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Mr. Darling: The whole point of having a consultation is to seek views on our proposals on the access criteria. If there are special considerations, we need to take
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those into account. Our considerations will include geographical distance, natural boundaries and so on, which I am not sure affect the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but our colleagues who represent the north-west of Scotland, for example, might have a good point to make about access looking all right on a map but not being all right in practice. We will take such matters into account as far as we can do so.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing would have helped the Post Office more than allowing national Giro to build up its publicly owned banking business within the unrivalled post office network. It ill behoves the party that sold the Giro to blame this Government for the loss that ensued.

Mr. Darling: It is probably asking too much to expect the new-look Conservative party to change that much. Indeed, listening to the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), he more resembles a Liberal Democrat than we would normally expect.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Secretary of State’s statement will be the source of great concern to people in the Northern Isles. The provision of post offices in island communities presents special challenges, to which I hope that he will be sensitive. When the next Post Office card account contract is awarded, will he assure me that lessons will be learned from the TV licensing contract given to PayPoint? Will he assure me that, unlike in that case, the contract will not be given to any company that is unable to provide services to all our island communities?

Mr. Darling: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I think that I am right that there are many more post offices than PayPoint facilities in his constituency. The decision on PayPoint and licence fees was taken by the BBC— [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for Wealden is not proposing that, in addition to everything else, we should now seek to run the BBC on a daily basis. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) is well aware, however, I am extremely sympathetic to his point in relation to islands to the north and west of Scotland.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I welcome the announcement on the Post Office card account following a petition that I submitted on behalf of thousands of my constituents. Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that in rural areas such as my constituency, the local post office is often also the only local shop, and that both sides of the equation are necessary for the business to be viable and to serve the local community? Will he take that into account during the consultation process?

Mr. Darling: First, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comment about the Post Office card account. It is important that that should continue, as it will help post offices. That was one of the biggest requests of the petition delivered by the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. I am aware that the post office might
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be only a part, and sometimes a small part, of what such local businesses provide. Obviously, we will do as much as we can to help the post office, but people’s use of local shops is a wider problem. I referred to that earlier, and part of the problem with many post offices is that people simply do not go to the high street or the village store as much as they used to do; they go to the bigger supermarkets. I cannot really offer to sort out that wider problem in the context of the consultation.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The Secretary of State talks about choice, and he is entirely right. He must enable the Post Office to provide the goods and services that the public want to use. That means reviewing the policies of all public sector agencies and authorities to see whether they can reinstate some of the services that they have withdrawn and at the same time introduce new business.

Mr. Darling: If people want to get their cash from the post office, they are able to do so. We cannot, however, say to people who have decided, for whatever reason, to get money paid into a bank account, “Sorry, you’ve got to go and get it at the post office.” I believe strongly in choice. In relation to the policy on driving licences, for example, which I introduced when I was Secretary of State for Transport, I was keen to ensure that people could have a choice: either to go to a post office or to use the online service. Choice is a good thing, and I thought that the Conservative party used to believe in it.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the Post Office is not always seen as being very good at consultation? In that light, when he says that there will be a role for local authorities in areas such as mine, where major regeneration of the retail trades is taking place, will he guarantee that the Post Office and the local authority will work together to make sure that, following any closures, the surviving network will fit the shopping needs of those communities?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right that we need to learn from previous consultations. Some improvements could be made. I know that Postwatch is extremely anxious to be actively involved, and it will be, to make sure that we try to improve. My hon. Friend is right that local authorities and post offices working together is important, which is why I said specifically in my statement that we need to explore that further.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I agree with the Secretary of State; he said that the post office has a vital social and economic role, holding communities together and providing a lifeline for pensioners. I do not understand how, in 2,500 areas where post offices are to close—not to mention the 4,000 areas where post offices have already closed under the Government—that role somehow becomes less vital.

