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10 Mar 2003 : Column 130—continued

Climate Change Levy

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Social Security

Question agreed to.

Social Security

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 12 March, pursuant to Orders [28 June 2001 and 29 October 2002].

Supreme Court of England and Wales

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Question agreed to.

Industrial Development

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

10 Mar 2003 : Column 131

Question agreed to.



Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 117 (Standing Committee on Regional Affairs),

Question agreed to.



10 Mar 2003 : Column 132


BAE Systems (Brough)

10.16 pm

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): This petition is from the work force at BAE Systems, Brough, where the Hawk aircraft is manufactured. They have faced savage job losses in the past few years, and again face another 400 to 450 redundancies in the coming few months, partly as a result of delays in the ordering of the aircraft by the Ministry of Defence. The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Post Offices (Sutton)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Derek Twigg.]

10.17 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the future of post offices in my constituency and in the borough of Sutton. I hope that, in this brief debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and have the opportunity to make one or two points about post offices in his constituency.

When I last raised the issue in an Adjournment debate just over two and a half years ago, the threat hanging over the sub-post office network in my constituency was just that—a threat. Today, the threat is turning into a reality. Post offices are closing in my constituency. The closures are piecemeal and cloaked in secrecy. My constituents have been left with the strong impression that the Post Office is paying lip service to consultation and just going through the motions when it comes to closing post offices.

During my previous Adjournment debate on the matter, I pointed out that, based on parliamentary answers, the local impact of

Five sub-post offices are therefore at risk of closure in the borough of Sutton in my constituency. Since the previous debate on the subject, two sub-post offices have closed and the future of another is in question. Yet another is due for the chop through a formal consultation process.

Let me outline what has happened in the past year. On 23 July, Mr. Drew McBride of the Post Office national consultation team wrote to tell me of the plan to close the Collingwood road sub-post office in my constituency. Residents and I had until 23 August to respond. I hope that the Minister agrees that consulting over the summer, when many people are on holiday and elsewhere, is poor practice. It denies people the opportunity to have their say. In his letter, Mr. McBride pointed out that there were three post offices in a half a mile radius of the Collingwood road branch: Sutton post office in the St. Nicholas centre; Oldfields road post office on the Sutton bypass, and the Grove road post office.

It is as if Mr. McBride and his team did no more than draw a circle on a map. He did not bother to factor in simple facts, such as half a mile up a hill being different from the same distance on the flat. Getting to the Grove road post office necessitates such a climb. He also neglected to consider the fact that one of the alternative post offices was on the other side of a busy dual carriageway. Despite the short notice of the consultation and the holiday period, more than 100 people signed the petition calling for the Collingwood road branch to remain open. The residents received the all-party backing of the local authority.

Insult was added to injury when the closing date for consultation was set at 23 August. Mr. McBride wrote on 30 August to tell me that the closure would go ahead

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on 23 September. The closure appears to have been pre-planned, pre-programmed and pre-determined. It took Mr. McBride only seven days to weigh up and reject the representations of the local community, the council and me.

The closure programme progresses. On 24 February, Mr. McBride wrote to tell me about the proposed closure of the Oldfields road post office. However, six months ago, he wrote:

Words fail me. The Post Office offers the prospect of a specific post office only to snatch it away from constituents.

Such behaviour prompts the question, "Which post office will close next?" It is time for the Post Office to be much more open and honest about its plans. Will the Minister supply a list of the post offices that are earmarked for closure in the borough of Sutton so that we can scrutinise the process more carefully?

I hope that the Minister will undertake to ensure that the Post Office consultation team apologises to the community around the former Collingwood road post office for misleading it about the possibility of using the Oldfields road post office. People had it for only six months. In his letter, Mr. McBride points out that the nearest post offices are Sutton post office in the St. Nicholas centre, which is 7.7 miles away from the Oldfields road branch, and Gander Green lane post office, which is 0.4 miles away.

The Post Office is supposed to ensure that 95 per cent. of its customers live within half a mile of the nearest post office. That is no longer the case for many residents in Collingwood road or on the Cheam Park Farm estate. The piecemeal closures will result in growing gaps in the network. The elderly, the disabled and families who rely on post office services will suffer. Simply drawing circles on maps, with no local knowledge, will not benefit people.

Will the Minister ensure a proper mechanism to take account of the local factors that I have outlined? One driver for closures is loss of business due to plans for electronic transfer of benefits and pensions into bank accounts. The thrust of the information campaign surrounding the change downplays the option of the Post Office card accounts.

The implementation of such accounts is even more worrying. It appears as if they have been set up to fail. Why will not the trials of the new computer system finish until five days before the system is due to go live? Where is the margin for error? What are the contingency arrangements if the IT fails? If it works, will customers be able to use it?

During the Christmas Adjournment debate, I raised several anxieties about the Post Office card account on behalf of my local Age Concern. In a letter to Postwatch, Marion Harper, the chief officer of Sutton Age Concern, wrote:

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Postwatch's reply was very disturbing. Despite pressing the Department for Work and Pensions for an answer, it remained unclear how collections of benefits or pensions would happen where a person did not have a regular carer or helper and was taken ill suddenly. Giving out the PIN would be considered a breach of the terms and conditions of their account, so they will go without their pension.

How will that problem be dealt with? When I asked Pensions Agency staff that question during a recent meeting of the Sutton Seniors Forum, they were unable to offer an answer. Can the Minister tell us tonight how people who become ill will be able to access their pension using a card account? When I raised those matters in the Christmas Adjournment debate, I was told that I would receive a response in writing from the Ministers who are responsible. To date, I have not received that response and I hope that we can obtain some answers tonight or get something in writing as soon as possible.

Local post offices play a vital role in our community. They are one of the building blocks of our economic vitality and shopping centres. On the basis of my experience of the closure programme in my area so far, I have no confidence whatever that the Post Office is really listening to the concerns of local authorities, residents or MPs in its consultation. I hope that the Minister will take that on board and make a change in that process for the future.

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