11 July 2006 : Column 359WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 11 July 2006

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Post Offices

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

9.30 am

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I am very pleased to have secured this debate. As all hon. Members will appreciate from their constituency activities, community services, and particularly our local post offices and sub-post offices, are vital to our constituents’ interests and quality of life. That applies equally across town and country, and I say that because there is always a grave danger in such debates that people think that we are talking only about rural areas. We must emphasise, however, that community services are crucial not only to rural areas and constituencies such as mine, but to what might best be described as urban deprived areas, which may be found in large towns and their outlying areas, and parts of a town in my constituency could be described as urban deprived.

It is interesting that we have had a number of debates on community services and particularly on post offices. It is no surprise that they have been supported by Members on both sides of the House, because the evidence before our eyes in our own constituencies and the evidence from our postbags is that there is a gradual, unremitting erosion of local community services and a relentless anxiety about whether post offices, in particular, can keep going. There has also been a loosening of the localness of the provision of vital services. We can see that even from rather informal sources, but it is even clearer to those of us who live right in the heart of the communities that are affected in the middle of our constituencies. We see neighbours having to arrange more lifts to take people to various activities and more carers seeking time off work.

As Members of Parliament, we are sent to the House to represent people, their families and their communities above all others and we need to challenge the Government’s inevitable centralising nature—the Government always to seek to make decisions that apply across the board, and that is an inevitable tendency. Coupled with that are the economies of scale that are part of the natural order of business, which seeks at all times to maintain the lowest possible costs for the maximum amount of delivery to the maximum number of customers. That all works against what we might describe as localism. Coupled with that is the ease of transportation, with which we have lived for many decades and of which the most notable example is the car. That has given people access to services a long way from their homes.

There is therefore an increasing recognition that there is a degree of alienation and a dilution of the community to which people feel that they belong, as well as of their sense of identity and what defines them.
11 July 2006 : Column 360WH
That is by no means all bad, and it brings with it plenty of opportunities, because people want to enjoy participating in many wider areas of activity. However, there is also a real sense of loss and fear, and people worry that we shall miss the local community services when they are gone.

The problem is increasingly being recognised in a really determined manner by the number of petitions that have been brought together. That is true not least of the petition initiated by the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, which I hope to find time to present on the Floor of the House on another occasion. The signatures have been gathered by the local community around the post office in Cuddington in the north of my constituency. The post office has served that community well for many years, but the postmaster is thinking of retirement, and there is a struggle to find someone to replace him. Of course, anybody considering doing so will say to themselves, “Is it really worth it? Is it worth the candle? Can I really make enough out of this business? Is there enough sustained income to keep the post office viable and going forward, even with a shop attached to it?” That is a serious issue.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this subject back before us. His point about someone trying to take over a sub-post office explains why it is crucial that the Government come clean about their agenda and where they see the future of the Post Office. The drift is almost worse than having no strategy, because people who decide to retire have no way of persuading the next person of what the business has to offer.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful for that intervention, which very much anticipates one of the themes that I shall seek to develop. There is no question but that confidence about the future is the key to whether we shall have any form of sustainable community services, not least ones that are centred on local post offices.

I hope that the Minister and the Government will take note of the petitions that have been gathered. Our concern today, however, is that it is just a pious hope that we can preserve in aspic some kind of a golden age and what we have always called our communities. Is there anything that we can do about the problem? Should we even urge the Government to try? I think that we must because, above all else, community services are the first line of protection for the most vulnerable—the very elderly, disabled people, those who are out of work and other benefit recipients.

If we look at the issue across the board, we see that today’s communities are characterised not only by the local post office. Of course, post offices are important because about 75 per cent. of them have a shop attached. There are community post offices not only in rural villages, but in suburban communities, such as John Winward’s post office in Over, in Winsford, which is in my constituency, and Helen Rimmer’s post office in Ashton Hayes. She has managed to hold on and to undertake new development, despite the most appalling provocation and repeated attacks on her, not least by gunmen. She has managed to come through all
11 July 2006 : Column 361WH
that and she still provides a vital service to her local community, for which she is much respected.

Communities are also characterised by the pub, which is also under pressure. The traditional local is being taken over by pubs with a theme, and there is a sense that it is perhaps best to attract people from afar who want to eat rather than to drink. We might keep the newsagents and the corner shops if those independent and family retailers—those whose are not part of the Post Office—can hold on in the face of pressure from the supermarkets. Recently, there has been a justified and important campaign to seek recognition of the fact that the traditional practice of demanding rents in advance is becoming deeply injurious to the survival of newsagents and corner shops, and we need to see whether that can be altered.

