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24 Jun 2008 : Column 39WH—continued

Secondly, the Government need to consider a massive lump-sum investment to ensure that the network can modernise. My party proposes to finance that investment through the part-privatisation of Royal Mail, and I hope that the Government will consider that during their review of postal services. If they choose not to, they will have to find another way of investing considerably in the network, by which I do not mean that they should invest large amounts in a consultation that does not go
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anywhere. Post offices need to modernise; they need better equipment and better training. The Crown network in particular is in desperate need of investment so that it can compete on the high street, because its post offices are haemorrhaging support.

Finally, I hope that the Government will consider what other sources of revenue they can make available to individual post offices. Of course, we have the prospect of the tendering of the contract for the Post Office card account. I cannot see what other company could possibly have the network across all rural areas to compete adequately with the Post Office and therefore I hope that the Government will give the Post Office that contract. Furthermore, I hope that the Government will consider making the Post Office the cornerstone of a new universal service obligation to provide basic bank accounts in our communities.

This debate has been another one in which hon. Members have expressed their frustration at the Government’s plans; I hope that finally the Minister may listen.

12.10 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): I too congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing this debate and on putting the spotlight on the impact of post office closures on his constituency.

Although I am not a Somerset MP, my family comes from Somerset and I went to schools in Crewkerne and Taunton, so I know that this debate has been not just about a series of, if you like, quaint west country villages being named but a policy of harsh consequences for the communities affected, some of those post offices being in villages where members of my family live. If one looks at the figures, they are quite daunting. About 64 post offices face closure throughout the Bristol and Somerset region, representing about one in six post offices in the region, a very high proportion, the effect of which will certainly be harshly felt by the communities involved.

The communities have at least had an opportunity to express their views, brief though that opportunity has been; I will touch upon the nature of the consultation itself later. A quick perusal of the consultation document is very revealing. I will not go through a long list of passages from the document, but I will suggest two or three passages that the Minister should be made aware of.

For example, concerns have been expressed that when local branches close, residents are forced to go further to access services, which was a point made by a number of hon. Members. However, routes to the nearest alternative branch are often long and hazardous. That was certainly the concern of local people opposed to the closures of the Barrow Gurney and the Keinton Mandeville branches, to give but two examples.

Meanwhile, nearly every consultation highlighted the disproportionate effect that closures would have on the elderly and on vulnerable people, particularly those who rely most heavily on post office services and have the poorest means of accessing alternative branches; that was another point made today by hon. Members.

Another concern is where post offices are being closed but the local population is expanding. One often thinks that in these quaint villages population is declining, but
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in many cases they are thriving communities in which the population is expanding. That is certainly the case, for example, in Basson Bridge, where I believe that several new housing developments are being planned and yet the local post office is being proposed for closure.

Where branches proposed for closure are run by volunteers, such as the branches at Bradford-on-Tone or Bicknoller, residents understandably believe that a vital community hub is under threat. The extent to which the voluntary community runs a number of post offices must not be underestimated either, and a similar point was made by many respondents.

In the brief time that I have, I would like to focus on two key issues for the Conservative party. For one thing, we would suggest that the 3-mile criterion has too often been calculated on the basis of “as the crow flies”, taking insufficient account of local geography and transport connections. Indeed, 3 miles measured in a straight line on a map often turns out to be much further when roads, terrain and public transport facilities are taken into account. I do not know exactly what the position is in Somerset, but certainly in Essex, where my constituency is, this problem is compounded by the fact that it is often the case that certain bus routes are under threat. Therefore, there is no security against future developments, where, for example, bus routes are closing, which would make the access to these alternative branches even more difficult.

Access criteria also have the unintended and perhaps absurd consequence of closing profitable branches simply because they happen to exist in the wrong location. It is remarkable that Ministers have used financial considerations to justify their latest raid upon the network and then closed some branches that are clearly profitable. I mentioned one or two in areas where populations are expanding. If the rationale is to save the Post Office money, it seems absurd that we are closing profitable branches. Again, a number of hon. Members touched on that point.

I suggest that this is not just about access methodology and the fact that it is flawed but about the consultation process, which also appears to many, particularly those at the receiving end of many of the closures, to be flawed. Cabinet Office guidelines clearly state that consultations should take a minimum of nine weeks to allow for full participation, yet the Government have approved a programme of consultations lasting only six weeks in each local area. That is not right, and the Minister needs to look at it again.

Not only is the consultation too short, I suggest that it is highly cynical. Post Office Ltd has made it clear that even where a post office is saved from closure as a result of consultation, another post office should be earmarked for closure in its place, creating a man-eat-man environment. We seem to be in a macabre game of pass the parcel with the much-feared closure of vital services. If one community manages to save a post office, another must pay the price. That cannot be right. It simply shows that the Government and Post Office Ltd are trying to meet a target rather than cater for and listen to local communities with regard to how badly post offices are required and the vital role that they play. That pass-the-parcel approach encourages everyone involved in the consultation to adopt the view that it is nothing but a sham.

