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The Government’s response to the consultation ignored the 4 million signatures raised in petitions against the proposals—it ignored the campaigning activities in which many of us have been engaged. I
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have presented petitions on this matter to the House on behalf of my constituents; I have also presented a petition on behalf of parish councils in my constituency. They made similar points about the social, environmental and economic impact of the closure of small post offices.

What we are getting instead are small changes to the access criteria. They are welcome, but I do not believe in them. The key change is that public transport and alternative access to key services are to be taken into account. If I believed that, I would be a happy man, and my communities would be happy, too. We have very little public transport, if any. My village has one bus a week. I do not believe that that amounts to adequate public transport. If the Post Office genuinely looked at public transport issues it would not close post offices in my constituency. However, I note that all it has to do is to show that it has considered public transport issues—before, I suspect, blithely continuing with the closure programme. That is what I believe will happen.

Mr. Burns: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I suspect that he will agree with what I am about to say. Eight post offices have closed in my constituency in the past three years. It does not matter what criteria the Government lay down, because the consultation process with local people and elected representatives is a joke. When the Post Office announces a closure, it is determined that it will go ahead. It does not matter how powerful a case is or whether the criteria are met, the Post Office kindly listens but presses ahead regardless.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right. We, too, have had that experience with the closure of small post offices and of Crown post offices. We have lost our Crown post office in Frome. The post office is now housed in the back of a newsagent. To my mind, it does not fulfil the same purpose in the town; and, as a result of that development, a fine public building in the middle of Frome is still empty, which is a retrograde step.

I have no confidence in the consultation procedure. One of the representations made was that the six-week limit should be longer, but that has not happened; another was that the abolition of Postwatch, the one body that might be thought to have a key role, should be delayed, but it will not be. The closures will happen, inexorably. Many of us will argue hard for the interests of our constituents and what the closures will mean for local communities, but they will eventually happen. Rural areas do not ask for much from the Government—we certainly do not get much—but we do ask that we have a sub-post office in the village hall. Those requests are often denied and we will end up with worse communities as a result. It will be a sad day when that happens.

If anyone labours under the delusion that the so-called outreach facilities will fulfil the same function, they are wrong. They might provide a way for people to get their pension or benefit, but that is all. Without the post office facility, the shop will die, because the two are linked. The viability of the shop depends on the post office and the viability of the post
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office depends on the shop. If the post office closes, the shop will go, and with it will go the social value to the community.

The other matter that I wish to raise is the strategic road system in the west country, especially in my constituency. I predict that many people will leave London today, tomorrow and over the weekend and pass through my constituency. I hope that some of them will holiday in Somerset, but the vast majority will, sadly, go on to Devon and Cornwall, for reasons that escape me. Those people will use our roads, not our railways, which are over-priced and inefficient. Great Western is a very expensive railway and South West Trains has just announced that it is putting up its off-peak rates by 20 per cent., which is scandalous.

The principal road used will be the A303, which must be the most neglected strategic route in Britain. In fact, the Government seem to have forgotten and written off the whole south-west region. My constituency has a simple request: effect some safety improvements on the A303 between Sparkford and Ilchester. Why are they needed? People have accidents and die at that point on the A303. It is far enough from London that they are beginning to get tired, and it is where the carriageway changes between single and double a couple of times. People therefore make mistakes and have accidents.

Ten years ago, we had proposals to improve safety on that stretch of the A303. They went to public inquiry in 1997, and I appeared before the inquiry. There was no significant dissent and no environmental objections were raised—unlike further down the A303 where it crosses the Blackdown hills. It would be difficult to do anything to the road there without destroying the environment. Everybody agreed what should be done to the A303 in my constituency, but then the new Government placed a moratorium on further road improvements, including essential safety improvements.

Ever since, I have been asking when the safety measures will be implemented. The answer is not before 2016 at the earliest. The Government hide behind the South West regional assembly and claim it was the assembly’s decision not to go ahead. Nonsense. The assembly was told to assess all the schemes for the A303 as a single scheme. It was told that if it could not afford the schemes, it could not give them a high priority. Well, of course, it could not afford them. There was nothing like the necessary funds available for the assembly to take that decision. As the South West regional assembly inevitably has an interest in Devon and Cornwall, the far south-west, it preferred to improve the road between the A303 and the M5—the stretch that runs through the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) and for Taunton (Mr. Browne)—in order to speed traffic further down the road. Safety improvements to the A303 will not therefore be made until 2016, which is scandalous.

We cannot even get the road resurfaced to reduce noise and discomfort for local people. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made a similar point. Resurfacing was promised at least four years ago, but it has not been done because the money has been taken elsewhere.

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We have a scandalous state of affairs not only on the A303, but on the north-south routes through my constituency. Heavy goods vehicles arrive at the south coast port of Poole and try to find their way northwards on wholly unsuitable minor roads. I say “minor”; they are officially A roads, but they are unsuitable. A couple of weeks ago I was in the village of Templecombe in my constituency where, yet again, a heavy articulated lorry had become trapped underneath the railway bridge, despite all the signs warning of the low bridge. The lorry was driven, as it happens, by a Slovenian who might have found himself on such an unsuitable road—there are no pavements in the village and the houses sit on either side of the narrow road—because he was using satnav. That happened within 20 minutes of the local primary school allowing the children out on to the road and under the bridge. There could have been a tragic accident.

