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Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what the Minister said on this issue is totally unrealistic? He said that if a post office in our constituency is under threat and we want to save it, we must choose another post office to close instead. That would be like being a judge at a good-looking baby contest, where the MP has to choose the good-looking baby, thereby disappointing the many others. It is just not credible.
Malcolm Bruce: The hon. Gentleman is of course right. The Minister is saying, "Please join me in my dirty work and share the blame."
I have some sympathy for the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), who could not answer the question about child benefit payments to his own household. I assure hon. Members that my wife was the firstand as far as I know onlyperson to register for a card account at the local post office. The evidence shows that the connection between the availability of a post office and the choice of where to collect child benefit has been lost on many child benefit claimants. Mothers I have spoken to say that payment through bank accounts is more convenient and that they were asked for their bank details, so they supplied them. When it is pointed out to them that the consequence of opting for that form of payment means that post offices are unable to provide other services, because of the loss of income, many say that they would have preferred to retain payment through the post office. The original letter to
Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Malcolm Bruce: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would like to make progress because several other hon. Members wish to speak.
The spokesman for the Conservatives and some Back Benchers have articulated examples of the management of closures. Just before Christmas, my party's candidate for Mid-Sussex contacted me to say that she had chaired public meetings in the constituency to campaign against a proposed closure. She was told that the final date for closure was 23 December, with confirmation to come early in the new year, and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) referred to those problems earlier in the debate. It is a disgraceful way to treat people who are trying to obtain the views of the public. The Post Office's effective message is, "We are not interested." It is offensive that PostwatchI mean no sweeping criticism of that organisationis given advance information on closure proposals in confidence, on condition that it does not disclose the details to anybody, especially elected representatives of the public. There is no justification for a consumer watchdog having an advantage over elected representatives.
The failure to consult local authorities in their capacity as planning authorities means that possible future patterns of trade, which could be relevant to closure, are not taken into consideration. That is a failure to use the resources that are available.
Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the nature of the consultation in my constituency? Despite a vigorous campaign to save the Brondesbury and Gladstone Parade post offices, they both closed in the summer. I found it extraordinary and outrageous that hundreds of signatures on petitions of protest were recorded as one objection. When we asked the general area manager what we would have to do to change his mind about a closure, he said that he had complete confidence in the decision-making process and it would be difficult to change his mind. What a sham.
Malcolm Bruce: As my hon. Friend points out, it does not matter whether there is one objection or a thousand, because no one will take any notice of them anyway. It is nonsense to suggest that a genuine process of consultation occurs.
Given the Minister's dealings with the Post Office, I wish to make a serious point about its middle management staff, who treat their power as a means to patronise Members of Parliament and representatives of the public. The attitude of middle management is that they have the power and nothing we do or say will change that because our views are irrelevant. That is an outrageous attitude for a public service. On many other occasions, we fight on behalf of the management to try to secure a future for the business. It should recognise that we need a partnership, not an arrogant dismissal of the legitimate role of Members of Parliament.
I have received representations from our candidates for Mid-Sussex, Newcastle, Essex and Leeds, all complaining about the same problems as have been articulated here tonight. Under the urban renewal programme, the Government have put up £30 million for reinvestment for those post offices that have been retained in the network. However, it has already been proved that post offices are closed, not according to the needs of the community but on the basis of self-selection by postmasters and mistresses, and nobody can blame them for that.
In addition, theoretically there is money available for offices that are continuing within the network, to improve their premises to meet growing business. I am told that scheme is supposed to be completed in three months. So far, of the £30 million made available, less than £1 million has been taken up. That is hardly surprising. If one is in the middle of an extremely controversial process where morale is low, one would be unwilling to put up 50 per cent of the money to secure the other 50 per cent of match funding to invest in one's business before having the chance to establish what the new pattern of business was likely to be in the future.
Will the Minister explain the time scale? Should it not be extended? Does he recognise that if less than £1 million of the £30 million has been drawn down, reinvention in the sense of investment in the remaining network is empty and meaningless?
Where will the new business for post offices come from, given that "Your Guide" has been rejected. There is clearly demand by many Government agencies to use the Post Office network to distribute information, forms and so onfor which service those agencies presumably pay, yet there seems to be no suggestion that arrangement should be reviewed and reconsidered. If there is to be reinvention, presumably it ought to be possible for additional post offices to be registered for vehicle licensing, passport applications and so on. Instead, one tends to find that the whole deal is rigid and restricted. The Post Office has a network but buyers have no idea what it isand individual changes are almost impossible. When a Member of Parliament is approached by a post office that wants to issue vehicle licence, driving licence or passport forms, there is no mechanism by which such requests can be processed. That should be part and parcel of a genuine review of the future role of the Post Office.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): In the town of Berwick the Post Office was unable to maintain its former Crown office, which has been closed for many months. Anyone who wants to obtain a vehicle motor licence must either go to Scotland or to a post office 16 miles away in England. Does that not indicate that even in an area in which the Post Office is supposed to be maintaining traditional central offices, it is not doing so?
Malcolm Bruce: My right hon. Friend has anticipated my next point. The role of the Crown office has become extremely unclear. When the large number of Crown offices that used to exist were effectively privatised or abolished by the previous Government some 10 years ago, it was said that that would make no difference to services. The right hon. Gentleman confirms that the loss of a Crown office means the loss of a service.
The town of Keith in my constituency has a population of 4,000 or 5,000, so it is comparable to several others in the area. For historical reasons, Keith has never had a Crown office so the office there is not allowed to issue passport formseven though it is owned by a postmaster with another post office that has the capacity to do that work. That kind of bureaucratic nonsense does not address the needs of the community but is a historical hangover. It is one reason why many of us are less than convinced that the proposals really are a reinvention or renewal but believe that they represent systematic closure, rationalisation and a rundown of the service. While the focus currently is on urban post offices, we are waiting for the money to run out for rural offices and for the roof to fall in on them.
Progress with the card account is also unclear. The figures that are regularly published tell us that so far, 7 million of the 30 million accounts have been approached. Of the 7.25 million account holders who have been invited to convert, 2.25 million have not even replied. One third of those who did reply said, "Take a running jump" or applied for a card account. In other words, they were not interested. The future requirements of millions of people and their implications are unknown to the Government and the Post Office. That is particularly true of child benefit.
Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman makes a number of thoughtful points, but I want to clarify that applying for a Post Office card account does not amount to saying "Take a running jump." It is an entirely proper outcome of the process. Something like 2 million people have so far indicated their preference. That is their right and that is what they will get.