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On top of that is the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Often, the shop and the post office are interdependent, and if the post office is taken away, the shop must go as well, because there simply is not enough business. Again, I am not convinced that the Government have taken that into account in deciding how many post offices to close and what effect that will have on local communities.

By the next election, this Government will have closed more than one third of the entire network. There is an element of hypocrisy in their approach. We know that as many as seven Cabinet Ministers and 17 junior Ministers have actively campaigned in their constituencies against post office closures, despite having forced a closure programme on everybody else. It seems to many looking in from the outside that the approach adopted has been one of do as I say, not as I do. It also has the perverse effect of forcing closures on neighbouring communities, as we have discussed.

To compound that crime, the Government and Post Office Ltd seem to have no strategy for the longer-term future of the post office network. The Post Office card account was mentioned as an illustration. The contract ends in 2010, and the National Federation of SubPostmasters believes that if it is not awarded to Post Office Ltd, the network could implode. I have raised that issue myself at the Dispatch Box during questions. The Government have kicked it into the long grass by saying that an announcement is forthcoming, but I share the scepticism about why it is taking so long to come to a decision when the simple answer would be to give the account to Post Office Ltd in order to secure the long-term financial future of many of the remaining post offices. Again, however, there seems to be a hidden agenda that none of us is quite clear about.

As a brief aside, I suggest to hon. Members who have spoken that we in Essex are trying to do a little bit more to keep our post offices open. I convened a meeting between Essex MPs and the Minister, after which Post Office Ltd was forced to open its books to Essex county council with a view to examining the financial possibility and feasibility of the county council helping to keep some branches open. The county council has pledged £1.5 million to the scheme. It will result in reopenings; we are not sure of the exact number. I suggest to hon. Members in a spirit of co-operation that they look at that operation. If they want to have a chat with me afterwards I shall be happy to discuss it with them. Post offices will be reopened in Essex because of the involvement of Essex county council, which I congratulate on taking that initiative.

I hope that the Minister will show a little flexibility in responding to the issues raised in the debate, by way of contrast to the very rigid programme of closures that has been forced on communities.

12.20 pm

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): I congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing the debate. As we have heard, the subject is debated often in the House; I do not know whether it is quite four times a week, but certainly it is pretty often. The hon. Gentleman raised several specifics, particularly with respect to the
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post office at Hinton St. George, which I shall come to in a couple of moments. I want to make some more general points first.

The hon. Gentleman acknowledged, as did the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), that life in this country has changed, which marks this debate out as somewhat unusual among the others on the subject. Patterns in the way people do things have changed a lot. That is a big factor behind post office closures. Consideration of the context and the Post Office’s current position will give some idea of why the Government would sanction the closure of up to 2,500 post offices, given that, as hon. Members have said, it is clearly unpopular in communities and occasionally—perhaps Hinton St. George is a case in point—arouses fierce protest. That has happened on occasion throughout the process.

Why, therefore, would the Government take their present course? The context is an extremely difficult financial position for Post Office Ltd. The Post Office network is losing £500,000 a day. That is not a static picture. Those losses have been increasing in recent years. The number of customers using the Post Office has declined by about 4 million people a week. The lifestyle changes to which the hon. Members for Yeovil and for Taunton referred are having a profound impact on the Post Office. It is easy for hon. Members to say that it is all the Government’s fault. At one point in the debate I thought that I was being blamed for the decline in church attendance; but changes in lifestyle are a result of choices that society makes about how to do things.

The hon. Member for Yeovil said that the process has accelerated under the present Government. Of course, the period of Labour Government, the past 10 or 11 years, has coincided with a complete revolution in communications; the factors are different from those that existed decades ago. To use one example that has had a profound impact on the Post Office—I apologise to regular attenders at these debates, who have heard me use the same examples before—the online car tax service did not exist four or five years ago. It is now used by 1 million people a month. For decades it was not available and everyone went to the post office to renew their car tax. A million fewer people a month go to the post office on account of that item alone.

