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Mr. Clelland: That may well be the case. My experience would bear that out. I do not believe that the Post Office could have investigated in the way that it says it has and come to the conclusion that it reached.

There is a rule that sub-post offices in the most deprived areas should not be closed if there is not an alternative within half a mile. However, in the case of the Armstrong Road and West Benwell post offices, which I mentioned earlier, the Post Office argued that if both are closed at once, that rule does not apply. I have taken the matter up with the Minister, who I am pleased to say supports me. I understand that the matter will be re-examined. I had a letter from the Minister in December, in which he writes that

Concessionary fares are just that: they are not free. People still have to pay, and concessionary fares do not apply to all those who use the post office services. Moreover, one mile is an awfully long way to walk in the terrain that I described earlier.

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The Minister told me, and he repeated today, that some postmasters are leaving the system owing to a lack of business. That may be true in some cases, but not in all. Some retirements are taking place, but in many cases, such as that of the Dun Cow post office in Dunston, there is no lack of business, with 1,200 people in the immediate vicinity asking for it to be kept open. Some postmasters are retiring, but many are being bought out by the sweeteners being offered by Post Office Ltd.

Despite the changes that are undoubtedly taking place—I accept that changes are taking place—the sub-post offices in Tyne Bridge remain an important and necessary service for thousands of my constituents. The proposed closure of almost half the total outlets in Tyne Bridge is excessive and will cause hardship. It should be reconsidered by the Post Office, whose duty to run an efficient business should not undermine the very services that it exists to provide.

6.9 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The subject was last debated on the Floor of the House on 11 December, when the House considered the Trade and Industry Committee report and the Government's response to it. Replying to that debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) said:

He was right. That was a two-hour debate, during which there were 21 contributions—10 from Labour Members of Parliament, seven from Conservative Members, and four from minority party Members. Every single contributor to that debate was hostile to the Government and to the post office programme. So far in today's debate, every contributor on both sides of the House has been hostile. If there is an hon. Member present who is prepared to stand up and say, "I support entirely what the Government and the Post Office are doing", I will willingly give way to them. However, I do not detect anyone coming forward to say that, as making such a remark would be electoral suicide in one's constituency. As the Under- Secretary rightly said, this matter is vital to every hon. Member.

The thrust of the debate on 11 December was the availability, or lack of availability, of Post Office card accounts. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), said that the Department for Work and Pensions had

Postwatch has said:

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) reminded the House in Westminster Hall on 7 January 2004 and has said again in the House this

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afternoon, there are 22 steps in the process of obtaining a Post Office card account. That is effectively a deliberate attempt to dissuade post office customers, including sub-post office customers and the business customers of the sub-postmasters, from obtaining Post Office card accounts.

In replying to the 7 January debate in Westminster Hall, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), said:

He also said:

That is rubbish. It is what is now called, in prime ministerial parlance, a whopping great totality. My constituents, the elderly who live in Herne Bay and Margate, are not interested in what the denizens of Islington regard as inclusion. They are not queuing up for new mortgages, they do not want to do share dealing and they are not even trying to apply for passports. They want to be able to take their post office book down to the post office to get their cash and to buy the things that they want from the little shop that is attached to it. If they cannot do that, they want a Post Office card account, and they would like to get one easily, please, and because of age and probably physical capability, they do not want to have to jump through 22 hoops to do so.

That footfall, which was mentioned earlier, is vital to these small businesses. It is not surprising that small business people, which is what sub-postmasters are, are taking the money and running, because the alternative would be bankruptcy. Businesses on which they were relying for their retirement, which they now cannot sell, would be destroyed by Government action and the post office programme.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Bradford, South, said in this Chamber on 11 December:

The Government amendment to the motion before us refers to a


That is a mile by a straight line, but I have news for the Minister; my constituents, particularly the elderly, do not walk in straight lines through buildings. They follow the roads. Neither do they particularly want to have to climb up hill and down dale, which is often the shortest route as measured by the Post Office, but not the most reasonable one.

The so-called consultation process is a total charade. It is absolutely meaningless. I am sure that there is not a single Member in this Chamber who has not tried to

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protect a post office, and I should be very surprised if anyone had succeeded in doing so. Yes, Postwatch has stayed some executions, but, mark my words, those post offices will close. The Post Office's failure to do its homework and the lip service that the Minister pays to that is disgraceful.

The Post Office tells me that it is possible to drive from the former Studd Hill post office in my constituency to the Sea Street sub-post office—assuming, of course, that one has a car—in three minutes. Michael Schumacher could not do it in that time: it is simply unrealistic. At the other end of my constituency, the Post Office has done its homework so well—I have mentioned this in the Chamber before—that I am told that the rail service and the underground are the alternatives to the non-existent bus. I have represented Margate for 20 years, but I have not yet found the metro station—unless the Post Office means that everybody will have to travel to London to use the post office. It is ridiculous.

