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To paraphrase Monty Python, Outreach services? You were lucky! We are not getting any of those. The prospect of 500 outreach services replacing static, well-used post offices is apparently not on offer
in West Sussex. Those 500 will not be a compensation to my constituents. In other parts of the country, people may be able to use mobile or temporary services, but apparently not in West Sussex. My hon. Friend may face the prospect of losing post offices, but if he at least gets something in their place, he is doing well compared to our constituents in West Sussex. I urge him to seize those outreach services with enthusiasm.
I have mentioned that Adur and Worthing councils, and West Sussex county council, have all debated the issue and passed motions condemning the action of the Post Office and the way in which the proposals undermine our local communities. My constituents have been on a number of impromptu marches. Last Saturday, I joined a group of constituents in North Lancing who had arranged to walk from a post office that is threatened with closure to the nearest alternative post office, which is just under a mile away as the crow flies. However, my constituents are not crows and have to take a safer route. In monsoon conditions, no fewer than 80 people marched, including many people who are well into their 80s, just to show the strength of feeling about the closures.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a compelling case on the difficulties in his part of West Sussex. I am sure that his constituents will find it some comfort to know that they are not alone, and that we face precisely the same problems in Cheshire. I have just delivered four petitions, amounting to more than 600 signatures, which were collected in a matter of a few days. We are talking about people who live in what the Government describe, rather patronisingly, as the shire counties. The Government seem to think that for such people, community life is automatic. It is not; it depends on local post offices and a local commitment to community life. Have he or his constituents noticed that there may be victimisation of shire counties, in the way in which closures are allocated across the country? My constituents have been telling me that they think that the Government despise shire counties, and that the proposals are one way of getting at them.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, he has form on the issue; I followed with great interest his comments in a recent Westminster Hall debate on the Post Office. He mentioned Cholmondeley and other local branches that face closure, and he has just presented, on behalf of his constituents, petitions that are slightly thinner, but no less heartfelt, than mine. He mentioned the Post Offices divide-and-rule tactics. It has tried to pitch one post office against another, on the basis that a set number of post offices are due to close, and if it is not one that closes, it will be the other. Those are despicable tactics. Post offices provide a service to local people; they are not in competition with each other. My constituents are not terribly concerned about whether one branch does better business and is more profitable than another. They are concerned about their branch being there to offer the services on which they greatly rely.
My hon. Friend makes a good point which applies particularly to rural constituencies. However, that is not the case in my constituency, which is largely urban. The same is true of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West. The half of my constituency, roughly,
that is rural and in the downs has very little population. It is mostly populated by sheep. The post offices are based in the urban coastal strip of Sussex, so the closures are not a rural constituency phenomenon, but we are a shire county and seem to be treated unfairly by the Government.
I do not want the debate to be about the post office closure programme per se. That was covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) and many other hon. Members in a Westminster Hall debate on 29 November, to which the Minister replied. It was a very good debate, responding to an excellent Select Committee report presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) at that time. I share the reservations expressed by many hon. Members across the Chamber during that debate about the arbitrary number of 2,500 post office branches which the Government, in their wisdom, have deemed to be subject to closure and instructed the Post Office to close. We share the concern, as we did a few years ago, about whether this is the end of the programme, or whether we will be back in a year or a few years, facing yet another wave of closures We have already cut to the bone. The present round of closures represent cutting into the bone and the bone marrow. Goodness knows what still can face us.
I also have reservations, which I share with those who took part in that the debate, about the lack of transparency about the financial viability of individual branches. Are we closing the 2,500 least profitable branches, or are some only marginally loss-making? In which case, what has been done to see how the deficits could be narrowed, subsidised from elsewhere or helped by future expansion of services? The figures are clouded by the way in which central costs are apportioned, which seems to be some mysterious calculation to which we are not allowed to be privy. Always, when we try to get to the bottom of the figures, we are told that they not available owing to commercial confidentiality.
I share the concerns that were raised in that debate about the lack of transparency about other hurdle criteria that are being used to justify closures, such as house building forecasts. There seems to be no mention of the fact that in West Sussex we are facing a substantial centrally imposed Government house building target. Thousands of extra homes are due to be built in our constituencies, regardless of the sustainability of the infrastructure available to service them.
There is also a lack of transparency about population growth accompanying that house building, and a lack of transparency about how deprivation figures are used. Many of us have wards that are among the 20 per cent. most deprived in the country. Furthermore, there is a lack of transparency about how the high pensioner populations that we have in coastal Sussex figure in the calculations.
