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Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I too shall keep my remarks brief, not only so that other people can speak but to give the Minister maximum time to reply, as he will need his full entitlement to answer the many points made, and I do not want to curtail his opportunity to respond. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), who must be gratified by the response to his report and to this debate.
I shall mention an area of the country that has not yet been mentioned: London. The Minister might be interested to know that last week the Greater London Forum for the Elderly held a meeting in Committee Room 14 that focused solely on the issue of post offices. Interestingly, talking about that one issue brought out almost every other issue one can think of concerning elderly people in London.
The meeting was packed out with angry elderly people from the London area, many of whom must have been Labour supporters. Their concern was about what would happen. As evidenced in my constituency, where we had five closures during the last round of post office reconstruction, what happens is simple. Most of the
sub-post offices that hon. Members are discussing are the keystone in a local parade of shops. Just as when the last shop in a small village closes the village begins to wind down, when the important shop in a parade of shops closes, the parade begins to lose support. People do not go there any longer, and it becomes decrepit.
Suburban areas are becoming decrepit and run-down as a consequence of such developments in post offices and elsewhere. That difficulty is the first consequence of the closure of a post officeoften a profitable post office. I admit that three of the five closed post offices that I mentioned were not profitable, but the other two were.
As a consequence, the local parade loses support. Older people must make the journey to the Crown post office in the high street, which then becomes overused. Anyone who goes into Orpington high street will invariably see a huge queue outside the only Crown post office. It is a consequence of the closure of sub-post offices in the immediate area. That has a knock-on effect. As the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) said, it has a considerable effect on the sustainability of residential areas, even in large or stand-alone cities such as Hove and Brighton. It is consequently understandable that the matter should be of concern not just in rural areas such as the highlands of Scotland but in densely populated areas. I wish that the Minister would take that into account.
I was struck by the remarks of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), who is no longer here. I thought that he showed a positive and an entrepreneurial approach. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) was also constructive in his four points showing how we could help, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made the point that to respond to the needs of local people, we need information. Information is power, and power is being withheld from us. If we empowered local communities, we could make a difference.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire said in his opening remarks, this is the biggest turnout for any debate ever held in Westminster Hall. I hope that the Minister, rather than just allowing the Post Office to plough on in this way, will recognise that this debate reflects feeling throughout the country. I hope that he will stop for a moment, reflect and take back those strong feelings to the Post Office. It is surely possible to respond more positively to this undoubtedly difficult situation. We do not deny that it is difficult or that there has been a loss of footfall and all the rest of it, but we need something other than a negative, cost-cutting, close-them-down approach. It must be possible to do something sensible.
I believe, as my hon. Friend said, that we have a remarkable asset in the post office network. Post offices number more than all the bank outlets in the country. That is astonishing. If we cannot keep them going in some form and with some imagination, we are failing the country, and that will redound very badly on this Government.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab):
I shall be brief. I wish to share with colleagues the experiences in my constituency after a rural postal pilot
that ran from September 2005 to 2006. We have a major challenge before us. We are dealing with a historic network that grew over many years. As I showed earlier when I intervened on the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), people in todays world conduct their business differently. It was astonishing to discover that, despite the fact that their village still had a rural post office, people chose not to use it because it was more convenient to use the facility in the supermarket when they did their shopping. The way that people conduct their business creates a constant battle.
Initially, during the rural postal pilot in my constituencythe outreach or hub and spoke system, as it was describedthere were some difficulties with the computer equipment and intermittent disruption to service in the three village shops, which was managed by a sub-postmistress from the town of Castle Douglas. There was great anger in one of the villages. I attended a public meeting last January and was deeply concerned that the whole system might fall apart, but there was good intent. The hours of three village sub-post offices were being cut by 50 per cent. to about eight to 10 hours a week, and they were trying to juggle the hours so the sub-postmistress who managed the system could do so on different days.
I was anxious at the beginning, but it has settled down. My hon. Friend the Minister has been to view the system in operation. At the public meeting last January, people were demanding that the sub-post office open on a Saturday morning. It was ironic. A woman who had run the post office with her husband some time before got up and said, Its a pity that no one wanted to use the sub-post office on a Saturday morning when we were running the business and shop. People have genuine concerns, but their genuine commitment is also important. That is whysomewhat tongue in cheekI asked the Minister responsible during the last session of questions to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, How many of us in this Chamber will use our sub-post offices when we reach retirement age and our state pension is paid into a Post Office card account? We must give a commitment as individuals and communities to use those facilities.
The outreach system has been relatively successful. Another recent experienceperhaps it relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt)came from a small village in my constituency that was probably under serious threat. Another sub-postmistress in a larger town some 7 miles away decided to employ the gentleman in the shop that held the sub-post office for that village. He does not work for the Post Office; he works for her. As a direct result, that post office is open every minute that the shop is open. If the shop is open 30 hours a week, the sub-post office is open 30 hours a week. He is employed by the sub-postmistress. For all intents and purposes, it is a franchise.
