Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Chope. I had thought that perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) would be first, but in any event we have agreed that we shall allow each other time, so I shall be brief.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) on securing a timely debate, and I commiserate with the Minister in his position, because he is a very pleasant Minister. I am not sure which was the lesser of two evilsbeing here to debate post offices or being upstairs in a Committee Room debating the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill, which I understand from my colleagues has also encountered some problems. Nevertheless we are delighted to see the Minister and we are sorry that he has to deal with the problem before us.
There should be a much more positive outlook on post offices; we should be looking to open rather than close them, and we should be considering how many post offices can be kept open. There is not necessarily any need to rely on Government subsidy; Government good will can do it.
There are 36 potential closures in my own area of Gloucestershire, according to the Gloucestershire rural community council, and if all of them proceeded, there would be a devastating effect on the economic and social life of the local rural communities. As has been said by a number of right hon. and hon. Members, the more remote an area, the more important is the glue that a village post office provides in binding together the community.
I want to quiz the Minister on the access criteria, because those criteria are worrying. As I intimated when I intervened on the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, it seems to me that the Government are using averages. The 95 per cent. average for rural areas is deeply worrying, because if the definition of rural areas includes suburban areas, that could mean that the more remote rural areas will have little effect on the average, so that the Government will be able to use the average as a pretext for closing more post offices in the remote rural areas than would otherwise be the case. Will the Minister give some reassurance on that?
Will the Minister also give some clarification on the Post Office card account? I have had complaints from my constituents similar to those made by the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) about withdrawing money from such accounts. People with several hundred pounds in such accounts have been told that it is almost impossible to take out some of the money without closing the account; they either have to take out the whole amount or close the account, whereas they should be able take out only part of the money.
I am delighted for the people who will receive a retirement package, but I caution the Minister about the thoughts that he expressed in his earlier intervention. There is going to be difficulty in recruiting postmasters or postmistresses in many remote rural areas after people have been offered such a package, particularly in the current environment, in which the Government are making access to Government services more difficult and there is a reduction in subsidies. There are high property prices in remote rural areas such as my own. If someone receives a retirement package and manages to obtain planning permission for a change of use of the post office to residential use, it will be difficult to find other potential sites.
I plead with the Minister to use more lateral thinking, which has been mentioned so many times in the debate. On the theme of positive thinking, a broadband IT point in every post office would give access to a huge range of Government services and would enable a wide range of forms to be printed out. Education could even be undertaken remotelyall sorts of things could be done if people started to do some lateral thinking. The problem is of deep concern in rural areas, many of which have very few services already. Many villages in my constituency have either no buses at all or one bus service a week, and post office closures will mean more car use, more pollution and more miserable lives, particularly for the elderly and the socially disadvantaged. As has been said, we want to increase economic and social inclusion by keeping post offices open.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I endorse the comments of all Back Benchers who have spoken so far. Rural post offices provide an intangible benefitthey are the heart of many villages and are as important to local communities as the village hall. It is essential that we adopt a positive view on maintaining them and keeping them open, and I agree with what was said by my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), because they and I have practical experience of seeing elderly people in rural areas who are being deprived of services.
Positive approaches such as leaflet distribution could encourage people to find out about ways in which local post offices could be used for parking fines, or TV licences, which I think could be reintroduced as a service. Benefit payments, agricultural payments, marketing of local produce, Google use, small-scale library services, e-commerce, eBay use and other internet and broadband use are other possibilities, together with access to PCs and laptops, planning papers, card accounts and Government information services.
We need a more creative way of making sure that post offices are used. There is a simple reason for that,
which is not that they are a battleground at the moment, though they certainly are in the rural areas, but because they are the heart of rural communities. They give the disabled and the infirm a point of social contact, so other people are aware if they are ill. They are a means of communication and are the heartbeat of the local community, where village and rural life can come together. There is deep concern in my constituency that the petitions that I submitted on the subject have received no Government response. That is inexcusable.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) on having proposed the debate. I also congratulate Age Concern, which I had the pleasure of meeting and which has put an enormous amount of hard work into stimulating interest in and thought about post offices. It knows how much post offices mean to local communities.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate, Mr. Chope, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) on obtaining it. It is the second occasion on which he has been lucky enough to bring the matter to the attention of hon. Members, and it is useful that hon. Members can make their points directly to the Minister, because he must know of the great concern in rural areas about the future of post offices.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) put her finger on the point when she said that it is uncertainty that is killing the enthusiasm of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to continue with their businesses. Indeed, over the past two decades, post offices have been closing at a rate of more than 300 a year. Under the previous, Conservative Government, 3,500 local post offices closed, and under Labour, another 4,000 have closed, hitting communities throughout the country. Between 2000 and 2006, nearly 1,200 rural post offices closed.
At this point, I pay tribute to the people working in post offices, who had a commitment to keep rural post offices open and who have indeed been working with rural communities. We have seen a great deal of ingenuity to ensure that post offices are replaced when a sub-postmaster retires.
In Llanbadarn Fynydd, in my constituency, the community bought the local shop, post office and filling station so that that facility could continue to exist. In Pontneddfechan, the post office is used to provide a police presence, so that people in a very remote community can make contact with the police. That gives the post office added income. In Hundred House, a local postmaster goes to the village hall to carry out that function. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), mobile post offices have been a very successful feature of the service.
The Governments consultation has been fundamentally flawed, based on consideration of the needs of the Post Office, rather than on the needs of post office consumers. My hon. Friends have made the point that we see the post office as a service, just as education or health is a service, that is fundamental to social inclusion and cohesion. Just as we would not expect the other services to be provided without a cost, we do not expect post
office services to be provided without a cost, but wherever that cost is incurred, it should be incurred in the most efficient and effective way.
