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Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Lady is clearly facing the same kind of issues that I face in my constituency. I am battling to save Mytchett post office. The alternative post office is situated beyond a bridge that floods regularly. The consultation period was so short that there was no time, following the recent heavy rain, to take photographs showing the flooding on the road under the bridge, which elderly people and mothers with children could not have got through. I got a letter

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yesterday, within a week of the consultation period finishing, saying that Mytchett post office was to close. It was quite apparent that the consultation had been a sham. Does the hon. Lady agree that in her constituency, as in mine, it is a sham?

Rachel Squire: I suppose I live with a glimmer of hope that it is not a sham, but I fear that the hon. Gentleman may be right.

I worry about just what pressure has been put on sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to agree to closures. There may have been at least the implied threat that if they did not co-operate, they might forfeit the compensation that was being offered.

Judging by what Post Office Ltd. says about the community role and urban regeneration, it takes little account of the fact that Dunfermline is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country—in Scotland, certainly—with hundreds of new homes and with existing businesses expanding or relocating. While it notes that Netherton sub-post office is near a large office development housing a work force of 600, it seems to consider that irrelevant.

Finally, let me echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil said about pensions. Evidence from my constituents suggests that they were never really encouraged to open Post Office card accounts, as opposed to being pushed in the direction of bank accounts.

When debating a subject connected with a Select Committee report and under the overall heading of "Estimates", we should bear in mind not just the financial but the human costs of policies. I hope that, along with other Members, I shall be able to campaign effectively against proposals that demand such a heavy price from the communities that will be affected by them.

4.26 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I want, briefly, to raise three issues. I want to return to the issue of card accounts, to say something about the way in which the Post Office defines the difference between rural and urban sub-post offices, and to discuss the way in which the Post Office measures distances between the old offices and those to which business will be transferred. I make no apology for being parochial, as the parochial examples illustrate the wider problem.

We all have evidence from the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters to suggest that while the Government say, "We will be even-handed, open and honest, and will promote all kinds of account", the Department for Work and Pensions is making it as difficult as possible for elderly people in particular to obtain Post Office card accounts. It is sending the message that that is not the best kind of account, and should not be encouraged. Postwatch resents its interference, as do the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and individual sub-postmasters who, as private business people, are trying to promote what they regard as their product rather than anyone else's.

As it is so difficult to obtain a Post Office card account, many people are being driven away from post offices and into banks, as the Department wishes them to be. That is damaging the business of sub-post offices,

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and making it easier for the Post Office to say "These outlets are not viable, so we must close them". It is hardly surprising that, faced with such a situation, sub-postmasters are taking the money—a lot, in some cases—and running. They have no business left, and when they see a financial way out, they go for it. When we say to the Post Office "If you want to shut that outlet, there is another just down the road that is prepared to take on the business", the answer is "No. We are not looking for alternatives in the vicinity; we are looking for closure". That is what letters from the Post Office now say. Forget reinvention; that is out of the window. This is about closure and nothing else. It is a sham, and the Post Office card account is a charade. The Minister must take that on board, and do something about it.

Let me now deal with the definitions of rural and urban post offices. Let me cite Greenhill post office in Herne bay, in my constituency. Greenhill is a village in its own right. It is separated from the rest of Herne bay by a very major road, the same road that separates the oldest part of the area—the original village of Herne—from the rest of the town. The two communities are almost identical in terms of demographics. Each has a church, pubs, schools, shops and roughly the same population. Herne is regarded, quite properly, as rural; Greenhill, the Post Office says, is urban. I asked the Post Office to take a look at Greenhill, and it sent a senior manager. Greenhill post office has been shut. I wanted it to be reopened, and to be offered to another outlet that wanted it.

To give the Post Office its due, it confronted me face to face. It said, "We understand why you feel, and why the people of Greenhill feel, that this is a village community, but our book—the Ordnance Survey book—says that Greenhill is part of the town. So that's all right then: the post office stays shut." It is not all right: it is all wrong, bad and doctrinaire. I said to the Post Office, "Aren't you prepared to apply common sense?" The answer, in effect, was, "No, because if we do that in one case, we will open the floodgates." As a result, Members on both sides of this House would say, "Me too!" The Post Office knows that it cannot afford that. There is also the small matter of managers being paid bonuses for shutting post offices.

