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26 Feb 2004 : Column 508

Main Post Office (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

6 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The Minister answers many debates on post office closures, but this one is different. Many are about rural or suburban sub-post offices, closed either because of the reduction in business resulting from pressure to get benefits paid into bank accounts, or because of the Post Office's network reinvention programme—a title that does not impress some of my colleagues because of the closures involved.

So far, most village post office closures in my constituency have been because no one could be found to take on the business. In fact, I have found the Post Office to be generally helpful and flexible in seeking to identify new sub-postmasters, and it has taken up my suggestions of experienced staff who could take on village post offices temporarily. I have had a useful and fruitful relationship with Post Office management locally on many village sub-post office closure issues, and it has tried hard to maintain the service wherever possible.

The case that I wish to raise tonight is different, because it concerns a main town centre post office, which used to be a Crown office but which was franchised out some years ago. Its closure, since August 2003, is not the result of policy decisions or viability problems, but of the failure of the Post Office to set up alternative facilities following a landlord-tenant dispute. It is very important to the people of Berwick, and it raises issues about the network of town centre post offices, the former Crown offices, which provide the widest range of Government-related facilities, including the issuing of motor vehicle licenses and provision of passport application assistance. I shall return to the wider issues after I have given the Minister something of the story of Berwick post office's closure.

I regard it as a disgrace that Berwick should have been without a main post office for seven months, with still no sign of it reopening. For many years—as long as anyone can remember—Berwick's town centre post office was a Crown office, occupying, in recent times, modern Post Office-owned premises combined with the Royal Mail sorting office. In the early 1990s, it was franchised out, and when we expressed widely held concerns about that, the Post Office insisted that the new arrangements would ensure the continuance of a conveniently sited central post office.

That facility was in fact provided in the Co-op premises for six or seven years, but when it gave up the contract three years ago, a new contractor and premises had to be found. Central premises were found, and the post office reopened. In February last year, the postmaster gave up the contract and a new postmaster was appointed, using the same rented premises.

At the end of August last year, the post office suddenly closed, for what was described as "operational reasons". Pensioners were advised to collect their pensions from sub-post offices, and motor vehicle licences could be obtained only by travelling to Scotland—to Duns or Eyemouth—or to Wooler, which

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is 16 miles away. On 11 September, it was revealed that the post office might not reopen for two months, and staff received their P45s. That was a grim day for them. A Post Office spokesman said:

Then, on 25 September, the post office reopened, with a picture in the local paper. Within days—on 1 October—it had closed again, and it became known that there was a dispute between the tenant and the landlord. That resulted in the Post Office being unable to gain access to the premises. One consequence was that people who had bought motor vehicle licences began to receive letters from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency warning them that they had committed an offence because they had not licensed their vehicles. The records were locked in the safe of the former post office.

Meanwhile, sub-post offices in the area were working hard to fill the gap. One is in Castlegate, quite close to the town centre, and I pay tribute to the sub-postmaster, Mr. Alistair Fairbairn, for the hard work he has put in. There has been great pressure on his sub-post office, sometimes with queues down the street of people collecting pensions and benefits. The Spittal post office took on motor licences, a valuable service that meant people could avoid the long journeys I mentioned earlier. The Tweedmouth and East Ord post offices carried extra responsibilities. There is no feeling among the sub-postmasters that they welcome the absence of the main post office, even though they might gain some business in the longer term if people choose not to go back to it.

On 30 October, the Post Office said that

We had already been warned that it would take two months, yet on 30 October we heard that it would be another six weeks. On 4 December, a company interested in taking over the post office complained that it could not obtain basic information to enable it to decide whether to make a bid, especially financial information relating to the number of staff it would need.

On 18 December, just before Christmas—the busiest time for a post office in terms of mail delivery and counter business—the Post Office announced that three sites were under consideration. On 12 February 2004, the Post Office confirmed that there was no further progress to report, although there had been plenty of local rumours that various premises were being considered. That was only a few weeks ago, but no further progress had been made by the Post Office. We are entering the seventh month since the closure of the town centre post office with no announcement that it will reopen.

I have repeatedly raised the matter with the Post Office and with Postwatch. Earlier this week, I presented a petition from readers of the Berwick Advertiser to the

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chief executive of the Post Office. Now, it is the Minister's turn. He should be involved, because a principle of public policy is at stake. Surely, we must retain a network of town centre post offices, like that previously provided by Crown offices. Like Departments and public offices, such post offices must remain open, rather than closing for six months or a year at a time; or are the former Crown offices simply regarded as being like other sub-post offices—possible victims of the network renewal programme? Are they to be put in the balance? Will some of them have to go, or do they have a special place—as I believe—because they are the main town centre facility and usually provide services that smaller sub-post offices cannot offer? When the franchise offices were created, every assurance was given that the tradition of the town centre Crown office would be maintained. Those offices provide vital public services and their retention should be a primary obligation for the Post Office. Franchising is supposed to provide those services, but the Post Office will have to deal much better with the loss of postmasters and premises to maintain service.

It is inevitable that franchise arrangements will break down occasionally, but the Post Office should have adequate emergency arrangements when that happens. A team of post office staff should have been brought in, using temporary premises or a mobile office, such as those used by banks, to maintain the service until a new contractor could be found, approved and, if necessary, trained—a process that is likely to take weeks or possibly months.

The Strategic Rail Authority does not allow the suspension of rail services for six months while it finds a new train operator—at least not so far; perhaps we shall reach that state eventually. The county council does not close schools for six months while it finds a new school transport contractor; it has to make emergency arrangements rapidly when things go wrong. Surely, the Post Office should have such mechanisms, including standby facilities to deal with emergency interruptions to service at main post offices, especially if that would lead to loss of service for long periods.

People in Berwick are very angry about the situation, which reflects badly on Post Office management. A similar situation could arise in other towns where the Crown office has been franchised out. Next time the Post Office proposes to replace a Crown office with a franchised office, the example of Berwick will be thrown back at it. The Post Office will no longer be able to give assurances with any credibility; they will no longer be believed, because people will refer to what has happened in Berwick.

The answer is twofold: the Post Office should get on with the job of setting up a replacement post office, and it should have an emergency facility that can be moved in whenever and wherever such a crisis occurs. The Minister should recognise that a matter of public policy is involved, put pressure on the Post Office to restore the service that Berwick ought to have and ensure that the Post Office considers how it can provide arrangements whenever this sort of thing happens in any part of the country.

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