There is also the rising regulatory burden, which has been a theme for many years among those of us who are deeply concerned about the survival and competitiveness of those in the private sector and in business who must cope with it. The regulatory burden falls hardest on the smaller enterprises. There are also planning pressures, and somewhat draconian planning constraints are often imposed on small enterprises that wish to make small adjustments to increase their offering. Of course, there is the ever-present worry about street and shop crime, which hits small retailers particularly hard. They are often open all hours and they come under real pressure when they become the target of what is often more than petty crime, but they have no local support.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend has brought an important issue before us. He is talking about the fabric and structure of our communities, and particularly our high streets. He mentioned pubs, post offices and newsagents, but will he add pharmacies to that list because they are also under threat? The primary care trust on Canvey Island, for instance, is seeking to reorganise health care. There will be two large centres off the high street and they will be out of the way for vulnerable people, such as the elderly and the other groups that my hon. Friend mentioned, as well as for young families with prams who do not have two cars. Those health centres will have full pharmacies, which will provide a range of retail products, but they will destroy the eight community pharmacies that are run by small retailers and which give a wonderful service on Canvey Island. That is yet another threat to our high streets and community services.

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend is entirely correct about pharmacies. I take an interest in that issue in another role, and there has been a campaign to preserve and maintain community pharmacies, which has my wholehearted support. Interestingly, in Farndon, a village in my constituency which is just on the River Dee with the Welsh border the other side, the post office has been combined with the pharmacy. That has been a useful and more profitable way of sustaining a vital set of services to our local community. My hon.
11 July 2006 : Column 362WH
Friend makes an entirely valid point; pharmacies are part of the list that I am just beginning to get through, so I am grateful to him.

In addition to pharmacies and the other services that I have mentioned, for some the church represents the essence of their community. As we know, there have been declining church attendances. I cite also primary schools, which are surviving, although in my area and many others there are falling school rolls. That puts terrible pressure on local education authorities to make decisions about whether schools can survive. There are also increasing pressures on bus services, which cater not only for rural areas but for the outlying areas of towns. Where such services are not being used, it is difficult to get a replacement to come in to take over. All of us recognise that we must go much further these days to fill up with petrol or diesel, and that there has been a decline of the small local petrol station. Such petrol stations used to provide an important community service.

We are also aware of the difficulty of maintaining in a viable way vibrant village halls, which are often associated with playing fields next door. That becomes a major source of concern when there is a decline in community activities. There has also been a decline in the number of butchers’ businesses in local communities. I suppose that that has largely been the cost of the higher requirements of inspection regimes. That decline is of grave concern, particularly for those who have been dependent on the rural economy over the years. I cite also mobile libraries and doctors in this context. Notwithstanding the diminution in out-of-hours services and the diminution in the number of NHS dentists in local communities, there has been a sharp fall in the number of district and specialist nurses in our communities. Sadly, that situation will become worse given the continuing financial constraints which arise through the Government’s financial mismanagement of the NHS budget.

There is also increasing pressure in our local communities given people’s lack of confidence in the fire service, with which the Minister has particular familiarity, the ambulance service and the police. That arises for different reasons but it all boils down to one issue: there is a feeling that unless someone is right in the middle of a large conurbation, most people’s community services do not know where they are. People are deeply concerned that when they need those services in an emergency, it will take longer for the service to get to them. There is not the same confidence that comes from a service being localised and placed in the local area where people feel that they have immediate access to it.

I am pleased that the Government, whether by design or accident, are now finding that their plan to merge the Cheshire police force into Merseyside’s seems to be going rapidly backwards, because it would have further exacerbated the lack of community support and direction. All of us are aware of the importance of maintaining community hospitals and the huge number of charities, voluntary sector bodies, and interest and hobby groups that work in our communities.

Above all—I suppose that this is the centre of the argument and the reason for the title of the debate—I was trying to understand from my own constituency
11 July 2006 : Column 363WH
experience which is the one place where all these community activities come together. Where do people find that they are talking to one another? Where do they meet and find that there is a commonality of their experience? Where do they find the strength of identity that goes with it? As it happens, the answer is: in the post office. It is difficult to think that the same is true of any of the other places that I have mentioned. Of course, for a large village event there might sometimes be a coming together in the village hall, but not everyone will turn up. Almost everybody, at some point, has to go into the post office, and they will find that that is where they come together. So, it becomes vital to examine closely how we will maintain the local community post office network. It is obviously a tremendous asset and an opportunity. The question is: how do we keep what there is?

As we know, most people still live within 1 mile of a post office—the figure is about 93 per cent. That is not the case in rural areas. Post offices provide services in respect of communications and the receiving of Government-related payments. There are currently slightly more than 14,000 post offices, and they serve 28 million customers. The current Government have presided over 3,800 closures—we have lost two post offices in my patch and between eight and 10 in neighbouring constituencies. There seems to be an average of about 18 post offices a constituency in Cheshire.

The chief executive of the Post Office has a responsibility to run his business most efficiently. If he were to reduce that figure to the number that he thinks that he needs to run his Post Office, one could infer that there would be a significant series of further losses of post offices. While rural areas and the urban deprived ones will be the hardest hit, it is clear that it is not our business in Parliament to tell the Post Office chief executive how to run his business most efficiently. He has a duty to do that. The question is: how do we make best use of that network and how do we preserve it? It might be a partnership. There might well be a need for Government and the Post Office to act together to recognise that the network is something to be valued and that, once lost, it cannot be revived.

