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4 Jun 2008 : Column 283WH—continued

The proposal to substitute for the post office a mobile service for nine hours is unacceptable for a number of reasons. A minor one is that the suggested site is a very steep car park. It gets icy during the winter and it would be dangerous for pensioners and older people to access. If the post office has to close—my wish is that it will not close—it would be much better for the service to be
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hosted by an existing facility in Llanwrtyd, such as a shop or the tourist information centre, which is no longer run by Powys county council but by a private operation. If the post office, or what is to be substituted for the post office, were in one of those facilities, those facilities would be more likely to remain open. We sincerely hope that the conclusion is a hosted or partner service rather than a mobile service.

I have talked about Llyswen and Erwood. Merthyr Cynog will have a mobile service, and Pantydwr will have a hosted service. For a rural area such as mine, the number of closures could create real difficulties in relation to village life and the sustainability of rural communities. A 2005 Postcomm survey suggested that 91 per cent. of people believe that post offices play an important role in their community. An article in TheDaily Telegraph in March 2008 estimated that half of the 2,500 post offices earmarked for closure double up as village shops. The post office is often the last shop in the village, in which case the closure of the post office rings the death knell for the shop as well.

Although our campaign to keep those village post offices is drawing to a close, the next campaign is already beginning, because we see it as a real challenge to keep open the post office network that will remain after the closures that might take place. I call on the Minister to ensure that the Post Office has the ability to advertise the services that it provides. At some of our post offices, postmasters have posted handwritten signs outside their post offices to show that they still issue car tax discs. Surely we can have a system to inform people that the Post Office has not withdrawn from that service, as it has had to withdraw, unfortunately, from the television licence service.

For example, I run a small business, a farm, and every week I have to write a PAYE—pay-as-you-earn—cheque for my employees. I used to send it to some anonymous office in Shipley, from whence I received no further communication as to whether it had arrived or not. Now I realise that I can deal with that at a post office and get a receipt, so I have a record. We need to alert the public to the fact that such facilities are available in post offices, in which case we will stand a chance of keeping some of them open.

This is a sad day for mid-Wales, for Brecon and Radnorshire and particularly for the elderly. I am told—I do not know whether this is true—that the total saving in relation to the closure programme for the 2,500 post offices is £48 million. It is an awful lot of grief and worry for people not only in Brecon and Radnorshire but throughout the country for a £48 million saving. I do not know whether the process, which must have been costly in terms of staff and time, justifies that.

You have been generous with me, Mr. Atkinson, as other hon. Members have, but what I have said needed saying. The Government seem to have given up on rural communities and rural Wales, and it is vital that the remaining post offices in mid-Wales continue to operate and that we do not face further closures in the future.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I remind hon. Members of the
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time? We have just over half an hour for Back-Bench contributions, so to allow everyone to speak, I urge hon. Members to be reasonably brief. I call Hywel Williams.

2.58 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Thank you, Mr. Atkinson; I will take your injunction to heart. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on securing the debate. It is an important, if slightly unglamorous, debate, covering the bread-and-butter issues that constituency MPs deal with every day. Clearly, such a debate cannot compete with the glamour of the debate in the main Chamber, as not a single member of the Welsh parliamentary Labour party is here. Presumably, those hon. Members are in the main Chamber, vying with one another to contribute to the debate on volunteering—or possibly not. However, this is an important issue, pertinent not only to mid-Wales but to all of rural Wales.

The point that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made about rurality being defined in terms of populations of under 10,000 people is very important for my constituency. Not a single town in the constituency of Caernarfon has a population of more than 10,000, so I assume that all of my constituency is defined as rural, which would come as a surprise to some of the town dwellers.

Rural Wales faces a profound challenge. I will mention only in passing such challenges as the Government’s decision to grant greater tax relief in relation to capital gains on holiday homes. That will have a strong effect on that market. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published just today on housing in Wales shows that there are 18,000 empty houses, while at the same time homelessness in rural Wales is up sharply. Houses in rural Wales typically cost five time average earnings. That is a truly shocking scenario. The challenge to life in rural Wales is clearly substantial, and it will become more substantial—the situation is even more dangerous—because of the Post Office proposals. They not only affect post offices in mid-Wales, but will extend to north Wales as a result of the consultation that is under way, which I understand will report at the end of July.

I shall not go through all the arguments. They are fairly familiar, as such debates are held regularly in this Chamber—indeed, I have contributed to a number of them. However, it is worth quickly restating some points. For instance, rural sub-post offices are focal points for the community; they pay pensions and benefits and provide all kinds of vital services—not only shopping, but basic information and social contact for local people. Some of those services are not commercial; some are. The commercial ones might not be viable without the post office element, such as the one at Llyswen referred to by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire.

In my constituency, we have a sub-post office that is clustered with a couple of other shops. I believe that those shops depend on each other to attract custom; without the post office, there would be a serious threat to the viability of the other shops that crowd into that parade, which is in a nice area in the north of Caernarfon. It is not only post offices that are under threat; their
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closure will also affect newsagents, small grocery stores and so on. The area will be less attractive for shoppers. Closing the post office can have a domino effect on other local shops. We should also be aware of the multiplier effect, which has been mentioned a number of times, as people who claim a benefit or draw money from the local post office tend to spend it locally. That pound circulates more widely and has a much more beneficial effect on the local economy.

