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29 Nov 2007 : Column 165WH—continued

29 Nov 2007 : Column 166WH

Let me turn to access criteria. The report notes that it is really not clear how they were determined. I might add that it is unclear how they have been applied. The only data made available by the Post Office are those for the branches that are to be closed. I have spoken directly to the consultation team and, although it took some three weeks for them to reply, which I have to say was deeply disappointing given the shortness of the consultation period, I eventually obtained clarification that it was impossible to review any data for neighbouring branches. It is impossible, therefore, for those who wish actively to participate in the consultation to assess whether the criteria have been fairly applied.

Basingstoke, which is an urban area, has a relatively high population density, and has just 16 post offices, so for the magic 2,500 target to be achieved, choices have to be made on which branch in my community should close. In the case of the Kings Furlong, a branch run by Mr. Buttress has been earmarked for closure in preference to a nearby branch situated in one of the newsagents owned by the Martin McColl chain. Mr. Buttress is an independent operator who, I understand, has built up and invested in a highly successful and thriving branch over 30 years, yet his branch is facing closure, rather than another that is just under 2 miles away. Is that because it is near the Martin McColl branch or because his operation is less viable than one run by a chain? I cannot be sure, because we have not seen the relevant criteria. Are the Government content that that lack of clarity over criteria could lead to some believing that national chains could have an advantage over independents, even if the independent offers better value and service for the community?

Another issue of access relates to public transport. As we are all well aware, public transport in many of our constituencies is a moving feast. That is certainly true in Hampshire, where huge pressure on county council budgets means that we experience regular cuts to both urban and rural services. If public transport is a critical access criterion, how will the Post Office monitor the changes in public transport access that communities experience not just every 10 years but on a yearly basis?

Let me again draw from an example in my own constituency. The Post Office was completely unaware of the proposals by Hampshire county council to cut bus services between Old Basing and the nearest alternative post office, in Chineham. As a result of action by the local council, the proposed cuts are being reviewed, but that is a short-term measure and there could still be vulnerability in future. How will the Post Office monitor that situation and respond to changing patterns of public transport on a national basis—a consideration that will become increasingly important as the network becomes stretched?

There is tremendous scope for the Post Office to be far more open in its consultation, so that those who want to be involved in the procedure feel that it is more than just for show and might benefit their communities.

4.18 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, not least because it is the most populous debate ever to have
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taken place in this debating chamber. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), the Chairman of the Committee, together with hon. Members from all parts of the House who have contributed to the debate.

I am sure that the Minister will answer many of the points that have been made. What has come out again and again from each contribution, however, is that there are more and more questions about the way in which the consultation and the closure programme are happening and about the implications for our communities. It might seem to hon. Members that it is distant days since we were promised that we had a new beginning and a new Government, who would consider things afresh. Let us nevertheless take those promises, however tired and distant they now seem, and ask the Minister to use that sense of renewal and reconsider the proposal to order 2,500 post office closures—an order that was made at the highest level by the current Chancellor, who was previously the Secretary of State at the Department.

We have heard from both sides of the House about the implications of the closures, and I hope that the Minister will leave the door open to a reconsideration of their impact, particularly given how they work in practice. I represent Beverley and Holderness, which is a rural area with an older-than-average population. Some 18 per cent. of its population is over 65, compared with the 15 per cent. national average, and many people live in isolated rural communities with a less-than-ideal public transport network. Against that backdrop, the post office closures seem all the more ill-advised.

The communities that I represent have had to put up with a lot over the last 10 years—I am not making a partisan, political point. Members here have been involved with me in debates on community hospitals. They are critical and yet the practice hours of minor injuries units have been cut, as too have the number of beds in local hospitals. Our local primary care trust has proposed to close every bed in Hornsea cottage hospital. The post office closures will deal a further blow to vulnerable rural communities, which want the Government to recognise their problems and provide support, especially now that the Government are under new direction and prepared to consider issues anew.

The Government’s restructuring programme has not been kind to the East Riding, in which my constituency sits. The latter has seen four proposed closures: in Hollym near Withernsea, in Mappleton near Hornsea, in Lockington near Beverley and in Grovehill road in Beverley. All are earmarked for closure, except for the post office in Lockington the opening hours of which will go from 20 hours a week to four hours a week outreach. I think that the Minister would accept that that is not an adequate or proper substitute.

There are all sorts of problems in the areas around my constituency. In Haltemprice and Howden, the Kirkella post office is threatened with closure. I would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) on his efforts in fighting that, as well as the thousands of people who have signed petitions and the hundreds of people who have written to the Post Office in the hope that this is a genuine consultation that could lead to change.

