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Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a fundamental inconsistency in the Government’s plans? On the one hand, they argue that more than 2,000 post offices need to close for what they claim are rational economic reasons, but on
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the other hand, the decision about which post offices to shut is not made on the basis of whether the individual post office is itself viable. As a result, viable post offices, such as those at Walton-on-the-Naze and Kirby Cross in my constituency—I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituency contains similar examples—are being shut. Is that not totally inconsistent?

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend is right. I was expecting customer representation from Postwatch, but at the meeting to which I referred its representative set out the Government and the Post Office’s plans and the reason for them. I began to think I was in the wrong meeting, because there was no pretence of representing the customer. Fortunately, I had another meeting to go to; otherwise it would have got quite heated. I do not know how much Postwatch costs—it is paid for by the taxpayer—but whatever it is, the money would be better spent on supporting the branch network.

The consultation has been mentioned, and I discussed that with Postwatch and, subsequently, the Post Office. Both of them admitted that the consultation was not about whether people wanted their post office to close, because one could anticipate 100 per cent. of people saying that they did not want their post office to close. Postwatch told me that the post offices would be closed even if there was a 100 per cent. response. The Post Office said that the consultation was being undertaken to tease out whether or not the right ones were being closed. There is a great misunderstanding among post office users about the meaning of the consultation. The consultation is a sham, people feel cheated and I have no confidence that the petitions I am raising will have any more influence that the ones that I raised during the urban reinvention programme.

6.24 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Of necessity, I shall be brief, as I have to address the issue of six potential post office closures in my constituency in just three minutes. We have 62 post offices, more than any other constituency in Wales, and I want to talk about the social effects of closure on local communities.

The irony is that, sitting in the post offices in Devil’s Bridge and Pontrhydfendigaid are awards recognising the services given by the post offices to the local community, including services to the elderly and other businesses. They have also had a joint partnership with the Dyfed Powys police promoting the police force in what is a scattered community. The timing of this closure programme flies in the face of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which should empower local people to make decisions on their own post offices and to reflect on the services that they need. The timing is also against the National Assembly’s re-enactment of a post office development fund, which will come into effect next year, after the post offices have gone. Commendable efforts have been made by county councils in England, such as Essex, and they warrant consideration.

I am especially concerned about those businesses in which a post office and a shop operate together, such as in Talybont, Devil’s Bridge, Llanfarian, Llangeitho, Llanddewi Brefi, Talgarreg and Pontsian. As the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) said, once the post office or shop goes, the heart of the community is
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taken away. The village hall, the pub and the garage have probably already gone, and little is left. It is an issue of social cohesion.

My constituents have no alternatives. I look at the criteria and I am told that 95 per cent. of people live within three miles of an alternative. I had an e-mail from a constituent today whose nearest alternative will be a round trip of 15 miles, if she wishes to access basic core post office services.

We hear a lot about urban deprivation, but the rural deprivation factor has not been taken into account. West Wales and the valleys are a convergence funding area for good reason. Large tracts of Ceredigion are also Communities First regions, comparable with any other deprived area in the country. We face three closures in those areas.

We have heard about outreach. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) talked about the three-year limit on the provision of services, but we are losing three outreach post vans. They were a sop to the community three years ago, but we are now losing them.

Greg Mulholland: My hon. Friend mentions several good reasons. The Far Headingley post office in my constituency is another profitable post office that will close. Services such as outreach have not been taken into account, and nor has the effect on local businesses that will also suffer. It is absurd that we are closing profitable businesses and failing to consider the effect on the community.

Mark Williams: My hon. Friend is right. In Ceredigion, we have the largest proportion of small businesses of anywhere in Wales, and they rely on the services of the post offices, including the expanded service that hon. Members have mentioned. It is also important to note the lack of public transport. It simply is not an option in large tracts of rural Wales, as well as much of England. Some 11 per cent. of rural households have no access to a car.

The most dispiriting aspect of the debate—and I have been here since the start—is the sham consultation. Tomorrow night, in the community of Talybont, there will be a huge public meeting. I have started petitions and had meetings with the Post Office. I have been told that there is no domino effect and that if we save one, another will be closed. The most dispiriting aspect is that I will be collecting signatures and talking to managers, and the signatures and the words will fall on deaf ears. That is why the motion is important, and why a moratorium is critically important. That is why we have to continue to make the case. It is just like Beeching: in 30 years’ time, people will be asking how we allowed this to happen.

