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11 Dec 2002 : Column 133WH—continued

Chesham Bois Post Office

1.30 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): Thank you for your generous welcome to this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I welcome the Minister to her place, but I must put on record my disappointment that her colleague, the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, who handles these matters, is unable to be here to reply, although I am sure that the hon. Lady will give as generous a reply as she can in the circumstances.

Last Friday lunchtime, more than 150 ordinary people left the comfort of their homes to stand in the pouring rain to protest about the closing of a precious asset in their community—their post office. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity to give them a voice in Parliament and to give the Minister the opportunity to show that she cares about our community and to lend her weight to keep this valuable facility open.

The first post office in Chesham Bois was established in Percy Carter's cottage around 1905 and has been there ever since, providing not only post office services but a coffee shop, a meeting place, a shop, banking services and a vibrant centre of our village. It provides employment for Heather, Sheila, Olwyn, Yvonne and Denise during the week and the Saturday crew, Kat and Alice, as well as Tom, who goes there after school three days a week. Pauline, Betty and Ann make the cakes and Maggie runs the shop superbly. Many local businesses use the post office's facilities and many of our pensioners and families carry out their personal financial transactions at the shop and use it regularly. People also come from other villages as far away as Coleshill and the shop has attracted a petition of more than 500 signatures from people who want to keep it open as an operating post office.

County councillor Pauline Wilkinson, district councillor Mimi Harker—no less than the chairman of Chiltern district council—councillor Ian Gomm and the redoubtable parish council, led by Ernest Newhouse and the clerk, June Gosling, have all been fighting to keep the post office open. I pay tribute to them for all their hard work and indefatigable efforts.

All our local media have backed us. The Bucks Examiner ran a save-our-post-office campaign, the Bucks Free Press gave us front-page coverage and, as you rightly said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, even The Sunday Telegraph featured our campaign at the weekend.

I have asked questions in Parliament. I have presented a petition. I have even successfully invited a member of the Post Office board to visit us and meet us on site to see how successful the shop is in providing services to the community. Does that count? Apparently not. Not one person wants the post office to close and hundreds want it to remain open, but Post Office headquarters has decided that it must close and our wishes count for nothing. Indeed, yesterday I received the branch closure letter from the Post Office. However, we are not giving up. I am calling on the Minister today to take action to reprieve that village post office and I hope that I can convince her that it is worth saving.

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I shall examine several issues: the classification of the post office as an urban post office, the code of practice under which it is being closed, the alternative post offices available to the community, the commercial viability of the branch and the potential for judicial review.

So-called urban post offices are subject to and targets for closure at the moment. In Chesham and Amersham, 15 branches are classified as urban, so if Chesham Bois post office goes, I stand to lose at least four more. Of the country's 9,000 urban post offices, 3,000 are under threat of closure. It is not only people in Chesham Bois who will suffer, but worried people up and down the country.

Chesham Bois is not urban, it is rural: it thinks it is a village, behaves like a village and would be eligible for help under certain rural schemes, such as the vital villages plan. I appreciate that the Post Office has adopted a certain classification, but why can that classification not be wiped out and replaced? The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, who is away at the moment, made much of an announcement of help for rural post offices and of the attempts to keep them open. Why cannot such support be extended to the post office in Chesham Bois, which has been placed in a certain category as a result of an accident of classification?

I thought that the Minister's Department ordered the Post Office not to close branches unless it was absolutely unavoidable. Surely it is avoidable in this case. Chesham Bois is an area of about 3,000 people. The post office could easily be reclassified as rural to reflect the reality of the situation and then it would qualify for help, not extinction.

From the outset, the parish council has felt that the classification of the post office as urban is a key issue. The Post Office has said that it is bound by Government guidelines when making a definition. The parish council has not had the advantage of seeing those guidelines, but from every other perspective, Chesham Bois exactly matches the categories that the Secretary of State described a week ago on Monday. The Secretary of State believes that post offices play a vital role in many rural communities and thinks that the money from the rural help programme will ensure that village post offices remain firmly at the heart of the community. Well, Chesham Bois is a community and the post office is at its heart.

The work that the parish council is doing on village revitalisation and appraisal, the views of Chiltern district council and the support that Chesham Bois is getting from Buckinghamshire Community Action point to the rural nature of the community. The Countryside Agency cannot give us a definition of urban and rural. Chesham Bois could be rural. Let us give Chesham Bois the benefit of the doubt and save the post office.

