Previous Section Index Home Page

4.4 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Post office closures have hit many communities extremely hard. The Isle of Wight is no different. In Hampshire and the Isle of Wight consultations were held on 62 branch closures. However, despite many objections, only one branch was reprieved. Does not that call into question the whole consultation process? If a decision cannot be changed, it is not a consultation. The process taking place now is merely a sham.

Evidence that I have unearthed calls into question the closure process. Let us take the Isle of Wight as an example. Ten sub-post offices on the island were earmarked for closure. I worked with the rural community council and the chamber of commerce to draft a detailed response, which was submitted during the public consultation process. I should particularly like to thank Joanna Richards of the RCC for all her hard work. The first failure occurred when I did not receive an acknowledgement for the submission. That was put down to an administrative error.

My first confirmation that the closures were going ahead was a phone call the evening before the decision booklet was issued. In that booklet there appeared to be no reference to the issues that many other people and I had raised. It was as if our views did not count and the decision to close our local branches had already been taken. I am sure colleagues have had the same experience. We raised the matter with John Rattle, head of external relations at Post Office Ltd, who stated in an e-mail:

I have asked for documentary evidence from Post Office Ltd to show that my submission was taken into account. No such evidence has been forthcoming. I do not believe that any exists.

My office and I pay tribute to Gary Hepburn, south and west regional manager for Postwatch for his hard work on the current and previous closure plans. When we contacted Postwatch, Mr. Hepburn wrote:

Mr. Hepburn says that Postwatch does not receive all correspondence, in spite of what Mr. Rattle says. Mr. Hepburn reported:

Furthermore, it appears that petitions count as only one response. Postwatch stated:

19 Mar 2008 : Column 994

so not only does Postwatch not see all the responses, but it is not made aware just how strongly people feel. For example, surely if 3,000 constituents sign a petition saying that a branch should remain open because of poor transport links, it should be recorded that 3,000 people, and not just one, raised the issue.

When we raised a specific matter about the bus service in Ventnor, Post Office Ltd allegedly said it was not responsible for the buses. I accept that, of course, but surely adequate public transport provision must be taken into account by Post Office Ltd. I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has revealed how Post Office Ltd seems uninterested in public demand. Does he agree that this mass closure, which will perhaps reduce the number of post offices to 4,500, is driven more by the requirement to satisfy the needs of Post Office Ltd than by the requirement to satisfy the needs of local communities?

Mr. Turner: I do. It is not the numbers that matter, but the cost. The company does not seem to consider that. It seems to be looking at pure numbers, for the Government.

If responses are not properly taken into consideration and a decision has already been made to close 2,500 branches, including Lowtherville, Calbourne, Meadow Road and Hunnyhill on the Isle of Wight, the consultation process is a shambles.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): On the previous consultations, is the hon. Gentleman surprised to hear that in 98 per cent. of cases the process was a sham and the Post Office went ahead with closure? In only 2 per cent. of cases did it listen to the community.

Mr. Turner: I recognise that, but I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has only just come into the Chamber; I had not realised that.

Richard Younger-Ross: That is not true.

Mr. Turner: Not true?

Richard Younger-Ross rose—

Mr. Turner: I come to my second point. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister confirmed that only 7,500 branches are required to meet the minimum access criteria. We are told that after the network change programme, there will be a network of about 11,500 branches. What assurance can the Minister give to people on the Isle of Wight that in two or three years’ time we will not be going through exactly the same process again? It would still be possible to meet the access criteria of 4,000 fewer branches, so when should we expect further closures?

My third point is about profitability. I asked Post Office Ltd whether any profitable branch had been closed under the current closure programme. In a letter to me, Alan Cook, the managing director of Post Office Ltd, wrote:

19 Mar 2008 : Column 995

If branches are not closed because of lack of profitability—if so, I am glad—will the Minister tell us how they are selected for closure? That is not at all clear. Earlier in the letter, Mr. Cook also wrote:

Taxpayers’ money is being used to close what are effectively private businesses. Can the Minister clarify whether any have closed, and if so why?