Between March 2001 and December 2007 in Wales, 258 post offices closed, many of them in rural areas in mid and north Wales. That is about 19 per cent., or nearly one in five. As I said, a consultation is taking place in north Wales and we expect a number of post offices to be closed. Some of them, I suppose reasonably, will close because people will want to retire and put their business up for sale, but I am sure that some will be closed in the teeth of local opposition. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Post Office will listen to local opinion when the consultation is held in north Wales.

As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, mobile post office vans have been introduced in my constituency, which is in a particularly rural part of the Lleyn peninsula. That, of course, has led to diminished hours. It also raises specific questions about the business model. The provider of the van found that he could not make a business of driving the 50 or 60 miles while ensuring that someone minded the shop at home. At the same time, although some people accepted a service every two or three days, some found it insufficient.

Given the geography of rural Wales—and the deeply rural areas of England and the north of Scotland—the post office could be miles away. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, the standard is three miles. However, 5 per cent. of people might be as far as six miles away from the post office. In rural areas where public transport, if there is any, might be scarce, travelling such a distance could be a challenge.

We are all aware that there is a green aspect. In areas such as Powys, which is represented by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, it is not surprising that car ownership is at its highest—and incomes are at their lowest. Car ownership is sometimes seen as a measure of prosperity, but in Powys the car is a necessity. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that many families own one, two or even three cars in order to ensure that life in rural areas is viable. Cars are not a costly luxury, but a costly necessity. For such families, the withdrawal of the post office will be a further disincentive to live in rural areas.

Rural poverty is also an issue. Without doubt, lack of access to good services is a major component of poverty. That is recognised in the index used by the Welsh Assembly Government to measure deprivation and poverty. Remoteness is another factor. The closure proposals will exacerbate rural poverty on such measures.

One might think that some of those bad effects could be countered by the introduction of new technology and that people could perhaps use services online. I draw the House’s attention to a report published yesterday, which shows that in rural areas broadband access is not easy to obtain because of what are called not-spots, although BT claims that only 1 per cent. of Wales has not-spots. None the less, I seem to have many of them
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in my constituency. For example, one cannot receive broadband in the village of Rhiwlas but gallingly one can see Caernarfon and Bangor on the coast from there as it is high on the side of the hill. One can see areas where people have not only good access to shops but broadband.

We may have not-spots, but significantly yesterday’s report also noted that broadband speeds in Wales are about half those in London. I have no technical expertise in these matters, but I believe that as a result it is more difficult to use broadband for all kinds of services, not least receiving television pictures—but that is another matter. Such things have a significant effect on the viability of living in rural areas. Local businesses in my constituency that use the post office and might use broadband instead will have to think again, because of the difficulties of working online.

The rural-urban split is deepening, as life in much of Wales becomes more and more unsustainable. The Government’s policy should be to ameliorate that divide, not deepen it, as a perhaps unintended consequence of that deliberate and unwelcome policy.

3.7 pm

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): I am aware of the shortness of time, Mr. Atkinson, so I shall be brief.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on securing this important debate. I also have a good word for the Minister. Of all the poisoned chalices on offer in Westminster, he seems to have drawn the most unpalatable. It is a credit to him that over the past few months he has been at one debate after another attempting to defend the indefensible. I remember the mauling that he suffered in March in an Opposition day debate on the subject. It must be difficult for him to undertake his present role. Nevertheless, I believe that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire was right to invite the Minister to come here again this afternoon to take another mauling from Welsh Members.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has already mentioned the particular difficulties caused by the remoteness of his community. Mid-Wales is a part of the country that I know only too well. My wife comes from mid-Wales, and I can certainly attest to the area’s remoteness. I sometimes wonder how I ever found her, but find her I did. In many respects, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency resembles mine. It is one of scattered villages, many separated by hills and rivers. That is where the Government’s access criteria fail. The three-mile radius is meaningless when one considers the topography of mid and north Wales. One cannot travel as the crow flies there. The damage being done to communities in the rural parts of Wales by the closure programme, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) pointed out, is significant.

Very often, the post office is literally the only business in the village, let alone the only shop. There are villages in my constituency, as I am sure there are in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, where the post office is also the shop, and it might also be a small guest house. As a composite, such a business is viable, but if one element is taken out, it becomes unviable. I regret to say that that is precisely what will happen in mid and north Wales and in other rural parts of Wales when the closure programme is completed.

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Rural life in Wales is becoming increasingly difficult. We have seen school closure programmes, the effect of high fuel prices and now the effect of the Government’s disgraceful tinkering with vehicle excise duty. It is becoming almost impossible to live a civilised life in rural parts of Wales, and the post office closure programme is doing deep social damage to the fabric of life.

When the Government tabled their successful amendment to the Opposition day motion, it was interesting that they recognised

If they really do recognise the vital role of post offices, why are they presiding over such a draconian closure programme?

