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The Government talk a great deal about choice and the importance of offering people choice. Of course, using the local post office to collect one’s pension or benefit payments is, or was, a choice. It might not be the most efficient choice available to an individual, and certainly not the most convenient choice for the Government, but that is not a good reason to prevent people from making it. The Government, with their considerable resources, could have made the case to all those affected as to why it would be better, more sensible and more beneficial for them to have their benefits or pension paid into a bank account, while leaving them
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the option to do something else. But that is not what happened. The Government put pressure on all those individuals to do what the Government wanted. They must therefore accept some responsibility for what is happening to the post office network now. By removing that choice, they have effectively removed a large part of the post office network’s income.

I accept that other pressures, some of which have been mentioned, have been exerted on the profitability of small post offices. Of course, the use and prevalence of e-mail has an effect, and the existence of an online stamp system will have even more of an effect. Ministers cannot, however, escape significant responsibility for loss of post office income through the removal of Government business—last year, in the order of £168 million. Last month, in a spectacular display of adding insult to injury, the Prime Minister said that the closure of post offices would be the fault of customers for not using the services that his own Government had taken away.

We now face plans to reduce the post office network again, significantly, and we know where the axe will fall. It will fall on communities where shops and services have already gone, and where the post office may well be all that is left. Those communities could be rural or, as has been observed, they could be urban. Indeed, postmasters and postmistresses in deprived urban areas are among the most pessimistic about their future. However, I want to focus for a moment on the rural communities that I represent.

The Government talk a great deal about communities. They even have a Department for communities nowadays. But “communities” rarely means rural communities. It rarely means villages where the post office is not just the only shop, but often the only point of social contact for many elderly and vulnerable people. It is sometimes the only reason for them to leave the house, and gives them the only opportunity of human contact. Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses provide not just stamps and benefit payments, but a smile or a friendly inquiry. It is not surprising that 98 per cent. of those consulted in a recent survey by Age Concern regarded post offices as a lifeline.

The Government have argued that life is changing and we must change with it. That argument is part of their justification for what is happening, but there is a difficulty with it.

Jim Sheridan: The hon. Gentleman is making the case that post offices are vital to the community, which is absolutely true, but does he agree that local shops are also vital to the community? A recent report suggested that literally thousands of local shops would close in the next five years. Will we be subsidising those as well?

Jeremy Wright: I agree that local shops are important, but my point is that there are communities in our country where all the shops have gone. The post office is all that is left, and it is where people go not just for commercial purposes but for a degree of social interaction. The situation that the hon. Gentleman describes is regrettable, and I should have thought that
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the worst thing we could do would be to make it worse. That is why we are saying that the post office network needs to be sustained.

As I was saying, the Government argue that life is changing and we must change with it. The problem with their argument is that because of some of those changes in lifestyle, the post office network has become even more important in some of the communities that I am describing. More people now live alone, particularly the elderly. They may be distant from their families, who may have moved away—especially in rural areas, where the movement of younger family members has been caused by the increased cost of living in those areas. The sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress may be the only person who notices that something is wrong when someone does not come in to collect a benefit or pension. The decisions that are being made have commercial implications, but they also have social implications, and we must bear those in mind.

Mark Williams: What the hon. Gentleman is describing is certainly recognised in my constituency. Is he satisfied that the consultation on which the Government have embarked deals adequately with that broader picture, the social dimension that he is describing?

Jeremy Wright: No, I am not, and I think that the hon. Gentleman has made a fair point. I do not believe that what the Government are doing will compensate for that loss. They must recognise that they cannot simply regard the post office network as a commercial entity; they must also regard it as a social entity, and they must take account of what will be lost in social terms if village and urban post offices disappear.

What can be done? I think that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) was somewhat unfair in saying that no positive ideas had been advanced on either side of the House. It seems to me that positive ideas have been advanced, and I give the Government a degree of credit for at least mentioning some of the things that might be done. However, I remain sceptical about their willingness to pursue some of those positive ideas.

There is certainly potential and opportunity for post offices to deliver more local and central Government services. If this Government have achieved anything in the field of job creation, they have surely achieved a huge growth in the marketplace for those who can help us to navigate the labyrinth of Government benefits and services that now exist.

