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1 May 2002 : Column 227WH

Sub-Post Offices (Birkenhead)

12.30 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): Obviously, I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the future of sub-post offices in Birkenhead. As the Minister knows, I want to look to the future rather than dwelling in the past. No sub-post offices in urban areas will be saved by looking to the past.

I shall make three comments about how the debate has shaped up in the past to allow us to begin to understand why there is real concern in Birkenhead about the future of our dozen or so sub-post offices. My first comment is about the quality of the Post Office Board in the past. The Government have started to get a grip on that, but I placed it on the record that during the short period when I was the Minister responsible for the benefit card, I was so appalled by the quality of the Post Office Board that I asked officials whether the whole board could be sacked. Sadly, that advice was not followed; consequently, taxpayers are contributing considerable sums and much of our post office network is under threat.

I am pleased to place it on the record that the Government are acting decisively on the quality of the Post Office Board and the business plans that it proposes. The previous business plan was a suicide note for sub-post offices throughout urban areas of the country.

My second point of concern is that prior to the 1997 election, all Labour Members rightly hammered the Tory Government on the rate of closures of sub-post offices. I know that the Government must be enormously worried that the rate of closure is now greater than under that Conservative Administration.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths ) indicated dissent.

Mr. Field : The Minister shakes his head and I am sure that he will come back to me on that. We can put his figures to the Library—it provided me with the data.

My third reason for concern, but also for hope, relates to the Prime Minister's comments during a speech in Croydon prior to last year's election. He tried to establish the idea of liveability for the spaces in which we and our constituents live. I shall cite a paragraph of that speech because it sets the tone of our debate. The Prime Minister said:

The point is that in Birkenhead, as in many of our urban areas, the Prime Minister's objective will not be achievable if there is a further round of massive closures of sub-post offices.

At the end of the debate, it will give me pleasure to present the Minister with a petition signed by 3,000 people who use a sub-post office in the Oxton area of Birkenhead. The petition was organised at almost the drop of a hat by Mary Powell, who is the sub-

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postmistress of that area. My guess is that when I am in Birkenhead tomorrow she will give me another pile of signatures, so strong is local feeling in the town about the potential loss of any of our dozen or so sub-post offices. I hope that the Minister will accept the petition as a sign of the genuine anxiety that our local voters have about the provision of post office services.

That anxiety is also noticeable in the polls. I am grateful to Living Streets for drawing my attention to the flipside of the data. If people are asked, "What are the big issues facing the country?" they talk about the national health service, schools and—perhaps less, because of our success—the economy. However, if they are asked the similar question, "What are the big issues that affect you?" they talk about their local community and what affects it, whether it is safe and the importance of local services. When asked about local services, they cite whether it is easy to get to, or possible to walk to, the local doctor's surgery or library and, above all, whether the post office, which they believe to be a crucial part of a viable living space, is in walking distance.

I hope that an objective of the debate is to push up the Government's agenda the findings from such polls. Although it is important to ask about the big national issues that affect voters, in the age of, sadly, the alienation of voters we need to pay a great deal of attention to what they regard as the big issues that they face locally.

My third point in explaining why sub-post offices are so important to viable local communities is that, just as Governments are, I think, realising that it is not possible to have happy families if the economy does not pay family wages that support a family with children, so it is not possible to have safe and strong communities if the essential services of those communities are ripped out. I do not believe that the Government's entirely genuine commitment to building up strong communities is consistent with what I fear might be the policy of another wave—a significant wave—of the closure of sub-post offices.

This debate looks to the future. In a moment, I shall ask for the Minister's help in looking to the future and making it more secure for our sub-post offices, thereby making our local communities stronger. The debate has centred on Birkenhead but my guess is that we could talk about any of our inner-city areas. What I say about Birkenhead is true of them, too.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on raising the issue of Birkenhead in particular. Does he agree that this is a serious problem for all our urban areas and that all our communities, as represented in the House, are affected by closures? Is he worried about the important role that post offices play in the lives of our pensioners? Is he worried about how the Government are increasingly moving towards making—although they say that there will be a choice—pensioners not use the post office to collect their pension? Does he agree that many pensioners will be extremely worried if they have to deal with a bank?

Mr. Field : Those comments are so relevant to what I want to say that innocent passers-by might even believe that there was collusion between the two of us. My hon. Friend is right to say that it is an issue for pensioners, as

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I shall emphasise in a moment. However, it was noticeable when Mary Powell brought people together to greet me to present the petition for the Minister that not only local businesses, such as the barber, the chemist and the charity shop, but a huge number of mothers were present. I had to comment that, sadly, if the Labour party had called that meeting, very few people would have been there. The sub-post office called the meeting, and the street was full of people who were interested in the issue.

