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I want to provide the Minister with a brief rural tour of the Cotswolds to demonstrate some of the problems with the consultation, beginning with the very northern
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and southern edges of my constituency, on the Worcestershire-Warwickshire boundary in the case of Weston-sub-Edge, and on the Wiltshire boundary in the case of Meysey Hampton. The problem there is that because the consultation was done for different areas in different parts of the country, and neither Worcestershire, Warwickshire nor Wiltshire has yet been reviewed, residents are having their post office closed without knowing what the future of the post office in the adjoining county is going to be. I believe that the Government and the Post Office have deliberately staggered the closure programme on that basis to avoid the national outcry that would otherwise take place.

I should like now to go to the most rural part of my constituency—Temple Guiting and Guiting Power. Those two villages expected that one of their post offices would close and were completely taken aback when they both closed. One of those post offices has just two hours of outreach. I have made representations to the Post Office and to the Minister about the alterations that could be made to that outreach. Will he comment on how it is going to be funded, how long it is likely to last, and what provisions there will be to review it once it is in place and we find that it is not working as well as it might? Those two villages will be joined by residents from Longborough, who are extremely vociferous about their closure, and Blockley, where they are trying to form a co-operative village shop in order to keep their post office open.

In the highly likely event that any of the residents affected by all five closures find themselves needing a post office out of outreach hours, they will be forced to go to Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow or Moreton-in-Marsh. I defy the Minister, in the middle of a summer afternoon with a large influx of visitors, to find a car-parking space within two miles of those post offices.

I come to two other rural post offices—those of Sherborne and Aldsworth. One of the young schoolchildren in Sherborne managed to get 200 names on a petition in just two hours, such is the strength of feeling in that village.

In the limited time left to me, I want to talk about Cirencester, which currently has three branches: one Crown post office, and two sub-post offices. The two sub-post offices are Stratton, which serves 5,400 residents, and the Beeches, which serves 12,300 residents. In the case of Stratton, at my well-attended public meeting of 250 people—I hope that the Minister will bear this in mind—the sub-postmaster, John Lafford, reported two amazing facts. These are on the public record. In January alone, he had a turnover of £468,000—in just one month—and he was offered a payment of £100,000 if he took the post office closure payment, but he wants to stay open because he enjoys serving the community. What a way to go about a closure programme. The Beeches serves 12,300 residents, with another 750 new houses about to be built, but it is scheduled for closure. Surely the Government can think of a more sensible programme than closing such profitable post offices, which is really the politics of the madhouse.

If the closures go ahead, and the two closest post offices to Cirencester—Rendcomb and Colesbourne—are also closed, a population of 19,000 people in the town of Cirencester and the surrounding 21 villages, across 100 square miles, will be left with one inadequate Crown post office. I do not know of anywhere in the country
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where such a monstrous proposal is in place. I ask the Minister if he will seriously reconsider the proposals, particularly in the case of Cirencester.

I end on this note. Much has been made in this debate about the services that have been run down in our post offices, but I want to ask the Minister what positive proposals he has to introduce new services. I think that I was one of the first Members to mention the idea of having a broadband connection in every post office. If such a connection were provided, a huge amount of information would be available to all my constituents. It is amazing that even elderly constituents are becoming more computer literate every day—a surprising factor. With a little invention, the Post Office could offer a lot of other things. It could offer ATMs, which could be further refined so that they were compatible with the Post Office benefit card; benefit claimants could then draw cash from their own post office. A lot of services could be provided by the Post Office, and as other hon. Members have said, it should be much more free in the amount of services it allows sub-postmasters and mistresses to offer.

In closing, I say to the Minister that the consultation is flawed. I am not a luddite. The system cannot remain exactly as it is, and it needs some rationalisation, but the way in which the Government have dealt with the consultation is flawed. It is wrong, and the wrong branches are being closed. I ask him to think again, particularly about the two branches in Cirencester.

5.43 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I shall be very brief. Any member of the public reading the Opposition’s motion would find it strange that anyone could vote against it, particularly those who are concerned about their own post offices and what is happening in their constituencies. The suspension of the compulsory closure of sub-post offices while all the issues are reassessed is common sense, and no one should feel that they are being disloyal to their party or the Government in voting for it.

All of us feel strongly about the closure programme, and, as many hon. Members have said, this Parliament is ultimately responsible for the matter. I would have preferred a Government motion calling for such a suspension, which we could have supported, but it is an Opposition one, and I shall support it. As chair of the all-party group on post offices, I have done everything in my constituency absolutely by the book. London is in the middle of its very short consultation period—I am not sure whether that makes a lot of difference. A suspension would give us more time to oppose the closure of particular sub-post offices. I have gone through all the criteria for my Lambeth Walk post office on Vauxhall street. I have measured everything, had Postwatch down and held a public meeting. The local community is totally involved and supportive.