6.28 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): It may be that the Conservative motion is opportunistic and cynical, but I happen to agree with every word of it. In my constituency, the consultation on the closure of two post offices in Walnut street and Francis street—I do not have time to go into details of the devastation that would be caused by those closures—was a sham. Postwatch was dreadful, and the Post Office itself was appallingly
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ill informed about the post offices and the likely effects of closure. They made no serious attempt to engage in any meaningful dialogue with those who were to be affected. As a consequence, all involved felt entirely frustrated by the process. In my constituency, it came on top of the closure of a Crown post office that has been moved into the basement of a local newsagent. That has compounded the difficulty for those who want to use those vital services.

I will support the Conservative motion. I will not be able to support the Government amendment. The amendment calls for

but means, in effect, further closures that could be avoided at remarkably little additional cost. It could save those post offices, which are undoubtedly vital community services in urban areas as much as they are in rural areas.

6.30 pm

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), who gave the shortest and probably the best speech of the entire debate.

This has been an important, well attended and articulately argued debate. It is of great interest that not one person stood up to defend the closure programme and how it is proceeding. Some Labour Members stood up and told us that things are going badly wrong in their constituencies but then said, “Let’s just keep on doing it.” Indeed, the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter)—I am glad to see him back in the Chamber—spent the second half of his speech telling us how badly things were going, having spent the first half condemning us for saying that there should be a suspension on those grounds. As the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said, this is the last chance. There are no options left for trying to stop this misguided closure programme.

We all agree on the crucial role of the post office and its vital role in communities up and down the country. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) spoke about the particularly important role that it plays in so many rural communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) said that the issue was causing as much concern now as any that he can remember. He spoke, he said, as a retailer of 120 years’ experience. I had not realised that he was as old as that. I knew that he was wise, but that puts it in perspective.

It is right that we should use this occasion to pay tribute to sub-postmasters and mistresses up and down the country. They serve their communities with tremendous dedication and work hard for long hours. They serve those communities well and they want it to be recognised that they do not just run businesses. They are part of the social fabric of their communities, too.

Only two things have been missing in the debate. First, no voices have been raised in support of the closure programme. Secondly, we have not heard those Labour MPs who have been so eloquent in their local newspapers and on their websites but did not come to repeat those words today.

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The motion does not suggest that we do not need change. Of course we need change. We recognise that. The post office network needs to move on to reflect the way that people live their lives. The motion is also not about an absolute solution for the post office network. That is a serious long-term issue, which will take a long time to sort out. The motion recognises that the closure programme is failing, that it is opposed by almost every Member of Parliament in their constituencies and by almost every national newspaper. If it is not suspended, it will result in massive, permanent, unnecessary damage to our communities.

I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), for Pendle and for Leicester, South. They have said that they will vote with us tonight. That is not an easy decision, and I recognise that. It is undoubtedly the right decision, however.

Let me make a couple of other points absolutely clear, too, particularly in response to the comments made by the Secretary of State. We are committed to putting £1.7 billion into the post office network over the next three years. We have said that we will honour the Government’s spending commitments when we come into government. That is part of the process. We would expect the amount to be less if more post offices can be kept open, because part of that figure includes the compensation package. We are also committed to spending £150 million a year on the continuing subsidy, although the central point of our approach is that we should allow the post offices to develop new businesses and new income streams, so that the £150 million can be used to keep more post offices open.

The Secretary of State made many points. If he were really convincing about his closure programme, though, I wonder why it is that half of his Cabinet colleagues are openly campaigning against it. He talked about what happened under the Conservatives, when 3,000 post offices were closed in 18 years. That compares with the 6,000 that have been closed in just over 10 years of this Labour Government—a rate of closure that is three times as high as previously.

However, the fundamental difference is that the closures under the previous Conservative Government were voluntary, whereas the current ones are enforced. People are having their businesses taken away from them, and they have no choice and no way to stop the process.