Another issue is distance. Studd hill, in my constituency, is another community that is almost a village in its own right. The distance to Sea street post office, the nearest suitable post office, is measured—miraculously—as just under a mile. That mile is post office to post office in a straight line: as the crow flies. The pensioners in my constituency do not travel by crow; they travel on foot. They will have to travel—as the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) said of her constituency—literally up hill and down dale. The hills in question are very steep, and the real distance is well over a mile. It is quite dishonest of the Post Office to behave in this way—to pretend that the straightest route on a map between A and B is the relevant route.

The Ramsgate road post office—which is at the other end of my constituency, in Margate—serves a very large area on one side of a major road, on one side of the town. The distance measured to the main town post office is under a mile, but again the journey is up hill and down dale. What we are dealing with is not the real world in which our constituents live—the elderly,

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mothers with prams, people who actually want to get to a post office—but a bureaucratic world that understands straight lines on a map, bonuses for closure, and reinvention, which actually means closure.

I finish with an aside. So cavalier is this process that I am told that, in the case of Margate's Ramsgate road post office, alternative methods of transport include a train and an underground. Although I have represented North Thanet for 20 years and would agree that I may have missed certain things, I have yet to travel on a Margate metro. This policy is nonsense. I ask the Minister, on behalf of all those whom we represent, to rethink this issue. I ask him to get the Department for Work and Pensions to rethink its own attitude, and to compel the Post Office to understand that we have to maintain a service that meets the needs of the elderly, the sick, young mothers and single parents—the most disadvantaged in our society. Those are the people in my constituency who are missing out as a result of this policy.

4.33 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): I do not want to dwell for the most part on the closure programme. In my area, much of which is rural, some post offices—at Egginton and Walton-on-Trent, for example—have actually re-opened through the efforts of villagers. That is commendable, although I hold my breath in respect of how the urban programme may work in the small part of my constituency that is urban; however, I shall not comment on that now.

Although the Select Committee report is excellent, I want to begin by touching on a point that it missed; having done so, I shall discuss some of the points that it did touch on. It missed the fact that the Government are participating with the banks in the promotion of financial products that, admittedly, all of us in this Chamber have taken for granted throughout our lives. Nevertheless, those products are being promoted to people who—through choice or denial—have not had them before. They are often pensioners, and elderly ones at that.

I do not believe that the banks are entirely benevolent in this respect. It is clear that they see some business advantage in widening access to their products. I looked at the Select Committee's questioning of the Minister on the matter, and that showed that he believes that, too.

The products are basic, by and large, but they carry some risks. I asked the Department for Work and Pensions about the advice available to people to ensure that they knew about the products that they were buying into, and I was told that people with concerns should go to the citizens advice bureau. There is only one CAB office in my constituency, and getting there can involve a long journey. People seeking help have to queue for a long time to get it, despite the best endeavours of the people who work there.

The large-scale promotion of financial products to people who are unfamiliar with them carries some risks. We need to provide access to advice, so that people can know exactly what they are signing up to. That is especially important, given that some more advanced

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banking products are being promoted as part of the range of available options.

My next point has to do with the promotion of the Post Office card account. The promotion is not equivalent to that available for the banking options. One has to read the literature very carefully to understand that it is possible to continue to receive money through the post office. In addition, the timings are out of synchronisation. A constituent who wanted to make use of the Post Office card account was told that it was not available and that the choice was either to sign up to one of the options, or to stick with the existing arrangement. However, many people do not understand that it is possible to stick with the existing arrangement until the card account becomes available. The clear inequity there was not accidental but entirely preconceived.

The process is also woefully complex. I was startled when one of my sub-postmasters showed me the form that had to be filled in if one wanted even an absolutely basic financial product. It required a lot of effort, and that is wrong.

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