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I want to begin by setting out a few general points on Post Office Ltd’s decision to enter into a franchise agreement with WH Smith, and then to try to tackle
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some of the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised about the Blackpool transfer, especially disability access, on which he focused.

The future of the post office network is a subject of great relevance to all hon. Members, irrespective of whether we have a Crown post office in our constituencies. The Post Office is run on an arm’s length basis and Ministers do not make day-to-day decisions about the location of individual post office branches. However, I emphasise that the Government share hon. Members’ concerns about securing a sustainable future for the Post Office and ensuring reasonable access to Post Office services for the public.

The decision by Post Office Ltd to enter into a commercial agreement with WH Smith has generated a great deal of interest and debate. It is not the first time that Post Office services have been shared with other retail space. Post offices already share space with retail networks such as the Co-op, Martin McColl and Spar. More than 95 per cent. of post offices in this country are run by private operators, often with a shared retail space.

There are approximately 450 Crown post offices, and they lost a combined total of £70 million last year and some £50 million the year before that. The network is therefore undergoing change, partly as a result of wider changes to the way in which we go about our business. For example, many of us choose to pay bills by direct debit; nine out of 10 people approaching retirement choose to have pensions paid into a bank account; communications technologies have undergone a revolution in recent years, and some 4 million fewer people use post offices compared with only two years ago. Clearly, that is not sustainable, and the Government support Post Office Ltd’s policy for reducing the losses. It includes maintaining a core network of Crown post offices and franchising branches when opportunities arise and when that would benefit future post office provision. We have welcomed the commercial deal between Post Office Ltd and WH Smith, which was announced on 19 April, because it will secure the retention of a main post office service in each of those areas. That point should not be lost in the debate about Crown branches.

As my hon. Friend said, six pilot projects of such transfers were carried out before the current franchising arrangement was announced. My understanding is that the majority of customers in those pilots welcomed the pleasant environment and the customer service. They also welcomed the extended opening hours for the service. I understand that that factor will apply to the Blackpool transfer.

In some cases, the franchising of a Crown post office has been portrayed as a closure. I accept that my hon. Friend did not intend to do that. However, there is an important difference—franchising is not closure. Without the sort of deal that we are considering, a question mark would have hung over the future many Crown post offices. The Post Office is seeking to create more certainty about the future, and in particular about how the main Post Office service will be provided in our town centres. The arrangement brings a level of certainty about the future of the 70 offices concerned.

Let me turn to some of the specifics that my hon. Friend mentioned. He expressed concern about the quality of service under the new arrangement. This is an important issue and he is right to raise it, but it
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would not be right to conclude that franchising will automatically lead to a reduction in quality of service. We should remember that only about 3 per cent. of posts offices are Crown post offices, directly managed and staffed by Post Office Ltd employees. I am sure that none of us would suggest that the equally hard-working sub-postmasters and mistresses and their staff who work in the remaining 97 per cent. of the branches are providing an inferior service. Franchisees are bound by stringent contractual requirements to ensure that service standards remain at the same high level after transferring from direct management of Post Office Ltd. Staff will be trained by Post Office Ltd and expected to maintain the standards of service that the public have a right to expect.

My hon. Friend concentrated on access for people with disabilities. He is right to stress that it is important. Royal Mail Group has been working to the spirit of existing disability legislation, is committed to its being complied with and has a strong track record in improving and promoting positive attitudes. Post Office Ltd is committed to ensuring that disability access remains a priority. My understanding is that the issue has featured in discussions between the Post Office and WH Smith. The two organisations are working together to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to ensure effective reasonable adjustment to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. My understanding is that WH Smith has spent about £1.5 million on improving access in stores and new sites opened since 2003, to meet DDA regulations.

My hon. Friend pointed out that the space identified in the Blackpool store is in the basement. The same is true of a number of franchised post offices, where the space identified will be either on the first floor or in basement space. Post Office Ltd has given an assurance that the location of all branches will comply with the 1995 Act and be accessible to all customers. Arrangements will be in place to assist customers with special access needs in branches such as Blackpool, where the post office counter is not on the ground floor. I accept that my hon. Friend spoke about his own constituency, that he has visited the proposed new location and that I have not, so I tread carefully. However, I understand that there is a lift to help customers with disabilities. My hon. Friend has expressed concern, tonight and in his letter, about the quality of the lift. I understand that
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WH Smith plans to refurbish and redecorate it and to carry out any reasonable improvements to assist further those customers with disabilities.

I understand that there is more queuing space in the WH Smith office than in the current office. In the event of a customer being for some reason unable to use the lift or the stairs to access the serving positions, arrangements will be available to ensure that they can be served by Post Office-trained staff on the ground floor. As one would expect from an established and prominent high street retailer, WH Smith is fully aware of its responsibilities under the 1995 Act and will ensure that the branch remains fully accessible for customers, including those with mobility problems.