I am grateful to Alison Naisby—and to the hundreds of other constituents who have written to me—for her analysis of the code of practice, under which the proposed changes to branches are to be handled. Section B of the code of practice, which deals with the closure of a post office branch, states:

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Neither of those things apply in any way to Chesham Bois. First, there is a volume of evidence from the community that the branch is needed. Hundreds of residents have expressed their views to the Post Office or have signed petitions or attended protests. More than 300 small businesses use the branch and they have made personal representations of dismay to me at the removal of this local facility.

The premises are eminently suitable for a post office. Indeed, they have served the community for many years. There is a suitable applicant to run the premises in the shape of Maggie—Margaret Joyce—who offered herself for the position this January. She is partly trained and ready and willing for the final stage of training, but she has not had her application acknowledged and was told that the Post Office was not taking on any more applicants for training courses, which is patently not correct.

The code continues that when there is a proposal to close a branch, the people concerned need to consider

the "trading hours" of those branches, their convenience, including

and whether the surrounding area is hilly or flat.

I have a lot of concerns in relation to that part of the code. The closure letter that I received from the Post Office acknowledged that there were a number of concerns about the availability of public transport and car parking facilities. The letter states:

I presume that the network team are young and fit and think nothing of hopping on and off a bus, waiting for half an hour, or having to walk half a mile. The residents of Chesham Bois, however, are ladies with children and people in wheelchairs. Some people with white sticks, who do not see quite as well as the Minister or me, turned out for that picture for The Sunday Telegraph. There were also some senior citizens.

There are no parking facilities near Amersham post office. It is positioned in a particularly dangerous place at a very busy junction. On foot, I will concede that one could get to Amersham or Amersham Common post office on quite a flat path, but to get to Waterside, Chesham involves a very steep hill. Those routes are not easily travelled by people not quite as agile as the network team.

I should also like to know what consideration has been given to disabled access and disability discrimination legislation. It strikes me that Chesham Bois post office is perfectly placed because one can park immediately outside. Access to the so-called alternative post offices is not so convenient. I believe that two of them do not come up to the standards required by disability discrimination legislation. Can the Minister comment on that? Members of my community will be disfranchised from using their post office if the closure goes ahead.

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The commercial viability of Chesham Bois post office is also a key factor in determining the future of the branch. The Post Office has always concealed that aspect from us under the guise of commercial confidentiality. The closure letter from Drew McBride tells me that

I cannot believe that this sub-post office is not viable. If it is not, why has the Post Office already invested in the electronic keypad to enable people to draw their pensions and benefits when the change to bank accounts finally happens? This branch has had some major disruptions recently. There was resurfacing of the pavement outside the shops and post office in Bois lane, then installation of gas pipes by Transco and subsequent road resurfacing. Both involved reducing the road to one lane, traffic lights right outside the premises and a total loss of the front parking spaces. That has now finished and everyone can, and does, use the branch freely again.

At the last demonstration, I spoke to someone who had just opened an account for her business for which she could use the post office, specifically because of the proximity of that branch and the ease of access for her. Under the quaintly titled "reinvention" of the post office network, the Post Office claims that the closure will save other post offices—which, I might add, will also be under threat of closure—by transferring business there.

I read the Subpostmaster magazine and I saw in it a letter from a sub-postmaster, Mr. Spinks. It completely knocks the claims on the head, saying:

He writes that his office is a

What is certain, so far as commercial viability is concerned, is that if this post office closes on 29 January there will be not only an effect on that shop but a disastrous effect on the other businesses in the parade. Their future should be on the conscience of everyone forcing this closure on our community.

Quite where the cost savings will come from, I do not know. Amersham post office, offered as an alternative to this post office, has been consistently undermanned. Vacancies have been advertised, two as recently as October. If another counter clerk is required, how will that help the balance of payments in the Post Office? It is only right that the Post Office should now reveal the exact financial position of the branch and the savings it expects to make, and give the community a chance to help if the figures do not add up. The parish council wanted to know if it could make a contribution to keep

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the branch open, but that was dismissed out of hand in the branch closure letter. I think that the Post Office should at least sit down with the parish council and explore what could be done and how they could work together to save the branch.

The village of Chesham Bois is now looking at the possibility of judicial review. Perhaps the Minister can advise me on that. The Post Office has already tried to put me off judicial review and has included a long and complicated paragraph in its letter telling me why the closure of the branch is not subject to it. If that is the case, can the Minister tell me how can we obtain justice for our post office? What process of appeal is there? How can the voices of my community be heard?

