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Gregory Barker: I am especially interested in my hon. Friend's comments because I was in Leicester, South last week. People there are angry, as are many Conservative Members who have heard the extent of people's anger about post office closures. The initiative to close those vital community assets does not come from the postmasters or people who run the post offices saying that they are not viable, but from Whitehall. Lucrative packages are being offered to bribe postmasters to close services in the full knowledge that that amount of money is unlikely to come the way of people on such incomes again. They are left in an invidious position. The initiative to close the post offices comes from Labour in London.
Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend makes his point powerfully. The Secretary of State was right to accept responsibility. The way in which Post Office Ltd. and the Royal Mail Group were set up means that the Government own 100 per cent. of the shares. She accepts that the buck stops with the Government, who must ensure that the post office network remains viable.
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): I have never been to Leicester, South and I have no intention of going there in the next week or otherwise. I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments and I agree with him up to a point, but given that post offices also closed under the previous Conservative Government, how does he define the gaps in the system? What would he put in place to ensure that gaps in the network did not occur?
Michael Fabricant: It is not a matter of how I define the gaps but how the Post Office defines them. The Post Office says that the distance from one post office to another in an urban area should be no greater than 1 mile if that can be avoided. Moreover, the Post Office is meant to take into account obstacles to people walking from one area to another. There is no point in the presence of a post office a few hundred yards away if a major motorway, canal or possibly Ben Nevis are in between. The Post Office must take that serious issue into account given that so many customers tend to be elderly. That is the point about balance that I made to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) earlier.
My hon. Friends have mentioned the position in urban areas and I shall now move on to that in rural areas. Uncertainty about the future of the rural post office network hangs over it like the sword of Damocles. Sub-postmasters continue to leave in large numbers. Indeed, the number of closures in rural areas last year was up to 149 from 115 the previous year, despite Government support. An uncertain future means that it is difficult to find people who are willing to take over rural post offices that are for sale. The Government have provided a three-year funding programme to support rural post offices, and I applaud that. However, that finishes in 2006 after the next general election. What will happen then? Nobody knows, and that is the problem. It
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is essential that the Government make it clear how these businesses are to be made viable in the longer term, but they have consistently refused to do so. I hope that the Minister will step aside from that uncertainty when he responds to this debate, and make it clear what the future of rural post offices is to be.
This uncertainty is having a devastating impact on rural communities throughout the country. Rural post offices play a critical role in sustaining the social and economic fabric of our society, and their closure has far-reaching consequences. Closures cause considerable anxiety to many people, particularly the elderly and the disabled and those who do not, or cannot, use private transport to get into larger towns. The Government have caused enough damage to rural communities, and they must now make the future of rural post offices clear. I hope that the Minister will do so today.
Leaving aside the issue of post office closures, we have seen a devastating deterioration in the standard of the Royal Mail's delivery service, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) pointed out so well. In the latest report on mail delivery, all 15 of the existing 15 delivery targets were not met in the most recent financial year: 15 out of 15. This included a failure to meet the minimum targets for the delivery of both first and second class post. In the year to March, 90.1 per cent. of first class mail was delivered the next day, but the target is 92.5 per cent. Meanwhile, 97.8 per cent. of second class mail arrived on time, which is below the target of 98.5 per cent.
Royal Mail is due to make compensation payments of about £80 million, on top of any penalties that the industry regulator, Postcomm, might impose. That is £80 million of taxpayers' money. Furthermore, there have been desperate problems associated with the decision to abolish the second delivery, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) pointed out. In principle, that seemed like a sensible cost-cutting measure. However, the reality is that the one single delivery is now due at any time between 7 am andwell, who knows when? This is causing havoc for mail order companies and other businesses that need a quick turnaround. These failures to meet minimum delivery targets and the switch to a single daily delivery are causing considerable damage to both business and private customers, and need urgently to be addressed.
Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in allowing me to intervene on him again. Does he agree that the abolition of the second delivery effectively means the end of the next-day service for many people who have to leave home at a reasonable time to get into the office? They will no longer be able to have something sent to them in the certainty that they will receive it before they leave for work. That means the end of a proper first class post service.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He comes from a business background, and he can anticipate the problems that businesses encounter. This is a serious issue[Interruption.] I do not know what the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) just said, but
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as Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee he will understand the importance to trade, industry and businesses of a reliable postal service.
