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4 Mar 2008 : Column 378WH—continued

The advantage of a mobile unit for Charnock Richard is that it could serve other constituents. We must be realistic. We all know the value of the post office and what it brings to local communities. It plays a central role in local communities and provides a focal point for older and vulnerable people where they feel safe, where they can share problems, and where they can obtain help with the service that they are accessing or if they require other information about paying bills, filling in forms, and so on. We know what value sub-postmasters
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provide in the community. That is why post offices are important, and that is why we must consider their social impact as well as their economic role. Post offices are social providers, and that is why they are important.

However, taking the business case as it stands, the Government could make a significant difference to the future viability of the network. Unfortunately, we have seen withdrawal of services from post offices, and people are no longer encouraged to buy their car tax from the post office. They are encouraged to go online or to use any method other than the post office.

Using the post office always provided a good safety check. When someone turned up to pay their car tax, they had to produce up-to-date MOT and insurance certificates. As they were known by the people in the post office, a car could not be cloned, because more often than not everyone in the village knew what car they drove. That was local, personal contact, with the right ticks put in the right boxes. Face-to-face contact provided a security check to ensure that no one was cheating the system. Now, we are discouraging people from using the post office.

As for the BBC, what a total disgrace. It uses taxpayers’ money to produce programmes, but it shafts local post offices. That is totally unacceptable and disgraceful. It claims to want to be part of the community, but when it can be it becomes so remote that it is totally unacceptable. It must reconsider its position. It says that it is saving money, but for small change it is willing to sacrifice post offices.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend had similar representations to those from my constituents who find it difficult to renew their television licences because many providers who took over when the post offices lost the franchise have stopped dealing with television licences? Some of my constituents travel miles and miles to find somewhere to renew their TV licence.

Mr. Hoyle: That is absolutely right. There was no better advert for people to renew their TV licence than going to the local post office. They knew that that was where they got their TV licences. Now, they must dodge about and look for signs outside shops saying “PayPoint” but—my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble is absolutely right—when they go in they are often told that the shop has stopped dealing with TV licences because it got fed up. When they ask why the sign is still up, they are told that it brings people into the shop, but it does not provide the TV licence. People are actually not buying a TV licence because we are making it so difficult.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. The issue is about more than the individual services that the post office is or should be providing, such as TV licences—although I fully endorse the provision of such services. The post office has lost not only the small amount of money that it received for handling the TV licence transaction, but the person coming into the post office who might have bought other services while they were there. A lot of post
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offices are small grocery stores and sell other things, so they have lost that business as well. The knock-on effect on post offices is much wider than losing the profit that they would have made on TV licences. Marginal post offices will be pushed even further towards the edge of the cliff, over which they will fall—if not this year then next.

Mr. Hoyle: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. If people are not going into a post office for a particular reason, they will not pick up something else when they are in the shop. We all know that. The mentality is to get people in and then sell another service to them and if people do not have access to the service that they require, it is another a nail in the coffin for post offices—as the hon. Gentleman said, if it is not this year, it will be next year.

If the BBC claims to be part of the community and wants to use taxpayers’ money, it ought to go back to its roots and allow people to buy their TV licence in post offices. The sooner it tears up the existing contract the better. The message for the BBC is this: start looking after the community. We represent taxpayers and at the end of the day they are the people who keep the BBC going through their licence payments and tax.

As I have said, it is important to note that every time a service is removed customer numbers fall and we are faced with more programme closures. We must be realistic and bring in more services. The vicious circle must end and rather than remove services, we must bring in new ones. More services must be given to the post office so that it becomes a viable business operation and at the same is able to play a vital social role. I cannot understand why we have had to badger, persuade and blackmail—although that might be taking it a bit far—to try to get banks to come into the post office. Banks have had no desire to do so, but now that we own Northern Rock there is no greater opportunity. Why not put branches of Northern Rock into the post offices? That would provide them with a viable business that can compete on the high street with other banks and would also provide a whole new customer range, such as customers who have never been able to access a building society or bank before. As you come from the north-east, Mr. Atkinson, I am sure that you agree that we must ensure that Northern Rock has a viable future.

However, such a proposal would also ensure that post offices have a whole new business. If Northern Rock is not put into all post offices, I suggest that there is no better building society than the Chorley and District building society, which is very profitable, well used, well managed and wins awards year after year. The Chorley and District building society would like to grow. At the moment it has three branches and it considers that nothing would be better than opening a branch within the local post office. That would help Chorley and District building society and give customers access to a building society and to the other products it can sell.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that a positive way in which what he is advocating could be achieved would be to put ATMs in all the post offices that remain open? The Royal Bank of Scotland has been actively doing so in Scotland, so should we not encourage the banks to do the same in England?

