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29 Nov 2007 : Column 183WH—continued

29 Nov 2007 : Column 184WH

I want to talk a little bit about outreach, because hon. Members mentioned it. I have visited the outreach pilot services in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway, who made an important point. I accept that, sometimes, this process will be controversial at the beginning, but there have been a lot of calls in this debate for imaginative thinking. Outreach gives an opportunity for imaginative thinking, whether in respect of shared services with other organisations in a local community, of the kind that have been called for, or a mobile post office. Perhaps services will be more part-time than those currently in place, but all the same it gives an opportunity for a post office service at a time when it is more predictable that it will be busy—some days are busier than others in local communities—and offers the opportunity for a service to continue in some way. I appreciate the concerns about this matter, but alongside the 2,500 closures overall that have been announced, there is a plan for 500 such services throughout the country.

I should like to correct the impression that outreach services are available only in the 38 districts that fall below the national criteria for coverage by the Post Office. That is not so. In fact, under the local plans announced so far, some 99 proposals for outreach services have already been mentioned.

Mr. Weir: I am glad to hear the Minister say that, but I was told specifically by the Post Office, when I raised the matter in relation to my constituency, that it was happening only in the excepted areas. If that is not so, the Post Office has to make it clear.

Mr. McFadden: As I said, 99 outreach services have already been announced and many of the local area plans that have been announced do not cover areas that include the 38 postcode districts in the country that do not meet the minimum criteria.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way to me for a second time. I have tried to explain the problem with the data and the planning in respect of outreach. For instance, the outreach programme is now being governed from Whitchurch in Shropshire. However, that area is not even working under the process at the moment.

Of course, the Cheshire post offices that are negotiating outreach do not want just two hours on a Wednesday afternoon, which is all they are being offered, because nobody is around then. Moreover, they are concerned that they cannot predict more than three months ahead, because there will be a quarterly review of the outreach arrangements. The postmaster in charge of Whitchurch has no incentive whatever to keep the post offices in Cheshire open, because he would love people to travel to Whitchurch in Shropshire, which is not under threat of closure. There is, at the moment, a deep distrust—let alone dysfunction.

Mr. McFadden: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, let us reflect on what my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway said. Where this process has been controversial at the beginning and has been introduced, over time it has not just become more accepted, but genuine support has emerged for it.

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I would like to answer the question about 12 weeks and six weeks in respect of the consultation, which was not just raised in today’s debate, but pushed quite vociferously by the Trade and Industry Committee. We had to take a view, balancing the uncertainty that hangs over the network during the process with the desire to consult. Before we get to the six-week public consultation process, there is a process through which Post Office Ltd speaks to sub-postmasters in the area, the local authority, Postwatch and so on. Post Office Ltd has indicated to me that, in that process, the plans change on average—I stress that it is on average, not necessarily in every area—by about 15 per cent., so we are talking about roughly one in six proposals.

Again, I urge hon. Members to be cautious if they see a first cut of a proposal for an area before it has gone through that process, because the experience so far is that the pre-consultation phase results in some change to initial plans. That is some evidence that the process is taken seriously by the Post Office. I am referring to the way in which it is engaging with those very important local voices.

The National Federation of SubPostmasters said:

We have taken those factors into account. That is how we reached the decision about six weeks.

Let me deal with some of the specific issues raised. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire, asked whether replies—

Mr. Weir: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McFadden: I have given way already to the hon. Gentleman. I would like to make progress.

The Chairman of the Select Committee asked whether replies from Post Office Ltd could be placed in the Library. That is a perfectly good idea and we should do that. I hope that I have answered his question about the Postwatch team. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) asked about local economic factors. I would like to assure her that those are taken into account in the process.

The Chairman of the Select Committee asked about the dates of the final decisions next month. I can tell hon. Members that the decisions on Kent are expected to be announced on 6 December; the decisions on the east midlands on 11 December; the decisions on East
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Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire on 13 December; and the decisions on east Essex and Suffolk also on 13 December.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Several hon. Members have asked whether community organisations or county or parish councils could step in and support post offices under threat. Is that possible?

Mr. McFadden: I would encourage Post Office Ltd to take very seriously any suggestion or proposal such as that, but it will bear in mind not just the individual costs of the branch, but the central network costs. I think that it will want to take both into account if such a proposal is made.

Sir George Young: The Post Office is like any other national organisation that has headquarters and branches. It is perfectly feasible to work out these costs; it is not an impossible exercise. Can the Minister assure us that the Post Office will release to local authorities the information that they need to make a relevant bid that means that the Post Office is not out of pocket at the end of the day?

Mr. McFadden: I do not want to give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance, because issues of commercial confidentiality are in play. However, I do think that Post Office Ltd should take seriously and engage seriously with any organisation that thinks that it has a viable proposal.

I hope that I have managed to cover at least some of the issues raised.

Charles Hendry: Can the Minister explain how anyone can bid to help to run a post office if the Post Office will not release the figures for how much it wants?

Mr. McFadden: I have spoken to Post Office Ltd about the issue of transparency. We should have as much transparency as we can in the debate and I have asked Post Office Ltd to look into the issue. I do not want to be specific today about exactly what it can publish and what it cannot, but I hope that it will look into the issue, because I understand the desire for transparency in the process.

I have answered as many of the points as I can today. I appreciate that this is a difficult process and that it causes concern in local communities, but I believe that it will give us a stable network.

It being fifteen minutes to Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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