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It is always a joy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, although I wish I had a more joyful subject to debate. I have called for this debate many times over the past months but, unfortunately, I have not been able to achieve it. This is a little bit late in the day in respect of the consultation on post office closures in mid-Wales. We anticipate an announcement next week. Some news has broken already, and I may mention that in passing during my contribution.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) also feel strongly about this issue. I am aware that other announcements have now taken place in Wales regarding post office closures, so other hon. Members from Wales may wish to be involved in this debate.
The previous programme of planned post office closures, which related to urban areas, was titled "Post Office reinvention", which was a misnomer if ever I heard one. As far as the Post Office is concerned, an urban area is defined as an area with more than 10,000 people in one settlement or contiguous settlements. Such is the rural nature of my constituency that only three out of the 56 post offices then open were considered urban and were caught up in the reinvention programme. Those were all in the Ystradgunlais area, which is an old coal-mining community in my constituency that has suffered in respect of its economy and its ability to generate employment ever since the mines closed. That area should have been looked after a little bit better. In the end, we saved one of those post offices, but the one that was closed was probably the one that should have stayed open, because it was in the most deprived area. So when we approached the next planned closure programme, we did not really have much confidence that, if we opposed the closure of post offices in our area, the ones that were closed would have the least impact on our communities.
The consultation exercise in 2006 took place prior to the current closure programme. However, it was difficult to engage in that consultation, because people had to read a relatively thick consultation document and then fill in a pro forma to address the issues raised in that document. A number of people felt that they could not engage in that process. Despite the fact that there were only about 160 responses to the formal consultation in Wales, 40 of those came from my constituency, where I set about ensuring that the people whom I represent made the most of the opportunity. We also submitted 220 responses to our own consultation document, which was easier to complete, with the formal consultation. People were concerned about the criteria for post offices in rural areas. Some 95 per cent. of people living in those areas should be within three miles of a post office, but that means that 5 per cent. of people, whatever their age or capacity to access post offices, could live more than three miles away from one.
In my most pessimistic frame of mind, I looked at the relatively large centres of population in my constituency—Llandrindod Wells, with about 5,000 people, and Brecon, with about 8,000—and noticed that a post office in one of those places, with about eight others, might meet the 95 per cent. criterion. My most pessimistic view then was that we were in for a wholesale closure of post offices. Our contribution to that consultation made little or no difference, because the closure programme went ahead as set out in the consultation document. It seems to me that our representations had no particular effect.
The announcement of the post office closures in mid-Wales under the current closure programme was made on
The public consultation has now closed and the Post Office is reviewing the submissions that it received. Probably all the postmasters and postmistresses involved in the process have now been informed of the outcome, but unfortunately some have broken cover and revealed it. That makes it difficult for other postmasters and postmistresses who have kept the confidence, because if their customers ask what the outcome of the consultation is, they will be in a difficult, embarrassing situation. I regret the process that has taken place.
Does my hon. Friend recall that something similar happened at an earlier stage in the consultation process? That makes it difficult for those of us who respect those confidences, which must be respected, to do our jobs properly. Does he agree that it is time that some sanction was imposed on people who make it virtually impossible for us to conduct our business simply because of their selfish desire to spread confidential information prior to an embargo being lifted?
It certainly makes it difficult for us as representatives of the area, if we do not know what is happening and others do.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He knows that this issue concerns us all, no matter where our constituencies are in the country. It has been brought to my attention that certain post offices know already that they have been reprieved. I did not think that information was embargoed, because my office managed to obtain it quite readily. Will he tell us when the information is embargoed until, because I was proposing to congratulate one of the post offices in his constituency that will remain open? I do not want to contribute to breaking an embargo, but I thought the information was freely available in some instances.
I contacted the Post Office yesterday, when probably the same information that has come to the attention of the hon. Lady was brought to my attention. The Post Office told me that it had contacted the postmasters and postmistresses whose businesses were under review earlier this week and informed them of the outcome. Members of Parliament and Assembly Members who represent affected areas will be officially informed on Friday, and the public statement is to be made next Tuesday. I shall not make a big fuss about the embargo, but it makes the business today a bit more difficult.
Once the Post Office has considered the representations and submissions, the final announcement will be made about those post offices that will be kept open, those that will close and those that will host an outreach service in the form of a mobile service—in other words, a postal van will be in the area for a few hours each week in place of the post office that previously served the area. Some post offices will provide a hosted service, which involves providing the services of a post office in alternative premises, such as a pub, a community centre or a shop.
In the third round of Welsh closures, six post offices were earmarked for closure in Brecon and Radnorshire. It is proposed that out of a total of 54 post offices that are still open, eight should switch to an outreach service. Out of those eight post offices, it is proposed that five should become mobile services and the other three should become hosted services. The five post offices that have been targeted for mobile services will receive a collective post office service of 26 hours a week, and the three listed for hosted services will have a post office service of just eight hours a week.
Two post offices are listed for closure in Brecon, which means a town with a population of roughly 8,000 people will have just one post office. It is also proposed that two post offices in Llandrindod should close, which, again, will mean a town of more than 5,000 people will have just one post office. One post office is earmarked for closure in Evenjobb—a remote village near Presteigne—and we now have information that that closure has been confirmed. Another proposed closure would affect Cwmgiedd, a small village community in Ystradgynlais. In total, 14 post offices will be affected in my constituency. I would like to mention each one, but because of the time and because I can see other hon. Members want to make a contribution, I will keep this as short as I can.
Both Llanfaes and Pendre post offices in Brecon are open 46 hours a week and have a large number of customers who are over 65 years old and who suffer from limiting life-term illnesses. The nearest alternative post office is not far away, but it is situated amid hilly terrain on which it is difficult to walk. The existing branch in the middle of Brecon is crowded, and it is estimated that a minimum of 500 additional customers will now have to use that post office. I often use it, and during the middle of day I have queued for upwards of a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes to be served. Another 500 customers will be directed to that post office, if the closures take place. The people who use both Llanfaes and Brecon post offices have put in substantial submissions to keep them open, and we wait to hear the outcome.
