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19 Mar 2008 : Column 987

Mr. Paice: I do, of course, agree. I am sure that all hon. Members who represent constituencies where the consultation process has been taking place will fully understand that the way in which the consultation and the closure process are being carried out involves seriously bad practice.

My main criticism of this whole sorry saga is that it is a top-down decision. Of course some post offices are very badly run—we have all been to see them, so we cannot deny that. The simple reality is that they could be more successful if they were under different management. Many of them will never be profitable in a purely commercial sense, which is one reason why I have just discussed the social aspects.

However, we ought to help and encourage the better ones to succeed, and the consultation appears to ignore that approach. Some excellent and apparently profitable post offices are being closed. Despite what the Prime Minister said earlier today about the post offices that have only 16 or 20 customers a week—a tiny minority of post offices have such a low level of usage—the reality is that many of them will remain open because of the access criteria and the fact that they are located in the most remote areas.

What should be happening is that the Post Office should simply set delivery standards and requirements of a sub-post office and tell people how much they will get paid for the work; the figure should be one that does not incur a loss for the Post Office. That would allow the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress to make their own judgments about whether they can operate on that basis. It may depend on what other business they attach to it. Many may say that because they value their community and own the local shop or pub, they are happy to accept a small loss, because the village needs a post office. They may want to talk to local authorities—we have heard of the example of Essex—or other voluntary bodies and the local community. It is not a question of accepting continuous losses—no Government should do that—but of letting the individuals decide whether they can run a business on the basis of the standards and finances laid down by the Post Office, including perhaps subsidising it from other activities.

All the discussion about new business for the Post Office—the Secretary of State went on and on about it this afternoon—is focused on what is being decided by the Post Office nationally. It is the Post Office in London that is deciding to look out for insurance business, currency exchange or whatever. That is top-down thinking. Instead, the entrepreneurial sub-postmaster should be able to look for his own business. He may want some help from the Post Office nationally, if that can be done, but he should be set free to find other forms of business, perhaps in conjunction with local authorities, that could be related to the post office activity and help to make his business more viable. That is why I wholly condemn the arrangement that will prevent those closing with compensation from providing similar services through other providers. It is true that such constraints are often applied for a year or two in commercial law when someone ceases an activity, but we are not talking about purely commercial situations. The Minister fully accepted that many post offices play a vital social role and the whole issue of commerciality should be pushed to one side, in terms of allowing those businesses to offer PayPal or other services. The issue is access to public
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services, especially in our rural areas, and is accompanied by the issues of the quality of life and social gain.

We need a much more flexible approach to the network to accommodate post offices that fail, or what happens when a sub-postmaster wishes to retire or sell up. The system should facilitate a replacement in those circumstances, and that should be self-evident if we want a comprehensive network. We need to review urgently the planning and rating systems to encourage multi-use of our premises. I know that there are good examples of pubs, churches and village halls providing post office services, but they experience difficulties, including in the ratings sector, that need to be considered carefully. In many cases, the post office is part of the only remaining shop in the village and if the post office element is closed, the shop may go down too, especially with the restraint on trade that I have mentioned. The village is then left without any service. The implications for that on the need to travel, car usage, carbon emissions, and the sheer difficulty and harassment for individuals, are obvious.

If the Government really care about the post office network, and do not take just a purely mechanistic view of it, the first thing that they must do is get a grip on what the Post Office is doing. Other hon. Members have raised the threats to sub-postmasters and mistresses who face closure. They have been told that if they get early information that their post offices are on the hit list, they must not tell anyone; otherwise, they will not get their compensation. This is all blackmail. It is wrong, and the Government have to get a grip on it. They could do other things. They could make it a condition that the lottery provider ought to enable all post offices, at least in rural areas, to have a terminal. They could say to the Post Office, “Just tell sub-postmasters and mistresses what you want from them, what the services are and how much you are prepared to pay. Let them decide whether they can take it on on that basis and let them go out and look for extra business.”

The Government could do all those things. They could reverse the whole process to a bottom-up system, but they will not. That was clear from what the Secretary of State said. No one in government really understands our rural communities. The Government believe in central decision making and that no individual can be trusted to make the right decisions. The main reason that they will not do these things is that they would have to admit that they are wrong.

The Government have continued to waste billions of pounds with little to show for it, yet when they have a chance to do something good for no extra money they refuse to do so. It is typical of a Government who have had their day.

3.50 pm

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). We normally end up debating the future of pigs, so it is nice to move on to another subject, even if it still begins with the letter P.

When the announcement was first made some months ago, I was a Government Whip. It is good to be able finally to stand up in the Chamber and make some comments about how the decision has affected Brigg and Goole. I am reminded of the first time I stood for
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election in 1992 in the old Brigg and Cleethorpes seat—unsuccessfully, I hasten to add—against the Tory MP Michael Brown, who is now my good friend. One of the big issues was post office closures. It seems almost like groundhog day; here we are, still discussing it—[Hon. Members: “More pigs!”] There will be no more pig analogies. That is the end of it.