The Governments consultation was difficult to respond to. It was a rather dry document, and responding to it required an understanding of the Post Office business that most post office users would not have had. Indeed, a month before the close of the consultation, only two responses had been received from the whole of Wales. Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were not contacted directly. They may have been contacted electronically, but certainly when I went round the post offices in my constituency, I found that a number of the postmasters were not aware that the consultation was taking place. My hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) met Wales Office Ministers and encouraged them to intervene with the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that postmasters were aware of what was going on.
That was important because we had only just emerged from the urban reinvention programme for urban post offices, which led to a large number of closures. In my constituency, with about 55 post offices, only three were defined as urban, yet as a result of that process we saw the closure of the only one that we really wanted to keep open and we managed to keep open the two that could have closed at a push, whose business could have been dealt with by the main post office in the town.
Because I felt that the consultation was difficult to respond to, I produced a consultation document of my own. Customers were asked to comment on whether there would be an increase in car use, whether the public transport system was good enough for them to be able to access neighbouring post offices and what effect there would be on shops and garages.
Mr. Williams: I was about to come to that. My constituents responded to the DTI: 1,827 of them took the opportunity to write to the DTI to say how much they appreciated their local post office. Thirty-five responded to the DTI consultation, and 216 responded to my consultation.
Mr. Cash: Will the hon. Gentleman also consider that it might be a good idea, for example, to have bus stops and bus shelters adjacent to or near post offices, so that people could get to them with minimum inconvenience and those facilities would form a focal point?
Mr. Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Convenience is very important to post offices. The ability to use public transport and to get to post offices was one issue on which my constituents responded.
We also want the post office to be a one-stop shop where people can buy their TV licence, renew their car tax and pay council tax and other bills. The Government should be allowing post offices the opportunity to engage and invest in other businesses as they become apparent, but the Government have clearly been taking every building block away from post offices. We have heard about benefits and pensions, about the difficulties of getting a Post Office card account and then of using
it, and about TV licences and car licences. The postmaster in Ystradgynlais, where there is just a post office and no other business involved in it, tells me that the number of car licences that he issues has decreased by 30 per cent. Particularly in rural areas, the presence of a post office is essential for the continuation and survival of the village shop, the village garage and all the other facilities that are so important in rural areas.
On the business of 95 per cent. of rural people being within three miles of a post office, we are worried that a canny cartographer in the DTI will be able, with his compass and other instruments, to draw little lines of three miles and to work this out on a very artificial basis to meet the target that the DTI has set. Is that three miles as the crow flies or does it refer to the length of road that one needs to use to get to a post office? As my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said, if there is a mountain or loch in-between, someone may have to travel round that physical feature to get to the post office.
That said, good things have happened. My colleague, Kirsty Williams, the Assembly Member for my area, recently went to Llanbister, where a cash machine has opened in the post office, so there are ways in which both the Government and the Post Office can work to get good facilities for people living in what are often disadvantaged and low-income areas. Often they do not have a car or access to public transport to get them to a post office.
I say to the Minister that I hope that closures will not be driven by the postmasters and postmistresses who are looking towards retirement. If there are to be closures, it is essential that they take place on the basis of the network and the need to serve the people, rather than of the individual needs of postmasters and postmistresses.
The timing of the announcement of the result of the consultation is quite interesting. I understand that it is being deferred. When I asked the Secretary of State whether the results of the consultation would be announced before May, he said that the closing date was 8 March and added:
I imagine that March comes before May, even in Liberal Democrat-land.[Official Report, 14 December 2006; Vol. 455, c. 1042.]
It is especially important that we keep our post offices open in rural areas, where the local economies do not have the robust characteristics of urban areas, and where there is variety in type and character of economic investment. In rural areas, stability and continuity are essential. However, the Governments approach to the future of post offices does not in any way deliver that for us.
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) on yet again securing a debate on this important subject and on the thorough and thoughtful way in which he introduced it. We have had extremely good speeches from everybody who has contributed, which shows the seriousness of the issue.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) rightly pointed out the cynicism of Labour Members who go through the Lobby to vote for Government policy, but who then issue press releases and campaign to explain why their constituency should be exempt from that policy. That applies not only to post offices, but to hospitals and other things, too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) rightly showed the inherent contradiction between the Governments plans for the Post Office and those for improving the environment and saving car miles, which are in direct conflict.
None the less, the debate has been characterised by a very positive approach. In particular, I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who have been energetic campaigners on this issue, on highlighting what could be done to bring new business to the Post Office. We are looking not for the gradual managed decline of this much-loved institution, but for policies that will bring it new business.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) was absolutely right to say that the debate is being carried out against a background of great uncertainty, which, in itself, undermines the future of the network. As we have heard, we expected a response to the consultation document in December, but even on 27 February, the Minister said:
It is very much as I outlined in my statement. The consultation ends on 8 March. We are assessing the submissions as they come in so that we do not have to wade through hundreds of submissions on 8 March. As I said, the Secretary of State hopes to make an announcement by the end of March so that we can confirm, amend or adjust the access criteria and the points that he made in his statement on 14 December.[Official Report, Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 27 February 2007; c. 13.]
Something therefore happened in the last week of that consultation process to blow the time scale out of the water, and we believe, with good reason, that it could be that the Government have in mind more closures than they have announced so far.
Charles Hendry: The Minister will get his chance to answer in a moment. If the Government do not have more closures in mind, perhaps he can tell us why, in the week before the consultation closed, it was decided that the statement had to be put off by two months. There is great suspicion up and down the country about what has happened.