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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Roughly what proportion of the 2,500 closures will be in urban areas? Under urban reinvention, many such constituencies have already lost a third of their post offices and the remainder were required to invest in new facilities.

Mr. Darling: The Post Office will have to decide what is appropriate, but it is clear that after the three or four years since urban reinvention was last looked into there are still problems in some areas. For example, it is quite common in urban areas for there to be two post offices when one might be a viable proposition but two are not. I am not alone in saying that; the postmasters themselves are saying that, too.

The Post Office will be looking at those post offices that are not well used and asking what the problem is and whether there is a better way of providing service, as well as at those that continue to make very high losses. We have to look at them, but once the consultation has finished and assuming that we proceed at the end of it, the Post Office will consider how best to proceed and its priority must be to produce a national network that is consistent with the criteria set out in the consultation document.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend given any pause for thought by the fact that other European nations such as France, Germany and Greece have managed to maintain much more extensive networks of post offices than we will be left with, largely because of a greater willingness to recognise the social benefits?

Mr. Darling: Of course we look at what goes on in other countries, but I find that when we do so we find that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. I always pause for thought on such matters, but I like to think that I then make a rational decision on what is best for this country.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I am sorry that the Secretary of State said that he thought that post offices were a problem. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman did say that. For a great many people post offices are not a problem but an important public service. Does he understand the concern of my constituents in West Sussex who have had to face the proposed downgrading of local hospitals and a reduction in police community support officers and for whom this announcement will come as a further blow in terms of the delivery of public services?

Mr. Darling: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present when I delivered my statement. [Interruption.] No wonder he is laughing now, as I do not think that he believes half of what he said. I said that the Post Office had the problem that over many years post offices have had to face the difficulty of fewer and fewer people coming through the front door. We need to try to address that problem. Let me also say to the hon. Gentleman that we are spending more on services such as hospitals, the Post Office and the police, and every single penny was opposed by the Conservative party.

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Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I understand that the consultation will close before the end of May. Will the Secretary of State undertake to publish the conclusions of the consultation and the Government responses to that, so that people taking part in local elections and devolved-nation elections can decide how to cast their votes on the basis of the information made available to them?

Mr. Darling: Knowing the Liberal Democrats, I have not the slightest doubt that no matter what the consultation concludes, what is said and what the facts are, that will not stop them claiming that every single post office in the world will be closed. I said that the consultation period will end in March—I think that the date is 8 March—and I imagine that March comes before May even in Liberal Democratland.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that eight post offices have closed in Chelmsford in the past four years, two of which were in the most socially deprived areas of the constituency? The problem, however, has been that the consultations that the Post Office had with the local communities following the announcement and before implementation were a joke. The Post Office paid no attention whatsoever to what local people told them. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that the consultation process between now and 8 March will be a genuine consultation process—that the problem I have described will be addressed in order to beef up the consultation before an announcement is made so that it is meaningful, and possibly so that proposed closures can be halted as a result of the information from representations?

Mr. Darling: The consultation is in two stages. First, as I have announced today, there will be a consultation on the proposals I have set out, which I confirm will end on 8 March. If the Government then proceed, there will be a consultation in relation to particular areas. The hon. Gentleman asked us to ensure that the consultation at that stage is adequate. I would certainly like that to be the case, although I think that he will accept that it is inevitable that in consultations it is difficult to guarantee that we will please everybody all the time. But I do think that when people have got representations to make, they should be listened to carefully because sometimes the initial proposals are not right.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): The Secretary of State said that 99 per cent. of the population will be within three miles of a post office. I suspect that many of the 1 per cent. will be in my constituency, which runs to 3,400 square miles. What specific criteria will the Government propose in relation to remote rural areas to ensure that post offices, which are a highly valued resource and much needed by the inhabitants of such areas, do not simply vanish?

Mr. Darling: In the consultation document, we set out the criteria not only in a national context. As I said, the figure that I gave is a national one, and I also said that the detailed figures for rural and urban areas have been set out. In rural areas, 95 per cent. of the
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population will be within three miles of a post office. What the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely right in respect of some areas, and I understand that that has been the situation for many years. The Post Office looks at postal districts, and I am pretty sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is but one of them. He will know better than I do—it is some time since I last visited Caithness—that many small communities there are some distance from a post office. That is perhaps inevitable when there are communities of perhaps half a dozen people; however, we are trying to take that into account in the consultation document, which specifically states that natural boundaries such a lochs and mountains—and even excellent salmon rivers—are taken into account.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I call Mr. James Paice.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I was beginning to think that the “stop Jim” campaign applied to me. This statement is another stage in the decline in rural services that we have witnessed in the past 10 years. The Secretary of State has got this the wrong way round. He rightly talked in his statement about the need for more services and access to more business in post offices, but he couches that in terms of the Post Office dealing with such matters centrally. Should he not be setting individual postmasters and postmistresses free through a much freer contract, so that they themselves can use the entrepreneurial spirit that he rightly espouses to get more business, in order to make their businesses viable? Only then should he make any necessary closures. Announcing closures before he gives postmasters and postmistresses that freedom is completely the wrong approach.

Mr. Darling: I did make the point that the vast majority of post offices are private businesses, and many postmasters and postmistresses are extremely entrepreneurial. They offer a wide range of services—not just postal or financial—and I want to encourage that.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I have just carried out a survey of the post offices in my constituency, and I was told of one immediate closure and two post offices that are about to close. Other postmasters and postmistresses told me that they have no confidence in the future, and there are also those who wish to retire. Will the Secretary of State ensure that, where a postmaster or postmistress wants to retire and the post office in question is vital to the community, measures will be put in place to enable them to retire and new owners to take over and keep the service going?