I share the concerns expressed in that debate about the sustainability and capacity of existing public transport links to the post offices suggested as alternatives to those that are being closed. In West Sussex we face severe tightening of our budget for subsidising bus links. Invariably, the greatest subsidies go to rural links. In our towns we face the biggest squeeze on those subsidies. Some of the bus routes that, we are told, are perfectly viable alternatives now, may not be there in a year. People will be told, Its simple. You jump on the
No. 9 bus and go to the alternative branch, but in a number of months or years they will not have that luxury, even if it is a practical alternative at present.
I sympathise with the concerns raised during that debate about the effect that the closures are having on communities. Those communities have already seen wide-scale closures of post office branches. In many cases they have seen a retrenching of bank branches and a reduction in other businesses reliant on those financial concerns. I thought that the Sustainable Communities Bill, which the House rightly passed in the last Session, was about the Government standing up for such vital community services, but it appears to feature not at all in the proposals being put forward.
Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. He is discussing the evidence base for the present round of closures. It seems to emanate from a remarkably round number2,500of post offices that are destined for closure. He mentioned the invidious practice of setting one sub-postmaster or postmistress against another, so that if one is saved, another has to go, because there is some absolute determinationalmost gesture politicsto get those 2,500 branches closed. I have not seen the evidence base for that, despite the debate that we had on a Select Committee report, no less, in Westminster Hall recently, which my hon. Friend so rightly referred to. In preparation for his remarks this evening, which I am following with great interest and support, did he establish whether evidence has at last been adduced by the Government to show that that 2,500 is anything more than an arbitrary figure to make sure that they get where they want to get to, without any regard for local communities or their services?
Tim Loughton: I have researched long and hardnot only for this debate, but for conversations with constituents, for public meetings and for meetings with Post Office representatives, Postwatch and the National Federation of SubPostmastersand I cannot find an evidence base for most of this. When one tries to ask questions about an evidence base, the issue is clouded by all the commercial confidentiality garbage. If there were a serious evidence baseif we were given the figures and told that if a certain branch could make x thousand pounds in additional revenue it would be saved, or that if it had x hundred additional customers per week it would be viable, that would be different.
However, we do not know such things; we are not given the data on which we can make proper value judgments on whether the Post Office is just dutifully doing what the Government tell it and adhering to the completely arbitrary figure of 2,500 branches. We are told that the figure is up to 2,500 branches, but the Post Office makes it absolutely clear that if certain branches are savedin the unlikely event of decisions on branches being reviewedadditional victims will be found in the next wave to fill the void. It is worse than decimation, which involves one in 10; what we are talking about affects 18 per cent., or nearly two in 10. That figure will be stuck to.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the evidence base is vital. Does he perceive any adherence to the evidence base in respect of rural-proofing the closures? Notwithstanding his comments about the
coastal strip, about which he is particularly concerned, the rural-proofing on which the Government are so keen is completely ignored in the proposals. Furthermore, attention has not been given to indices of deprivation in deciding which post offices are threatened with the axe. I share my hon. Friends concern about the lack of attention to the evidence base. Does he perceive that Ministers have given any attention to it?
I turn to the subject of deprivation. I cannot answer for the rural side, because my constituency is primarily urban. I understand why the issues may be more difficult for rural areas, in which lots of villages are dotted around and justify a larger number of post offices, but I am talking about a densely populated area that is losing more post offices than many rural areas. That is a phenomenon particularly of shire counties, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury mentioned.
I turn specifically to the branches in my constituency that are faced with the Christmas present of closure. As I said, in May the Government instructed the Post Office to embark on a closure programme of 2,500 branches. On 13 November, after a lot of prevarication and false sunsets for postmasters, the details of which branches were targeted were published. I received advance warning of that list just four days before, on 9 November. That was hardly a courtesy; Members of Parliament should be fully engaged in the process. The details came as much of a shock to me then as when they were published fully the following Tuesday.
I gather that only a few weeks prior to that, individual postmasters were told their fates, presented with a fait accompli and sworn to secrecy in an intimidating way. All the postmasters to whom I have spokenand I visited every one of the seven faced with closure within days of the announcementwere hesitant about speaking out, even to me at first. However, most have now taken up the cudgels and have been at the forefront of some of the protests and marches, because they resent being intimidated by the Post Office in that underhand way.
As I have said, my constituency is largely urban, so we are not dealing with a problem of far-flung villages. The reason why my constituency is being hit disproportionately is not the way in which the constituency boundaries fall, either. For some reason, the Post Office has been told, or has decided, that the closure programme should be announced constituency by constituency, rather than by district council, borough council or county. In my case, the majority of the closures fall in the centre of my constituency rather than merely happening to be a few hundred yards across the border from the next constituency where closures are not faced. The fact that we are being hit disproportionately is not down to the way the constituency boundaries are drawn.
In Adur, which makes up two thirds of my constituency, we have wards of deprivation that are among the most deprived in the whole of west Sussex and feature in the bottom 20 per cent. of deprived wards in the whole country. In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West, which neighbours it, we have a high pensioner population. I shall come back to that in a minute.
