On the question of costs, it has been suggested that one of the justifications for the fee system is that it will recoup some of the costs of the tribunal system. If that was the intention, the system has been a failure. The latest accounts from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2014-15, the net income from employment tribunal fees was £9 million and expenditure on employment tribunal services overall was £71.4 million, which means that the increase in net income from fees covers 12.5% of the cost of running the employment tribunal service. The Government seem to have been unable to quantify,

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in response to written questions, the extra administration and staffing costs in the tribunal service of having to administer the fees and the remission system. In reality, the gain in revenue is probably lower than 12.5%, and it has been achieved at the expense of a 69% drop in the number of claims.

There is no mention anywhere in any of the documents I have seen of the benefit to the taxpayer from the application of the recoupment regulations, which can result in an employer paying back to the taxpayer thousands of pounds—for example, in jobseeker’s allowance already paid to the claimant—which is offset against the claimant’s compensation. Such repayment is normally ordered where a tribunal has made a finding of unfair dismissal. Why is that clear benefit to the taxpayer not included in any considerations, and has anyone stopped to consider that the level of recoupment will have reduced as the level of claims has reduced—

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order. I am reluctant to intervene, because the hon. Gentleman is making a fine speech, but he has been speaking for half an hour. He might want to take into account the fact that several colleagues want to catch my eye.

Justin Madders: I will be brief, Mr Streeter. As we have discussed, do not the participants contribute to the system through their taxes anyway? Is it not simply part of the cost of a civilised society? In the long run, we all benefit from stable and balanced employment relations. If the Government are so determined to recoup costs and if they are genuinely interested in ensuring access to justice, surely the obvious way to deal with the matter is to levy a fee or apportion a percentage of compensation at the end of the process, not at the beginning.

At the moment, if a claimant is successful, they can recover their fee from the respondent, but what is the respondent’s contribution to the costs of the tribunal? It is nothing. I suppose it could be argued that they indirectly contribute by recovering the fee and repaying it to the employee, but as we have seen, that outcome is not certain, and the burden disproportionately falls on those who seek to enforce their rights.

Employment tribunals play a vital role in ensuring the effectiveness of basic rights, such as the rights to the minimum wage, paid holiday, time off and maternity leave, and the right not to be unfairly dismissed or discriminated against. If we value those rights and think that they are important, we should also value the ease with which people are able to exercise them. Those rights are not just about individual dignity and respect in the workplace; they bring with them important social and economic benefits for the country. They ensure that most people can participate in the labour market without facing unfair discrimination. They give vulnerable workers more job security and stability of income than they would have. They encourage a committed and engaged workforce and the retention of skilled workers. They allow people to plan their lives and plan for the future, knowing that if they do a good job and their employer runs its business well, they are likely to remain in work. Employment rights are, ultimately, of benefit to everyone. The fee regime not only undermines those rights but actively encourages rogue employers to flout the law, and I say that the regime should be scrapped.

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Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): The wind-up speeches will begin at 3.30 pm.

3.3 pm

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on making an excellent contribution. Like him, I believe it is clear that the introduction of fees for employment tribunals has led to a reduction in claims, and we can only conclude that that is denying workers access to justice. In April to June 2014, the first three months after the introduction of fees, there was an 81% drop in claims. Discrimination claims, for which a £1,200 fee is required, have fallen, and sex discrimination cases were down by 91% in the first year. As indicated earlier, unpaid wages claims, which attract a fee of £390, are down, often because in those cases the fee is more than the amount sought by the worker.

There is no evidence that fees are needed to prevent unfounded claims from being made; on the contrary, evidence gathered by the Trades Union Congress, Citizens Advice Scotland, Citizens Advice England and Wales, the Law Society of Scotland and Bristol and Strathclyde Universities shows that workers with genuine cases are being prevented from lodging their claims by their inability to pay the fees. That can only mean that a growing number of unlawful employment practices are going unpunished, which is detrimental to the achievements of a fair workplace. As the general secretary of Unison, Dave Prentis, said recently:

“There is stark evidence that workers are being priced out of justice and it is women, the disabled and the low-paid who are being disproportionately punished.”

Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are also talking about gender discrimination, because women who are suffering from pregnancy discrimination or maternity discrimination will be afraid to take cases with a price tag of £1,200, so they will suffer in silence?

Chris Stephens: I agree with that, and there has been growing evidence in the last few years of pregnant workers being dismissed unfairly. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct to say that the fee of £1,200 would be a natural barrier for women workers, particularly in sectors of the economy that are traditionally low paid, such as the retail sector. It would be very difficult for someone in such circumstances to progress. The hon. Lady’s statements are backed up by the legal affairs spokesperson of Citizens Advice Scotland, who has said:

“Employment Tribunals regularly include cases where people have been un-paid or under-paid for work they have done, or cases where they have been mistreated—including bullying, racism, sexual harassment. People who have suffered such treatment surely have a right to justice, and that right should not be based on their ability to pay.”

All the evidence suggests that the review of employment tribunal fees should include an equality impact assessment. As I have indicated, I am concerned about the divisive rhetoric that we sometimes hear on workplace and trade union issues. We are told that fees were introduced to save the hard-working taxpayer money, but those who are chasing a tribunal or who wish to submit a tribunal claim are, indeed, hard-working taxpayers.

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In Scotland, the administration of employment tribunals is due to be devolved under the Scotland Bill. In the Scottish Government’s programme for government, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said:

“We will abolish fees for employment tribunals, when we are clear on how the transfer of powers and responsibilities will work. We will consult on the shape of services that can best support people’s access to employment justice as part of the transfer of the powers for Employment Tribunals to Scotland.”

That proposal is supported by Scotland’s “workers’ parliament”—the Scottish TUC’s annual congress—and by Citizens Advice Scotland. I will end with the words of the latter in welcoming the Scottish Government’s intention to abolish tribunal fees:

“So we are delighted that the government has addressed this issue, and has seen the urgency in putting it right. These fees should never have been introduced, and they need to be scrapped as soon as possible.”

I could not agree more.

3.8 pm

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. May I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my previous occupation as a director of Thompsons Solicitors, which is a national firm of employment law specialists that conducts a substantial number of employment tribunal cases on behalf of trade unions and their members?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing the debate. Like him, I am deeply concerned about this issue. As he outlined, the impact of the coalition Government’s tribunal fees has been to price people out of access to justice. The Conservative party calls itself the party of working people, but if there is one single policy that totally exposes that statement as a myth, it is the introduction of employment tribunal fees. The Conservatives knew exactly what the impact of the policy would be, because they and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners at the time were told repeatedly and forcefully that the proposal would decimate access to justice. Just as with legal aid cuts, civil court fee increases, restrictions on judicial review, the Trade Union Bill, the proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act and the intended increase to the small claims limit that the Chancellor announced in last week’s spending review, employment tribunal fees were not introduced to solve a real problem. They were introduced to diminish the voice of ordinary working people, of trade unions and of their members.

I am sure the Government will try to say that the rationale for introducing the fees was to defray the cost of the Courts and Tribunals Service. If that really was the rationale, it has failed spectacularly, because so few people can afford to bring claims that the revenue has not been generated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General openly stated that the purpose of the fees was to deter people from bringing employment tribunal claims. In an article for The Telegraph website in March 2014, he wrote:

“Unscrupulous workers caused havoc by inundating companies with unfounded claims of mistreatment, discrimination or worse. Like Japanese knotweed, the soaring number of tribunal cases dragged more and more companies into its grip, squeezing the life and energy from Britain’s wealth creators.”

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He went on to say that the tribunal system had

“become a system that in too many cases was being ruthlessly exploited by people trying to make a fast-buck.”