To summarise, the Chesham Bois post office is a much-used, much-needed and much-appreciated asset in the village. The enormous depth of feeling among the community has been expressed through marches, petitions, newspaper campaigns and even a demonstration at the Royal Mail area headquarters. The post office provides employment, and the heart will be ripped out of this Chiltern village if it closes. The alternative post offices suggested do not provide a viable substitute for the present service, and I believe that Royal Mail should relent on its closure notice and redefine this branch as rural.

The Post Office's headed notepaper announces that it is

Those words are blazoned across the front of its letter. It is ironic that the closure notice just says "Branch closure"—the strapline about everyday life does not appear.

The Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministers must help us to take the appropriate action to ensure the continued operation of this post office. Comments of the Minister's colleague, the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, were faithfully reported by Christopher Booker in The Sunday Telegraph:

The Minister of State has repeatedly used those words and I hope that the Department will stand by them. If the Minister does not act now to save our post office, we will know that the voices of ordinary people do not count and that the words of the Minister of State were hollow and meaningless. I ask the Minister to give the people of Chesham Bois a Christmas present and save their post office.

1.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on securing this debate. She has shown her commitment to her constituents' concerns about the future of the Chesham Bois branch by raising the matter with my hon. Friend, the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, in the Post Office urban reinvention debate in the House on 15 October, and by presenting a petition to the House on 24 October. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the points that she raised, and do so as the granddaughter of a sub-postmistress of many years ago.

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I want to assure the hon. Lady that we fully recognise the importance of the Post Office network. We are committed to maintaining a nationwide network of post offices and are aware of the importance of such outlets as a focal point of local communities, particularly for the elderly and less mobile. She made that point eloquently.

However, I must make it clear that since 26 March 2001 the Government's role in the Royal Mail group has been that of a shareholder in a public limited company. Under the Government's reforms, the group has been given greater commercial freedom, and an arm's-length relationship has been established so that the board can run the company on a commercial basis as it sees fit. Indeed, it has been the policy of successive Governments since 1969 that matters regarding the day-to-day running of postal businesses, such as decisions relating to individual post offices, are the responsibility of the company's management.

Mrs. Gillan : If the Department has no say in the day-to-day running of post offices, why did the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness say—I gave the quotation earlier—that where closures can be avoided, they will be avoided and that the Government have imposed that requirement on the Post Office? Surely shareholders have a voice in the running of businesses.

Miss Johnson : It would be helpful if the hon. Lady waited until I come on to the question of the urban regeneration reinvention programme, which is separate from the closure of the post office in Chesham Bois. That post office is not being closed as part of the programme because the closure was instituted before the programme's advent.

In light of the 1969 policy, it is not appropriate for the Government to intervene, because we do not have a role to play in individual closures, but I appreciate the depth of feeling in the hon. Lady's constituency. The proposal by Post Office Ltd., which is responsible for the post office network, is clear. I understand that since the departure of the previous sub-postmaster in November 2001, a temporary sub-postmaster has operated the office in Chesham Bois. Such arrangements are costly for the company, and they can be unsatisfactory for customers because of the inherent uncertainty over the temporary cover being maintained. During that period, the Chesham Bois office, which has a relatively small customer base for its location, has seen levels of business fall at double the average rate.

In August, Post Office Ltd. decided to review its long-term position on that office. The Post Office's review concluded that it was difficult to see a viable future for the Chesham Bois office, and it therefore put its proposal to close it to public consultation. Although the Post Office was fully mindful of the disappointment that its decision would cause, it remains of the firm opinion that the area is well provided for, and that the community of Chesham Bois will not be seriously disadvantaged by the closure.

Mrs. Gillan : Was the financial viability assessment carried out in the period when the post office was prevented from trading in its normal fashion by the works that I mentioned?

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Miss Johnson : I cannot answer the hon. Lady's question, but I can undertake to write to her with whatever information may be at my disposal as a Minister. That information is obviously held by Post Office Ltd., and I am not sure whether it will be available. I will, however, share with her any information on that question that is available to me.

As the hon. Lady is obviously aware, in considering such issues, the code of practice on post office closure and relocation, which has been agreed by the independent consumer council Postwatch and introduced in November 2001, is followed and formal public consultations are undertaken. Under the code, the Post Office wrote to various parties, including the hon. Lady, on 30 August to notify them of the proposal and request their representations.

In the case of Chesham Bois, the hon. Lady mentioned that the nearest branch is the Amersham office on Sycamore road, which is roughly half a mile away. There is also an office at Amersham common, which is a mile away down the hill from Chesham Bois. Other branches exist at Waterside, Chesham and High street, Chesham, which are about a mile and a half away. All those offices can be accessed by bus services and have nearby car parking.

