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8.17 pm

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): I welcome the Bill, which gives us for the first time a framework for postal services in the United Kingdom.

I should like to start by praising the staff who look after all the sub-post offices in Putney. I would particularly draw attention to the Danebury avenue sub-post office in Roehampton, and congratulate the work of Mrs. Valerie Cooper and Mrs. Linda Doran there. It is in a shopping centre which 10 years ago had five banks. Three years ago it had none. One of the reasons why I welcome the proposals for payment of benefits through bank accounts and the introduction of banking services through post offices is that areas like Roehampton, which has some 12,000 people living in it, will at last regain access to mainstream banking.

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It is important to recognise the great advantages to many who are socially excluded because they cannot have contact with banks. There are great benefits if they have bank accounts: they can enjoy discounts for direct debits and can negotiate cheaper loans and overdrafts than would be available through other sources. There are many positive elements.

It is very important to pick up what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in opening, which is that we must ensure that where sub-post offices are undermined by the movement to payment of benefits through bank accounts, a subsidy should be available to them. The problem is not simply in rural post offices. It applies in all areas where the banks have moved out.

Having praised the sub-post offices, I move on to talk about the bane of my life, which is the postal delivery service in Putney. There are three key issues in Putney. One is the local health economy. The second is aircraft noise. But the one that produces by far the greatest postbag relates to the postal service, which over the last two and a half years has got worse. I first raised the matter in the House on 7 December 1998, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, announced his proposals for opening up the possibilities for the Post Office to move into the wider remit afforded by the Bill. However, the various assurances that I have had following various meetings have come to naught.

Before the debate, I asked the Clerks whether I could spend the remaining seven minutes of my speech reading out letters of complaint about postal services in Putney. I was told that that would not be possible; but I must make it clear that I could fill one hundred times ten minutes with such complaints, which have become more and more vociferous. In Putney, Christmas cards have been delivered only in the past two weeks. The situation is beyond a joke, and has been so for quite a long time.

Giros sent by the Department of Social Security on 10 December arrived on 5 January. Bills from credit and charge companies arrive late, and customers incur late-payment penalties. Local vicars receive written confirmation of funerals the day after they have been conducted. Apparently, until November most complaints in one area concerned the fact that there was only one delivery--and that arrived at 11 am or later. This month, there had been a further deterioration. In many streets, there was no delivery at all on one or two days of the week.

This information comes from Judith Chegwidden, of the Putney Society, who adds that the pattern in her own street this week is a common experience for many other residents. She says that on Thursday the post arrived after 3 pm, and that that was the only delivery of the day. Most of the mail had taken at least 48 hours to be delivered. There was no delivery on Friday, and on the Saturday morning, at about 8.30 am, a man who was clearly a stranger to the area, with no uniform, was seen struggling along with an overflowing trolley.

Mrs. Chegwidden further informs me that a delivery was received, followed by a period during which residents redelivered items that had not reached their correct target. I do not agree with the comment that followed, but it is important to establish the strength of feeling in Putney. That comment was:

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Businesses in Putney are suffering too. KWP Media says:

    "We are getting to a situation where no deliveries were made during the middle of January."

Apparently, a neighbour knocked on the door two weeks ago and reported a huge delivery of between 5 and 7 kg, which

    "included all the papers we were missing as a business"--

cheques, statements, invoices, and a reminder from the Inland Revenue sent in the middle of December to mind the deadline for a partnership tax declaration; worst of all, there was a VAT demand posted by Customs and Excise around 10 December, with a deadline of 31 January, which arrived in February.

That is not acceptable. It is clear that the management of the Putney postal sorting office is appalling. I have had apologies from John Roberts, chief executive of the Post Office, who has said that he is dealing with it. Indeed, I have had three such apologies, and I want to ensure that the matter is brought to the attention of the House. I have asked the Post Office to ensure that compensation is available to those who have suffered as a result of the present ludicrous state of affairs. That is currently being dealt with by the chief executive, and I look forward to hearing from him.

During their 18 years in office, the Tories did nothing to ensure that there was a universal service obligation, or any basis for compensation; and there was no accountability. The Bill provides for an independent regulator with a postal services commission. That establishes a basis for the setting of quality standards, for investigation and for the imposing of mandatory penalties for breach of licence conditions. I am disappointed to note that there is no mention in the Bill of compensation to consumers for the concerns of my constituents in Putney. I hope that the Minister will explain how individual consumers and businesses will be able to secure compensation if the universal service obligation is broken, as it has been so flagrantly in Putney over the past two years.

POUNC will now have beefed-up responsibilities under its new name of the Consumer Council for Postal Services. I look forward to the establishment of a committee for London with teeth, which will be able to "get in amongst" the management of the Putney sorting office to ensure that the matter is dealt with. Let me also say in passing that I support the POUNC proposal to refer to the Secretary of State the increases of up to 10 per cent. in Royal Mail charges that have been introduced this week.

I am not pleased to draw to the House's attention the lamentable performance of the postal services in Putney. I am extremely worried about the fact that the management seem continually to blame the trade unions. This has gone on far too long. The Bill gives power to the Secretary of State, the regulator and the users' council, at last, to take action.

