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17 Dec 2007 : Column 690

So these proposals have no support. Until now, I have not relied on the perhaps more emotional testimonies of my constituents and individual people within Worthing and Adur. I could have done—I could have quoted from scores and scores of letters that I have been copied in on, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West. Up to now, I have relied on the practical considerations of these post office closures for my constituents, my communities and my constituency, such as traffic and parking, alternative destination distances, environmental concerns and the impact on communities.

However, I want to read out a few of the comments received in those letters. Perhaps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will indulge me. These are real-life experiences of people who are not politically motivated; in many cases, they have never written to their MP before, or to the Post Office. The first states:

Another one from Lancing says,

to North Lancing—

every week.

Another one from Lancing states:

Another one states:

in which the post office is sited

Another one, from a pensioner:

A further one states:

Another one, from Sompting:

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Another states:

Here is one from a business:

Another one, from Worthing, states:

Another one from Sompting:

Another one from Lancing—I am almost finished, Mr. Deputy Speaker—says:

So how are the remaining post offices going to have the capacity to cope?

Another letter from Sompting states:

Another letter states:

Finally, someone from Sompting comments:

The “people’s Post Office” advertising campaign adds insult to injury, as does advertising the Christmas club that the Post Office is going to offer, when my constituents face losing the majority of their sub-post offices and will not be able to access such services. Everyone is up in arms, including the local media. The Shoreham Herald and the Worthing Herald have as usual played a fantastic part in covering and supporting this campaign, and Splash FM, the Worthing radio station, has, as ever, been supportive of the local communities.

People are in shock over these proposals. Local residents, businesses and the sub-postmasters are shocked. Even Postwatch and the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which is based in Shoreham in my constituency, admitted to me that we are being hit disproportionately. Postwatch was very unhappy with the way that the proposals affected my constituency and believed that it had almost been misled in the way in which the evidence had been put forward to it. Even the Post Office representatives who came to see me when the closures were announced admitted to the disproportionate effect that the closures are having on my constituency.

The fate of these post offices is in the hands of the Minister. The Government have instructed the Post Office to make 2,500 closures, so he cannot simply pass the buck to the Post Office. I hope that the consultation
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programme, albeit truncated to six weeks, is a genuine one. I say that because a recent letter in Brighton’s The Argus referred to the previous time that the closure programme was threatening post office branches—in that case, Brighton was affected. The writer stated:

He then mentioned a public meeting held to try to save those branches, saying:

I hope that the Minister will satisfy himself that I am being too cynical in suggesting that the decisions have already been made and that the consultation exercise is a token box-ticking exercise. Such an exercise would be an enormous insult to the 5,002 people who signed the petition that I just handed in and to the many hundreds who have written letters and turned out in support of these post offices. I am not optimistic, because a similar exercise took place in Kent earlier this year. I believe that only two decisions have been rescinded in respect of the 58 Kent post offices faced with closure, and that only two decisions were rescinded in respect of 71 in the west midlands.

Is the consultation genuine or not? Does any of the information presented and the case that I have made in the past hour and six minutes count with the Post Office? Will it count with the Minister? Will he at least give a guarantee that he will ensure that the Post Office is not just sifting through these letters and petitions rather laboriously and taking no notice of them, but is genuinely taking into account the very special reasons why some—not all—of the post offices faced with closure in my constituency should have their decisions reviewed. If the Post Office is genuinely to be called the people’s Post Office, the Minister owes it to the people to give ownership of some of the decisions to the customers who use and rely on those post offices. They have a right to continue to rely on a very important community service.

I hope that the Minister will take these comments on board fully and give my constituents, who are faced with losing their post offices in East Worthing and Shoreham, a happier new year than the bleak Christmas prospect that they face as this consultation ends a week from today.

9.25 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for letting me join in his debate and I am delighted that the Minister has been listening attentively. If he is free on Thursday, will he come to the meeting with the Post Office at the Broadwater parish rooms in the centre of Worthing? My hon. Friend and I will be there. I am sorry that the Post Office has not been able to come to an earlier meeting, although two of their representatives did join my hon. Friend and me for a discussion at the beginning of the proposals.

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Can the Minister confirm that one of the reasons why the Post Office network is under such pressure is that a former Secretary of State for Social Security agreed with the Treasury to give up the £400 million income that the post office network received for helping to pay out money? One of the reasons why that matters a lot in Worthing—although it could be copied in 300 other pairs of constituencies as this terrible programme rolls out—is that people over 85 are not those who get their car licences on the internet or who can get their money conveniently when they go out to work. At 85, relatively few are working. They are the people who are well represented by my hon. Friend and by our local media. I join him in paying tribute to our local papers, the Worthing Herald, the Lancing Herald, the Littlehampton Gazette, the West Sussex Gazette and The Argus, and the radio stations. Local people buy their papers at the post offices, as well as doing their transactions. Most of them do not take out fistfuls of £20 notes. They take their money in £5 and £10 notes because they do not want to be mugged on the way home.

