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29 Nov 2007 : Column 172WH—continued

That sentiment has also been echoed by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire and others. My hon. Friend also said:

In those three statements, my hon. Friend has summarised the cross-party worries that have been expressed today. That concern is compounded by the content of the letter that has already been mentioned, which implies a level of Government pressure on the timing of Post Office announcements. The letter says:

Nothing could be clearer than the fact that while the Government seem to shy away from taking political responsibility and considering the social consequences of the programme of closures, they nevertheless recognise the political importance of protecting themselves, in the run-up to elections, from what they obviously realise will be unpopular decisions.

On the issue of timing, various hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), pointed out the difficulty of consulting at such an inclement time of year. In Scotland, they still have winter in January—

Mr. Weir: And in February.

Lembit Öpik: Indeed, and perhaps all the way to June from time to time. In that sense, it is difficult to see why winter is a satisfactory time for consultation, especially given that the Government are willing to impose pressure regarding Post Office announcements for the sake of political expedience. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny
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Alexander)—perhaps he should look for a shorter constituency name—has also asked whether this is the right time to consult. I think, by inference, it is, if one does not want many people to respond. If the Government can move the timetable for announcements, they can also move the timetable for consultation. Even with the best will in the world, postmasters will not be able to fulfil all the requirements of that consultation process.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) suggested something even more sinister. His submission was returned to him labelled “return to sender”. Could it be that the Post Office network consultation response centre is already a covert victim of the closure programme? We can only speculate.

On the consultation response form that one was encouraged to fill in, there are tick boxes. One set of choices says:

The choices include “Individual”, “Individual - Subpostmaster” and “Trade Union”. One of the choices is “Central Government”, so there is nothing to prevent the Government from expressing a view. Indeed, the Post Office seems to expect it. I hope that on consideration of today’s debate, there will be some movement from the Minister that will give us more room for optimism about the Government’s willingness to take seriously the strong and heartfelt opposition to the changes.

As the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) implied, however, it looks as though the process is designed for closures. As with the nuclear consultation, one feels that the outcome has been pre-judged, but this is worse because it has been pre-judged to produce a specific and extraordinarily round figure—2,500 post offices are to shut. In my book, that means that the recommendation is based on one of two possibilities. It could be based on detailed research, which we should be allowed to see, indicating that exactly that number of post offices can be shut without damaging substantially the infrastructure of the post office network and the communities it serves. The only other possibility is that it is an arbitrary figure that has been imposed on us by accountancy-led rather than service-based decision making.

The 2,500 figure is so worrisome that I ask the Minister to explain the rationale behind it either today or by writing to those of us who have contributed to the debate. Within that rationale, I would expect to see some kind of statistical analysis of the likely consequences to turnover in those communities and, even more importantly, a social impact assessment of the figure. While he is at it, he could also explain why it is reasonable for the Post Office to inform right hon. and hon. Members that if we save one post office, another will have to shut. How can that be rational? How can anyone in the business of politics or industry pretend that such an arbitrary restriction is anything other than dogmatic?

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) said that at the heart of every village there is a cricket square, a primary school and a post office. I would add a church and a pub, both of which deal with spirits in their own way, but there is little doubt that post offices are regarded as being iconic and
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a reference point for the status of individual settlements. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) pointed out that the communities affected are not always rural. They can be communities in cities, so this is not simply a rural-based concern.

Moving away from any inference of sentimentality, because I do not think that anyone is arguing for the protection of post offices on a sentimental basis, let us consider the alternatives. My hon. friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) pointed out that there is money, effort and collective initiative going into and a co-operative movement behind the idea of saving post offices. His example was EnviroKirn, which wants to protect the service as a local community project but has been given only six weeks to submit a business plan. That is just ridiculous. In the closed economic flow systems of small communities, it is obvious to EnviroKirn that it can do something viable to protect the service.

