settings, post offices are vital to the health and well-being of countless communities in our country.
Scotland has 1,116 rural post offices, 343 urban post offices and 211 post offices in urban deprived areas. In total, there are 1,670 post offices throughout Scotland. Evidence on the effect of the changes that have been made to the post office network so far shows that, when a post office closes, more than 80 per cent of the shops associated with it also close. It is reasonable to assume that, if there is a substantial decline in the number of post offices in Scotland, there will be a subsequent reduction in the availability of local retail facilities in rural and urban communities. The exposure of deprived urban communities to that problem is enormously significant. The loss of footfall when a post office closes means that other shops and services close as well.
The UK Government's decision to engineer the closure of 2,500 post office branches poses a massive threat to the viability of a comprehensive post office network in Scotland. It takes no account of the issues of geography that affect the delivery of the network in Scotland's most sparsely populated communities, particularly those in the
"Traditionally, the post office was the place where people went to post a letter, to pay their utility bills and to collect their benefits. Many still do, but increasingly people choose to send an e-mail or text, they pay bills by direct debit or internet banking, and they pay for their tax disc online and have pensions or benefits paid into their bank accounts."—[Official Report, House of Commons, 14 December 2006; Vol 454, c 1026.]
The secretary of state says those things as if they have happened by osmosis and have absolutely nothing to do with the intervention or encouragement of the Government. The present Government has been making it ever more difficult for people to use exactly those post office services that the secretary of state commented upon. The option to have pensions paid at the post office has been in the small print of forms that are structured to encourage people to have pensions paid by direct debit. The Government introduced the Post Office card account, but then allowed it to drift away with uncertainty. One Government department has given the Post Office financial support, whereas other departments have encouraged individuals to take business away from the post office.
Ministers have lectured us about the importance of using sustainable transport and public transport. However, as a consequence of decisions that the Government has taken about the post office network, post bus services, which provide part of the essential rural transport network, are being removed. That is another laughable advert for supposed joined-up government of the United Kingdom.
We accept that the post office network cannot remain the same forever. Patterns of life change. We argue that the Government could and should be doing much more to maximise the possibility of the network remaining viable. The Government could be encouraging more transactions to be carried out in post offices. The Government could be encouraging the linking up of post offices to other public services to create viable units in communities, which would have the benefit of expanding multiple functions and improving access to public services. The Government could be examining ways of working in partnership with local providers to continue service provision in a different fashion, but with the key requirement of ensuring that the services continue. As part of its public service reform agenda, the Government could be encouraging local authorities to ensure that local people are able to use post offices for many more transactional services.
But no: the Government instead chooses the blunt approach. It simply decides how many post offices will close and then forces the network to
That the Parliament expresses its concern at the reductions in the post office network proposed by the UK Government and calls on the Scottish Executive to make representations to the UK Government to ensure that Scotland retains a comprehensive and accessible post office network.
I am pleased to speak in this debate. My constituency is both urban and rural, and constituents, particularly those belonging to the National Federation of SubPostmasters, have always lobbied hard to maintain the post office network. I gather that recent news coverage on the issue included constituents from west Stirlingshire.
Although I share similar sentiments to those expressed in the Scottish National Party motion, and while I accept that it is necessary to examine carefully the UK Government's proposals for the future of the post office network, including the consultation paper, to ensure that the special needs of Scotland's remoter communities are properly taken into account, my amendment seeks to go further than the SNP motion by building on the statement that the First Minister made last week at First Minister's question time. My amendment therefore
Those criteria are, first, whether there will be an acceptable level of future services, especially in remote rural and disadvantaged communities; secondly, whether there will be recognition that post offices do not play a purely commercial role in our communities, but have an important social role as well; thirdly, whether there will be proper consultation with affected local communities; and fourthly, whether there will be a continuation of Post Office efforts to promote innovative means of service delivery. Those important points have been taken on board.
I emphasise the social role of post offices in our communities, particularly in areas where the post office, with its associated shops, is the only facility
Vulnerable communities must be protected—I agree with John Swinney on that point. I regard such protection as the key aspect of the criteria listed by the First Minister. For that reason, I have added to my amendment the words:
"it is important that the vital social and economic role of post offices has been acknowledged".
Changes that have already been made to the post office network have presented problems. From speaking to more elderly constituents, I know that there have been difficulties in using keypads and personal identification numbers. Such changes are seen as challenges by most of us, but we often fail to realise that certain people, particularly the elderly, are unable to manage those changes and therefore find an alternative route for dealing with their finances, and when that happens the loser is the post office.
Although I wanted to make that point, we accept that changes continue to occur at all levels—which is the point that John Swinney slightly misses—and that some of the changes have been for good reasons, such as combating fraud. There are no easy answers. We cannot suddenly stop the increased use of computers in our homes or the use of telephone banking, for example. Those changes help busy people such as us to deal with their finances quickly and efficiently.
There is no doubting that the post office service will need to keep adapting if it is to survive, as we want it to. Recent statistics show that every week last year the Post Office made a loss of £2 million. That loss has increased to £4 million a week this year.
There are good examples of innovative practices where communities have worked together, usually with other agencies, to develop a community post office and shop facility. Gartmore in my constituency is one such example, and another is developing in Fintry. My point is that communities have a responsibility too—to be involved and to stay involved, and not simply to go down to the supermarket in the nearest town or city. However, partnership working and establishing innovative practices will need money, which is why I added to my amendment the words:
"pleased to see the commitment of £1.7 billion to support the network and to pay for restructuring".
