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4 Jun 2008 : Column 276WH—continued

There have been some inquiries into supermarkets, and the Competition Commission report, to which my hon. Friend referred, explored some of the issues just a few months ago. It found that the grocery market in general was delivering a good deal for consumers, but it identified two areas of concern. The first is that several
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grocery retailers have such a strong position in local markets that it could lead to a poorer retail offer to the consumer, and my hon. Friend touched on that point eloquently. The second area of concern related to the transfer of excessive risk and unexpected costs to suppliers—the relationship between supermarkets and suppliers is, of course, critical—through practices that the commission believes adversely impact on investment and innovation.

What are the remedies for the concerns that have been highlighted? The commission has proposed several, including restrictive covenants and exclusivity arrangements on land sites, which it has the power to implement. Large grocery retailers will be required to notify the Office of Fair Trading of all acquisitions of large grocery stores. In addition, the commission has recommended to the Government that a competition test be adopted and that the OFT act as a statutory consultee in the process. On the supply chain, the commission will establish the grocery supply chain code of practice.

Mr. Sheerman: I know what the Competition Commission said, but what I want to know is what the Government will do about the monopoly—the Minister admitted that large retailers account for more than 80 per cent. of the market, which is a monopoly. What are the Government going to do to break up that monopoly? Why can we not start taxing supermarkets so that the tax can flow back into communities to regenerate them?
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He has not answered that question. All that wealth is going out of communities. What are we going to do to put it back in?

Mr. McFadden: I am not sure that I accept some of what my hon. Friend has just said. Supermarkets, of course, pay tax—they are major businesses and they pay tax. Whether we are talking about a monopoly is also something to be debated. I said that we were talking about big power, and it is big power when four or five chains are in the position that they are. Whether that is a monopoly, however, is subject to debate. Nor do I accept that all the wealth goes out of the community. We are talking about major employers, which employ hundreds of thousands of people. My hon. Friend says that the wages are low—

Mr. Sheerman: They are.

Mr. McFadden: Actually, those jobs often offer paid leave, contributory occupational pensions and benefits that are quite attractive to employees, as well as flexible hours. I do not think that the picture on employment is entirely bleak.

There will always be contested views on this issue. As a society, we want the small shops with their character and we want the convenience of the large supermarkets—we want both. Whatever the regime, I suspect that that will remain the case.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.


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Post Office Closures (Mid-Wales)

2.30 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is always a joy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, although I wish I had a more joyful subject to debate. I have called for this debate many times over the past months but, unfortunately, I have not been able to achieve it. This is a little bit late in the day in respect of the consultation on post office closures in mid-Wales. We anticipate an announcement next week. Some news has broken already, and I may mention that in passing during my contribution.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) also feel strongly about this issue. I am aware that other announcements have now taken place in Wales regarding post office closures, so other hon. Members from Wales may wish to be involved in this debate.

The previous programme of planned post office closures, which related to urban areas, was titled “Post Office reinvention”, which was a misnomer if ever I heard one. As far as the Post Office is concerned, an urban area is defined as an area with more than 10,000 people in one settlement or contiguous settlements. Such is the rural nature of my constituency that only three out of the 56 post offices then open were considered urban and were caught up in the reinvention programme. Those were all in the Ystradgunlais area, which is an old coal-mining community in my constituency that has suffered in respect of its economy and its ability to generate employment ever since the mines closed. That area should have been looked after a little bit better. In the end, we saved one of those post offices, but the one that was closed was probably the one that should have stayed open, because it was in the most deprived area. So when we approached the next planned closure programme, we did not really have much confidence that, if we opposed the closure of post offices in our area, the ones that were closed would have the least impact on our communities.

The consultation exercise in 2006 took place prior to the current closure programme. However, it was difficult to engage in that consultation, because people had to read a relatively thick consultation document and then fill in a pro forma to address the issues raised in that document. A number of people felt that they could not engage in that process. Despite the fact that there were only about 160 responses to the formal consultation in Wales, 40 of those came from my constituency, where I set about ensuring that the people whom I represent made the most of the opportunity. We also submitted 220 responses to our own consultation document, which was easier to complete, with the formal consultation. People were concerned about the criteria for post offices in rural areas. Some 95 per cent. of people living in those areas should be within three miles of a post office, but that means that 5 per cent. of people, whatever their age or capacity to access post offices, could live more than three miles away from one.