Mrs. Browning: I am glad that my hon. Friend has moved on to the subject of businesses in rural areas. I have heard of a lot of problems in that regard, not least from a major company in my constituency which used Royal Mail to send out a coupon that was time-limited, only to find that it had been delivered after the time limit had passed. It was a seasonal matter, and that company says that it is now desperate. My business community is crying out for some competition and reliability so that it can get on with its business, because Royal Mail is unable to assist it any more.
Mr. O'Neill: I understand that, in a previous incarnation, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) was a Merchant Bankercapital M, capital B. He probably started work rather early in the morning. Most people who do so never see the mail until they come back home, and there are arrangements whereby businesses can have it delivered at a given time on a regular basis. Once again, I do not think that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is telling the whole story. A lot of businesses can get the mail delivered within reasonable bounds of their choosing. Most of the working population, especially those in the south-east who have to commute, must leave the house long before the mail arrives.
Michael Fabricant: With the greatest respect, I do not think the hon. Gentleman is quite in touch with reality. I have received hundreds of letters from different people who say that the Post Office says to them, "If you want the delivery, you can collect it yourself." However, often it is not practical for businesses or individuals to collect the post themselves. Anyway, what have we come to when the Post Office says, "We can't deliver to you reliably; you've got to go and collect it from the sorting office yourself"? That is nonsensical.
More seriously, Richard Bradley tells me that, in Northampton, despite paying for his mail to be diverted to another address, that did not happeneven after making many complaints. What was the result? His postal ballot paper was lost. As a consequence, he was prevented from voting. Such mistakes have serious implications, not only for business, but for our democracy.
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Even services here in Parliament are not immune to the effects of such failures. On 12 May 2004, the Serjeant at Arms informed all Members of Parliament that, for a three-month trial period, starting on 1 Junewe all saw that announcement in the all-party WhipMembers' incoming mail that is forwarded from Parliament to an external address would be sent by first class post instead of by special delivery. He did that for all the right reasonsit would lead to savings to the taxpayer of £500,000 annually. However, on 3 Junejust three days, not three months, after the start of the triala new message came from the Serjeant at Arms saying that the trial had to be suspended
"until Royal Mail can guarantee a First Class delivery service".
We have used Opposition time before to debate the Government's direct payment programme; we return to it again, and make no apologies for that, because we recognise the scale of the public's concern at the way changes are being made. The Government, in contrast, have been more reluctant to debate the issue in their own time. I am not surprised.
To those of us across the House, not just those on the Conservative Benches, who suggested that there are too many steps needed to open a Post Office card account, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said:
"Let us be clear: there are three steps that individual claimants need to take."
Strangely, online, the BBC set out seven steps; Postwatch listed eight; and a Post Office analysis detailed 20, from the receipt of the Government letter asking for account details to the claimant's receipt of cash through the card account. To those of us who complained that the Government are biased against the Post Office card account in favour of bank and building society accounts, the Secretary of State said that
"about 2 million Post Office card accounts have already been opened. That scarcely bears out the absurd allegations being made about how we are biasing the system, driving people away from the Post Office card account and making it impossible for anyone to open one. That is complete nonsense."[Official Report, 24 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 90910.]
Well, if it is "complete nonsense"[Interruption.] Both Ministers say that it is. Why, then, did Age Concern, Citizens Advice, the National Consumer Council, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, the Communication Workers Union and Amicus, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, and members of the public across the country share our concerns?
"We need to pay most of these customers into bank accounts which cost 1p, rather than into Post Office card accounts which cost up to 30 times more. You"
"should be aiming to get nine out of 10 new claimants"
"bank accounts, with a small proportion paid through Post Office card accounts"?
There it is in black and whiteconcrete evidence that the Government have been determined right from the very start to steer people away from the Post Office card account. I will happily give way to the Minister, who, I hope, is going to apologise to the House.
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