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Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is a good example of the Government saying one thing and doing something completely different. The Minister said that his Department was doing all it could to help the Post Office and its branch network to deliver more services, and to have more opportunities to build customer bases, yet the DVLA, which I understand is directly under the responsibility of a particular Minister, is doing exactly the reverse of what the Minister is saying the Government should be doing.
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Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that our Post Office service is at tipping point? We need a framework for the future. We want to see joined-up thinking, whether it has to do with the DVLA, television licences or whatever. That is all we are seeking from the Government.

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend is right. It beggars belief that, with this organisation, which has a vast network that is the envy of any competitor organisation—it is the largest retail network in Europe—the Government are not able to show a little more imagination, innovation and common sense.

Michael Connarty rose—

Mr. Bellingham: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who knows a lot about this subject.

Michael Connarty: I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he cannot surely be suggesting that we turn back time and should not encourage people to use Government services online. It is not only saving the Government money, which is sensible. I have used the service and I assure him that it is very efficient. It is sensible to go online—we all have broadband—to order one’s tax disc, which arrives five days later, without having to find time to pick it up somewhere. I do not have anything against the Post Office—it is just common sense. No one can argue against technology in that way. Are we Luddites?

Mr. Bellingham: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I have nothing against private organisations using their own money to launch advertising campaigns, but the Government are advertising one service to take business from post offices, which will in turn require more subsidy to keep the branch networks going, and more money for redundancies. The Government have to use a little more common sense. We have to have a bit more co-ordination and a bit more joined-up thinking.

Mr. Newmark: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Bellingham: I will press on, if my hon. Friend will excuse me.

In King’s Lynn and Gaywood, which is the main urban concentration in my constituency, four post offices have closed. They were meant to be part of an urban reinvention programme. Unfortunately, one of them is in the village of North Wootton. It has a village green, sheep and cattle grazing nearby and ponies trotting by, yet the Post Office decided to categorise it as an urban post office. It has now closed completely, which is bad news for people in that community.

In truly rural areas, we have seen numerous closures. We have seen a number of closures and then a welcome reopening. We have seen closures where the potential sub-postmistress or sub-postmaster was to reopen the sub-post office but is in tricky negotiations with the Post Office. I have one case in my constituency where everything is in place and lined up. The previous sub-postmaster was being paid £8,500, but the potential applicant is being offered only £4,000, a cut of more than £4,000 in the payment from the Post
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Office. Is that any incentive for that small sub-post office to reopen to provide a vital service?

Therefore, there are obstacles in the path of post offices that want to try to reopen. There are some bright spots. In a village called Syderstone in my constituency, there is a rotating sub-postmaster who is operating from the village hall, which shows imagination and initiative. I am all for that. However, the vast majority of those small post offices and their sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses are hanging on by their fingertips. There is huge uncertainty. I do not believe that the future has ever been more uncertain or more bleak. What we need from the Minister is not empty rhetoric but action today, because not just thousands of sub-post offices are at risk. We are talking about tens of thousands of people who work in sub- post offices. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people, particularly vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled, whose lives are being put at risk. Their quiet enjoyment of village life in constituencies such as mine will be put at risk if post offices close, because they are the centre of those villages.

As we have heard often today, we need proper joined-up government. Is the Minister going to listen? I am not holding my breath, but there is still a chance that he can prove me wrong. We are looking at a very serious situation indeed. I hope that, in his winding-up speech, he will not be complacent, and that we will have not rhetoric but proper answers to the many questions that have been posed today, because there is still a chance to save what is a great network.

6.50 pm

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I am delighted that we are having a debate on the future of the post office network and Royal Mail, not only because I have tried to secure an Adjournment debate on the future of Chorlton post office, but because the people of south Manchester have seen at first hand the damage that the Government have inflicted on the network.

In recent years, the post office network in Manchester, Withington, has been devastated by the closure of a number of sub-post offices across the constituency, including Beech Road post office in Chorlton, Burton Road post office in west Didsbury, Mauldeth Road West in Withington, Barlow Moor Road in Didsbury, and Parrs Wood Road in east Didsbury. More recently, Chorlton Crown post office was privatised—a decision made by Post Office Ltd without any consultation about the sell-off. It is outrageous that the Post Office can make such a decision to franchise post offices on purely commercial grounds, and that it need consult local people only on what services will be provided, and on at what times the post office will be open. Meanwhile, the Government stand idly by and refuse to intervene.

