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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Would the hon. Gentleman be surprised to find that, like many other hon. Members whose constituencies
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face closures, I visited every sub-post office in my constituency in the 11-week period? In virtually every sub-post office I found substantial openness to modernisation and entrepreneurial flair, but from talking to Post Office management at the regional level, I found a gap between wishing the Post Office to succeed and having the vision and creativity to plot a way forward that can save the 11,500 post offices that were mentioned earlier. I am not confident that the management have that vision.

Mr. Randall: I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. It is a great shame and a disgrace that those entrepreneurs are not being allowed to provide the services that they want to provide and that they know their customers want. We are getting a flavour of that from, for example, the talk about the one-for-one closures—I add my name to those who have talked about it. It was less than two weeks ago that I was told about that by the Post Office. If I managed to stop one closure in my constituency, that would be one thing—the Post Office would probably try to find another post office—but actually that did not matter, because there could be another one or even five post offices in London, and then the Post Office would come looking around in Hillingdon. The situation is ridiculous.

Mr. Scott: Does my hon. Friend agree with me about the flawed consultation? When I met the Post Office to discuss the three closures proposed in my constituency, it did not even know that one post office had been closed 100 yd away, in the neighbouring constituency of Epping Forest, because it was not in London. No thought has gone into the process whatever.

Mr. Randall: I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. We have been hearing repeatedly this afternoon that the consultation is flawed. That is a point that the Minister must go away with. If one thing is to make the whole process a mockery, it is when the examples that my hon. Friend has come up with are proven to be true. I question whether the Post Office knew this or that thing about this or that post office—frankly, I do not think it did know.

Justine Greening: Another example would be the Lower Richmond Road post office, which is threatened with closure. Post Office management were apparently totally unaware that the Putney hospital site, which is now derelict, was about to be redeveloped as a primary care centre.

Mr. Randall: The fact is that these sub-post offices provide something that we all agree is unique and very special. People want them, but some management team comes in and starts to close them completely randomly. This is being done because there are too many in an area; it has nothing to do with which is the most profitable. It is hard to imagine the representative of a chain of retail stores saying, “We’ll close this one and that one because they are making a loss. Those two are making a profit, but it doesn’t matter. We’ll close one of them anyway.” Those involved are not even bothering to look at this.

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John Hemming: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Randall: No, I must keep going. The hon. Gentleman can have his own turn later if he manages to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I understand the visceral hatred that Labour Members feel when asked to vote for a Conservative proposal. I also understand that they are trying to find a good reason not to vote for this motion, which is why this has become about a suspension. We have heard some excellent ideas today, including the one suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). We should now go back to the Post Office to say, “Don’t close anything. These are the ideas that have been put forward. Let’s think about them.” As soon as I heard about the Essex county council initiative, I phoned up the leader of the London borough of Hillingdon, Ray Puddifoot, and he said that he would look into it.

I am not sure whether the Post Office actually wants to be helpful with these initiatives from local authorities. When I asked a Post Office representative how much each post office would cost, the first figure I was given was £20,000; then I was told that it could be more. I asked whether it might double to £40,000, I was told that that would about cover it—maybe. I am not sure that the Post Office wants local authorities to succeed in these initiatives. That is what upsets me, and that is why I am making a plea to Labour Members, many of whom are as upset about these closures as we are, to put aside their hatred of voting for anything proposed by the Conservatives just this once. Many of them have signed early-day motions. It is now time for us, the House of Commons, to say to the Post Office, “Stop! Let’s look at how we can save these post offices. Don’t just contract your business. If you keep selling everything off, it will just get smaller and smaller. Why not be adventurous? Why not be entrepreneurial? Why not try to expand the network?” That is the message that we should be sending.

4.37 pm

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): There is a kind of wake going on in Hastings and Rye this week, because three of our post offices have closed. There is still hope, however, because resuscitation work is going on in respect of the Old Town post office, and I hope that common sense will prevail. Having said that, I can tell the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) that I shall not be voting for the Conservative motion today, because it does not provide a solution.

The Labour Government have given more stability to the network than anything that went before— [ Laughter. ] Yes, more stability than anything that went before.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman have any confidence, as I do in relation to Staffordshire, that the Essex solution is pointing somewhat in the right direction? Does he feel that it is possible to have some element of constructive engagement on that subject?

Michael Jabez Foster: Yes, I do believe that there might be alternatives. Indeed, there might be other methodologies that could save some of the post offices
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that are now under threat. The Essex option—and perhaps an East Sussex option—could play that part. However, all such options would require funding.