In my most pessimistic frame of mind, I looked at the relatively large centres of population in my constituency—Llandrindod Wells, with about 5,000 people, and Brecon, with about 8,000—and noticed that a post office in one of those places, with about eight others, might meet the
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95 per cent. criterion. My most pessimistic view then was that we were in for a wholesale closure of post offices. Our contribution to that consultation made little or no difference, because the closure programme went ahead as set out in the consultation document. It seems to me that our representations had no particular effect.

The announcement of the post office closures in mid-Wales under the current closure programme was made on 11 March 2008. By that time, we had been running a campaign to alert people to the possibility of post office closures and distributing postcards to people to be filled in and returned to us so that we could pass them on to the Prime Minister himself in No. 10 Downing street. By 11 March 2008, we had received 2,500 postcard responses. To date, we have received 3,500 postcards from a constituency population of about 50,000. So hon. Members can see the concern and affection. Affection is an emotional term rather than an economic one, but that is how people feel about their local post offices and the contribution that they make to local communities. Furthermore, the postcard campaign required action on the part of my constituents. In many campaigns, people just have to press a button on the web page, hit the “send” button or sign a petition. Petitions are valuable, but with our campaign people had to buy a stamp, stick it on the postcard and send the postcard to me. So people responded actively.

The public consultation has now closed and the Post Office is reviewing the submissions that it received. Probably all the postmasters and postmistresses involved in the process have now been informed of the outcome, but unfortunately some have broken cover and revealed it. That makes it difficult for other postmasters and postmistresses who have kept the confidence, because if their customers ask what the outcome of the consultation is, they will be in a difficult, embarrassing situation. I regret the process that has taken place.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does my hon. Friend recall that something similar happened at an earlier stage in the consultation process? That makes it difficult for those of us who respect those confidences, which must be respected, to do our jobs properly. Does he agree that it is time that some sanction was imposed on people who make it virtually impossible for us to conduct our business simply because of their selfish desire to spread confidential information prior to an embargo being lifted?

Mr. Williams: It certainly makes it difficult for us as representatives of the area, if we do not know what is happening and others do.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He knows that this issue concerns us all, no matter where our constituencies are in the country. It has been brought to my attention that certain post offices know already that they have been reprieved. I did not think that information was embargoed, because my office managed to obtain it quite readily. Will he tell us when the information is embargoed until, because I was proposing to congratulate one of the post offices in his constituency that will remain open? I do not want to contribute to breaking an embargo, but I thought the information was freely available in some instances.


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Mr. Williams: I contacted the Post Office yesterday, when probably the same information that has come to the attention of the hon. Lady was brought to my attention. The Post Office told me that it had contacted the postmasters and postmistresses whose businesses were under review earlier this week and informed them of the outcome. Members of Parliament and Assembly Members who represent affected areas will be officially informed on Friday, and the public statement is to be made next Tuesday. I shall not make a big fuss about the embargo, but it makes the business today a bit more difficult.

Once the Post Office has considered the representations and submissions, the final announcement will be made about those post offices that will be kept open, those that will close and those that will host an outreach service in the form of a mobile service—in other words, a postal van will be in the area for a few hours each week in place of the post office that previously served the area. Some post offices will provide a hosted service, which involves providing the services of a post office in alternative premises, such as a pub, a community centre or a shop.

In the third round of Welsh closures, six post offices were earmarked for closure in Brecon and Radnorshire. It is proposed that out of a total of 54 post offices that are still open, eight should switch to an outreach service. Out of those eight post offices, it is proposed that five should become mobile services and the other three should become hosted services. The five post offices that have been targeted for mobile services will receive a collective post office service of 26 hours a week, and the three listed for hosted services will have a post office service of just eight hours a week.

Two post offices are listed for closure in Brecon, which means a town with a population of roughly 8,000 people will have just one post office. It is also proposed that two post offices in Llandrindod should close, which, again, will mean a town of more than 5,000 people will have just one post office. One post office is earmarked for closure in Evenjobb—a remote village near Presteigne—and we now have information that that closure has been confirmed. Another proposed closure would affect Cwmgiedd, a small village community in Ystradgynlais. In total, 14 post offices will be affected in my constituency. I would like to mention each one, but because of the time and because I can see other hon. Members want to make a contribution, I will keep this as short as I can.

Both Llanfaes and Pendre post offices in Brecon are open 46 hours a week and have a large number of customers who are over 65 years old and who suffer from limiting life-term illnesses. The nearest alternative post office is not far away, but it is situated amid hilly terrain on which it is difficult to walk. The existing branch in the middle of Brecon is crowded, and it is estimated that a minimum of 500 additional customers will now have to use that post office. I often use it, and during the middle of day I have queued for upwards of a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes to be served. Another 500 customers will be directed to that post office, if the closures take place. The people who use both Llanfaes and Brecon post offices have put in substantial submissions to keep them open, and we wait to hear the outcome.