I congratulate my neighbour to the north, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight). He has one post office threatened with closure, and five
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threatened with downgrades. In Brigg and Goole, one post office is threatened with closure and four are threatened with downgrading. I congratulate campaigners there as well, led by Andrew Percy, on their efforts fighting for post offices such as Westfield avenue post office in Goole. Across the Humber bridge, in Cleethorpes, three are threatened. I also congratulate local campaigners there who contacted me following my efforts in Beverley, and Mr. Martin Vickers who presented a petition on behalf of the Fleetgate branch in Barton.

Across the political divide and my whole area, the impact of post office closures is recognised as severe and has led communities to come out strongly to try and save post offices. During the six-week consultation period, more than 8,000 residents in Hull and the East Riding wrote to the Post Office opposing the planned closures. Altogether, thousands of petition signatures have been collected, and two weeks ago I handed in a petition to No. 10 Downing street addressed to the Prime Minister containing nearly 5,000 names opposing the planned closures in my constituency.

Much of the attention in my constituency has focused on Grovehill road post office. As Members on both sides of the House have suggested, some of the decisions seem bizarre, but few in the country are more bizarre than that on Grovehill road. Under a previous closure, Woodmansey post office was told to move to Grovehill road, which is close to the Swinemoor estate, which houses the lowest-income families in Beverley. If the Minister were to visit that post office on a Monday morning—

4.24 pm

Sitting suspended for Division in the House.

4.39 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Stuart: I am aware of the limited time and of the time that we want to allow the Minister to give us a forthright and full set of answers.

I was saying that I would focus on the Grovehill road post office in Beverley. The Government’s main reason for wanting to close 2,500 post offices is cost. The headline figure often used is that subsidy costs £3.5 million a week. However, as I said when I met Adrian Wales, a network development manager at the Post Office, there must be something very wrong with the Post Office’s systems if a branch such as the Grovehill road post office does not turn a profit. Many Members have today made a similar point about branches.

According to the branch’s sub-postmaster, it takes in about £155,000 to £160,000 of Post Office business a week. It is extremely busy and entirely focused on post office work. Hundreds of people rely on it and thousands of customers visit it every month. I joined a long queue of customers on a Monday morning last month an hour before the branch opened. More than a dozen people were in line a full 30 minutes before it was due to open its doors. With Beverley set to expand further, there can be little doubt that the branch will be in even greater demand in future.

Money is not the only relevant matter, however. The Committee’s report rightly stated:

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Grovehill is situated on one of the largest social and private housing estates in the East Riding. Its occupants are some of the lowest-income and most vulnerable in the area, and hundreds of elderly people live in and around the estate. Forcing those people to walk from the centre of Beverley, at least 20 minutes away, carrying large amounts of cash, does not strike me as a sensible proposal.

The closure of Grovehill post office will also have an adverse impact on congestion. If the branch were to close, people would be forced to use the main Register square branch in the centre of town, which is not on a through road. The nearest bus stop is more than 250 yards away, which was mentioned in the Post Office consultation even though the bus from Grovehill does not go to it. People from Grovehill will find themselves at the bus station—a rather longer walk away. There are no parking spaces outside the branch except for those with a disabled driver badge, and precious few for them. Congestion in and around Register square is already a frequent occurrence and will only be exacerbated by the addition of hundreds of Grovehill road customers. Many existing users of Register square report that they already suffer quite long queues.

The Grovehill road branch is a success. Local people depend on it, and its closure would have more than just financial repercussions. It would damage community spirit and affect the most vulnerable—the disabled, the elderly, those on low income and those without transport. That is a cost that cannot easily be calculated. When I organised a public meeting at short notice to discuss the proposed closure of Grovehill, more than 80 people braved a cold autumn night to show their support. I am sure that the Minister recognises the social value of post offices, but I hope that he will listen to the arguments that have been made.

The matter of how the consultation is being conducted has come up again and again. The period is six weeks, even though the Cabinet Office suggests 12 weeks. We have been told, “If you save one, you lose another,” yet we have not seen any mechanism of how that subsequent loss will be consulted on. That is not to mention the intrinsic fear and threat. Not all the consultations have been done together, so there seems to be a dropping-down effect. Will the last area of the country have to pick up the slack for any post offices closed? What does the Minister have to say about that, and can he confirm that the Post Office set out on this ill advised consultation not by itself but with ministerial approval? That is an important question, and I hope that he might answer it.

Will the Minister also touch on the social network payment? In my constituency people do not understand why a payment system set up specifically to support rural needs has been moved across to urban areas in a way that might dilute it and be another attack on rural communities that have suffered so much.

One last question: what guarantee can the Minister give to the communities that I represent that there will not be ongoing cuts and closures after the initial 2,500? He must give us some confidence that, even if those ill-thought-out closures go ahead, there is not another set around the corner.

