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It is not the first time that we have debated the issue. There was an Adjournment debate just over a year ago about post office services in his constituency. I hope that my hon. Friend would agree that we are in a somewhat different position now. The network change programme has drawn to a close. Post Office Ltd has been awarded the new contract for the card account for pensions and benefits. That will help to secure the
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network of around 11,500 branches. As he said, the Government have committed to a subsidy of £150 million a year over the coming years, which means that the Post Office can look forward to a period of greater stability than it has had for some time.

My hon. Friend’s concerns, quite fairly, relate to the provision of post office services in his constituency, and Rye in particular. He is particularly concerned about recent events affecting the service at Rye post office. We have corresponded on the subject, and he has had extensive contact with the management of Post Office Ltd on the issue.

Post office services in Rye have certainly been disrupted a number of times in recent months. I appreciate that that has caused concern and frustration to my hon. Friend and, even more importantly, to his constituents. As he will know, there were problems between Post Office Ltd and a former sub-postmaster, which resulted in temporary provision outwith the usual location. Of course, that caused confusion and a degree of frustration to local people, but I believe that Post Office Ltd did what it could to ensure continuity of service. However, I accept that that was not ideal for his constituents, and that a permanent solution has to be found in Rye.

As my hon. Friend has made clear, throughout the period, he has assiduously pursued with Post Office Ltd his concerns about how the issue was handled, and about the continuity of service for his constituents in Rye and in nearby Tilling Green. I do not want to repeat the debate that we had last year about the network change programme and the closures in his constituency, but I want to put it on record that following that debate, and the closures in his constituency, Post Office Ltd picked one of the locations in his constituency to pilot a new service, Post Office Essentials, which is a lower-cost way of providing post office services. Of course, it is early days for that service, but I understand that so far it appears to be working well. We will monitor that model closely to see whether it might be applicable more widely, in other locations.

Let me return to the situation in the post office in Rye. In essence, the Rye post office was run on the same premises by a temporary sub-postmaster on behalf of Post Office Ltd throughout the period in question, until Friday 6 February this year. As a result of rapidly escalating concerns about continued access to the post office premises—my hon. Friend referred to some of those concerns in his speech—Post Office Ltd took the decision to close the office at 3 pm on a Friday afternoon to remove cash and stock and vacate the building. As a result, no post office service was available in Rye on the Saturday morning. However, by the next working day, Monday 9 February, Post Office Ltd had been able to establish an interim post office service in a nearby vacant shop. That interim branch was open for 42 hours a week until more suitable temporary arrangements could be established.

By 21 February, two days earlier than originally scheduled, a three-counter position branch had opened, providing service from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm Monday to Friday and 8.30 am to 1 pm on Saturdays under the management of a new sub-postmaster. More importantly, work was also being done to identify a longer-term solution to post office services in Rye. Subject to local consultation and resolution of a planning issue, it is
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planned to introduce a new state of the art post office in Rye as part of a £2 million redevelopment of Jempsons- Budgens supermarket.

My hon. Friend spoke with some frustration about the inability to influence events, and I appreciate that it has been a frustrating time for his constituents, but the new post office appears to offer a long-term solution and it is anticipated that it will be completed in about six months. That should provide a good post office service for the people of Rye, which both he and I want.

My hon. Friend has argued for the establishment of a Post Office Essentials service to replace the former post office provision in Tilling Green, akin to the Post Office Essentials service that exists elsewhere in his constituency at Old Town in Hastings. As I said, that is a lower-cost model of delivering core post office services—perhaps not every service, but most of the commonly used services—which is being piloted in both urban and rural areas. I understand that Post Office Ltd has looked carefully at that suggestion but believes that it could adversely impact on the viability of the new post office at Rye, and in particular on the business plans on which the development of the new, improved post office facility is based.

I always tread carefully at this point in Adjournment debates because I am not familiar with the local geography, and obviously my hon. Friend knows his constituency very well. I understand that distance does not tell us everything, and that communities can be distinct, but I am told that Rye post office is little over 0.6 of a mile from Tilling Green and that there is a bus service between the two locations. One of the difficult decisions that Post Office Ltd will have to make when deciding the provision of service is the viability of the existing post office network.

That was the reason behind the National Federation of SubPostmasters’ acceptance, albeit with reluctance, of the closures over the past year. It understood that the number of post offices in existence a couple of years ago simply did not have enough work in the face of changing lifestyles and a reduction of custom of some 5 million customers a week to sustain those branches. The viability of existing post offices or, in this case, planned future post offices affects the decision. I hope that the new post office planned for the Jempsons store will provide a long-term solution.

As my hon. Friend said, the Government are in the midst of providing £1.7 billion to support the post office network over 2006-11. We do that because we do not believe that that is a purely commercial network. If it ran as a purely commercial network, instead of 11,500 branches we would probably have closer to 4,000 branches. We will continue to subsidise this socially and economically important network right up until 2011. Although I cannot commit to numbers beyond that, I believe the social value of the post office and the Government’s recognition of that will continue beyond that date.

As the network change programme draws to a close, we are able to ensure greater stability for the post office network, with the card account decision having been taken and new Government services such as the savings gateway being available through the post office. There is an appetite to secure new services for the Post Office that may not have been there in the past. Part of that is down to the post office network’s reaching out and developing new services; today, in fact, we have been
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discussing an expansion in banking and financial services for the Post Office. That could bring significant new custom to post office branches.

I cannot say yes to my hon. Friend’s proposal for Tilling Green. Post Office Ltd has considered it, and it was happy to support the Post Office Essentials service elsewhere in his constituency. I hope that the new provision planned for the Jempsons Budgens store in Rye offers a long-term solution. I understand that there has been a lack of continuity in the services for the constituents of
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Rye in recent months. We do not, of course, want that to continue; we want a more permanent solution. It seems as if the plans are now in place and I believe that that will make a difference to post office services in his constituency, give local people the continuity of service that they reasonably expect and offer greater satisfaction, for which he has campaigned skilfully and determinedly in recent years.

Question put and agreed to.

10.26 pm

House adjourned.

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