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4 Jun 2008 : Column 296WH—continued

Hon. Members’ points about the vulnerable in our society such as the elderly and disabled who will be
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disadvantaged by the closures were all validly made, but I have another point to add. In my travels around post offices in Wales, I came across one post office that is located down the road from a women’s refuge. The women there visit the post office regularly. It is one of the safest routes that they can walk. It is an outlet and allows them regular contact with people in the community. Some of those women are the most abused in our society. Removing their local post office will remove a facility that is very valuable to them, and they will have a great deal of difficulty making their voices heard. When I was in Penarth with some disabled post office users, I was alarmed to hear what would happen to their quality of life. At the moment, they can travel down the road to collect their post and carry out their own business at the post office, which would be denied them if that post office were to close. There is fear and anxiety. It is obvious that the Government have no long-term vision for the post office network.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan: I have no intention of giving way. I do not have enough time.

Lembit Öpik: On a point of order, Mr. Atkinson. We all gave way. I had seven minutes, and the hon. Lady insisted on intervening. I know that I cannot force her to give way, but it seems the height of disrespect for her not to give way at least once.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): That is not a matter for the Chair. If the hon. Lady says that she will not give way, she will not give way.

Mrs. Gillan: Thank you, Mr. Atkinson.

We certainly recognise the fantastic service provided by postmasters and sub-postmasters in local communities, which came through in some hon. Members’ contributions. However, what I did not hear from any of the Liberal Democrat Members or the Plaid Cymru Member was a concerted plan for post office action.

As the Minister knows, in response to increasing fears about significant post office closures, the Conservatives published a post office action plan last year. For the sake of symmetry, I shall repeat it, which will give the Minister an opportunity in responding to update me on the Government’s views. First, on freeing up sub-postmasters, we would certainly allow sub-postmasters to provide a greater range of products and services, including private mail services. The network’s long-term future will be best secured if the post office is opened up to new markets and new customers. We want to use post offices as a sort of government GP surgery. We could investigate a scheme in which people with concerns involving a range of government services could use their local post office as a kind of government GP.

Will the Minister update me on what has been happening with the Welsh Assembly Government? The “One Wales” document said that the Government would

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Will he confirm whether that has happened? Also, what has been happening as far as the small business rate relief scheme is concerned for post offices in Wales?

We campaigned on the Post Office card account. We called repeatedly for the Government to review the decision to abolish the POCA, and we were delighted that they responded to our arguments and changed their mind, but we also propose to encourage council counters, which would encourage local councils to see what services they could provide through their post offices and whether they could use the post office network in their area to engage better with local residents.

Services should be more widely available in the community. Indeed, one of the post offices I visited, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, was providing fishing licences for a father and son. That was an excellent additional service. When I visited Pendre, I spoke to Jay Vakil, and in Llanfaes I met Karen Weale with our excellent candidate for Brecon and Radnorshire, Suzy Davies, who has been doing a tremendous amount of work on the issue. She started many of the petitions in the area. I became aware of the pressure from the community to keep those post offices open, as I said when the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) so kindly let me intervene.

The post office closures have worrying implications for Wales. Will the Minister comment on the New Economics Foundation study showing that when post offices close in a community, it has an impact on the local economy, and that a single post office closure could result in the loss of £270,000 to that local economy? The foundation also worked out that every £10 earned by a post office generates £16.20 in income in the local economy. He will know that our economy in Wales is fragile, to say the least, in rural areas. What work has he done on that effect of the closures that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has brought to our attention?

Despite all the protests by Members of Parliament and members of the community, the Government appear not to have responded. I point out to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that no Welsh Labour MPs are present in this debate. When we proposed to halt the closure programme, 22 Welsh Labour MPs voted against our motion; the only one to stick with us was the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), on which he should be congratulated. I believe that the Government are doing Wales and the rest of the country a great disservice. They are not listening to the people. I hope that the Minister will not turn out the standard response that he has been turning out in these debates over the past weeks, months and years, and that this time he will really listen to the people of Wales.

3.50 pm

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): As is customary, I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on securing this debate. As a number of hon. Members have commented, post office closures have been debated a number of times, and in some ways there might not be much new to say. However, he certainly spoke with great passion about his constituency.

Today’s debate reminds me in some ways of the one that we had a couple of months ago on post office
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closures in the highlands and islands, some of the characteristics of which I suspect that mid-Wales shares: it is geographically large and sparsely populated. It has 166 post offices serving about 200,000 people. Of those post offices, 13 are scheduled for closure, which is actually a lower proportion than the average across the country, partly in recognition of some of those characteristics, about which all three of the mid-Wales Members spoke.

