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19 Mar 2008 : Column 1011

If the Clynder post office closes, it will—like all such closures—be to the detriment of village life. I simply do not understand why that office must be closed in order to spare an urban post office in a completely different environment. If the four post offices in Greater Glasgow that were originally considered eligible to be saved deserve it, that is fine and they should be saved. However, the Clynder office—which only last October was deemed worthy of staying open—should not be closed simply as a means to achieve the Government’s artificial target of 2,500 closures.

The postmaster at Clynder, Douglas Nicolson, has given 40 years of loyal service to the local community. He is a source of help and advice to all his customers. Such benefits cannot be measured in profit-and-loss terms, and I hope that the Post Office will relent and save the office at Clynder.

Although some post offices in my constituency are facing the axe, that does not mean that the others can relax. There is concern about the long-term viability of all the ones that have escaped the axe, especially those in small communities. For example, the post office in the small village of St. Catherines in my constituency suddenly shut its doors a few weeks ago. I contacted the Post Office and was assured that it is actively seeking someone to take over the business, but several other offices in the highlands and islands have been in a similar position for a long time. I am therefore very concerned that the St. Catherines office may never be reopened and that, gradually and over time, many other post offices in small communities in my constituency may also close.

The problem is that the Government must ensure that post offices are given enough business and support to remain viable. I hope that Ministers will provide an assurance at the end of today’s debate that the offices that have escaped the axe in the current closure programme will have a secure future in the long term.

In that respect, the successor to the Post Office card account is vital to the future of our post offices. The Government must ensure that the Post Office retains the contract when the current one expires in two years’ time. Only the Post Office has the rural network needed to deliver the contract, and there must be no repeat of the TV licence fiasco. Then, the contract was taken away from the Post Office and given to PayPoint, a company that does not have a rural network that can match the Post Office’s. For example, several islands in my constituency have a post office but no PayPoint outlet, with the result that TV viewers there cannot renew their licences over the counter.

The future of the Post Office card account is a vital issue, but POCA must be given more facilities. It should be developed into a basic bank account with functions such as the ability to make cash deposits. That is the route that French and German post offices have gone down, and I hope that the Government will take this country down that route, too. A Post Office bank account with basic banking facilities would, I am sure, make the network sustainable and contribute towards meeting the Government’s aims as regards financial inclusion. I hope that the Government will adopt that as the long-term solution.

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As for today’s debate, I will certainly support the motion calling for a suspension of the post office closure programme. If the programme were suspended, it would allow the Essex proposals to be investigated, and it would give councils and local community groups the time to explore opportunities for sharing services with the post office, put together business plans and secure funding. I believe that there is scope for making savings by sharing post office services with the services of councils and other local agencies. I hope that hon. Members will support the motion, as that will allow time for all the options to be explored.

5.20 pm

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Not only do I have a constituency interest in the debate, but I worked for the Post Office for 18 years. Indeed, for a time I worked in the chairman’s office, answering MPs’ letters, and I am very glad that I am not there now, because I am sure that I would have had quite a few.

I received a letter from the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), the shadow Minister for postal affairs. I ask him not to make a habit of sending me letters. I have enough problems with my own party’s Whips without the Opposition trying to whip me, too. However, I will be supporting the motion; I have given the matter careful consideration. I support the wording, but I detect a whiff of hypocrisy from the Conservative party on reinvestment in the network. If the Conservatives were in government, postal services would be in a worse position. I know that because I had to fight, along with the Secretary of State for Health, who led a magnificent campaign, to save Morecambe post office—a Crown post office—and a post office in Lancaster from closure when the Conservatives were in power. Indeed, they tried to privatise Royal Mail and the rest of the Post Office, so I will take no lessons from them on what we should do to save the network. However, I have read the motion, and the wording mirrors my thoughts on the issue, so for that reason only, I will support it.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): My hon. Friend speaks for many Labour Members who have engaged with the consultation and worked with local communities and local authorities only to be ignored, and who have had the support of Postwatch only for that to be ignored. I wrote to Allan Leighton, too, only to get a reply from the woman who sent out the original closure notice. The fundamental issue at stake is how Parliament holds the Post Office to account for a closure programme that makes no sense.

