Previous Section Index Home Page

Will the Minister confirm this whole question whether the Government told the Post Office that it had to close up to 2,500 branches; or does the Post Office really have to close 2,500 branches? That is a serious question that has not been answered. Let us not forget that the closures of those 2,500 branches, in contrast with what happened under previous Governments, are compulsory.
19 Mar 2008 : Column 1005
They are not voluntary—they are compulsory closures. The Government and the Post Office are duplicitous in saying that they have to close those branches because business has reduced. That has happened because the way the Government have instructed the Post Office has taken business away from post offices, following changes to the payment of pensions, the post office card account, about which the Government have dithered, and the changes to car tax discs and television licences. They are bullies, because they have virtually blackmailed sub-postmasters into accepting compensation terms at the outset, otherwise they may end up getting nothing at all. Those postmasters have, under this Government, already lost retirement tax relief, which was often based on their business. Their life savings are based on those businesses, and they cannot afford to lose that compensation if their business closes. They have been sworn to secrecy and scared out of lobbying to keep their post offices open, and, as we have heard, the compensation is linked to their not providing any competing services for at least a year: no lottery tickets, no foreign currency, no accepting payment for utilities. How is that acting in the interests of the people, rather than of the post office network, which is supposed to be there for the people? As every Member has said, the consultation was a complete and utter sham.

On the county council negotiations, I pay tribute to Essex, which has led the way, and my own West Sussex county council is currently trying to negotiate with the Post Office. I say “trying” because the Post Office is being very tardy in producing information that will allow the negotiations to go forward. All the while branches are closing down, however, and the equipment will be taken out of them, and it will be very hard to get them back up and running again if there is an eventual deal. The Post Office is clearly dragging its feet and not producing the necessary facts and figures, despite the Minister’s warm words that he wishes to encourage such negotiations. Will the Government support a moratorium on closures while negotiations go forward? That is a crucial question.

I also accused the Post Office of being self-serving. It is supposed to be a community service. Its services are located within shops that are the heart of our communities, but there has been a complete lack of transparency in the consultation and closure programme. We just do not know which are the unprofitable branches, how unprofitable they are, or how much money it would take to make them profitable. Sub-postmasters have offered to take cuts in their remuneration, but, again, they have been completely rebuffed. The reasons for this lack of information on closing branches and for the Post Office dragging its feet on negotiations with other providers are that it is interested only in maximising the profitability of its remaining branches and it wants to get rid of the rest of the competition. Profits before people and public service is the hallmark of the whole enterprise.

The Post Office is incompetent because many of the facts in the consultation documents were full of holes. In the response to the consultation, in respect of one of my branches, there was a reference to the problems of crossing busy roads such as the A27. However, the A27 runs nowhere near that branch—but that was in the “facts” the Post Office used to justify the closure of that branch. When it was notified of the branch closures, one of the Worthing branches was described as being in
19 Mar 2008 : Column 1006
East Sussex, but it is in West Sussex—and that from an organisation that specialises in addresses. That is completely bizarre. The response to this consultation was a total sham. In only a few lines, the future of our community post offices, the livelihoods of sub-postmasters who have dedicated themselves for many years, and the hopes of hundreds of thousands of pensioners who rely on them, were dashed without any come-back at all.

Serious question marks hang over all the access criteria as well. People are supposed to be within a mile of alternative post offices. That is all very well for a crow who lives in the post office that will be closed down, but many people live a mile the other way from the post office that will be closed down, so that could mean a two-mile trip, as the crow flies. Those criteria are also full of holes.

The consultation also ignores deprivation figures. During the consultation in Sussex, the new deprivation figures came out and they showed that my councils had slipped further down the deprivation league and that they now ranked above average for deprivation. All such factors were ignored.

The Post Office is arrogant, too. It seems to believe, with the connivance of the Government, that it should be above the scrutiny of Parliament and the parliamentary process on behalf of the people. All the claims are about the survival of the post office network. It has stuck two fingers up at pensioners, local businesses, the communities of which many post offices form the heart, environmental considerations, councils, councillors and Members of Parliament—yet it has the temerity to call itself the people’s Post Office.

This whole consultation has been about blackmail and bullying. If we give in now, that will be a form of appeasement, and in a few years the Post Office will come back and say, “We need to close yet more branches in order to make the network sustainable.” It is not on, and it is not fair, and we should continue to object in the fiercest terms.

4.59 pm

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the impassioned plea by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I share some of his frustration about how this process has been handled. Even Labour Members who support the Government think that it is fair to say that the consultation process has been less than transparent, and at times shambolic. The data that have been used do not bear scrutiny.