In another initiative in my constituency, a group of people have come together in an attractive small village to develop a facility to re-establish their post office. It will happen on 11, 12 and 13 December. It is a major initiative being undertaken by local people.
I turn to the subject of Crown post offices or directly managed services. As I said earlier, I wonder whether some of these businesses are making money. I ask because the directly managed post office in Dumfries closed about 18 months ago. It was perceived to be a very busy post office, with people constantly queuingI mean no disrespect to the staff, who were working very hardbut a business decision was made by Post Office Ltd that it should be closed. Despite the fact that everyone saw it as being a busy post office, I was astonished when Post Office Ltd made me aware of its annual losses. I therefore say to my colleagues that being busy does not mean being profitable, because additional costs lie within.
I thank you, Sir John, for allowing me to contribute to the debate and to share my thoughts. There are ways forward. I have given a commitment to my constituents, because the changes will happen next summer in my area. If the service is under threat, but people can make a commitment to use it, we should explore all the opportunities that might arise through delivering it in a different form. We are all beginning to recognise that standing still is not an option. We need to think outside the box when deciding how to provide those services in future.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), the Chairman of the Select Committee, on an excellent and timely report that is of vital interest to all in the House.
It is not new for the House to examine the subject. Indeed, not that long ago, I found myself in the same position that my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) now finds himself in, expecting to find a way to reflect the deep anxiety that the Government now face because of the serious local consequences that result from their decisions.
We are in the thick of it in Cheshire, as we speak. The outreach proposals were quickly taken up by our local newspapers. They are not particularly partisan, and christened them the outrage proposals. There is deep anxiety. People have a fantastic respect for the services that local post offices currently provide in our local communities. When one represents both a mixture of rural and urban areas, including towns, one is conscious of the great adaptability of post offices; the way in which they offer their services is the apex of what it means today to have a community centre. For that reason, post offices have been doing their best to increase their footfall and to be commercial and entrepreneurial.
When one looks at the maps sent to us all when such great processes descend upon us, it is interesting to note how flawed and somewhat self-serving the data appear to be. From what has been said alreadynot least by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), when he spoke of the fear factor that has crept in, which was also mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)there is a real sense of divide and rule, with sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses having to set themselves up against people whom they had thought of as colleagues working to produce a service across the country.
I am therefore pleased that, in our campaign in Cheshire, we have been able to defeat those divide-and-rule tactics, and I pay respect to my colleagues. Edward Timpson is working in Crewe and Nantwich, where we are fighting two potential closures in each town; Graham Evans is in Weaver Vale, where we are fighting a closure near Frodsham; and in Chester, Stephen Mosley is fighting six potential closures at Aldford, Brook lane, Brook street, Christleton, Handbridge and Watergate street. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden for visiting Chester recently to support that active campaign.
It is important to recognise that it is not only those post offices proposed for closure that are profitable. Those currently proposed for outreach are also profitable, but the arrangements are such that it could tip them into loss. The grave danger is that the outreach programme could be a self-fulfilling prophesyfrom postponement through outreach of what was originally meant to be a closure, to potential closure because the economic base of those post offices is being undermined.
In my constituency, Hargrave and Meadow Bank post offices are proposed for closure. Unfortunately, it seems that closure will now proceed. However, we have six post offices on the outreach programme: Cholmondeley post office, in the fantastic award-winning farm complex of which the post office is the absolute driver and which was hugely supported two years ago by the Post Office; Delamere; Little Budworth; Threapwood; and Tilston. I visited three of them last Friday. They are all profitable. Indeed, picking up on a point made by the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), the owner at Threapwood has trained her assistant so that the post office can be open all the time. If it is to be restricted to a maximum of four hours a week, it will not justify the extra job, yet it could be kept open the whole time on the same basis as the post office in the hon. Gentlemans constituency.
At the moment, we have an inflexibility in the discussions and consultations, which is not proving productive and is causing distrust. I am deeply concerned about the flawed data that we have been given to help us make rational decisions when trying to meet some of the arguments being put out by the Post Office. My constituency has borders with Wales, now regarded by those doing the Governments bidding as a completely different country, and by a different region because my southern border is the regional border with the west midlands. As a result, I have no data about a post office that is only 200 ft away from the post office in my constituency that is being considered for closure. It is a short distance across a Roman bridge across the River Dee to get to into Wales and the business would therefore go to the other post office, yet we do not know whether it is being proposed for closure. We do not know what will happen in Shropshire; looking at the dates, it seems that we will have finished our programme by the time Shropshire is scheduled to start. It is clearly a dysfunctional process.
