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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 programmea 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 yearsas long as anyone can rememberBerwick'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 Scotlandto Duns or Eyemouthor to Wooler, which
We would like to apologise to our customers in Berwick for the inconvenience this is causing them but we want to reassure them that we are doing all we can to reopen a branch in the town as soon as possible."
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 18 December, just before Christmasthe busiest time for a post office in terms of mail delivery and counter businessthe 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.
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, traineda 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 operatorat 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.