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Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to raise the subject of post office closures on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I am grateful, as are a good number of my constituents' businesses and people across Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire. We feel that this is an eleventh-hour debate. It is our last chance to say to the Minister, whom I know to be caring and conscientious, that whatever the substance of what has been agreed under the Post Office reinvention programme, the reality on the ground in local neighbourhoods in Stoke-on-Trent and across north Staffordshire is very different.
As Parliament endorsed our Government's approachI stand up to be counted as somebody who accepted that things could not continue as they were, and therefore that we had to embrace changethe Minister owes it to us to look closely at the way in which the changes are being forced on us in Stoke-on-Trent. The Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for the Government's policy on postal services and for the nationwide network of postal services. The DTI, together with the Treasury, is the sole shareholder of Royal Mail Holdings plc. The Government have responsibility for overseeing the changes that have been brought about as a result of the Postal Services Act 2000. We expect the Minister to make the Post Office accountable for what it is doing in Stoke-on-Trent, across north Staffordshire and in other parts of the country, as evidenced by the presence of other hon. Members for the debate.
The proposal to close 21 offices across the citysix in my constituency, at Bradeley, Chell Heath, Stanfields, Dartmouth street, High lane and Waterloo roadamounts to nothing more than an ill-thought-out closure plan. It has been met with anger and derision and it is a travesty of the careful preparation that went into the Post Office reinvention programme. It has nothing to do with reinventing the Post Office to make its network services more viable. It has nothing to do with the Government's stated policies on neighbourhood renewal, which I have supported over many years. It will not strengthen the Post Office. The closure plan will weaken communities and betray trust in Government if it goes ahead without any changes. It will deter business from using the remaining post offices and provide incentives for businesses to look elsewhere, which the Post Office does not need or want.
Before I consider in detail what we will end up with, I shall comment on the consultation procedure. Members of ParliamentI am pleased to see my fellow MPs in the Chamber tonightalong with other consultees in Stoke-on-Trent received notice of the closures in a letter dated 9 December. As early as 11 December, just two days later, Postwatch chairman Peter Carr issued a press release condemning the Post Office for not properly managing the consultation process. The Post Office is risking its reputation and its brand.
When I look in detail at the procedure used for consultation, it is even more apparent that the consultation is simply a sham. Members of Parliament were granted a meeting with the Post Office, but it was only in a follow-up letter to us, dated 16 January, just three days ago, that the Post Office revealed whom they had invited to consult. Stoke-on-Trent city council informed MPs, at a meeting that we had only last Friday, that its meeting to agree what it should submit to the consultation was not due to take place until 5 o'clock on Friday. By close of play this evening, I still could not obtain the details of Stoke-on-Trent city council's submission to the Post Office about the proposals now being considered. How could the council also consult the residents organisations that it recognises and the ward community facilitation service that was meant to be bringing decision making directly down to the people along with the local councillors?
Likewise, Age Concern has told me that it has submitted its comments to me but has no faith at all that the Post Office will listen to its real concerns that what is proposed will contribute to the dismantling of local communities and increase hardship for older people. It makes the point that for many people on benefits or restricted incomes, 0.8 miles is simply too far to walk, and often there is no public transport. A similar point has been made to me by the Royal National Institute of the Blind. It says that the nature of public transport serving routes around the receiving post offices has not been taken into account. That view is also shared by the citizens advice bureaux, which are also on the consultation list, but which told me earlier today that they were not even aware that they had been contacted, so they have not submitted any views about the problems for the people whom they advise, including those whose limited incomes force them to rely on local services and who cannot afford to travel.
It is worth the Minister noting that the local strategic partnership in Stoke-on-Trent, set up under legislation to bring community partnerships together, has had no opportunity to put the closure proposals to its scheduled meetings. It makes the point that in the past 12 months it has mapped out the poorest neighbourhoods, but this botched consultation that we have been given by the Post Office gives it no time to evaluate the likely impact of closures within neighbourhoods in my constituency. Neither is it clear how the work of the social exclusion unit will be affected by the proposals. What is the point of having the social exclusion units to make sure that communities and people are working together if the Post Office ignores them? I therefore wonder how the Minister can be satisfied that he and his Department are overseeing joined-up government. We need that deadline for consultation extended.
