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4 Jun 2008 : Column 290WH—continued

We cannot overstate the significance of the post office in rural life. It is the last community social business in those communities. When the village school has gone and the chapel is boarded up the post office is the last thing left. Sometimes I think that we and the Government have been debating completely different cases; the social role of post offices has been neglected.

I know that the Minister is well versed in the many anecdotes that he has been and will be subjected to in past and coming months, but people such as Heulwen Astley, the postmistress in Talybont, and Ann Mayes-Davies in Pontsian, have served their communities very well, and, if given the opportunity, will continue to do so in future. The majority of postmasters and postmistresses I have spoken to in the affected areas are keen to carry on their businesses and do not want to join the exodus that others have talked about. They want their businesses to thrive, and they want support. I should have thought that if the Post Office was sincere about supporting those retail businesses it would at the very least have offered them an outreach facility. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire cited the example of the van parked outside the shop. Pontsian post office near Llandysul is a case in point. If the proposal proceeds, the van will be located outside that shop. What an insult to the years of service that the postmistress has given. Giving her the chance to have the outreach facility in the shop would at least guarantee footfall across the threshold.

I am conscious of the time, so I will be quick, but I want to ask the Minister the extent of his discussions, and the Post Office’s, with the National Assembly Government, in the light of the announcement in January of the recommencement next year of the post office development fund, which did good work in its previous
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life. Another threatened post office in Ceredigion, Devil’s Bridge, was one of those that benefited from the development fund. The branch received many accolades from the Post Office itself. Edryd and Jane Jenkins, the owners, have done a huge amount of community work, which has been acknowledged by the Post Office. They pioneered a service there with the Dyfed-Powys police, yet it seems that when the National Assembly starts its work next year, even in the communities first areas that it has defined itself, the post offices will already have gone.

Business has been taken from the Post Office over many years, such as the loss of TV licences. There is a continuing fear about the future of the Post Office card account. I hope that, as other hon. Members have said, notwithstanding the economics of the issue and the work that needs to be done to publicise future post office services and encourage people to use them, the Government will at least acknowledge the essential social role of post offices. The irony is that at a time when the Post Office is being branded “the people’s Post Office”, in Wales, practically and theoretically, it seems far removed from people’s everyday lives.

3.23 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on bringing this important issue to the fore once again. I ask myself to what end he has done that. To what extent are the Government genuinely willing to listen to the feedback that he, I and so many other Members of Parliament have tried to bring to their attention? Let us recognise that while the Post Office has indeed conducted a consultation its hands have been tied by the political judgment of the Government to go ahead and demand the closure of 2,500 post offices. I understand that in total more than 5,000 post offices have shut since 1997. That is a lamentable record when one considers the value of post offices to the communities that have lost them.

In advance of the comments of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) for the Conservatives, and in response to the comments of the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), we have evidence about what happens when post offices shut. Communities shut down too. They become dormitories for larger local conurbations. Sadly, more than 4,000 post offices were shut under the reign of the Conservatives, so we need not look too far back to see the damage that has been done. I ask the hon. Lady, if she is minded to do so, to tell us what assurances we have that a future Conservative Government would perform any better than the present Government. I judge people on reaction and results, and unfortunately I do not think that the Conservatives performed significantly better at preserving our post office network than the current Government.

Mrs. Gillan: It may have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s notice that under the last Conservative Government the Post Office actually made a profit.

Lembit Öpik: Yet still the Conservatives closed post offices. That makes the position even more incongruous than I believed.

The criteria for considering which post offices to shut have been described as numerous, but money is obviously
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the core consideration. The Government and the Post Office say that they have been required to make a profit and that what is happening is the only way they can do it. Actually, the Government could make a different political judgment instead of dogmatically requiring the closure of post offices; if, rather than taking away the ability of post offices and sub-postmasters to offer facilities, they positively widened that access, we would not be in the mess that we are in. The irony is that television licensing, which was taken away from the Post Office, costs more now than it did under the Post Office.

With an ageing population and high rural house prices the problem is even worse in rural areas such as mine. Several post offices have been and continue to be under threat in my constituency, including those at Llanbrynmair, a small settlement with no convenient local alternative; Carno, a village with the capacity to grow substantially; Trefeglwys, which has a successful shop, and where others, including the community, are interested in taking on the post office facility; Garth Owen, the only other post office in Newtown, which has a population of about 11,000; Sarn, where there is a small outlet of many years’ standing; Castle Caereinion, which has a cherished and well used post office under the auspices of Michael Rogers; Berriew, which is an idyllic village with many tourists and a Spar shop that is very keen to take on the facility; and Abermule, perhaps the greatest concern of all, where Pauline and Peter Albrecht have worked their guts out to make their shop successful and their sub-post office an important local service. All those post offices are under threat because of the mandate that has come from the centre.

