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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Tony Cunningham.]
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I am sure that you have sat in that Chair through a number of debates about the Post Office, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to start the discussion of the closure of Ellesmere Crown post office by saying that I do not blame my hon. Friend the Minister for the state of the Post Office today. However, he must listen to the combined voices of all political parties in Ellesmere Port, who, together with the Communication Workers Union, the employees of the Crown post office, and the public, are all disgusted at the cavalier way in which Post Office management have not only ridden roughshod over the views of local people, but have failed in their duty to look after the public purse.
My hon. Friend will also be aware that at the Labour party north-west regional conference last week a resolution was passed that referred to this sorry debacle and called on the Government to institute a statutory review of the impact of full liberalisation from January 2006, to ensure that Postcomm meets its primary duty to defend the universal service.
The farce in Ellesmere Port goes back to the summer of 2004, when I returned from a couple of weeks away with my family to discover a pile of letters on my desk from constituents, complaining about the threatened closure of two branch offices, one in Station road and one in Whitby. The Station Road post office, in particular, serves some of the most disadvantaged people in my community.
I wrote in some detail to the chief executive of Post Office Ltd, Mr. David Mills, and after a series of public meetings and the gathering of information, a very detailed case was submitted. I shall refer to one of the letters in my bundle of documents to focus my hon. Friend's mind on the disingenuous language that the Post Office has used. In a letter dated 6 February this year, a Mr. Partington referred to previous commitments that I "alleged" had been provided to me. If I, as a Member of Parliament, on behalf of my constituents, say to a public servant that I have received some information, he should accept that I have done so. It is an insult to the House to use language like that.
The letter referred to information that I "alleged" that a previous employee of Post Office Ltd had given me about the future of the post offices. Mr. Partington then sought to disconnect what had happened around Christmas 2005 from more recent events by saying that the former had been part of the Post Office reinvention plan, but the latter were entirely different.
In 2004, the Post Office failed to get to grips with what happened at Station Road. It was a sad story of dishonesty. Loyal employees were working for an owner who had spent some time in jail. Those loyal employees had served the public well and treated their elderly customers as if they were relatives. They would knock on doors when elderly people did not come to collect their pensions. People of that calibre were dumped by the system. But, of course, that was under the Post Office reinvention scheme.
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In the letters to me at that time, the Post Office, in describing what it now claims to be a different exercise, used the heading "Post Office area plan for Ellesmere Port & Neston". That could mean one of two things. It could mean the area plan for the borough of Ellesmere Port and Neston or for the parliamentary constituency. It cannot, under any use of the English language, be reinterpreted a year later to mean a post office covering two super output areas in the poorest parts of the community. It covered the whole community.
Mr. Dave Barrett announced the closure in a letter I received on Christmas eve 2004, when pensioners were trying to collect their benefit.
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Tony Cunningham.]
Andrew Miller: I accept that the closure of the post office notified on Christmas eve was due to unfortunate and unforeseen reasons; a robbery at the post office had brought forward the closure. However, Mr. Barrett wrote:
"Within the scope of the Network Reinvention programme, we have now completed our work in your constituency and no further closure proposals will be considered under this programme in your constituency."
If I were in the Minister's position I could be pedantic and say, "Ah, that was the Post Office reinvention plan", but I remind the House that the heading on the letter was unambiguous: "Post Office area plan for Ellesmere Port & Neston".
What were the motives behind that lack of clarity? Laziness, incompetence, deliberate action? I will let the House determine the answer. I only know that one of the most impoverished parts of my constituency was left without an essential service. Post Office management said, "They can go to the Crown office just up the road", referring to elderly and infirm people in an area with the lowest car ownership in the sub-region.
The letter of 23 December 2004 said that there would be no further closures, yet a year later the Post Office came back for another bite at the cherry and announced that the Crown office would be absorbed in an Asda store. The proposal was to halve the counter space and the resources for post office services in the town centre. I was told that the Post Office had identified financial losses at the Crown office, but that information was not shared with me.
I have no complaint about Asda, but I object to being insulted by the deviousness of Post Office management. I do not mind that personally, as in this place one gets used to being insulted by experts, but Members are entitled to expect at least some deference from a public body towards our constituents. No such thing has come from the Post Office.
My early-day motion 1446 states:
"That this House condemns the manner in which the Post Office has failed to engage in meaningful consultations with either staff or public about the closure of Ellesmere Port Crown Office; and calls upon the Government, as shareholders, to instruct the Post Office management to withdraw its current proposal, to share with stakeholders the financial facts and ensure that if it demonstrates a position that is commercially recoverable that time is allowed to enable a proper recovery programme to be instituted."
That is not an unreasonable request from a Member of Parliament, yet it was wholly ignored. The Post Office made no comment on it, apart from an indirect one to which I shall refer.