The hon. Gentleman made some points about the release of information. The Post Office is trying to inform people, such as MPs and sub-postmasters, before decisions are made public, but there is an element of trust in that. If it did not do that and simply released all of the information on one day without telling anyone, I think that people would complain about a lack of advance information.

Mr. Roger Williams: My complaint was not with the Post Office, which has proceeded perfectly properly, but that the information broke in my constituency before I was informed. I do not put the blame on the Post Office.

Mr. McFadden: I understand. I was saying that the Post Office tries to inform people such as MPs and sub-postmasters before information enters the public domain. Difficulties can result if someone else—we do not know who—releases that information, but I suspect that, if the Post Office were to stop informing such people in advance, the effect would be even worse, because people would simply read about it in the newspapers.

Understandably, hon. Members talk about the strength of feeling about, and opposition to, the closures in their constituencies. No one likes their post office to close, even if they do not use it very much. Hon. Members might object, but quite often I have to point out the reasons for some of the closures and set out some of the challenges that face the Post Office. Over the past hour or so, we have not heard a great deal about that. The Post Office’s difficulties are being driven by three significant factors. The first factor is lifestyle change, the biggest example of which is how we receive money. Nowadays, people are used to receiving their salaries directly into their bank accounts, which is reflected as people retire. We might think of the post office as the outlet of choice for almost all pensioners when picking up their pensions, but that is no longer the case. Eight out of 10 have their pensions paid directly into their bank account, and the younger a pensioner is, the more likely that is to be the case—the figure is nine out of 10 among new retirees. That is one example of how things are changing for the Post Office.

The second factor is technology. The past decade has witnessed a complete revolution in the way that people communicate with one another. That technological change has also affected the way that we pay bills and carry out transactions. An example is car tax online, which is a service that did not even exist a year ago. Last year, 500,000 people used it every month, and that figure is now 1 million—1 million people no longer visiting their post offices to tax their cars. What should the Government do about that? Should we deny the availability of that service? I do not believe so. The difficult truth is that, far from being ahead of the curve on technology and
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the way that people live, I believe that the Government are probably behind it. The public are probably ahead of the politicians. That will inevitably have an impact on the number of people who use the Post Office.

Mr. Roger Williams: One way in which the Minister could help is by ensuring that post offices can check the insurance of a car being taxed, without the customer bringing the cover note with them. That way there would be a level playing field.

Mr. McFadden: Those who use the online service like the idea that the databases are joined up behind the scenes, but I do not want to be drawn into too much detail on that, because I have very little time.

The third factor is competition. Other networks now provide some services traditionally provided by the Post Office. Reference was made to the television licence, the contract for which was lost to another network, as a result of a decision taken by the BBC, not the Government. That illustrates the environment in which the Post Office is working.

A number of Members made a general point about the Government giving up on rural areas and ignoring the social side of post offices. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Government are in the middle of putting in place support for the post office network of some £1.7 billion in the years running up to 2011, which will enable thousands of post office branches that would otherwise be under threat from the kind of changes that I have talked about—in technology, lifestyle and competition—to stay open. I understand that it is difficult for communities when faced with a post office closure, but it is also important to recognise the size and extent of Government support for the post office network. That £1.7 billion demonstrates that the Government are doing anything but giving up on rural areas and the social side of post offices. Some of the individual post offices mentioned today have fewer than 100 customers a week and some of them have fewer than 50. In those post offices, the subsidy per transaction is between £8 and £17. That is the extent of the support for some rural post offices.

On future business, of course the Post Office card account is out to tender. A decision will be made by the Department for Work and Pensions later this year. Legally, we must put that decision out to tender; we cannot simply give that business to the Post Office. It is in a strong position to bid, but let us see how it turns out. I do not believe that the future can involve turning back the clock on the lifestyle changes about which I spoke. I do not believe that any of us will be collecting our state pension from post offices, but there are new possibilities, one of which involves the provision of identity management information—passports, driving licences and, possibly in the future, identity cards. So when hon. Members say, “Let’s give more work to the Post Office,” we should point out that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats would even create the possibility for the Post Office to gain access to that line of work. It would have to bid for that work, but it could represent an important line of business, yet every Member who spoke today represents a party that opposes even that possibility. I hope that we can consider that when saying that the Government should give the Post Office more business.

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Wiltshire Police Helicopter

4 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): May I say what a pleasure it is to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, and welcome my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray)? They have been fighting this campaign along with me and other Members with Wiltshire constituencies. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) has sent her apologies. She has been called away elsewhere on business, but she, too, has pledged her support for the Wiltshire police helicopter.

The reason for the debate is that the Wiltshire police helicopter was one of the very first in the country and is still one of only two that provide a joint air ambulance service. It is important to put on record just how busy the helicopter is. Back in 1990, when it came into operation as part of the air operations unit of Wiltshire constabulary, no one could have had any idea how important it would become to the county’s policing. It provides 19 hours’ cover per day, 365 days a year, and it is on call for those missing hours between 3 am and 8 am as requested.