The statement by Alistair Darling suggested opening at least 500 new outreach locations and other innovations on that theme. I support such initiatives. That approach is to be welcomed, as is the desire to provide more new services for post office customers. As many members will know, the
The helpful briefing that we received from Help the Aged says that
"it is of paramount importance that a 'one size fits all' approach is not adopted" here in Scotland. That comment fits well with the First Minister's criterion for local consultation. I ask everybody to support my amendment.
I move amendment S2M-5349.4, to leave out from "expresses" to end and insert:
"believes that it is necessary to look carefully at the UK Government's proposals for the future of the post office network in full and the consultation paper itself to ensure that the special needs of Scotland's remoter communities are properly taken into account; welcomes the Scottish Executive's proposal to apply four criteria to this assessment, namely whether there will be an acceptable level of future services, especially in remote rural and disadvantaged communities, whether there is a recognition that post offices do not occupy a purely commercial role in our communities, but have an important social role to play, whether there is proper consultation with affected local communities and whether there will be a continuation of Post Office efforts to promote innovative means of service delivery; believes that it is important that the vital social and economic role of post offices has been acknowledged; is pleased to see the commitment of £1.7 billion to support the network and to pay for restructuring and that the annual social network payment will remain in place meantime, and is encouraged by the push for outreach locations for remote communities".
I welcome the debate. As we have heard, the future of the rural sub-post office network is a vital issue for much of Scotland. I appreciate that support for sub-post offices is reserved, but it impacts on the economy of rural Scotland. Accordingly, the Scottish Executive must take an interest. Even the Labour amendment acknowledges that point.
Given what the member has just said, and given the impact of the issue on vulnerable communities, does the member not find it quite disgraceful that not a single minister is here to speak? Is the member aware that, in a debate on this issue several years ago, ministers responded?
Christine Grahame makes a fair point. The motion and the Labour amendment refer to the Scottish Executive but no one is here to represent the Executive's view on the matter. Ministers require to reflect upon that.
For people living in rural Scotland, local sub-post offices are part of the fabric of local life. Over a long period, many local communities have seen services being run down. We have seen the closure of local shops, primary schools and churches in many communities. In many of those
Last week, Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, outlined the Government's approach to post offices, which included a prediction that 2,500 more post offices throughout the UK would close from the summer of next year. That is a depressing picture. It will have a serious impact throughout rural Scotland.
I would like to make some progress, if I may.
The Labour Government uses as its excuse for those closures the fact that post office revenue has declined. The irony, to which I refer in my amendment, is that that decline in revenue comes largely as a result of conscious decisions by the Government to take business away from the post office network and make it uncompetitive. As Sylvia Jackson said, society has changed and people are behaving in different ways, but that should not be an excuse for the Government taking deliberate actions that have exacerbated the situation. For example, switching benefit payments from post offices to bank accounts effectively withdrew a major source of revenue from local post offices. They lost not just the transaction costs but the footfall—those who collected benefits often spent cash in the post office or the attached local shop.
I am afraid that I am in my last minute, Mr McNeil.
The Government introduced the Post Office card account then pledged to discontinue it but, in the teeth of widespread opposition, supported by my Conservative colleagues at Westminster, I am pleased to say that it has performed a U-turn on that proposal. There are other examples, such as the television licence situation, which has been referred to, and the situation with road tax.
We need a new approach. My Conservative colleagues at Westminster have already pledged that they would rewrite sub-postmasters' contracts
Last week, Alistair Darling announced a consultation exercise, which is due to end in March—a cynical exercise to try to park the issue until after the Scottish Parliament elections. If that is his intention, he will be sadly disappointed. Post offices will be a major issue in the Scottish Parliament elections.
I move amendment S2M-5349.1, to insert, after first "Government":
"notes that decisions taken by the UK Government have themselves contributed to the losses being made by the post office network and that it is therefore disingenuous for ministers to justify the extensive scaling down of the network on the basis that it is losing money; believes that the UK Government should seek to bring new business opportunities to the network rather than merely manage its decline".
The future of our post offices is an important, although reserved issue. Research by the Liberal Democrat party indicates that between 1999 and this year, just over 300 post offices in Scotland closed. In my constituency, there were 42 post offices when I was first elected. By 2005, 36 remained, but I can think of three that have closed this year alone. Nowhere in the country—urban or rural—is immune from that trend, which will simply get worse, because in March 2006 the UK Government's policy of avoiding unnecessary branch closures was ended. That policy had slowed down the rate of closures, particularly in rural areas.
The proposal—or suggestion or whatever it is—for a further 2,500 post office closures throughout the UK is likely to lead to dozens more local communities losing their post offices, unless the UK Government takes resolute action to prevent that. The Liberal Democrats are calling on the Government to stop the unnecessary closure programme and instead to free the Royal Mail from restrictive regulation, to invest in the future of the post office network and to stop removing Government business from it, in order to safeguard our post offices.
It is not and never has been Liberal Democrat policy to privatise the Post
The UK Government has directly or indirectly overseen the Post Office's loss of TV licences, vehicle excise duty and passport authentication work. We heard from previous speakers about the transfer of benefit and pension payments to direct payment into bank accounts, which resulted in the loss of about £400 million of income. That is a classic case of Government looking at the narrow cost saving without any proper consideration for the wider consequences.