It is all very well for the Government to adopt the approach of pretending that there is no alternative. If they gave post offices more opportunity to provide wider services, profits would be forthcoming. In addition, the Government seem to be ignoring what is happening in the oil market at the moment. With diesel at £1.30 a litre in my area, my constituents are all too aware of the additional cost of travelling to other post offices in lieu of those that are to be closed. Let us not pretend that what is happening is cheap. If Castle Caereinion post office were to shut it would cost at least £2 to post a letter, taking into account the cost of the fuel to travel to the next nearest post office, at Llanfair Caereinion.

What about the environmental consequences? The Government talk about wanting to be environmentally responsible, yet in the same breath they announce the decimation of rural services, so that people are forced to travel further than ever before for such facilities. The Government also seem to ignore the fact that post offices are not just a business service; they are a social service. Nothing in the accountancy-led decision that has been made seems to reflect the social importance of post office facilities to constituencies such as Montgomeryshire and those of my hon. Friends who are here today.

The strength of feeling can be garnered not just by word of mouth from the population but from the well organised and coherent campaigns that have been run by so many people in the affected communities. I pay tribute to the County Times, which has done more than any other paper in my constituency to highlight the issue and consistently to portray, with a fact-based approach, how important local people consider post
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offices to be. Furthermore, the paper employs the finest photographer and some of the finest reporters anywhere in the land.

In conclusion, I have some questions for the Minister. Why are the Government unwilling to make a surcharge, so that the private competitors of the Royal Mail have to pay towards the universal service obligation? What is the justification for continuing with the ludicrous access headroom discount, which means that the Post Office has to discount its competitors? Why could that money not be used to cross-subsidise the post office network? We could also look again at the price of stamps. What assurance can the Minister give us that the consultation process, in which all of us have meticulously participated, has the capacity to make any positive difference?

Like many others, I have acted in good faith. I have worked with the Post Office, Postwatch and Ministers to get the Government to think again. Forthcoming announcements will give a clear indication as to whether the Government and the Post Office value the consultation and whether the social value of post offices has been taken into consideration. If there is wholesale closure of rural post offices, they will also tell us that the Government know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

3.30 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on securing this debate. He said that today is a sad day for the people of Wales, as indeed it is, because they have learned that they are going to lose yet more post offices. He spoke about the impact, particularly on his most vulnerable constituents, and the idiocy of closing a post office, losing the shop, and putting a mobile post office immediately outside. That defies common sense. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and my hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and for Brecon and Radnorshire have also discussed whether the access criteria take into account the pressures of rural areas.

I welcome the Minister once again to his usual place. We debate this issue at least once a week—indeed, I have seen him debate it with individual hon. Members much more frequently than that. I am sure that he realises the extent of the anger among hon. Members, including those on the Government side, about the decision to close 2,500 post offices in addition to the 4,000 that closed in previous Government programmes, and the 3,500 post offices that were closed by the Conservatives when they were in power.

There is huge frustration that the Government simply do not recognise the social value of the post office. All hon. Members who have spoken, including my hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion and for Brecon and Radnorshire, have mentioned the frustration of the consultation process. The former spoke about the sense that the proposals were a done deal and that once they were put forward, nothing could be done to fix the problem. Many other hon. Members in previous debates expressed the frustration that my constituents feel, because, even if they managed to save one post office, they would be told by Post Office Ltd that a nearby office would be closed.

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Mr. Roger Williams: I did not cover that point in my contribution. We managed to save a post office in my constituency, but we wait with bated breath to find out whether another has been identified for closure, which would mean going through the whole six-week consultation process again.

Sarah Teather: Absolutely—it is invidious to expect local people to make such a choice. People will always campaign for their local post office, and they understand that the closure of a post office could have a huge impact on a neighbouring area. Six weeks is not long enough to put together any kind of sensible rescue package. Many communities, perhaps working with the local authority or businesses, want to put together a rescue package to ensure that a post office continues to be viable, but six weeks is not long enough to do that. It is as if we are simply going through the motions. By law, the Government must consult, but they are not terribly interested in what local people think about the impact of closures.

London is a different kind of area—it is urban rather than rural—but we in Brent have just found out that another six post offices are due to close, so I sympathise with the frustration that hon. Members feel. Only 60 per cent. of post offices that were open in 1997 remain. A number of hon. Members spoke about queues. I have seen a change in people’s behaviour even before post offices close, and the queues are already unmanageable at neighbouring post offices.

All hon. Members who have spoken mentioned the impact on local shops. That is especially relevant in villages, where the post office might be the only shop, but it is also relevant in urban areas where, often, post offices reside in small parades of shops. If the post office is lost, the shop often goes with it. Because of the lack of footfall to neighbouring shops, the whole parade of shops in the area could be lost.

A post office has an important economic role to play in surrounding areas—the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion made that point well. A number of reports have attempted to quantify their value. The New Economics Foundation, for example, has said that the cost to an urban area’s economy of losing a post office is around £277,000, which impacts on VAT received by the Government. Sometimes, the Government do not benefit greatly from their own cuts. In rural areas, it has been estimated that for every £1 of subsidy, there is something between a £2 and £4 pound benefit to the local economy.