The fact is that it is this Labour Government who have provided record funding for Post Office services— £150 million, as we have already heard, on a regular and ongoing basis for subsidising social need and £1.7 billion over the five-year period. Despite what has been said today, I am still unsure whether the Conservative Opposition are pledging that amount of money. What I am sure about is that they are not pledging anything more than that, but more will certainly be required if we are to support the sort of motion that the Conservatives have proposed today. They say no closures should happen, but some post offices will still have to close. I am not cherry-picking here and saying that our post offices should not close while everyone else’s should, but it is surely a fact that some post offices will be unviable. That must be the case. Suggesting, as the Conservative motion does, that there should be no closures at all is unrealistic and therefore purposeless. For that reason, I will not support it.

Having said that, I do not believe that the present consultation or the closure programme have been right. I want to impress on the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs that other things could have happened and I certainly want the next round of considerations to be dealt with very differently.

The first thing to establish is Conservative policy. It appeared—I say “appeared”, but I am not sure what tense I should be using—to be that only profitable post offices should be retained. In and of itself, however, that is faulty. If we simply maintain profitable post offices, 4,000 or thereabouts will remain throughout the country, but they will all be in urban areas, able to compete alongside each other while still making profits, but at the expense of other more socially deprived areas. That does not amount to a comprehensive universal service across the nation. For that reason, the premise must be wrong.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s point. Does he agree that we have to fight for a sustainable post office network, but that what we should not do is give out false information about post offices when they may not be closing? Mr. Suppiah Suren of the Kensal Rise post office said:

which resulted in his losing 15 to 20 per cent. of his business. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to work together in a sensible manner to ensure that we have a sustainable network?

Michael Jabez Foster: I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the sort of vintage hypocrisy that we hear on the Opposition Benches, which is certainly not the way to make progress on what we all believe is an important part of our British way of life. We will not be enticed to support the Tories’ gesturing until they are prepared to come up with the bucks to make it possible. At the moment, that does not seem to be likely. The Tories’ banners and petitions do not impress me and will certainly not get me to support their motion this evening. We recognise that modern lifestyles and technology
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mean that things will change. That is inevitable. I will not deal with the Lib Dem propositions, mainly because to do so would be a waste of valuable time, but in any event, it is not yet bedtime so it is inappropriate to listen to their “happily ever after” stories.

The reality is that the post office network has to change, but how? That is where I would like to embolden the Minister to take a more robust view of what should happen. Some time ago, I spoke about post offices in my own constituency in an Adjournment debate and had discovered that the Post Office was being subsidised to the tune of £18,000 for each loss-making outlet. That is an amazing sum of money, which had never been available before. It seemed to me then that it would not be necessary to close very many post offices, so I think the Government have been rather unambitious in respect of that 2,500 figure. I know that they often say “up to” that number of closures, but it has been used as the number that the Post Office has taken as necessary.

Mr. Randall: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he think it is good business practice to close down a profitable business?

Michael Jabez Foster: Of course not, and if it is wholly profitable, that is great, but it should not be subsidised. The issue I want to come on to is what counts as profitable. What is the proper definition of “profitable”? This is where I want to encourage the Minister to look further into the facts. In connection with the Adjournment debate that I mentioned, I looked into exactly how much it cost to run some local branches in my constituency.

The Post Office was happy about handing me the figures until I decided to use them, but as I had not received them in confidence, I was able to share them with everyone. I was told that the post office in Tilling Green, Rye, was costing £18,000 a year to run at postmaster or local branch level, but that the on-cost or central cost—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister still thinks I have not understood the position, but I think I have—was £24,000. In other words, it was costing £18,000 to run the show and £24,000 to support it.

Then I began to look at the other figures, and I thought “How can this be? I know that this is not McDonald’s or Pizza Hut and that the expertise at its centre is somewhat greater than it is in enterprises of that kind, but £24,000 to support an £18,000 outlet? It just cannot work like that.” I wanted to know precisely what central costs were making a profitable outlet unprofitable, so I asked a parliamentary question about it. I am going to press my hon. Friend the Minister a little further in the hope that he can help me now.

At the beginning of February, I asked how the figures were made up. Being not entirely sure of the answer, my hon. Friend the Minister rightly said that he would ask the Post Office. A month later I asked when I would know the answer, and my hon. Friend asked the Post Office again. My question has still not been answered. Does the Post Office actually know how much it is costing to run the central administration? I do not think it does.