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Mr. Hoyle: There is no problem with having ATMs in post offices, but I do not believe it would be the saviour of post offices—although as long as the ATMs are free it would go a long way to assisting most post offices. That proposal will not quite have the necessary impact. I am fully supportive of anything that will help, but I do not believe that ATMs are the panacea for the future of the Post Office. We must be more up front than that. As I have said, Northern Rock is a good example in relation to that—people could use its ATMs. However, there is much more that we can do, which is why it is important that we do tie up—whether it is with a local building society or a national bank. We need to ensure that the Post Office has true partners and now that we own a bank, we should make good use of it.

On local authorities, I notice that Lancashire county council sent a letter to MPs that states that it wants to save the Post Office. Well, let us be honest about Lancashire county council. If it wanted to, it could encourage more services to be provided through the local post office. For example, if someone has a parking fine, why should they not be able to pay it at the post office? The county councils can do so much more: for example, they are busy closing information centres in our constituencies, so why not provide some of that information through the post office? The postmaster could be used to provide access to the information and a rent could be paid to the postmaster.

By being more creative we can do so much to save post offices. Instead of just passing a resolution at county hall, let county councils face up to the problem. I am sure that the Minister will wish to comment on this, but there is nothing at all to stop the county council from subsidising the post office network. In fact, I believe that Essex county council has done so and that the closure programme in Essex has been put on hold. There are real alternatives and ways in which we can save the post office network. Local authorities can do so much more by making more services accessible through it. That would be a way forward. However, we cannot and must not forget the Post Office card account, which has been a huge success. That really is the future of the Post Office. If it does not have that service, we can say goodbye to virtually every post office. The Post Office card account is vital to the future of the Post Office and is without doubt the most crucial part of saving our post offices.

I shall end by making the following points as I do not want to take any more time. Local authorities can play a part and I ask county hall not just to engage in gesture politics by passing a resolution, but to be part of saving the network. Local authorities must ensure that if they care about the network, they put the work into it. Much more can also be done by district councils. This debate is about saving our community post offices and, as I have said, there is no stronger business case than the Bolton street post office in Chorley. I believe that other hon. Members will be able to put similar business cases. It is time for the post office network to wake up and listen to the communities that we represent.

11.26 am

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): It is, as always, a delight to follow my friend from Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who made his case well. He speaks with great authority as he is a member of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee.

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Mr. Hoyle: The BERRC.

Mr. Prentice: The BERRC. It has just produced a report on the post office closure programme. Like everyone else, I am dismayed by what is happening because the post office is part of the fabric of urban and rural life. When post offices close, it will virtually be impossible to recreate the network.

About 10 or 20 years ago, it was fashionable to get rid of parkies—park keepers. Parks and public spaces became no-go areas. Now everyone is talking about reclaiming public space and the park keepers are coming back because people have realised that the wrong decision was made years ago. Similarly, in recent years, there have been proposals to close police stations. The police told us that no one visited police station x in a little village in the middle of nowhere, but they did not realise that police stations are hugely symbolic. People see them as a place of refuge; they are part of the waft of our life and we need such institutions.

If such a thing has not been recognised by the Post Office and others, it has been recognised by our local newspapers in east Lancashire—Pendle lies in the east of the county and 500,000 people live there. The case has been championed by the Lancashire Telegraph, which had the front page headline, “Doomed: quarter of East Lanc’s post offices to close”. It also had photographs of all the post offices. Over the following weeks, there have been stories underlining how the closures will personally affect people.

The Carr Hall post office is in my constituency of Pendle. A local newspaper article says that Tom Lees’s 20-minute trip to the post office could soon take him nearly five times as long, because the Post Office wants to close his local post office at Carr Hall. He tells the paper that he has worked out that if the post office is closed, it will take him one hour and 37 minutes to get to the alternative post office that has been identified.

Another article has the headline “Hands off our sub post offices” and there is a photograph of my colleague the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), who is championing the cause of the post offices under threat next door to my area. Other headlines include “Protestors vow to fight closure plans” and “Death of village!” Villagers in Higham have vowed to save their local post office. That article quotes Debi Archer, the postmistress, who took over the premises almost two years ago, as saying that the post office and shop form the heart of the community and that if they were taken away, the community would die.

“Post office closure fury” is a headline from Barnoldswick, the town where I live. The article states:

Barnoldswick is a town of 12,000 people. It has two post offices, so if the Gisburn road post office goes, it will have one post office for 12,000 people. Would someone from Post Office Ltd explain to me the rationale for that? No wonder people are infuriated.