Huge amounts of regeneration are coming into our area about which Royal Mail and the Post Office did not know. We are presenting all the information, including the deprivation figures and the fact that there are eight sheltered homes within a few hundred yards of the post office. It would be a disgrace if, under the existing criteria, the post office did not stay open. I will wait and see.

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I have done everything by the book and I am sure that that applies to many colleagues. By voting for the motion, we send a little signal, which tells the Government that they are responsible for determining the figures— arbitrary figures that have been plucked out of the air.

Today, all sorts of ideas have been expressed about possible changes, including legal action that might happen in London, proposals that Essex and other local authorities have made, and the Government using the Post Office more and instructing the BBC to allow television licences to be bought in post offices. Many things can be done, but we need more time. The motion is sensible and I hope that many of my colleagues will join me in the Lobby tonight.

5.45 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am pleased that we are holding a debate on a subject of considerable concern to my constituents and I am glad that I can make a brief contribution to it.

I was disappointed in the Secretary of State’s speech, which failed to deal with the genuine concerns of all our constituents about the changes in the postal service. I congratulate my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State on a constructive and logical approach to examining those issues and highlighting the flaws in the action that is being taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) made a speech that I strongly supported, which covered most of the issues that face suburban and Greater London post office closures. We hope that the Government will listen today and propose a rethink. We also hope that the Post Office will suspend the closure programme to consider the possible alternatives. For example, we have discussed Essex county council’s proposal, which could ameliorate the problems.

In the past few years in Bexleyheath and Crayford, we have lost many of our sub-post offices—in Barnehurst, Lesnes Abbey, Brampton and on the boundary between Barnehurst and Collier’s ward. Today, we are threatened with yet another closure in the Brampton ward of my constituency. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, we have experienced the closure of a popular and busy post office and its relocation to the upstairs of WH Smith in the centre of the town. It has just opened, and we were genuinely worried about the relocation because of the lifts, the staff, the location and mobility problems for those who are disabled or have children in pushchairs and prams. We will wait and see how it works out.

I want to highlight the Brampton road post office, which is threatened. Its closure is subject to consultation. It opens for 51 hours a week and completes between 750 and 990 transactions a week at its two service positions. It has level access, provides euros on demand and has an external ATM facility. There is unrestricted parking and a bus stop 100 yd away. Many of those who use the post office are pensioners who do not own a car and do not find mobility easy. The closure of the branch would cause genuine hardship to people in and around the area that I represent in Brampton. There are alternative branches, but they are a considerable distance away—in Long lane, which is more than a mile away, and Wroughton road, which is two thirds of a mile away. They are open for less time and do not have easy access via buses.

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On Friday 22 February, we held some meetings in my local office with representatives of Post Office Ltd to discuss the proposed closure. I made strong points about the disadvantage it would cause local people. Of course we understand that the Government have been responsible for reducing the Post Office’s opportunities to serve the community—that has been well discussed this afternoon, so I will not repeat those points.

One of the issues raised by Melanie Corfield, who is head of external relations for the south-east, was the opportunities for new products that the Post Office wants to promote. One of those, which was in its business plan, was financial services. The Post Office extolled the new bond backed by the Bank of Ireland, which it hoped people would buy, thereby creating new development services for it. However, I made the point, strongly and forcefully, that it was difficult for people to get to post offices and therefore difficult for them to use the new services. If post offices are not in communities, there will obviously be a disincentive for people who do not have cars or easy mobility to take up those new opportunities.

There are serious concerns about closing branches without considering the needs of local communities. Many local businesses are also concerned about the loss of a facility that they use. I had meetings with many local shopkeepers and businesses that were great users of the services offered by the Brampton road branch. They were concerned about how their businesses would suffer if the branch closed.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evennett: I intend no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, but we do not have much time and I know that everyone wants to get in. I therefore feel obliged not to take any interventions.

The decisions to close local post offices are misguided and will ultimately damage the Post Office’s business and its reputation. The consultation exercise, which I raised in an intervention on the Secretary of State, is flawed and a sham. Previous consultations, which were well supported by my constituents who want to keep the branch open, have been ignored and rejected by the Post Office. Logical and reasonable arguments about why a post office should remain—because of business, pensioners, transport, distance or community—have all received a blanket rejection.

