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24 Jun 2008 : Column 32WH—continued

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There is still one outstanding issue on the table—the award of the Post Office card account contract. I do not know why it is sitting in the Government’s pending tray, but I have my suspicions. I do not know why they say that they will come to a decision in the summer, when the House is conveniently not sitting, and when there will be the minimum of publicity, but I have my suspicions. We have already heard from my hon. Friend about how the Post Office card account was forced through, and the Government gritted their teeth because they did not want anything to do with it; but it was embraced by many people who wanted to continue to use post offices for drawing their pensions and benefits in cash.

Every obstacle was put in the way of people’s use of the account. Now we are told that the Post Office network may not win the contract for Post Office card accounts. We hear from the National Federation of SubPostmasters that the consequence of that decision would be the closure of 3,000 more post offices, simply because of the loss of revenue. If I total up what we have lost already, and add to it the post offices under threat simply from natural wastage—the sort of thing that my hon. Friend has already pointed out—and add another 3,000, I conclude that that is the total loss of the rural post office network. It is no good the Government boasting about all the money they say they are putting into the network, if the result is that it is closing. That is the reality.

I want an assurance from the Minister—he will not give it but I want it—that the Post Office card account will not just be awarded to the Post Office network, but will be enhanced to provide better services for those who are not well off, and to fight actively against social and financial exclusion in a way it fails to do now. I know that that is not likely to happen, and that is what worries me. It reinforces my view that old people, poor people and people who live in the countryside do not count in new Labour Britain. That is profoundly worrying. If the Post Office card account is awarded to anyone other than the Post Office, it will be an act of economic and social vandalism of the highest order, and if the Government do that, they should be ashamed of themselves.

11.43 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Benton, to contribute to this debate, which is extremely significant for tens of thousands of people in Somerset. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on the case that he made on behalf of residents throughout the county, and specifically residents of Hinton St. George, a village that I too know. I echo all the sentiments that he expressed on that specific case, and on the value of retaining the post office there, as well as the wider points that he made; the issues are familiar to me in relation to Taunton Deane and West Somerset as well. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on his typically impassioned defence of Somerset rural life. He has a well deserved reputation in the House, built up over more than a decade, as a keen defender of Somerset residents and their interests.

I want to echo some of the themes that have already been raised in the debate, and perhaps raise one or two related matters, as well as touching on specific cases from my constituency. I start by acknowledging, as my
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hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil said, that the nature of rural life in Britain has undoubtedly changed in the past 50 years or so. Indeed, the nature of rural and urban life is constantly evolving. We are not and ought not to be in the business of trying to maintain rural communities as though they were some sort of museum piece. It is reasonable to acknowledge that the invention of the car, of the mass retailing most obviously typified by supermarkets and, more recently, of the internet—to some extent, and among some people—has had an impact on how people in both urban and rural communities choose to spend their money and interact with one another.

I am not against all post office closures in all circumstances, and I think that most people take the same view. There may be a case for opening a post office in a new community where many extra houses have been built as part of the Government’s plans to expand the number of houses. In other areas, a post office may have lapsed into relatively little use compared with what it previously enjoyed. Cases are no doubt brought to the Minister’s attention in which the postmaster himself or herself no longer wishes to maintain the post office because he or she does not believe it to be a viable proposition. I do not come to this discussion in the way that I fear the Minister might have assumed—with the starting point that nothing must ever change, in any circumstances, in Somerset or anywhere else in the country.

However, acknowledging that does not mean that I acknowledge that the Government’s process has been anything other than appallingly flawed and misconceived from the outset. Examples from my constituency illustrate that point. Five post offices have been designated for closure in Taunton Deane, plus other post offices in the part of West Somerset that I represent, and two others in Taunton Deane have effectively been designated for closure. West Monkton post office is a small post office in a small village, but that area of Taunton—which, as everyone will know, is the county town of Somerset—has been designated for considerable extra development. A proposition to build almost 1,000 more houses in Monkton Heathfield, which is adjacent to West Monkton, has been given the go-ahead and is due to commence shortly. The case for maintaining a post office in that area is overwhelming.