Where is the evidence for that? If the situation really was as he stated, the success rate in employment tribunal cases brought after the introduction of fees would have risen significantly, because the fees would have acted as a disincentive for unmeritorious claimants. What has actually happened? The success rate has stayed at the level it was at before the introduction of fees.

Preventing access to justice through high fees, therefore, weeds out not just unmeritorious cases—I accept there will be a few of those—but nearly all cases. In that respect, the policy has been tremendously successful. Fees have had a severe negative impact on the ability of people—particularly those on low and average household incomes and the more vulnerable in society—to access the justice system. That was a shameful intention. We had a Minister openly stating that he and his coalition partners wanted to prevent members of the public from accessing the justice system.

Ian Lavery: My hon. Friend will not be surprised by that attack on hard-working people in the workplace who want to seek justice. Like me and other Members, she has experienced the gagging Bill part 1, the gagging Bill part 2 and what is classified as a trade union Bill. All in all, they are a concerted attack on people who just want to get on in life. If there is a problem with justice in the workplace, they want to be able to challenge it.

Jo Stevens: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I could not have put it better myself.

As we have heard, there has been a 69% drop in single-applicant cases since the introduction of fees. However, I want to comment on a couple of other statistics. There has been a 90% drop in sex discrimination cases and a 45% drop in pregnancy-related unfair dismissal cases. That is yet another example of the Prime Minister’s problem with women. He does not want public money spent on women, so they bear the brunt of 75% of his Government’s public sector spending cuts. He does not want to do anything about the grossly unfair VAT regime—the tampon tax. Instead, he cuts funding for domestic violence refuges and rape counselling services, and he makes women pay for those services themselves through the VAT on sanitary products. Furthermore, if any of us is subject to sex discrimination at work or sacked because we are pregnant, he prices us out of access to an employment tribunal to challenge that unlawful treatment.

Dr Huq: Does that not make a mockery of the claim the Prime Minister made to me at Prime Minister’s questions that he is now a feminist? How does all this marry up with that statement?

Jo Stevens: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Irony is alive and well in this House. I do not quite know where to start with my thanks to the Prime Minister for the way he treats women.

I turn to what I expect the Minister to refer to as the Government’s mechanism to mitigate people’s being priced out of justice: the fee remission system. Given that the affordability of fees is a central issue in the debate, the remission system’s effectiveness in addressing

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it is important. However, the reality is that the system is little more than a fig leaf. For each separate fee incurred, a separate application for fee remission, with detailed evidence of income, must be provided. The booklet to guide people through the process is 31 pages long, and the preparation of applications can take up to 30 minutes, increasing the costs of the case every time a court fee is incurred. That work also has an impact on the time of court and tribunal staff. It represents unnecessary bureaucracy, as well as a backward step in the Government’s stated intention to move towards deregulation, efficiency and cost cutting.

In a speech to the Engineering Employers Federation in November 2011, the then Business Secretary, Vince Cable, said:

“I want to make it very clear that for those with a genuine claim, fees will not be a barrier to justice. We will ensure that there is a remissions system for those who need help.”

The latest available information on remission comes from statistics issued by the employment tribunals. They show that, from July 2013 to June 2015, only 17.7% of issue fees requested were remitted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston commented on the redundancy fund. Claimants are forced to pay tribunal fees out of their redundancy pay. I really hope the Justice Committee will address that issue in its report on access to justice. I also hope it will look specifically at the terrible problem of employment tribunal fees, which affect women in particular. I ask the Minister to take those comments back to his colleagues to ensure that fees are scrapped.

3.16 pm

Richard Arkless (Dumfries and Galloway) (SNP): Like my colleagues, I can confirm that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Special thanks to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for securing what I, like his colleagues, consider to be an extremely important debate.