8.26 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): My credentials for a contribution to a debate on the Post Office are good. About four years ago, there was an Adjournment debate on the future of the Post Office. It was one of those debates that take place when the business of the House finishes early: rather than continuing for the usual half an hour, it continued for some time, and I spoke in it.

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The major difference between four years ago and now is that those who sit on the Government Benches now were sitting on our Benches then, and accusing us of doing exactly what they are trying to do in regard to part of the Bill today. We were accused of ensuring that people's benefits were paid through their bank accounts, and it was said that that would be the death knell for post offices throughout the country. I remember the debate as clearly as though it was yesterday; it seems that a lot can happen in four years.

I represent a rural constituency, containing 30 or so villages. It is very similar to the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), whom I congratulate on his maiden speech. He said he felt that he was one of the greenest Members in the House. He is not sitting on his Bench, so I think he has learned a lot in a short space of time. Anyway, I think I, in my rural constituency, face problems similar to those that he faces in his.

The Secretary of State said that he wanted a world-class Post Office. We all want a world-class Post Office, but we will not have one if many of the branches that we enjoy in villages and small towns are closed. The "world-class" Post Office will be available to a much smaller group of people.

The Post Office is vital. Like many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I have visited many post offices, particularly as I knew that the Second Reading debate was coming up. I have spoken to many postmasters and postmistresses. I have also spoken to customers of those post offices.

I run a small retail business in Swansea. I know how tight some of the margins on which we operate are. A number of small businesses have gone under, irrespective of the fact they do not have post offices in the shop; so there is a lot of pressure on small businesses generally anyway, with whole businesses going under.

If we visit post offices--the small rural businesses--and look at some of the other items that they sell, we realise that the service that they offer is vital; that is particularly true of small rural villages. It struck me that, if those businesses close, or if a major proportion of the local post office disappears, there will be problems. One postmaster told me that, if he lost much of the business from the post office, it would not be worth his while being there.

Many such people open their premises early in the morning and close late at night. The post office is important to them because it acts as a magnet for customers coming in and buying other items. If a big chunk of their business disappears, they will think that it is not worth their while being there in the first place. It will not be profitable for them. It will not be profitable for them to sell the other items because, on their own, they will not make enough money. Those places will close.

One postmaster told me about another aspect: what will happen if the footfall factor decreases. When customers walk into a post office, present their giro or benefit book and receive the cash there and then, they spend some of that money immediately in the post office. They could spend some of it to pay their electricity bill, gas bill or bill for another utility. The post office receives some money as a commission on that service.

Those people may also spend some of their money--they have cash in their hand and happen to be there--on some of the other items that the post office sells. It could

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be greetings cards, detergents, or a number of other items. Some post offices in our constituencies are small businesses. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) said, they are privately owned businesses. They are there to make a profit. Their customers will buy one or two other items.

If the money is paid direct into people's bank accounts and it is no longer necessary for them to go into the post office once a week, we will find--it is the fear of the postmaster--that they will pay their electricity bill through the post. They will look for other ways to pay their other utility bills. The footfall in the post office will disappear, in other words.

That will threaten not only the post office. Some villages contain two or three shops: a butcher's that is already under pressure, and perhaps one other small shop--a grocer or newsagent. Because the footfall has disappeared from the post office, it will disappear from other small shops in the village. All of a sudden, not just the post office, but a number of other smaller enterprises and shops in the village are threatened. That is why I ask the Government to think again about these proposals.

We are told by the Secretary of State not to worry--3,000 post offices will have cash machines. Can the Minister for Competitiveness guarantee that post offices in West Bradford, Chatburn, Chipping, Bolton- by-Bowland, Slaidburn and Downham--all relatively small villages--will get cash machines? I doubt it. Only 3,000 post offices out of 18,700 will get the cash machines. It will all be done, I assure the Minister, on a commercial basis.

Since the Government came to power, 486 post offices have already disappeared. With the threat of what is ill thought out legislation--its ramifications have not been properly thought through--other post offices will close, too.

This does not mean that I do not believe in, as the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) called it, taking the Post Office into the 21st century and having to commercialise. That is absolutely right. [Interruption.] I hope that we shall consider various ways of ensuring that post offices are able to survive.

What other banking facilities are post offices able to provide? In my short time as the Member for Ribble Valley, I--like the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman)--have seen banks close in my villages. Perhaps the closures are one avenue that post offices might explore in seeking extra business. The national lottery provides another possibility for more business, although smaller rural post offices may not be able commercially to sustain a lottery machine. Nevertheless--my goodness me--the lottery is supposed to be about good causes, and the survival of post offices in rural villages is a very good cause. I should hope that we will consider that possibility to support our post offices.

E-commerce and e-mail are another possibility. In some smaller villages, an internet cafe would not be sustainable, and small rural post offices could perhaps provide internet services. I ask Ministers to consider that possibility too.

Ministers should also take on board the fact that the Bill's provisions could threaten the viability of selling post offices. [Interruption.] Many small, privately owned

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post offices were bought by people who had other careers, took early retirement and invested in a post office, as a nest egg for when they retire for good--[Interruption.] The Government, in their ill thought through legislation, are putting at risk the nest egg of many people who have put money aside, but will not be able to sell their post office.

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