I draw hon. Members’ attention to early-day motion 2687 in my name, which deals specifically with Chorlton post office, but which makes reference, too, to the future of the Crown post office network. I urge Members on both sides of the House to support it. Post Office Ltd is picking off Crown post offices to
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privatise, and unless the Government can be forced to intervene and put a stop to that, we will be lucky to have any Crown post offices left. It is worth noting, too, that a number of Crown post offices that have been franchised have quickly closed. We need to ask ourselves why those sub-post offices are closing, and why Crown post offices are being sold off, thereby damaging the future of the network. The answer is fairly straightforward: Government policy is systematically undermining the viability of the post office network. The post office reinvention programme should have been called the post office closure programme, because, effectively, that is all it did. Like the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I do not blame sub-postmasters.

Mr. Newmark: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that although the Government talk a big game—they talk about financial and social inclusion—their actions support the exact opposite? Many elderly people do not have the opportunity that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) has to go online to buy their licences. We face the challenge of social and financial inclusion, and the Government are not doing anything about that.

Mr. Leech: I agree that the Government talk a great deal about post offices but do little other than systematically remove business from them. As a result, it is increasingly difficult for sub-post offices to secure a long-term future. Similarly, it has been made more difficult for Crown post offices to be profitable in future. Post Office bosses admitted to me that one reason that they chose to privatise Chorlton post office was that the Government’s decision to end the Post Office card account in 2010 will remove more and more business. Some sub-postmasters have suggested that the end of the Post Office card account will effectively be the final nail in the coffin. In Chorlton in my constituency, Merseybank estate is among the top 5 per cent. most deprived areas. The sub-postmaster there says that he has serious concerns that if the Post Office card account ends in 2010, he will not be able to make a living. It will be a major blow not only to him, but to all the people who collect their money at the post office through the POCA, and who use that money in the few remaining shops in the area. Those shops will face closure if the post office is closed.

If the Government really believe that post offices play an important role in local communities, why have they systematically deprived them of business and jeopardised their future? Surely it is time for the Government to take their head out of the sand and to take the necessary steps to secure the future of the post office network.

6.54 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is an extraordinary testament to the way in which the House works that although more than half of hon. Members have signed an early-day motion about the Post Office card account, we could not propose that motion on the Order Paper. It is only because an Opposition day debate has been introduced by my hon.
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Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) that we have an opportunity to discuss these important matters.

I wonder how we have reached this position on rural sub-post offices—and, indeed, urban sub-post offices. We thought that we had won the battle in 2002, and that we had finally decided the future of the post office network for a generation. Certainly, no intimation was given that the Post Office card account was a temporary arrangement that would be removed after the contract had ended. As many hon. Members have said, we are concerned about the uncertainty that the network faces. I shall return to that in a moment, but having heard what the Minister said, I fear that that uncertainty is becoming the certainty that many of our smaller post offices will be lost.

I heard what the Post Office said about closing a very large number of post offices, and I heard, too, what the Minister said today. He cited with approbation a lady from Crewkerne in Somerset—a town not far from my constituency—who said that people think that they want post offices, but in fact they do not. What an insult to the postmasters and postmistresses across the country who know perfectly well how much communities value their post offices, and what an insult to the 3 million, perhaps 4 million, people who signed the national petition. What an insult to the people who put their name to the petition that I presented to the House just before the recess, and which was signed by more than half the residents in the village of Nunney. In addition, the Minister seemed to suggest that the customers were the wrong sort of customers. He suggested that we lived in inconvenient places, and that we persist in living in small villages where there are not enough people to use the post office. I am sorry, but that is the way we live, and that is why we want a service for the people whom we represent in our villages. It will not always be the most efficient arrangement, but it is a social good, and that is what the Government must recognise.

Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) appeared to make a concession, when he suggested that there would be a range of products, whatever that means, to succeed the Post Office card account. We do not want a range of products—we want the Post Office card account, and we want a simple mechanism to enable people to go to the post office and collect their pension or benefits in cash. Ministers may have forgotten, but that is how many people live their lives in this country. They budget on a weekly basis with cash in hand; they do not want a bank account, and they do not want to go overdrawn. They want the opportunity to carry on as they have done—yet there is the threat of the end of the POCA contract, the loss of business from TV and DVLA licences, and changes in tariff in respect of utilities. In addition, the fact that the social network payment will end in March 2008 has caused uncertainty. The Minister cannot give us certainty on any of those issues. As a result, people cannot make investment decisions about their post offices. They cannot sell them, because no one can go to a bank with an adequate business plan to secure the money that is needed.