I confirm what the hon. Gentleman has said. When I went to Llanfeas to meet Karen Weale, a continuous stream of people queued up to use the post office, and there was not a spare minute in the day. Similarly, when I met Jay Vakil in Pendre, the post office was in constant use. Losing either or both of those post offices would be a disaster for the local community.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. It is good that this is not just the subjective opinion of the local Member of Parliament, but that it has been validated by other distinguished hon. Members.
I shall now turn to the two post offices in Llandrindod earmarked for closure, both of which are open for 46 hours a week. Although the alternative branch is not far away, it is not situated in the easiest terrain for less able people—it is about a 25-minute walk and there are no regular buses. The additional 300 to 400 customer sessions that would have to be served by the remaining post office would put great pressure on that facility.
The good news is that we understand that the Tremont road post office has been saved. I can safely say that because it is on the front page of The Brecon and Radnor Express today—a fine organ in my constituency that keeps the public aware of what is going on. I can also see representatives from the County Times sitting at the back today, which is a fine organisation too. I am pleased that Tremont post office has stayed open. It is run by an energetic couple who also run a good shop. I am pleased that such a facility will be available at that end of Llandrindod Wells. I pay particular credit to the community that lives in that area and uses the facilities that the post office provides. It is not the richest community in my constituency, and its needs are great. That community responded to the consultation and to my postcard campaign—huge quantities of postcards were sent back to me. That campaign alerted the community to the seriousness of the proposals, and as such we have had lots of responses. We now wonder whether Ridgebourne will remain open in Llandrindod Wells. Sadly, Evenjobb has received notice that it will close.
A number of other post offices have also received huge support, including Erwood and Llyswen in the Wyre valley. We have had two fantastic public meetings to drum up support for those post offices. Indeed, the ability of people to get to other facilities to obtain cash is limited, and the public transport system is not of the highest order. The proposal to have a mobile service has not been received well by the local people. Indeed, Erwood is in a dangerous position on a trunk road in the middle of a village. The situation in relation to Erwood is entirely unacceptable.
In Llyswen, the proposal is to place the mobile facility outside the shop where the post office is sited. I cannot understand the logic of that. If the post office closes, the likelihood that the shop will be put under economic pressure greatly increases. The synergy between the shop and the post office is what keeps many villages going and provides the services that people desperately need.
Gladestry has been offered a service for two hours a week in the village hall. The postmaster there wants to retire, and although the village is not entirely happy with the situation, it is more accepting than some places. However, it is a very remote area. I was present when the Post Office unveiled a cash machine in Llanbister post office not long ago. We thought that that was a good news story, but it was not entirely so.
If we look at the post offices where an outreach service has been proposed, we see that some services are for nine hours, some for four hours and some for two hours. The irony of the van spending nine hours outside the shop where the post office used to be is not lost on me or anyone else. Does the hon. Gentleman know how those hours were arrived at? Also, what consultation of the local community has been conducted? Presumably, when the service is for only two hours, it will be on a certain day of the week, which may not be convenient for some of the residents who normally use the post office service.
The hon. Lady has raised another point. During the consultation, I asked how it was decided which villages would receive a mobile service and for how long and which would receive a hosted or a partner service. There was a considerable amount of sucking of teeth and stroking of chins at that point. I put it to those people that probably the defining factor was trying to get the maximum use out of the mobile facility, not what was best for or would have been most appreciated by that community.
There are not only consequences in terms of convenience for local users, but consequences for the people providing the service in the van. During the trial run in my constituency, the person supplying the two hours a week in various communities found that he could not make a business out of the hours that he was granted.
My hon. Friend Mark Williams may be able to refer to a similar experience.
I will resist giving way, because I want to get on and because other hon. Members want to speak. This is a long and sorry tale, but I will try not to take up too much time. Mrs. Gillan has raised an important point that I will consider in relation to Llanwrtyd Wells, which claims to be the smallest town in the UK. It was the location of the composition of "Sosban Fach", a song that is often sung at rugby internationals, and it is the site of the man versus horse race. Many enterprising things are going on Llanwrtyd Wells, but there is a proposal to close the post office, which residents see as an affront to their status as a town. The lady in question wants to retire—one problem is that some postmasters and postmistresses want to retire.
The proposal to substitute for the post office a mobile service for nine hours is unacceptable for a number of reasons. A minor one is that the suggested site is a very steep car park. It gets icy during the winter and it would be dangerous for pensioners and older people to access. If the post office has to close—my wish is that it will not close—it would be much better for the service to be hosted by an existing facility in Llanwrtyd, such as a shop or the tourist information centre, which is no longer run by Powys county council but by a private operation. If the post office, or what is to be substituted for the post office, were in one of those facilities, those facilities would be more likely to remain open. We sincerely hope that the conclusion is a hosted or partner service rather than a mobile service.
I have talked about Llyswen and Erwood. Merthyr Cynog will have a mobile service, and Pantydwr will have a hosted service. For a rural area such as mine, the number of closures could create real difficulties in relation to village life and the sustainability of rural communities. A 2005 Postcomm survey suggested that 91 per cent. of people believe that post offices play an important role in their community. An article in TheDaily Telegraph in March 2008 estimated that half of the 2,500 post offices earmarked for closure double up as village shops. The post office is often the last shop in the village, in which case the closure of the post office rings the death knell for the shop as well.
Although our campaign to keep those village post offices is drawing to a close, the next campaign is already beginning, because we see it as a real challenge to keep open the post office network that will remain after the closures that might take place. I call on the Minister to ensure that the Post Office has the ability to advertise the services that it provides. At some of our post offices, postmasters have posted handwritten signs outside their post offices to show that they still issue car tax discs. Surely we can have a system to inform people that the Post Office has not withdrawn from that service, as it has had to withdraw, unfortunately, from the television licence service.
For example, I run a small business, a farm, and every week I have to write a PAYE—pay-as-you-earn—cheque for my employees. I used to send it to some anonymous office in Shipley, from whence I received no further communication as to whether it had arrived or not. Now I realise that I can deal with that at a post office and get a receipt, so I have a record. We need to alert the public to the fact that such facilities are available in post offices, in which case we will stand a chance of keeping some of them open.
