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A second key point about the Old Moat ward is that many elderly people live in that area, and if these two post offices closed, leaving the ward with none, they would have to travel to the centre of Withington, which for some elderly people is well over a mile away, to get post office services. That is unacceptable.
Thirdly, the justification for closing the Burton road and Mauldeth road post offices was that a significant number of customers would transfer to Hart road post office. That view beggars belief. If the Post Office understood the geography of this part of south Manchester, it would know that the people of Old Moat would not even have Hart road on their radar. When I challenged it about that, it informed me that it had a state-of-the-art modelling system that had helped it reach its conclusion. When it failed to send me the details of that, I suggested that it might be better to ask local people what they thought about transferring to Hart road. The people to whom I spoke would probably need an overnight stay before returning home if they used that post office. It is a completely unacceptable alternative.
James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab): I thank councillors Bernard Walsh and Kevin Welsh for their hard work in Ridge Hill in my area, where we faced exactly the same problem as my right hon. Friend describes. We thought that we had luckily found a solution whereby the mini-market next door would be able to take over the franchise, but the Post Office refused even to meet its owner, on the basis that it wanted to be able to transfer all the business to another post office. Is not that completely unacceptable when someone else is prepared to take over the service for a deprived estate that is on top of a hill and a long way from the town centre?
Mr. Bradley: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the course of the consultation exercise, I asked Post Office Ltd. to look for an alternative outlet in the Old Moat ward, but silence was the stern reply.
The only conclusion that we can draw from these examples is that the consultation exercise is a complete sham, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester,
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Blackley (Mr. Stringer) said. The Post Office knew what it wanted when it embarked on the exercise, and public opinion and the sound arguments that were put by representatives would only be ignored at the end of the consultation process. I ask the Minister to intervene in order carefully to consider the way in which these closures are being undertaken and the process that Post Office Ltd. is employing to arrive at its conclusions.
Will the Minister consider the precise role of Postwatch in this exercise? At a local level, I have received extremely good co-operation from Postwatch. Dario Cottingham has been extremely helpful. He has attended meetings with me, and he attended the public meeting and tried to represent the views expressed back through Postwatch to Post Office Ltd.
"As the independent consumer watchdog Postwatch want to ensure that a sustainable network of post offices is achieved and that any closure should cause the minimum inconvenience to local consumers. Postwatch is also ensuring that remaining branches are making the necessary improvements to create the network of 'bigger, better and brighter post offices'"
for the local area. I question whether Postwatch can justify the closures and its views on them and also fulfil its commitment as the representative of the consumer in the process. Should not it challenge the decisions? Will the Under-Secretary therefore consider its role in the process?
I strongly believe that we must ensure public confidence in the urban reinvention programme, for which the Under-Secretary is ultimately responsible. I am sure that my hon. Friends from Manchester and Greater Manchester agree. It is not acceptable for Post Office Ltd. simply to ignore the views of local communities in constituencies such as mine. It should set about trying to protect the most vulnerable, the elderly and the disabled in our local communities to ensure that they have proper and efficient access to Post Office services and that south Manchester, Manchester and Greater Manchester have a proper network of post offices that meet the needs of local consumers.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) on securing the debate. As we heard from his contribution, he has been assiduous in voicing, on behalf of his constituents, all the local concerns about Post Office Ltd.'s urban reinvention programme in his constituency. I pay tribute to his work and that of others in the community in Manchester in trying to come to terms with an emotive and difficult issue.
My right hon. Friend has expressed his depth of feeling and that of other hon. Friends about closures in Manchester. He knows that I met my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer), Councillor Jim Battle and Mr. Eddie Smith from Manchester council yesterday, when similar concerns were expressed to me about the role of Post Office Ltd. and that of Postwatch.
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My right hon. Friend knows that responsibility for postal services has come to me only recently and that there have been many Adjournment debates, other debates and questions in the House about the process. I was grateful for his opening remarks about his support for the principles behind the urban reinvention programme. He is aware of the state of Royal Mail and post offices that we inherited from the previous Government. He will acknowledge and welcome the £2 billion that the Government spent on developing Royal Mail and postal services. He also knows that the Government are committed to maintaining a viable nationwide network of post offices for the future. In a wider context, he knows about the massive challenge for everyone involved in achieving that viability.