Mr. Darling: The role remains vital and the access criteria that I set out, which are spelt out in detail in the consultation document, are entirely reasonable. But as the right hon. Gentleman would recognise, since the 1960s there has been a steady decline in the number of
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branches; we know that. However, even if all the proposals were implemented, there would still be about 12,000 branches—more than all the bank branches in this country put together.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend accept that this is a very disappointing statement and that some of us have little or no confidence in the management of the Royal Mail, given that it is also rolling out a campaign of massive closures of sorting offices? He might like to consider something for which some of us called when the Bill was being discussed: that the universal service obligation be made the responsibility of all major carriers, not just the Post Office. Does he agree with that?

Mr. Darling: No, nor do I agree with the general premise that underlined my hon. Friend’s question.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Given that post offices are the economic and social heart of many rural communities, does the Secretary of State accept that these proposals do not align with the Department for Communities and Local Government’s stated priority, which is to make our rural communities more economically, social and more environmentally sustainable? Does he also accept that vulnerable people—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have insisted on one question only.

Mr. Darling: I think that I have the gist of what the hon. Lady was saying. I do not agree with her. I am told that she is the great future hope of the Liberal Democrats, but is she saying that there should be no change in the network ever?

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am very pleased that the Secretary of State has said that the Post Office card account will continue, which will be a huge relief to the postmasters and mistresses in Wales; that was one of their major requirements. Has he made any assessment of how the proposals will affect Wales? When the last round of urban closures took place, the branches that closed in Cardiff were the ones where the postmasters or mistresses volunteered, which did leave a patchy provision.

Mr. Darling: On the last point, as I said a few moments ago, it is important that we do not end up with areas without postal provision because somebody wanted to go. Indeed, the whole point of having national access criteria is to make sure that there is a network, and that branches are within a reasonable distance of where people live. On the card account, I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said because I know that this is one of the things about which the federation and many of those who signed the petition were very concerned.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Secretary of State will have understood the dismay in rural England that will be caused by his statement. Will he clarify what he meant when he said that he would look at what role local authorities might play in
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influencing how postal services are best delivered in the future? Is it the Government’s policy to pass on to local authorities responsibility for keeping open post offices that they plan to close?

Mr. Darling: No. If the proposals go ahead, the closures would take place in an 18-month period from the summer of next year. The consultation document—I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has not yet had a chance to read it—says that the possible transfer or share of responsibility with local authorities would not happen before 2011. On his general point, I can understand the concern of anyone who uses a post office when there is a proposal to close it. Although I am not surprised by this, the Conservative party has to face up to the fact that saying that it will maintain the present network when it knows that it cannot fund it because of other commitments it has made on tax and spending is not being straightforward with the public.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Most rational observers would accept that some closures are required to make the remaining network more resilient and the previous urban programme has demonstrated that as well. Will my right hon. Friend include access to public transport among the points that need to be taken into account in deciding on closure? In a rural area such as mine, that is a critical issue in terms of whether people will be able to reach a post office, even if it is within three miles.

Mr. Darling: The whole point of having a consultation is to enable people to reflect those concerns. I said that there are some areas where something that looks reasonable is not reasonable at all on the ground; I can think of at least one instance in my constituency during the last round of closures where that was the case.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The Secretary of State told the House that the Government were going to continue with the Post Office card account and that the card account would be put out to tender. We could end up with a continuing Post Office card account that is not run by the Post Office. Will the Secretary of State please explain that, because I fear that a deceit is being played on rural communities and others— [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Secretary Darling.

Mr. Darling: If the hon. Gentleman cares to read my statement, he will see that I said that it is the Government’s intention to continue the account. I also said that because of European Union rules, it is necessary for the matter be tendered. That is a legal requirement. Is he seriously suggesting that we ignore it? That would not surprise me in his case, but I think many of his colleagues might not share his view.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State confident that the more strategic approach that he is announcing today will stop the piecemeal erosion of the network that has occurred for many, many years and produce a stable and sustainable network of about 12,000 branches?

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Mr. Darling: That is precisely what I want to achieve. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), over many years—including the years that the Conservative party was in government—post offices were closing at the rate of 200, 300 or 400 a year without any plans or support to put things right.