The UK Government has announced that it will not extend its contract for pension and benefit payments using the Post Office card account beyond 2010. The current contract is worth £1 billion in income for post offices between 2003 and 2010. It is said that a replacement will be put in place, but the competitive tender process means that the Post Office could lose that work altogether.
As we all know, and as Mr Swinney eloquently suggested, post offices are focal points for, and play an important social role in, our communities. They can be key components of local shops and hubs of local activity and information services. If the post office goes, the village shop is put under threat, as has been the case in a number of communities since 1999. Sub-post offices cannot live on good will or fresh air. They need to be allowed to compete and to win business. There should be less regulation, and sub-post masters should be properly rewarded for carrying out tasks for local and national government at local level.
In Germany, Deutsche Post has introduced access to the eBay auction system for people without computers. That is run via its post office network. Devon County Council is considering a system for ordering, collecting and returning library books via post offices. Other innovations occur, such as the one in my constituency in which the police use a post office in Chirnside in Berwickshire as a contact point. Post offices can become one-stop shops for Government and local government services and for quangos and agencies, many of which could do with raising the profile of what they are supposed to do for the general public.
The Royal Mail is increasingly exposed to competition but needs £2 billion of investment and has an estimated deficit or shortfall of £4 billion in its pension fund. The Royal Mail parallel to the Post Office crisis is that universal postal prices and door-to-door deliveries will end unless action is taken. We need a statutory guarantee requiring maintenance of the universal service obligation. Unlike other parties, the Liberal Democrats have a comprehensive plan to support the Royal Mail and ensure its continuation.
I move amendment S2M-5349.3, to leave out from "expresses" to end and insert:
"believes that the post office network plays a crucial role in Scotland; notes that this is a reserved issue and supports the Liberal Democrats' rejection of the recommendation of the UK Government's post office network consultation paper that a further 2,500 post office branches be closed across the United Kingdom."
It is important to place the debate in context, including a political context. The Central Scotland region lost a total of 19 post offices in the most recent wave of closures. Nine of those were in socially deprived areas of North Lanarkshire such as Sikeside, Viewpark, Clarkston and Holytown. That did not happen by accident or in isolation. It is part of the Government's ideologically driven right-wing offensive on public services.
I am sure that, as is always the case, the Tories will confirm that point. They are prepared to be honest about that kind of agenda but, since the Labour Government came into power, it has used the politics of stealth. At least Thatcher was honest about what she was doing. Public services, including the Post Office, have been subjected to the unbundling, as it is called—as business calls it, in fact, because it recognises the process that is going on and is prepared to be honest about it—of parts of the business. That unbundling has taken place not only in post offices, but in the Royal Mail, in the job cuts that are proposed for the civil service, in local government and in the national health service. Either Labour members have been hoodwinked about that or they are complicit in and collude with the Government's smoke and mirrors tactics.
The closures are part of a strategic, co-ordinated and systematic ideological offensive on public services and on the concept of community planning and social need in favour of the eventual complete marketisation and privatisation of all Government and public services. That is a global agenda, which the Parliament should be capable of debating and confronting.
The offensive needs to be confronted with a coherent alternative ideology—that is why I am a socialist and I am clear about that. However, that is where the main opposition parties run into bother, especially the Scottish National Party. It does not put forward any coherent ideological opposition.
As the Tories have confirmed, the Government's excuse for closing post offices—that they are not viable—is a direct result of their policies of unbundling and privatising Government services. Post offices should exist according to social need, as the Communication Workers Union makes plain
"No counters network in the world has achieved stable and sustained profitability."
Using the Government's measure is a con trick, and unless members understand the ideological context that the measures are part of, they have been successfully conned. Either that, or they accept that context, which would at least be honest.
As we have heard, if services are not planned according to community and social need, it is the most vulnerable who suffer. I remember Labour in opposition goading the Tories for having a go at the same vulnerable groups who will be most affected by post office closures.
Appealing to this neo-liberal, ideologically driven Government to help protect public services is like appealing to Dracula to stop drinking blood. Unless there is a complete reversal of Government policy on the post office network—by returning Government business to post offices, by expanding the Post Office card account to deliver free and accessible banking to excluded communities, and by paying the proper rates for the services that post offices provide—closures are inevitable. They are inevitable because the Government has planned it that way, and we need to confront that and deal with it.
I move amendment S2M-5349.2, to insert, after second "Government":
"to begin paying post offices adequately for the government services they provide, to return services that it has withdrawn, such as issuing television licenses, to post offices, to begin the development of post office accounts as a banking facility for those living in deprived and rural communities and to consider providing assistance to communities in deprived urban and rural areas to open community post offices to prevent the loss of vital local services, and thus".
I am delighted that the SNP has chosen to debate this vital issue, but I am extremely disappointed that ministers have chosen to be absent. That shows contempt for our rural communities and undermines the Parliament as an institution. The empty row of ministerial chairs sends out a loud and clear message to rural communities.
Last week's statement in the House of Commons on the future of the rural sub-post office network struck fear into the hearts of rural communities. We are in the run-up to Christmas, which is the busiest time for the post office network in rural communities, and many
Moray Council is currently discussing the future of nine rural schools in my constituency. Those communities will have sub-post offices as well, so they will find themselves in a position in which not only their schools but their sub-post offices are under threat. Those same communities have lost their petrol stations, shops and local bank branches in recent years.