The Minister says that local people have to demonstrate local support. In my constituency, and I suspect in every constituency represented in this Chamber, people have been queuing up to demonstrate local support to try to keep open the services that they want for themselves and their families. However, the petitions and the letters from Members of Parliament and local councillors of all political persuasions are not worth the paper that they are written on. It is a charade, and the Minister should be ashamed of it.

Sadly, it will be a little while yet—possibly until the end of this year—before this Government are reinvented and closed. In the meantime, post office closures are continuing. For me, the sadness is that the people who are responsible will be long gone by the time it is left to the rest of us to try to clear up the wreckage.

6.17 pm

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): I rise not only to speak specifically about my constituency, as many hon. Members have done, but as someone who has watched the financial troubles of the Royal Mail and Consignia, to make the point that we should remember that many of the problems that we face today date back to the 1980s and 1990s, when the Post Office was cash-strapped and the then Government, who are now in opposition, were unsure about whether to privatise it.

I have received briefings from the Post Office locally and nationally. I have heard Allan Leighton—who changed Consignia's name back to the Royal Mail in his efforts to create what he sees as a first-class, world-class postal service—speak about reinventing the Post Office. I accept that some sort of change is necessary. I am saddened by the tenor of the motion tabled by the Opposition, who seem to deny that there is any need for reinvention and put forward no positive response to the Government's suggestions. However, although their motion contains some negative terms, I have some sympathy with some of their arguments.

When the consultation began, I wondered how it would work. Unfortunately, it is now evident that six weeks was too short a period, and the process seemed inflexible. In the case of three of my local post offices, the consultation process on their closure was due to finish on 6 January. As the two weeks over Christmas are dead

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time, I wrote to the Post Office to ask if it would be possible to extend the process for another two weeks to allow for problems with the mail. I put in that request well before Christmas and got my reply on 5 January, the day before the consultation ended. That gave me a little time to mount a representation, which I did. The inflexible and short-term nature of the process suggests that this is a done deal and that in the end the consultation will have made no difference.

The basis of some of the decisions must be flawed. I know that from my local community and one of the post offices, which is proposed for closure and based in Barnhill in Dundee. It is centred in a vibrant and busy shopping centre but the alternative was somewhere isolated and out of the way. It has subsequently been found that the alternative post office is for sale and may close. That means that Barnhill, which is fairly populous, would be without postal services.

A Conservative councillor has taken up the matter on behalf of constituents. I have worked with Postwatch to try to put the case. My case was that, given the presence of two large supermarkets, if the post office had to close, why not try to locate it in one of them. I believed that the Post Office would consider that in the run-up to the consultation and present that option rather than the smaller, isolated, less used post office that may close.

The Minister made the point that some reviews have taken place. I learned something today and I was chasing it up as late as 2.30 pm before the debate. I was led to believe that, on the basis of my representations, those of Councillor Mackie, who is Conservative councillor for Barnhill, and those of Postwatch, a hold will be put on the decision until my alternative can be examined. Lack of alternatives damns many hon. Members' cases.

The option was easy to devise because in Dundee, West, where a large Tesco is located, the same thing happened. A post office was to close in Lochee but it was successfully relocated in the Tesco superstore. However, it takes time to work out the options and it is obvious that time was at a premium in the process. Given the importance of ensuring that we have a first-class, world-class postal service, we need to take more time to consider the matter.

I have a dilemma with the current partial success—I cannot say that the process will ultimately be successful because there is a long way to go. I know from my work in writing and making phone calls to get some sort of feedback that the dilemma is mirrored throughout the country. Only four post offices are proposed for closure in my constituency. Other hon. Members have mentioned statistics such as 29 post offices. The problem in Dundee is therefore not on the same scale as those in some areas, but the services are all vital to their communities.

I made the point to the Minister at the beginning of the process that I believed that the Government were brave to tackle the problem. We have heard Allan Leighton speak about the Post Office losing millions of pounds; something had to be done. The Minister and the Government now have to be brave and say that there needs to be time out, to use a basketball term, to tease out some matters. When good cases have been made, there should be a review. The Government should be able to tell the Post Office that there should be a review

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process as a backstop. Postwatch has played a role but it needs to be beefed up to ascertain whether, given more time for thought about what the process would entail, there could have been more detailed work on the economic, social and community basis for closures and for keeping post offices open.

I want briefly to consider two further vital issues. I accept the need for exceptional services. Some people need to go to post offices to get their pensions and benefits over the counter. That should continue. I have been sufficiently lucky to ensure that several pensioners—one a sprightly 94-year-old—managed to keep their Post Office pension books. It is not well known that the exceptional circumstances can continue. Like many people, I am worried that after 2005, they will disappear. The Government must make a commitment to continuing them.

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