I rise as a member of the Scottish National party to put the SNP’s case, and I want to start by putting the issue in a Scottish context. The issues of employment law and employment tribunal fees are reserved to the Westminster Parliament. There is an expectation that clause 37 of the Scotland Bill will devolve the financial arrangements and management of employment law tribunals to Scotland. The Scottish Government have a clear policy of abolishing the fees as soon as we have the power to do so. To quote the Scottish “Programme for Government”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) did, that will be done

“when we are clear on how the transfer of powers and responsibilities will work.”

The devolution of any part of the administrative justice sphere in Scotland is done through a separate Order in Council. We are yet to see whether the Government will sign off the relevant Order in Council and whether it will include the right to adjust employment tribunals, but we are working on the basis that that is what will happen.

Why does Scotland have an interest in this issue? We could argue that, if these issues are devolved, it will be for Scotland to decide whether to abolish fees. Of course, that disregards the funding arrangements between the

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UK and Scotland. If fees are abolished in the rest of the UK, Scotland’s funding mechanism will be increased by the extra amount the Scottish Government will have to spend in future years on employment law tribunal fees. While we have a commitment to abolish fees, therefore, unless the fiscal arrangements are correct, Scotland will have to find the money to do so from the remainder of its budget—which we are willing, at this juncture, to do, because that is clearly the moral thing to do.

As I said earlier, the imposition of employment law tribunal fees follows from the Beecroft report. The premise on which it was based was high-handed. The report stated that business must be allowed to grow and to be more efficient, but that employment law impedes that. That statement is very contentious. As I said in my intervention, simply stripping a firm of its cost liabilities and potential need to spend money does not, in itself, make that business more efficient. I would argue that if a business treats its staff correctly, the staff will treat the clients correctly, and that will make the business more productive and efficient. The premise on which the imposition of the fees was based is therefore flawed at best. This is all being done to save the £82 million or so a year that was spent on employment tribunal cases.

The upshot is that someone with a simple claim for being refused time off, or for a breach of working time regulations, faces a £160 issue fee and a £230 hearing fee. For a more serious case of discrimination for wrongful dismissal, there is a £250 issue fee and a whopping £950 hearing fee. God forbid that anyone would ever need to go to appeal, as the combined cost is £1,600 on top of what has been paid for the previous hearing. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that this will be a material deterrent to claimants bringing their cases.

Every litigator worth their salt—I speak with some credibility as I used to be a litigator—understands acutely that quite often the way to win a case is not to win a substantive argument, but to pile cost pressure on the other side. This is the Government trying to use a litigious tactic to pile cost pressure on claimants who, ordinarily, just want their grievances heard. It is a disgraceful course of action. The result in Scotland has been a 92% reduction in redundancy claims, an 81% reduction in sex discrimination claims, and a 90% reduction in claims for breaches of working time regulations.

Legally, through free access to employment law tribunals, we went as far as we could in making rights that protect workers absolute; now, they are not absolute. The right to not be unfairly dismissed, to be free from sex discrimination, and to be consulted on redundancy is no longer absolute. I asked the Minister what kind of message this sent out. It sends out a message that it is okay to abuse workers because, essentially, they have no course of redress, and that it is okay for the rest of the workers in that organisation to feel that their fellow workers have been marginalised. That has a direct impact on their productivity levels, wellbeing, morale and, ultimately, the financial success of the organisation for which they work. With these changes, it appears that the lower someone is on the income scale, the more inaccessible justice becomes.

I will pick up on points made by previous speakers. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was right to highlight that tribunals do not just award compensation. They can provide a statement of fact—of

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terms and conditions that give vulnerable workers clarity about their position in a company. He is also right that there has been substantial evidence to the Justice Committee—which, as a member of that Committee, I have heard—highlighting how much of a deterrent the fees are. He is right to point out that some employers will not even consider the claim until the issue fee is paid. That is piling even more cost pressure on to the vulnerable workers and works in favour of the employer. It tips the balance away from justice and towards employers for no good reason, as far as I can see.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West rightly made the point that workers have been priced out of justice. The changes disproportionately affect women, minorities and those at the lower end of the income scale. He is also right to point out that there is wide support in Scottish civic society for the Scottish Government’s policy of abolition.