Had the Post Office come along and said, “We don’t think the post office in West Monkton is suitable for the needs of this expanding community, but we’re going to replace it with a purpose-built post office in a slightly different location that does meet its requirements,” that would have been exactly the type of constructive engagement that people in West Monkton, Monkton Heathfield and the surrounding community would have welcomed. Instead, the post office was put on the list without any apparent engagement with residents’ concerns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome made the point that shops and post offices are intertwined, and that one is necessary to sustain the business of the other. That is true in places in my constituency such as West Buckland. Other places, such as Lydeard St. Lawrence, have no shops, pubs or amenities of any sort apart from a village school, which of course is not a suitable place for people to visit routinely unless their children are pupils. The post office therefore acts as a hub for that
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community. It is far more than a straightforward provider of services such as a notice board for village events and so on.

There are also examples in my constituency of the sort of activity in which I would have thought the Government would be keen to support residents, yet they appear unwilling to do so. In a village between Taunton and Wellington called Bradford-on-Tone, local residents have organised themselves as volunteers to sustain the post office and shop for many years now. It is greatly appreciated by the people in that area. I am sure that everyone in this Chamber would applaud and support such self-reliance and people’s willingness to roll up their sleeves and make a success of their communities, and yet the rug is being pulled from under their feet by the closure of the post office component of their business.

In my constituency is a village called Churchinford, which sits on the Devon border at the top of the Blackdown hills. They tell me there that it is one of only two villages in the UK with a six-way road junction—although I have not checked whether that is the case by visiting every other village. However, it is certainly a notable village in many ways, as well as being very remote. It strikes me as a particularly strange choice to be on the list of post office closures. I know that its residents are considering other options, such as a temporary post office service elsewhere in the village, but I echo the point made by my hon. Friends the Members for Somerton and Frome and for Yeovil that it is quite hard to fathom the basis on which some of the post offices were selected for closure. Kingston St. Mary is another village in my constituency with a part-time post office that was extremely well-supported. It is a vibrant village of some considerable size that one would have thought could comfortably support such a post office.

I refer also to a closure announced in Taunton itself—in a part of the town called Shuttern, which is close to the centre, but not quite close enough for those living there to get into town comfortably if they are elderly or infirm. More to the point, however, it is right next to the offices of Somerset county council, the police station and quite a large number of private businesses. Every time that I have visited the post office, I have got the impression that it sustains itself economically and commercially on business from the surrounding offices and those using its services either to post business mail or privately in their lunch hour. I am mystified, therefore, by the basis on which some of the post offices were selected for closure.

I strongly support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome that the whole process seems to have been extraordinarily flawed from the outset. I saw a letter from Postwatch, which I always understood to be tasked with defending the interests of the consumers of post office services, that made the point to anybody protesting against a post office closure that their efforts would almost certainly be futile, because it was very unlikely that the Government’s consultation process would decide to alter policy as a result of residents’ objections. It also stated that if objections were sustained, another post office would be selected for closure somewhere else in the county to make up for the one that had been saved—so anybody trying to save
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their post office would be damning another one. We heard just such an example in relation to Street and Hinton St. George.

It seems extraordinary that, for example, were a group of residents in Taunton able to make a persuasive case for retaining their post office, they could do that only in the knowledge that another would close, even if nowhere near the one that they were seeking to protect. There appears to be no rational explanation for that, other than the fact that Somerset, or any other county, might have been given a target to meet as part of a larger national target—targets derived from a top-down figure based on a total number selected for closure, rather than on a case-by-case basis, as residents had been led to believe.

Mr. Heath: Was my hon. Friend as astonished as I was that Postwatch could not support the case for any of the many post offices across the county other than the one in Street? Is Postwatch not pointless if it does not put forward views expressed strongly by so many communities, and the supporting evidence?