This is a sad day for mid-Wales, for Brecon and Radnorshire and particularly for the elderly. I am told—I do not know whether this is true—that the total saving in relation to the closure programme for the 2,500 post offices is £48 million. It is an awful lot of grief and worry for people not only in Brecon and Radnorshire but throughout the country for a £48 million saving. I do not know whether the process, which must have been costly in terms of staff and time, justifies that.
You have been generous with me, Mr. Atkinson, as other hon. Members have, but what I have said needed saying. The Government seem to have given up on rural communities and rural Wales, and it is vital that the remaining post offices in mid-Wales continue to operate and that we do not face further closures in the future.
Thank you, Mr. Atkinson; I will take your injunction to heart. I congratulate Mr. Williams on securing the debate. It is an important, if slightly unglamorous, debate, covering the bread-and-butter issues that constituency MPs deal with every day. Clearly, such a debate cannot compete with the glamour of the debate in the main Chamber, as not a single member of the Welsh parliamentary Labour party is here. Presumably, those hon. Members are in the main Chamber, vying with one another to contribute to the debate on volunteering—or possibly not. However, this is an important issue, pertinent not only to mid-Wales but to all of rural Wales.
The point that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made about rurality being defined in terms of populations of under 10,000 people is very important for my constituency. Not a single town in the constituency of Caernarfon has a population of more than 10,000, so I assume that all of my constituency is defined as rural, which would come as a surprise to some of the town dwellers.
Rural Wales faces a profound challenge. I will mention only in passing such challenges as the Government's decision to grant greater tax relief in relation to capital gains on holiday homes. That will have a strong effect on that market. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published just today on housing in Wales shows that there are 18,000 empty houses, while at the same time homelessness in rural Wales is up sharply. Houses in rural Wales typically cost five time average earnings. That is a truly shocking scenario. The challenge to life in rural Wales is clearly substantial, and it will become more substantial—the situation is even more dangerous—because of the Post Office proposals. They not only affect post offices in mid-Wales, but will extend to north Wales as a result of the consultation that is under way, which I understand will report at the end of July.
I shall not go through all the arguments. They are fairly familiar, as such debates are held regularly in this Chamber—indeed, I have contributed to a number of them. However, it is worth quickly restating some points. For instance, rural sub-post offices are focal points for the community; they pay pensions and benefits and provide all kinds of vital services—not only shopping, but basic information and social contact for local people. Some of those services are not commercial; some are. The commercial ones might not be viable without the post office element, such as the one at Llyswen referred to by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire.
In my constituency, we have a sub-post office that is clustered with a couple of other shops. I believe that those shops depend on each other to attract custom; without the post office, there would be a serious threat to the viability of the other shops that crowd into that parade, which is in a nice area in the north of Caernarfon. It is not only post offices that are under threat; their closure will also affect newsagents, small grocery stores and so on. The area will be less attractive for shoppers. Closing the post office can have a domino effect on other local shops. We should also be aware of the multiplier effect, which has been mentioned a number of times, as people who claim a benefit or draw money from the local post office tend to spend it locally. That pound circulates more widely and has a much more beneficial effect on the local economy.
Between March 2001 and December 2007 in Wales, 258 post offices closed, many of them in rural areas in mid and north Wales. That is about 19 per cent., or nearly one in five. As I said, a consultation is taking place in north Wales and we expect a number of post offices to be closed. Some of them, I suppose reasonably, will close because people will want to retire and put their business up for sale, but I am sure that some will be closed in the teeth of local opposition. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Post Office will listen to local opinion when the consultation is held in north Wales.
As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, mobile post office vans have been introduced in my constituency, which is in a particularly rural part of the Lleyn peninsula. That, of course, has led to diminished hours. It also raises specific questions about the business model. The provider of the van found that he could not make a business of driving the 50 or 60 miles while ensuring that someone minded the shop at home. At the same time, although some people accepted a service every two or three days, some found it insufficient.
Given the geography of rural Wales—and the deeply rural areas of England and the north of Scotland—the post office could be miles away. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, the standard is three miles. However, 5 per cent. of people might be as far as six miles away from the post office. In rural areas where public transport, if there is any, might be scarce, travelling such a distance could be a challenge.
We are all aware that there is a green aspect. In areas such as Powys, which is represented by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, it is not surprising that car ownership is at its highest—and incomes are at their lowest. Car ownership is sometimes seen as a measure of prosperity, but in Powys the car is a necessity. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that many families own one, two or even three cars in order to ensure that life in rural areas is viable. Cars are not a costly luxury, but a costly necessity. For such families, the withdrawal of the post office will be a further disincentive to live in rural areas.
Rural poverty is also an issue. Without doubt, lack of access to good services is a major component of poverty. That is recognised in the index used by the Welsh Assembly Government to measure deprivation and poverty. Remoteness is another factor. The closure proposals will exacerbate rural poverty on such measures.
One might think that some of those bad effects could be countered by the introduction of new technology and that people could perhaps use services online. I draw the House's attention to a report published yesterday, which shows that in rural areas broadband access is not easy to obtain because of what are called not-spots, although BT claims that only 1 per cent. of Wales has not-spots. None the less, I seem to have many of them in my constituency. For example, one cannot receive broadband in the village of Rhiwlas but gallingly one can see Caernarfon and Bangor on the coast from there as it is high on the side of the hill. One can see areas where people have not only good access to shops but broadband.
We may have not-spots, but significantly yesterday's report also noted that broadband speeds in Wales are about half those in London. I have no technical expertise in these matters, but I believe that as a result it is more difficult to use broadband for all kinds of services, not least receiving television pictures—but that is another matter. Such things have a significant effect on the viability of living in rural areas. Local businesses in my constituency that use the post office and might use broadband instead will have to think again, because of the difficulties of working online.