The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) made some excellent points very well. She is right to say that the policy completely makes a mockery of the Conservative party’s claims to be the party of working people, and it is not evidence-based. As with much of the legislative agenda that I have witnessed since becoming a Member in this House, particularly the Trade Union Bill, this seems to be an ideological attack with no evidence base whatever. That follows a consistent theme in the legislation that I have seen come before Parliament since joining the House in May.

Chris Stephens: The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) also mentioned the wealth creators. Does he agree with me that the genuine wealth creators in this country are low-paid, long hours workers—many of them women—who are helping to keep the economic wheels turning, yet they are the ones under attack?

Richard Arkless: I completely agree with that. Any business that sees its staff as disposable units of production is headed for disaster. I go back to what I said: if businesses treat their staff properly, the staff treat customers properly. If customers are treated properly, the business will be successful. If a business is successful, there is a dividend for shareholders, which, no doubt, is the motivation of the Conservative party.

In conclusion, I urge the Minister to persuade the Government, when he takes this information back to them, that their review should conclude what the Scottish Government, Scottish civic society and Opposition party Members conclude: that they should abolish these draconian fees without delay.

3.25 pm

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing this very important debate. He speaks with huge experience—far more than me. He was, I think, an employment solicitor from 1998. I ought to declare my interest: I am a lawyer. Prior to my election to this House, I was a barrister at Wilberforce Chambers in Hull. Since then, I have been admitted to the roll of solicitors, practising only occasionally on a completely pro bono basis. As we are discussing tribunals, including employment tribunals, I ought to declare the fact that my wife is a fee-paid judge in the social entitlement

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tribunal, and a legal aid lawyer. She does not practice employment law. If she did, she would not do so through public funding, because the Government took away the little public funding that there was for employment law in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Since the introduction of employment tribunal fees in 2013, there has been a massive decline in the number of cases brought to tribunals. The number of single employment tribunal claims has fallen by 69%, and the number of discrimination cases has fallen by a massive 80%. It cannot be said that that is a result of weeding out unmeritorious claims. It is beyond what is reasonable to suggest that the Ministry of Justice could have calibrated fees perfectly to deter 50,000 or more vexatious cases every year while ensuring that all meritorious cases were heard before tribunals.

It is important to look at a couple of cases that have come to my surgery. One is the case of Steve, who is a full-time forklift truck driver in Hull, working for a builders merchant. He had worked five consecutive Saturdays but had not been paid. A simple wage claim amounted to £280, but the fee was £390—completely prohibitive. He would have been entitled to fee remission had he been advised, but as the Minister knows, there is no longer legal help for employment law. In any event, the procedure for claiming fee remission is so complex and long-winded that it would put anybody off. The suggestion that a layperson could tackle the complexities thrown at them in applying for the fee remission is just ludicrous, and the Minister probably knows that. He might not accept or want to concede that, but it happens to be absolutely right.

There are three problems. One is the possibility that fee remission is not brought to the public’s attention. I do not think that people know about it, and even if they did, it is too complex to tackle without some legal help. The fee remission scheme is an absolute minefield. I looked at it briefly today. [Interruption.]

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order. We have a fourth problem: there is a Division in the House, so the sitting is suspended. I understand that we are expecting possibly two votes, so we will suspend for 25 minutes. If it is only one vote, please come back as quickly as possible, as we will suspend for 15 minutes.