Geraldine Smith: Yes, I agree completely. The consultation has been a complete sham. I think that everyone in the House agrees with that. On the post office closures, I have not been able to get commercial information relating to my constituency from the Post Office. There is a village post office that is open for two mornings a week, and the village would settle for one morning a week, but the Post Office will not tell me how much that would cost. One of the post offices in my constituency, on Kellet road in Carnforth, is a viable office; I know that because I know the sub-postmistress personally. She has given me the information and there is no way that that office should be closing.

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David Taylor: I declare an interest: I am from the fourth generation of a post office family, and have two post offices closing in my constituency in the next few days, including one in my home village. My hon. Friend talks about figures; the Government tell us that the average saving from each of the 2,500 closures is £18,000. That is a total of £45 million, which does not lop off a substantial amount from the subsidy that is allegedly needed to keep the post office network going. Does she agree that over the next few years, irrespective of what happens, there will be further economic closures—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is an abuse to take so much time on an intervention when we are very tight for time and many hon. Members who have been in the Chamber for the entire debate are waiting to speak.

Geraldine Smith: The key to helping the post office network survive is making sure that new business is found for it. We talk about the subsidy for the Post Office. Let us have fewer consultants across Government Departments. We could save a fortune.

It is wrong that viable post offices are being closed. That is clearly what is happening in some cases. That information is not being made available to Members of Parliament. As I said, I have asked the Post Office for the information but it has still not given it to me. That is wrong.

Another office in my constituency, Nether Kellet, is a village shop—the last shop in the village. If that office closes, the nearest one, although it may be within the recommended distance, is very hard to get to because there is no direct public transport. No thought has been given to the proposals by the Post Office. That is why we should take a step back and rethink them.

I have concerns also about the Crown office network and what will happen to that. Crown offices across the country give a reliable service to the public. The staff are highly trained and we must be careful that we are not franchising them out. We should ensure that they are protected.

I saw a press release from the Communication Workers Union and I agree with what it says. It calls on the Government

However, the union also says that it is

Let us have a bit of honesty in the debate. Let us not have complete opportunism from the Opposition.

5.27 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), who has already demonstrated in her career that she is a Member of principle. Tonight she is yet again doing the right thing, unlike many of her colleagues.

The Post Office proposes to close a third of the post office network in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton—five post offices in Bognor Regis and one in Littlehampton.
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The truncated consultation process has caused a real problem. We have had petitions and public demonstrations. We held a public meeting in Littlehampton which someone from the Post Office attended, but when a big public meeting was held in Bognor Regis, where five post offices are to close, no one from the Post Office was able to attend. Why? Because they were busy attending public meetings in London. If that consultation period had been longer, the Post Office would have had people available to come to Bognor Regis.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree with the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) that the length of consultation does not make much difference if the consultation was a complete sham?

Mr. Gibb: My right hon. Friend makes a telling point. The view is shared by many people in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that the whole consultation process is a sham and that no notice will be taken by the Post Office of the views of local residents. The fact that no one from the Post Office attended that public meeting in Bognor Regis compounds that view. The Select Committee said of the process:

The branches proposed for closure in my constituency are in areas where a high proportion of the residents are elderly or very elderly, by which I mean over the age of 85. The Craigweil-on-Sea branch serves a population in which 38 per cent. are retired and the Aldwick branch serves a population in which 36 per cent. are retired. Nearly 40 per cent. of the residents of Aldwick and Craigweil are over the age of 65 and 5 per cent. are over 85.

In Littlehampton the Beach branch in Norfolk road serves a population in which 27 per cent. are retired, more than a quarter are over the age of 65 and more than

The people who use the Norfolk road branch tend to be very elderly people who live close by and who can just walk the short distance to the post office and the grocery store, but no further. As the Select Committee report said:

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. I speak for Henley, where we face closures in Stanton St. John and Crowmarsh Gifford, but the closure of post offices affects the elderly population not only in rural communities; I also have direct experience of the issue in London, where elderly people are being deprived of vital services. By closing post offices, we not only deprive the elderly of those services, but rip out the lynchpin of the local economy. That applies not only in the villages, for which—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to respect the fact that we must have short interventions.

Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important intervention. He will make a great advocate for London, and I wish him all the very best.