When Ball Green was closed after a few weeks' reprieve, we were invited to hear the latest proposals, but neither elected Members nor local stakeholders were asked for our own ideas on the basic skeleton service that would best meet the needs of local people and business and be consistent with a strengthened post office network. The Post Office took no account of local council strategies or of the business and economic agendas that are being drawn up with Advantage West Midlands to renew the local economy after the large number of manufacturing job losses that have tragically occurred in our area.
We have neighbourhood renewal money earmarked for our city, we have health promotion plans, and we are encouraging small businesses to start up and to be successful, but the Post Office's so-called reinvention programme takes no account of any of that. Worst of all, it stands to undermine what other Departments are painstakingly trying to do on the ground with the support of local Members of Parliament. Will the Minister ask the Post Office to justify the assessment that it makes in paragraph 19 of its document on the urban network reinvention programme, which makes no reference to the housing pathfinders that are under way or to the regeneration zone's plans? Will he explain why paragraph 2, which describes the customer profile of the closing branch, makes no reference to the large number of elderly people who live in my constituency or to the industry-related ill health from which many of them suffer? The Post Office has failed even to base its plans on reliable facts.
The Post Office cannot hide behind its bland assertions that there is no alternative but to go full steam ahead with the closure plans. I have been talking to the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters in my constituency throughout the three years in which the reinvention plan has been under discussion. I recognise that there is an element of "use it or lose it" and that some post offices will inevitably have to close in order to strengthen remaining offices and to make the mantra of bigger, brighter and better post offices a reality. However, we have been sold short in the way in which the programme is being delivered. The Post Office is taking no account of deprivation in some
Why has the Post Office not come forward with a set of options based not only on the needs of its core business, but equally on the individual needs of different communities and local business? The reality is that the strategy is simply to close post offices where the sub-postmaster has expressed a wish to retire. Before any sub-postmaster attempts to harangue me for saying that, let me say that I understand that they cannot be expected to subsidise essential neighbourhood services. Nevertheless, it should be possible for the starting point of the consultation to be based on which areas need a post office, not on those where it is easiest to close one down. Only then can a genuine strategy be drawn up.
Many of the protests that I receive point out that the wealthier, well-served areas are not being deprived of services as are those communities that have greater need of them because of their deprivation and reliance on benefits. Can the Minister tell the House what account he has taken of recent complaints that the Department for Work and Pensions has not made it easy for people to opt out and to keep their payments via the post office account? Can he also tell us what progress has been made on the negotiations to agree a new commercial contract for sub-postmasters? It has been put to me in meetingshere I pay tribute to the work of Mr. John Morris, regional secretary of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters in north Staffordshirethat sub-postmasters cannot afford to pay the minimum wage to their employees on the basis of the current contract. That requires urgent consideration, as does the issue of improvements to assigned payments to benefit smaller post offices.
What account does the Minister take of the views of business in the consultation? Given the comments of Mr. Brian Carnes, director of the North Staffordshire chamber of commerce, about the proposals' costs to business, surely one DTI Minister should be conferring with his counterparts elsewhere? In an e-mail to me, one business man estimates that the annual cost of using a different post office would be £5,000 to his business alone. One hand of government is supporting business through the north Staffordshire regeneration programme while another is making it more difficult for business to operate. Indeed, other businesses have asked how they can survive when they will no longer have easy access to a post office where they can easily deposit bulky items.
I want, finally, to raise some reservations about the fund for deprived urban areas. The way in which it is being applied on the ground seems flawed. There are questions about which areas can apply to the fund and about which ward boundaries are to be used. Post offices that could benefit from the money in deprived wards are denied the opportunity because the strategy revolves around those who wish to retire rather than the communities that need to be served. Smallthorne post office is looking for support there, too.
I hope that the Minister will not simply read me his civil service brief. I have two positive suggestions for him. First, extend the consultation and make it meaningful. Secondly, involve the stakeholder organisations in reconfiguring the network so that it is based on real needs, competitiveness, deprivation, and community and neighbourhood renewal. Everyone accepts that some post offices may have to close, but we want meaningful consultation.