A letter of 6 February set out in four or five pages the logic behind the Post Office's decision to close. I was assured that there would be
"longer opening hours . . . a brand new, modern Post Office branch . . . flat, level access . . . automatic entrance doors . . . a low-level writing desk . . . car parking facilities nearby . . . and . . . a bright, modern, customer friendly retail environment within which to shop".
Interestingly, that letter referred to events that occurred just yesterdaythe axe fell finally, the closure happened and the new system came into force.
All hon. Members have constituents who are prolific letter writers. I bet that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, could name a handful of people in your own constituency who are the most prolific letter writers, as could every other hon. Member. One such in my constituency is a gentleman called Mr. Ellams, who writes to me on all sorts of issues, and he would not be offended if I say that I find myself in disagreement with him on nine out of 10 of them. However, he pointed out something extremely useful yesterday, and the Minister ought to be aware of it, bearing in mind the commitments that the Post Office has given to me in writing, which the Minister has seen. Mr. Ellams says that some of the counters were closed and that queues were coming out of the doorat a post office that was supposed to provide a better service for my constituents. Frankly, that is what I expected, because I do not believe that the provision for either the transition into the Asda operation or the final scale of the Asda operation will be adequate to meet my constituents' needs.
One of the issues that I raised in the early-day motion and in the subsequent correspondence with the Post Office was the financial basis on which the decision was taken. At a public meetingat which the Post Office was at least represented, to be fair to two very junior members of its staffa member of the public asked a question, doubting, as I do, the veracity of the financial information that was presented to us. We were simply told that the Crown post office in Ellesmere Port was making a loss. That may be the case, but the point was that a financial year had not been completed since the closure of the two sub-post offices, so no stable pattern worth a light could be analysed. No sensible business financial planning is based on the kind of data that could have been drawn together in that time.
What made me particularly angry was that, when I eventually pressed the Post Office about the financial basis on which the information was taken, Julia Marwood wrote me a letter, dated 20 February, in which she said:
"Turning to the financial case behind our decision to change the way in which we manage Ellesmere Port Post Office branch, I fully appreciate it would give a clearer picture if we could simply publish the financial information and data relating to any individual branch."
I asked the Post Office not to publish that information, but to make it available to me, as a Member of Parliament. The letter continues:
"However we are not obliged, or indeed, at liberty to disclose this confidential information with any third party due to commercial confidentiality."
I have a little difficulty with that. I had understood that we taxpayers owned the Post Office. Of course, if some information is commercially sensitive, I would accept that. I deal with other companies with a similar structure. For example, I regularly deal with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, which shares with me huge amounts of information. It provides it to me in confidence as a Member of Parliament with a local constituency interest. Why cannot the Post Office do exactly the same? Does it think that some smart Alec Member of Parliament might come up with a better idea because they have more knowledge of the locality that they represent than the people sitting miles away in their ivory towers in the Post Office branch change section as it is now called? It would not be unreasonable for the House to say to the Post Office, "In these circumstances, we expect you to share information with Members of Parliament."
The language gets even more confusing. In November 2005 when the Post Office decided that the Crown office was to close, it wrote a nice, lengthy and detailed letter to me. It says:
"we want to do our best to meet our customers' requirements and maintain continued access to our branch network."
No wonder we are confused, because the Post Office is confused. It confuses branch with Crown offices, but that is its choice. The letter continues:
"Whilst the decision to change the management of the Ellesmere Port Post Office branch to Asda Store Ltd is not, in itself, subject to public consultation, we are keen to seek feedback".
In writing to me, the Post Office says that the matter is not subject to public consultation.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister treats his correspondence seriously. In a letter he wrote to me on 22 January this year, he says:
"No decisions will be taken on individual closures until after public consultation has been completed."
Again, there is an anomaly between the position adopted by the Post Office management in its discussions with Members of Parliament and what it is saying to my hon. Friend. I do not believe for a minute that he invented that sentence without believing that the Post Office should have consulted representatives in the constituency.
The Post Office can rescue the situation and the operation in my constituency can be made more profitable. However, given the decision on the Station Road branch affected one of the most disadvantaged wards in the country let alone my area, the fact that the Post Office is prepared to ride roughshod over people such as the folk in the Westminster ward in Ellesmere Port and to use disingenuous language in correspondence with a Member of Parliament and the fact that there has been no attempt to resolve the problem by a process of examination, negotiation and
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studies as to whether alternative solutions can be found, I despair for the future of the Post Office. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend and his colleagues will get hold of a few people very tightly and suggest to them that because the Post Office is a public entityit should remain soit should act with greater consideration towards the people whom Members of the House seek to represent. When ideas come forward about alternative ways forward, it should respond positively to them.
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