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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As a member of the BERR Committee, I should point out that we said that we reluctantly accepted that there
would have to be some closures, but not necessarily those planned by the Government. In both our original report and the recent follow-up to it, we have questioned where the figure of 2,600 closures came from, and asked why that round figure was chosen.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government and the Post Office have carried out the consultation process in an extremely underhand way? The process has been different in different areas of the country, and there have been attempts to gag the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses involved. The Government and the Post Office have tried to prevent any shops that might subsequently be set up when a post office is closed from selling the same products for a year afterwards. That will make it very difficult for a village shop without a post office to carry on trading. Are not all such tactics underhand?
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, as he is being very patient and indulgent. There is serious anger many sub-postmasters in North-West Norfolk, who say that it is an outrage and a disgrace to be told that they will not get any redundancy pay if they carry on offering services for the lottery, the payment of utility bills, private courier services and so on. Does he agree that that is a disgraceful restraint of trade?
I was attracted to the wording of the motion, but the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that the post office network is losing a substantial amount of money. If I am to be tempted to vote for the motion, will he give an undertaking on behalf of his party to put £1.7 billion of investment into the network so that it can be sustained in a good old socialist fashion up to 2011?
Alan Duncan: I will not do that, and furthermore I do not need to do that to win the argument today, because the whole purpose of what we say is that we should give an opportunity for the money that is being spent to go a lot further, and give a lot of branches the opportunity to continue to exist; at the moment they are being bulldozed into submission.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A few moments ago, an hon. Member suggested that the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform indicated that it supported the Governments closure of 2,500 post offices. I have before me a press notice issued by the Select Committee. It says clearly:
This is not a report about the principle of closing 2,500 sub post offices as that is settled government policy and one on which we have commented previously. It is a report about how the process is being managed and the implications for communities.
Alan Duncan: The time was when an hon. Member who had been put right with the kind of accuracy that my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) used would have stood up and apologised for the mistake.
We do not think it is satisfactory simply to accept that the network may continue to shrink in an unplanned way between now and 2011; Post Office Ltd should be obliged to use its best endeavours to keep the network at a minimum of 11,500 fixed outlets.
Sarah Teather: The hon. Gentleman likes to portray himself as the saviour of the post office network, but he does not have a plan for investing in upgrading the network. He was just asked a clear question about his plans for investment. He has a series of proposals, supposedly aimed at increasing revenue, but nothing on increasing the investment in modernising the post office network. How can he justify claiming that he can save all those post offices?
The investment in the post office network is, to a large extent, already made by private individuals who take a risk and invest in their own companythe family businessso the hon. Ladys question is misdirected. Much more pertinent is the question of what those
businesses can be allowed to do to enable them to expand and have a prospect of survival, rather than annihilation. We would like them to be able to take on more tasks, so that they can expand the business that they can undertake. Sub-postmasters are entrepreneurs. They want to develop new services and they want to survive on business, rather than on subsidy.
Sub-postmasters should be able to develop more financial services; they should be able to take on local council work; they should be able to take on Government services; and they should be able to do a lot of things that the Post Office currently forbids them to do. Let me briefly say why we think that the current activity forced on the Post Office by the Government is flawed.
First, there are the flawed access criteria. They are simple, linear, as-the-crow-flies measures. There is no appreciation in them of hills, crossroads and main roads that have to be crossed. There is no proper appreciation of the nature of a community built around the use of a post office. Furthermore, a lot of the census figures and population figures that the Post Office is using are completely out of date and unrelated to the effective market catchment area of the post offices that are threatened with closure.
Many in this House think that the consultation is a sham. They know that the 2,500 figure has been picked out of the air. The Post Office is ramming through the closures, and if a Member of Parliament succeeds in keeping one post office open, another one will shut. Absurdly, someone who phoned up the Post Office and asked, Excuse me, why is my village post office closing? was told, Because the postmaster wants to retire. That is not true, said the caller; I know it; I am the postmaster. What is more, community is being pitted against community, because when a post office in one village is saved, another is shut elsewhere.
As for the post offices that are told to close, there appears to be no rationale for distinguishing between the ones that the Secretary of State always cites as having only 20 transactions a week, and those that are far more active and very popular, and which are run alongside a profitable shop and are basically viable businesses that are being forced to close for no rational economic reason whatever.
We are calling for a freeze on the consultation. If the Government doubt whether that is possible, let us point out that, to a limited extent, they have done it already; they suddenly realised that their plans cut across the campaigning period for a local election and, indeed, a mayoral election, in which their own candidate even threatened judicial review because he is so against the policy of the Government whom he is once again pretending to support. The idea that there cannot be a freeze is absurd. There has been a semi-freeze already, and we think that there should be a suspension so that all the new ingredients that have become clear over the past few months can be factored into a revised programme
that could perhaps, on the same money, allow many of those post offices that are currently being forced to shut to stay open.
Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks about maintaining viable post offices, but in fact only 4,000 post offices in this country are profitablea word that he previously used. How many of the other 10,000 would he subsidise, and how many of them would be expendable under his plan?
condemned the decision, which he said was inexplicable given the high levels of activity at each of the offices in question.
Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he is making his case. Is he concerned that the 2,500 post offices are just the tip of the iceberg, as a number of other post offices have been closed on a temporary basis, including the one in Heath End in my constituency? Is that not just another political trick? The Government are trying to keep the number of those post offices out of the 2,500, but those post offices are also condemned.
Alan Duncan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Today we are hearing, basically from Members on both sides of the Chamber, sorry tales of how the closure programme is being implemented in their constituencies.
Mr. Reed: I would like the hon. Gentleman to return to the point that he started to make, but failed to finish, in reply to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster). He started to explain that he thought that a particular number of post offices would make for a viable network, but he rapidly moved on. Will he today commit himself to a figure, and will he say what additional expenditure and commitment the Government should make to ensure that the number is reached? Before he quotes back at us some of the proper representations that we have made in our constituencies, let me ask him to answer the question.
I shall make a few more points; I promised I would not take up too much time, but this has been a shared performance. However, the clock is ticking away. Let me come on to something that I think is enormously important, both for urban and rural communities, namely the link between the post office and the shop. In many post offices, and most of those threatened with closure, there is an alliance with a shop that is part of the same business, and is on the same
premises. A shop is an essential part of any community. It is its focal point, its hub. We are not just talking about the end of the opportunity to go and buy some stamps and post a letter; more often than not, the closure of the shop is in harness, in tandem, or in parallel with the closure of the post office.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Perhaps I can give my hon. Friend some more ammunition. In Bicknoller in my constituency, we have a voluntary shop and post office. Every single volunteer goes there because they want to, and the postmaster gives everything that he earns back to the post office, yet it is still being shut. When I asked the Post Office why, it said, It needs to be shut; you havent got enough people, even though everything goes back into that shop to keep it going. Does not my hon. Friend find that ridiculous?
Alan Duncan: The post office network and shops are private enterprises. Families have risked money and borrowedoften against their only residenceto start and run a business. Many who have started to do that only recently, having taken a risk in good faith so that their shop can go hand in hand with the post office, are finding that the rug has been pulled from beneath them, that the shop and the post office will go, and that they may not be able to meet their debts.
I am extremely concerned, as are hon. Members in all parts of the House, about the way that the compensation is working. It is all very well to offer a postmaster compensation in the hope that he will not face financial adversity, should the post office shut, but that compensation attaches only to the post office. As I have already said, many of those enterprises run in parallel with a shop. What is deeply pernicious is the way in which the Post Office is setting terms and conditions on the compensation in a way which, as well as closing the post office, will also destroy the shop.
What the Post Office is doing, which I think amounts to a restraint of the trade of shopkeepers, is saying that if they take the money for closing down the post office counter, they will be prohibited thereafter from doing certain things in the shop. They will not be allowed to sell lottery tickets. They will not be allowed to conduct certain transactions which, in the eyes of the Post Office, might technically compete with it. They will not, for instance, be able to install a PayPoint terminal, which is a revenue-earning service for the shop, but competes with the Post Office. So in offering compensation, the Post Office is effectively putting a restrictive covenant on trade that could be enjoyed by the shop. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West
(Rob Marris) says, Standard business practice. If he thinks it is standard to be so irresponsible, let me tell him that I do not.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): It is standard business practice. I know that as a lawyer working in employment law. There are restrictive covenants in all kinds of contracts with respect to the activities that an individual may and may not undertake. People sign up to that. It is a financial transaction. Furthermore, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is a financial transaction with those restrictions which is supported by the National Federation of SubPostmasters.
Alan Duncan: If the hon. Gentleman really thinks that the future viability of the Post Office will be undermined and destroyed by village shops being able to get someone to pay a bill at their counter, the advice that he might have given to business in the past does not bear scrutiny.
Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there may be something else that we are in danger of losingthe post office branch as a social safety net? There are those who are alone and possibly elderly, who come into the post office regularly for benefits or pensions. If they do not come in one week, perhaps the only person who will notice is the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress. If the branch is no longer open, who does my hon. Friend think will fulfil that role?
Alan Duncan: I shall make progress and then give Labour Members a final chance to chip in. I am conscious of the clock. The House can tell that I have been racing through my remarks as quickly as possible. I want to give hon. Members a chance to speak, but I shall point out aspects that matter particularly to Labour Members.
There was an early-day motion at the beginning of the year signed by 35 Members from the Labour Benches. It is pretty well word for word the motion before the House today. The only respect in which I have heard that it is thought to be different is the use of the word instruct in the context of instructing the Post Office to suspend its consultation. That is dancing on the head of a pin. It would be intellectually dishonest of any Member to think that that gives them a let-out clause.
The Government, through the shareholder executive, owns the Post Office. They instructed the compulsory closure programme to start in the first place, so they can equally instruct the Post Office to suspend it. As I said earlier, in part at least because of the local elections, they have already done just that. So the insinuation of the word instruct is no excuse for those hon. Members who have signed the early-day motion not to vote with us tonight.
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