I shall not repeat the points made by my hon. Friend, but I wish to add one or two points. First, I remind the Minister of Pythagoras. If one walks east for 0.6 miles and then north for 0.8 miles, that gives 1 mile because the Post Office measures distances as the crow flies, but it is actually 1.4 miles—c(2)=a(2)+b(2). As my hon. Friend points out, a person may already have walked to the first post office. When we walked with his constituents from the Bowness Avenue post office to the next nearest, we had to go north then east, because we could not go north-east. It took well over half an hour and we walked past two closed post offices on the way.

This is not a new process: it is the continuation of a process that has closed seven post offices in my constituency. There are still people in Ferring, Rustington, Goring and central Worthing who deeply regret the decisions that were made then.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend joined us on the march from Bowness avenue to the main post office in Lancing North street. The most direct route was through several twittens—as they are called in Sussex—and across a park and lanes. Many of the elderly ladies said that they would never do that route on their own, especially not after dark. They only did it on that day—and many were only just able to complete it—because there were 100 of us with a police escort.

Peter Bottomley: Other people are concerned by the proposals, including Henry Smith, the West Sussex county council leader. He says:

Why are we targeted the whole time? It is not only that the constituencies have Conservative Members of Parliament. I am glad to say that the Liberal Democrats locally have an online petition and in the end supported the all-party motion on Worthing council.

John Livermore, the chairman of the Worthing county councillors’ committee, says that the proposal will cause extra congestion on the roads. If it is true that three quarters of the people who use our post
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offices walk to them and if it is true that fewer than a quarter will walk to the alternatives, the Minister will deliberately be creating extra traffic. He should say to the Post Office, “You have the freedom, if you judge it right, not to close the Heene Road post office.” That post office is in the centre of not just the constituency that has perhaps the highest proportion of over- 85-year-olds in the country—it is what the whole country will be like in 20 years’ time—but probably has the highest proportion of any ward in Worthing. The area has a very high proportion of people who are reasonably active and who can get to the local post office, but who will find going along Rowlands road much more difficult. The Minister may say that the distances involved are not the greatest, but let us remember that most of the pensioners who go to the Heene Road post office come in from the west and have probably already walked half a mile to get there. They are within the limits of how far they can easily get.

There are different arguments for The Strand post office, which is sited where a post office really matters. It is near to Worthing college where many young people go for their sixth-form and further education, to Lloyds TSB Registrars where 2,000 people work, and to the headquarters of the primary care trust. Just over the railway, 800 people work on Inland Revenue business both directly for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and for the consultants who are developing its software. In addition, there are many people in that residential area and they will have to go from the Strand to George V avenue in Goring. I will go with the Minister if he would like to volunteer for that walk, but if he comes down on Thursday, he will have to allow extra time because of the traffic jams that already exist. It is not an easy walk from the Strand to George V avenue, and the first person I consulted when I left the Strand post office was blind. He said that he would not be able to go to the post office at Limbrick corner on Palatine road or to 292 Goring road, which is another option suggested by the Post Office. The alternatives are totally impractical for the people in that residential area or for the people who come to the Strand because their work or education takes them there.

Will the Minister kindly tell the Post Office that it has the freedom to make decisions based on a judgment of the local circumstances? It may have been required to put forward an average of four closures for each constituency, but it does not have to carry them through if he will allow them that option.

I have referred to local people and I wish to quote from a letter from Judy, who lives in Goring, an area where the local Liberals did most of their petitioning. Goring does not have a post office under threat at the moment, but Judy says that, although her own post office is not threatened with closure, she is concerned about those in my constituency and in east Worthing. She says:

That is the kind of “sustainable community” language that the Government use as propaganda. I do not think
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that they believe in it; we used to do similar things without using the propaganda terms. Judy says:

We have heard about banks closing their branches, but Judy says that she uses her local post office more and finds that there are frequently queues and not just in the run-up to Christmas. I remind the Minister what happened when the post office in Bath place in central Worthing closed, people had to queue even in the rain for 20 minutes at the main post office at the corner of Chapel street and Union place. That post office is between the constituency office and my home in Worthing, and it is a crying shame to see people getting drenched in an area where they cannot park. However, if they have parked their car, they have to ask themselves whether to put money in for 10 minutes, half an hour or for 40 minutes. That is the sort of question that people have to face.

Judy ends by asking how the remaining post offices will cope with more customers and notes that the staff will probably lose the knowledge of those who require special attention: the deaf, those with learning difficulties, people who are physically slow and those who have no

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