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4.43 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I am pleased to have caught your eye, Sir John, and delighted to participate in this debate on an excellent report and to follow the characteristically forceful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) and the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), the Chairman of the Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire mentioned the advertising campaign that the Post Office has embarked on. It points to a gulf between national strategy and what is happening in the consultation. It is an ambitious campaign, calling itself the “People’s Post Office”. It promotes the services available through the Post Office and is based on confidence. That confidence is entirely lacking from the consultation process, which is not about the right configuration of the post office network and assessing whether post offices are in the right places; it is all about closure. What an absence of ambition that suggests, and what a gulf there is between the public money that is being spent on the advertising campaign and the public money that is being spent on the consultation process. If there is a need for joined-up thinking in the Government, there is certainly a need for better joined-up thinking in the Royal Mail and the Department that has caused it to make cuts.

I am conscious of the limited time, but I wish to mention some of the post offices in my constituency that are threatened with closure, and three in particular: Bidborough, St. John’s road and Langton Green. There is also the one in Hawkhurst, which, although it is just in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), is nevertheless used by many of my constituents. We have had a passionate campaign, covering all parts of the constituency, supporting each of those post offices for different reasons. If the consultation process is in any way genuine, it cannot be the case that all four post offices must close. Indeed, I regard whether changes are made as a test of the honesty of the consultation process. The arguments that have been put to post office managers through public meetings, petitions, letters and representations are so compelling that not to change the proposals would be an insult to the intelligence of my constituents and a disgraceful treatment of them, considering the time and effort that they have put into responding to the consultation process. Despite the scepticism that many of us feel about the process, I hope that it is genuine.

I wish to touch on the key arguments about the two post offices about which there was the strongest outpouring of concern. One was on St. John’s road in Tunbridge Wells, where there has been a post office for 60 years, yet in the space of six weeks we may lose it for ever. The petition that has been put together in the short time available has had more than 1,500 signatories. We had a public meeting in St. John’s church, which was organised at short notice and attended by more than 300 people. Like many of the post offices that hon. Members have mentioned, it is profitable and successful. It is run with real commercial flair by Sam and Ray Patel, the postmaster and postmistress. One feature of their business that came across strongly in the public meeting was how
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much it is growing, particularly the parcels business, through the growth of the internet.

Many small businesses, based either in commercial premises or more often at home, are making use of the post office’s parcel facility, trading professionally on eBay or delivering other mail-order goods and services. Business is growing both for my constituents and for the post office. Sam and Ray Patel provide a service in taking in bulky parcels that are necessary if we are to prosper through the new form of business. There will be no substitute for that if people have to take their bulky parcels and queue in the grossly inadequate facilities of the Crown post office at Fiveways, which often has queues outside the door. In the cold and dark of winter, it is not a suitable environment to encourage business.

It is important that we look to the future of our small businesses, as well as the particular small business of the St. John’s road post office. It is in a prospering part of town, and new businesses and retail shops are opening all around the post office. Is it not a symptom of the Post Office’s failure of ambition that that is the one business in the area that is to be contracted, with a view to closure? The business is not contracting; the Post Office has proposed that it should.

In Bidborough, the inadequacies of the consultation process have again been exposed. There we have an equally dynamic postmaster and postmistress, Reshma and Kiran Misrani. They took on the business 16 months ago and moved their family to the village of Bidborough. They uprooted and have established themselves successfully in the post office. Frankly, they were sold a pup. When they took on the business and had disruption to their family life, they expected to be there for many years, providing a service to the people of Bidborough. Instead, that has been immediately threatened. One grave concern about the consultation process is that it is based on a snapshot of profitability and turnover at one point in time.

Such is the dynamism and entrepreneurialism of the couple that the business is booming. The post office had been operating under reduced hours, but they have been allowed to open for longer hours, thus allowing more business to be done. Bidborough is not terribly well connected by public transport. It is on a ridge, so one must go downhill and then uphill to struggle to Southborough, which would be the nearest alternative. Bidborough also has good parking facilities, in contrast to Southborough.

In the short time that was available, my constituents, postmasters and postmistresses have made some compelling arguments. I hope that the consultation, the results of which we are about to find out, will reassure us. It is important for our confidence in the Government that they preside over a process that is genuine, not an attempt to hoodwink our constituents.

4.50 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), who is occasionally my hon. Friend on other matters, on his erudite and insightful introduction to this important report. I know from experience that he is an optimist who will always look for a middle way in which to resolve difficult issues such as these. Unfortunately, it is up to neither him nor me to find a
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middle way; it is entirely the responsibility of the Government to live up to their political responsibilities to take into account things that have been missing from the calculations used to determine that 2,500 of our post offices should close.

The hon. Gentleman’s first-class presentation highlighted the cross-party concern, which is neither tokenistic nor superficial, but deep-seated, that we are losing a social service under this accountancy-led pursuit of apparent savings. My concerns are twofold: first, the consultation process left a great deal to be desired, and secondly, the motives of the closure programme are far from rooted in data-based decision making. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), when she had responsibility for this portfolio, made several comments that sum up many of the points made today. She said:

That sentiment has been echoed in today’s debate. She went on:

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