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Mrs. Gillan: I confirm what the hon. Gentleman has said. When I went to Llanfeas to meet Karen Weale, a continuous stream of people queued up to use the post office, and there was not a spare minute in the day. Similarly, when I met Jay Vakil in Pendre, the post office was in constant use. Losing either or both of those post offices would be a disaster for the local community.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. May I ask the hon. Lady to address the Chair, because the Hansard reporters cannot easily pick up her comments?

Mr. Williams: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. It is good that this is not just the subjective opinion of the local Member of Parliament, but that it has been validated by other distinguished hon. Members.

I shall now turn to the two post offices in Llandrindod earmarked for closure, both of which are open for 46 hours a week. Although the alternative branch is not far away, it is not situated in the easiest terrain for less able people—it is about a 25-minute walk and there are no regular buses. The additional 300 to 400 customer sessions that would have to be served by the remaining post office would put great pressure on that facility.

The good news is that we understand that the Tremont road post office has been saved. I can safely say that because it is on the front page of The Brecon and Radnor Express today—a fine organ in my constituency that keeps the public aware of what is going on. I can also see representatives from the County Times sitting at the back today, which is a fine organisation too. I am pleased that Tremont post office has stayed open. It is run by an energetic couple who also run a good shop. I am pleased that such a facility will be available at that end of Llandrindod Wells. I pay particular credit to the community that lives in that area and uses the facilities that the post office provides. It is not the richest community in my constituency, and its needs are great. That community responded to the consultation and to my postcard campaign—huge quantities of postcards were sent back to me. That campaign alerted the community to the seriousness of the proposals, and as such we have had lots of responses. We now wonder whether Ridgebourne will remain open in Llandrindod Wells. Sadly, Evenjobb has received notice that it will close.

A number of other post offices have also received huge support, including Erwood and Llyswen in the Wyre valley. We have had two fantastic public meetings to drum up support for those post offices. Indeed, the ability of people to get to other facilities to obtain cash is limited, and the public transport system is not of the highest order. The proposal to have a mobile service has not been received well by the local people. Indeed, Erwood is in a dangerous position on a trunk road in the middle of a village. The situation in relation to Erwood is entirely unacceptable.

In Llyswen, the proposal is to place the mobile facility outside the shop where the post office is sited. I cannot understand the logic of that. If the post office closes, the likelihood that the shop will be put under economic pressure greatly increases. The synergy between the shop and the post office is what keeps many villages going and provides the services that people desperately need.

Gladestry has been offered a service for two hours a week in the village hall. The postmaster there wants to
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retire, and although the village is not entirely happy with the situation, it is more accepting than some places. However, it is a very remote area. I was present when the Post Office unveiled a cash machine in Llanbister post office not long ago. We thought that that was a good news story, but it was not entirely so.

Mrs. Gillan: If we look at the post offices where an outreach service has been proposed, we see that some services are for nine hours, some for four hours and some for two hours. The irony of the van spending nine hours outside the shop where the post office used to be is not lost on me or anyone else. Does the hon. Gentleman know how those hours were arrived at? Also, what consultation of the local community has been conducted? Presumably, when the service is for only two hours, it will be on a certain day of the week, which may not be convenient for some of the residents who normally use the post office service.

Mr. Williams: The hon. Lady has raised another point. During the consultation, I asked how it was decided which villages would receive a mobile service and for how long and which would receive a hosted or a partner service. There was a considerable amount of sucking of teeth and stroking of chins at that point. I put it to those people that probably the defining factor was trying to get the maximum use out of the mobile facility, not what was best for or would have been most appreciated by that community.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): There are not only consequences in terms of convenience for local users, but consequences for the people providing the service in the van. During the trial run in my constituency, the person supplying the two hours a week in various communities found that he could not make a business out of the hours that he was granted.

Mr. Williams: My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) may be able to refer to a similar experience.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD) rose—

Mr. Williams: I will resist giving way, because I want to get on and because other hon. Members want to speak. This is a long and sorry tale, but I will try not to take up too much time. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has raised an important point that I will consider in relation to Llanwrtyd Wells, which claims to be the smallest town in the UK. It was the location of the composition of “Sosban Fach”, a song that is often sung at rugby internationals, and it is the site of the man versus horse race. Many enterprising things are going on Llanwrtyd Wells, but there is a proposal to close the post office, which residents see as an affront to their status as a town. The lady in question wants to retire—one problem is that some postmasters and postmistresses want to retire.


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