Bob Spink: Does my hon. Friend accept that if the Government were more helpful to the Post Office, they would enable it to provide a much better service, for instance in terms of providing television licences and proper bank accounts?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall come on to that briefly. As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, it is quite a complex subject. It is important to recognise that the Government made a promise to keep post offices open, except in unavoidable circumstances. That was contained in the Labour manifesto of 2001. The pledge was to last until March this year, and I think it has now been extended until this autumn. That is important, because it is still within a relevant period. After much argument and urging the Government eventually made the welcome announcement that they would contribute £750 million—£150 million per annum—up to 2008 under the social network payments. The money is to
11 July 2006 : Column 364WH
support the rural and urban deprived community post offices and sub-post offices. We do not yet know whether it will be renewed.

That is important and goes back to a point that was made earlier, because a sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress is no different from someone in the rest of the private sector. They are in the private sector, and have bank managers to deal with and business plans to make. Most bank managers rightly want to see a three-year plan. We are now in a period in which it is impossible for a sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress to say confidently what their income will be.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Does he agree that this is not only about the social network payment and the money that the Government make available to support the rural network? It is also about the level of commitment that they show to providing their services through post offices, the most important example of which so far highlighted is the Post Office card account. Next year, the contract for people buying their car tax disc at the post office comes up for renewal. There was an opportunity with both for the Government to show a commitment to post offices by providing services, not just by providing the funds for rural post offices, necessary though those are.

Mr. O'Brien: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman; indeed, I shall recite that argument as part of what I think the opportunity is for the Government to ensure that there is a sustainable future for these vital community services.

We were told by the Department of Trade and Industry, as the Minister will no doubt confirm, in November 2005 that it was planning a public consultation on the future of the social—that is the rural and urban deprived—post office network. That was originally planned to start in February and report by the middle of this month—within a few days, I suspect. I am very much hoping that the Minister will have the opportunity to put our minds at rest and say that he is now able to give us a timetable and the expected time of this report. We have been waiting for it with some anxiety. It is vital that it takes place, because it has not yet been started. No announcement has been made about when it will begin, despite the recent creation of a new Cabinet Committee. I think we are all beginning to wonder whether we should be holding our breath, because it will be chaired by none other than the well-renowned Deputy Prime Minister, and will deal with Post Office issues. We hope that it will be more joined-up across Government—

Danny Alexander: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall give way, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman has a serious point.

Danny Alexander: It is a very serious point. I want to report to the hon. Gentleman that recent correspondence with the Deputy Prime Minister about his Cabinet Committee implies that it has not yet met.
11 July 2006 : Column 365WH
Perhaps the Minister could put our minds at rest about that. Given the vital importance of the future of the post office network to our rural communities and, indeed, deprived urban areas, that Committee should be actively engaged in putting forward a strategy for consultation instead of sitting on its hands.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman made a very serious point if the Committee has not yet met. I would have thought that with new-found time on his hands the Deputy Prime Minister would think that that is one of the most urgent things he could get on with, given that there is so much pressure and anxiety while we wait for the Government to act.

I have had extensive discussions with many of my sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, as well as the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, and have had the opportunity of briefings from Colin Baker, to whom I am grateful. All our post offices have both a social and economic role. It is well recognised that they provide a wide range not only of postal, governmental, commercial and retail services, but in rural and urban deprived areas they are often the only place where cash can be obtained. They represent a vital service for local businesses. Many rural businesses do not have a high turnover and it matters to them that their payment transactions and mailings are dealt with daily and promptly. It is not uncommon for those of us who represent such constituencies to hear of people making the run to the post office at 3.30 pm or 3.45 pm to catch the post because it is vital to the survival of their small businesses. If that service were lost it would be a major impediment to their survival.

What we as Members of Parliament probably get most concerned about is that post offices provide immense and vital support to the most vulnerable residents in our constituencies: older and disabled people. For example, the complexity of pensions is now so great that 1.7 million people who are entitled to claim the pension credit fail to do so. It is often the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress who can give advice in a way that does not cause anyone to lose face and preserves the dignity of confidentiality, which is vital. They have confidence and knowledge and older people in particular value that and see the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress as having a degree of independence from the Government as well as being knowledgeable and used by the Government as a channel of information. That independence often gives people the confidence to pursue that line of inquiry.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): During the previous debate in this Chamber on pension credits more than one hon. Member, including me, raised concern about advisers on the telephone telling people who were entitled to the pension credit that only the first payment could be paid into the post office and that subsequent payments would be paid into their bank account. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that that is another stealthy way of trying to undermine the service? Clearly that is not Government policy, but are they aware of that practice and what are they doing to prevent it?

Next Section Index Home Page