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As I was saying, opportunities for diversification are limited. I hope that the Minister, when he winds up, does not treat this as just another debate on post offices that has to be got through before the next debate on the same
This whole subject boils down to the question of choice. Some elderly people have received phone calls about how they would like their benefits to be paid, and they have been discouraged from opening a post office account. They are told that it is better for their money to be paid directly into their bank or building society, but that is no choice.
Mr. Webb: I note that the Minister is shaking his head. Is he suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is lying? I do not understand why, given that all hon. Members have had constituents come to us about post office closures. What does it take to get the Government to realise that this is actually happening?
Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As he asked in his speech, what planet are the Government living on? Frankly, they are in a parallel universe. I have taken part in public meetings with pensioners in my constituency, and they told me that, when they sent back the forms that they had filled in, someone phoned them to encourage them to go to a bank or building society. Pensioners have stood up in a public meeting to tell me that that has happened.
Towards the end of our period in government, we became arrogantwe stopped listeningbut that took us 18 years. It has only taken a few years for that lot to succumb to the arrogance of power. They must listen to the facts. I am certainly not lying to the House when I say this, and I cannot believe that pensioners are lying to me when they say that they have received phone calls encouraging them not to take up Post Office accounts, but to go to banks and building societies.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not think that it is very important that pensioners are given personal advice when they make an important decision such as how to draw their benefits or how to bank their money, and that it is difficult to apply one-size-fits-all rules to everyone? Surely he should welcome the fact that people are being telephoned and offered a personal and helpful advice service.
Mr. Evans: I suspect that, if people choose banks and buildings societies, they do not get a phone call saying, "Have you perhaps considered opening a Post Office account?" No one has told me that that is part of the problem. Yes, I welcome the fact that they are given advice, given that they are taking an important decision, but they ought to be told as well that, if too many of them pull out of post offices completely, they will become less viable than they are currently and that the current post office network will completely disappear. Yes, by all means let us give people information, but let them make the decision. Let us not take the decision away from them or try to goad them into a direction that may be against their own long-term interests. I hope that
Mr. Pond: I am not accusing any hon. Member of lying, either verbally or by my body language. I ask hon. Members to understand that we have a responsibility to help people to understand the full range of their choices. I ask them to consider what happens when a pensioner makes or receives a call and is toldperhaps after listening to this debateby the sub-postmaster or mistress, "Look, they won't let you have a Post Office card account." The pensioner then makes a call to say, "I want a Post Office card account," and the person on the other end of the line rightly says, "Let me tell you about the different range of options first." That may be perceived as encouraging the pensioner away from the Post Office card account, but the person on the end of the line is simply making sure that the pensioner knows the full range of options.
Mr. Evans: As I say, I very much hope that, when people are considering their options for banks and building societies, they receive similar phone calls to ensure that they know all the options. I look forward to the call-centre scripts being made available in the Library, so that we can see whether that goes on. However, perhaps it would be beneficial if the Minister were to issue guidelines to ensure the integrity of the system, so that elderly people or those in receipt of benefits are not led one way or the other before making an informed decision. I hope that he will consider the system again to ensure that there is no goading one way or the other.
I have been an MP for 12 years and have been attending debates such as this throughout that time. The acceleration in the number of urban post offices that closed last year is a great worry, as is the number of rural post offices that are still closing, including in my constituency. We have seen rural banks close. We have seen the pubs in rural areas go into decline, and some of them have disappeared. Pharmacies have been mentioned. Small retail stores in villages are no longer profitable. Post offices are the last shops left in some villages and, when they go, a whole way of lifethe rural community spiritwill completely disappear from those areas.
We need to ensure that the consultation on such issues is fair. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, there must be options for other people to take over post offices. The Post Office must be far more vigorous in looking for fresh people to take them over. Perhaps people should be given an incentive to bring in new ideas about how those post offices can work. The consultation must not be rigged or prejudged. It must not be carried out with the intention that those involved were thinking of closing seven post offices, so they will do so irrespective of what the people say.
Frankly, the supposed managed closure programme represents set-aside for our post offices. They are being put to one side. They are being put into the long grass. The post office network that we all love has become something of a Titanic: it is sinking fast, and instead of the Government shoring up the ship to try to ensure that it will not disappear, they have made the hole bigger. I
People sometimes underestimate just how different things are in rural areas compared with urban areas. My constituency covers 350 square miles: Greater London, which contains 74 parliamentary constituencies, covers 650 square miles. My constituency is more than half the size of Greater London. My right hon. Friend, whose constituency neighbours mine, has a constituency some three times the size of mineat about 1,300 square miles, I think. Post offices in rural areas are part of the social fabric of local communities, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield acknowledged when he was dealing with urban areas.
Mrs. Shephard: I thank my hon. Friend for referring to the entirely different problems faced by people in far-flung rural areas. I have a letter from the postmaster at Banham in my constituency, who says that as a result of Powergen's decisions, residents will now have to travel nine miles to the nearest pay-point outlet and nine miles back. For many elderly, disabled or less well-off people, that is not an option.
Mr. Bacon: I agree with my right hon. Friend. Such a journey is not an option for many people. That is why I have taken up the issue with Powergen and with the Post Office, to ask whether they can renegotiate. Indeed, I have also taken it up with Ofgem, to see whether it thinks that Powergen is acting against the public interest. I, too, represent constituents who will have to travel some distance to get electricity swipe cards topped upto a neighbouring market town, in this caseas a result of Powergen's decision to withdraw the contract from the Post Office.
People in Roydon in my constituency, some of whom are on limited incomes and do not have cars, can knock on the doors and Mr. and Mrs. West will open up after hours, even at 9.30 at night, so that a young mother with two children who has suddenly run out of electricity can be reconnected. Effectively, that is a social service, and there seems to be no reason why Powergen should unilaterally remove the contract from the Post Office.
I received from Powergen a letter of the sort that we all receive from time to time, explaining how it was enhancing its service. There is a German word, "Verschlimmbesserung", which, loosely translated, means the process by which, as things are improved, they get worse. We are familiar with that process from many different aspects of life, and it is certainly applicable in this case. I look forward to receiving a sensible reply from Powergen and hearing about a reconsideration of this ill-considered and ill-thought-out policy.