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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Neill: I am sorry, but I am under time constraints. I do not want to be awkward, but I have a wee bit more to get through.

The statistics suggest that a lot of people are making applications—some get to the first stage and drop out, while others carry on. If the situation continues, the findings of Postwatch suggest that by the appropriate time next year several million people will be in considerable difficulty: without an exceptions arrangement, a card or a bank account, they will be left in a distressing limbo. The Minister must deal with that problem, because it is becoming more evident as time goes on.

I have to say, however, that progress has been made on exceptions. Some of those who cannot get to post offices, do not have accounts, or simply cannot cope will get something along the lines of the old giro cheque. We must give credit for the fact that there has been movement there, but I wish that there was more movement on the non-exceptionals—those who are doing it for other purposes.

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We must recognise that many people are dependent on the post office network as a source of income and employment. A great deal of disquiet has been expressed about the programme of network reinvention and the medium to long-term protection of rural post offices. Other hon. Members will want to raise those issues: all I will say is that anecdotal evidence provided by Members on both sides of the House questions the approach taken by Post Office Counters—the pursuit of soft options involving voluntarism, whereby taxpayers' money is available for closure, rather than the more attractive option of a clearly defined programme of reorganisation where customer need is pre-eminent.

Mr. Hawkins: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Neill: I am sorry, but I do not have time.

There is suspicion that several closures could be announced just before the forthcoming holiday period, thus reducing the time available for consultation, disquiet that insufficient consultation is being carried out with local authorities to ascertain further development, especially in areas of urban regeneration where social housing programmes are to be carried out on brownfield sites, and great worry about the future of Post Office Counters—the Crown post office network itself.

My colleagues on the Select Committee and I have stuck with this issue for the best part of a decade—through three Parliaments under Tory and Labour Governments, but the anxieties that we have repeatedly expressed have not all been addressed. There are better ways of paying benefits than using a book—that is not in dispute—but we have moved on from the days when social security benefit distribution could be regarded as a privilege for which the recipient is answerable to the terms laid down by a generous donor. In a modern welfare state run by what I would like to think is a modern, social democratic Government, the poor and disadvantaged—and, frankly, the cussed and determined—are entitled to have their views heard on how their benefits should be paid and how they can be advised on their rights. Sadly, on the issue of direct payment the Government are paying attention neither to the many nor the few.

4.14 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) for the way in which he introduced the debate. I say to hon. Members who have not yet been afflicted by the reinvention programme that "reinvention" would qualify as the most misused word from a Government to whose misuse of words we have become accustomed.

In my constituency, several post offices have closed in the past few years. Indeed, since 1997, those at Cubley, Longford, Roston, Flagg, Lea Bridge, Kniveton, Fenny Bentley, Clifton and Taddington have closed. Some closed because people wanted to retire and no one could be found to replace them. I accept that there will always be some post office closures. It was almost inevitable when nearly 20,000 post offices covered the United Kingdom.

However, I was shocked and horrified to receive a letter from the Post Office a few weeks ago to inform me that in Belper, which has five post offices, four are set to

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close. That is a reduction of some 80 per cent. in the service. Belper is a large town with a population that exceeds 20,000. Even the Post Office's consultation document describes the terrain as hilly. That is a good description; we are not considering a flat part of the United Kingdom. It is just to the south of the start of the Peak district.

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry commented on the brevity of the timetable for consultation and for people to make representations. That is felt strongly in Belper. The consultation period ends on 23 December. Most people would accept that other things are on people's minds in December.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Has the hon. Gentleman experienced the specific problems with consultation that I shall describe? When he and his constituents make their objections, they receive a reply from the Post Office, 80 per cent. of which argues the general case for the closure programme. That happens in the middle of the consultation. When a post office's closure is confirmed, it is found that a document to that effect has been published months previously, even before the consultation. In a case in my constituency, the document was published in March but the decision was made on 28 September.

Mr. McLoughlin: I do not know the exact case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I say to the Under-Secretary that he must get a grip on the issue because it affects many constituents. He should note, from the attendance at the debate and the fact that the Speaker has had to impose a time limit on speeches, the growing anxiety in all parties.

The position is unacceptable. Earlier, the Leader of the House assured us that if people still want to collect benefits from post offices, they should be able to do that and obstacles should not be put in their way. It is all very well making that point from the Dispatch Box, but if, as is suggested in Belper, four out of five post offices close, the Government are forcing people not to take the option of going to the post office.

Mr. Hawkins: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. McLoughlin: I would rather not because many hon. Members want to speak and I shall not take 10 minutes. I want to be short and specific.

The Government must reconsider the matter. Recommendation 20 of the Select Committee report states that is far too early to reach a view on the reinvention programme. I suggest that the Committee conduct an urgent review of it. When the reinvention programme—what a name—hits other constituencies, other hon. Members will experience the same anxiety about it as me.

Ms Walley: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the urban reinvention programme is flawed because it does not provide the kind of safeguards that we need in deprived urban areas?

Mr. McLoughlin: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I know that many people wish to participate in this

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debate, so I shall attempt by other means in the House to secure another debate, in which I can talk at greater length about the problems that I face in my constituency. I must warn the Minister that he will find himself answering a lot of Adjournment debates unless he changes this policy, because one thing that we are not seeing is reinvention. I see none at all; I see a closure programme. That is what it is, and the British people are now seeing that. They are not seeing a reinvention programme or a saving of the post office network; they are seeing its closure. I do not believe that that is what the Government intended, but that is what the Post Office is achieving for them. The Government need to be aware of the dangers that they face in this regard.

4.20 pm

Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) (Lab): I welcome the Select Committee report and the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill). I would particularly like to express my opposition and that of many of my constituents to the closure of three sub-post offices in the Dunfermline area as part of the so-called reinvention and modernisation proposals. They are at Baldridgeburn, Townhill road and Netherton.

Dunfermline is a town with many hills, some of which are very steep. It is clear from a letter from Post Office Ltd. that, during its survey, its representatives failed to walk along those hills or to go along the routes that it was suggesting that people should take if those sub-post offices closed. Given the difficulty that I have in walking up those hills without pushing a wheelchair or a buggy or carrying heavy shopping, I dread to think what the impact will be on many of my constituents if the closures go ahead. To pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), the Post Office's survey says in respect of the alternative post offices that it proposes people use in the event of the closures:

While the sub-post office at Townhill road is itself on a hill, it is very well located to reduce the climb that people have to make to reach it.

I should also like to mention the timing of these proposals. I find it unacceptable that the consultation period includes both Christmas week and the week of the new year, when almost no community organisations meet and when many people have other things on their mind, especially their own families. I shall urge Post Office Ltd. to show that there is some meaning to its commitment to consult by extending the consultation period by at least two weeks.

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