Mobile post offices are simply inadequate to replace an original post office. They will not replace local shops that are lost.

A number of hon. Members spoke about the small amount of money—£45 million—that the Government will save from the process. Given the amount of grief they get and the impact on the rural economy, I am sure that the Minister, sitting in his place yet again, wonders whether it is really worth it and whether, in the long run, it will cost the Government more money. I know that he will hate my raising this, but that sum is in stark contrast to the figures published by Royal Mail that show that Adam Crozier gained more than £3 million in bonuses, benefits and salaries. The Minister has an answer to that point, because he knows that I make it all the time.

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The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): I appreciate that my time to speak is coming. I assure the hon. Lady that I do not hate her raising anything—before today’s debate, I simply said that our exchanges are sometimes predictable.

Sarah Teather: Of course, there is a way to fix that: the Government could change their mind, so that we do not have to go through this little game once a week, in which we all have a go at the Minister for closing our local post offices. If he simply changed his mind and stopped closing our post offices, we would not need to go through this little ritual. It is in the Minister’s hands, but I shall endeavour to be unique in contributing to these debates. We make some of our points repeatedly, because he does not appear to be able to hear us.

Many hon. Members spoke of the sense that losing the local post office would mean losing everything in the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion has spoken passionately about the many things that his rural area will lose and the fact that the post office is the last thing standing. I assure him that the same is true in urban areas. We have lost police stations, and job and health centres. There is a sense that everything is going and that facilities that offer opportunities for people to deal face to face with one another are being closed.

The Business and Enterprise Committee report raised the spectre of further closures, because the Post Office refuses to state the lower limit on the number of post offices for a viable network. I am especially anxious about that. Only 7,500 post offices are required to meet the Government’s access criteria, and the Government simply do not have a long-term plan for the sustainability of the network. The whole point of the closure programme, supposedly, is to drive the footfall into the remaining post offices to make them viable, but that does not stand up, and it has not been demonstrated by experience or any sensible audit of the available evidence. When post offices close, people tend to change their behaviour and stop using post offices, because it is more difficult to get to them—people might have to drive or take several buses, as my hon. Friends have mentioned, so it becomes impossible.

In my remaining minutes, I shall suggest what the Government might do. I hope that they will consider separating the Post Office from Royal Mail, which would give the Post Office an opportunity to work with competitors. There are many possibilities for post offices to work as parcel depots, for instance, where people can pick up parcels delivered not just by Royal Mail but by its competitors. That might improve the network’s financial viability.

We need a dramatic increase in investment, including a lump sum, to allow the network to modernise so that it can compete on the high street. In particular, the Crown post office network is haemorrhaging money and urgently needs modernisation. Post offices desperately need a source of revenue. There is uncertainty about the Post Office card account, but I hope that the Government will consider making the Post Office the cornerstone of a new universal service obligation to provide bank accounts, either through the Post Office or by working collaboratively with banks. There are many opportunities that the Government could take to ensure that the post office network is viable, but I suspect that they will not
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take them and that we will simply hear again, “The Government have to do this in order to save money.” That would be a shame.

3.40 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I, too, congratulate all hon. Members who have participated in this debate. I also welcome the Minister to his place. This debate is a little desperate—indeed, the Minister looks a little desperate himself, if he does not mind my saying so. He had the sympathy of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), and he has mine as well, because I know that he will have heard much of this before. However, whereas I am temporarily deaf in my left ear and hope to recover in due course, the Minister and the Labour Government appear to be permanently deaf on the matter of post offices. No matter how many representations are made or debates are held, or how many times we try to repeat the will of the people to this Government, they insist on blanking the wishes of the people in our communities, not least in Wales.

I suppose that I ought to declare an interest. My husband, when he was a senior official in the Department of Trade and Industry, was responsible for the Post Office—indeed, it was under him that it made a profit—and my sister-in-law was a sub-postmistress. I am not unfamiliar with what went on in post offices. Although the Liberal Democrats like to complain about the number of post offices closed under the Conservatives, I assure them that it pales into insignificance when we study the record of this Labour Government, who are closing post offices faster than any other Government in history at a rate of almost 10 a week since 1997. With the announcement about the 2,500 post offices, the network will continue to be decimated. By the time of the next election, we estimate that a third of the entire post office network will have been closed down.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan: No, I do not have enough time. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) almost ate into my time.

The Government’s target for closures arbitrary, illogical and does not take into account whether a post office marked for closure is profitable. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) has said, communities will be pitted against each other, not least because of the dog-eat-dog closure programme under which, if one community campaigns successfully against a closure, a neighbouring branch will be shut down.

I hope that the Minister will address the anomaly in the announcement and its timetabling, because it is appalling that there are doubts about how such announcements are made. For example, I was delighted to learn that the Tremont road post office in Llandrindod Wells will not close, and that Margaret Hodges, the postmistress, will continue to serve the community there, but that is in contrast with Ridgebourne, run by Mr. and Mrs. Yeo, whose fate is yet unknown. The salvation of the neighbouring post office puts the Yeos under more pressure.

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