I am sure that the Bishop of Blackburn does not do fury—[Interruption.] Well, perhaps he does in his private moments. He is, in his ecclesiastical way, upset. He said to the local paper:

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and continued in that vein. The Lancashire Telegraph editorial picks up that theme, citing the Post Office’s response to people who have been handing in petitions. My friend from Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) talked about the post office in his neck of the woods, where 800 people signed a petition. The Telegraph editorial says that the Post Office has been giving the impression that those petitions do not carry much weight. It goes on to say that the consultation is a sham. That is the issue. We are marching people up to the top of the hill. We are giving them the impression that, through petitions and letters, they can change the result.

Mr. Pope: Is my hon. Friend aware that when the Lancashire Telegraph went to the headquarters of Post Office Ltd to hand in a petition, nobody came out even to accept it? Is that not a disgrace?

Mr. Prentice: That is appalling. It genuinely shocks me to hear that people who would have spent a long time getting names for the petition should have been sent away with a flea in their ear, without even seeing someone to hand their petition over. That is, as my friend says, an absolute disgrace.

Let me return to the question of the consultation, because that is central. I should perhaps have said earlier that I wrote to all the postmasters of the post offices threatened with closure in my constituency—there are six of them. Let me say this in parenthesis. When I was first elected as the MP for Pendle in 1992, there were 28 post offices. We have already lost 10. The proposal is that we lose another six, so we will be left with 12 post offices out of the 28 that I inherited. Of course, that is not something that started in 1992; it has happened under Administrations of all colours.

According to the House of Commons Library note on post office numbers, there were 22,405 post offices in 1981-82, but now the number is down to just over 14,000. The Post Office and the Government want to get it down to about 11,500 and I think that the Select Committee has concurred with that. There has been a steady and relentless decline in the number of post offices throughout the nation year in, year out, but the rate of closure has been accelerating. Since the late 1990s, the net change has increased dramatically. In 2002, there were 345 closures and there were 262 closures in 2001, but in 2003-04, the number shot up to 1,278. In 2004-05, there were 1,352 closures. There has been a falling back since then, but the programme has been accelerating.

We do not need to be a mastermind to understand the pressures on the post office network. The banks have been vacating the high streets. The internet is now ubiquitous, and people pay their utility bills and so on via the internet. We have heard about TV licences. People can renew their car tax online. We have to recognise and accept that the context in which post offices are doing business has changed almost out of all recognition over recent years. As Lenin would say, “What is to be done?”

Mr. Clifton-Brown: A change of Government.

Mr. Prentice: Let me say this to the Conservatives. I do not want to hear them saying, “We will keep the post office network at its present size,” unless they
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really mean it and will put the subsidies into it. Do the Conservatives want to see the post office network with 11,500 post offices, or at a level—I think that the Minister referred to this in his evidence to the Select Committee—at which only commercially viable post offices would exist, which would be about 4,000? When the Conservatives give commitments, as they do, to keep profitable post offices, are they talking about that bare minimum of 4,000? If not, how much subsidy will they put into the network?

As I said in my opening remarks, I believe that the post office network is a social good and that it should be subsidised. We subsidise all sorts of things. We subsidise nuclear power stations, for God’s sake. My friend from Chorley is shaking his head, so I think that we will carry on this discussion after the debate. Within the constraints of the competition rules of the European Union—I have to raise that this week, of all weeks—we should subsidise our post offices and we should make it clear to the people who use those post offices what the public subsidy is. It is not just to the individual post office, but to clusters of post offices. If we did that, people would realise how much public money is going in to keep those post offices alive. I very much hope that we can have some lateral thinking from the Post Office and the Government to keep this essential part of our social fabric in existence.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. I would like to enable all Lancashire Members present to speak, if possible. I therefore ask hon. Members to keep an eye on the time. The winding-up speeches ought to start shortly after 12 o’clock.

11.39 am

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): I will keep my remarks fairly short, Mr. Atkinson, and concentrate specifically on the issues in my constituency where four post offices are due to close. I will touch briefly on the issue of consultation. Unless local people are ready for or have anticipated the consultation period, six weeks is not an adequate time in which to consult. In my constituency, I wrote to everyone affected by the closures in the villages of Mere Brow, Much Hoole and Hutton. I invited them to write to me and to join me at a village meeting, which was a very good use of the communications allowance. I also wrote to 500 or so residents of properties near the Bent lane post office in Leyland, which is an urban post office. As a result of that letter, I received about 150 replies. At 5 pm last Thursday, I held a boisterous meeting with 80 to 100 local residents. Some very strong views on all four potential closures were expressed. From my point of view, hearing such views was very useful because it enabled me at the end of last week to put together formal objections that had to be in by Monday of this week. I want briefly to run through the results of that consultation on the four post offices.

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