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Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I am sorry to have to speak in the debate, but although all rural Members are used to the occasional pub or filling station closure in their constituency, the closure of local sub-post offices in villages in my constituency happens too often. On 27 March, the post office at Bryanston, just outside Blandford, closed. On 12 April, I received a letter headed "'an essential part of everyday life' www.postoffice.co.uk" which read:
Winterborne Whitechurch Post Office Branch . . .
We wrote in August 2000, advising of the temporary closure of the Post Office branch . . . At that time, we were unable to identify a suitable candidate or premises".
So far I have mentioned just three post offices, but the list is not complete. During the last five years, my constituency has lost post offices at Tarrant Gunville; Pimperne, where it has fortunately re-opened; Weston; Lydlinch; and Hazelbury Bryan, where I am also pleased to say that a year ago I was invited to cut the tape as we re-opened the post office. However, the net loss of village post offices is symptomatic of an underlying problem. The village postmasters are under pressure. Forgive me if the evidence is anecdotal; it is none the less valuable. Several village postmasters have told me that village businesses no longer buy stamps from them because they are being offered stamps at a discount direct from the Post Office.
Car tax is a matter for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, not for the Post Office or the DTI, but in the interest of joined-up government, surely it would be good news for village post offices if the Government could give
The key threat, which has already been mentioned, is the changeover in the benefits business. Nothing in the Minister's opening remarks convinced me that the Government are sensitive to the threat that that poses for village sub-post offices. What I heard sounded like an urban agenda. Few of my rural constituents live within half a mile of a post office, which I think was the phrase that he used. The village post office is a key part of the social fabric of the countryside and the strategy for transferring the benefits business is confused for the sub-postmasters involved and for the public whose benefits will be involved.
The result will be the closure of more vital village post offices. Too often have I received letters from the Post Office informing me of the closure of yet another post office and giving alternatives up to five miles away. Post office facilities affect the elderly and their closure is a disaster for the many in those villages who have no public transport and is usually soon followed by the closure of the village shop. It is devastating for the social fabric of our villages. I believe that the Post Office and the Government are indifferent to that and I pray that the Government will wake up to the damage that they are doing to rural Britain.
Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): The Minister will be aware that on many occasions I have raised with him problems with sub-post offices in my constituency and the postal services. He and many hon. Members present today will be aware that I have certainly not been slow to raise with Ministers, publicly and privately, concerns that have affected my constituency. Hon. Members speak up for local interests and try to resolve local difficulties as well as possible. But the difference between the approach that I and many of my hon. Friends try to adopt and that taken by some Opposition Members today is that, as well as trying to address some of the local problems and issues, we recognise that there have to be fundamental changes to the post office network and to postal services. Changes are taking place in the marketplace, in technology and in demand that cannot be simply wished away.
I listened closely to the carefully crafted opening remarks of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and read the Liberal Democrat motion, but at the end of the day I saw no real recognition that there are fundamental problems and changes that need to be addressed. Their approach today has been very much along the lines that something must be done and radical steps must be taken, but they are not sure what they are and there must not be any changes.
Mr. Allan: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, in the context of local campaigning, I have yet to see a single copy of Labour's "The Rose" or the Conservatives' "In Touch" saying, "We are happy with the post office closure." I think that we should accept that we are talking about the big issues of the future of the Post Office in our motion and that any local party of whatever persuasion is bound to campaign against post office closure. It is unrealistic to think otherwise.
Mr. Lazarowicz: I am touched by that refreshing honesty. In my constituency, I have a problem where two sub-post offices in one area are closing and I have done my best to campaign, with the assistance of the Minister, for the retention of those postal services. I accept that the best solution may be one post office in place of two, so we do not all take the hon. Gentleman's approach.
Mr. Waterson: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen the Liberal Democrat campaign document that advises candidates to "act shamelessly", "be wicked" and "Don't be afraid to exaggerate". It concludes with advice relevant to the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, saying:
A dose of reality is required when we discuss sub-post offices and postal delivery services. Of course, all hon. Members support the universal service obligation; the Government and every hon. Member who has spoken support it. The universal postal delivery service must remain. Along with many hon. Members, I have signed a number of early-day motions strongly criticising the Postcomm proposals, as I do again today. At the same time, we must recognise that times have changed since the postal service was the only way in which communitiesremote ones in particularcould stay in touch with the rest of the world.
Of course, the postal service still plays a vital role in communities throughout the country. We should be proud that, through the postal service, somebody in the Isles of Scilly can be in contact with somebody in Lerwickor Leir-vik, as I believe we are meant to call itjust as easily and at the same price as somebody here in Westminster can communicate with somebody in the City of London a mile down the road. However, it is one thing to say that we should provide a cross-subsidy to enable people throughout the country and especially in remote areas to enjoy the same postal service as everyone else and allow them to stay part of the community and to stay in touch with friends and relatives, but quite another to say that we should give the same large cross-subsidy to enable direct mail marketing companies to send the same junk mail to everyone in the countrythe sort of rubbish that finds its way into the bin whether it is delivered in Thurso or Truro, Edinburgh or London.
That is the reality of the changing way in which the postal service is used. There are no easy solutions. I am not calling for the abolition of the universal post; far from itI want it to be retained. However, we must recognise changes in the marketplace and in the role that the postal service plays in our society.
The way forward is not to stay stuck in the past, but to rebuild a post office network to take account of changing needs, technologies and opportunities. The "your guide" initiative is an excellent scheme; like many hon. Members, I saw the display in Portcullis House. There are many opportunities to develop that system, perhaps by involving local government and other services that can be provided for communities.
The Liberal Democrats' approach seems basically one of managed decline of the sub-post office network. They do not have the same grounding in reality as the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. We are all concerned about change in our areas and communities, and all of us will speak up for the interests of our communities whenever they are threatened, but I recognise that fundamental change is necessary. I welcome the fact that the Government are taking that need seriously and putting in £270 million to back up what they say with actions.