My next question is whether the Minister will reconsider the extraordinarily strict and restrictive room for manoeuvre that has been allowed to those who in all good faith are trying to come up with business solutions to the closure programme. The Post Office should be grabbing those solutions with both hands, not rejecting them as it seems to have done so far. The co-operative idea is almost 200 years old. The concept was initiated by Robert Owen, a son of my constituency, and the tenets that he put forward then would be appropriate for the Post Office to recall and take seriously now.

I also observe that it is hard for people to understand why profitable post offices are being closed. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that.

The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire said that pensioners are being told that since they can travel for nothing, they can go to the next place with a post office if there is no chance of having one in their own community. That works only if the value of a pensioner’s time is discounted to zero. Subscribing even a minimum wage to an elderly pensioner and assuming that his wife comes along for free as a volunteer puts tens of pounds on to the cost of visiting a post office. This is no moot point. It is a practical point that relates to respecting individuals who have time on their hands but who, because they have spent a lifetime in work, now feel that their local community services could reasonably be entrusted to the Government’s political direction.

I can give two examples of worrisome developments in the implementation of the closure programme. Llandinam, which is a lovely small community in my constituency, is blessed with an active sub-postmaster who extended a small shop into a general store and is now worried that his investment could be wasted if the store is closed. What certainty can people like him who have invested in good faith have that their money has not been wasted and that the needs of their community and their business needs are being taken into account?

Then there is the case of Foel post office, which is even more of a concern. In June 2006, the Post Office stated in a letter:

Nothing could be clearer than that, but, in response to concerns raised by the proprietor, Mrs. Hamilton, I received a letter that states:

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How can there be such a volte-face in less than 18 months, while at the same time sub-postmasters are expected to act with professionalism and to trust the integrity of the Post Office? Investments of real money and real time were made between those two letters, and Mrs. Hamilton made a career decision to throw her heart and soul into the facility. Now she lives with uncertainty, and that harms the prospects of her developing her business in the short term.

We have heard many other examples. I shall provide no more, as the hon. Members for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), for Hove (Ms Barlow) and for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) all had similar stories to tell. This debate is a clarion call from those of us who really care about post office services and an appeal to the Government to think again.

Let me conclude with a few suggestions about the way forward. First, we need strategy not tactics. In the absence of clearly defined, logical data, the 2,500 closures programme seems more like a tactical move than a strategic one, at least at present. We need clarity about the social consequences of closures, and about the practical risk of turning thriving local communities into dormitory villages for larger towns perhaps 10 or 15 miles away.

We also need to consider the potential that the Government have to be proactive and to reinstitute several services previously provided by post offices but now removed. Why is it so hard, for example, to follow through the proposal by some to have a basic bank account in the form of the post office card account? As the hon. Member for Angus pointed out, two thirds of his communities have post offices but only one tenth have banks. Why is it so difficult to reinstitute some of the paperwork that increasingly is being replaced by the internet? People are willing to pay a little more for the human service that they get in post offices. Is it really wise to deny them that free choice?

Fundamentally, we need creative solutions. Once again, I suggest that rather than asking which post offices are to close, the strategic question should be what we can do together—Government, Post Office and local communities—to maintain the post offices that we care so much about.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) cited Beeching. There is a risk that the decline in our post office services will be as ignominious as the decline in our rail services. As with Beeching’s cuts, it will be hard to reinstate them once they have gone. I am hoping that we can have a serious debate stretching from Basingstoke to Beverley, and from the Labour party to the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and all points in between to ensure that we make the right decision for the country rather than an expedient decision for the Treasury.

It is not too late to do those things and to think about potential funding solutions that will interrelate with the debate about the future of the Royal Mail. Perhaps we need to surcharge the private competitors in the business for the universal service obligation and use some of that hypothecated income towards protecting the Post Office.
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Perhaps we need to look at stamp revenue and other creative solutions within the postal system and see whether there is a way that we can continue to support this social service. Whatever the outcome, we cannot afford to be tribal about it, and we certainly cannot be process-led. We must be outcomes-led.

We need an honest debate and I look forward to what I believe will be a considered response by the Minister. The Liberal Democrats and I will participate, and I suspect that the Conservatives will participate, too, if given the chance. However, without candour, we will let down the people whom we represent, and the Government will fail to show leadership.

