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To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to the Lords amendment reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.

David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Because of your duties in the House today, you may not be aware that the Prime Minister earlier this evening briefed the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), on proposals to restore a power-sharing Executive in Stormont, and at the same time in Dublin the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic briefed the leader of Sinn Fein/IRA, Gerry Adams, on plans to achieve the objective of total decommissioning. Will you find time for the Prime Minister to come to the House tomorrow on this important matter for the future governance of Northern Ireland, to inform the House of what is in these proposals so that we can question him on what was proposed to the leader of the Democratic Unionist party and to the leader of Sinn Fein/IRA in Dublin earlier this evening?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The hon. Gentleman is right. I have no knowledge of the matters that he is raising before the House this evening, nor do I have any knowledge of statements that are being planned at this time. No doubt the whole House and those on the Government Front Bench will have heard the points that he made, and they are now on the record.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you be prepared to tell Mr. Speaker that it would be for the convenience of the House if such a statement were made tomorrow?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have already said that Mr. Speaker reads the records of the House very carefully, and those matters are now on the record.

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Post Office Closures (South Manchester)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

9.36 pm

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington): I am pleased to be granted this debate on the closure of post offices in South Manchester, because it is a matter of extreme importance to my constituents in that part of the city, as well as to people throughout Manchester who are similarly suffering from post office closures.

May I make it clear at the outset that I am not challenging the urban reinvention programme? I supported it in the House and I recognise the need for a proper, effective strategic review of urban post offices to ensure a comprehensive spread of that service throughout the city of Manchester. What I am challenging is the consultation process undertaken by Post Office Ltd., and the decisions on the closures that have been taken as a result of that consultation process.

In south Manchester, in my constituency, Manchester Withington, three post offices were identified for closure in the latest round of such closures. I shall briefly discuss each of them. First, I want to make a general point. When the three post offices were announced, one of them was already temporarily closed, but I immediately visited the other two and found that, prior to any consultation process beginning, arrangements had been made for potential pay-offs to those sub-postmasters. They already knew that the intention was to close those post offices before any consultation process had begun. Already there was an intention by the Post Office to identify and make arrangements for those post offices to close.

The consultation process began with Beech road in Chorlton. Beech road is a lively local shopping area that has become more and more popular in recent years. The post office on Beech road is at the heart of that community. The plan to close the post office was greeted with great dismay by local residents and a campaign to keep it open was immediately launched. Petitions were compiled and a public meeting was arranged locally. I pay tribute to the two local ward councillors—Labour councillors—Sheila Newman and Val Stevens, who did so much work to properly gauge public opinion on the proposed closure.

Several key points came out of that consultation exercise. First, a significant number of elderly and disabled people who live in that immediate area need local access to post office services. Secondly, the closure of that post office would have a serious impact on other local traders—the area is vibrant and expanding and the post office is part of that local economy.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Post Office's view that the majority of current users of the Beech road branch would transfer to Hardy lane post office has no credibility. Anyone who understands the local geography of that part of south Manchester knows that if local people lost their local post office in Beech road, they would look towards Chorlton main post office, because of the natural flow of the population towards the centre of the city. Even now, however, Chorlton post office is incapable of dealing with the
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number of people who use it. Queues are long and no parking facilities exist, particularly for disabled people. If Beech road post office closes, it is a long walk to Chorlton main post office.

When the decision was taken to continue with the post office closure, the Post Office provided this justification:

She certainly did not, because the planning assumption that only a minority of people would transfer to Chorlton main post office was wrong.

Even if a minority transferred, the capacity problems would remain, because there is also a proposal to close another post office, which is just outside my constituency in Upper Chorlton road, with those customers transferring to Chorlton main post office. The arguments that have been advanced have no validity and the consultation, which showed local people's genuine feelings, was totally ignored.

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that the story that he is describing in south Manchester has also taken place in north Manchester. The consultation was a sham and a disgrace, and false and misleading information has been put out about alternative post offices and the facts and figures in north Manchester. Today, Collyhurst post office is closed, leaving the people of Collyhurst without any obvious alternative—one of the two alternatives identified is not on a bus route, while the other, the Crown post office, is in the city centre. The situation is unsatisfactory, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Bradley: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's view. The key phrase is "sham consultation", and my second example will underline that point.

The second proposal was to close Mauldeth road west post office and Burton road post office, both of which are in the Old Moat ward in my constituency. As I said earlier, Mauldeth road west post office was already temporarily closed, and there were issues surrounding the location of that particular post office. It was only acceptable to confirm that temporary closure as permanent if the Burton road post office was still available to the people of Old Moat, and particularly those in the south of that ward.

As a result of hard work by Labour councillors, again, we had an opportunity properly to gauge public opinion during the consultation exercise, and, again, key points emerged. First, and most importantly, a previous closure had occurred in that area on Barlow Moor road in west Didsbury. The justification for that closure was that the Burton road post office would be the receiving post office for those customers. When I did not oppose that particular closure because of circumstances in that area, I made it clear that it would not be acceptable for the Post Office to return at a future date and close the Burton road post office, which is the receiving post office for the one that closed. That is typical of what is happening around the country. And it has been completely ignored by Post Office Ltd.
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Secondly, Old Moat is one of the most deprived wards not only in Manchester but throughout the country. The closure of Burton road and Mauldeth road west would mean that the whole ward would have no post office service available to it. That is completely unsustainable in terms of the deprivation factors that should apply when considering closures.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my utter dismay that although Members on both sides of the House voted for specific money to be allocated to areas of deprivation where sub-post offices were under threat, the Post Office admitted to me that it is closing such sub-post offices, but has passed the buck to my hon. Friend the Minister and to other Departments instead of owning its responsibility to find solutions in areas of deprivation?

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