I gave careful consideration to the motion that stands in the name of the leader of the Conservative party—after all, like all hon. Members, I am a supporter of the post office network—but I do not believe that there are market solutions to every problem and I support the use of public subsidy to sustain the network for social reasons. Although it is not particularly fashionable in new Labour circles, I also believe in state intervention to create trade for the network. That is why I would have tried a lot harder to keep many services, such as dealing with TV licences and some benefits collection, within the Post Office’s purview. I believe that because I do not think that post offices are just about providing vital community services; I think that they are an embodiment of civil society at the heart of our communities, and we need to intervene to ensure that they have a future.

19 Mar 2008 : Column 1007

Of course none of that philosophy sits easily with the Conservative party and its policy of laissez-faire economics, which would allow unprofitable businesses simply to go to the wall. I was looking for some merit when I scanned the Tory motion, but I found it not only wanting but profoundly hypocritical. It was hypocritical because the Conservative party would put no extra money on the table to sustain the network—that fact was drawn out in earlier exchanges that other hon. Members and I had with the shadow spokesman.

In fact, the Conservative approach is worse, because the shadow spokesman failed even to match the Government’s commitment to provide the £1.7 billion in subsidy and investment pledged to the post office network up to 2011. Not only is the motion hypocritical, but it is incoherent. The shadow spokesman started well but ended badly. Although he accepts that in this changing world, where an increase in online transactions has undoubtedly impacted on the Post Office’s business, the network would shrink, he failed to tell the House what level of shrinkage would be acceptable to him.

Mr. Andy Reed: As my hon. Friend knows, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) said during those earlier exchanges that he would look at the same number of closures. Many Labour Members have examined the Conservatives’ position and feel, like my hon. Friend, that it offers nothing new. It is a disgrace to suggest that it contains something new. The Conservatives would provide no new money, they are making no further promises and their approach is disingenuous to constituents, whose hopes may have been raised.

Martin Salter: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The Conservatives’ position gets far worse, but that will have to wait until I tease out aspects of the James review later in my contribution.

I found the attitude of the Conservatives’ motion not only hypocritical and incoherent, but profoundly cynical and dishonest. How can they will the ends but not provide the means? How can they accept that closures are inevitable, but fail to put a number on how many branches should close? Let us also bear a history lesson in mind. Some 3,500 post offices closed under the previous Conservative Administration and, to my certain knowledge, Tory MPs in Berkshire campaigned to defend their local post offices at that time, so how can they criticise Labour and Liberal MPs for wanting to do precisely the same thing? That does not add up.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Martin Salter: No. Before I criticise the further irresponsible tactics of the Opposition on this issue, may I just say how much I appreciated the thoughtful suggestions made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and other hon. Members as to how the post office network could be better organised? I hope that rather than defending the barricade in this debate, Ministers will take on board some of the suggestions that have come from all parts of the House.

On profitability, we know that only 4,000 of the 14,000 post offices can survive without some form of annual subsidy and that annual subsidy is running at
19 Mar 2008 : Column 1008
about £159 million a year. We know that the size of the network is likely to shrink, and that shrinkage has been reluctantly supported by the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which the Conservatives pray in aid from time to time. We also know that 3,500 post offices have closed under previous Administrations, when not a penny piece of subsidy was provided to support the network.

No one should support the Tory motion, because there is no hiding place for their arguments while they remain light on policy and financially free in their commitments. There is not a Tory MP who was not elected on the pledge to cut public expenditure in line with the James review. Only this week, we read that James is alive and well. I note that it was claimed on 17 March:

Said a Tory source:

Not only are the Tories failing to match the existing commitment, but there is a very real prospect that budgets will be slashed still further.

Ms Butler: Does my hon. Friend agree with Billy Hayes, the CWU general secretary, who says that we should not forget that the Conservatives tried to privatise the Post Office in 1994 and that the Lib Dems are now committed to selling off 50 per cent.? He also says that the Lib Dems are a right-wing party that will say leftist things in pursuit of a vote.

Martin Salter: I am aware of the battle royal in Brent between the political parties, and I could never be as horrible to the Lib Dems as my hon. Friend is, but I certainly acknowledge that they will say one thing in one place and something else in another.

In Reading, West, we went through an especially tough time in 2004 with the network reinvention programme. Other hon. Members will also bear the scars of that time. In my constituency, we faced the proposed closure of branches in Lyon square, Whitley Wood, Beecham road and the Meadway—all areas of west Reading. But with the strong support of Postwatch and the engagement of the local community, and by focusing on two of the four branches that were clearly pushing at the envelope of the published criteria, we were able to achieve at least one success: we were able to stop the closure of the Whitley Wood branch in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency. While I was not happy to see three post offices close, I accepted that at least the process had some integrity.