I ask the Minister to respond to the questions that other hon. Members and I have raised. I hope that this is the beginning of a sensible dialogue that will slow down and stall the closure programme. In the absence of such hesitation by the Government, I fear that common sense will also have been lost in the post.

5.8 pm

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on his introduction to the debate but, more importantly, I congratulate him and his Select Committee on the document that they produced. It is thorough, comprehensive and thoughtful, and it merits reading right the way through. I hope that those who spoke today have taken advantage of the chance to do that. I congratulate my hon. Friend not just on the report but more generally on the way in which he leads his Committee and the thoroughness with which it looks at so many of the difficult and important issues that we are facing.

We have heard in the debate just how much post offices matter to Members on both sides of the House. Strong constituency representations have been brought to bear, and we even had three Government Parliamentary Private Secretaries speak who were unable to find a single word of praise for the process. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that. We now have a new Prime Minister, a new Secretary of State, a newly named Department and a new Minister, but, sadly, the same old policy. Postman Jim has given way to the aptly named Postman Pat, but, up and down the country, Mrs. Gogginses in their post office are in despair because the man whom they thought would stand up for them and look after their interests is the very man who is letting them down.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the clear message from all colleagues that the closure programme threatens to do lasting damage to communities. Instead, we should be investing in post offices and allowing them to grow.

At the heart of this debate is a misguided and flawed policy. The Government should be determined to invest in the infrastructure of our post office network, and additional services should be offered, which is what sub-postmasters tell us they want. I have never met a sub-postmaster who said they wanted to depend on subsidy. They all say that they want to offer more services, bring in more customers, and depend on business, but they are being denied that opportunity.

We should be doing more to offer local government services and national Government services through those post offices, which could become a hub for members of
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the community to access those services. They should be allowed to work with carriers other than the Royal Mail. In the 21st century, they should be freed up, rather than tied down, but the Minister has refused to allow that. We should actively explore the concept put forward by the National Federation of SubPostmasters of developing banking services.

We have ended up with a proposal to close 2,500 post offices. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have said that they simply do not know how that figure has been arrived at. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said that it might have been accountancy-led, but the reality is that it was politically-led. It is the number of closures that the Government thought they could get away with, so it is not about what is right, or how big the network should be. They thought that they could close that number, and that by parcelling them into small chunks they could get those closures through the system.

At the end of the process, the Minister and his colleagues will have supervised the closure of one third of the network since Labour came to power 10 years ago. The number of sub-post offices will have fallen from 18,000 to just 12,000. That is to his shame, and he and his colleagues who have held that brief have witnessed that decline. There has never been a time when post offices have closed at such a rate.

Hon. Members have expressed a number of genuine and realistic concerns, and have talked with passion about the nature of the consultation process. It is too short, and the Minister should tell us today that he will increase it from six weeks to 12. Cabinet Office guidelines say that it should be 12 weeks, but he has chosen to ignore those guidelines, although he told me this week in a parliamentary answer that those same guidelines dictate that we should stop the process during purdah in the local government elections. Why does he choose to accept Cabinet Office guidelines when it is to his advantage, and to ignore them when it is politically expedient to do so?

We have heard from many hon. Members that the access criteria are fundamentally flawed. Distances may look fine on a map, but do not take account of topography. Hon. Member after hon. Member spoke about hills that their constituents will be expected to climb. With the proposed closure of Town Row post office in my constituency, people will have to climb a narrow, steep hill, which no elderly person could possibly be expected to climb, to get to the next nearest post office. Such matters do not seem to have been taken into account, nor has the availability of public transport. The hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) told us about planned huge housing developments that have not been taken into account in the access criteria process.

We have ended up with a process that is setting community against community. If someone argues for the preservation of their post office, they know that another community will take its place on the closure list. We cannot argue the absolute case for preserving a post office because the closure criteria have been wrong or misread. We know that if one is saved, another will have to go. That is what colleagues have found most disturbing and unacceptable.

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