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Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Fisher: I am about to conclude, because many other hon. Members wish to speak.

Will the Minister recognise that the position on the ground is such that there is no strategy or consultation? If necessary, he could lengthen the consultation process and use the Government's position in relation to the Post Office to require it to have a coherent strategy. Such a strategy would start with assessing populations, needs and geography before planning a network, rather than simply saying, "Who wants to close, because you all can?"

5.56 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): This is far from the first time that I have raised post office closures in Eastbourne. I have raised the matter in several debates—the most recent debate that I secured was held on 14 October 2003—and even during Prime Minister's questions. I hate to seem a little like the ghost of Christmas yet to come. However, I was one of the lucky ones whose constituency was among the very first to be blessed with the area plan procedure, so I am here to give a warning, I hope not in too ghoulish a way, of what is to come for hon. Members whose lives have not yet been touched by the process; they should know what lies in store.

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My constituency was singled out for the area plan approach in early August last year. While almost everyone was on holiday or thinking about other things, a letter suddenly arrived about post office closures. There were two separate consultation processes. One process related to three, and subsequently four, sub-post offices in my constituency, and the other proposed the closure of the Upperton Road post office, which most people in Eastbourne regard as the main post office in my constituency. We eventually persuaded the Post Office to hold both consultations together and to extend the overall consultation period. I personally asked the Post Office to send senior people to attend a public meeting in Eastbourne town hall, which took place toward the end of last year, in addition to participating in the ordinary consultation exercise.

My perhaps naive belief, which was shared by Postwatch, was that because our area was one of the first to be involved in the process, all procedures would be followed to the letter and taken seriously by the Post Office. I could have not have been more wrong. Four sub-post offices—Whitley Road, Avard Crescent, Compton Street and Church Street—have closed, and the main post office on Upperton road is due to close on 7 February.

I pay tribute in passing to Postwatch—as did the Minister—and especially to Mr. David Bland, for being extremely co-operative and helpful throughout the process. However, Postwatch has no teeth or power. It is true that the dispute was escalated—to use the jargon—and that Peter Carr, the national chairman of Postwatch, personally raised the Upperton Road closure with no less a figure than Mr. David Mills, the chief executive officer of the Post Office. However, as I have explained, the post office is to close in a few weeks' time. Postwatch was so disturbed by the way in which its views were disregarded that it made more global representations to ensure consideration

so that both sub-post offices and Crown post offices would be taken into account with as much equality as possible throughout the process.

There is a real issue, and I have three brief observations to make from my experience. First, the Post Office is adept at ignoring even the business case for keeping a post office open. Leaks from the staff of the Upperton Road post office showed that, far from suffering the losses that were alleged, it was doing rather well. Indeed, the staff have subsequently received substantial bonuses for their efforts. It makes little sense for the Post Office to enter into a deal worth £100 million-plus for financial services with the Bank of Ireland, as we have heard, given that in Eastbourne it is shutting more than a quarter of our post offices, with the closure of five of the 19 post offices in the town.

As I pointed out to the Minister in an intervention, there is no guarantee that the area plan system will work. It was proposed as a better alternative to piecemeal closures, but in my constituency sub-postmasters who would have liked a deal were not offered one, and their businesses, largely as a result of Government policy, are now extremely marginal and

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may well close in due course. There will therefore be closures under the plan, but there will also be other piecemeal closures.

Finally, I turn to the consultation, which in retrospect I regard as flawed and entirely bogus. There was a vast expression of local opinion, in petitions, letters and e-mails and at a public meeting, all of which was disregarded by the Post Office. It was as plain as a pikestaff from its attitude in correspondence and at the public meeting that it was not interested in taking note of those strong feelings or the massive disadvantages, particularly for elderly people in my constituency, of the closures.

I shall close by talking about two other interesting straws in the wind. I was approached by a constituent who was prepared to take on a business that the Post Office proposed to close and continue to run it as a sub-post office. The Post Office was not in the least interested in accepting his proposal. The other straw in the wind concerns the staff at the main post office on Upperton road, who were told well before the consultation that it would close on 5 February. That is now the official closure date, and they must migrate, presumably along with a lot of customers, to the other end of the town centre to another branch that is already extremely busy, overused and short of space. In a nutshell, the consultation was a travesty, and any hon. Member who faces even the suggestion of consultation should question very carefully indeed whether they are simply being led up the garden path by the Post Office.

6.2 pm

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): When I read the motion on the Order Paper, I agreed with almost all of it, apart—given that my regional Whip, the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp), is on the Front Bench—from the phrase "condemns the Government", which I could never do. However, I am afraid to disappoint Opposition Members, but I shall not join them in the Lobby. Although I agree with the wording of the motion, it is born of the Opposition's cynicism and opportunism. After 18 years in government, when they closed 3,500 post offices, they have the cheek to talk about breathtaking double standards and crocodile tears, as the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) put it.

I object to the number of closures in my Tyne Bridge constituency. Under the programme, no fewer than nine of our 21 post offices are scheduled for closure, three in Newcastle and six in Gateshead. All the indicators show that my constituency is one of the most deprived in the country, and the least worthy of such a blow. I am not suggesting that the service should not be rationalised by any means. Some people are voting with their feet and have found alternative ways of collecting pensions, welfare benefits and so on. That trend will continue. More and more pensioners, for example, will choose to have their pensions paid into their bank accounts because their wages and salaries were paid in that way. I therefore accept the need for rationalisation in some instances, but the closure of nine of the 21 sub-post offices in Tyne Bridge is excessive, and does not take sufficient account of the terrain.

The Post Office has told me that its staff walk the areas around post offices before making a decision about closure. If they did so in Tyne Bridge, they would have

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to be pretty fit. One post office is the aptly named Deckham Hill—whatever direction people walk in they go up and down very steep inclines indeed. The people who rely on post office services are generally elderly or infirm, or are mothers pushing prams, and will find access very difficult indeed.

In the case of another post office, the Dun Cow, which serves the Dunston Hill area of my constituency, 1,200 local residents signed a petition against its closure. I pay tribute to the Labour councillors in the area who kept the people so well informed and gathered the names on the petition. Similarly, in Newcastle, another 1,200 people signed petitions against recently announced post office closures, which will be a devastating blow to local people and raise concerns about more closures in the future.

It appears that not enough account is taken of future development. The Low Teams post office in my constituency is scheduled for closure on the basis that there has been some demolition in the area. However, new development is taking place to replace the demolition. New houses are being built on the riverside in the former garden festival site and around the post office itself. That does not seem to be taken into account by the Post Office. A similar argument applies to the Armstrong Road and West Benwell post offices in Newcastle, in an area known as the "going for growth" area of Newcastle, where substantial redevelopment is planned.

Mrs. Calton: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. I have a letter from the chief executive of the Post Office, who tells me clearly that he believes that

are included in the consultation process. In fact, as the hon. Gentleman knows from his experience and as I know from mine, that does not seem to be happening. Does he think that the top levels of the Post Office may not know what the intermediate levels of the Post Office are doing?

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