3.29 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

3.55 pm

On resuming

Karl Turner: Before the short suspension for us to run along to the Division Lobby, I was explaining that there is a difficulty with the Government suggesting that the fee remission scheme is the answer to employment tribunal fees. I said that there were three problems. First, there is the possibility that the remission scheme is not being brought to public attention. As far as I understand it, most people do not know it exists. I have spoken to various law centre staff and citizens advice bureau advisers who have said that people genuinely do not know that the scheme exists and are sometimes surprised to find that it does. Secondly, the fee remission scheme is an absolute minefield. Thirdly and lastly, how

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can any individual without legal help know what their own legal position is and whether they might be entitled to a fee remission?

I mentioned the first case study, but another one has come to me as an MP. It is the case of Mary, who was employed as a personal assistant. She brought a sexual discrimination claim when her employer was not happy that she had become pregnant. She left the job and immediately found other employment. Even with the fee remission, she was still required to find £840. It is fair to say that she begged and borrowed to come up with that money. However, she said to me that if she had not had family members and friends who were prepared to help her out financially, she would have had a problem. She could not have gone to a loan shark, and clearly she did not want to borrow money, but she considered it and eventually borrowed from friends and members of her family. But for that, she estimated that it would have taken her three months, even on a reasonable salary, to save the money to pay for the fee. We know that the statutory bar for bringing an employment case is three months. Clearly, people are not managing to get the money together to get an application in on time.

Such examples show that since 2010 the Government have attacked the rights of workers. Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, employment cases were taken completely out of the scope of legal help; the Government have increased the time required to gain employment rights from 12 months to two years; we have seen the introduction of employment tribunal fees; and we have also seen the introduction of the Trade Union Bill, which further dramatically undermines the rights of working people. Any claim that this Government are on the side of working people is utterly disgusting, and I put that in the strongest possible terms. It is absolutely disgusting to suggest that this Government are on the side of working people.

The Government argued that the reason for introducing fees was to prevent vexatious claims, and then they argued that it was mainly to recover the cost of running the employment tribunal service from users who could afford to pay. However, the latest accounts from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2014-15 the net income from employment tribunal fees was £9 million, while the expenditure on the service was £71.4 million. That means that the increase in net income from fees covers 12.5% of the cost of running the service. That12.5% gain in revenue was achieved at the expense of a 69% overall drop in people bringing claims to employment tribunals—tens of thousands of workers deterred from seeking justice for breaches of their employment rights. The evidence must suggest that the Government’s introduction of tribunal fees is purely ideological. It is punitive and shuts thousands of workers out of accessing justice.

[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

I am conscious of the time, and I am keen for the Minister to reply to hon. Members who have spoken. As I said at the outset, are probably an awful lot better informed on the subject than I am. I do not want to take up too much more time, but I have some questions that I hope the Minister will make a note of and try to answer.

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What is the Minister’s assessment of the high expenditure of the employment tribunal service? If it is terribly difficult for him to come up with a full answer immediately, I am happy for him to write to me. Given that the volume of cases is down massively, will the Minister explain why there has not been a corresponding drop in running costs? We are all keen to save money—we all want to make efficiency savings wherever possible—but the evidence seems to suggest that there is no genuine saving from the completely unfair introduction of fees.

Jo Stevens: I just want to provide an anecdote. I was talking to an employment tribunal panel member last week. He is supposed to sit for 31 days a year, but in the past 12 months, because of the paucity of cases being brought to the tribunal, he has been able to sit for only nine. We have some expensive people sitting in employment tribunals having to string cases out because people cannot afford to bring claims.

Karl Turner: I said that Opposition Members have a great deal of knowledge and experience in the field, and my hon. Friend has just highlighted that. Employment judges, who are paid—I will guess at the amount—probably upwards of £140,000 a year often sit idly without any work, as a result of what the Government have done with fees.

Finally, if, as the Government have claimed, the dramatic fall in the number of cases is down purely to the removal of vexatious claims, why have we not seen an increase in the percentage of successful claims? If the necessity to introduce the fee scheme was about preventing vexatious and unmeritorious claims, surely the success of the claims that are in the tribunal system should be going through the roof, but that is clearly not happening.