Greg Mulholland: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Heath: I am sorry, but I do not have the time.

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As a consequence, post offices are closing across the country, which is extraordinarily bad news not only for the people who want to use the post offices, but for the communities in which those post offices are situated, because it is not just post office services that are affected. When I presented my petition on behalf of the people of Nunney, they pointed out that their post office not only provides post office services, but offers dry cleaning, sells tickets for the local pantomime, and provides a social service for the elderly and infirm in the village. All those things will be lost if we lose our sub-post offices. We have already lost the Crown post offices, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) said. I have lost a Crown post office in Frome; the postal services are now situated in Martin’s newsagents, and instead of a Crown post office, we have an empty building that is soon to be a wine bar.

We are losing urban sub-post offices, but I have a bigger concern in my constituency. I went to 100 villages over the summer and I heard the same thing in every one. Some 30 people from the small hamlet of Curry Mallet told me their concerns about their post office. The people of Ditcheat are also concerned that they will lose their post office, and they think that the Government do not care about it. I find no reassurance whatever in a Cabinet committee chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, which is supposed to be bringing things together. All the evidence is that Departments do not talk to each other, and the consequence is that we will lose our post office network. I will not stand for that.

7 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Much has been said in this excellent debate, but I wish to make a few points. The Liberal Democrats believe that two of our greatest national commercial institutions are under threat—the Royal Mail and the post office network. The Royal Mail is under threat from lack of investment, the relaxation of competition rules and overseas competition.

The post office network is being starved. The Government have taken away its business, as many hon. Members have described. With the pension book and benefits, the Government have taken away £400 million of business from post offices. The loss of television licence business is another huge blow, whether or not the BBC has been constrained by the Government’s failure to provide network guarantees. Why has the Post Office not been allowed to bid for the 70 new passport centres? The loss of the Post Office card account is of great concern. Some 4.5 million people still prefer to access their benefits through POCA, including some 5,000 in Solihull.

Some 7,000 post offices have been lost under Conservative and Labour Administrations. Some 6,500 rural post offices are under threat. Why? Well, to borrow a phrase from “The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard”, it is not rocket science. It is because the basic business of post offices has been systematically undermined. However, the solution is not simple.

Post offices and the Royal Mail have to compete in a national market and a global market. They are already exploring new commercial services, such as telephones, the internet, travel, insurance, and even flowers. I am interested in the Minister’s thoughts about why it is not
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possible to extend vehicle excise duty services, passport checking and Government information services. As the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) asked, why not allow post offices to offer the many additional services, some of which have been trialled, such as reporting crime and antisocial behaviour, or providing one-stop shops for councils, police, health services, the Government and others? Post offices want to be entrepreneurial. All they want is for the reins to be released so that they are free to provide such services.

I do not want to paint a rosy romantic picture of country post offices and the pensioner coming along with his POCA card. Hard economic decisions have to be made, and that is recognised on both sides of the House.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government have a social responsibility? It is not only a question of hard economics. We all understand the importance of ensuring that the Post Office generates a proper economic return, but rural post offices are vital at a social level to the societies they serve. The Government are completely ignoring that.

Lorely Burt: The hon. Gentleman is right. We need to consider the social costs as well as the economic ones. The Government think that they will make short-term savings by stopping the POCA, but there will be long-term costs that need to be taken into consideration. Postmasters and postmistresses understand the value of their services. They work for long hours, often for little reward. They need support from the Government, which has been promised. We will be all ears listening to the Minister’s reply to find out exactly when the promised £3 billion will actually be forthcoming.

The Liberal Democrats’ proposals have received a mixed reception today, but they would invigorate the Royal Mail and post offices, without burdening the taxpayer. Our suggestions would modernise the Royal Mail and allow it to compete. They would also allow employees and others to have a service of which they can be proud.

7.6 pm

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): This has been a very good debate, which was opened in characteristically robust and persuasive fashion by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), and with extremely good contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), and for Solihull (Lorely Burt). I also wish to single out the contribution by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey).

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