It is about time that UK ministers in London asked themselves what their vision is for the future of rural communities in Scotland, because we are in real danger of turning rural communities into a preserve of the wealthy. People will have to have a car to travel to post offices elsewhere if their local post office closes, and there will be no schools, so people will have to use their cars for that too. Vulnerable local people, those without work and the elderly will be left in the lurch if rural facilities continue to close. It is hypocritical for the UK Government to say that the fact that the post office network is making a loss is the reason why its future has to be reviewed when, as others have said, the same Government has withdrawn the very services that provided that network with vital income.
The crux of the debate is that the rural post office network does not play simply a commercial role. It also has a social role. The Scottish Government's research from July this year, which was published after examining three case studies in rural Scotland, listed the many reasons why local communities value their rural post offices. Those reasons include the fact that rural post offices provide
"access to post office services to community members who are restricted from using other services due to their geographical location, regardless of income or physical well being" and
"promote financial inclusion ... Accessing these post office services locally is reported to be useful by more vulnerable groups of the communities, such as groups of older people, who draw their pension from the post office, groups of disabled people" and others who do not have access to local bus services. According to the research, a post office provides a hub in the community and plays a role in the local tourism industry, by providing information for tourists.
In the Scottish Government's Environment and Rural Affairs Department's business plan, the list of priorities for rural communities in 2006 says that ministers will contribute to UK policy on the post office network. It is vital that the Parliament finds out what was said. The time for submissions to the UK Government was in June, July and August—before Alistair Darling made his statement in the House of Commons. We must have transparency. Our rural communities deserve to know what input ministers in this Parliament made to UK ministers before the statement was made and that input should be published. I hope that Parliament will use the opportunity today to stand up for our rural communities.
We all understand that many members have genuine concerns about post offices in their constituencies. I therefore take comfort from the Labour Government's commitment to maintaining a network of post offices throughout the UK. I welcome the fact that the Government will lay down rules to govern the location of post offices in the network and the fact that those network access rules will take care to ensure that remote and rural areas and deprived urban areas are served properly.
Apart from anything else, the Government proposals will allow Post Office Ltd to manage the network actively. Contrary to what John Swinney says, that will put the right people in the right locations rather than being a case-by-case response to choices that individual sub-postmasters make.
However, those are just boring facts that the SNP chooses to ignore because they do not fit its pantomime view of the world—told to us yet again by Buttons, played by John Swinney—in which the wicked stepmother Westminster beats and deprives poor wee Cinderella Scotland. Like the younger audience members at the Pavilion and the King's this month, SNP members do not care if the story is a bit far-fetched. As long as the songs are easy, there is lots of shouting and they get an ice cream at half-time, they go home happy.
How would the story go if the fairy godmother across the Thames—possibly played by Ian Krankie, with Jimmy Krankie as Nicola—waved her magic wand and made Scotland independent? For a start, as has been said,
The SNP needs to tell us by how much the cost of a stamp would rise to pay for Scottish post offices that the union currently subsidises. How many postal workers would the SNP need to sack? Which post offices would it end up closing anyway? Why should we pay international postage rates to send, say, Christmas cards to friends and family abroad in England?
What about the cost to business? Sending post from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland costs 20 per cent more. Such a price hike would be passed on to Scottish businesses, and if those companies' main consumer bases were in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, why would they simply not relocate? How long would it take this pony express to deliver a letter from Stornoway to Sussex? How would the economies of scale that we would lose be paid for us? I could go on, but I am used to the wheels falling off SNP bandwagons. This one has turned back into a pumpkin, and it is not even midnight.
I am grateful to the SNP for giving us another opportunity to discuss in the chamber the future of the post office network.
The motion that we are debating refers to
"a comprehensive and accessible post office network", but the issue goes far beyond that. We are debating the future of our communities and of our local economies to boot. It will be a false economy to strip away the £150 million subsidy from the rural network, because we will be left with a degenerated rural economy that will need rebuilding yet again in other, more expensive ways that will be unavailable in future as European Union funds disappear.
It is not just about rural post offices. Over the past couple of years there have been no less than eight urban post office closures for each rural post office that has been forced out of business. A recently published report by the New Economics Foundation demonstrated the benefits that urban post offices offer to their local economies. The report showed that each urban post office saves small businesses more than a quarter of a million pounds each year. Around 60 per cent of local
"post office closures deal a double blow as they are not only an anchor for the local community, but also for local enterprise. The closure can trigger a tipping point leading to a downward cycle that leaves ghost communities with very few shops and services left".
The question at the heart of the debate is how much we value our local economies, full stop. In an era of globalisation, it may be tempting to think that we do not need them, that we can get everything online and that too much reliance on local services is a hangover from an earlier, less efficient age. However, I argue—as many members have argued in the chamber this morning—that if we are to build a sustainable Scotland, we need sustainable communities that incorporate sustainable local economies. Unless we and local communities support both rural and urban post offices, that simply will not happen.
Many members have talked about the UK Government, which has a crucial role to play in keeping the subsidy arrangements fair and in ensuring that Government services continue to be delivered through post offices. It is important that any proposal to change arrangements in Scotland is not decided on until the Parliament has reconvened after the election and we have had a full parliamentary opportunity to scrutinise the impact of any potential changes.
However, we cannot rely on Westminster alone. Allan Wilson, who, sadly, is not with us this morning, acknowledged the following in a parliamentary answer to me two weeks ago. I will play the role of Allan Wilson, although not in his inimitable style. He said:
"community engagement is vital to ensure that people have a say in the future of their communities' development and that, where post offices play an important role in community development, there should be full consultation and engagement with communities."—[Official Report, 7 December 2006; c 30163.]