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It is clear that the Post Office has failed to take into account high concentrations of the elderly and very elderly. The very elderly tend to have abandoned the use of a car, owing to failing eyesight or poor general health, and they struggle to make their way to their local shops and post office on foot, by wheelchair or by scooter. Travelling to the next nearest post office will be impossible for many elderly residents. The next nearest post office to Craigweil is at Rose Green, and getting there would mean walking nearly a mile along a route parts of which have no footpath.

Residents in the Beach area of Littlehampton will find themselves having to use the main Crown post office in Littlehampton if the Beach branch is closed. As well as being difficult to get to from there, Littlehampton’s Crown post office is notorious for its lengthy and time-consuming queues; that is consistent with other Crown post offices around the country. The Select Committee said:

If the Beach branch is to close, I hope that Post Office Ltd will give an undertaking to put extra staff in Crown post offices and provide seating and help for elderly and disabled customers.

Public transport in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is very poor. Many of the bus services that do exist are infrequent and depend on subsidies from West Sussex county council; those are often reviewed and services are often withdrawn. If the Hawthorn Road and South Bersted branches closed, a large area of residential Bognor Regis would be devoid of any post office branch. Part of that area encompasses two of the most deprived wards in west Sussex; only one third of residents in Pevensey, for example, own a car. Given poor public transport, there is great reliance on post offices remaining local. Closing those two branches would present real difficulties for many residents in the area.

Like many towns in the area, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton have grown from smaller communities that have merged over time. The Beach Town area of Littlehampton was a separate town until development joined it to the rest of Littlehampton. The small parade of shops in that area is a community in itself. If we lose the post office branch run by Bharti and Raj Shah at the back of the grocery store, and if the grocery store goes as well, we will lose the hub of a community in Littlehampton. The same will happen if we lose the post office in Craigweil, which has a parade of shops near the sea and which is cut off from other parts of Bognor Regis. If we lose the shop and the post office, which is run by Barbara and Robin Doe, the whole hub of that community will go as well.

In conclusion, the proposed closure plan for the post office network of Bognor Regis and Littlehampton involves a third of the branches—almost double the national figure of 18 per cent. The area has a much higher proportion of the elderly and very elderly, who are the section of the population most dependent on the existence of a locally sited post office. Although the Post Office will have recorded the proportion of retired people living in the area, the closure programme has not taken into account the numbers of very elderly
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people. I urge the House to support the Opposition motion this evening, to suspend the compulsory closure of the sub-post office network.

5.34 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). Many of the characteristics of his constituency also apply to mine, in that we have the third highest number of over-85-year-olds of any constituency in the country.

The first few words of the amendment say that the Government

Let us see how they live up to that pledge in the Cotswolds. With a nationwide loss of 18 per cent. of post offices, the Cotswolds region is losing 12 of its branches—four completely and eight through outreach. That is a quarter of its post office network. Many local businesses depend on their post office. The bus service in the Cotswolds is, in many cases, almost non-existent, so this will hit the elderly and vulnerable particularly hard. Eleven of those 12 post offices—I would like the Minister particularly to listen to this point—have a shop attached to them. If the story first broken in The Daily Telegraph is true and the Post Office intends to restrict the business that those shops are allowed to offer as a result of the post office closing, because it might duplicate what the post office originally offered, that would be a further devastating and possibly destabilising blow wreaked by the Government on the highly rural areas in my constituency.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): My hon. Friend’s description of his constituency mirrors much of the experience in mine, where local shops would also close. Moreover, the absence of alternative financial services outlets, with very few banks, means that the post office provides access to financial services for some of the most vulnerable in our community. With that gone, the whole financial inclusion agenda is in serious trouble in rural areas.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As always, my hon. Friend makes pertinent points on behalf of his constituents. He looks after them very well in this House, and he has done so again on this occasion. I entirely agree with what he said.

The closures have resulted in the biggest single constituency campaign that I have dealt with in 16 years as a Member of Parliament. I have received more than 500 letters, all of which have been summarised, and 12 separate representations had been made to Post Office Ltd at the end of the closure of the consultation period at the beginning of this week, with copies sent to the Minister. I have organised eight well-attended public meetings, and we had a march in the centre of Cirencester at which 500 residents turned up to demonstrate about the fact that if a vast number of extra people have to go to the Crown post office in Cirencester, it will not be able to cope.

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