I want to embolden my hon. Friend. I think he has done great in ensuring that the right subsidies have been placed at the disposal of Post Office. The Labour
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Government have made it possible for the Post Office to maintain a network that it would not otherwise have been able to maintain. I do not know whether the Post Office’s management are incompetent, and I will not accuse them of incompetence until I do know, but I cannot know that until I know how the central costs are made up and whether enterprises such as this are profitable or unprofitable.

I ask my hon. Friend now to insist that the Post Office give the information. It is owned by us. We are the shareholders, and we demand to know how its costs are made up so that we can determine whether the closures that are planned at present, and will be planned in future, are necessary. The Government are very bold in the main, but were they bold enough when they allowed the Post Office to consider as many as 2,500 closures? My guess is that it need not have gone as far as that. Certainly it will not need to go as far as that if we can do something about the amount that is apparently being spent by Post Office Ltd, perhaps through incompetence and perhaps not. In any event, the matter needs further investigation.

4.47 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am delighted to have been called. I am particularly delighted to follow the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster), and perhaps to represent the voice of sanity at the other end of Sussex, where we stand up for our post offices and for our constituents. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that he will not have “done great” himself this evening unless he supports the motion tabled by members of my party.

It is extraordinary that the focus of the Liberal Democrats’ attack today has been not on the Government or their closure programme, but on the Conservatives. The same happened in my constituency when we were fighting for our post offices: the Liberal Democrats’ attack was entirely based on what the Conservatives were doing, which was standing up for the post offices. It is the Liberal Democrats who are merely playing politics, and who have the audacity to claim otherwise.

I think I should declare an interest. I am pleased to speak soon after the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), because earlier this week I was told by someone investigating my family tree that one of my ancestors, Joseph Loughton, and his father-in-law Ebenezer Easting ran a sub-post office in North Somercotes near Hull, just outside the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, in 1892. Perhaps a more relevant interest for me to declare, however, is that my constituency contains the headquarters of the National Federation of SubPostmasters. I must say in response to what has been said by the Secretary of State and other Members that there is considerable disquiet among many sub-postmasters about the way in which they are represented by that organisation, which appears to have caved in and almost taken the Government’s shilling in going along with the exercise. The new general secretary has certainly not been as robust in standing up for the future of our sub-postmasters as his predecessor, who lived in my constituency. He lives in Scotland, and comes down to Sussex every week.

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On 17 December, I spoke at length on post office closures in Adur and Worthing. I was able to go on for 63 minutes, because of the collapse of business. The Minister responded to that debate and, despite three interventions from me, failed to mention the subject of post offices in Adur and Worthing. I hope that he will have another stab today, because in my constituency we are not losing one, two or three sub-post offices but seven—more than anywhere else in Sussex. It is not 18 per cent. of the sub-post office network—the average across the country—that will be going but 50 per cent. of my sub-post office branches. Mine is a predominantly urban constituency with a high pensioner population— 4.6 per cent. of Worthing’s population is over 85, which is the highest percentage in the country—and those people rely disproportionately on the post office network. However, they must now travel to the few remaining crowded and overworked branches.

In Lancing and Sompting in my constituency, the post offices are all to be closed, with the exception of the Crown post office, which has to provide a service for 28,000 people, although it is already struggling to deal with its increased business. The impact of the closure programme is not about nimbyism but about unfairness and unsustainability. Despite the petition signed by 6,200 people that I presented in the House, the hundreds of letters, the marches and public meetings, and the consultation exercise, which ended on Christmas eve and was truncated to six weeks, we got absolutely nowhere. On 29 January, it was confirmed that every single one of those seven branches would close. At the same time, MPs were invited by the Post Office to inspect the new state-of-the-art outreach mobile post offices, but we will not have any of those post offices in my constituency or elsewhere in Sussex. At the same time, our constituents have been serenaded with adverts for a new Christmas club, which is available at 14,000 post offices branches, if they can find one. At the same time, we have seen the multi-million pound rebranding exercise for “The People’s Post Office”. If that is how the Post Office thinks it will earn that title, it deserves all the criticism that is coming to it.

I have never dealt with a more duplicitous, bullying, self-serving, incompetent, arrogant and out-of-touch public body than the Post Office proved itself in the consultation. I do not use those terms lightly, and I am happy to justify my claims. You will judge, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Post Office is off my Christmas card list, although those cards would probably only get lost in the post in any case. It is duplicitous, because it has proved itself a willing henchman following the Government edict that set in train the latest closure programme of 2,500 branches, based on spurious, ill-conceived and self-destructive criteria. Its duplicity is exceeded only by the actions of Government Ministers and Labour Back Benchers, who are happy to pose for the cameras in front of post office branches in their constituencies, pleading a special case for keeping those branches open.

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