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Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I am sure that, for a variety of reasons, it will come as a considerable relief to the House that I do not expect to speak for very long, particularly given that, for almost two and a half hours of this three-and-a-half hour debate, we have only heard speeches from those on the Front Benches and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. No Back Bencher with constituency interests has had an opportunity to speak, and it does not look as though other hon. Members will have much opportunity to do so.

I am particularly pleased that we are holding this debate today because, as a number of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have said, we all face serious constituency problems that particularly centre on the closure of urban sub-post offices and the poor delivery of mail. I listened with interest, then incredulity, and then concern to the Minister's speech. As always, it was delivered courteously, as is typical of this Minister, but I simply could not believe that he believed some of the mantras that he kept repeating. There is a saying that, if something is repeated often enough, people will come to believe it. For a Minister, seven years after the Government came to power, to rest his case and his failings primarily on the previous Government rather beggars belief. There comes a time when even this Government must start to accept responsibility for the action or the inaction that they have taken over the past seven years.

On the Royal Mail's record, the Minister told us—I assume that he believed it because he kept repeating it—that the Royal Mail had turned around and that everything was getting better. On the narrow point of the Royal Mail's profits and losses, yes, the Minister is right, but it seems rather odd that he thinks that the whole thing has been turned around and is beginning to
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perform wonderfully, given that the Royal Mail missed four targets in 2001–02, missed 12 in 2002–03, and went for the jackpot last year and missed all 15. I do not think that that shows that the improvements are coming and that everything is getting better. It seems to me that, once again, given the increasing failure to meet the targets—year in, year out—the Royal Mail is getting worse in the service that it is meant to deliver to the public.

At the same time, just to add insult to injury, the poor punters—those who post the letters—must pay more. The price of the first-class post went up in 2003 and that of the second-class post went up in April this year, to make more money for Royal Mail, to help it to offset its losses, but without any improved service. On balance, there is probably good reason for the withdrawal of the second delivery, but the first class post should now be delivered in urban areas by lunchtime. The trouble is that no one has defined what lunchtime actually means. To Americans, it is 11.30 in the morning. To others, it may be 12.30 or 1 o'clock. What does lunchtime mean? Is it so wonderful a target for the Royal Mail to perform against?

We as hon. Members probably send and receive more mail than most individuals, so we have first-hand experience that allows us to monitor what is happening. Sadly, despite the great improvement that the Minister keeps talking about, Chelmsford does not enjoy a good mail service. In fact, the service is so appalling that, if I hold a surgery in Chelmsford on a Friday afternoon and I manage to complete my dictation before the sub-post office in my area closes, I am provided with a free special delivery service from Chelmsford to the House of Commons—that service is usually provided the other way around—to try to guarantee that my dictated surgery notes get to my secretary on a Monday morning. If I post them first class on a Friday night in Chelmsford—only 35 miles up the road—invariably, they do not turn up until the Tuesday. Given that we are paying through the nose for the service, it seems disgraceful that something cannot be delivered a mere 35 miles away three days later. So the authorities have kindly given me that special service, which seems to work. The post generally turns up by lunchtime on a Monday. I should have thought that it could turn up by 8 o'clock in the morning, but that is asking too much.

Why does Chelmsford have such an appalling service? Many of my constituents, as well as me, would dearly love to know. The target is for 90.5 per cent. of all post to be delivered by the next day, but the figure in Chelmsford last year was 85.8 per cent. The CM postcode area is the ninth worst in the whole country. At least 92.5 per cent. of letters posted in the CM area for delivery in that area are supposed to be delivered by the next day, but the figure is sadly only 89.9 per cent. It is especially disturbing that the figures are worse now than they were last year, despite the fact the Minister seems to think that everything has turned around and the Royal Mail is getting better. No one is confident that they will receive their mail by the time the Royal Mail promises that it will be delivered, and my constituents are disgusted by that situation, as am I.

On top of that problem, we, too, have experienced the closure of a series of urban sub-post offices over the past 18 months. Seven have closed down, two of them in probably the most deprived ward of my constituency.
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To return to a point mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) when she intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), a disproportionate number of people in that area are elderly and do not have cars, so they might find it difficult to go further afield to the sub-post office that they must now visit, following the closures. Young mothers with children, but probably without vehicles, must now also walk further.

There was considerable concern about all the closures, so several people wanted to try to do something about them. They took at face value the Post Office's mantra that there would be a consultation process during which all views could be invited, given, listened to and considered. Action groups were set up and petitions were distributed. I met representatives of the Royal Mail to discuss the closures. They were courteous—I have no complaint about that. They sagely nodded as I made my points, as did my constituents and Chelmsford borough council, and ooh-ed and ah-ed at the appropriate points during the discussion. However—did they do anything? They did not do a single thing; all the sub-post offices closed as soon as the statutory time scale for consultation expired.

It is all right for the Minister to say that the Post Office listens, and to produce the odd statistic to back up the fact that it cares and takes account of cases made for keeping post offices, but certainly in West Chelmsford and, if the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) is to be believed, in Leicester, we find that it listens and goes through the motions, but does not pay one iota of attention to what is said or the case that is made. It closes the post offices because it wants to eliminate its losses and get back into profit.

I might be cynical, but it is perhaps a strange coincidence that few complaints are heard from sub-postmasters about the closure of their sub-post offices. If people's businesses are to be closed down by another body, they are usually the first to lead the battle to try to save them. Sub-postmasters do not do that because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield said, they   are being bought off with extremely generous compensation.

Mr. Waterson: When we went through the process in Eastbourne, my petition was displayed in shops, shopping centres and other places throughout the constituency and it ultimately attracted thousands of signatures. However, the places in which copies of my petition were not welcome were the sub-post offices slated for closure.

Mr. Burns: My hon. Friend makes a good point. All too often, sub-postmasters and mistresses have been content for their businesses to close because they have been bought off by advantageous financial packages. I do not begrudge the payment of compensation if a business is closed down, but "compensation plus" is being paid to try to silence the opposition of the people who one would think would be most directly affected by the closure of the businesses. They have been reassured by the amount of money made available to them.
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Notwithstanding the case that the Minister made, I join the hon. Member for Leicester, East in saying that the consultation process is a farce and that it does not work. The Post Office does not want it to work because it is determined to close the sub-post offices that it has identified for closure. That is the experience in Chelmsford and, according to the hon. Member for Leicester, East, in Leicester, although it might not be the experience everywhere. We know that a decision to close some 50 sub-post offices was reversed, but do not know their location. Given where we are in the electoral cycle, they may well be in marginal Labour constituencies. If the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), were to let us know their locations, we would be able to form our judgment on whether that is the case. They could be in Sedgefield or Hull—

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