The grave danger from the point of view of those affectedthe local communities, customers and people in generalis that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. We have described over many debates the sense of community and belonging that post offices provide and the access to services that they give to people. We fear that the consultation is designed by the end rather than as a means for the Government genuinely to listen within the democratic process. That matters, because
when we talk about the community, we are dealing with the democratic process. It should not be a crude, blunt commercial decision. Post offices belong to the sense of community, as has often been highlighted. I believe that the fear factor, with the appalling confidentiality constraints placed upon sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, has led to the belief that the intention is to bring to an end any kind of objection.
London Mayoral elections, and Local Authority Elections in England Wales, will be held in May 2008. As you will be aware, the closure of any Post Office can be highly sensitive and can potentially become a local political issue.
For that reason, we have been asked by Government to introduce a freeze on some elements on the Network Change Programme during the run up to these elections. Specifically, we shall not be running any public consultations, nor making any final closure decisions, in the period immediately prior to elections from April 7th to May 2nd next year.
It is too late. I can tell the Minister that a big political issue is already going on. For those who already despise the Government that is no change, but the Government are adding to the list of people who despise them for forcing upon them a decision with no evidence base for a programme of 2,500 closures. They will put that at the Governments door.
The Minister, waiting to answer the debate on a Select Committee report, owes it not only to all those Members who are deeply concerned and who are campaigning on behalf of their constituents, but to the people, as part of the democratic process, to identify where the 2,500a perfect numbercame from, what was the evidence base and why it should be a major benefit to local people, rather than a further diminution of their sense of what is owed to them as members of the local community.
I urge the Ministerit is within his giftto recognise that the best thing to do is to withdraw the 2,500 demand and say that we need to think again. It is a political issue, not a commercial one. The Minister cannot wash his hands of the matter, hiding behind the Post Office or setting up a citizens jury, saying, Its not me, guv, its someone elses problem. It is to do with the people that he is required to represent through the Executive. The Executive have made the demand; it is the Executive who have caused the difficulties. We call upon the Minister to withdraw the 2,500 closure programme, so that we can think again. We could then be more rational and sensible of what is valuable to our communities.
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I welcome the Committees report and the work that it has done. I was privileged to be a member of the Trade and Industry Committee, albeit briefly, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). A number of the concerns that were raised in the report have already been borne out in practice in my constituency, but I want to focus my remarks on three specific areas.
My first point concerns the overall number of closures, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members but which I want to address in a little more detail. The report questioned how the target of 2,500 closures was established, and the Government response said that that was the minimum number of closures required to get the network back on a stable footing and to ensure the continuation of a national network. When I consider my own constituency, however, I wonder whether the target is perhaps driving some unintended consequences.
Over the past five years in Basingstoke, we have already seen a quarter of our branches close as part of various previous programmes, and the new closure programme seems sure to mean further cuts, perhaps in an attempt to reach the 2,500 target. We might see two closures, which would leave us with just 14 branches in total. Previous cuts involved closures of underperforming branches, but I understand from my local postmasters that the two that are proposed for closureKings Furlong and Old Basingare two of the top-performing branches in the region.
Is the Minister content that the target-driven approach means that the Post Office is running the risk of losing not just branches that are not financially viable but those that have added value to the network over the years? The documentation is really unclear as to what account has been taken of business viability, so will the Minister address that?
Secondly, the report rightly identifies that the proposed access criteria do little to anticipate future network shrinkage. We are all acutely aware of the difficulties that many small businesses can experience in sustaining themselves, particularly in the case of the sort of small shop from which post offices are often run, and there is a real lack of detail on how that issue will be dealt with in future. I have had first-hand experience of that problem in my constituency. One of the post offices that is earmarked for closure is coincidentally situated in a store that is currently up for sale. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) picked up, I think, on the point that assurances have been given that those post offices that are up for sale will not automatically be designated for closure. I have been reassured by the Post Office that potential sale was not one of the criteria for identifying that particular office for closure, but it is up for closure none the less. I have been informed that it is entirely possible that the branch will be reprieved and remain open, but it is difficult to square that with the fact that the shopkeeper himself might be looking to close the branch, which would leave the community without the facilities that it previously provided.
Fortunately, a very tenacious Old Basing resident, Mrs. Onnalee Cubbitt, has run an excellent campaign to keep the Old Basing branch open not just for the benefit of that village but for the benefit of the villages of Mapledurwell, Up Nately and Newnam. She has identified an alternative local shopkeeper who would be very willing to take over the sub-post office; he is in fact a sub-postmaster elsewhere in my constituency. How will the Post Office square that? If it decides to keep the Old Basing office open, will it pay the costs of transferring the business to the new sub-postmaster? Likewise, in other areas of the country, how will it monitor natural shrinkage and wastage and ensure that new post offices are open to cover the voids that will invariably appear?
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