I shall pose two questions to the Minister. First, can he recall whether progress has been made on the introduction of the universal bank? Yesterday, I saw in the press that the person brought into the Post Office to spearhead the introduction of the universal bank was leaving. Is that good or bad news? Secondly, the Government—quite rightly—know that some sub-post offices will have to close; it would be foolish to think that we can keep every one open. However, the network reinvention programme is key to the survival of more, rather than fewer, of those sub-post offices. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister, either in debate or in correspondence, could report progress on that programme.

I ask the Minister for help on four matters. The first touches on an issue raised by my right hon. Friend—I am sorry, my hon. Friend; she should be right hon., and will be soon no doubt—the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). She mentioned the changeover from books to automated credit transfer payments. My worry is that the Department for Work and Pensions will consider the changeover an opportunity to make massive savings in its budget. Pensioners and others who draw their income over the counter in cash may be pushed into using a bank account.

I fear that when the changeover comes people will be asked about their banking arrangements, and that if they wish to continue to draw cash over the post office counter they will have to ask for an interview to explain and justify that choice. Will the Minister give an assurance that those who currently draw cash will be encouraged to continue that practice?

Secondly, will the Minister take up my comments about the fear that the Department for Work and Pensions may try to push people into the banking system when they would prefer arrangements similar to those that they already have? Thirdly—this was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall—will the Government ask the National Audit Office to undertake a study on the real total costs to local communities of closures of sub-post offices? What are the extra costs in fares and in home helps, who have to cover greater distances to post offices to draw money for some of their customers? Who looks after the children when those journeys are being made, and what is the cost of that?

What is the cost to the national health service of people feeling more isolated and depressed and going to the doctor's to get anti-depressants? That clearly relates to the point that my hon. Friend made about post offices playing a social role. People turn up and meet one another, and so become the eyes and ears of the local police force. They help to police an area. Also, where there are viable local sub-post offices there are other

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viable local shops, and where there are such shops there are people shopping, watching and listening. That is the basis for a proper community.

If we remove the sub-post office, we make other businesses vulnerable. We all know the problems caused by vandals when businesses close and shops become derelict. Will the Government consider being the first Government to ask the National Audit Office to do a proper costing of the closure of a sub-post office to a local community?

Fourthly, will the Minister refer this debate to Lord Falconer, who co-ordinates the group on liveability, which the Prime Minister established? Will he also forward a request for the National Audit Office to carry out a proper, comprehensive costing of what losing a sub-post office means to a community?

Those are the points that I wanted to make. While sounding a note of caution, I wanted to look to the future. The dozen or so sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in Birkenhead do not believe that they will secure their futures merely by looking to the past. In looking to the future, however, they recall the clear statements that we made before we were elected in 1997 about the importance of sub-post offices to the viability and life of local communities. In the quarter of an hour that remains, I hope that the Minister will look to the future in a positive way. What he says will be followed closely not only by sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in Birkenhead, but by those elsewhere, who know that his words affect their futures, too.

I am immensely grateful to you, Mr. O'Brien, for allowing me to introduce this debate.

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on securing this debate and on the courteous and coherent way in which he presented his arguments. I believe that his strong support for the post office network and his concerns for its future are shared by the whole House.

My right hon. Friend has taken a particular interest in this subject because of the social role that sub-post offices play in the communities that they serve. As a distinguished former Social Security Minister and an author, he knows better than anyone the issues that affect poorer claimants in deprived communities and the vital need for such people to have local resources such as sub-post offices.

I have just returned from a ministerial visit to the north-west, during which I toured small businesses and came close to my right hon. Friend's constituency. I have been greatly heartened over the past two days to see a revitalised economy and low rates of unemployment. Those developments will allow us to concentrate our energies on areas that have not quite caught up and to which we need to devote resources.

My right hon. Friend made several thoughtful points, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and I shall respond in some detail. I wholly endorse my right hon. Friend's view that we need a viable network of post offices to serve the needs of every community. I applaud his efforts and those of his constituents in collecting 19,000 signatures in support of

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Oxton village post office, and I am sure that such customer loyalty will guarantee its commercial success. I hope that the same is true of other post offices, whose customers are rallying behind them. I also endorse my right hon. Friend's stress on the need to maintain a network of sub-post offices to meet the needs of customers who depend on them for ease of access to their pensions, benefits and many other services.

I agree that post offices provide a focal point for their communities; indeed, the sub-post office network plays a vital role in society. Many of the vulnerable and the elderly rely on the sub-post office to deliver services to them, and it is a convenient place for the community to access Government services, financial products and, of course, postal services. It is much more than just a retail outlet, particularly in rural areas, although it also plays a vital role in urban areas. I should also stress that it is a public service.

Local sub-post offices provide vital human contact for many of their customers, serving 28 million people every week. They are a trusted point of contact with government services and a wide range of other services, and I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in placing on the record our thanks to the dedicated service that sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses perform. As hon. Members know, sub-post offices are a vital part of the social and financial fabric of the country. I know that everyone—Post Office Ltd., sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and post office customers—wants the post office network to survive and, better than that, to thrive in the 21st century.

