Previous Section Index Home Page

Mental Capacity

Question agreed to.

Mr. Speaker: With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 6 to 15 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Income Tax

17 Mar 2009 : Column 880

Insurance Premium Tax

Local Government

Banks and Banking

Northern Ireland

Question agreed to.

Standards and Privileges



National Parks (South Downs)

10.3 pm

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): I beg leave to move a petition on behalf of the members and supporters of the South Downs Campaign, of whom there are more than 10,000 who are mostly my constituents. The petition is in order and has been checked in the Journal Office so I shall not delay the House by reading it all out, but I shall give a few words of very brief explanation. Seven or eight years ago, the Government proposed an area for a new national park in the south downs. The proposal was rigorously examined at a public inquiry and the inspector, for reasons best known to him, decided to cut part of the area out, much of which is in my constituency. That is why these supporters
17 Mar 2009 : Column 881
are up in arms. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty. If we are to have a national park, it should include all the area as originally envisaged. That is the petition of the supporters of the South Downs Campaign and I very much hope that the Government will listen to it and revert to their original plan.

Following is the full text of the petition:

[ The Humble Petition of members and supporters of the South Downs Campaign,

Sheweth that the area of land known as the Western Weald, including the towns of Petersfield, Liss, Midhurst and Petworth and the surrounding villages, has been designated by the Countryside Agency (now Natural England) as being worthy of inclusion on the South Downs National Park, on the grounds of their great natural beauty, cultural and historical richness and close links with the chalk downs; further sheweth that the people living in that area and those who admire and love it are strongly desirous of it being so included.

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House urges the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to confirm that the South Downs National Park shall include all of the said area and all such areas as have subsequently been considered worthy of inclusion.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, &c. ]


Eastham Library

10.4 pm

Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): This is the petition of some 600 residents of Eastham, and others.

The petition states:

17 Mar 2009 : Column 882

Postal Services (Rye)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Barbara Keeley.)

10.5 pm

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): According to a recent survey by Help the Aged, nearly 60 per cent. of older people say that their post offices are essential to their lives. The Post Office is a much loved institution and I want to tell my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs that I am proud of what the Labour Government have done to maintain a post office network with a viable future. I am proud that, unlike their predecessor, this Government have recognised the value to our communities of preserving a comprehensive network of local offices, and that they have agreed an ongoing social subsidy of £150 million per year as part of an investment in the service of £1.7 billion.

We know that, if the Post Office were privatised, there would be just 4,000 “profitable offices”, and I suspect that they would be less profitable were it not for the comprehensiveness of the current service. As I said, our Labour Government are providing a social subsidy of roughly £18,000 per loss-making branch. That is an extraordinary commitment to the service, and a clear sign of the Government’s loyalty to it.

In contrast, the previous Conservative Government took a completely different view. I know that that was many years ago, but it is worth remembering that 3,500 post offices closed in an age before technological advances made internet banking a way of life. Today, the Tories say that they oppose all closure plans and yet they will not even commit to the current £150 million social subsidy offered by the Government. So when one looks at the small print of their promise, although one sees that they pledge not to shut the 4,000 branches that make a profit, by my reckoning that leaves another 10,000 facing closure.

Given what I have said, it is my belief that the Government have given quite enough to enable the network essentially to be maintained, but it is in that context that I feel that my constituents in Rye have been woefully let down by Post Office management. The first problem concerns the decision early last year to close the Tilling Green post office that served a huge number of local residents. We petitioned, marched and demonstrated, but all to no avail.

For many people in Tilling Green, using the post office was the only way that they could collect their pensions—and, as Sir Fred Goodwin does not live in Rye, those are pensions that we do not mind paying. If the people running post office services believe that the fury of the residents of Rye has subsided following the closure, they are mistaken. The size of my protest file shows that the number of people who remain concerned is just enormous. Of course, the anger might have been assuaged were it not for the debacle that has followed the closure, but the fact remains that the decisions on post office services in Rye were always flawed, and they remain incomprehensible.