For many people in mid-Wales and other parts of Wales, the post office closure programme will simply be the last straw. Businesses will close across Wales, and the heart will be taken out of village communities, which will ultimately die. It is sad that the Government are presiding over this programme with apparent equanimity, seemingly oblivious to the social effects that they are inflicting on people in scattered rural communities. It is probably too late for the Government to think again, but I would like the Minister to reflect on the damage that has been done and possibly even to consider apologising for it to the people of Wales.

3.12 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) for raising this important issue. The front pages of the Cambrian News and the Cardigan Tivy-side Advertiser in my constituency have yet to break any news, so I am a little in the dark as to where we are going on the issue. As Members, we wait with expectation for the announcement on Friday, as well as for the public announcement next Tuesday.

Like the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), I am in a reflective mood and I shall comment first on the consultation process. In all fairness, it has been a very thorough affair in my constituency. There have been a huge number of submissions to the Post Office about the changes to services in the 14 communities concerned. The Post Office management have shown willingness—although they were slightly reluctant on one occasion—to come and listen to local people’s concerns. We have had public meetings, and about 1,200 people listened to the Post Office’s case, as well as the alternative case that some of us put.

The sad reality, however, is that on more than one occasion the tone from the Post Office has been that it is a done deal and there is little opportunity to influence the course of events. That perception was not helped when the Post Office seemed to prejudge the outcome of the consultation. To give just one small example, the post office in Talybont, which is threatened with closure, had its parcel collection scheme removed because of the uncertainty about the post office’s future. That may seem very small in the big picture, but it is a big issue for the community’s small businesses.

We have used the opportunity of the consultation to clarify many of the Post Office’s misconceptions about the reality on the ground. I still question how thoroughly
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the Post Office consultation team drew up its proposals, because they ranged from completely inappropriate locations for proposed mobile services—sometimes in very unsafe locations—to discussion of public transport services that simply did not exist or whose operating times did not tally with the opening hours of the recommended alternative branches. As other hon. Members have suggested, the proposals also referred to alternative branches that could, ironically, never cope with the increased custom, even if people were in a position to move from branch to branch.

Mrs. Gillan: Has the hon. Gentleman had any help from Postwatch in Ceredigion? Will he comment on what is happening with Postwatch? How will it be affected if it goes into a consumer council?

Mark Williams: I worry about Postwatch, and the hon. Lady is right to mention it. Postwatch’s role in the process has been minimal, and I am very concerned about it. In some instances, Postwatch did not even come to our large consultation meetings, which is a real worry. In their many submissions, my constituents were quite wise to that fact.

We cannot overstate the significance of practical issues such as access to services and the lack of public transport. I represent a large county with 147 villages and hamlets, where rurality really does mean something. Ceredigion has 7,000 small businesses, which is more than any other constituency in the United Kingdom, let alone Wales. We are talking, therefore, not only about business opportunities for the person who undertakes the mobile van service, but about the great inconvenience to a large number of our small businesses, which are the backbone of the rural economy, and to the farming community. Another threatened post office, in the community of Pontsian, serves a large ward and 64 farming families. Again, small businesses will not easily be able to fit in with the van’s limited hours.

I shall cite one more example to highlight the vagaries of public transport. The now infamous village of Llanddewi Brefi—it is a wonderful community—has a post office with an accompanying village shop. It has been asserted that when the van is not there, people will be able to access services in Tregaron—another delightful town in the south of Ceredigion. However, even if people had the good fortune to catch the bus to Tregaron, which is five miles away, they would either have to undertake all their business in 33 minutes flat so that they could catch the bus home, or they would have to wait two hours for the next service—and that is a pretty good service, compared with other public services in my constituency. The alternative would be to hire a taxi for the return journey, which would involve a £12 fare.

Sadly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, we are looking ahead to the next campaign. Like the hon. Member for Clwyd, West I shall reflect on the criteria set out by the Government. We were told at the numerous public meetings that the Post Office was the agent of the Government and of Government decision making, and that the criteria are a Government responsibility. However, there has been a complete lack of recognition of rural deprivation. Ninety-nine per cent. of the total population in deprived urban
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areas across the UK are to be within one mile of the nearest post office branch, but the same recognition has not been afforded to rural areas.

Ceredigion and the constituency of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) fall into the EU convergence funding—formerly objective 1—area for a very good reason. As he said, the National Assembly, through its communities first programme, has also recognised that they are areas of acute rural deprivation. Europe has recognised that, the Welsh Assembly Government have recognised it, but the Westminster Government seem not to recognise it in this instance. There is a widely held perception that the communities of west Wales, which are scattered and isolated, are being left to wither on the vine.

Over and above its initial criteria, the Post Office has said that it would consider the impact on local economies, but I seriously question how much weighting it has given to that critical factor. In many communities in Ceredigion—Talybont, Llanilar, Llangeitho, Llanddewi Brefi and Pontsian—the post office is integrally linked to the village shop: if one goes, the other will go too. I remain very concerned about the future viability of those businesses. I cite again the verdict of the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which I realise the Minister heard yesterday in the debate on post office closures in East Devon. The Committee said that

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