In Adur, we have 12 post offices, including three Crown branches. Of the nine sub-post offices, fivemore than halfnow face closure. That is in excess of the 18 per cent. average across the country that the Post Office has reassured us will be the figure for the areas affected. All those post offices are popular, well run, efficient and well used. So I was surprised when the Minister responded to the debate on 29 November with the following comments:
We have 800 post offices that serve fewer than 16 customers per week. In those offices, the subsidy per transaction is around £17. We have 1,600 offices that serve fewer than 20 customers per daythe subsidy per transaction in those offices is £8. There are around 1,000 sub-post offices in competition with six or more branches within one mile, and customer numbers have shrunk by around 4 million per week in recent years.[ Official Report, Westminster Hall, 29 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 181WH.]
In taking a strategic overview of service provision in areas of over-provision, Post Office Ltd. will ensure that people will be able to find an alternative branch nearby and the vast majority will still be within walking distance of their nearest office. With the least used offices, the numbers of people affected, will, by the nature of the offices, be low. I understand from Post Office Ltd. that under the area plan proposals for Sussex, 99.6 per cent. of the population will either see no change to the branch they currently use or will be within one mile of an alternative branch.[ Official Report, 5 December 2007; Vol. 468, c. 1339W.]
How can it be that 5,002 of my constituents so farsubstantially more than the 0.4 per cent. that would be left out of that figure given by the Ministerhave signed a petition, written letters, come to public meetings and started to march? We are being hit disproportionately.
The picture that the Minister painted in the debate to which I referred does not represent any of the branches faced with closure in my constituency. It is certainly not a picture that any of the sub-postmasters who face closure would identify with at all. I visited all those branches several times, and I want to concentrate on five of the seven branches faced with closure. Two of the sub-postmasters have resigned themselves to closure. They have had enough. They have had enough of seeing their business taken away from them by the Post Office. They have had enough of intimidation from the Post Office. They want to secure what they can by taking the compensation now, because their future is uncertain and their retirement largely relies on it. One cannot argue with that.
My hon. Friend is making a comprehensively good case for a fundamental review of the closure programme in his constituency. It resonates entirely with the experience in my constituency. In addition to the intimidation involved in the whole process, one sub-postmaster was unable to secure any assurance that there would be any chance, if they survived the cull on this occasion, that they would be offered the same compensation for giving up their business on a future occasion. They are rational people and, quite understandably, they have decided that it is in their best interests to take the compensation and reinvest the money. So they are now going to have to pull down the post office section in their premises and restock the area, which will now form part of the shop. Thank goodness we still have the shop, in that instance. The problem has been the intimidatory nature of the proposal, the suggestion that there will be no compensation in
future if it is not taken now, and the way in which attempts were made to silence these peoplealthough they have come out fightingand to suggest that it was impossible to obtain evidence to support them. There is a real sense that everything has been deeply intimidatory and done by cloak and dagger.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many of these sub-postmasters are between a rock and a hard place. They have seen the loss of TV licences, car tax and passports, the reduction in the remuneration that they get for their business post, and the furore over the Post Office card account. They have seen these things being taken away from them, and they have seen their revenues shrink as a result. The Post Office then makes the case that they are much less profitable than they used to be.
Many of these people have built up and run their businesses over many years, and they were to have provided for them in their retirement. One of the first things that the Government did was to take away retirement tax relief. Those businesses, like many other small businesses, were thus severely hit because they were run by people who had not been able to set up their own pension funds but who had bought into and grown their businesses to use as a pension fund. They hoped to sell them to provide a nice nest egg, and to reinvest the funds for their retirement. They are now faced with a very uncertain future. Understandably, some postmastersalthough not the majority in my constituencyhave decided to take the money and run.
I am not saying that I am against all change. Because of competition and the way in which post office services are evolving, those services need to be rationalised. No one denies that. My party has put forward proposals for rationalisation that would secure the sustainability of many post office branches for much longer. However, my constituency has been disproportionately targeted. These post offices are the wrong target in the wrong places. In contrast, the three next-door constituencies that make up the city of Brighton and Hovea city of about 750,000 peopleface a total of five closures. In my constituency alone, the total is seven.
The closure map that the Post Office has helpfully provided is marked up with red crosses to show proposed closures and green stars to denote the branches that are to be kept. If only this were the hospital proposal map. It has lots of nice red crosses all over it, where I fear that hospitals will be downgraded. The number of red crosses on the map is very alarming. The seven remaining post offices in Adur will serve populations of 8,500 each, on average. That is way above the average for populations in other parts of the country. In contrast, the 15 remaining branches in Worthinga much larger borough which is also being hit particularly hardwill serve populations averaging 6,666 each. Why should Adur have fewer post offices to serve larger populations?
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