The rural-urban split is deepening, as life in much of Wales becomes more and more unsustainable. The Government's policy should be to ameliorate that divide, not deepen it, as a perhaps unintended consequence of that deliberate and unwelcome policy.
I am aware of the shortness of time, Mr. Atkinson, so I shall be brief.
I congratulate Mr. Williams on securing this important debate. I also have a good word for the Minister. Of all the poisoned chalices on offer in Westminster, he seems to have drawn the most unpalatable. It is a credit to him that over the past few months he has been at one debate after another attempting to defend the indefensible. I remember the mauling that he suffered in March in an Opposition day debate on the subject. It must be difficult for him to undertake his present role. Nevertheless, I believe that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire was right to invite the Minister to come here again this afternoon to take another mauling from Welsh Members.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has already mentioned the particular difficulties caused by the remoteness of his community. Mid-Wales is a part of the country that I know only too well. My wife comes from mid-Wales, and I can certainly attest to the area's remoteness. I sometimes wonder how I ever found her, but find her I did. In many respects, the hon. Gentleman's constituency resembles mine. It is one of scattered villages, many separated by hills and rivers. That is where the Government's access criteria fail. The three-mile radius is meaningless when one considers the topography of mid and north Wales. One cannot travel as the crow flies there. The damage being done to communities in the rural parts of Wales by the closure programme, as Hywel Williams pointed out, is significant.
Very often, the post office is literally the only business in the village, let alone the only shop. There are villages in my constituency, as I am sure there are in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, where the post office is also the shop, and it might also be a small guest house. As a composite, such a business is viable, but if one element is taken out, it becomes unviable. I regret to say that that is precisely what will happen in mid and north Wales and in other rural parts of Wales when the closure programme is completed.
Rural life in Wales is becoming increasingly difficult. We have seen school closure programmes, the effect of high fuel prices and now the effect of the Government's disgraceful tinkering with vehicle excise duty. It is becoming almost impossible to live a civilised life in rural parts of Wales, and the post office closure programme is doing deep social damage to the fabric of life.
When the Government tabled their successful amendment to the Opposition day motion, it was interesting that they recognised
"the vital social and economic role of post offices, in particular in rural and deprived urban communities".
If they really do recognise the vital role of post offices, why are they presiding over such a draconian closure programme?
For many people in mid-Wales and other parts of Wales, the post office closure programme will simply be the last straw. Businesses will close across Wales, and the heart will be taken out of village communities, which will ultimately die. It is sad that the Government are presiding over this programme with apparent equanimity, seemingly oblivious to the social effects that they are inflicting on people in scattered rural communities. It is probably too late for the Government to think again, but I would like the Minister to reflect on the damage that has been done and possibly even to consider apologising for it to the people of Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Williams for raising this important issue. The front pages of the Cambrian News and the Cardigan Tivy-side Advertiser in my constituency have yet to break any news, so I am a little in the dark as to where we are going on the issue. As Members, we wait with expectation for the announcement on Friday, as well as for the public announcement next Tuesday.
Like Mr. Jones, I am in a reflective mood and I shall comment first on the consultation process. In all fairness, it has been a very thorough affair in my constituency. There have been a huge number of submissions to the Post Office about the changes to services in the 14 communities concerned. The Post Office management have shown willingness—although they were slightly reluctant on one occasion—to come and listen to local people's concerns. We have had public meetings, and about 1,200 people listened to the Post Office's case, as well as the alternative case that some of us put.
The sad reality, however, is that on more than one occasion the tone from the Post Office has been that it is a done deal and there is little opportunity to influence the course of events. That perception was not helped when the Post Office seemed to prejudge the outcome of the consultation. To give just one small example, the post office in Talybont, which is threatened with closure, had its parcel collection scheme removed because of the uncertainty about the post office's future. That may seem very small in the big picture, but it is a big issue for the community's small businesses.
We have used the opportunity of the consultation to clarify many of the Post Office's misconceptions about the reality on the ground. I still question how thoroughly the Post Office consultation team drew up its proposals, because they ranged from completely inappropriate locations for proposed mobile services—sometimes in very unsafe locations—to discussion of public transport services that simply did not exist or whose operating times did not tally with the opening hours of the recommended alternative branches. As other hon. Members have suggested, the proposals also referred to alternative branches that could, ironically, never cope with the increased custom, even if people were in a position to move from branch to branch.
Has the hon. Gentleman had any help from Postwatch in Ceredigion? Will he comment on what is happening with Postwatch? How will it be affected if it goes into a consumer council?
I worry about Postwatch, and the hon. Lady is right to mention it. Postwatch's role in the process has been minimal, and I am very concerned about it. In some instances, Postwatch did not even come to our large consultation meetings, which is a real worry. In their many submissions, my constituents were quite wise to that fact.
We cannot overstate the significance of practical issues such as access to services and the lack of public transport. I represent a large county with 147 villages and hamlets, where rurality really does mean something. Ceredigion has 7,000 small businesses, which is more than any other constituency in the United Kingdom, let alone Wales. We are talking, therefore, not only about business opportunities for the person who undertakes the mobile van service, but about the great inconvenience to a large number of our small businesses, which are the backbone of the rural economy, and to the farming community. Another threatened post office, in the community of Pontsian, serves a large ward and 64 farming families. Again, small businesses will not easily be able to fit in with the van's limited hours.
I shall cite one more example to highlight the vagaries of public transport. The now infamous village of Llanddewi Brefi—it is a wonderful community—has a post office with an accompanying village shop. It has been asserted that when the van is not there, people will be able to access services in Tregaron—another delightful town in the south of Ceredigion. However, even if people had the good fortune to catch the bus to Tregaron, which is five miles away, they would either have to undertake all their business in 33 minutes flat so that they could catch the bus home, or they would have to wait two hours for the next service—and that is a pretty good service, compared with other public services in my constituency. The alternative would be to hire a taxi for the return journey, which would involve a £12 fare.
