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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9)(European Standing Committees),

Stability and Convergence Programmes

Question agreed to.



Delegated Legislation Committees

Question agreed to.


Council Tax

8 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I am grateful for this opportunity to present a petition on the important subject of the council tax, the level of which has almost doubled in the past decade. The petition reads:

To lie upon the Table.

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Crown Post Offices (Disabled Access)

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

8.1 pm

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured this debate on the issues arising from the proposed transfer of Crown post offices to WH Smith. Several colleagues and I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs on the subject. The issues arise from the fact that the Post Office has reached a franchise agreement with WH Smith; it is proposed that from September this year about 70 Crown post offices be closed, and their services provided by WH Smith stores nearby. There have already been trials involving six Crown post offices.

The issues are inevitably difficult and controversial for local communities, and there has been a lot of concern and disquiet about the way in which the process has been managed. In Blackpool, for example, there has been much concern about the fact that the Abingdon street post office, which has been a central feature of Blackpool for nearly 60 years, and which is a listed building, will no longer provide its services. There are broader issues to do with the abandonment of a prime town centre site, and the transfer of services to a less well known one, and there are concerns about the position of staff, which the Communication Workers Union and others have already raised. However, I want to focus on the proposals’ implications for access for people with disabilities or mobility difficulties, and for people who have children and use buggies or other things of that nature.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and I have met representatives from WH Smith and post office staff in Blackpool on several occasions, and we have visited the proposed site. There is real concern, and it is shared by a number of other hon. Members; as I have said, we set out those concerns in a letter that the Minister received earlier this week. The changes will cause further pressures, too. A 20 per cent. reduction in counter size is proposed in Blackpool, which will cause difficulties. In addition, a number of the WH Smith stores that are part of the franchise proposals have not included the provision of adequate access for disabled customers in their plans. In Blackpool, the post office counters will be in the basement of the WH Smith Bank Hey street store, but post office and WH Smith staff agree that the lift is likely to be too small for many wheelchair users.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform last week a similar issue in respect of the WH Smith branch in Brighton, in Churchill square, where the facilities are also located in the basement and although there is an escalator facility, it goes down only and not up.

Many vulnerable groups, including older and disabled customers, use the existing post office facilities. They carry out everyday tasks there. Often the Crown offices provide a hub for personal finance and benefit collection. In Blackpool, the Abingdon street post office, to which I have already referred, borders on a well known indoor
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market. It is opposite the famous Winter Gardens conference centre and the town centre church. The proposed replacement at Bank Hey street is much further away and is in no sense part of the centre of the town. I believe that the franchise agreement could have a negative impact on many of the consumer groups that I have mentioned if the issues of access are not properly addressed by the Post Office and by WH Smith before any transfer of services takes place.

I shall quote for the Minister comments that I have received in the past couple of days. One is from the director of Age Concern in Blackpool, Ruth Lambert, who says:

She goes on to make a point that might not be immediately apparent:

That view is echoed in the letter that Blackpool council sent to the Post Office, protesting at the proposed relocation, in which it said that the relocation to the basement of WH Smith is

About 22 per cent. of the adult population of the UK are classed as disabled under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—that is, just under 10 million adults. It is not just customers with mobility problems who may be affected by the changes. Customers who are blind, partially sighted or deaf will also face challenges. The Post Office has very good provision of induction loops for hearing aids, as well as visual indicators for deaf customers, but no guarantees have been given so far that that will be the case for the post office counters in the WH Smith stores. I have been in conversation with the Royal National Institute of Blind People and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, and they have both expressed their concerns.

The Post Office also has a varying—at least by region—but fairly solid track record of ensuring fair and equal access for blind customers. With the introduction of chip and pin services last year, all stores including WH Smith now operate that system. RNIB advised the Post Office on the accessibility of chip and pin pads, and the Post Office consulted RNIB, but RNIB’s concern is that WH Smith has not so far consulted and may not consult on any future changes to chip and pin to accommodate blind and partially sighted people.

That inevitably raises the issue of staff experience in these areas. There has already been significant controversy about the fact that because the sum that will be paid to the new WH Smith staff is considerably less per hour than that paid to current Post Office employees, the likelihood is that the vast majority of the staff in the proposed new branches will be new staff. My local newspaper, the Blackpool Gazette, today reveals that

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that is, WH Smith—

That is reckoned to be just under half of what current workers are paid at Abingdon street. I am not asking the Minister to comment on whether that is a good and acceptable wage for the service that is proposed, but it is fairly obvious that the vast majority of Crown post office staff, certainly in the case of Blackpool, are unlikely to transfer in those circumstances, and there will therefore be a big issue as regards new staff. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and I have pressed WH Smith and the Post Office on the training facilities available for that purpose in the limited time span for the transfer, we have not received very satisfactory answers.

Blackpool, in particular, has a high number of tourists and visitors during the peak holiday season, many of whom need and want to use post office services during their stay. As a result, the access problems of WH Smith stores in Blackpool, Carlisle, Ilford, Brighton and elsewhere, which already affect disabled, old and vulnerable customers, will be exacerbated during peak visitor times in seaside and coastal towns. That has moved other hon. Members to join me in expressing these concerns. I remind the Minister that among the other Crown post offices on the list for closure are Bournemouth, Canterbury, Folkestone and Great Yarmouth.

