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5.2 pm

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to join this interesting debate. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). I welcome the opening comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee and was pleased that he restricted the area of debate this afternoon in so far as he did not want to talk about the past failures of the Post Office and its management.

There is no doubt that we all recognise that post offices have been suffering from falling business, with many more people using bank accounts. We recognised that, so we went out promoting the Post Office card account system, using the local media to try to attract as many people as possible to take it up. We promised them that they could go to their post office and draw out cash. We said that they did not have to draw it out all at once—they could draw it out on a daily basis if they wanted, which would leave them less open to the difficulties in our society, such as being mugged on their way back home.

Members can therefore imagine my surprise when last Thursday a pamphlet from the Post Office dropped on my desk that said that it was investigating the 24 post offices in the town of Tamworth, and that, by the time that it had finished, the investigation could lead to the closure of one or more branches. The one or more turned out to be nine out of the 24. But that is the not the best part of the Post Office plan. That plan is a very cunning plan—the only very cunning plan that I have seen to match it was Baldrick's in "Blackadder".

I doubt whether any Member can beat my record today—please try—because it is either the worst or the best option imaginable. Let us imagine a town of 77,000 people, which, around the periphery, has a river on one side and a bypass on the other, which forms a wedge. Within that wedge are nearly 20,000 people, and at

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present six sub-post offices. How many of those is the Post Office going to close? Surprise, surprise, it is going to close six. It will open one in a petrol station shop. The consultation document says that people will be able to get to the petrol station by public transport but, unfortunately, no buses go across there from one part of town because the bus routes go into the centre of town rather than around it—as happens in any town with a radial pattern.

Let us consider the situation for a disabled person with his account card who used to go to Hockley post office. He will trundle down there only to find it shut. He will think, "I know, I'll go to Wilnecote post office", so he will trundle down the road for nearly three quarters a mile to find it shut. He will think, "I know, I'll go to Belgrave post office", but he will go down the road to find it shut. He will think, "I'll go to Kettlebrook post office", only to find it shut. He would have to travel 2.5 miles into the centre of town to access a Post Office outlet.

The Post Office says that the alternative option is to use Dosthill post office, but there is no public transport between Hockley and Dosthill. Dosthill has got one thing: a big hill. People might be able to come down the hill but I am certain that a less able pensioner will be unable to walk up it. A person would have to be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger to get a pushchair up the hill—it is a difficult and hard route.

When I received the consultation document, I thought that I would telephone the Post Office because a report about it appeared in my local paper on the very morning I received it—my local paper had got the information before me. I asked it what it was playing at and why it had not told me about the plan upfront so that I could have made preparations and got my act together. I got a surprising answer: "Who are you?" I was told, "We don't even recognise MPs. We just treat them the same as everyone else. We talk to the press first." I was treated with total disdain by Post Office management.

When I think about the set-up with 20,000 people being served by one outlet, I start to ask myself questions. Has Postwatch been consulted on the document? It told me that when it asked to hold discussions and consultation, the Post Office said, "Go away. We're not interested." However, the documents that the Post Office sent out recommend that people get in touch with Postwatch, despite the fact that it will not hold local meetings with that body.

I now know that the sub-postmasters have taken the money. The generous handout that the Government have given has not been to maintain the post office system but to shut it down. I do not blame the sub-postmasters for taking the money because life is tough out there and if they have been read the riot act by the Post Office itself, they should probably cut and run. However, we have been offered no extra outlets, so how does the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions intend to get benefits to pensioners and others who have a right to receive them? Does he intend to send Securicor round with money every Thursday? How will he make arrangements for individuals to go to a post office?

People have to pay a bus fare to go to the post office, and if there are no buses they must pay for a taxi. Do we intend to reimburse those people for the cost of picking

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up their benefit? One can imagine a different situation. My town contains dozens of people who ride around on little electric buggies. Every Tuesday, they should collect together at a starting point in Hockley with policemen at the front and back of the group. They could then trundle down the town for 2.5 miles picking up new passengers as they went along while other buggies could continue to join what would become a modern wagon train. People would be able to get to the post office, pick up their cash and trundle all the way back.

Did the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister consider what would happen as a result of the proposal? If six outlets are shut, meaning that 20,000 people must use one post office that is not served by public transport, they will all have to drive there. Hundreds of extra car journeys will be generated in a town in which I am trying to encourage fewer car journeys. I am trying to encourage parents to walk their children to school by using school walking buses. The Post Office is undermining such activities.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): A town that will be very familiar to my hon. Friend, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, about 12 miles east of Tamworth, may have a similar problem now that Westfield post office has closed. There is now just one post office serving a population of about 13,000, and the capacity of that post office was inadequate before Westfield was flagged up for closure. Is that similar to the position in Tamworth?