Sadly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, we are looking ahead to the next campaign. Like the hon. Member for Clwyd, West I shall reflect on the criteria set out by the Government. We were told at the numerous public meetings that the Post Office was the agent of the Government and of Government decision making, and that the criteria are a Government responsibility. However, there has been a complete lack of recognition of rural deprivation. Ninety-nine per cent. of the total population in deprived urban areas across the UK are to be within one mile of the nearest post office branch, but the same recognition has not been afforded to rural areas.
Ceredigion and the constituency of Hywel Williams fall into the EU convergence funding—formerly objective 1—area for a very good reason. As he said, the National Assembly, through its communities first programme, has also recognised that they are areas of acute rural deprivation. Europe has recognised that, the Welsh Assembly Government have recognised it, but the Westminster Government seem not to recognise it in this instance. There is a widely held perception that the communities of west Wales, which are scattered and isolated, are being left to wither on the vine.
Over and above its initial criteria, the Post Office has said that it would consider the impact on local economies, but I seriously question how much weighting it has given to that critical factor. In many communities in Ceredigion—Talybont, Llanilar, Llangeitho, Llanddewi Brefi and Pontsian—the post office is integrally linked to the village shop: if one goes, the other will go too. I remain very concerned about the future viability of those businesses. I cite again the verdict of the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which I realise the Minister heard yesterday in the debate on post office closures in East Devon. The Committee said that
"there should be a presumption against closing a Post Office where this is the last shop in the village or in a deprived urban area".
We cannot overstate the significance of the post office in rural life. It is the last community social business in those communities. When the village school has gone and the chapel is boarded up the post office is the last thing left. Sometimes I think that we and the Government have been debating completely different cases; the social role of post offices has been neglected.
I know that the Minister is well versed in the many anecdotes that he has been and will be subjected to in past and coming months, but people such as Heulwen Astley, the postmistress in Talybont, and Ann Mayes-Davies in Pontsian, have served their communities very well, and, if given the opportunity, will continue to do so in future. The majority of postmasters and postmistresses I have spoken to in the affected areas are keen to carry on their businesses and do not want to join the exodus that others have talked about. They want their businesses to thrive, and they want support. I should have thought that if the Post Office was sincere about supporting those retail businesses it would at the very least have offered them an outreach facility. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire cited the example of the van parked outside the shop. Pontsian post office near Llandysul is a case in point. If the proposal proceeds, the van will be located outside that shop. What an insult to the years of service that the postmistress has given. Giving her the chance to have the outreach facility in the shop would at least guarantee footfall across the threshold.
I am conscious of the time, so I will be quick, but I want to ask the Minister the extent of his discussions, and the Post Office's, with the National Assembly Government, in the light of the announcement in January of the recommencement next year of the post office development fund, which did good work in its previous life. Another threatened post office in Ceredigion, Devil's Bridge, was one of those that benefited from the development fund. The branch received many accolades from the Post Office itself. Edryd and Jane Jenkins, the owners, have done a huge amount of community work, which has been acknowledged by the Post Office. They pioneered a service there with the Dyfed-Powys police, yet it seems that when the National Assembly starts its work next year, even in the communities first areas that it has defined itself, the post offices will already have gone.
Business has been taken from the Post Office over many years, such as the loss of TV licences. There is a continuing fear about the future of the Post Office card account. I hope that, as other hon. Members have said, notwithstanding the economics of the issue and the work that needs to be done to publicise future post office services and encourage people to use them, the Government will at least acknowledge the essential social role of post offices. The irony is that at a time when the Post Office is being branded "the people's Post Office", in Wales, practically and theoretically, it seems far removed from people's everyday lives.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Williams on bringing this important issue to the fore once again. I ask myself to what end he has done that. To what extent are the Government genuinely willing to listen to the feedback that he, I and so many other Members of Parliament have tried to bring to their attention? Let us recognise that while the Post Office has indeed conducted a consultation its hands have been tied by the political judgment of the Government to go ahead and demand the closure of 2,500 post offices. I understand that in total more than 5,000 post offices have shut since 1997. That is a lamentable record when one considers the value of post offices to the communities that have lost them.
In advance of the comments of Mrs. Gillan for the Conservatives, and in response to the comments of Mr. Jones, we have evidence about what happens when post offices shut. Communities shut down too. They become dormitories for larger local conurbations. Sadly, more than 4,000 post offices were shut under the reign of the Conservatives, so we need not look too far back to see the damage that has been done. I ask the hon. Lady, if she is minded to do so, to tell us what assurances we have that a future Conservative Government would perform any better than the present Government. I judge people on reaction and results, and unfortunately I do not think that the Conservatives performed significantly better at preserving our post office network than the current Government.
Yet still the Conservatives closed post offices. That makes the position even more incongruous than I believed.
The criteria for considering which post offices to shut have been described as numerous, but money is obviously the core consideration. The Government and the Post Office say that they have been required to make a profit and that what is happening is the only way they can do it. Actually, the Government could make a different political judgment instead of dogmatically requiring the closure of post offices; if, rather than taking away the ability of post offices and sub-postmasters to offer facilities, they positively widened that access, we would not be in the mess that we are in. The irony is that television licensing, which was taken away from the Post Office, costs more now than it did under the Post Office.
With an ageing population and high rural house prices the problem is even worse in rural areas such as mine. Several post offices have been and continue to be under threat in my constituency, including those at Llanbrynmair, a small settlement with no convenient local alternative; Carno, a village with the capacity to grow substantially; Trefeglwys, which has a successful shop, and where others, including the community, are interested in taking on the post office facility; Garth Owen, the only other post office in Newtown, which has a population of about 11,000; Sarn, where there is a small outlet of many years' standing; Castle Caereinion, which has a cherished and well used post office under the auspices of Michael Rogers; Berriew, which is an idyllic village with many tourists and a Spar shop that is very keen to take on the facility; and Abermule, perhaps the greatest concern of all, where Pauline and Peter Albrecht have worked their guts out to make their shop successful and their sub-post office an important local service. All those post offices are under threat because of the mandate that has come from the centre.