Over the past three years, the helicopter has flown 3,693 sorties, and it has been involved in finding 53 vulnerable missing persons, sufferers from Alzheimer’s and similar dementia cases. It has been involved in the arrests of 506 people, the location of 60 vehicles, the recovery of property to the value of £275,000 and, most significantly, in taking 906 seriously injured patients to hospital. That is a remarkable record for a helicopter that operates on a budget of £1.6 million a year.

The funding is divided into three sources. The public finance grant, which comes from the Home Office, is £405,000 a year. The Great Western ambulance service pays 30 per cent. of the cost of the first 500 flying hours and 25 per cent. of the cost of any further hours, and that budget provision works out at about £326,000 a year. Wiltshire police fund the balance of £911,000. All that funding excludes the cost of the paramedics, who are provided by the Great Western ambulance service. The paramedics provide an observer role for the helicopter when it is flying, and without them Wiltshire police would incur extra costs.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is it not true that the equation he has just set out—the three sources of funding—has made the ambulance and police facility totally viable, and that if it is broken, it is likely that neither service will be available to our constituents?

Robert Key: Emphatically yes. My right hon. and learned Friend is wholly right, and part of the magic of the Wiltshire solution to the problem is that it involves the community. The air ambulance side of the facility is provided by a charitable trust, but more on that later.

The helicopter is manned by three individuals. The pilot is provided under a private finance initiative and employed by a company called Police Aviation Services. The first observer role is provided by a police officer who is trained in air support, and police observers are trained and competent to carry out limited health care,
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too. The second observer role is provided by a paramedic who is fully trained to supply health care at the incident if necessary. Both police and ambulance observers are trained to national police observer standards.

As I said, the helicopter is provided by a PFI contract with Police Aviation Services. As the contract is for the provision of an operationally ready helicopter, the risk of breakdowns, non-availability and so on is passed to the provider, rather than held by the public sector as is usually the case with police helicopters.

Negotiations to extend the contract, which comes to its close at the end of this year, are taking place with Police Aviation Services, but there are still problems about short-term extensions because the camera equipment support contract is also about to terminate. Over the 10 years of the contract, technology has advanced and initial quotations to replace the equipment stand at about £800,000. Short-term extensions are therefore economically unviable, but discussions continue.

That sounds fine, but the Wiltshire public—our constituents—are very worried about a number of aspects. I shall not go into the relationship between the charitable trusts and the Great Western ambulance service, although that concern has been drawn to the attention of the charity commissioners. I am concerned about the impact on Wiltshire policing, which is why I decided to ask a Home Office Minister to respond to the debate. The Wiltshire police authority is very keen to renew the arrangement with the Great Western ambulance service for a further five years, and the authority wants the joint service to continue if at all possible. The position of the ambulance service, however, is a bit more enigmatic, and in a letter dated 12 May the chief executive explains why the service is involved in a long-term review of the situation. He simply says:

That might be good for the Great Western ambulance service, but it is very bad news for the police service.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): It was not as if the Great Western ambulance service did not know about the renewal. Does my hon. Friend not think it remarkable that Great Western has taken this long to crack on with its review? The review is its problem; it should not become the police’s.

Robert Key: I am very glad that my hon. Friend from west Wiltshire has joined us for the debate, because he has been a doughty fighter for his constituents, who, if anything, are rather more rural than even mine and depend even more on the joint service. He is wholly right. The problem has not just suddenly sprung up and hit everyone; it has been predictable for 10 years. Now, however, the situation has been thrown into confusion, not least because only two days ago, on 2 June, the Great Western ambulance service issued a press release announcing the start of its new air ambulance service, which will become “operational this week”. The problem is that it leaves Wiltshire in the same position as before. The announcement is fine for people in Avon and in Gloucestershire. It is good news for them, except that unlike the police helicopter, the air ambulance cannot fly 24 hours a day. It can fly only in daylight hours, which means that in winter it will fly for only seven or eight hours a day, unlike the Wiltshire service, which one can fly all the time. The Civil Aviation Authority is
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also changing the rules governing the public use of helicopters, which further complicates the equation.

We are fortunate that the Minister is present today, because she has in a very short time acquired a great deal of expertise in the matter. On 13 May, the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) initiated a debate in this Chamber about the problems that people have been having in the north-east—in Northumberland, with which you will be familiar, Mr. Atkinson, as the Member for Hexham. What the Minister said then is, to a large extent, applicable to what is going on in Wiltshire now. She mentioned that

But she also talked of

That is extremely important. She pointed out that

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