Thousands of post offices have been closed under Conservative and Labour Administrations. They would probably be closed under a Liberal Democrat Administration, too, if there ever was one. As the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) candidly said, we cannot control everything in the way that we would perhaps like to.

Let me tell the House something about the experience in Brigg and Goole and how it has been handled. We are at the end of the process now and we were in the first tranche that was announced. When the announcement was made, it was proposed that Westfield Avenue post office in Goole, which is an urban post office, would be closed, and that the rural post offices in Reedness, Wroot, West Butterwick and Eastoft would change to outreach. We then went into the consultation.

A lot of hon. Members have said that the consultation was a complete sham. I would say that it was a curate’s egg in some respects. It is very difficult to understand how some of the decisions were finally reached, even though some of them were definitely improvements on the original proposals.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Whether the consultation was a sham or not, did not the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have the same experience as mine? First, some of the rationale that the Post Office put forward in its explanation was factually wrong. Secondly, the process was truncated to a shorter time than is usual for such consultation procedures.

Mr. Cawsey: I would agree with that, based on my experience.

Goole is a good example. We were told, “It’s an urban area. There is another post office only 400 yards away, it is a big town centre that could take the capacity, and there is a regular bus journey of only 10 minutes.” We could see the rationale. However, when I met the Post Office I pointed out that the bus ride, which takes only seven or eight minutes to get to the post office, is not the same on the way back. The people in the Post Office dealt with that with great incredulity. They said that they had never heard of a bus that took seven minutes to go down the road one way and then took longer to come the other way. The point was that the bus does not go that way—it is a circular route. A short journey to the post office becomes a tour round the town to come back. That had not registered on their radar at all. When we reached the final conclusion, which was that that post office should be closed, all I got was a nice little paragraph in the reasoning, something like, “The MP put up a decent argument. We looked into it but we are not doing anything about it.”

We made some progress with the outreach services. It was decided that the services covering Reedness and Wroot would remain in the shops where they are presently located, and that they would continue to be delivered by the people who deliver them now. Moreover, the fact that the outreach for Reedness was to come from the
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Goole post office meant that it could provide more services, including road tax and foreign currency. That shows how much had changed since we started our campaign, and that the decisions amounted to a bit of a curate’s egg.

What happened next has been described by other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. A final recommendation was made: the Goole office was to close and the others would be outreached, with two offices remaining in the shops where they were located. It was then announced that a complete hash had been made of one of the outreach offices in Lincoln—what was claimed to be a short walk across level ground turned out to be on a very steep hill.

The result was that there was a change of mind about the office involved, and that the office at Wrawby was suddenly put up for closure, even though it was fine in the initial consultation. I met Post Office representatives and said that that decision was wrong because it meant that people had had to go through the mill twice, when once was bad enough. However, despite my great admiration for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I was told that saving one post office meant that another office would have to go.

Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman is reinforcing the point that I made earlier—that all the access and other criteria used to decide which post offices should close in the end mean nothing because the Post Office is determined to achieve the target of 2,500 closures.

Mr. Cawsey: A few weeks after being told that the office at Wrawby was viable, I was told that it no longer was. When I asked why, I was told that most of the offices that the Post Office proposed to keep open were not viable, but that it would propose closure only for offices that were not viable.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman is touching on a problem that I have encountered in the north of Lewis. The postmistress at Skigersta is very anxious to save her office, but she is worried that solving her problem might cause difficulties for the Port of Ness office just a little way down the round. The closure programme is putting postmistresses and postmasters in a very invidious position.

Mr. Cawsey: I understand exactly where the hon. Gentleman is coming from.

What transactions are undertaken in post offices? All hon. Members will recognise that question from their discussions with the Post Office. What one is told—on a confidential basis only—when one asks is that the number of transactions that post offices carry out is very low. I was shocked when I found out how low the number is: as a local person, I had thought that it would be much higher.

There is no doubt that a significant change has taken place. Some of it is due to demographic changes, and no firm can lose 4 million customers in a relatively short period without such changes being part of the reason. In addition, people are making different decisions about how they get their pensions and benefits. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that 80 per cent. of pensioners had stopped getting their pensions from post offices before Labour was even elected. The demographic change is therefore not new, but has been going on for some time.

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I picked up a petition at one of my local post offices that appeared to have been signed by everyone in the village. I said to the sub-postmaster that he had done extraordinarily well, but he replied, “Yes, Ian, but if everyone who signed the petition used the post office I would not need it.” That is another common problem.