It is all very well for the Government to adopt the approach of pretending that there is no alternative. If they gave post offices more opportunity to provide wider services, profits would be forthcoming. In addition, the Government seem to be ignoring what is happening in the oil market at the moment. With diesel at £1.30 a litre in my area, my constituents are all too aware of the additional cost of travelling to other post offices in lieu of those that are to be closed. Let us not pretend that what is happening is cheap. If Castle Caereinion post office were to shut it would cost at least £2 to post a letter, taking into account the cost of the fuel to travel to the next nearest post office, at Llanfair Caereinion.
What about the environmental consequences? The Government talk about wanting to be environmentally responsible, yet in the same breath they announce the decimation of rural services, so that people are forced to travel further than ever before for such facilities. The Government also seem to ignore the fact that post offices are not just a business service; they are a social service. Nothing in the accountancy-led decision that has been made seems to reflect the social importance of post office facilities to constituencies such as Montgomeryshire and those of my hon. Friends who are here today.
The strength of feeling can be garnered not just by word of mouth from the population but from the well organised and coherent campaigns that have been run by so many people in the affected communities. I pay tribute to the County Times, which has done more than any other paper in my constituency to highlight the issue and consistently to portray, with a fact-based approach, how important local people consider post offices to be. Furthermore, the paper employs the finest photographer and some of the finest reporters anywhere in the land.
In conclusion, I have some questions for the Minister. Why are the Government unwilling to make a surcharge, so that the private competitors of the Royal Mail have to pay towards the universal service obligation? What is the justification for continuing with the ludicrous access headroom discount, which means that the Post Office has to discount its competitors? Why could that money not be used to cross-subsidise the post office network? We could also look again at the price of stamps. What assurance can the Minister give us that the consultation process, in which all of us have meticulously participated, has the capacity to make any positive difference?
Like many others, I have acted in good faith. I have worked with the Post Office, Postwatch and Ministers to get the Government to think again. Forthcoming announcements will give a clear indication as to whether the Government and the Post Office value the consultation and whether the social value of post offices has been taken into consideration. If there is wholesale closure of rural post offices, they will also tell us that the Government know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Williams on securing this debate. He said that today is a sad day for the people of Wales, as indeed it is, because they have learned that they are going to lose yet more post offices. He spoke about the impact, particularly on his most vulnerable constituents, and the idiocy of closing a post office, losing the shop, and putting a mobile post office immediately outside. That defies common sense. Mr. Jones and my hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and for Brecon and Radnorshire have also discussed whether the access criteria take into account the pressures of rural areas.
I welcome the Minister once again to his usual place. We debate this issue at least once a week—indeed, I have seen him debate it with individual hon. Members much more frequently than that. I am sure that he realises the extent of the anger among hon. Members, including those on the Government side, about the decision to close 2,500 post offices in addition to the 4,000 that closed in previous Government programmes, and the 3,500 post offices that were closed by the Conservatives when they were in power.
There is huge frustration that the Government simply do not recognise the social value of the post office. All hon. Members who have spoken, including my hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion and for Brecon and Radnorshire, have mentioned the frustration of the consultation process. The former spoke about the sense that the proposals were a done deal and that once they were put forward, nothing could be done to fix the problem. Many other hon. Members in previous debates expressed the frustration that my constituents feel, because, even if they managed to save one post office, they would be told by Post Office Ltd that a nearby office would be closed.
Absolutely—it is invidious to expect local people to make such a choice. People will always campaign for their local post office, and they understand that the closure of a post office could have a huge impact on a neighbouring area. Six weeks is not long enough to put together any kind of sensible rescue package. Many communities, perhaps working with the local authority or businesses, want to put together a rescue package to ensure that a post office continues to be viable, but six weeks is not long enough to do that. It is as if we are simply going through the motions. By law, the Government must consult, but they are not terribly interested in what local people think about the impact of closures.
London is a different kind of area—it is urban rather than rural—but we in Brent have just found out that another six post offices are due to close, so I sympathise with the frustration that hon. Members feel. Only 60 per cent. of post offices that were open in 1997 remain. A number of hon. Members spoke about queues. I have seen a change in people's behaviour even before post offices close, and the queues are already unmanageable at neighbouring post offices.
All hon. Members who have spoken mentioned the impact on local shops. That is especially relevant in villages, where the post office might be the only shop, but it is also relevant in urban areas where, often, post offices reside in small parades of shops. If the post office is lost, the shop often goes with it. Because of the lack of footfall to neighbouring shops, the whole parade of shops in the area could be lost.
A post office has an important economic role to play in surrounding areas—Hywel Williams and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion made that point well. A number of reports have attempted to quantify their value. The New Economics Foundation, for example, has said that the cost to an urban area's economy of losing a post office is around £277,000, which impacts on VAT received by the Government. Sometimes, the Government do not benefit greatly from their own cuts. In rural areas, it has been estimated that for every £1 of subsidy, there is something between a £2 and £4 pound benefit to the local economy.
Mobile post offices are simply inadequate to replace an original post office. They will not replace local shops that are lost.
A number of hon. Members spoke about the small amount of money—£45 million—that the Government will save from the process. Given the amount of grief they get and the impact on the rural economy, I am sure that the Minister, sitting in his place yet again, wonders whether it is really worth it and whether, in the long run, it will cost the Government more money. I know that he will hate my raising this, but that sum is in stark contrast to the figures published by Royal Mail that show that Adam Crozier gained more than £3 million in bonuses, benefits and salaries. The Minister has an answer to that point, because he knows that I make it all the time.
I appreciate that my time to speak is coming. I assure the hon. Lady that I do not hate her raising anything—before today's debate, I simply said that our exchanges are sometimes predictable.
Of course, there is a way to fix that: the Government could change their mind, so that we do not have to go through this little game once a week, in which we all have a go at the Minister for closing our local post offices. If he simply changed his mind and stopped closing our post offices, we would not need to go through this little ritual. It is in the Minister's hands, but I shall endeavour to be unique in contributing to these debates. We make some of our points repeatedly, because he does not appear to be able to hear us.