I agree. That approach must be strengthened and developed further, because protecting post offices and wider local economies requires action by those who are reliant on them.
I would like local businesses, in conjunction with community councils, local authorities and Scottish Enterprise to prepare local plans to keep the heart beating in their high streets. There are good examples of rural community-based initiatives, from Gartmore and Fintry, which Sylvia Jackson mentioned, to Blackford in Perthshire, where community action to support post offices has created hubs where both public and private
Post offices are the lifeblood of communities in both rural and urban areas, particularly when they are combined with other services, such as the local shop. However, over the past two decades they have been closing at a rate of more than 300 a year. In many communities in my constituency, the post office is the last remaining service—if we do not count the school—so post offices in my rural communities play a particularly crucial role. They have an existence value in holding communities together by giving them a focal point. They also provide vital face-to-face access to Government, postal and commercial services for communities, most of which no longer have a local bank branch.
According to Postcomm, 90 per cent of rural sub-post offices are unprofitable. It is vital that the true social value of the network is considered, as well as its economic value, when looking at its long-term future.
The sub-post office network has been in steady decline. Sub-post offices often have no value as businesses because of their uncertain future, but the premises from which they are run have a high value as purely private residences. When owners want to retire, they cannot sell their businesses and post offices close. That is exactly what is just about to happen in Old Rayne in my constituency.
The maintenance of a comprehensive network of sub-post offices covering the whole country, right into the most remote and rural communities, depended on the wide range of services that the Government chose to deliver through them. Tragically, the UK Government is washing its hands of the post office network. Its approach has been a combination of neglect and death by a thousand cuts.
The UK Government has directly or indirectly overseen the post office losing television licence, vehicle excise duty and passport authentication work. The transfer of benefit and pension payments to direct payment into bank accounts resulted in a loss of £400 million in income. Although the Government saved money, it had no proper consideration for the wider consequences. How the transfer was done was pretty ruthless too. Postmasters were strictly forbidden to do anything to dissuade their customers from moving to direct
That is not worth answering.
The UK Government will not extend its card contract beyond 2010, claiming that it never intended to renew the POCA contract. That was news to the long-suffering postmasters, who feel betrayed yet again. It was news to the users of card accounts, who have now got used to them, and it was news to the House of Commons. The Trade and Industry Select Committee pointed out that most people assumed that the contract would be renegotiated after 2010, that a lot of commercial decisions were made on that basis, and that there has been a real sense of betrayal. I confirm that in spades from a survey of the post offices and sub-post offices in Gordon, carried out in conjunction with my Westminster colleague Malcolm Bruce.
On 14 December, the UK Government announced plans for post office restructuring that it expects to lead to the closure of a further 2,500 post office branches by 2009. Liberal Democrats are calling on the Government to stop the unnecessary post office closure programme and instead—as it could—free the business from restrictive regulation, invest in the future of the network and stop removing government business to safeguard our post offices.
I welcome the debate, which provides an opportunity to discuss the future of the post office network.
Over the past few months I have visited a number of sub-post offices, both rural and urban, in my region. Their concerns are similar. Age Concern carried out a poll that showed that 99 per cent of older people in rural areas consider the local post office to be a lifeline and more than half
Of the post offices that have already closed, 76 per cent had a shop attached and 82 per cent of those shops closed when the post office did. Those lifelines are being lost in our communities with little reference to the community campaigning that is going on. The Dumfries and Galloway elderly forum campaigned hard to save rural post offices as well as the main post office in Dumfries, but it was unsuccessful. It has also lobbied extremely hard for Post Office card accounts to be retained. I hope that someone somewhere is listening to those people, because the situation is similar in Irvine and Kilwinning, where the main post offices have closed despite a huge campaign to keep them open.
It seems that whatever the voice of the people is, it is not being listened to. I note—and I am sure that the Dumfries and Galloway elderly forum and the elderly forum in Irvine and Kilwinning will also note—that no ministers are here today to listen to this extremely important debate.
The withdrawal of the Post Office card account could cost the network at least £100 million a year in lost income. Add to that the impact of the loss of services such as TV licence contracts and passport processing.
There are on-going reductions in services, job losses, reductions in wages and a worsening of conditions. The closure of main post offices and the transfer of services to Spar shops and so on have meant that conditions have worsened and wages have been reduced. That has a direct impact on the local economy, as Mark Ruskell said. The post offices are a vibrant part of the community and make a difference to the local economy and small businesses.
Post offices are frequently the only place to access cash locally; only 4 per cent of villages have a bank, but 60 per cent have a post office. Many elderly people do not have bank accounts either. Some 60 per cent of bank current accounts are still not accessible in post offices. There is absolutely no question but that opening up post office services could save them. Some 4.3 million people use the Post Office card account each week and around 1 million older people in the UK do not have bank accounts. We can address that and save the post offices, but we have to ensure that someone somewhere is listening. At the moment, not much listening is going on in here
One of the roots of the problem is that there has been not a lack of Government support but a lack of consistent Government support for the post office network over the years, and there has been ambivalence about the post office. John Swinney alluded to the fact that when benefits payments through giro books were withdrawn, the facility to get payments via the Post Office card account was introduced, but people had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get them. They had to phone up to get the application form, and then submit it separately. People thought that it was much easier simply to have the money paid to them directly. Of course, the situation then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Government can say, "Ah—but no one is using the post office." The lunacy is that one part of the Government is paying the post office network a subsidy because it is not economic and another part—the TV licence payment collection system—is privatising its operations and taking money away from the post office, presumably so that the Government has to put more subsidy in at the other end. That is the economics of the madhouse.