Under the previous Government, there was no planned programme, and unplanned closures and many gaps appeared in the system. That clearly affects the whole country. My right hon. Friend knows that the Government's policy for the post office network was based on the performance and innovation unit's report, "Modernising the Post Office Network", which was published in 2000. The report was widely welcomed as squaring up honestly to the challenges that the network faced. It made 24 recommendations for the future, all of which the Government accepted. It showed starkly that our network of post offices had not kept pace with the changing needs of its customers.
Too often, post offices had become dingy and shabby through lack of investment and were losing business. The business had lost touch with its customers' needs, which are different now from those of a generation ago. Following years of underinvestment, the Post Office business was in a spiral of decline.
It is important to detail the circumstances that led to the company's rationalisation programme, which includes the closure of some offices, including those that we heard about from my right hon. Friend, and some in my own constituency. He knows that a number of post offices closed in my constituency of Bradford, South and that two days before I achieved this responsibility there were issues surrounding the Crown post office in my city of Bradford. I too have been heavily involved in the process that the Government set up to try to ensure that consultation was adequate and real.
My right hon. Friend will know that in February our hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), who had these ministerial responsibilities before me, actually changed and detailed more fully the guidelines for the consultations that he expected to be undertaken.
My right hon. Friend and hon. Members will know that the Government are Royal Mail's principal shareholder, and that this Government gave Royal Mail the commercial freedoms that have allowed it to turn the business round, as it is doing. We are expecting to hear in the interim results this week that the situation is far better than it has been in the past. That does not help my right hon. Friend in respect of the closures in his constituency, but it is important to put on the record the general position, which I know that most Members of Parliament supportthe need for a viable post office network within a viable Royal Mail.
I shall pick up some of the points that were raised. I too, in that meeting with elected representatives from Manchester, was very concerned about the role of
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Postwatch, because there is a clear procedure for Postwatch to use if it believes that closures are unnecessary, and I had concerns about the matters that were raised yesterday, and tonight by my right hon. Friend. So I will undertake to contact Postwatch to see what was done to find out why perhaps the next stage proposals were not achieved. I want to know from Postwatch its role in this matter, because as my right hon. Friend has said, it is the consumer watchdog in this case and it should be putting consumers' interests first.
I am also concerned to hear from my right hon. Friend's speech and from the meeting yesterday that the local authority, which has a wealth of information, was not included in the discussions and the final outcome. I will be speaking to Post Office Ltd. about that and I will ask the local authority to furnish me with information about the meetings that it had.
I hope that that helps my right hon. Friend in the detail of the constituency issues that he faces. He will understand why the Government, and I as the responsible Minister, cannot and should not intervene in every case, because obviously, as my right hon. Friend showed great foresight in acknowledging, one post office could close because it was no longer viable.
Postwatch has, up and down the country, made representations and resolved to the satisfaction of certain communities some of the closure proposals. I want to know the detail of what is going on as far as Postwatch is concerned and the relationship between the local authority and Post Office Ltd. That is the best that I can offer my right hon. Friend.
In addition, now that this programme has been going on for some time, Postwatch is undertaking a survey to look at what has happened to those post offices that have closed, to see whether any gaps have emerged. It may be possible, indeed desirable, for the situation in Manchester to be examined, and we can ask Postwatch to do that.
My right hon. Friend used very emotive language, which I know from our dealings on many issues in the past must be sincere, because he does not use such words without great care and cause, and he said that the consultation process was a sham. I would be very upset if that was the case. If the consultation process was a sham, we will need to investigate that, and we will do so.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the post office closures came about because Post Office Ltd. tested the water with many of the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses about their individual positions with regard to the future of their businesses. Many of them felt that their businesses could not continue and were happy to seek part of the payment for closing them voluntarily. That was the basis on which Post Office Ltd. looked at those post offices and their viability.
With regard to the consultation process, however, there is supposed to be a post office within a mile of any post office that closes. In the most deprived wards, there should be one half a mile away. My right hon. Friend
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will be aware of the funding that came from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to look at post offices in deprived areas and the support that was given to them.
In general terms, I am quite confident that the principles that have been laid out to support the viable network being put in place are there. What worries me is if those principles have not been followed. Clearly, that is the basis on which we should look at the position outlined this evening. If my right hon. Friend wanted me to do so, I could go into even greater detail about a large number of other things, but I do not think that that would help at this stage.
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