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Malcolm Bruce: I am slightly rebuked by the Minister. Of course, we are keen for people to take out card accounts. The fact that sufficient numbers have struggled through the system to get an account is welcome. Perhaps the 2.25 million who have not replied are, in effect, telling the Government to take a running jump.

Mr. Flook: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a pensioner in Winsford, a village in my Taunton constituency, who has a bank account tried to get a post office card account? After considerable effort, the pensioner obtained an account number but it turned out to be a dummy. The Post Office had no intention of giving her a card account because she already had a bank account.

Malcolm Bruce: I am of course well informed about the situation in Taunton. I certainly understand the hon. Gentleman's point; every Member could give a similar example. Every time we debate this subject, the Minister must be aware how much anger and frustration there is on both sides of the House. If he does not tell the Secretary of State that there is a problem—as she did not have the courtesy to attend the debate—he will not be doing his job. There is a problem and the Government had better realise it, or they will find out about the consequences in a painful way.

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The exceptions service has already been mentioned, and I have tabled an early-day motion about it. A significant number of people are likely to be affected—the Government estimate that it could be 3 million. For various reasons, some short-term and some long-term, those people will be unable to use any of the techniques currently on offer. They may not be able to make use of a card account, as they cannot cope with pin numbers, or they may not have a bank account. They may be ill for a couple of weeks or there may be a long-term problem. At present, they can sign their book and hand it over at the post office, or they can ask a proxy—an agent—to do that for them and bring them the money.

Under the new arrangements, we do not know what people will do. When we pressed the Government, we were given suggestions such as, "They will be given a cheque", but those people need cash so a cheque is not really the answer. It has even been suggested that they could receive cash from the Department for Work and Pensions by special courier. I have a vision of special couriers touring the country, trying to deliver cash to people in remote rural areas, to ensure that they are not excluded from the system. I suspect that it will cost substantially more than £400 million or £500 million a year to do that.

Another suggestion is that people would be given a special payment form that they or their agent could take to the post office to receive cash. It is even proposed that for convenience, so that a new form does not have to be issued each week, people could be given several forms stapled together to make a little book—[Laughter.] People could then take the book to the post office. Does that sound familiar? If that were to happen, several million other people would say, "What about us, why should we miss out?" That may be why several million people have cottoned on to the fact that the best thing to do when they receive letters from the DWP is not to reply and to keep the Government guessing until they come up with an answer.

Almost everything that matters in this situation is unknown. We still do not know how many people will apply for a card account or for payment by direct debit through the bank, or indeed how many people will not apply. We do not know how much the DWP will save through the new operation, especially as we know neither the mechanism for the exceptions service nor its cost. We do not know what the loss to sub-post offices will be, so we do not know how much business they can win back or from where; the scale of business that they need to find to cover the gap is unknown.

The Government are hell-bent on taking the process to a conclusion by a defined date, although almost every significant variable is unknown and they do not know what the outcome of any of the major parameters will be. The Government are heading for a serious fall. I suggest that until our questions are clearly answered, they should listen to Members, slow down the consultation process and recognise that the communities affected have a right to be consulted. The Government must explain the real long-term future for the Post Office, not merely the outcome of their current closure programme.

5.49 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to contribute briefly.

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The Minister is right to say that post office closures have been taking place for 15 years. Moreover, probably for the 20 years that I have been a Member, there has been a process of slow erosion. So, in many ways, a major programme should be welcome in that it would allow for planning and coherence, instead of the drip, drip that we have had for the past 20 years. The Minister has been listening to the debate and looking at his postbag, so he must understand that—whatever his brief says and whatever Postwatch and the Post Office tell him—there is no strategy in practice. There is no coherence. If there were a strategy, the Post Office would look at each community, and its needs, scale and geography would be considered and an assessment made about how many post offices were needed to serve that community. That is not taking place, and it is no good the Minister closing his ears to that.

I had had a very unpleasant and heated meeting with the regional management in my constituency last Friday, and it is clear that all that they have done is wait and see. They have put out the notice saying, "Please apply for closure," and have accepted every application that has come in. They have not varied that at all. They have had no view of their own. They have not varied; they have not opposed. They have simply taken whatever has been offered to them, because that is the cheapest and easiest way to meet their targets—dread words for this Government and most other Governments, but there it is.

There has been no strategy whatever, and the result in my constituency is not a closure programme; it is butchery. There are 21 closures in the city of Stoke-on-Trent and seven in my constituency, most of them down one side of the constituency, where two and half large wards, with more than 20,000 people, are now left without a single post office. That is not a planned, strategic closure programme; it is a complete cop-out and a waste, and it is destroying the services that should be there.

Mr. Weir: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but are not things slightly worse than he says? The Post Office is giving the impression that there is a planned programme. Did he, like me, receive a letter from the Post Office saying that it will now consider constituencies as a whole? The original letter said that the Post Office would look at my constituency in the spring of this year—that was in November last year—but two weeks later, I received a letter saying that one of the post offices in a borough in my area would close. The Post Office told me one thing one week and the complete opposite two weeks later. There is no strategy, just as the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Fisher: The hon. Gentleman is extremely lucky; he has been consulted by the Post Office. Most of us have not been consulted at all. If there is no strategy, there is virtually no consultation. The shadow Minister tried to suggest in opening the debate that Stoke-on-Trent was being favoured by having a six-week closure consultation programme. Almost all that time was over the Christmas period, so we effectively had about 12 working days.

In the past 20 years, hon. Members have had a great deal of experience of library and primary school closures, as well as of the closure of chemists and other

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local facilities. We are eroding our communities, and what we are doing with this closure programme is a continuation of that. We ought to understand what we are doing. It may make commercial sense, but it makes absolutely no social or community sense. That ought to be considered if we are to have public services.

The Minister should understand that there is no consultation at all. It is simply not taking place. We have all had experience of closures, but when a closure programme involves a local school, we have proper consultation, not 12 days. We have public meetings, and the local education authority and Ministers, if the issue goes to them, listen to and are lobbied by those putting the community case. None of that is happening.

I suggested that the regional management should hold meetings in my constituency. If the regional management believe that they have a good case for closing post offices, they should put it to the public. When I put it to them that they should do so, they just laughed. They thought it was a ludicrous idea. They said, "There is no time for that," but there is no enormous time pressure; we have to get this right. The Post Office and the Government will not get it right unless they first have a strategy, and secondly, listen to the people who will be affected. At the moment, there is no strategy or consultation and, as a result, there is a great deal of anger on all sides about the incoherent butchering of the service. We are seeing the end of the service as such, which will have an effect on communities. If the Minister is serious when he says that he wants an effective process, will he undertake, even at this late stage, to examine the individual cases that hon. Members of all parties have put to him?

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