When Stephen Byers launched the Post Office card account, there was no suggestion that it was time limited and would be around for only 10 years. The House of Commons understood that it would be around for ever, but the project suddenly became time limited and the Government has had to do a U-turn. What has happened has resulted in huge uncertainty for people who use post offices and for people who run them.
One of the biggest causes of post office closures is that replacement postmasters or postmistresses cannot be found when postmasters or postmistresses retire. There is no wonder that they cannot be found if people do not know whether there will be a business for them to run. That cause is, of course, the easiest cause for the Post Office to defend. It says, "We can't get anyone to do the job" and the Government says, "Nobody wants to run post offices." They simply wring their hands as if the matter had nothing to do with them, but the problems that we face stem from the complete lack of a coherent Government strategy. We must say what post offices are for first and then decide what action to take.
The Post Office was given a duty not to make avoidable closures after 1997, but nobody defined "avoidable closure". Without it being said what
Euan Robson spoke about an issue that has not been explored nearly enough—sharing of services. The odd post office is run from a pub or a back room and services are occasionally shared, but no coherent strategy on that exists. Things simply happen in certain places by accident. We must consider the local delivery of Government and council services in rural areas, including post office services, and we must try to ensure that all of them—even though they may not be economical—are run sensibly. We must see post offices as part of our infrastructure. We do not stop tarmacking rural roads—at least some of them—because not many cars run on them, although we may have to deal with that matter once road charging kicks in. Post offices are as vital for local industry as roads are. As long as we continue to consider the post office network in isolation or simply as part of a business rather than as part of our essential infrastructure, we will have to come back to Parliament to fight to defend it. We must take a coherent approach.
I will do my best to stay within that time.
I want to pick up on issues that I did not have time to talk about earlier. A big argument, on the wider impact of post offices on the economy even in the current political and economic circumstances, has been missed in the debate. Members have said that the last shop in the village will often go when the post office closes, but post offices bring wider economic benefits. Research by the New Economics Foundation shows that for every £10 a post office earns, it generates £16.20 for its local economy, including £6.20 in direct spending on local goods and services. That means that each post office will contribute around £310,000 to its local economy each year, of which £120,000 will be direct spending on local goods and services. Those figures are based on an in-depth analysis of urban post offices in Manchester. Figures for many areas of Scotland have not been quantified or examined.
The withdrawal of post office services has a massive impact. [Interruption.] The Executive should take into account that impact and be prepared to take action within its remit. Obviously, I would prefer the Executive to have full powers over such matters. It does not have such powers, but it could provide support and funding to help communities to establish community post offices.
Such an approach would be possible, viable and realistic in the short term.
It is disgraceful that no Scottish minister is in the chamber, as my amendment and other amendments refer to the Scottish Executive. My amendment refers to something that the Scottish Executive could do using its current powers, but no minister is here to examine or to rubbish my arguments or suggestions or even to agree with me—it is Christmas, after all.
Communities in Scotland that are threatened with the closures and loss of services, which threaten the viability of those communities, should be really angry. When it comes to putting their cross on the ballot paper, I hope they will let the Executive parties know that.
In turning to the SNP contribution, I return to what I was saying at the outset. Although I agree with much of what John Swinney, Alasdair Morgan and other SNP members said, I disagree with them that the problem stems from the Government's incompetence, its inconsistent support for the post office network, or from a lack of joined-up government. The Government has been very competent in promoting a right-wing neo-liberal offensive on public services. It has achieved more for that right-wing ideology and for the interests of big business than Thatcher did. She started the neo-liberal offensive, but Labour has continued it. Labour has used the lessons that it learned from Thatcher's direct, confrontational and wolfish style—all we have had from it is a change into sheep's clothing. Labour has continued the same process and, indeed, it has accelerated it, which is why the Tories are in bother over the issue; they have no ground.
What is the position of Labour MSPs? None of them has commented on that. Will Labour members support the position of the 39 Labour MPs who opposed the franchising of Crown post offices to WH Smith? What is their position on further privatisation of the post office network? Labour members have been remarkably silent on that.
There is no doubt that there is no agreement between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats on the decision of the UK Government on this matter. There is agreement that reform is needed, but we are very clear that the way in which the UK Government has set about it is the wrong way. I am disappointed that the Labour amendment is not clearer in stating that and I am disappointed that the SNP motion is not clearer in stating that the Government is taking the wrong way forward. It should be doing that and not calling for representations to be made.
There is a requirement for the types of reforms that Alasdair Morgan highlighted. For example, in my constituency, constituents in Ettrick Bridge should have more central and local government services delivered to them through the post office. If services were combined in that way, the entire Ettrick valley could receive those services locally. In Innerleithen, planning should now be under way on future services so that there is no repeat of what happened in Nora Radcliffe's constituency, where the post office is the last service to remain. Given that the police station in Innerleithen has closed, the time is right to start on a real community plan. The UK Government's decision on its consultation is the wrong way forward; it serves only to work against the community planning approach.