That leaves aside the fact that eight out of 10 pensioners now have their pension paid into their bank account; among new retirees the figure is nine out of 10. It leaves aside also competition from other networks, such as PayPoint, the organisation that won the contract for the BBC television licence. Between lifestyle change, technology and competition, the Post Office faces a profound challenge. Of course that means that the country cannot sustain a network of the size it used to have when those transactions were carried out very differently.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that the Government boast about the amount of support that they are providing. I have no intention of boasting, but that support is significant, because without it thousands more post office branches would be under
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threat. We are in the midst of a programme of support worth up to £1.7 billion in the run-up to 2011. Without the annual subsidy of £150 million, the securing of Post Office debts and other funds available, the network would be in a much more serious position. That might provide precious little comfort for his constituents experiencing post office closures, but without that level of Government support, far more branches would be under threat. Opposition parties’ positions might be that a cheque book should simply be opened and that no matter what the subsidy it should grow year on year regardless of lifestyle changes. I do not think that any responsible Government can take that attitude to funding. At some point, one must have regard to the choices that society is making and the subsidy must have regard to the public purse. We have put in place a very large subsidy indeed.

I come now to some of the specific points about closures, replacements and consultation that have been raised. Replacement closures came up many times in this debate, and I acknowledge that in this inherently unpopular process the idea of replacement closures can by even more unpopular. So why implement a policy for which hon. Members say there appears to be no rationale? To reduce the network’s losses—the £45 million to which the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) referred is only part of this—we plan to take out some £200 million in costs. If no action were taken, the losses would increase year on year. The 2,500 closures are necessary because three out of four post office branches run at a cost to Post Office Ltd. If it is decided, following representations from the local community, Postwatch and so on, that a particular closure need not go ahead, an alternative branch will occasionally be selected for closure. I understand that that is unpopular, but hon. Members asked an honest question about why it happens. In truth, if the end number of closures is significantly less, the Post Office will be unable to reduce the huge losses that it is sustaining day in, day out.

Mr. Laws: Should unplanned closures saving a significant amount of money not also be taken into account?

Mr. McFadden: We have funded the network so that Post Office Ltd should be able to sustain a network of about 11,500 branches, after the current closures. If people leave, retire, sell a business or leave the network for ordinary reasons, the Post Office should make every effort to find a replacement sub-postmaster. However, it is not national service. Sometimes it might be difficult to force a situation, but the funding is in place to make that much more viable.

Hon. Members asked me a great many more detailed questions, to which I shall turn in the time available to me. I was asked about the nature of the consultation. The Select Committee picked up on this. The consultation is not a local referendum on post office closures—that decision has been taken—but about how the closures are implemented locally. Post Office Ltd needed to be clearer about that, and I hope that it is in the future. I am afraid that time does not permit me to cover every other point raised. I understand that this is a difficult situation, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising the issues around the post offices in his constituency.

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Bath Scalds

12.30 pm

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be here with you this afternoon, Miss Begg. I thank Mr. Speaker for this opportunity to raise my concerns about the Government proposals to reduce bathwater scalds in the home. As my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, I have been pursuing the issue for more than three years. I have dealt with several Ministers along the way and I should warn my hon. Friend that those who have previously occupied his current portfolio have had a terrible habit of being promoted. No doubt a similar fate awaits him, but I hope that he will leave a lasting mark on the position by being the Minister who agrees to changes in the building regulations that will spare hundreds of children the appalling scald injuries that I have sadly become all too familiar with over the past few years.

Previously in the House, I have told the story of a little girl called Holly Devonport from Wakefield. Holly was just five years old when she suffered scald burns to more than half her body. Her mother, Julie, was running her a bath and went to get a fresh towel. Holly was sitting on the edge of the bath, playing with a computer game. In the split second when her mother left the bathroom, she lost her balance and fell in. Julie told me that when she pulled Holly from the bath, her legs looked like they had been dipped in acid. Holly’s agonising injuries meant that she endured a seven-hour operation to graft skin from her stomach on to her legs. She spent six weeks in the burns unit at Pinderfields hospital in Wakefield and a further six months in a wheelchair. She was off school for four months, and she will be scarred for life.

Holly is now a cheerful, vibrant 12-year-old. Two years ago, she and her mother came to Parliament to launch the “Hot Water Burns Like Fire” campaign, which is backed by the British Burn Association—the plastic surgeons and anaesthetists who deal with such burns—the Child Accident Prevention Trust, the Children’s Fire and Burn Trust, Help the Aged, Age Concern and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. They, and I, want to ensure that what happened to Holly does not happen to another child, but unfortunately what happened to Holly will happen to another child today and every single day this year. Some 600 people a year suffer third-degree burns from scalding-hot bathwater, and three quarters of them are children under five. There is an issue about social justice here, because research on scalding shows that children from poorer households are much more likely to suffer such an injury and are more likely to suffer, in particular, the very severe forms of scalding injury.

This year, 20 people will die from burns that they received from bathwater. Most of them will be over 60. Pensioners and children are the most vulnerable to scald injuries because their skin is thinner and burns more quickly. Also, as any parent of a toddler will know, little children have no perception of risk. Elderly people have less physical ability to deal with dangerous situations.

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