That was in 2004. Let us fast forward to 2008. One of the arguments that allowed the Post Office to go ahead with the closure of the Meadway branch—I realise that the names will mean little to other hon. Members—was the fact that there was another branch within one mile, in Wantage road, also in my constituency, and we had to accept that argument. How surprised was I to find,
19 Mar 2008 : Column 1009
in 2008, that as part of the current programme the Wantage Road branch was scheduled for closure, along with a branch at Lower Tilehurst in Kentwood Hill. Like any good constituency MP, I sprang into action. We have all done it, and other hon. Members will do it when it happens in their constituencies. I raised the petitions, lobbied Postwatch and tested the proposals against the criteria. Once again, I thought we had a case on at least one of the branches.

Let this be a warning to everybody engaged in this process. I wrote to the regional chair of Postwatch, having measured the distances, considered the deprivation indices, and examined the promises that had been made before about additional counters to deal with queuing as a result of the previous closures in 2004. I wrote:

that deprived estate in my constituency—

In addition, it was proposed that a post office at the bottom of an extremely steep hill with an intermittent bus service would be closed. The replacement post office was already overcrowded, with many pensioners queuing out into the street. We had been promised additional counters in 2004, but they did not appear—certainly not as regularly as we wanted.

We challenged the fact that no account had been taken of additional housing that was being built in the local community, with another 400 new chimney pots coming on stream—another 400 potential customers. I believe that we had put together a strong and powerful argument and I was confident, as I was in 2004, that we could deliver—or save—at least one of those post offices.

Our consultation closed on 31 January. There were reasons to be cheerful on 15 February, because the letter arrived from Postwatch. In my view, it could not have been clearer. It said: “Postwatch has very serious reservations about the consequences of the closure of the Wantage Road post office. We have received numerous concerns from customers and the local MP”—that is me—“with particular reference to Postwatch’s responsibility”—this is important—“for vulnerable individuals and communities. We ask Post Office Ltd to reconsider this closure proposal, affecting as it does a relatively deprived area characterised by low incomes, high unemployment and a high proportion of social and special needs housing.” We had it in black and white. It was not unreasonable to assume that that would be taken to review and that we had a good chance of saving that post office.

The reviews were then announced, and it turned out that Postwatch did not mean what it said. Although it expressed serious reservations and had asked for reconsideration, it had failed to trigger the formal process. The lesson for hon. Members is that if they get Postwatch on their side—and they need to—they should please make sure that it means what it says. Weasel words alone will not save a branch in any of our constituencies.

19 Mar 2008 : Column 1010

Finally, throughout the process the local Liberals remained silent. We do not have too many of them in west Reading, so there was no danger of their colonising the issue. The local Conservatives were noisy but spectacularly irrelevant. As I said earlier, my opposite number, the Tory candidate, launched a campaign a month before the publication of the closure programme to save three branches in Southcote, Purley and Hildens drive that were never at risk and were never going to be at risk. Yet he and his campaign failed even to lodge an objection with Postwatch or to engage in the campaign to help those branches that were earmarked for closure. This is the sort of irresponsible behaviour that has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), and means that local people, pensioners and disabled people who rely on their post office to provide vital services end up frightened and distressed.

Scaremongering and unnecessarily frightening pensioners in my constituency is no substitute for good, honest campaigning. The dishonesty, incoherence and hypocrisy in the Conservative motion are no substitute for honest politics and there is no case for going into the Lobby tonight for the Conservative party.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I judge that on such an occasion it might be more important for hon. Members to be able to get something on the record rather than to have the full 12 minutes, so I propose with immediate effect to reduce the time limit to seven minutes. I hope that on that basis we should nearly get there.

5.14 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The Government’s post office closure programme is a complete muddle. There is simply no logic in the choice of post offices to be axed, as an example from my constituency shows.

Mine is a large rural constituency in the highlands and islands, but the Post Office decided to lump Argyll and Bute in with the Greater Glasgow area in its closure programme. I could not understand the logic of that at all. Originally, seven offices in my constituency were proposed for closure. That was bad enough, but it could have been worse and the customers of the other offices breathed sighs of relief.

However, their relief was premature: as part of the consultation process, the Post Office decided to spare four offices elsewhere in the Greater Glasgow area. They all happened to be in Labour-held marginal constituencies—something that, if it happened by chance, was a remarkable coincidence.

Those reprieves in Labour marginals meant that an extra four post offices were proposed for closure in a further so-called consultation process. One was the office serving the village of Clynder in my constituency. We still do not know the outcome of the further consultation, but the Clynder office is a typical village post office. The hub of the local community, it is in the same building as the village’s only shop. Closing it is therefore bound to have an effect on the shop’s business, so there are sound economic reasons for keeping it open.

Next Section Index Home Page