Post offices are already a trusted source of advice, information and help on a variety of day-to-day needs. They are ideal candidates for having that role extended and doing more of such work. For example, the take-up of pension credit is inadequate, and post offices are the kinds of places where we can increase that take-up and give the necessary advice and help. However, they will be able to do that only if they are still in business. If we want them to perform such functions, there is simply no value in the Government pursuing a wholesale closure programme—they have substantially brought that about by their own actions—and in then being worried and disturbed to find that no one is available to deliver the good ideas that Members in all parts of the House are putting forward.

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I hope that the Minister will take account of the genuine concerns that have been expressed by Members in all parts of the House in respect of the value that the post office network provides not only commercially but socially, and that the Government will desist from doing any more damage to communities that they have done quite enough damage to already.

6.15 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): This summer, I had the pleasure of spending several days cycling around my constituency. I went from village to village, and the post office was, of course, the heart of the community in those villages. As I travelled along the coast to places such as Aldbrough, Mappleton and down to Withernsea, time and again people told me of the importance of the post office to their way of life and their local community.

Such small rural villages have had to put up with a lot since 1997. Community hospital facilities have either been closed or had services heavily reduced. Bus services are inadequate, inconveniencing the elderly and those without transport. Farmers’ incomes have collapsed, and the single farm payment scheme has descended into chaos due to Government mismanagement. Rural areas feel neglected and question the Government’s understanding of the countryside. Post office closures are, therefore, about as welcome as the Foreign Secretary at a Young Farmers dinner.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the post office to small, remote towns and villages. The poor, the old and the ill particularly depend on it for a wide range of services. As Members in all parts of the House have often said, sub-postmasters act as a focal point for the community. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) mentioned an Age Concern report that showed that most elderly people in rural areas regard the post office as a lifeline. That report also found that 56 per cent.—more than half—of such people thought that post office closures would lead to them being isolated. The current Government have already been the author of 4,000 such closures at three times the previous rate, and they are now proposing 2,500 even more swiftly than before.

The Government’s mismanagement of the post office network has had a devastating impact on such communities. In my constituency, eight post office branches have been lost since 1999, and following the Secretary of State’s announcement of last month a further six could soon be shutting their doors.

Last year, the sub-postmaster of Burstwick post office in my constituency announced that he would resign his post. The reason was that he was losing money and had to do a second job in order to subsidise his post office branch. He said that he was tired of swimming against the tide and predicted that many more post offices would close in rural areas if the Government carried on their policy of wilful neglect.

Residents in Burstwick have now been told that they will have to visit a post office several miles away in a nearby village. That might be fine for a young couple with two cars parked in their drive, but for the elderly, who often live alone and have little or no access to transport, it is asking too much. Such examples are common and are doing untold damage to the social fabric of this country, especially in rural areas.

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The situation is likely to get worse. Sub-postmasters are voting with their feet. More and more of them are either going out of business or cutting their losses and leaving the profession entirely. When questioned in a recent MORI survey, 39 per cent. said that they could see no future whatsoever for their businesses. It is not hard to understand why. The average salary for a sub-postmaster is now only £1,000 a month—a fall of 6 per cent. since 2004.

During the summer, I wrote to every sub-postmaster in my constituency. Every respondent told me that it had become harder for sub-post offices to survive since the Government came to power, and 94 per cent. said that the Government had failed to support rural post offices. One went so far as to say that Ministers had done everything that they possibly could to destroy the post office network. More and more sub-postmasters are facing the same dilemma.

Try as they might, Ministers will not escape the blame for this crisis; it has taken place on their watch. In his statement to the House last month, the Secretary of State blamed everyone and everything for the current situation, but he categorically failed to mention the ruthless and persistent removal of Government business from the network, a point that was picked up by Labour Members. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) said that it was a pity that the Secretary of State did not mention that the Government were taking business away from the Post Office. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) greeted the statement by saying that it was very disappointing. The hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said:

That is the real understanding of the situation, even on the Labour Benches, where Members are not taken in by Front-Bench spin.