My right hon. Friend focused on two areas and asked me to consider four other important matters. In particular, he asked about the network urban reinvention programme. This debate is about urban post offices in particular, and I know that my right hon. Friend will share my pleasure that there have been only five net closures in the north-west in the year to March, leaving 1,848 local post offices and sub-post offices delivering an excellent service. Although I do not want to trade figures—and I know that my right hon. Friend will diligently check the figures with the Library—the latest figures for the country as a whole show that his area heads the league tables for the number of post offices retained. That is important, but in the past year the number of closures totalled 262. That is all very regrettable, but in 1991-92, 478 post offices closed, and I was shaking my head because there has been a decline, rather than an acceleration, in closures. We need to take on board my right hon. Friend's comments, as well as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall and other hon. Members, to ensure that post offices have a viable future.

In respect of urban reinvention, in the year 2000 the Cabinet Office carried out a detailed study of the future of the post office network and made 24 recommendations. In the subsequent comprehensive spending review, the Chancellor allocated £270 million to start implementing the key recommendations. That has been the subject of extensive consultation with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. Following that consultation, letters were sent out last month, inviting the views of every urban sub-postmaster and sub-postmistress. Detailed discussions with each one of them are now being held, which will be followed by a public consultation. There will also be detailed public

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consultations on each restructuring proposal. I can confirm to the House that that will involve hon. Members, local authorities, Postwatch, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and other relevant bodies. The objective of Post Office Ltd. for the urban network is clear. It is tasked with establishing better, brighter post offices as viable businesses that deliver adequate returns to sub-postmasters and a full service in their communities. Extensive work is being undertaken to determine how best the urban network should adapt to commercial changes in the marketplace and how funding should be structured to assist in that. In some areas there are up to 10 post offices in a square mile, often located within a few hundred yards of one another. Nationally, some two thirds of the urban population, perhaps some 30 million people, live within half a mile of two or more sub-post offices. I welcome the realistic note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead injected into the debate when he said that it would be foolish to think that we could keep every post office open.

It is important to recognise that the programme on which we are embarking has the full support of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. I am grateful to Colin Baker, its general secretary, for regarding the talk of mass closures as scaremongering and wide of the mark. Regarding his criticisms of those who criticise the industry for being out of date and in decline, I take to heart the advice that my right hon. Friend gave some years ago about the quality of management in the Post Office. However, I am delighted by the quality of the managers whom we have brought in. These include David Mills, who has great plc expertise gained at HSBC, and Alan Leighton, who is one of the most successful retail entrepreneurs ever seen in this country and has the practical background and great leadership qualities that are needed to enable the Post Office to turn the corner.

On universal banking, I welcome the support that my right hon. Friend has given to the general principle of the automation of benefit payments to tackle fraud and reduce unnecessary administrative costs. Some of that money has probably found its way, although not hypothecated, to the good things that have been done for claimants, such as the minimum income guarantee for senior citizens and the rises in child benefit—but we could have a separate debate on that.

Hon. Members do not need to be reminded that the number of people choosing to have their pensions and allowances paid into their bank account has risen from 23 per cent. to 41 per cent. in the seven years since 1994. More than 80 per cent. of recipients have bank accounts. However, we must ensure that the remaining recipients are not penalised because of the measure. That must be taken into account in the move to paying all benefits direct into bank accounts via the existing automated credit transfer system, which is due to start in 2003 and be completed in 2005.

The Department for Work and Pensions' agencies will continue, up to that time, to provide customers with the information that they need on benefit payment options. On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I assure right hon. and hon. Members that there can be no compulsion—no one can be called in to be bullied. That would cause great resentment and would not go unnoticed in the House.

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The Post Office Ltd. is rightly seeking to extend its existing network banking arrangements to more high street banks and to offer a wider range of services to customers. I hope that that will allow as many people as wish to to take advantage of that, and that the transitional and other arrangements will be adequate. I am happy to write to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead if he would like more detail on that, but time is too short to cover it in more detail now.

My right hon. Friend also asked about the possibility of the National Audit Office's undertaking a study of the impact of closures on local communities. As a recently discharged member of the Public Accounts Committee, I support and endorse the excellent work done at the National Audit Office by Sir John Bourn and his team. He is always keen to receive the views of right hon. and hon. Members on possible future National Audit Office investigations and I know that he will pay close attention to any representations from such a distinguished, honourable colleague.

However, my right hon. Friend will know that Sir John acts independently of Ministers. He does not take instruction from us about topics that may be suitable for further investigation, but he is always willing to give the closest consideration to suggestions such as those made by my right hon. Friend.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for drawing Members' attention to the Prime Minister's excellent speech in Croydon. The Prime Minister spoke for us all when he stressed the need for stronger local communities and an improved local quality of life. My right hon. Friend quoted line 6 of that speech. I shall quote line 18:

Perhaps we can add post offices to that list.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), reported the most recent developments to the House last week. I shall ensure that she and Lord Falconer are aware of the views expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. I commend him again for raising this important subject, which is of interest to every hon. Member.

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