The Government are the sole shareholder in Royal Mail, and the Post Office is therefore classed as a public authority. All such bodies are subject to the disability equality duty, or DED, which is meant to ensure that all public bodies pay due regard to the promotion of equality for disabled people in every area of their work. Forty-five thousand public bodies across the UK are covered by the DED, many of which should have produced and published a disability equality scheme, or DES, by 4 December 2006, including the Post Office. Generally, the DES is intended to promote a duty for equality of opportunity between disabled people and other citizens, to eliminate discrimination and harassment, to promote positive attitudes to disabled people, and to take into account any impairment. Specifically, the Post Office is required by regulation, as part of the DED, to produce and publish a DES that is supposed to be drawn up in consultation with disabled people who are Post Office stakeholders and include staff and customers.

For these purposes, the franchise agreement is exactly the same as contracting out by a public body. The Post Office is contracting out its services to WH Smith, and WH Smith is therefore bound by the same conditions as the Post Office in relation to the DED. Regrettably, however, there are few signs so far that WH Smith is taking that responsibility seriously. Central to the DED in relation to the proposed transfer of service from the Post Office to WH Smith is the requirement on public authorities to conduct a full disability equality impact assessment when there are any proposed changes to service delivery. Transferring the products and services of the Post Office, a public authority, into the basement of another building, as is the case in Blackpool, will have a significant impact on service delivery. The DES should therefore state clearly how the Post Office will conduct an impact assessment
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in Blackpool and elsewhere. I ask the Minister urgently to ensure that that takes place not only in Blackpool but in the other locations that are earmarked for closure.

The Disability Rights Commission, with which I have been in contact, is not aware of any up-to-date assessment that has been made in respect of the schemes for transfer. The DRC has the power to take legal action where public authorities fail to carry out their responsibilities under the DED, and those authorities may then be subject to judicial review by the DRC.

Those are the potential legal implications, but my question is this: where is the proactive element in this transfer? Why have not the Post Office and WH Smith already had this proper consultation with stakeholders? That concern is shared by organisations representing older people. Gordon Lishman, the director general of Age Concern, has said:

The senior policy officer at Help the Aged, Alan Burnett, said:

It may be said that these are matters of detail between WH Smith and the Post Office and not, therefore, a direct responsibility of Ministers and officials. However, WH Smith and the Post Office have so far manifestly failed to address the issues proactively. To give one example, when my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood originally spoke to local staff about the problem of a significant number of people who use wheelchairs not being able to get into the lift to the basement—it was generally agreed to be too small for motorised wheelchairs—one of them said, “Oh well, if they turn up like that, we’ll just have to transfer them into smaller wheelchairs.” I submit that that is not a hopeful sign in the course of the transfer of a culture of respect for people with problems of mobility and disability.

In any case, broader policy issues are raised that are a matter for the Government, as sole shareholder in Royal Mail. This Government have placed strong emphasis on disability issues since 1997, and I am proud of their record in that respect. They have supported people with disabilities; introduced a range of policies protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of disability; helped more people with disabilities to find and stay in work; and supported those whose disabilities mean that they are unable to work. In April 2000, the Government established the Disability Rights Commission, and they implemented duties under part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to improve disabled people’s access to goods, services and facilities. Since 1999, service providers have had to make reasonable adjustments to the way in which they provide their services so that disabled people can use them. Since 2004, they have had to take reasonable steps to tackle physical features that
18 July 2007 : Column 401
continue to make it impossible, or unreasonably difficult, for disabled people to access a service. All of that is very good.

I welcome the Minister to his place and congratulate him on his appointment—not least because he has come to his new Department from the Cabinet Office where there was a strong, groundbreaking focus on social inclusion under the previous Government. The establishment of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights should send out a strong message to disabled groups and others that the Government take equality seriously, but I am concerned that the fiasco of the franchise agreement could damage that track record.

I believe that if we will the ends, we have to will the means. That means that the Government have to live up to their responsibilities as a shareholder, and more broadly, promote a non-discriminatory and non-excluding programme. The range of concerns that I and other hon. Members have, and the complaints and protests from throughout the country, show that the circumstances in Blackpool are not an isolated incident. The worst possible thing for any transfer of services between the Post Office and WH Smith would be if customers became fraught with real difficulties that led to a host of legal challenges on the grounds of non-implementation of the DDA.

Therefore, I ask the Minister not to allow the Post Office and WH Smith to duck the issue any longer. I ask him to ensure that the Government look urgently at the situation in all the Crown post offices scheduled for transfer to WH Smith, and to do the assessment on access which should already have taken place. I ask also that they consult and make whatever adjustments the letter and spirit of the DDA require, and that they do so properly and comprehensively, involving stakeholder groups in places where the changes are proposed, even if it means delays in the handover process.

In the event of any transfer in Blackpool, I ask the Government to consider specifically providing extra lift provision and making other adjustments to render the problems that we have identified less acute.

Whatever service changes take place, there should be no outsourcing or franchising of basic equality principles that might result in preventing or making difficult access and provision for the elderly, those who have disabilities or anyone with access or mobility problems.

8.20 pm

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on securing this evening’s debate. I know that he cares deeply about his constituents and wants to secure the best possible access for them to Post Office services. That was evident from his speech. As he said, he and other hon. Members have already written to me about the issue.

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