It is no wonder that people feel disengaged from community political activity, when they feel that their voices are not being heard. The fear remains that the Post Office and the Government, who control the service, are out of touch. Both will suffer if we do not place a moratorium on the closures and consider the alternatives. The issue is important throughout the country, no more so than in my constituency and across suburbia and Greater London. The Government should think again.

5.53 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I shall try to be as brief as I can. I start by declaring an interest. I own a building that contains a post office that is due to be closed under the network change programme.

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Five post offices in my constituency face closure. I disagree with every decision, as one would expect, but in every case I can find flaws in the process and many reasons why the post offices should not close. Two of the post offices proposed for closure are in urban areas; one of them is in Thatcham, an area that suffered the worst flooding in south-east England last July. The community faces not only the closure of its post office, but an enormous influx of new housing, through the redevelopment of an Army base that was vacated some years ago. It seems quite bizarre that the community in south Thatcham should face that closure.

Other branches are in rural settings, including in the village where I live. I have been using that post office since I could walk, and probably since before then. The anger and frustration at the lack of thought and understanding, and—as I shall explain if I have time—at the lack of humanity behind the process has been profoundly felt by the many thousands of people throughout the community who will be directly affected and by the many more who will be indirectly affected.

I had a pyrrhic victory in this process at the start of the consultation, in which we virtually got the consultation period extended. In an act that perhaps exemplifies the incompetence with which all this has been done, the Government decided that the six-week consultation period should include Christmas. Post offices are, of course, extremely busy at that time, and people have other things on their mind.

I would love to use my few minutes to rant and rail against what I perceive to be the wickedness of this decision. That might be cathartic, but it would not be particularly illuminating. To me, this is about much more than the provision of postal services or of post offices in communities. It is about the communities themselves. Those who oppose the motion tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) today will be demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of what makes a community, and of the complex web of relationships and interactions that are the fabric of those communities.

Later this year, the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 will come into force. I was proud to be a sponsor of that legislation. This is precisely the kind of issue that it was intended to address, and it had universal support across the House. It seems bizarre that the Government, knowing that the Act is about to come into force, cannot delay this process so that local communities can be empowered to make these decisions. That was precisely the purpose of the Act.

The closure programme fits into a pattern. I have bored the House at length on such matters in the past. In fact, my first faltering utterances in this place were about the loss of shops, churches, pubs—for which the Budget sounded another death knell last week—and sporting organisations. I spoke of how they had all been sucked out of smaller communities and moved into towns, and out of smaller towns into larger towns. Every community suffers as a result, as its life blood is sucked out.

We could shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, this is the way of things.” That is very much what the Government have done. They have said that the internet has come in, that these post offices are not doing very well, and that that is just the way of things. Well, no. This is about vulnerable people, as has been pointed out by Members
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on both sides of the House. I have only to stand in the post office queue in Newbury—the queue is considerably longer following the suburban post office closure programme in 2005—to see just who those people are. They are the people who cannot buy online. They are the people who pay their soaring heating bills with hard-saved cash. In the Government’s eyes, these people are inconvenient, because they will not conform. They will not go on the internet. They will not leap into a car and drive to the next town when their post office closes.

People who live in rural communities and have the temerity to need services—which are, of course, now more expensive and harder to deliver—are also considered inconvenient. I am sure that there are those not far from this building who would like rural communities simply to be places where people sleep, rather than places where real life takes place and where services need to be delivered.

I want to address the important issue of the access criteria. This has really frustrated me. The criteria have been calculated on an as-the-crow-flies basis. They do not take into account road networks or public transport facilities. The Government’s need to hit their closure targets while also meeting the access criteria means that profitable post offices will close, simply because they are in the wrong location. I could take the Minister to post offices in my constituency that are not profitable but will survive. I will not do so, because they would probably then be zoned for closure as well. The lunacy of all this is that profitable post offices in my constituency are going to close. The access criteria, which involve drawing a straight line “as the crow flies”, are utterly devoid of any understanding of how human beings really live and co-exist.

As we have heard, the consultation has been a sham. In our case, it has been a fig leaf for a decision that had clearly already been taken. In my last few seconds, I must ask the Minister to address the one-for-one issue. Some weeks ago, I heard him say in this Chamber—I have heard it again today—that the figure involved was up to 2,500. In this building, I had a briefing from the people who were processing the network change programme in my constituency. They said, “If you managed to save a post office in your constituency, that would be fantastic, but we would have to find another one.”

Let me finish with a big plea for the bullying of postmasters and postmistresses in my constituency to stop. If they have put in a pay point, replacing the loss of a post office, they have done so for the vulnerable in the community. Nobody else but the most vulnerable is going to use it. They should not be threatened for doing that; the bullying must stop.

6 pm

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