The closure of the Tilling Green office left Rye, a town of some 4,000 people that has a rural hinterland with a further 10,000 inhabitants, with only one post office. That is not good enough, and the resultant chaos is evidence of that.

17 Mar 2009 : Column 883

When the wise leave their offices each night, they back up their computers, but Rye post office services have been left without any back up. What has really upset my constituents in Rye is that, on four occasions over the past year, they have had no service at all, sometimes for a day or two at a time. On one occasion, it was claimed that the office had to be closed for reasons of health and safety and, on another, the agent postmaster failed to get up on time. Most recently—and the House may find this hard to believe—the office was closed because of a problem with the lease.

Older residents waiting for their pensions have been unable to gain access and have been told they must return another day—although they were not strictly told, as the post office door was simply closed, with a notice pinned on it. When the office has been open, there have been epic queues, with elderly customers expected to queue for up to 30 minutes. Sally Holloway tells me that, “These days, they say when a relationship ends you have to find closure.” Well, Rye residents’ relationship with Rye post office is not over—they do not want closure. In fact, they want new openings; that is what we are looking for.

Post Office services are not an optional extra. Things do go wrong. That is why back-ups are necessary. For example, James Black, a local business man whose trade relies on postal services wrote to me asking how on earth businesses reliant on the Post Office for services or banking are supposed to function when certainty of service is undermined.

Let me give two more live examples of what I mean. Pat Salisbury-Ridley wrote to me and said:

Mrs. Mary Jenner wrote and said:

Why do my constituents find themselves in that situation? The problem is that the Post Office plan was flawed from the very beginning, because it failed to take account of the many, not the few. I understand why some far-distant rural offices have been subsidised by thousands of pounds, but we need to recognise that the consequence has been that post offices in semi-urban areas, such as Tilling Green, have been closed, despite the need for only a small subsidy.

Nearly 1,000 people have been inconvenienced, so that a service can be provided for a few score. Nearly 1,000 people who are in the main deprived, disabled and
17 Mar 2009 : Column 884
elderly have been sacrificed, so that a few people can maintain their rural outlets, to which most of them drive anyway.

There is a democratic deficit in the decision-making process of the Post Office organisation. The whole system is wrong, and we should never have agreed to it. As a Member of Parliament for the past 12 years, I have become increasingly troubled by the inability of elected representatives to effect the wishes of their constituents and Rye post office has been a prime example of that impotence. In the years to come, we do not want to have to say, “We were only following postal orders,” but that is the way that it feels.

The service belongs to the public, not to Post Office Ltd. I have told my right hon. Friend the Minister before and will say again that we as a Government can delegate decisions, but we cannot delegate responsibility, and the anger that remains about the decisions of the Post Office will continue to remain and we will be blamed.

This cloud may yet have a silver lining. In the past few weeks, the Post Office management has said that it has found an alternative site in Rye, within the local Jempsons-Budgens supermarket, that will provide a comprehensive service with disabled facilities and adequate parking. Mr. Stephen Jempson is an experienced postmaster and is apparently prepared to invest £2 million in a new facility, incorporating a new in-store post office. That is great news, and I wish the proposal well, and if it comes to fruition, good—but even if it does, Tilling Green residents will still be disadvantaged, and the town still needs a back-up should anything go wrong.

As a Government we need to recognise the anger and concern of so many people about what some regard as the abdication of decision making to the Post Office. It is not good enough that we are better than the Tories. That is easy. We need to be listening, and people need to listen to those who are elected to tell the story. If we took back control, perhaps listening politicians would make better decisions.

I hope very much that my right hon. Friend will study the Rye case carefully, for at every turn in the past, decisions have been wrong. Simply put, the Rye debacle is a master-class in how not to do things. I hope, even at this stage, that he will ask Post Office services to look yet again at the need for an outlet in Tilling Green and beyond and that we can learn from the mistakes.

10.14 pm

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) on securing this debate on post offices in Rye. I know that he cares passionately about post office services. He is an excellent constituency MP, and he campaigns assiduously on behalf of the people of Hastings and Rye, not only on this issue but across the board.

Next Section Index Home Page