Why did that happen? It happened because no one is prepared to make the essential strategic investment to provide a safe north-south route for heavy goods vehicles that takes them out of settlements such as Henstridge and Templecombe, the villages of the Blackmore vale and some villages in Dorset, about which I am not qualified to speak because they are not in my constituency. No one looks at the strategic needs of the west country because it can safely be left to one side, can’t it? That always happens. The hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) has just come into the Chamber, and I welcome him. He will recognise some of the difficulties caused by the lack of a safe strategic north-south route for heavy goods vehicles from the south coast ports through Dorset and Somerset.

I know that the Deputy Leader of the House will recognise the concerns of many people about post offices in my part of the world and our determination to fight to the last, although some of us feel very pessimistic about the outcome. Will he pass on to the Department for Transport our concerns about the A303 and the fact that north-south routes to replace the A357, A358 and A359 have yet to be thought of, let alone implemented? Their absence reduces the safety of road users, has an environmental cost and destroys the well-being of many people in the west country.

4.28 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): We have certainly had many interesting speeches today, and I agree with most of what has been said. However, I want to take issue with the remarks of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). He was perfectly correct in his description of the election and the count—it was chaotic and it was an absolute disgrace. I also agreed with a lot of what he said about postal voting. However, I take issue with what he said about the outcome in Scotland. There was no chaos after the count had been completed. The Administration were formed very quickly, and they were formed by the party that got the most votes in the election. If we had been operating that election under the old-fashioned first-past-the-post system, the party that finished second in numbers of votes, the Labour party, would have won an overall majority and still been in power. That would
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have been unacceptable. The people of Scotland clearly wanted to vote the Labour party out of office in Scotland, and they put it in second place. The new proportional voting system in Scotland gave a fair result, which the people wanted.

The party that benefits most from proportional voting in Scotland is the hon. Gentleman’s party. Under the first-past-the-post system there would have been only four Conservative MSPs, but the party got another 12 MSPs through the top-up list. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has discussed the matter with his colleagues in Scotland. I will happily give way to him.

Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to respond. The point about the Conservative party is that we put what is good for the country before party preference, but he seems to be suggesting that it is much more important, because it is good for the Conservative party, that we get a few stupid—a few top-up—MPs than we do good government in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. We believe in good government for the people of this country, not in the preferment of the Conservative party or, indeed, of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Reid: We both agree that we want good government, but we obviously disagree on the electoral system best placed to achieve that.

I should like to take the opportunity to raise various issues that are important to my constituents. The first has been raised by several other hon. Members, and concerns the Government’s plans to close 2,500 post offices. So far, the Government have not listed the individual post offices that are to close, but as there are about 100 post offices in my constituency, it is obvious that plenty of them will close under their plans. As has been said by other hon. Members, it is a disastrous policy for rural parts of the country. Post offices are the lifeblood of communities in both rural and urban areas, particularly when combined with other services such as the local shop. Often, the post office supports the only shop in the village, so when the local post office closes, it is almost certain that the shop will close, too, leaving people who do not have access to a car without anywhere to shop.

In devising their policy of post office closures, I am sorry that the Government did not take into account the true social value of local post offices. The post office is often a source of free advice to many people, particularly vulnerable elderly people, on a variety of issues ranging from filling in forms to benefits. That service is one that banks and PayPoint simply will not have the time to provide. The staff at local post offices provide that service, and I urge the Government to take into account post offices’ social worth rather than valuing them purely in terms of profit and loss.

In my constituency, with the help of local sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, I organised a petition protesting against the Government’s plans in the original consultation document. It was signed by more than 7,000 post office customers, which is about one in 10 of the adult population in my constituency, so there was a clear rejection of the Government’s proposals.

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I was therefore disappointed by the fact that there was very little change in the Government’s response to the consultation. Indeed, some of the changes that were made to the criteria in the original consultation document by the document published last week make the situation even worse. In the original document, one criterion stated that in rural areas,

was to be “within 3 miles” of a post office. Naturally, that was interpreted by most people as meaning that within each rural area 95 per cent. of the population would be within 3 miles of a post office outlet. However, the criterion has now been replaced by two new criteria. One states:

The change means that there is no protection for each individual rural area, as that UK-wide target could be met while in many rural areas more than 5 per cent. of the population would be more than 6 miles from a post office outlet.

A second test for each postcode district states:

that is an increase from 3 miles in the original document—

There is no logic in the use of postcode districts in these circumstances; it will lead to many anomalies. Postcode districts are shown in the first half of the postcode—for example, G83 in my case—and were originally drawn up by the Post Office to indicate the area served by a sorting office, so there is a town at the centre of most of them. The district often comprises a town and its surrounding rural area, which means that in many cases the 95 per cent. target could be achieved simply by counting the population of the town; many rural post offices more than 6 miles away could be closed yet the criteria would still be met.

