It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I agree with the powerful opening remarks of Marion Fellows and thank her for securing the debate. Other hon. Members have made important points about the significance of post offices for local communities and town centres, which I will focus on.
A tsunami of post offices and post office counters were lost in my constituency after 2011. We then had 10 post office counters—no Crown post office—of which we have lost three in the three years since 2017. The most important served Brentford high street, where the community has doubled in the past 10 years, to roughly 10,000 to 15,000 households.
The post office counter was in a shop in the middle of the town centre, where many buses passed. It served a large population and a large number of small businesses. There was a one-year notice period during which everyone knew that the parade building in which the post office was situated had to be emptied because it was due for redevelopment, so the post office could not remain in the premises. The building has subsequently been demolished. It also happened that the postmaster decided that he did not want to carry on the business, which is an issue in itself.
The good news is that a couple of months from now—18 months after the post office counter closed, during which time we have had no service in the whole of Brentford—we will get a new counter at Costcutter on the high street. We will have had 18 months without a service that many people feel is vital. We could have avoided the gap, because the Post Office, the local authority, I as the MP and the local councillors knew that there was a need to find new premises and probably a new postmaster. The Post Office sought applications, but in the first round there were only two applicants from the many businesses and organisations in Brentford that could have opened a counter. Neither fitted the criteria, so there was another application round. I am not sure whether Costcutter tipped over the bar in that round and was accepted or whether there was a third round.
Why are people not applying for or retaining counters? As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw and other hon. Members have mentioned, it is because the margins are so slim, the pay is too low, the requirements for only a qualified person to cover the post office counter make it restrictive in terms of leave and sickness, the increase in robberies and violence makes retail businesses physically risky, and the Horizon project has damaged the Post Office’s reputation. What is the Post Office doing about that? I understand that it has an element of a public sector duty as a fully Government-owned company that, as we all see, provides essential public services.
In my correspondence and meetings with the Post Office, frankly, I have found it very passive. I have received no coherent response from it or the former Minister—I have not had a chance to speak to the current Minister about it. From the response, it feels as though the Post Office is passive. A Post Office representative told me yesterday that, “If no one applies, what can we do about it?” That is not a proactive response from an important Government-overseen operation.
The Post Office access criteria require
“99% of the UK population to be within three miles of their nearest post office outlet” and
“95% of the total urban population across the UK to be within one mile of their nearest post office outlet”,
but that does not make a lot of sense if the community, or the place that people can get to by bus, does not have a post office. There is a post office just over a mile from Brentford, but people cannot get there by bus and there is nowhere to park anywhere near it, because it is a tiny little shop. We should have one in Brentford town centre. The Post Office should recognise that. I have now been told that the Post Office has realised that Brentford is a priority and should have a main post office, but why did it not think Brentford was a priority two years ago, when we knew that there was going to be an issue?
I ask the Minister and the Post Office to work together to address the public sector duty and deliver a core service in all town centres, which we could define. We could use the PTAL—public transport accessibility level—grading used in planning to define the criteria for the quality of public transport access, parking and so on. We could also look at grants and the transaction costs.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw talked about business declining in the Post Office’s core services, which is true, because many people use services online that they used to go to the post office for, but where is the Post Office looking at new business nationally, such as basic banking and new opportunities? Where is the entrepreneurial spirit to combine the best of private sector entrepreneurialism and new technology with the public sector duty—in a sense, the Government-perceived monopoly for services?