My hon. Friend has made clear his continuing concerns tonight. I am sure that both Post Office Ltd and WH Smith will read his speech. Ultimately, it is in no one’s interests for customers to be discouraged from conducting their business or from having a less favourable experience of the service in future.

In conclusion, the Post Office has been deprived of much needed investment over the years. The Government have put in some £2 billion since 1999 and we plan further investment in the future. The Post Office is now diversifying into providing foreign currency, fixed line telephone services and new products such as credit cards. Change is never easy and I appreciate my hon. Friend’s commitment, reflected in his speech tonight, but franchising is neither new nor an enemy of Post Office services. In fact, it may be a crucial factor ensuring their survival.

We value the social role of the Post Office, but we also accept that it operates in a competitive marketplace and that change means that it, too, will have to change in the future. I believe that we have set out a framework to create a stable network in the future, so that the Post Office can move forward with confidence and rise to the challenges ahead. I appreciate the difficulties at this time of change. I am sure that the Post Office will have heard my hon. Friend’s points, but I hope that the arrangements—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Nine o'clock.

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Deferred Division

Political Parties

The House divided: Ayes 295, Noes 141.
Division No. 190]


Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Alexander, Danny
Anderson, Mr. David
Atkins, Charlotte
Austin, Mr. Ian
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baird, Vera
Baker, Norman
Balls, rh Ed
Banks, Gordon
Barlow, Ms Celia
Barrett, John
Barron, rh Mr. Kevin
Bayley, Hugh
Beckett, rh Margaret
Begg, Miss Anne
Bell, Sir Stuart
Benton, Mr. Joe
Berry, Roger
Blackman, Liz
Blears, rh Hazel
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Blunkett, rh Mr. David
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben
Brennan, Kevin
Brooke, Annette
Brown, Lyn
Brown, Mr. Russell
Browne, Mr. Jeremy
Bruce, rh Malcolm
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burden, Richard
Burnham, rh Andy
Butler, Ms Dawn
Byers, rh Mr. Stephen
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Caton, Mr. Martin
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Challen, Colin
Chapman, Ben
Chaytor, Mr. David
Clapham, Mr. Michael
Clark, Ms Katy
Clark, Paul
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom
Clelland, Mr. David
Clwyd, rh Ann
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Coffey, Ann
Connarty, Michael
Corbyn, Jeremy
Crausby, Mr. David
Creagh, Mary
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cummings, John
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Cunningham, Tony
Darling, rh Mr. Alistair
Davey, Mr. Edward
David, Mr. Wayne
Davies, Mr. Dai
Davies, Mr. Quentin
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Denham, rh Mr. John
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Dobbin, Jim
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Doran, Mr. Frank
Dowd, Jim
Drew, Mr. David
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Engel, Natascha
Ennis, Jeff
Farrelly, Paul
Farron, Tim
Featherstone, Lynne
Field, rh Mr. Frank
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flello, Mr. Robert
Flynn, Paul
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Mr. Don
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Gapes, Mike
Gardiner, Barry
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gidley, Sandra
Godsiff, Mr. Roger
Goggins, Paul
Goldsworthy, Julia
Goodman, Helen
Griffiths, Nigel
Grogan, Mr. John
Gwynne, Andrew
Hain, rh Mr. Peter
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hall, Patrick
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Hancock, Mr. Mike
Hanson, rh Mr. David
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Mr. Tom
Havard, Mr. Dai

Hemming, John
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Hendrick, Mr. Mark
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen
Heppell, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Hill, rh Keith
Hillier, Meg
Hodge, rh Margaret
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Holmes, Paul
Hood, Mr. Jim
Hoon, rh Mr. Geoffrey
Hope, Phil
Hopkins, Kelvin
Horwood, Martin
Howarth, David
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Howells, Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Hughes, rh Beverley
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Hunter, Mark
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Mr. Eric
Ingram, rh Mr. Adam
Irranca-Davies, Huw
James, Mrs. Siân C.
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, rh Alan
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Helen
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Mr. Martyn
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keeley, Barbara
Kelly, rh Ruth
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Kennedy, rh Jane
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kidney, Mr. David
Kramer, Susan
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lamb, Norman
Lammy, Mr. David
Laws, Mr. David
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Lazarowicz, Mark
Leech, Mr. John
Lepper, David
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony
Love, Mr. Andrew
Malik, Mr. Shahid
Mallaber, Judy
Mann, John
Marris, Rob
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Marshall-Andrews, Mr. Robert
Martlew, Mr. Eric
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCafferty, Chris
McCarthy, Kerry
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McCartney, rh Mr. Ian
McDonagh, Siobhain
McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair
McFadden, Mr. Pat
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McGuire, Mrs. Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McKechin, Ann
McNulty, Mr. Tony
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Miliband, rh Edward
Miller, Andrew
Moffat, Anne
Mole, Chris
Moran, Margaret
Morgan, Julie
Mudie, Mr. George
Mulholland, Greg
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Munn, Meg
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Olner, Mr. Bill
Öpik, Lembit
Osborne, Sandra
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pearson, Ian
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Prosser, Gwyn
Pugh, Dr. John
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Purnell, rh James
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Reed, Mr. Andy
Reid, Mr. Alan
Reid, rh John
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Robertson, John
Rogerson, Dan
Rowen, Paul
Roy, Mr. Frank
Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Bob
Russell, Christine
Salter, Martin
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Seabeck, Alison
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheridan, Jim
Simpson, Alan
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Slaughter, Mr. Andy
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Smith, Geraldine
Smith, rh Jacqui
Smith, John
Smith, Sir Robert
Snelgrove, Anne
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Southworth, Helen
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stewart, Ian
Stoate, Dr. Howard

Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Straw, rh Mr. Jack
Stringer, Graham
Swinson, Jo
Tami, Mark
Taylor, David
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Thornberry, Emily
Tipping, Paddy
Todd, Mr. Mark
Trickett, Jon
Truswell, Mr. Paul
Turner, Mr. Neil
Twigg, Derek
Ussher, Kitty
Waltho, Lynda
Ward, Claire
Wareing, Mr. Robert N.
Watts, Mr. Dave
Webb, Steve
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wicks, Malcolm
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Williams, Mr. Roger
Williams, Stephen
Willott, Jenny
Wills, Mr. Michael
Winnick, Mr. David
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Wright, Dr. Tony
Wyatt, Derek

Ainsworth, Mr. Peter
Amess, Mr. David
Arbuthnot, rh Mr. James
Bacon, Mr. Richard
Barker, Gregory
Baron, Mr. John
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Benyon, Mr. Richard
Binley, Mr. Brian
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Bone, Mr. Peter
Boswell, Mr. Tim
Bottomley, Peter
Brady, Mr. Graham
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Brokenshire, James
Browning, Angela
Burns, Mr. Simon
Burrowes, Mr. David
Cameron, rh Mr. David
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Cash, Mr. William
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Clappison, Mr. James
Clarke, rh Mr. Kenneth
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Curry, rh Mr. David
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth)
Davies, Philip
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Dodds, Mr. Nigel
Donaldson, rh Mr. Jeffrey M.
Duddridge, James
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Evennett, Mr. David
Fallon, Mr. Michael
Field, Mr. Mark
Francois, Mr. Mark
Fraser, Mr. Christopher
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Gauke, Mr. David
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Goodman, Mr. Paul
Goodwill, Mr. Robert
Gove, Michael
Gray, Mr. James
Green, Damian
Greenway, Mr. John
Gummer, rh Mr. John
Hague, rh Mr. William
Hammond, Mr. Philip

Hammond, Stephen
Hands, Mr. Greg
Harper, Mr. Mark
Hayes, Mr. John
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Heathcoat-Amory, rh Mr. David
Hendry, Charles
Herbert, Nick
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holloway, Mr. Adam
Horam, Mr. John
Hosie, Stewart
Hunt, Mr. Jeremy
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Jack, rh Mr. Michael
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Jones, Mr. David
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Lancaster, Mr. Mark
Letwin, rh Mr. Oliver
Lewis, Dr. Julian
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian
Lidington, Mr. David
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn
Loughton, Tim
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
MacNeil, Mr. Angus
Mates, rh Mr. Michael
McCrea, Dr. William
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Moss, Mr. Malcolm
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Osborne, Mr. George
Ottaway, Richard
Paice, Mr. James
Paterson, Mr. Owen
Penrose, John
Pickles, Mr. Eric
Price, Adam
Pritchard, Mark
Randall, Mr. John
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Robertson, Angus
Robertson, Hugh
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Robinson, Mrs. Iris
Robinson, rh Mr. Peter
Scott, Mr. Lee
Selous, Andrew
Shepherd, Mr. Richard
Simmonds, Mark
Simpson, David
Soames, Mr. Nicholas
Spicer, Sir Michael
Spink, Bob
Spring, Mr. Richard
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Swayne, Mr. Desmond
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Syms, Mr. Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Mr. Ian
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Villiers, Mrs. Theresa
Walker, Mr. Charles
Wallace, Mr. Ben
Walter, Mr. Robert
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Watkinson, Angela
Whittingdale, Mr. John
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Willetts, Mr. David
Williams, Hywel
Wilshire, Mr. David
Wilson, Mr. Rob
Wilson, Sammy
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Wright, Jeremy
Young, rh Sir George
Question accordingly agreed to.
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