4.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing the debate. It is an important subject, and I know that in his case it is particularly so, given his background as an employment solicitor. I thank the other contributors, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), and the two Front-Bench spokespeople, the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). I also thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston for allowing me the opportunity to put on record the Government’s position.

The Government recognise the crucial service that employment tribunals provide to those employees who have serious disputes with their employers. It is vital that people in that position have meaningful access to justice and an effective way to remedy their problems.

Ian Lavery: If it is that vital for ordinary people in the workplace to access justice, will the Minister explain why his Government introduced a £1,200 tribunal fee?

Mr Vara: I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me, as I will turn to that issue, and also to the issue of working people that has been mentioned by a number of colleagues.

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Hon. Members will be aware that the Government were elected as a majority Government with a clear mandate to eliminate the budget deficit during this Parliament. That requires a responsible approach to funding public services, which must include the courts and tribunals, both now and in the future. When the Government introduced fees in employment tribunals in 2013 it was estimated that the cost of running the service was about £84 million per year. Before the introduction of fees, the whole burden of that cost was met by taxpayers. Fees were introduced to reduce the burden, and to ensure that those who were using the service and benefiting directly from it were making a reasonable contribution to the cost, when they could afford to do so.

At the time the fees were introduced, we also applied Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service fee remissions. That scheme is there to ensure that those on low incomes are not prevented from lodging a claim. Under the scheme, those who qualify may have their fees waived, either in part or in full, depending on their financial means. I am a little disappointed that although much has been made of the employment tribunal fees, only a passing reference was made to the conciliatory scheme introduced by ACAS, to which I will turn shortly.

As far as remissions are concerned, I am grateful for, and have very much taken on board, hon. Members’ practical comments, and I can assure colleagues that my officials are looking at how applications are made to see how the process can be made simpler and more user-friendly.

Chris Stephens: Will the Minister reassure us that he will pay particular attention to cases in which there is a claim for an illegal deduction of wages, the amount of which is lower than the fee demanded by the service?

Mr Vara: I will not make any instantaneous decisions. I will look at everything in the round. We are considering the matter, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are undertaking a review—which I will come on to—of the whole employment tribunal fees structure, of which I am sure that matter will be a part.

Jo Stevens: The Minister mentions the review that is under way. The terms of reference for the review make no reference whatsoever to the question of whether the fees should be abolished. They simply say that the review will make

“recommendations for any changes to the structure and level of fees”.

Will the Government reconsider the terms of reference, and think about whether the fees should be scrapped?

Mr Vara: The terms of reference are a little broader than the hon. Lady says. They are “to determine how successful” the employment tribunal fees have been in achieving “the original objectives”. There were three original objectives. One was financial, to consider transferring

“a proportion of the costs from the taxpayer to those who use the tribunal where they can afford to do so”.

The second objective was to consider any behavioural aspects,

“to encourage parties to seek alternative ways of resolving their disputes”,

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and the third was to ensure that we maintained “access to justice”. We are carrying out the review in terms of those three broad original objectives.

Jo Stevens: May I take it from the Minister’s reply that the question of abolition of fees is not ruled out, in the context of the review?

Mr Vara: As I said in reply to an earlier intervention, I am not making any decisions on the spot, much as the hon. Lady would like to tempt me into those waters.

Justin Madders: I do not wish to labour the point, but the question is simple. We are not asking the Minister to make a decision today; we are simply seeking clarification and confirmation that he is not ruling out the abolition of fees altogether as part of the review.

Mr Vara: It is important to appreciate that once the Government website publishes terms of reference, which have been there for many weeks, it is not appropriate to seek to change those terms of reference simply because one is in a debate, no matter how many times colleagues try to press me to respond in that way.

Karl Turner: I will give the Minister one last opportunity: is the possibility of the complete abolition of the fees in the review?

Mr Vara: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave setting out the three objectives against which we are basing the review.