On the question of disabled access, I am advised that the nearest branch at Amersham is half a mile away and offers level disabled access. The Post Office has determined that there is ample room for wheelchair users inside the office, and it stands ready to discuss accessibility at other branches in the area because it is a live issue.

Mrs. Gillan : By virtue of what the Minister has said, she is admitting that some branches in the vicinity, which have been put up as alternatives, cannot be accessed by the disabled, which means that people who are disabled have a choice of only one post office. If such people live at the other end of Chesham Bois, the one post office is certainly not half a mile away from them. The post office with disabled access may be half a mile away from the post office that is being closed, but it is not half a mile away from their homes. The disadvantage to my constituents is therefore growing by the minute, and the financial advantage to the Post Office is diminishing, owing to the cost of the work that it will have to carry out at the other post offices. Surely it would be more sensible to leave the Chesham Bois post office open.

Miss Johnson : I believe that the Post Office stands ready to discuss disabled access, and I can only leave it up to the Post Office, the hon. Lady and her constituents to thrash out the details.

I turn to the classification of Chesham Bois post office, which has been defined as being located in an urban area. I know that that has been a particular bone of contention. Although the Post Office analysis of an area as either urban or rural is broadly defined by whether the post office branch is located in a community of more or fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, the broad definition was adopted by the Post Office in autumn 2000, when the formal requirement to prevent avoidable closures in the rural network was first placed on it by the Government. Post Office Ltd. has since developed a

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sophisticated geographical mapping model that measures population in terms of contiguous or very close agglomeration. In classifying Chesham Bois as urban, the model reflects the fact that it lies within the continuous urban catchment area of Amersham, which has a population of more than 10,000. I can appreciate that the residents of Chesham Bois consider themselves a distinct community, as the hon. Lady says. Because of that concern, the Post Office rechecked its analysis and confirmed its classification of the office as urban. Post Office Ltd. has adopted a consistent national approach to classifying its entire network. It compiles a list of branches by parliamentary constituency as of 20 April 2002, showing their classification. A copy of that list is held in the Library.

The hon. Lady asked about Chesham Bois at the urban reinvention debate on 15 October. It is important to clarify that the Post Office's proposal is not part of its programme to restructure its entire network of urban post offices and that it was announced before the urban reinvention programme had begun. It must be recognised that there may be isolated occasions when, in accordance with the normal running of a network of more than 17,000 branches, circumstances arise that necessitate considering the closure of an individual post office. As with Chesham Bois, however, such instances will continue to be considered in accordance with the code of practice that I mentioned.

The Post Office faces several challenges. People are not using post offices as they used to. Some 42 per cent. of benefit recipients now access their benefit payments via bank accounts rather than by order books, compared with 26 per cent. in 1996. Over the past five years, the number of retirement pensions and widow's benefit payments paid by order books and giros has decreased by more than 1 million—from slightly more than 6 million to fewer than 5 million—although the total number of pension recipients has risen by more than 1 million during that time. Incapacity benefit payments at the Post Office have fallen even more dramatically—from more than 2.5 million to fewer than 1 million.

Similarly, over the past five years Girobank transactions at post offices have fallen by 37 per cent., as has the number of stamps sold. Last year, Post Office Ltd. lost £160 million and the business as a whole lost more than £1 million per working day. The ability of sub-postmasters to sell on their businesses—the way in which people have moved on in the past—has taken a severe knock.

Mrs. Gillan : I am very interested in all the facts and figures on the Post Office, but if the Minister is not going to help us to keep the post office open, will she tell me before the debate ends how we can appeal against the decision and how we can buy more time to have it thoroughly looked into?

Miss Johnson : I cannot give the hon. Lady legal advice about such matters as judicial review, because I do not have it to hand. I undertake to write to her with whatever advice I can, but I cannot say what it will be or whether there will be much of it.

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There is overprovision in urban areas, but the matter that we are discussing is not part of the urban reinvention programme. The Government want a profitable Post Office with branches that offer services that customers want, located in the right places. That is the reason for restructuring. However, this is not about restructuring but about a consideration of the viability of an individual post office that had started before the programme came into being. Post Office Ltd. believed that there were powerful reasons for dealing with it as it

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did, and closure was recommended. That is an operational matter for Post Office Ltd., and has always been considered thus. It is important that the company carries out its programme efficiently and consistently and ensures that the comprehensive consultation process has taken place for representations to be made to it before it takes such decisions, which we recognise are very important and difficult for local communities.

Question put and agreed to.

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