Charles Hendry: No.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman says “No.” It is a matter of fact—the Conservatives closed 3,500 post offices.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): It is disingenuous of the Secretary of State to say that post offices are uneconomic because people are not using them. People are not using them as a direct result of Government policy. Many of my constituents felt forced to give up having their benefits paid into post offices. He says that, historically, branches were located where the sub-postmasters chose to set up in business. Does he accept that much of the problem with the current network stems from the Post Office urban regeneration programme, where the Post Office went out and appeared to say, “We have a shedload of money. Who wants to give up?” If under the new scheme—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have made the ruling; hon. Members have one question.

Mr. Darling: Let me deal with the point that the hon. Gentleman raised that would benefit from a reply, on compensation. We are offering compensation because the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters feels quite strongly that under a compulsory scheme it is reasonable to have compensation. Yes, that means inevitably, and by definition, that postmasters and mistresses concerned will get a payment, but that is the right thing to do in these circumstances. As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman seems to think that is wrong.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the continuity of the POCA, which will be greatly welcomed in deprived areas of my constituency. I will work with my local councillors and local authority in looking at the access criteria for deprived areas, but will he also welcome our views on how we can help maintain post offices’ sustainability in sustainable communities?

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend that it is necessary for local authorities and post offices to work together and that they can often do so to their mutual advantage. They must look into how they can do that as constructively as possible. I am sure that that will happen in many areas, including my hon. Friend’s area.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The House has to take some responsibility for what is being decided. I have a straightforward question for the Secretary of State: will he assure me that senior representatives of Royal Mail-Post Office will talk to every Member representing a constituency where closures are to take place?

Mr. Darling: I can give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that if the programme starts next year the intention of the Post Office will be to look at particular areas and then to make its proposals, and that it will consult Members.

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Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): In my constituency, it is already possible to obtain postal services on a part-time basis from a pub in Rowarth, a church in Dove Holes and a community enterprise in Litton. Given my right hon. Friend’s statement, is it fair to say that although the future for stand-alone dedicated post office branches is bleak, there will be opportunities for community enterprises and social enterprises to deliver post office services and for other innovative and diverse ways of delivering them in rural areas?

Mr. Darling: First, I do not agree that the outlook for branches is as my hon. Friend describes. Provided that we can get the Post Office on a stable and firm financial footing, there is every reason to be confident. However, I do strongly agree with him on new and innovative ways of doing business. That has been piloted and trialled around the country, and it works. I can understand the opportunism—if I may use that word—of Opposition Members in dismissing that out of hand, but I find it astonishing. The Conservatives used to pride themselves on encouraging businesses to be innovative. We should be encouraging the Post Office to be innovative, rather than running it down.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Can the Secretary of State contemplate a situation under his new access criteria where a community-run post office might be compulsorily closed? As he knows, communities across the countryside have often responded by setting up community-run post offices in villages.

Mr. Darling: Yes, and that has been extremely valuable. They have not worked in every case, but they have worked in some. That is an example of how we can do things differently—and if there is community buy-in, it is likely that more people will come in through the front door.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I listened with interest to the statement and to comments on the changes to the delivery of post office services, as well as to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt). I have a concern, however. In my past experience in Greenwich, the Post Office generally paid only lip service to ideas that were brought forward. We had a brilliant idea about putting post office services in local authority housing offices and that was dismissed out of hand. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and my constituents in Plymouth that where genuinely imaginative proposals are brought forward, they will be fully considered and not dismissed just to seek to meet numbers targets?

Mr. Darling: The Post Office has new management, and a new chief executive who very much wants to make a go of the Post Office. I have met him and he is full of ideas that will help the Post Office, particularly in relation to financial services and the provision of advice to people. Obviously, the Post Office has to reach commercial decisions so it cannot take every idea on board, but I hope and think that my hon. Friend will find that the Post Office is far more open to such new proposals than it might have been in the past.

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