On reform, it is clear that the Royal Mail has outdated sorting equipment: only 50 per cent of mail is sorted electronically, whereas 90 per cent of the mail that its competitors in TNT or Deutsche Post handle is sorted electronically. The Royal Mail estimates that it needs a £2.2 billion investment if it is to modernise. The Postal Services Commission, the regulator, allowed only £1.2 billion, of which £900 million is to come by way of a Government loan. That is woefully inadequate investment, particularly when the Royal Mail is hidebound by regulation. It is interesting to note that the DTI consultation majors on the loss of £4 million a week for the network. That should have been put in the context of the Royal Mail Group's operating profit in 2005-06 of £355 million, on record revenues of £9 billion.
As Parliament has heard, from April 2003, the Government started paying benefits and state pensions directly into customer's bank accounts and established the Post Office card account through Post Office Ltd. One of the problems with the card account is that it has been a success: 3.7 million Department for Work and Pensions customers have continued to use post offices through opening a Post Office card account. In January 2006, the DWP made it known that it would not renew the contract for the card account
The Select Committee on Trade and Industry was clear that the rural network is supported not for purely economic reasons. In its report, it states:
"If the Post Office network were just a commercial entity, it would not deserve to be supported by Government. However, it fulfils a wider community need. In many places Post Office branches serve as the heart of the community."
Another paragraph from the report states:
"Some Post Office branches, especially those in rural areas, will always remain unviable. We believe that it is vital that across the whole of Government there is a clear recognition of the role that Post Offices play in delivering Government objectives in the community."
The Government in London is failing to recognise post offices' role. Its consultation paper is seriously flawed and needs to be rejected. Parliament should be clear about stating that, rather than just asking the Executive to make representations to the Government, as the SNP has asked us to do.
Most of us would agree that post offices play a vital part in communities, especially in rural areas. I am sure that the communities in the south of Scotland provide a better example of that than most, whether we are talking about those in East Lothian and the Borders or those in Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway in the west. As Murdo Fraser said, the continuation of the post office network is not just an economic issue, but a social issue. Instead of trying to reduce the services that post offices offer, we should be giving greater consideration to what we can do to expand their role to make them viable.
Murdo Fraser mentioned the consultation timescale, which is worth remarking on again. I am sure that we would all agree that the Government at Westminster has a keen eye for timing. The fact that the consultation responses will be considered while Scotland is voting and will not be published until after the May election is highly convenient for the Executive parties.
No—I want to make some progress.
Many members have expressed surprise that no Executive minister is present to respond to the debate. It appears that we have moved on from the parliamentary convention of a few weeks ago—when we were told that in Opposition debates, it was appropriate only for a deputy minister to respond—to a new convention, whereby it is appropriate for no one to respond on behalf of the Executive.
Only 15 days ago, the Executive found a minister—Rhona Brankin—to respond to a debate on post offices. Let us remind ourselves of what she said then, before the consultation document had been published. Speaking on behalf of the Executive, she said:
"we have made absolutely clear to United Kingdom Government colleagues the need for future arrangements for post offices to acknowledge the wider economic and social dimension".
She said that the importance of the network to Scotland had been raised with ministers in London and accepted that there is a need for the UK Government and the Scottish Government to adopt a joined-up approach. She went on to say:
"I am pleased that UK Government colleagues have acknowledged the force of those arguments".—[Official Report, 6 December; c 30090-91.]
A week later, the Government announced that 2,500 post offices throughout the UK would close.
Duncan McNeil made the fair point that in Scotland we have a disproportionate share of the number of branches, but he did not say whether we would have a disproportionate share of the number of closures. Even if we have just a proportionate share of the number of closures, a significant number of post offices throughout the country will close, which is why people the length and breadth of Scotland are concerned.
I want to come on to the member's coalition partners, if I may.
Euan Robson said that it was not the Liberal Democrats' policy to privatise the Post Office. That may be true, but he might have been dancing on the head of a pin, because the information on the save our post offices campaign on the Liberal Democrats' website says:
"Our proposals would create a new ownership model for Royal Mail which would allow it to borrow to invest without it having to compete with schools and hospitals as it is no longer wholly owned by the public sector."
If that is not privatisation, I do not know what is. Euan Robson does not accept the force of the argument for Scottish Water, but he accepts it for Royal Mail.
Jeremy Purvis said that the Royal Mail needs to invest £2 billion in automation, but the Lib Dem save our post offices campaign says that that £2 billion is earmarked to keep Post Office branches open. Is there a £2 billion black hole in the spending plans of the Liberal Democrats? They cannot claim that the Royal Mail and Post Office are separate and then try to spend the same £2 billion twice. It is time for clarity from both Executive parties and it is time for an Executive response to the consultation, so that we can find out precisely what the Executive parties are saying to the Government at Westminster.
I welcomed Alistair Darling's statement last week in the House of Commons—the primary forum for a debate of this nature—in which he set out a clear strategy for the preservation of our national post office network.
We all appreciate that the network must change and adapt if it is to meet the needs of citizens in 21st century Britain. The notion that Government can ignore how citizens choose to do business, which some members have promoted, is laughable.
Of course we must acknowledge—as many members of all parties have done—the post office network's role in the economic and social well-being of our islands. In my constituency in the Western Isles, some 64 post offices serve 28,000 people. Some members' comments on rural Scotland seemed to suggest that people who are fortunate enough to live in rural or island Scotland are incapable of embracing new ways of doing business in an ever-changing world, but I can happily report that my constituents are more than capable of embracing change in their lives and work and in how they engage with public services.
