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Mr. Stephen O'Brien: I can understand why the hon. Gentleman is frustrated and cross with the Liberal Democrat leader on his local council, but the Opposition motions of 13 January and today have attracted Liberal Democrat support. Moreover, and more importantly, today's debate gives the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to vote in line with his campaign. He may not want to join Opposition Members in the Lobby—although he would be more than welcome to do so, as a way to back up the rhetoric that he has used in his speech—but it is difficult to take his rhetoric at face value when he supports a Government amendment that is both self-congratulatory and uncritical. At the very least, he should consider abstaining.

Richard Burden: The Opposition have blown it when it comes to the motion. It makes some reasonable points about how Post Office Ltd. has gone about the restructuring programme, but the punchline can be found in the motion's final couple of lines. They state that the House

I understand that the Opposition believe that, but they are wrong. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, either we face the future by trying to plan for it and by requiring Post Office Ltd. to consult properly, or we opt for the free-for-all evident under the previous Conservative Government, when 3,500 sub-post offices closed.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Earlier, my hon. Friend mentioned the Horizon project. Does he recall that it was introduced by the previous Conservative Government, and that its aim of paying pensions and benefits by smartcard caused all sorts of problems? The difficulties faced by post offices stem from the actions of that Government, and Opposition Members will not get away with rewriting history. Does my hon. Friend also accept that the Horizon project cost £500 million, and that £50 million was needed to put it right?

Richard Burden: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is a salutary lesson for Opposition Members. If they want to throw stones, they should realise that they do so from a rather fragile glasshouse.

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It is important to put on the record the actions of the Liberal Democrat leader on Birmingham city council. Some modes of behaviour are acceptable in politics, and some are not. I believe that he has transgressed the line. Local people do not want politicians to behave like that. It is important for south Birmingham that politicians of all parties band together on this matter. We do not want to mislead people by claiming that every post office in every corner of Birmingham can be saved, but we can say that Post Office Ltd., in drawing up the plan, has fallen short of what the Government's requirements set out. It has identified the threats to local post offices, but not the opportunities open to them. It has also got its facts wrong, in a variety of ways.

As I said, I am a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which has announced that it is to undertake another investigation of post offices and the urban reinvention programme. Given that, it would be madness for Post Office Ltd. to go ahead with the planned closure programme for south Birmingham. The plan should be withdrawn, and Post Office Ltd. should think again. It needs to sit down with people from the local communities, elected politicians and others to determine what sort of post offices people in south Birmingham need, and to decide how to plan for the future. Post offices that are not sustainable should be closed, but high-quality services to local people must be maintained. Post offices should be encouraged to take on new business, so that they can provide a much better service for local people in the future.

3.7 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I have been a Member of Parliament for 12 years, and have taken part in many debates on the importance of post offices. This is a vital subject. The Post Office is a recognised brand, for which people have great affection. I grew up in Swansea, very near to a post office. I used to go in with my mother, and it was probably one of the first shops I ever entered. Even then, I knew the importance of the post office network.

When Ministers talk about restructuring, they are using an Orwellian code that means closure—a word they dare not use. In that context, using the word "restructuring" is like using the term "rightsizing" to explain why an employee has been sacked. What is happening is that the post office network as we understand it is being culled.

I am the first to accept that post offices have been closed by previous Governments, of all political complexions. However, I remember sitting on the Government Benches—and I will sit there again very shortly and without crossing the Floor—and the then Labour Opposition of 1992–97 telling us that post offices were closing. They said that that was callous, and that the Government of the day needed to do something about it. There was a suggestion at that time that the Government were going to change the benefit system, and that benefits would be paid by means of a card.

The Conservative Government considered the matter and listened to what the public had to say. Our proposals for the card system were never implemented, but this Government are going ahead with introducing their own version. Labour Opposition Members at the time said that the urban and rural post office networks were both vitally important, for different reasons.

