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13 Jan 2004 : Column 734

Future of the Post Office Network

4.15 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I beg to move,

I was a little surprised to receive a message on my pager a moment or two ago, saying that the Secretary of State is unable to be with us today. I certainly hope that an early explanation will be given as to why she has not deigned to give her attention to this very serious issue.

It is a stark and undeniable measure of this Government's having failed communities throughout the country that since 1997, under Labour, there have been 66 debates in Westminster on the crisis in our post office network, compared with only 15 such debates in the five years to 1997, under the previous, Conservative Administration. Indeed, as we begin this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) is beginning another on just this subject in Westminster Hall, on his constituents' behalf. Surely this Government's arrogance and disdainful complacency, as revealed by the Prime Minister's and the Secretary of State's nauseatingly self-congratulatory amendment to the motion, is proof, if any were needed, of their lack of genuine concern about the relentless post office closure programme being inflicted on almost every rural, suburban and inner-city community in the country.

As Members know only too well, this situation is causing anxiety and sheer hassle in each constituency, particularly for the elderly, the disabled and the most vulnerable in our communities. The Government's high-handed approach to this cavalier closure programme leaves all those people sick at heart every time another post office is rushed to closure.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that for all their crocodile tears, it is the Government's fault that post offices are closing, because they have deliberately reduced the footfall in post offices through their changes to the benefit system?

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and as I hope to demonstrate as I develop my argument, he is absolutely right. Indeed, he rightly

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deserves his reputation for standing up for his constituents' interests at all times, not least in their communities.

Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab): I, too, attempted to secure a debate in Westminster Hall on this subject. The hon. Gentleman offers a spurious statistic on the number of debates initiated on this issue by the Opposition during this Parliament compared with the number initiated before 1997. Westminster Hall debates did not exist at that time, so the comparison is, if nothing else, disingenuous.

Mr. O'Brien: To any rational person, 66 debates versus 15 is a pretty stark contrast, even without Westminster Hall. Furthermore, such a contrast is a sign of the depth of anxiety about this issue throughout the House and in each constituency. It is not simply to do with the statistical opportunities to debate.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the discourtesy shown to the House by the Secretary of State's not turning up to respond to this debate will be deeply resented in Mid-Sussex? We did hope to be able to hold her to account for proposals that will bring grave inconvenience to many elderly people and mothers with young children. The Government have imposed appalling house-building targets on Mid-Sussex, and the proposed closure of several very valuable post offices will cause extreme inconvenience to many people.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He, too, is known for the tremendous work that he does on his constituents' behalf, and I can assure him that their disappointment is matched by my own, in that I am unable to debate this issue with the Secretary of State, who is responsible for supervising the Post Office.

Let us look at the record of the post office network under Labour. I assure the House that my party and I mean no hint of criticism of the thousands of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and all those who work diligently and tirelessly to provide a good service in our surviving post offices throughout the country. On the contrary, despite their valiant efforts, their dedication and their commitment to serve their communities and earn an honest and respected living, the Government's actions and omissions in using the genuine power and influence that they have at their disposal as the sole shareholder in Royal Mail plc, which wholly owns Post Office Ltd., to recognise the strategic community value of our post office network, remain an indictment of their record in government.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): My hon. Friend will be aware that I have campaigned to keep open post offices such as Mytchett in my constituency. I need to ensure that Post Office management and the Government are responding to the legitimate concerns raised by Members, especially on this side of the House. Does my hon. Friend agree that not only have the Government reduced the footfall by their changes to the benefit system, but they have signally failed to support individual sub-postmasters? They have been boxed in by the ridiculous and misnamed network reinvention

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programme. The Post Office claims that the programme operates only in urban areas, but it is hitting villages in constituencies such as mine.

Mr. O'Brien: I hope that my hon. Friend will find that my comments resonate fully with him and that he is able to report to his constituents that our feelings entirely accord with the campaign that he has run so diligently on their behalf.

It is not my intention to undermine confidence in Britain's postal services. The post office network is a vital part of the social fabric, as all right hon. and hon. Members know. My argument is that the manner in which the Government have discharged their responsibilities for the post office network is undermining the future of that vital service. We want to hold the Government and the Secretary of State, who is not present for the debate, to account for what is happening under their watch and with their connivance.

The network, which consists of more than 17,000 outlets, is the largest retail network in Europe. There are 45 million visits a week to UK post offices. After staggering losses, Royal Mail plc posted a marginal £3 million profit on the back of a 1p increase in the price of stamps, with another 1p increase on second class mail coming in April and proposals now in train to increase prices for size rather than for weight of posted items in future.

Apart from some 600 Crown post offices, which are run directly by the Post Office, the rest are sub-post offices, run by private business people—sub-postmasters and mistresses. Most of them run their post office business under the same roof as another retail business. In urban areas that is often a newsagent or stationery business. In rural areas it is typically a village shop. The post office business represents essential footfall—as my hon. Friends have pointed out—cash flow and reward for those combined enterprises. Those sub-post offices and their staff play a vital role in the life of their communities. They know and understand their customers and they know how to help to support the most vulnerable by alerting neighbours to potential concerns about the welfare of others through their regular contact.

Over recent years, however, there has been a continual decline in the number of sub-post offices operating in this country. Figures for the financial year 2000–01 show that 547 sub-post offices closed. That is the highest figure on record and it happened under Labour. Since then, closures have continued. In 2001–02, 262 post offices closed and in the most recent year for which figures are available, 2002–03, net closures totalled 345—another increase.

The rapid escalation of sub-post office closures under this Government had become a serious political problem by April 2000, when a petition bearing the signatures of 3 million protestors was handed in to Downing street to protest against the changes announced in respect of compulsory automated credit transfer. The sheer scale of that protest reflected, and continues to reflect, the importance of sub-post offices in their communities, especially in rural areas and suburban communities that depend on them. To throw a claimed £2 billion at the issue and to preside over stamp price inflation to produce none the less the

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continuing demise of sub-post offices is a matter of great concern to all in the House. Ensuring that that valuable service is adequately maintained needs to become a priority for the Government.

There are currently 9,000 urban post offices in the UK but the number has been falling steadily in recent years. There were 106 urban post office closures in 2000–01; 68 in 2001–02; and 230 in 2002–03—including 102 under what is known as the urban post office reinvention programme, which stemmed from a report published in June 2000 by the performance and innovation unit. That report suggested that local knowledge and consultation should help decide which offices should be protected from closure.

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