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Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Consultation in my constituency has proved to be an utter sham. Despite our taking up closures with Allan Leighton and his staff, the responses that my constituents and I received were standard lettersnone of which addressed specific points that we tried to get across to the Post Office, which often included inaccuracies in its assessments. Is my hon. Friend aware of a single case in which local consultation has resulted in the reprieve of a post office?
Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall pose that very question during the course of my speech. My hon. Friend quite rightly pre-empted me but I shall look forward to reinforcing his point.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): The headquarters of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters is in my constituency, but not even that has saved nine urban sub-offices there which are to close. The Post Office's response to the representations made in respect of one office even spelled its name wrongly and the bus times given in relation to alternative post offices were for buses that do not exist. Does my hon. Friend agreegiven that out of more than 1,000 proposed closures only four sub-offices will be reprievedthat the consultation exercise is an absolute sham and an insult to right hon. and hon. Members?
Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful for that further example of how the exercise appears to be consultation only in name, not in practice. We are most grateful also to the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and its general secretary, Colin Baker, for all the assistance and information that they continue to give us in highlighting that scandal.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): We ought to acknowledge that Post Office consultation and decision making are about the fastest in the country. In West Worthing, seven sub-offices were up for consultation that ended on 23 December. Decisions were published on 8 January. So while other people were wondering what to do with their time over Christmas and the new year, the Post Office was deciding to close offices. One out of those seven offices has been given a temporary reprieve. I hope that my hon. Friend will invite the Minister to make sure that that becomes
Mr. O'Brien: I assure my hon. Friend that the Minister will have plenty of opportunities to give such assurances and we all look forward to hearing them. I am somewhat surprised that the consultation process was that short. I have an example from Stoke-on-Trent where the period allowed extended to 20 January from a similar starting point, which seems more generous.
The report also suggested that financial assistance from central Government or local authorities might be needed to support uneconomic offices in deprived urban areas. The programme was formally announced in April 2002 and there was a debate in the House on 15 October, to give consent to a £210 million compensation package for the necessary restructuring. The programme is aimed at ensuring that 95 per cent of the population in urban areas live within one mile of a post office, while closing one third of the 9,000 offices. That programme began in November 2002 and by the end of June 2003, 351 post offices had been closed. Post Office Ltd has announced that by December, it intends to close 3,000 of the 9,000 urban branches. Right hon. and hon. Members will be alarmed to learn that to achieve that objective, Post Office Ltd will have to impose at least 140 closures a monthsome say 250 a monththroughout this calendar year. That is not alarmist, it is alarming.
Sadly, the effect of the accelerated rate of post office closures on the overall strategic incoherence of the programme, as well as on the credibility of the consultation process, cannot be overstated.
Let us consider the one-mile testnot a difficult concept, surely? But the number of examples is legion where one mile, in order to pass the test under the closure programme, is measured as the crow flies, thus apparently satisfying the Post Office. However, as people cannot fly, that is not the actual distance between where they live and their local community post office; they have to negotiate walking routes, bridges over roads, railways, canals and so forth. Even if we were to accept the knowledge of Post Office Ltd. rather than that of local people on that point, and I do not, in the evidence hearings of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on 4 June 2003I am glad to see that the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) is in the Chambermy hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) rightly pressed that the distance from where people work be measured, too.
As my party's spokesman in South Dorset, Ed Matts, has so ably highlighted on behalf of all the people in Weymouth who are faced, despite their support for Mr Matts's tireless campaign on their behalf, with seven closures at Southhill, Lanehouse, Kings Street, Lennox Street, Radipole Spa, Westham and Wyke, the basis of selection is flawed and the consultation process is both truncated and a sham. I have given notice to the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) that I would be referring to his constituency.
On 26 August 2003, the Post Office proposed closing its branch at 6971 City way, Rochester, Kent and began to consult the affected community. Again, I have given notice of this point to the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). Two months later, the Post Office distributed a final leaflet confirming that the branch would close on 25 November 2003. That leaflet was marked "Printed March 2003" As my party's spokesman in Medway, Mark Reckless, has rightly said:
I really find it hard to believe that these three particular post offices are the least profitable in Chester. Unfortunately, the Post Office is not willing to make the financial information available, on the grounds of commercial confidentiality/data protection, to support their arguments for closure."
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am sure that all Members on the Opposition Benches look forward to welcoming Ed Matts and Mark Reckless as the Members for South Dorset and Medway respectively after the next general election. In the interim, can my hon. Friend tell the House what assessment he has made of the number of elderly people, of those who suffer from disabilities and of those who lack access to private transport who will be grievously affected as a result of the mass closure programme presided over by the current Administration?
We should also consider Stoke-on-Trent where a report in the local paper, The Sentinel, only last Saturday, was coupled with a picture of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) receiving a petition to save Rookery post office in Kidsgrove. The hon. Lady and I spoke earlier today and she is in the House today. Her neighbours, the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson)I have indirectly or directly given notice to all of themhave vowed to continue their campaign to keep open 21 city post offices threatened by closure, following a heated meeting with the local Post Office boss. In all four constituencies the consultation period started on 10 December and finishes on 20 January, conveniently coinciding with the Christmas and new year break to minimize the effective time for marshalling local opinion to influencevainly no doubtthe consultation. I look forward to seeing those hon. Members demonstrating their concern as much in Westminster as in their local press, by supporting our motion today and not throwing a comfort blanket over the Government by voting for the Secretary of State's amendment.
The so-called consultation exercise is truly an exercise in window-dressing. I hope that, when the Secretary of State gets up to speak, she will give a precise answer[Interruption.] I realise that the right hon. Lady cannot do that now, so the Minister will have to do it. That shows the danger of having written a speech; I was reading and got carried away. I thought the Secretary of State might have been excited enough by the subject to discharge her responsibility, but I hope that when the Minister speaks on her behalf, he will be able to give precise answers to my questions. How many closure proposals under the urban reinvention programme have been reversed following the so-called consultationthe very point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)?
I wonder whether the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industrythe hon. Member for Ochil, who is herehas received a satisfactory answer to his Committee's perfectly valid and important recommendation at paragraph 94 of its report on post offices, published in July last year:
Given the pressure to complete the closures in such a drastically reduced time scale, it is hardly surprising that there is no time for consultation involving hon. Members and customers at the strategic stage. Instead, the new area plans now being developed, rather than those produced on the previous even more haphazard case-by-case basis, are drawn up by the Post Office in consultation only with sub-postmasters and mistresses. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) mentioned in an Adjournment debate on 11 December last year, MPs and customers are excluded from the process and are consulted only once the plans have been drawn up.
It is clear that post office closures are determined not by their overall profitability or strategic importance but according to which sub-postmasters or mistresses are prepared to close down their business or, most commonly, are the first to put up their hands to accept the compensation offer. Given that the reinvention programme was intended to introduce coherence into the restructuring of the urban post office network, that random approach is unacceptable.