On the whole closure issue, Post Office Ltd says that it is working to the Government’s agenda, but then the Government say that decisions are an operational matter for Post Office Ltd. Surely someone is ultimately responsible. I should be grateful if the Minister told us who.

4.13 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Consultations have not yet started in my constituency, just as they have not in that of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). As the area plan is drawn together, the local authority will no doubt be contacted to give its view. I have already started to contact my local authority and the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in my constituency to ask for their views.

I am writing to the chief executive of the local authority because I want to be sure that he has taken the geographical aspects of my constituency into consideration when he writes to Post Office Ltd to give it information on the area plan.

The Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was directed to consider the new post office plan because in previous inquiries, such as that into the urban regeneration programme, our attention had been drawn to the fact that financial losses and haphazard closures were resulting in a run-down of the sub-post office network in an unplanned way that could be greatly to its detriment. Consequently, our report of 7 February concentrated on those areas and, in particular, the consultation process. In paragraph 7, we refer to the complexities of the network and say that in answer to a parliamentary question about what size the network would need to be in order to meet the national criteria, the Government replied that just 7,500 post offices would suffice. We came to the view that it was not satisfactory to accept that the network should continue to shrink haphazardly and drift towards that figure, and that Post Office Ltd. should be obliged to use its best endeavours to keep the network at the figure of 11,500 that has been worked to.

In citing that figure, I must also draw the House’s attention to a figure that Post Office Ltd used during the inquiry when it said that there could be as many as 12,000 post offices plus 500 outreach post offices. The eventual figure could therefore be anywhere between 11,500 and 12,200; perhaps the Minister will comment on that when he winds up. In any event, whether there are to be 12,200 post offices plus 500 outreach post offices or 11,500 post offices, there is no doubt that the network will require a great deal of support.

19 Mar 2008 : Column 996

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman’s account of the Select Committee’s inquiry. Did it consider options other than closure to maintain the 11,000 post office branches at a profitable level, such as finding cheaper ways of delivering some of the services that are delivered manually over the counter or alternative revenue-raising opportunities for existing branches? If so, what conclusion did it reach?

Mr. Clapham: We were focusing purely on the network change programme, although we moved into other areas in considering how the Post Office may well be better prepared for the future.

During the inquiry we raised four major concerns, which are listed at the front of the report. We say that the six week consultation process was not sufficient. We go on to say that the merger between Postwatch and the consumer council may bring some disruption. We also said:

That is one of the things referred to by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose)—how the Post Office may help to stimulate a more appropriate approach to the consumer in sub-post offices. Fourthly, we made a point about how the post office network should be sustained in future.

When we considered our first point, we were rather surprised about the lack of transparency in the consultation process. The process begins with an 11-week consultation, which draws up an area plan working with Postwatch—the necessary operating plan within that area. It is not until the 11th week that the local MP is approached, and between those times there is no contact or engagement with the community. We thought that that process needed to be changed.

Mr. Weir: Is the situation not slightly worse? As part of the evidence, we discovered that, on occasion, where a post office was scheduled for closure, and there had been a discussion about transferring business to another branch, business details were not shared between the two postmasters. The receiving branch did not know the closing branch’s information, and vice versa. That seems a bizarre way of going about the consolidation of post offices.

Mr. Clapham: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and he raises an important aspect. Because of the opaqueness, there is no connection between the post offices that will be affected by the process. The situation must be clarified.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clapham: I have taken my two interventions. The clock is moving on and many others want to speak in the debate.

In the 11th week, the MP gets involved to ensure that details drawn up in the 11-week period are made available to the public during the six-week public consultation so that the rationale behind a sub-post office being identified for closure is known. We can then properly advance
19 Mar 2008 : Column 997
arguments for its retention. There is a need for change in the consultation process. The Minister may want to refer to this matter later: the appeals procedure is run through Postcomm, but neither the MP nor the local authority has the input that I believe they should have in that procedure. The MP should, for example, be able to get involved in the appeals procedure by making a submission.