Mr. Heath: Even setting aside my hon. Friend’s valid point about the 5 per cent. of people who will not fall within the criteria, how many of the 95 per cent. could walk a round trip of 12 miles to visit their local post office—or in his constituency, occasionally swim?

Mr. Reid: My hon. Friend makes an excellent and valid point. Many post office customers are frail and elderly, and will certainly not be able to walk 6 miles to the post office and 6 miles home. The distances are far too long. I have some examples from my constituency. The G83 postcode covers most of the population of the towns of the Vale of Leven in the neighbouring West Dunbartonshire constituency. A few hundred people live in the small villages of Arrochar, Tarbet and Luss in my constituency, yet they could be deprived of their local post office and the criteria would still be satisfied.

Oban is in the PA34 postcode district. Most of the population live in the town, but the district covers a sparsely populated rural area that stretches many miles, from Port Appin to Kilmelford, including many islands—Lismore, Seil and Luing—so my hon. Friend’s comment about swimming is apt. PA28 relates to Campbeltown, which is another example of a moderately sized town in a large rural area. The bulk of
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the population of the Isle of Bute—the PA20 postcode district—live in the town of Rothesay, which means that the small number of people who live at Kilchattan Bay on the far side of the island could be deprived of their post office. I urge the Government to reconsider the criteria, because they have been changed from the earlier ones on which there was consultation.

My hon. Friend referred to the proposal to replace post offices by an occasional visit from a mobile office. The Government’s consultation document refers to post office outlets, not post offices, so a post office in a shop could be replaced by a van that visited once a week. That would allow people to collect their pension but it would be no substitute for an actual post office. The post office is often the only way that a shop can continue—the business may be unsustainable without the post office.

Other criteria are listed, such as public transport links, but I am worried about how the Post Office’s decisions will be evaluated. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) pointed out that the Post Office was not only making the proposals but taking the final decisions. The Government should look into that important point. The consultation document states:

We need more than monitoring arrangements.

The document refers to Postwatch, which is shortly to be abolished and merged into the National Consumer Council. It is not good enough for a consumer body simply to comment on what the Post Office does. We need an independent body that will monitor the criteria and have the power to overturn Post Office decisions when it considers that the Post Office has not met the criteria. The Post Office cannot act as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. It must be remembered that the Government have set the Post Office a target of 2,500 closures, so the Post Office will not be acting independently. It has Government targets to meet and it must balance its books.

Another worry is the successor to the Post Office card account. In a written statement last week the Department for Work and Pensions said that the contract for the successor to POCA after 2010 would be going out to tender, and that the contract would specify 10,000 outlets throughout the UK. I accept that European rules require a tender. However, the Government have the power to draw up the tender specification, which should be drawn up in such a way that the successful operator has to provide over-the- counter cash outlets in all rural parts of the UK, including small islands where there is currently a post office but no bank or PayPoint outlet.

Even after the 2,500 closures, the Post Office will have more than 10,000 over-the-counter outlets, but so also will PayPoint and a consortium of several banks. They could therefore also tender for the contract, but neither the banks nor PayPoint has a rural network which could match that of the Post Office. I draw the attention of the House to the TV licence payment fiasco. The contract for over-the-counter payments to renew TV licences was taken away from the Post Office and given to PayPoint.

I know that every time I blame the Government for that a Minister intervenes to say, “It wasn’t us. It was
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the BBC”, but that excuse does not wash. The rules for TV licences are set by the Government, and the Government could easily have specified that there had to be over-the-counter outlets in rural areas throughout the UK. PayPoint has outlets in my constituency, but they are nearly all in the towns. Huge swathes of the rural part of the constituency, including several small islands, that have post offices now have no outlet where people can renew their TV licence over the counter. That must not be repeated with the successor to the Post Office card account. The tender must specify outlets throughout the rural part of the country.

If the Post Office does not win the POCA contract, it will be a disaster. People in rural areas will not be able to collect their pension, and the loss of income because of the loss of business to the Post Office will, I suspect, mean that the 2,500 closures that the Government will force through over 18 months will be dwarfed by the number of closures that will subsequently take place. We should remember that Adam Crozier is on record as saying that the Post Office needs only 4,000 outlets in order to run its core business.

The final issue concerning Royal Mail is its proposals for zonal pricing for businesses that send out bulk mail. Unfortunately, bulk mail is not covered by the universal service obligation, and a consultation is under way on a proposal from Royal Mail which would mean that businesses have to pay more to send mail to rural areas than to urban areas. It would be a scandal if Postcomm allowed that proposal to go through. People would be penalised for living in rural areas. Theoretically, the customer is the business. However, if electricity, gas and telecoms companies which send out bulk mail know that they will have to pay more to the Post Office to send a bill to a customer in a rural area, they will pass that on to the customer, and people living in rural areas will receive larger bills.

It would be inconvenient for the utility companies, too. They would have to alter their computer systems, because different bills would have to be sent to rural customers rather than using one straightforward computer run. I hope that Postcomm rejects that proposal. It is seven years since the Postal Services Act 2000 was passed, and perhaps it is time to review the universal service obligation, because certain services, such as bulk mail, that are not included in it should be.

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