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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I shall be very brief, but I want it put on the record that I will vote for the Conservative motion this evening. I can see nothing wrong with it. I read it through two or three times in case I was missing something. I see nothing in it that my friends or colleagues on this side cannot vote for. I listened with interest, as I always do, to my friend from Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), who spent 18 years working in the Post Office. She will be voting with the Conservatives. I am pleased to see my
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friend from Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who chairs the all-party sub-post offices group and will also be voting with the Conservatives. There is no need for anyone on this side to feel at all frightened about the prospect of voting with the Conservatives. Let me explain that it is the only option left open to us. It is the only option we have left to stop or suspend the closure programme.

Let me tell you this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I participated in a Westminster Hall debate with my Lancashire colleagues, including my friend from Morecambe and Lunesdale. In Lancashire, we face 59 closures and many of my friends spoke about that in the debate. I spoke, too. If I did not vote for the Conservative motion now, I could not look my constituents in the eye; I simply could not, because I railed against the closure programme in that debate. It is no good my colleagues, tucked away in Westminster Hall, speaking with great passion on 4 March only to fail to support the motion before us tonight. My own constituency is losing six post offices. Since I have been its Member of Parliament, we have lost 10. We started out with 28, so the post office network in my Pendle constituency will have been more than halved, which is unacceptable.

Now is not the time to slag off the Conservatives—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] I spend so much of my life doing that, I know, but this is not the time. Let me say this, however. The Conservatives would get more support from the Labour Benches if they were more open with us about the level of subsidy that they would put into the post office network. My friend on the Front Bench here has told us—he told us in Westminster Hall on 4 March as well—that only 4,000 post offices are commercially viable. We have a network of 14,000, which is going down to 11,500, so post offices will always need to be subsidised.

I believe that post offices are a social good. They are not just about selling people stamps. The network could not be recreated; if it were smashed, it could not be put together again. There are all sorts of exciting, innovative things we could do with a revivified post office network. Let me finish on this point. I hope that my friends swallow the prejudices of decades or whatever and do the right thing, which is to support the Conservative motion.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con) rose—

Mr. Prentice: I give way to my friend over there.

Mr. Burrowes: In that context, will he invite all three Enfield MPs, who have been united in wanting to save the area’s six post offices, to join together in the Conservative Lobby this evening?

Mr. Prentice: Anyone who is serious about trying to save the post offices in their constituency—whether it be in Enfield or anywhere else—has to vote in favour of the motion.

6.3 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): We learned three weeks ago how many closures Somerset would face. The figures are very clear: in the present
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Somerset county council area, 30 will close, with another seven downgraded; in the historic county of Somerset, a further 18 will close, making a total of 55 closures across Somerset. Anyone who wants to know what villages are involved could find them in my early-day motion 1036.

I shall concentrate on the seven direct closures in my constituency—in Bayford, Bower Hinton, Holcombe, Keinton Mandeville, Kingsdon, Sparkford and Yeovilton—and two that will be replaced by a van service in Charlton Horethorne and North Cadbury. I feel that I have been fighting the same campaign for 20 or more years—in the House, previously as a county councillor or before that as someone involved in local community politics. It seems to me that we are seeing a constant reduction in the post office network.

I know that there were 3,500 closures under the Conservative Government, but I think that the main reason for that was neglect. Now it is happening by design: we are deliberately closing down large parts of the rural post office network. I hear Labour Members talk of the “stability” of the network. It is a strange sort of stability that closes 6,500 sub-post offices. At medical school I used to be told that there was a difference between stability and morbidity. What the Government are proposing is the stability of a corpse. Through a process of bullying and moving business away from post offices, they have created circumstances in which they can say that those post offices are not profitable and must be closed down. I thought that we had won the battle for rural post offices back in 2002. How wrong I was—that was only a temporary lull before the storm that we now face.

We know from what has happened so far that public opinion is not enough. We can collect all the signatures that we like. Four million people signed a petition against post office closures, but it did not mean a thing. We can organise local petitions—every parish council in my constituency signed a petition that I presented to the House—and they do not mean a thing. All our local petitions and letters do not mean a thing, because the Government have decreed that the closures will go ahead.

I do not think the Government understand why we fight so strongly for local post offices. There are all the social reasons which we have heard already today. We have heard about the people who do not have the comfortable option of getting into their second Volvo to drive to the next town because they do not have that second Volvo, or even the first, and could not drive it if they had it because they are elderly or infirm. Those people cannot find a substitute for the local post office. They do not want their money to be paid into a bank account, because they have never worked on the basis of a bank account. I think the yuppie Ministers have forgotten that there are people in this country who still budget on a week-by-week basis with cash in hand. That is the way those people want to stay, and they need their sub-post offices.