On the merger involving Postwatch, the thing to remember is that Postwatch has played an important role. When we met the general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, Mr. Thomson, he paid tribute to the way in which Postwatch had played its part. We looked at other areas of the country, and in Glasgow, for example, we found that 24 per cent. of the post offices identified were changed as a result of Postwatch’s input. Postwatch is an important part of the process. We must be aware of whether it will be able to retain its robustness if it is merged with the Consumer Council. If it loses its robustness it could disrupt the process that we want.

We have heard that some aspects of sub-post offices’ business could be developed. We believe that Post Office Ltd could play a more important part in supporting postmasters who want to be more entrepreneurial.

We were concerned about whether the network could be sustained. If it is reduced to 12,200 with 500 outreach post offices or to 11,500, it will still need the Government’s commitment of £1.7 billion until 2011. That is an enormous amount for sustaining the post office network. We must also be aware that there will be closures over which neither the Government nor Post Office Ltd have control. If a postmaster wants to retire, the post office could close if no alternative venue is found for it. Even though we believe that a minimum of 11,500 post offices, supported by the money that the Government have contributed, could be sustainable, there will still be fragility around the edges. We must be aware of that—I know that the Minister is.

The money that the Government are making available will make the network sustainable. The Opposition did not say whether they would make the same sort of commitment after 2011. They should be prepared to comment on that. Are they prepared to match the Government’s commitment to ensure the continuity of the network?

The suspension for which the motion calls would merely delay the inevitable, caused by the change in market behaviour, which has been detrimental to the post office service. If we are to stop the haphazard and unplanned run-down, we need the sort of plan that the Government have proposed. When hon. Members decide how to vote, I hope that they will vote to ensure a sustainable post office network. That means supporting the Government’s plan.

4.27 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), although his view of Postwatch as a robust organisation does not reflect my experience. Several hon. Members spoke to Postwatch about closures in London, and it seemed to lie on its back and wait to be tickled by the Post Office. It appeared simply to accept everything.

19 Mar 2008 : Column 998

I shall be brief because I am aware of the number of Members who want to speak. We are considering a highly emotive subject. In my constituency and those of many hon. Friends and colleagues, it causes as much concern as any other local matter in recent times. Two post offices in my constituency are down for closure. My constituency is small, so that is a high number and I know both post offices well. Without going too far into individual merits—we could all do that—I will make a robust response to the consultation about Moorfield Road and Uxbridge Common Park Road post offices because they are as much a part of the community as the post offices in hon. Friends’ rural communities. In suburbia, a parade of shops is exactly like village shops. Moorfield road is on a council estate and the post office is a vital part of the community. Masses of people have written to me about it. I agree that it is not good enough just to get a petition going and to try to make what we can out of the situation. I want to be pragmatic. I want to ensure that my constituents still get what they want.

In Uxbridge, we have had the experience of a Crown post office being moved into a branch of WH Smith—the experience has been shared elsewhere—although the move has not happened yet. We had a consultation period, during which I and members of the public raised serious concerns—the move is to the first floor, and we were worried about disabled access—and we received assurances. The post office will open next month and we will be watching it very carefully. However, the important thing is that those services will still be available. I hope that the post office will give the same service, if not a better one.

I want to speak as a retailer. As many hon. Members know, my family business has been in operation for a long time, and we have had to deal with changing patterns of what people want in the way of services. Anyone who has been in business for 120 years has to adapt. I therefore accept that things have changed and that that has not been all for the bad. Earlier we talked about eBay, for example, which has meant a lot of people wanting to post things that they are selling on.

A few years ago, we started selling stamps in my shop, when the Post Office allowed us to. They proved so popular that people started arriving with parcels that they wanted us to send, but of course we could not do so, because we are allowed only to sell first and second-class stamps, which is fine. However, I thought it would be a good idea to open a sub-post office in my shop. I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, so I was not thinking entirely of the community; I was thinking of business considerations. My shop is big enough, and a sub-post office would have brought lots of people in. However, I was told that I would not be able to have one. What amazed me, however, was that I would have been paid to have one. At that stage, I thought that I would have pay to get the franchise and have that excellent brand—the Post Office—in my shop.

I understand that it is important for a sub-post office to exist in some communities, but that that might not be economical. However, I cannot help feeling that the Post Office has certain services to offer.

Next Section Index Home Page