Questions have been asked about the adequacy or otherwise of the Post Office’s management. I sometimes think that they have created problems for themselves, and that they continue to do so. For example, I said earlier that I was very pleased that the office at Reedness was to stay in the shop where it is presently located. The local sub-postmistress is willing to work more hours, but to do so she requires a relatively small amount of IT and a laptop computer. Without that equipment, she is forced to rely on the time that the person from the main post office can give, but the Post Office has refused to provide it.

The Post Office is making week-by-week, month-by-month savings on the hours that the Reedness sub-postmistress works, but it will not meet the one-off capital cost involved in giving her the kit that will allow her to work extra, voluntary hours while her shop is open. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs on the Front Bench, as I have raised this matter with him previously. I hope that he is able to help.

I turn now to the provision of television licences. Why did the BBC decide not to let post offices sell the stamps that people use to buy licences? The answer is that the tender from PayPoint was £100 million less than the one offered by the Post Office. Why was it so much lower, and why has no one ever challenged the Post Office about whether it was serious and credible in its attempt to get the business?

John Taylor of the Rawcliffe Bridge post office told me that he wanted to install a PayPoint terminal when the decision about television licence stamps was taken but was told that he could not do so. I understand that the arrangements are more flexible now, but when the changes were all taking place he was told that he could not do it. PayPoint found other locations and that is not going to change now.

The same sub-postmaster said to me, “If you look at the back of a British Telecom bill, where it sets out how you can pay, it no longer mentions the post office.” People can still pay through their post office, but it does not say so on the bill. I took that up with British Telecom, which simply said, “We’re never going to stop people paying through the post office—obviously, we have links with the Post Office historically—but it is the most expensive way for us to collect our money from customers, and we ain’t going to advertise it, although we’ll continue to accept payments through the post office.”

Only today, a constituent who wanted to pay her water bill told me that she would be charged more at the post office than at the local garage or the local shop. It makes me think: why is the Post Office creating these barriers to business? The report of the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has been referred to, said that poor management has been a factor over the years, but that there was greater confidence in the people who are in place now. I really hope that that is true, but we are still waiting to see.

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Local authorities can and should play a role, and I welcome some of the recent developments. My area is covered by two local authorities, one of which is North Lincolnshire council. When the announcement was first made, all that time ago, I had a conversation with Liz Redfern, who was then leader of the council. I asked whether there was something that the council could do. It is fair to say that I met with a polite response but not a great deal of interest. However, in May last year, North Lincolnshire was the only council in the country that went from being Conservative to Labour; I am happy about that, although I am not happy that only one council changed in that way, but at least the council concerned was my local council. Mark Kirk, who is now the leader of the council, is in discussion with its offices on how they can work with local post offices. Perhaps there can be outreach to the villages, too, so that local government services there use the post offices, boost the number of hours, and so make the post offices more viable.

My other local council is the Tory East Riding of Yorkshire council, and I have to say that on many issues, including the one that we are discussing, it is very enlightened. Stephen Parnaby, the leader, is doing a good job there. We were county councillors together. He is a good bloke, and he will be pleased that he is in Hansard. He came up with the idea, which his cabinet supported, of the local council becoming a corporate sub-postmaster. If the Post Office approves the idea, the council will be able to deliver post office branch services via its mobile libraries, its customer service centres, which already exist, and village schools. That is a way in which local authorities can make a big difference.

The council does not pay the tax on its vehicles at post offices, but in the council’s defence, it can be said that there is a Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency office right next door to County hall, so it is probably difficult to justify doing so. Again, that is a simple thing that councils can do: they can get all their fleet taxed at local post offices. All hon. Members should ask their local councils whether they do that.

I want to mention sub-postmasters. I welcome the package and the fact that, this time, sub-postmasters get something if they have to go, because no such provision was in place before, and that was a mistake. However, what about those who want to go? At least one sub-postmaster in my area—I will not say who it is, because that would set another hare running—really wanted to be let go, under the consultation, but he has been told that that cannot happen. What happens to those people when the process finishes? We need answers to that. We should always remember that in this debate, we are talking about the future and livelihoods of the people who run our post offices.

We are ahead of most areas; frankly, we are at the end. Goole post office is closed, and the Wroot and Reedness services are staying in the shop. We are trying to work with the council to boost services in those outreach locations. I was speaking to the sub-postmasters in West Butterwick, Eastoft and Wrawby, and for all sorts of reasons that are not the business of the House, none of them is seeking any further involvement with the Post Office. They have made their decisions about what they want to do with their lives, and they want to move on. Frankly, there would be no benefit to Brigg
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and Goole from the suspension being proposed tonight. Indeed, it would mean a further period of uncertainty for the sub-postmasters concerned.

We maintain a network across our area, which is big and rural. I remain as determined as ever to work with the two councils in my area, which are of different political persuasions, to ensure that that remains the case, and to ensure that, despite the odds, we have a vibrant post office network for the future.

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