There is, for instance, the community aspect of post offices. The post office is the centre of many village communities, and in many instances it is all that we have left. It is not just postal services that are affected, but all the other activities that are centred on the post office, which is often the last shop in the village. I have been considering the effect of the planned closures in my
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constituency. As a result of the closure in Bower Hinton, people will have to walk two to three miles to Martock, down a steep hill which they will have to climb up when they return. The post office is the last shop in Bower Hinton, so that is in danger as well. When those people arrive in Martock they will find a very successful little post office, but one with permanent queues which is unable to provide any further capacity. Where is the logic in that? Where, moreover, is the environmental logic? We are supposed to have a joined-up Government who take the environment seriously. Where is the environmental logic in people having to drive for miles to reach a post office?

Holcombe has sheltered housing directly opposite the post office, but apparently Post Office Ltd was not aware of it. The post office has always provided a prescription service for the local surgery, and that too will go. As for Kingsdon, I went to a public meeting there at 9 o’clock on Saturday morning. More than 100 people were there; practically everyone in the village had gone to make their point. They were irate, because one of the things that the Post Office had said in the letter it had sent was that there was an alternative in Yeovilton. There are two problems with that alternative. First, it is on the royal naval air station base. People could not get past the two large Marines with machine guns at the gates, but even if they could, Yeovilton is one of the other post offices that are due to close, so it is not a great alternative.

Charlton Horthorne and North Cadbury have been offered a van alternative. Vans are great—I would love to see mobile post offices dealing with many of the communities that have already lost their post offices—but the problem is that there is no commitment beyond three years, so we will lose our permanent post offices in return for the promise of a mobile service that may disappear.

We have six weeks in which to make all those points, and we have been told that we will not have a result at the end of that period because of local elections. As we are not due to have any local elections in Somerset, we understand perfectly well that this is another example of the Government trying to cover their backs.

The key issue is whether we regard post offices purely as commercial undertakings or as a public service. I regard them as a public service. When I hear people say that a particular post office has a small number of customers, I think that for those people it is an essential service, and it does not matter that they live in the country rather than, as would be convenient, in a big city. They should have access to the services that they need. When I am told that post offices have to make a profit, I wonder whether that will soon apply to our schools, roads and our military involvement in Basra. Must they make a profit, or else be closed down? Perhaps we should look at those post offices as a genuine people’s post office. What an insult to run that campaign, when the post office is anything but the people’s post office. It is the Minister’s plaything, and it provides a profit for Post Office Ltd.

We do not ask for much in our rural areas, but we rely on our village hall, our village school, our village shop and our village post office. I do not think that is too much to ask, and we should keep those post offices open as a genuine people’s post office and a service for the people of this country.

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6.10 pm

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Given the limited time available, I shall refrain from criticising the illogicality and stupidity of the network change programme, because any credibility that it ever possessed has been comprehensively demolished by Members on both sides of the House.

I shall focus my attention on the impact that the programme is likely to have on my constituency. The closure programme for north Wales has not yet been announced, because of the politically motivated purdah imposed by the Post Office. It will be announced in July this year but, given the pattern that is evident across the country, post offices in my constituency will certainly close. I should like to draw the House’s attention to circumstances in the southern part of my constituency, which largely consists of scattered villages. They may well fall within the three-mile limit of the rather silly access criteria in the programme, but as few people fly as the crow does, they are, in fact considerably further apart. I should like to use the village of Pentrefoelas as an example. Its post office will not necessarily close, but the post office in the village of Llanarmon yn Ial may well close, as may post offices in Llanfalteg, Llansanan, Llangernyw and any other village in the immediate vicinity.

Pentrefoelas is not untypical, and its post office is operated by Mr. Mark Tuck and Ms Sonia Taylor. It is a profitable business, and it is combined with the only shop in the village—it, too, is profitable—and a small guest house, which is also profitable. Unless those three profitable businesses are operated together, there is not sufficient business to maintain an income for the postmaster and his wife. Pentrefoelas is a village of 300 people, most of whom are elderly and many of whom do not have motor cars. The nearest village is Cerridgydrudion, which is about 6 miles away by road. If the closure programme hit Pentregoelas, the people who live there would be obliged to travel by road to Cerridgydrudion. The comments of some of the residents Pentrefoelas are telling. Miss Rita Davies, who is 79, said:

Mrs. Linda Bolger said:

Perhaps most tellingly, Mrs. Maureen Rice said that the closure of the post office

In the past few years, rural communities in Wales have suffered a great deal as a result of the downturn in agriculture, most recently following foot and mouth disease. They have sustained school closures, and they have experienced rising fuel prices. In fact, over the past few years the stuffing has been knocked out of village life in rural Wales. The rural post office—in most cases, the only shop in the village—is the last bastion of rural life in many parts of Wales, but the residents of rural Wales now see it being removed. That will have an effect not only on the cohesion of communities, but on other things in Wales, too, such the culture and the
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Welsh language, which is very important. In those circumstances, I find it odd that the Government’s amendment to the motion purports to recognise

because in my constituency it is precisely those communities that will suffer at the hands of this programme.