Mr. Darling: I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman was here earlier, but I have been asked that question twice already and the answer is the same. Yes, in order to ensure a national network, in some cases somebody who wants to retire under the scheme will not be able to do so because we need to keep the post office in question open.

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Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Given that the Government have decided how many post offices are going to close, what exactly is the Secretary of State consulting on between now and 8 March? Or is this a cynical exercise to kick the exact closures following 8 March beyond the local government elections, so that people will not know which post offices are going to close when they go to the polls next May?

Mr. Darling: Even the hon. Gentleman must accept that it is not possible to consult without having a proposition on which to consult. The Government have published their proposition and we are now asking for views; even he can see that.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): Will the Secretary of State assure the House that when the Post Office card account is replaced by a new account in 2010, people who currently collect their pensions through POCA will be able to transfer easily to the new account without all the bullying and badgering from the customer conversion centre that occurred when pension books were replaced with POCA, and people were bullied into using banks? Will he also assure us that all new pensioners will be offered—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. There should be one supplementary question only.

Mr. Darling: I did say in my statement that the Government want to continue with that account. However, the Post Office is undoubtedly now offering interest-bearing accounts and, frankly, some people would be better off putting their money into them, rather than having an account that pays no interest. As I said earlier, we want to continue with the current system.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): The Government have made it as difficult as possible for benefit recipients to carry on with the card account, putting more than 20 obstacles in the way. As a result, £300 million of income was taken away, which put the whole network in jeopardy. For example, the BBC confirmed this week that it switched to PayPoint because

This is a catalogue of cack-handed incompetence on the part of a Government who have not co-ordinated at the centre. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that he works with other Government Departments to make sure that fresh Government products will be offered to the post office network?

Mr. Darling: It is my recollection that when the BBC made the announcement—it was the BBC that made it—it cited the savings that it was making, rather than anything to do with the branch network. The post office branch network is very extensive. I happened to check the availability of PayPoints within the city of Edinburgh, where I live, compared with the number of post offices, and the latter are far more convenient. There are more post offices than there are PayPoints.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The Secretary of State has admitted that the Government will force sub-post offices that are profitable private businesses to close because they are not profitable for the central Post Office. Will he publish details of the localised costs and the methodology used to calculate them, so that we can be sure that the mistake that was made in the “Counter Revolution” report has not been made in these calculations?

Mr. Darling: I did not say anything of the sort. The job of the Post Office is to ensure a coherent national network. As I said at the beginning of my statement and as the hon. Gentleman has to realise, most post offices—apart from Crown ones—are private businesses operated by private individuals, and if they are profitable they will remain profitable.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Practical access is key to my constituents. Not all mail can be put through a letter box; sometimes, one has to go to a sorting office to collect a parcel or sign for a letter. Earlier this year, the Olney sorting office was closed and some of my constituents now face a 25-mile round trip to the brand new Newport Pagnell sorting office, which is completely inaccessible by local transport. What advice can the Secretary of State give to pensioners in my constituency who now face that journey?

Mr. Darling: As I said earlier, we need to ensure that there is a coherent network, and we also need to ensure that existing post offices have the facilities to hold parcels. I understand perfectly well the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and the whole thrust of my argument is that the Post Office has to recognise that it may need to change some of the things that it did in the past, so that it can provide a service that people can use.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): The Secretary of State will know that the closure of one in six post offices is still a very substantial number of closures. Can he reassure my constituents that the particular needs of remote and rural highland communities, including those where post offices have recently been closed, will be taken into account when the next round of closures is planned, and that active steps will be taken to encourage my constituents to take up the new and very welcome Post Office card account?

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Mr. Darling: Of course we will take into account the needs of rural areas. I am well aware that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency stretches over a very wide area, and that there are particular difficulties there. I hope that we can take all these factors into account, and that the Post Office card account will help the Post Office to attract new business, as well as to maintain its existing business.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): This is a very bleak day for west Norfolk. The heart is going to be ripped out of a lot of small communities, and many vulnerable people will suffer as a result. What discussions did the Secretary of State have with the BBC about the Post Office retaining the television licensing business?

Mr. Darling: I personally had none, because the decision was taken before I became Secretary of State. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know what discussions the BBC had with the Department of Trade and Industry before then and he cares to write to me, I will deal with that point. As I understand it, the decision was taken by the BBC. It decided that it wanted to do this, because it stood to gain considerably financially as a result.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Penultimately, will the Secretary of State draw up for the Royal Mail revised consultation guidelines, so that we can avoid the current situation whereby the views of 98 per cent. of the public and of Postwatch have been ignored, and so that simple requests for information such as whether a Crown post office is in profit or in loss can be answered?

Mr. Darling: As I have said on several occasions, we need to ensure that the consultative process, as and when we get into it, is adequate so that people may make informed decisions. However, as I said earlier, it is inevitable in many cases that there will not be unanimity of views and some people will feel that their views have not been taken into account.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Under the ludicrously titled previous Post Office urban reinvention programme, there were reports that Post Office executives were receiving substantial financial bonuses if they met or exceeded their targets for number of post offices closed. Does the Secretary of State support such incentivisation this time round?

Mr. Darling: I am not aware of such a scheme.

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Point of Order

1.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister said that

That did not sound right to me so I asked the excellent Library to look into it. It is still looking into it, but it did produce two questions that were answered recently, including one in March 2005, which said that in the financial year to the beginning of April 2005 only £58,000 had been spent on hospitality, but by the end of the year—that is, within one month—some £213,000 had been spent. There is obviously some discrepancy that needs clearing up. Could you suggest to the Deputy Prime Minister that he should clarify the situation on Government hospitality expenditure, especially by his Department?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): It would be far more appropriate if the hon. Gentleman pursued those points in further parliamentary questions.

Mr. Robathan: Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker; I shall.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Bradshaw.]

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