Many hon. Members spoke of the sense that losing the local post office would mean losing everything in the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion has spoken passionately about the many things that his rural area will lose and the fact that the post office is the last thing standing. I assure him that the same is true in urban areas. We have lost police stations, and job and health centres. There is a sense that everything is going and that facilities that offer opportunities for people to deal face to face with one another are being closed.
The Business and Enterprise Committee report raised the spectre of further closures, because the Post Office refuses to state the lower limit on the number of post offices for a viable network. I am especially anxious about that. Only 7,500 post offices are required to meet the Government's access criteria, and the Government simply do not have a long-term plan for the sustainability of the network. The whole point of the closure programme, supposedly, is to drive the footfall into the remaining post offices to make them viable, but that does not stand up, and it has not been demonstrated by experience or any sensible audit of the available evidence. When post offices close, people tend to change their behaviour and stop using post offices, because it is more difficult to get to them—people might have to drive or take several buses, as my hon. Friends have mentioned, so it becomes impossible.
In my remaining minutes, I shall suggest what the Government might do. I hope that they will consider separating the Post Office from Royal Mail, which would give the Post Office an opportunity to work with competitors. There are many possibilities for post offices to work as parcel depots, for instance, where people can pick up parcels delivered not just by Royal Mail but by its competitors. That might improve the network's financial viability.
We need a dramatic increase in investment, including a lump sum, to allow the network to modernise so that it can compete on the high street. In particular, the Crown post office network is haemorrhaging money and urgently needs modernisation. Post offices desperately need a source of revenue. There is uncertainty about the Post Office card account, but I hope that the Government will consider making the Post Office the cornerstone of a new universal service obligation to provide bank accounts, either through the Post Office or by working collaboratively with banks. There are many opportunities that the Government could take to ensure that the post office network is viable, but I suspect that they will not take them and that we will simply hear again, "The Government have to do this in order to save money." That would be a shame.
I, too, congratulate all hon. Members who have participated in this debate. I also welcome the Minister to his place. This debate is a little desperate—indeed, the Minister looks a little desperate himself, if he does not mind my saying so. He had the sympathy of my hon. Friend Mr. Jones, and he has mine as well, because I know that he will have heard much of this before. However, whereas I am temporarily deaf in my left ear and hope to recover in due course, the Minister and the Labour Government appear to be permanently deaf on the matter of post offices. No matter how many representations are made or debates are held, or how many times we try to repeat the will of the people to this Government, they insist on blanking the wishes of the people in our communities, not least in Wales.
I suppose that I ought to declare an interest. My husband, when he was a senior official in the Department of Trade and Industry, was responsible for the Post Office—indeed, it was under him that it made a profit—and my sister-in-law was a sub-postmistress. I am not unfamiliar with what went on in post offices. Although the Liberal Democrats like to complain about the number of post offices closed under the Conservatives, I assure them that it pales into insignificance when we study the record of this Labour Government, who are closing post offices faster than any other Government in history at a rate of almost 10 a week since 1997. With the announcement about the 2,500 post offices, the network will continue to be decimated. By the time of the next election, we estimate that a third of the entire post office network will have been closed down.
No, I do not have enough time. Sarah Teather almost ate into my time.
The Government's target for closures arbitrary, illogical and does not take into account whether a post office marked for closure is profitable. As Mr. Williams has said, communities will be pitted against each other, not least because of the dog-eat-dog closure programme under which, if one community campaigns successfully against a closure, a neighbouring branch will be shut down.
I hope that the Minister will address the anomaly in the announcement and its timetabling, because it is appalling that there are doubts about how such announcements are made. For example, I was delighted to learn that the Tremont road post office in Llandrindod Wells will not close, and that Margaret Hodges, the postmistress, will continue to serve the community there, but that is in contrast with Ridgebourne, run by Mr. and Mrs. Yeo, whose fate is yet unknown. The salvation of the neighbouring post office puts the Yeos under more pressure.
Hon. Members' points about the vulnerable in our society such as the elderly and disabled who will be disadvantaged by the closures were all validly made, but I have another point to add. In my travels around post offices in Wales, I came across one post office that is located down the road from a women's refuge. The women there visit the post office regularly. It is one of the safest routes that they can walk. It is an outlet and allows them regular contact with people in the community. Some of those women are the most abused in our society. Removing their local post office will remove a facility that is very valuable to them, and they will have a great deal of difficulty making their voices heard. When I was in Penarth with some disabled post office users, I was alarmed to hear what would happen to their quality of life. At the moment, they can travel down the road to collect their post and carry out their own business at the post office, which would be denied them if that post office were to close. There is fear and anxiety. It is obvious that the Government have no long-term vision for the post office network.
On a point of order, Mr. Atkinson. We all gave way. I had seven minutes, and the hon. Lady insisted on intervening. I know that I cannot force her to give way, but it seems the height of disrespect for her not to give way at least once.
Thank you, Mr. Atkinson.
We certainly recognise the fantastic service provided by postmasters and sub-postmasters in local communities, which came through in some hon. Members' contributions. However, what I did not hear from any of the Liberal Democrat Members or the Plaid Cymru Member was a concerted plan for post office action.
As the Minister knows, in response to increasing fears about significant post office closures, the Conservatives published a post office action plan last year. For the sake of symmetry, I shall repeat it, which will give the Minister an opportunity in responding to update me on the Government's views. First, on freeing up sub-postmasters, we would certainly allow sub-postmasters to provide a greater range of products and services, including private mail services. The network's long-term future will be best secured if the post office is opened up to new markets and new customers. We want to use post offices as a sort of government GP surgery. We could investigate a scheme in which people with concerns involving a range of government services could use their local post office as a kind of government GP.
"reinstate and refocus the Post Office Development Fund".
Will he confirm whether that has happened? Also, what has been happening as far as the small business rate relief scheme is concerned for post offices in Wales?
We campaigned on the Post Office card account. We called repeatedly for the Government to review the decision to abolish the POCA, and we were delighted that they responded to our arguments and changed their mind, but we also propose to encourage council counters, which would encourage local councils to see what services they could provide through their post offices and whether they could use the post office network in their area to engage better with local residents.