I am glad that some Labour Members will join the Conservatives in the Lobby this evening. It is evident that many more than those who have spoken in the debate support the general thrust of the motion; in fact, 35 have already signed early-day motion 997, and, as we know, several Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers, are lobbying actively for the retention of post offices in their constituencies.

This is probably the single most important issue I have experienced since I was first elected to this place. It has attracted more consternation, anxiety and worry than almost any other. I am glad that there are Labour Members of principle who will join us Conservatives in the Lobby this evening. I hope that many more do, and that the Post Office receives a signal from the House this evening that this sham programme is utterly unacceptable and that it is damaging to the social fabric of this country, and that the Post Office and the Government will have to think again.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): As time is very limited, if Members limit their speeches to three minutes, more of them may be able to catch my eye.

6.17 pm

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): I begin by referring to a letter from the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). It was addressed to me, but at the top of the letter it says, “Dear Gordon”. I think the hon. Gentleman must be confusing me with the Prime Minister. If I did not find it amusing to be sent such a ridiculous letter, I would find it offensive.

Many Members have talked about the impact of technology on the use of postal services—for example, people can now buy their road tax disc over the internet. However, I recently went to a post office in London to try to buy my television licence, and I was told that I had to go to a PayPoint. It is ridiculous that the Post Office is not still doing a deal with the television licence people so that we can get our licences at post offices.

I do not think any Members are in favour of post office closures, but what we are in favour of is the best use of resources and maximising the economic and social benefits for our constituents. I can therefore see that the many Members representing rural constituencies who have argued for the retention of post offices have a strong case. In urban areas such as mine, I can perhaps see a case for the closure of the odd post office. Some post offices in and around Preston might be unprofitable, but it might also be too far to the next one. In particular, I make reference to Deepdale Road and Acregate Lane post offices and Moor Nook post office on Pope lane; they are popular and used by many people, but not all
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of them are profitable. The Opposition motion refers to 2,500 post offices being outlined for closure. I do not think there is any case for closing that many, but there would be a case for closing some of them. I would not expect this process to result in the closure of every post office that has been earmarked, and I include among them my own in Preston.

Let me refer to another example of a petition, this one containing hundreds of names on the Manchester Road post office. I understand that there is a sign in its window saying, “Say no to closures”. However, when my office rang that post office, its postmaster told us he does not want a campaign against closure. He is angry about people going round with a petition campaigning to keep his post office open, because he wants to take the £60,000 offered to close the post office in his property. There are two sides to the story. It is important that hon. Members value post offices and the services that they provide, but the case for no closures cannot be made.

6.20 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I shall be as brief as possible in order to allow colleagues to make some brief remarks. It was encouraging to hear that hon. Members in all parts of the House appreciate the importance of the branch network of the Post Office, given its social function as well as the Post Office functions. We seem to have complete consensus on that. Rather less encouraging has been the fact that the only vision that many, but by no means all, Labour Members seem to have for the future of the post office network lies in taxpayer subsidy. The whole point of the motion is to suspend the closure programme so that we can examine the possibility of providing additional business opportunities or additional functions for post offices, in order to expand what they are doing, rather than shrink them, as has been happening over the past few years.

In 2004, my constituency suffered three closures as a result of the absurdly named “urban reinvention programme”. Somebody—I do not know who—was probably paid a large sum to think up that name, which actually translated as, “We’re going to close your post offices.” My constituency now faces another three closures. The customers who suffered because of one of the first closures were sent to one of the post offices that is in the second round of closures. The distance to walk is much too far, in particular for elderly people. They cannot possibly walk 1 mile on a hill and then have to walk 1 mile back again. For elderly people or for young mothers with buggies and toddlers such distances are simply too far. I have spoken to a lot of elderly people who miss the social aspect of going to the post office every week. They now have to rely on neighbours, friends and family to go to the post office for them because it is no longer accessible for them.

I should like to express my extreme disappointment in Postwatch. A week or so ago, London Members had a meeting with the Post Office—

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