Mr. Browne: I strongly agree with that point. I hoped and imagined that Postwatch would be a doughty defender of the interest of people who use postal services, but instead, it seems to be a compliant organisation that wishes to do the Government’s bidding. If post office users and community residents can make a persuasive case for retaining their post office, it is completely illogical, unreasonable and unfair for some other community elsewhere in Somerset to be penalised. Each case should be judged on its own merits, and people on the consultation process should make an effort to listen to the representations that are made, rather than assume that the initial published list is flawless and incapable of improvement.

Before I finish, I wish to mention the residents who have expressed their concerns to me about the removal of postal services in Somerset and, specifically, in the constituency that I represent. It has been said, but I wish to echo the point, that the people who lose out most are often those who are most unable to access alternative services. For example, they may be an elderly person who either cannot afford private transport or, owing to failing eyesight, for instance, is no longer able to drive; or, they may be a widow who never learned to drive because her husband did all the driving, and when he died, she was unable to use private transport. That is an old-fashioned notion, but it remains the case.

The voices of many people are rarely heard, because they are not considered sufficiently metropolitan or fashionable to attract the attention of newspapers and other media. But many people live in such circumstances, particularly in isolated rural communities. They rely heavily on post office services and will feel a great sense of dismay about the Government’s programme.

I shall leave the Minister with a final example. A group from the Somerset Association for the Blind, which covers the entire county but, like many county-wide organisations is based in Taunton, the county town, is coming to meet me in Parliament in about half an hour’s time. It is a perfect illustration of an organisation that represents people who are unable to access services easily on the internet or by private transport. Many hundreds of people in the county are in such circumstances. Somerset’s population is older than the national average,
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partly because many people choose to retire to the county, so the problems are particularly acute in our area.

On the specific point that my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil raised about the post office at Hinton St. George, and on the wider issues that he raised about Somerset, I greatly look forward to the Minister—I hope—engaging with the arguments and offering a constructive response.

11.58 am

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing this important debate. He very eloquently and rationally described the huge frustration in his constituency at the Government’s closure programme. I also welcome the Minister to his usual place on a Tuesday morning. Those who do not attend these debates every week will not realise just how common they are. In fact, Members from all parts of the House bring their complaints to the Minister, and he must listen to such debates sometimes four times a week. So far, they do not seem to have had any effect on the Government’s decision, however, so I hope that this debate may have given him pause for thought.

What emerges from all the debates is the real anger that people in different communities and areas, be they rural or urban, feel about the latest cuts—2,500 on top of the 4,000 that the Government previously made to the post office network, which of course, came on top of the 3,500 cuts that the Conservatives made when they were in government.

The real sense of frustration comes from the feeling that the Government do not recognise the social value that post offices have in our communities. My hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. Browne) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spoke about how the most vulnerable in our communities—the elderly, the disabled in particular and the poor—are most affected by the closure of post offices. My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil described the Government’s closure programme as a calculated act of rural and urban vandalism, and my constituents in Brent would concur.

At the heart of the anger is the fact that the Government are not just proceeding with this set of cuts but seem incapable of listening to the complaints that communities bring both to the Post Office and to the Minister when their MPs speak in debates such as this. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton mentioned the ridiculous nature of the consultation process and the fact that if one post office is saved, another must inevitably close. The Minister has previously denied that that is always the policy, but my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil secured the debate to bring to his attention the example of Hinton St. George, which exemplifies the problem. He asked the Minister whether, if he and local campaigners succeed in saving the post office there, another in Somerset will face the chop.

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton said, the Government seem to be asking communities to make an invidious decision about whether they should work hard to save their community post office at the expense of a neighbouring community, which may value its
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local facility equally. It feels as though we were just going through the motions. Six weeks is clearly not long enough to put together a rescue package. Some councils have begun work to try to rescue post offices, but it is difficult to do that when there is only six weeks between consultations being put into the public domain and post offices facing the chop. Community organisations have no prospect of raising the capital needed to save important post offices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) made a point about the detail of consultations. In London I have found that the names of post offices that are published in consultation documents bear no resemblance to the names that the communities involved would give them. It is as though the Government were attempting to ensure that local communities could not tell which post offices were facing the chop. None of the post offices affected in my area was named using a name that we would recognise, and none of their full addresses was given in the consultation documents. I fear that that is a calculated act of deception.