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In my Ribble Valley constituency, the towns of Clitheroe and Longridge have vibrant post offices. A number of villages still have post offices but, sadly, some have closed since 1997.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I am interested to hear what my hon. Friend says about the rural scene in his constituency. Does he recognise that in a suburban area such as Orpington, which I represent, the little parades of shops are dependent on the local post offices as a central component? If the post office goes, the parades often fold.

Mr. Evans: With my retail hat on, I accept that point completely. To the grocer, butcher, fishmonger, pharmacist and other small retailers, the post office is part of the community of services available to the public. When a vital part of that community is taken away, the others start to struggle. When the boards go up outside the post office, it is often not long before the boards go up outside other retail outlets.

We have always been told that the post office network is important. I was depressed when I saw in the Lancashire Evening Post the other day the headline "Nine post offices to shut". That included five in Preston, two in Chorley and two in Penwortham. Postwatch wrote to me on 18 March about those closures, and about the proposed closure of five post offices in Rotherham and 13 in Bury. Today we have heard about 29 closures in south Birmingham—from a Labour Member. Irrespective of party, if we wish to see a post office network of any worth survive into the future, we should speak up about it now and do something before it disappears completely—otherwise, a vital asset will be lost to this country for ever.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the growth in the elderly population and how important the post office network is to that sector of the community. Some of them do not have access to cars or other transport, especially in rural areas where the bus service is not what it used to be. That is why they need local post offices, which often sell other items. They also enjoy the opportunity to chat to post office staff and meet other members of the community.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Has my hon. Friend come across the problem that my elderly and rural constituents face because Powergen, with only three weeks' notice, has withdrawn the electricity token service from post offices? People without transport, and of necessity on low incomes—and many of them not very mobile—had been able to purchase tokens at the post office to feed their meters at home. However, after scant consultation, Powergen has decided to withdraw that service. Does my hon. Friend agree that that action weighs most heavily on the elderly and less well-off in rural areas?

Mr. Evans: Of course it does, because the token system is designed to ensure that the less well-off are able to eke out their resources and maintain their supplies of power. I hope that Powergen will think again. I hope that it will consult properly with the post office network and their customers to see whether the service should continue. I hope that Powergen will also listen closely to what my right hon. Friend has said today. I suspect that

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we are talking about another nail in the coffin. The withdrawal of that service might not, by itself, be the reason for closure, but alongside all the other changes that the Government have made it will make post offices less viable.

I asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether she would consider becoming a postmistress and she said gleefully that she would if she lost her seat. I think that was a hollow reply, because the profitability of post offices is part of the problem. I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about the incentives offered to postmasters and postmistresses to give up their post offices. If people are not making any money from their post office and somebody offers them a pot of cash, they will probably take it, because they are frightened of the future. They have seen the profitability of their post offices decline because of the withdrawal of services such as Powergen's, and the lack of footfall because so many benefits are now paid into bank and building society accounts. They take the cash and get out of the business, thus reducing the number of post offices further.

I encourage the Government to consider what new services post offices might be able to provide, but some post offices in smaller areas are unable to expand. Will postmasters and postmistresses who see their profitability falling risk borrowing more money—if they even can—to expand the goods and services available in their post offices? If a post office is run by a husband and wife team, they are chained to it from the time it opens in the morning until it closes in the early evening. Because of the lack of profitability, they cannot afford to employ anyone to give them some time off. We have to consider the profitability of post offices, but as we have heard today fewer people are going into post offices and fewer transactions are taking place.

The Secretary of State mentioned 25 million banking transactions, but how much profit do post offices receive, compared with the old system? The reality is that they are making less profit. There are fewer post offices, and they are not as viable as they used to be. Running a post office is also a huge responsibility, because it is a cash-based business. We heard about the introduction of ATMs to post offices, but many people resent the charges they impose for withdrawals. In the past, withdrawing money was free of charge, but now it costs £1.25 or £1.75. I can understand why people on fixed incomes feel so strongly about having to pay those charges.

I pay tribute to one of my local post offices in Bolton by Bowland. It has added tea rooms to diversify its services, although that is a lot more effort for those in charge. During the rugby world cup, the post office opened at unsocial hours so that people could come together and enjoy England's great victory.

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