Mr. Jenkins: Very similar. My hon. Friend reinforces my point. The Post Office is not providing a service.

The Post Office has enjoyed a unique relationship with the Government. It delivered benefits through its network; it provided a service; and it enjoyed a monopoly position. It now sees itself as a business, not a service provider. Unfortunately, regulators have forced the Post Office to become more and more competitive. I have seen regulators operating in different service areas, and I would like to tell the Secretary of State and the Minister—I feel sorry for my hon. Friend; I realise that everyone has run away and left him to be the whipping boy—that we may now have a regulator who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Will the Minister assure the House that the golden shareholder does not hold that principle?

5.10 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), who described the difficulties of getting about his constituency. I have direct knowledge of mine because, with huge incompetence, I chose the hottest day of the year, 6 August, to drive 150 miles around it, visiting 28 post offices. I apologise to the four that I did not get to.

The consistent message that I got on that journey was striking. First, I would like to stress the clear link between the village post office and the village shop, and the way in which they hold the community together. Apart from providing postal products, almost every post office that I went to doubled as a supplier of fresh and frozen food and stationery and household goods, and many were off-licences. The two services are inextricably linked.

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Colin Doyle, of Knockin post office, has worked seven days a week as a postmaster for 22 years. He said bluntly, "If the post office goes, the shop goes, and if the shop goes, the village goes." It is critical that the Government understand that post offices are the centre of village life; they have the village notice board, and everything revolves around them.

Last week, I went to see the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services, the hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms). Perhaps it was after that meeting that he decided to go to an urgent meeting today and leave the wretched junior Minister to face the flak from all sides. I took Colin Doyle along to that meeting, but, sadly, other postmasters could not attend because of travel problems. I was pleased that the hon. Member for East Ham agreed that post offices are vital in rural areas, and he confirmed that it is the Government's intention to place a requirement on the Post Office to make "no avoidable closures".

We agreed on that, but the hon. Gentleman did not agree on the root problem, which is of the Government's making and which numerous hon. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned—that of brutally forcing customers to take their benefits direct. I was struck by the number of post offices that take a high proportion of their turnover from benefits payments. In my constituency the figures are as follows: Gobowen, 60 per cent.; Willow street, Oswestry, 75 per cent.; Treflach, 80 per cent.; Pant, 70 per cent.; West Felton, 60 per cent.; Baschurch, 50 per cent.; Wem, 75 per cent.; Prees, 50 per cent.; and Cheswardine, 40 per cent. Even one postmaster with only 30 per cent. of his turnover from benefits said:

Nearly all those post offices have already lost child benefits, but time and again I was told that the Department for Work and Pensions has made it as difficult as possible to acquire a card. We have heard that numerous times this afternoon. That is despite the fact that, as one postmaster said:

Another said:

Another said:

Yet another said:

To give an idea of the anger that I encountered, I have one final quote from my tour:

The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters has described 22 steps to acquire a card, yet the Government claim that there are only three. Last week, Mr. Doyle explained to the Energy Minister that people who struggle through the system and finally acquire a card do so with a huge amount of help from the local postmaster. Benefits represent £400 million of income

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for post offices, which will close in ever increasing numbers if a substantial proportion of that income is removed.

Having created a hideous problem for themselves, the Government have put their hand in the taxpayer's pocket and promised £450 million to tide rural post offices over until banking services are in place. Last week, the Energy Minister stressed time and again that everyday banking should eventually replace benefits. I hope that he is right, because I want post offices to prosper. A senior analyst, however, dismissed the card as the

That is not a great start. Three major banking groups—HSBC, Halifax and Bank of Scotland, and the Royal Bank of Scotland—do not offer access to their accounts through the post office network, and 80 per cent. of basic bank accounts are not accessible at post offices. As Mr. Doyle told the Energy Minister, banking would only be the "icing on the cake". I am afraid that I share my postmasters' scepticism about the chances of banking replacing benefits income.

The £450 million intended to tide rural post offices over until 2006 is vital, and I am grateful for the letter that the Energy Minister sent me, as promised, on 8 December, in which he outlined the totals available for Post Office Ltd. I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) provided a follow-up letter that I could send to my postmasters telling them what steps they have to take and what hoops they have to jump through to get their hands on some of that money before 2006. Not one of the postmasters whom I have talked to knows anything about that money.

I am afraid that we are on the brink of a rural catastrophe. In the past two years, 80 per cent. of all closures have been in rural areas. The Government have got it badly wrong. The benefits changes are extraordinarily unpopular and penalise many of the oldest and most vulnerable people in isolated rural communities. The Government should suspend the current programme, redesign the forms and make it easier for my constituents to receive benefits through their local post offices as they have done for years, and as they wish to continue doing.

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