My hon. Friends who have spoken represent both urban and rural areas, and in my constituency the impact of closures has been seen in the past week. Last week, a post office that had been open for 100 years closed. We held a party to thank the postmaster for his work in the local community, but it was not a happy occasion. Today another post office, in Stonebridge, will close as a result of a consultation on a proposal that went through unchanged. We have lost 60 per cent. of our post offices since 1997, and since the closures there have been massive queues in post offices in the area.

As a number of my hon. Friends have said, the impact of the closures is a real change in local communities. The New Economics Foundation has estimated that the cost to an urban area’s local economy is about £277,000 for each post office that is closed. Of course, the Government lose out as well as local communities. They lose revenue that they would have gained in VAT—perhaps the best part of £50,000. It is estimated that in rural areas, for every £1 of subsidy that is given to post offices there is a benefit of between £2 and £4 to the local economy.

An enormous amount of misery is being heaped on local communities, at great expense to their local economy, for a relatively small saving to the Government’s coffers of just £45 million. Considering the amount that the Government were willing to spend before the by-election in Crewe to buy off people there—their earlier decision was inadequate and would inevitably have affected the poorest—the amount that we are talking about today seems like a drop in the ocean. What is happening is causing huge misery to the very poorest in our community. Similarly, even after the expensive buy-off in the Crewe by-election, it will still be the poorest who lose out. There is a bit of a pattern here. I will not say that the Government target the poorest, because that would be unfair, but they seem to be blind to the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable in our community.

The Minister hates me to mention the figures for bonuses because they offer a stark contrast, so I shall do so again. The Government are saving £45 million, but the man responsible for driving through the closure programme gained more than £3 million in benefits and salary last year. That was enough to save all the post
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offices in London. [Interruption.]And all the post offices in Somerset twice, my hon. Friends tell me. There are considerable double standards in the Government’s thinking on where it is important to save money.

My hon. Friends the Member for Yeovil and for Taunton spoke about shops. Post offices in rural areas will often inhabit the only shop, so when we lose the post office, we also lose the shop. In my experience, we can often lose a parade of shops, even in an urban area, because the post office is responsible for footfall in the entire area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome spoke passionately about the sense that the Government are closing everything or presiding over the decline of everything in local communities, and he mentioned the closure of pubs and shops. In my constituency, the post offices have gone along with the police stations, health centres and jobcentres. There is a sense that the Government are retreating from the areas that most need an interface between individuals and the state.

I fear that the current proposals are not the end. We have a closure programme involving 2,500 post offices, but will that be the end of it? I suspect not. The Government have no plan to sustain the post office network. Just a few weeks ago, the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform raised the spectre of further closures. The Post Office had refused to state a lower limit for the number of post offices that would make for a viable network. The Government have refused to commit to any long-term plan to provide a subsidy or ensure that post offices gain revenue. Only 7,500 post offices are required to meet the Government’s access criteria, so I fear that we have not seen the last of the closures. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning.

Finally, I want to say something about the solutions that I hope that the Government will adopt. Ministers are conducting a review of postal services, and although it is looking principally at Royal Mail, I hope that it will recommend solutions that have an impact on the Post Office. First, I hope that the Government will consider separating Royal Mail from the post office network. One is a private business, while the other is a social asset with social value, so I hope that the Government will consider treating them differently. That would, for example, allow the Post Office to work with Royal Mail’s competitors. At the very least, it would help many people, particularly in remote communities, if Royal Mail’s competitors could use the local post office as a parcel depot. That would make it a great deal easier for people to pick up parcels, and that is particularly true of those who have a small business or who work from home. It would make a great difference to such people if they could pick up from the post office anything that they had bought over the internet.

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