The Secretary of State also said, rather proudly, that there was no subsidy for post offices when the Conservatives were in government, but the figures are clear. In the last few years of our time in office, the Post Office made a profit of between £22 million and £35 million a year. It did not start losing money until 2000, when this Government had had the chance to interfere for a bit. Since then, it has been losing £50 million, £100 million and nearly £200 million a year. The Government do not recognise the difference between the conditions that prevailed when we were in power and those that obtain today.

The Secretary of State also said that there are no constraints on the businesses that post offices can carry out, but he should come with me and talk to sub-postmasters. They want to offer PayPoint but have been told that they cannot. They want to work with carriers
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other than Royal Mail—for example, FedEx, UPS and others—but they have been told that they are not allowed to. Moreover, they must face the problem that Royal Mail will go to their biggest customers and persuade them into direct deals that cut post offices out by undercutting the stamp price that those offices are allowed to charge.

The Secretary of State missed the fundamental point about the constraints being placed on future business, about which so many colleagues spoke in the debate. It is bad enough for people to have their post office taken away, but it is obscene for the Government to put in place measures that will serve to close down the whole shop as well. To tell postmasters and postmistresses that they may no longer operate the national lottery, operate PayPoint terminals or offer the facilities that they have spent years understanding is to do massive damage to the communities that they serve.

It is one thing for the Post Office to say that people may no longer buy a stamp from a shop, but to say that they will no longer be able to buy their bread and milk there is to go way beyond its powers. In addition, many of the services offered by post offices will simply be moved to the shop next door, if there is one. That means that people will not migrate naturally from the post office that has closed to the one a few miles away; instead, they will simply go to the shop next door.

Also discussed were the talks about the one-for-one issue, and the implications of that approach. Perhaps the Secretary of State should look at those figures as well. So far, 671 closures have been announced in those areas where the consultation process has been completed. As a result of what has gone on, 26 offices have been reprieved, and 19 replaced by other post offices being added to the closure list. So seven out of nearly 700 post offices have genuinely been reprieved. Earlier today, the Prime Minister said that that proportion was about 10 per cent. of the total, although I think that it is about 1 per cent. However, if he makes it 10 per cent., maybe that explains why the economy is in such a mess.

Many hon. Members have spoken of their concerns about the consultation process. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said that six weeks might be appropriate for a matter that was not controversial but that it was otherwise too short a period. My hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) spoke about the factual errors that had been made, and the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) mentioned the people who wanted to close their post offices but who were not being allowed to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner)—it is a great pleasure to see him speaking in this Chamber again—spoke for many when he said that there was a great sense that the decisions had already been made.

Excellent contributions were also made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson)—although I suspect that the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West reeled off the names of his villages was a nightmare for the Official Report.

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Other hon. Members also contributed to the debate through their comments on their websites and elsewhere. For example, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) says on his site:

He states that one of them is

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) intervened in the debate and told us why she would not vote for our motion, but on her website she says:

However, she will not vote with us to stop that happening. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, said:

The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy)—a Government Minister—said:

Perhaps most deliciously of all, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who in other days would have been supporting us, said in the Grantham Journal:

If anybody would recognise two-facedness, it is he.

When we put our points about the consultation process to the Minister, he said, “It’s Cabinet Office rules; we’ve got to stick to them,” but that same Minister decided to disregard those rules, which said that a consultation process should last 12 weeks, rather than 6 weeks, so one thing applies in the run-up to local elections and another during the consultation process. It is little wonder that the many people in our constituencies who have gone to public meetings on wet, dark wintry nights, who have signed petitions, who have written letters, who have gone on marches, and who have done everything that they can to preserve the facility that they care about, feel let down by the process.

There has been a lot of debate about the access criteria. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire talked about the fact that the distance as the crow flies does not reflect the true distance. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) and the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole talked about bus routes, and how the buses do not go in the right direction, meaning that a journey takes much longer than would have been the case. Again, Labour Members have argued the point on their websites and in their local newspapers. Not all of them have been so assiduous, however; on his website, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said of his local post office closures:

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Well, I bet they got the bunting out for that one. How privileged local people must have felt that their Member of Parliament was taking the issue so seriously. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), formerly Minister with responsibility for small business, said it was important to pick

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