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Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): As my time is limited to two and a half minutes, I shall move swiftly to the matter in hand for my constituents, which is the Cwmparc post office. I do not know whether any Members have seen the film "Very Annie Mary". In the opening scene, Jonathan Pryce goes down from the Bwlch into the beautiful Bwlch valley, sweeping past a glorious rural areaan idyll which, unfortunately, the Post Office describes as urban because, apparently, it is contiguous with a community of 10,000. It is in Treorchy ward, a large ward with three members on the local council which includes some wealthier areas. It does not count as a deprived area, although many of the houses in Cwmparc are among the poorest accommodation in Wales. It is all private accommodation, owned by former miners and their families.
I believe that Cwmparc post office should stay open, for the simple reason that it falls between two stools. It counts as neither "rural" nor "urban deprived". In some cases statistics do not help us, and we should make it possible for post offices to stay open.
I am delighted that the Government established Postwatch. I was consulted from the start. It was not difficult to consult with people of Cwmparc on whether they wanted their post office to remain open: they said yes very firmly and very swiftly, within 24 hours. A
Finally, what sometimes happens when a post office closes is that the post box closes as well. That can be disastrous for a local community, so I greatly hope that neither of those things will happen to the people of Cwmparc.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Well, the Prime Minister wanted a big conversation and, boy, he certainly got that this evening. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been highly critical of changes in the post office network, so I hope that the Prime Minister was listening. I have to say that it is a great shame that the Secretary of State was not here to listen. It is clear from the debate why she has left the poor old Minister hanging out to dry. That is obvious from the nature of the interventions that the Minister has taken from his own side. The poor Minister has had to face it now, and he will have to face it later on, too.
Two points have been made clear by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House this evening. The post office network is an absolutely vital part of our social fabric, and it must be preserved. However, we have heard that the pattern of closures is no pattern at all. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) said to the Minister that the closure strategy might exist in his head, but was not happening on the ground. There is no closure strategy; there is no coherence. That was the very point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) in opening the debate.
My neighbour, the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), spoke about deprivation in south-east Tamworth. He spoke about the commitment to keeping post offices in such areas open and asked the Minister whether it was a commitment or a "mere platitude". We all look forward to hearing the answer to that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) paid tribute to Postwatch, but pointed outsadly, quite rightlythat it had neither teeth, nor any powers. Perhaps the Minister will tell us this evening how he intends to give Postwatch the necessary teeth and powers. The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) agreed with the whole motion, except for the tiny bit that condemned the Government.
I have to say that in the whole debate today, not to mention that of 11 December, not one of all the hon. Members who have taken partnot even my old friend, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)congratulated the Government on their handling of this particular issue. That is the whole problem. The programme to close urban post offices is piecemeal, with insufficient consultation.
The future of our rural post offices hangs in the balance and the new system for the direct payment of pensions and benefits is causing widespread difficulty to pensioners and other vulnerable people. The closure programme has been brought forward by a year to the end of December 2004, which, according to Postcomm, has resulted in a closure rate of up to 150 a month.
The pace of that closure had led to several concerns being expressed today. There has been a lack of consultation with local communities and with MPs in drawing up plans for future local provision of post office services. Instead, plans have been drawn up in secret, with consultation only on individual closure proposals arising from the plan on a branch-by-branch basis.
In addition to the consultation programme, we are particularly concerned, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury has pointed out, about the impact of the new system for the direct payment of benefits: the automated credit transfer scheme, which has been heavily criticised for failing to reflect customers' needs. First, the Post Office card account application process is tortuous. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and others have pointed out, one has to go through some 22 stages in order to obtain such an accountand it would seem to everyone that the Government's information campaign has been designed to ensure that as few people as possible choose this account. Secondly, the campaign to switch to ACT started too late and has been poorly executed. Thirdly, there is widespread concern that vulnerable pensioners and disabled people will be unable to use the electronic card and PIN system. I look forward to the results of the MORI survey mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, which will involve a comparison of sub-postmaster income before and after the introduction of direct payment, as reported by Postcomm.
Aside from the closure of urban post offices under the reinvention programme, we are also concerned about the rural post office network. Funds are being made available, but what will happen after 2006?
This morning, the Prime Minister presented a radio show on LBC. When asked, his official Downing street spokesman told journalists that the Prime Minister would now consider doing weddings and bar mitzvahs, too. Somewhere in that busy schedule, I hope that he will also ponder the future of the Post Office, for yes, he has a responsibility for post offices too. As they continue to close around the country at breakneck speed, the needs of our local communities and of vulnerable people within them are not being properly met. The Government are ultimately responsible for a closure process that is running at breakneck speed, without showing due regard for the way it is being operated. Local characteristics are being ignored and local communities are not being properly consulted. There is inadequate long-term planning and a lack of a co-ordinated framework. Let us be clear: although the Post Office is a public corporation, it is the Secretary of Stateshe is not in her place todaywho appoints its board, and the Government wholly own its shares. They cannot duck responsibility for the Post Office's future, and for their oversight.
The Minister must now answer these questions. What will the future of the 9,000 rural post offices after 2006 be? Will funding continue, or does Labour plan to abandon rural post offices after the next election? Why have the Government not intervened over the manner in which urban post offices are being closed; or, despite what the Minister has heard today, does he still believe that all is going well? What steps will he take to ensure that future closures are properly consulted on, in order to meet local needs? And when will he intervene to ensure that the direct payments system works properly? Will he change the procedure to make applications for card accounts simpler and quicker? Will he ensure that the 22-stage questionnaire is abolished? Will he insist that the PIN pad be changed to enable disabled and blind people to use it more readily? And will he meet his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensionshis ministerial colleague the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), has strolled in and sat down on the Front Bench at the last momentto ensure that Post Office card accounts become an equally attractive alternative to bank accounts? Now is the time for the Minister to answer. Now is the time for this Government finally, perhaps, to deliver.