On the island of Great Bernera, off the Isle of Lewis, the community faces the prospect of losing its post office. However, because the community is part of the initiative at the edge programme, it has found innovative and sound ways of delivering public services. At the modernised village hall site, the local authority has based a couple of development officers, the health board has constructed a surgery for visiting general practitioners and the fire board bases its volunteers' fire tender. The pre-school facility and local historical society are on the same campus. The approach demonstrates sensible and pragmatic thinking about how to share costs. Such
For far too long, public agencies have presided over the demise of many communities, but as a result of programmes such as the initiative at the edge, agencies are working together to provide services in places like the Western Isles and the west Highlands—all it took was insistence that public servants sit down together to discuss their plans and priorities and how to refigure and deliver services. The postal service is no different. It must ensure that it finds ways of providing services throughout the country. It is doing that, but four million fewer people are using post offices than were using them two years ago, as I think Duncan McNeil said.
John Swinney, who moved the motion, blamed Government and claimed that Government has decided to "engineer the closure" of post offices. He did not acknowledge the £150 million per annum that has been paid to post offices since 1997, although his colleague Alasdair Morgan had the good grace to acknowledge that contribution. Mr Swinney went on to berate citizens for using modern methods to receive pensions and benefits. He said that the Government should encourage more transactions. He wants people in nationalist Scotland to go back to queuing in the rain for their pensions and benefits—[Interruption.] I applaud Duncan McNeil's humorous dissection of the fallacies that the nationalists promote. I hear the nationalists shouting from the sidelines, but I will not comment on the dreary and mournful dirge from Richard Lochhead.
Sylvia Jackson rightly referred to the prospect of substantial investment, subject to European state-aid approval, of up to £1.7 billion over the next five years, to support the post office network and enable it to be rationalised, modernised and placed on a more stable footing.
The UK Government wants the Post Office to identify opportunities and to set up 500 innovative outlets for small communities, which will include mobile post offices. For 60 years, the Royal Bank of Scotland has provided banking services to Western Isles villages. Last year it bought a new fleet of mobile banks, which bristle with the latest technology. Although there is understandable attachment to bricks and mortar—or stone and lime, in the Western Isles—we must embrace new ways of doing business.
I hope that Alistair Darling, in discussion with the Post Office, will urge it to extend the mobile post office pilot, which currently runs in Wick, serving five villages. I have great confidence in the secretary of state and his commitment to the post office network. I urge him to examine the Western
I congratulate some of the many members who have spoken and who made serious comments in what is an important debate on issues that impact particularly on vulnerable people and communities. I exclude from that Duncan McNeil, with his disgraceful trivialisation of the debate. I intend to circulate his flippant speech to postmasters throughout Scotland for their contemplation.
You are hoist by your own petard, sunshine.
I do not need to exclude Government ministers from my congratulations, because the Minister for Environment and Rural Development and the Minister for Communities, both of whom could have been involved in the debate, have excluded themselves. Scotland's rural communities will not fail to notice that fact. In previous debates on the issue in Parliament, the Minister for Communities has spoken and, in John Swinney's members' business debate on the issue, the Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development was here. However, no minister has been present during today's debate. That is an insult to Parliament and to Scotland's vulnerable people and communities. I point out to Euan Robson that social exclusion and vulnerable communities are not reserved matters—Derek Brownlee was right to draw attention to that.
As many other members did, John Swinney made clear the vital role that the post office has as a hub in our communities. He and others also made it plain that there has not been—to use an abominable expression—joined-up thinking between the various Westminster departments that have eroded the stability of rural post offices. As Alasdair Morgan rightly said, that has resulted in people retiring and no one else taking up their businesses, because people do not know whether there will be a proper business to run. I can think of many examples of that, although, for once, I will speak not about the Borders, but about Flotta, where my sister is the sole and head teacher in the primary school. Flotta post office, which is in the middle of that rural area, is the centre of information, the local shop and a tourist information centre. It is extremely important to the community, which is a vulnerable one that has just managed to hang on to its school, thanks to my sister.
Richard Lochhead raised the issue of rural schools and communities that are fighting to keep their schools. I will have to mention the Borders: Oxton has kept its school, but the question is whether it will keep its sub-post office. Many places are fighting on that issue. When people are deciding on a place to live and see a village that has a school and a post office with a shop attached, they think that it is a living place. However, when they go to a village that has no school, post office or shop, they pass through. Many of the people who live in such places leave, too. The people who are left are the elderly, the disabled and the vulnerable, who cannot move and who will have to go long distances to access post office services.
That is made plain in research that Postwatch Scotland has carried out. One disabled customer who would have to travel between 8km and 16km to the nearest post office said:
"It would cause great difficulty in more ways than can be described as I am disabled. Travelling alone causes undue and unnecessary pain and suffering."
Another elderly customer said:
"It would be over 40 miles in a boat to collect pension and get any cash. Would be unable to do any posting."
Those are the people who should be protected and looked after. We should make their communities thrive. We must not think of the system of post offices only in terms of a balance sheet, with debits and credits in bold black figures on the paper; we need to think of the more subtle effects that the system has in keeping communities hearty.
Help the Aged in Scotland supports John Swinney's motion fully. It has stated that it welcomes and supports John Swinney's motion on the threat to the rural post office network in Scotland and that it has campaigned for some time on issues relating to the future of the post office network, including a recent campaign on the future of the Post Office card account. Many members have mentioned the card account.
I return to the most disgraceful matter at hand, which is that no minister has sat through any part of the debate, contributed to it or responded to the serious issues that members of different parties have raised. I hope that I never have to experience a similar situation again in Parliament. It will not be forgotten.