Services should be more widely available in the community. Indeed, one of the post offices I visited, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, was providing fishing licences for a father and son. That was an excellent additional service. When I visited Pendre, I spoke to Jay Vakil, and in Llanfaes I met Karen Weale with our excellent candidate for Brecon and Radnorshire, Suzy Davies, who has been doing a tremendous amount of work on the issue. She started many of the petitions in the area. I became aware of the pressure from the community to keep those post offices open, as I said when Lembit Öpik so kindly let me intervene.
The post office closures have worrying implications for Wales. Will the Minister comment on the New Economics Foundation study showing that when post offices close in a community, it has an impact on the local economy, and that a single post office closure could result in the loss of £270,000 to that local economy? The foundation also worked out that every £10 earned by a post office generates £16.20 in income in the local economy. He will know that our economy in Wales is fragile, to say the least, in rural areas. What work has he done on that effect of the closures that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has brought to our attention?
Despite all the protests by Members of Parliament and members of the community, the Government appear not to have responded. I point out to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that no Welsh Labour MPs are present in this debate. When we proposed to halt the closure programme, 22 Welsh Labour MPs voted against our motion; the only one to stick with us was Paul Flynn, on which he should be congratulated. I believe that the Government are doing Wales and the rest of the country a great disservice. They are not listening to the people. I hope that the Minister will not turn out the standard response that he has been turning out in these debates over the past weeks, months and years, and that this time he will really listen to the people of Wales.
As is customary, I begin by congratulating Mr. Williams on securing this debate. As a number of hon. Members have commented, post office closures have been debated a number of times, and in some ways there might not be much new to say. However, he certainly spoke with great passion about his constituency.
Today's debate reminds me in some ways of the one that we had a couple of months ago on post office closures in the highlands and islands, some of the characteristics of which I suspect that mid-Wales shares: it is geographically large and sparsely populated. It has 166 post offices serving about 200,000 people. Of those post offices, 13 are scheduled for closure, which is actually a lower proportion than the average across the country, partly in recognition of some of those characteristics, about which all three of the mid-Wales Members spoke.
The hon. Gentleman made some points about the release of information. The Post Office is trying to inform people, such as MPs and sub-postmasters, before decisions are made public, but there is an element of trust in that. If it did not do that and simply released all of the information on one day without telling anyone, I think that people would complain about a lack of advance information.
I understand. I was saying that the Post Office tries to inform people such as MPs and sub-postmasters before information enters the public domain. Difficulties can result if someone else—we do not know who—releases that information, but I suspect that, if the Post Office were to stop informing such people in advance, the effect would be even worse, because people would simply read about it in the newspapers.
Understandably, hon. Members talk about the strength of feeling about, and opposition to, the closures in their constituencies. No one likes their post office to close, even if they do not use it very much. Hon. Members might object, but quite often I have to point out the reasons for some of the closures and set out some of the challenges that face the Post Office. Over the past hour or so, we have not heard a great deal about that. The Post Office's difficulties are being driven by three significant factors. The first factor is lifestyle change, the biggest example of which is how we receive money. Nowadays, people are used to receiving their salaries directly into their bank accounts, which is reflected as people retire. We might think of the post office as the outlet of choice for almost all pensioners when picking up their pensions, but that is no longer the case. Eight out of 10 have their pensions paid directly into their bank account, and the younger a pensioner is, the more likely that is to be the case—the figure is nine out of 10 among new retirees. That is one example of how things are changing for the Post Office.
The second factor is technology. The past decade has witnessed a complete revolution in the way that people communicate with one another. That technological change has also affected the way that we pay bills and carry out transactions. An example is car tax online, which is a service that did not even exist a year ago. Last year, 500,000 people used it every month, and that figure is now 1 million—1 million people no longer visiting their post offices to tax their cars. What should the Government do about that? Should we deny the availability of that service? I do not believe so. The difficult truth is that, far from being ahead of the curve on technology and the way that people live, I believe that the Government are probably behind it. The public are probably ahead of the politicians. That will inevitably have an impact on the number of people who use the Post Office.
One way in which the Minister could help is by ensuring that post offices can check the insurance of a car being taxed, without the customer bringing the cover note with them. That way there would be a level playing field.
Those who use the online service like the idea that the databases are joined up behind the scenes, but I do not want to be drawn into too much detail on that, because I have very little time.
The third factor is competition. Other networks now provide some services traditionally provided by the Post Office. Reference was made to the television licence, the contract for which was lost to another network, as a result of a decision taken by the BBC, not the Government. That illustrates the environment in which the Post Office is working.
A number of Members made a general point about the Government giving up on rural areas and ignoring the social side of post offices. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Government are in the middle of putting in place support for the post office network of some £1.7 billion in the years running up to 2011, which will enable thousands of post office branches that would otherwise be under threat from the kind of changes that I have talked about—in technology, lifestyle and competition—to stay open. I understand that it is difficult for communities when faced with a post office closure, but it is also important to recognise the size and extent of Government support for the post office network. That £1.7 billion demonstrates that the Government are doing anything but giving up on rural areas and the social side of post offices. Some of the individual post offices mentioned today have fewer than 100 customers a week and some of them have fewer than 50. In those post offices, the subsidy per transaction is between £8 and £17. That is the extent of the support for some rural post offices.
On future business, of course the Post Office card account is out to tender. A decision will be made by the Department for Work and Pensions later this year. Legally, we must put that decision out to tender; we cannot simply give that business to the Post Office. It is in a strong position to bid, but let us see how it turns out. I do not believe that the future can involve turning back the clock on the lifestyle changes about which I spoke. I do not believe that any of us will be collecting our state pension from post offices, but there are new possibilities, one of which involves the provision of identity management information—passports, driving licences and, possibly in the future, identity cards. So when hon. Members say, "Let's give more work to the Post Office," we should point out that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats would even create the possibility for the Post Office to gain access to that line of work. It would have to bid for that work, but it could represent an important line of business, yet every Member who spoke today represents a party that opposes even that possibility. I hope that we can consider that when saying that the Government should give the Post Office more business.