Last year, the Government provided £150 million to the network through the social network subsidy, but in the same year they took £165 million out of the network in post office business. Five years ago, according to Adam Crozier, 60 per cent. of post office revenue came from Government business. In two years, that figure will be down to 10 per cent., yet the Secretary of State insults sub-postmasters and this House repeatedly by maintaining that it is nothing but changing circumstances. He says, “It’s the internet.” It is not; it is the way in which the Government have systematically withdrawn business from the network that has affected its viability. That is why closures, which were happening under the Conservatives, have trebled under this Government.

Jim Sheridan: Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House the change in the ethos and thinking of the Conservative party? It used to argue that business must stand on its own two feet and should not be publicly subsidised. He may also recall that a Conservative Government subcontracted work to the private sector and, at times, abroad, causing 3 million people to become unemployed. What has changed since then?

Mr. Stuart: The hon. Gentleman is persistent in his view. Like many Ministers and certain, although not all, Labour Members, he seems unable to see that there is a social value in what the post office network provides,
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and social value is what Government spending is for. We pay taxes so that the Government can provide services. That is why we have people coming in to look after the elderly in their homes. That is why successive Governments have sought to maintain a post office network.

The question is whether the Secretary of State’s statement last month provided a vision, gave stability and created a robust situation in which sub-postmasters can invest. The truth is that it did not. What we have is the continuing managed decline of the network, with the exception of the welcome announcement on the Post Office card account, an issue to which I will return. Conservative Members have campaigned long and hard for that, and it would be good to see the Government put their hand up and say that they have listened to the arguments put forward by the Conservatives and accepted that it will continue, if indeed it will.

Does the Secretary of State support Conservative proposals to give sub-post offices greater freedoms to offer a wider range of commercial products? The answer would appear to be no. Does he envisage local authorities offering more council services through the post office? Nothing substantial has been promised. Does he want post offices to be given full access to working with carriers other than the Royal Mail? We appear not to have an answer. We have heard almost nothing on these important issues to try to give stability and a framework within which business could invest. All that people in rural areas can expect is a visit from a van for a couple of hours every week.

The Government’s position is that there are no guarantees that closures will be capped at 2,500. The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) offered the Secretary of State the opportunity to make a clear statement that the Government intend to maintain the size of the network. No guarantee was made.

We have heard no guarantees that the Post Office card account will continue to be provided in post offices. There was indrawn breath in the House when I suggested that sending out the message to people that it was continuing and they could relax and plan on that basis, even though it might not go through the post office network at all, was a deceit, especially for sub-postmasters, 10 per cent. of whose income comes from the POCA. Perhaps I used unparliamentary language, but I have heard nothing from Ministers to reassure me that sub-postmasters will be able to rely on that money coming in.

We also have no guarantees that post offices will be freer to compete for business. There are no guarantees at all. The situation is far from one of stability and certainty in the post office network. Instead, the post office bike—rather like myself in the summer going round my constituency from village to village—may easily lose its balance and fall in a ditch unless the Government get a proper grasp on the situation and listen to further arguments from Front-Bench Conservative spokesmen, the Government of whom the post office network will have to wait for in anticipation.

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6.25 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am grateful that I have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had not intended to speak in the debate, although as I represent one of the largest rural constituencies in the south of England, rural sub-post offices are extremely important, especially as the situation comes on top of a range of closures in rural areas. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) because they used the time that will not be available to me to describe in graphic detail the desperately important nature of a post office in a rural area. I was especially struck by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, when she said that if a rural sub-post office closes, elderly people, especially those without a car—as is the case in many rural constituencies, my constituency has no public transport—often have to rely on the charity of neighbours to allow them to collect their benefits and access the services that such sub-post offices provide.

It was disappointing that the Secretary of State did not have a greater vision of what he wanted from the rural sub-post office network. He had nothing to offer to House. Given that he was making a major speech on rural sub-post offices, I would have thought that he would be able to provide greater certainty. I do not envy the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), for having to wind up the debate. I hope that he will be able to provide greater certainty in his speech. There is no doubt that if the access criteria in the consultation paper are applied to my constituency, nearly three quarters of its rural sub-post offices could be closed, because the criteria are based on averages, not absolute figures.

I thought that there was a huge difference between the speech made by the Secretary of State and that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). One speech was a breath of fresh air that espoused what we wanted to hear: a situation in which sub-post offices are allowed to thrive.

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