It is important to note that the introduction of fees was designed to encourage parties to use alternative ways of resolving their disputes. Colleagues will appreciate that such means can often be more effective, less stressful and less expensive than formal litigation. For that reason, the previous Administration introduced the new early conciliation service, under which anyone contemplating bringing a complaint to an employment tribunal must first contact ACAS, which will offer conciliation that is free of charge.

ACAS’s evaluation of the scheme during its first year shows that the early results are promising. Although participating in early conciliation is not compulsory for either party, the vast majority do so. In 75% of cases, both parties agree to participate. The scheme was used by more than 80,000 people in its first year. Recent research by ACAS shows that more than 80% of participants in early conciliation were satisfied with the service. Much has been said so far about lawyers acting for people, so it is important to note that we have a free option, without lawyers who charge fees, that will also be less stressful and in an environment that is constructive to arriving at a solution. Sadly, it is often the case that when lawyers are involved, it can be antagonistic. That is not always the case, but it can be the case when two sets of lawyers are acting.

I assure colleagues that it was always our intention to carry out a post-implementation review of the impact of fees on employment tribunals. As Members will be aware, we announced that review in June. The aim of the review is to look at how effective fees have been in meeting the original objectives, as I mentioned. Following their introduction, there has been some concern—it has been expressed today—about the impact fees have had

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on people’s ability to bring claims before the tribunal. Those criticisms have tended to focus on selected statistics, taken in isolation and out of context. In particular, the fall in the volume of claims issued in the employment tribunal has been pointed to as proof that people are being denied access to justice. That is too narrow a perspective when considering this rather broader issue. The fall in the number of claims is likely to be the result of a number of factors. Crucially, there is a failure to take account of the significant increase in the take-up of conciliation.

Justin Madders: The Minister will be aware that conciliation was introduced some time after the fees were introduced. Will he explain why there was such a significant drop immediately after fees were introduced?

Mr Vara: I maintain that it is too simplistic to say that the fees were responsible for the drop. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for just a moment, I will explain the other reasons that may have contributed to the decline in the numbers. As I have already mentioned, ACAS’s evaluation of the service suggests that the early results are promising. It is noteworthy that the trend was that the number of claims was declining before fees were introduced. It is likely that that was related, at least in part, to the improving economy, which has delivered higher levels of employment. The economy and employment have continued to improve, and it is therefore likely that we would have continued to see a trend of falling claim numbers, irrespective of whether fees were introduced.

Ruth Cadbury: The Minister says that there was a decline for other reasons. The figures that we heard earlier in the debate were of 60% drops and even a 90% drop in certain types of cases. Was the level of drop in claims that the Minister saw of that order?

Mr Vara: I am giving a general analysis of the number of claims that were made to the employment tribunal. The trend of the total number of claims was declining. The hon. Lady seeks to talk about specific types of cases, and I am not going to go into that. I am talking about the general trend, because the debate and the numbers given so far have been broad and have related to the total number of applications received to employment tribunals.

Chris Stephens rose

Richard Arkless rose

Mr Vara: I will give way first to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West.

Chris Stephens: Is the Minister casting doubt on the specific research on this matter carried out by Citizens Advice Scotland, Citizens Advice for England and Wales, the TUC and others? Will he write to me with the figures on the declining number of employment tribunals prior to the introduction of fees?

Mr Vara: I am certainly not casting doubt on research. If the hon. Gentleman recalls, I said that I was not going to discuss specific issues and specific types of case. It is important to take things in the context of how the debate has been going so far. The hon. Member for

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Ellesmere Port and Neston spoke in broad-brush terms about the fees coming in and the total number of reductions.

Richard Arkless: I politely ask the Minister, when he takes the information from this debate back to the Government and his colleagues, to point out to them that although there may arguably have been a small decline or a trend before the imposition of fees, since then the numbers have fallen off the edge of a cliff. The trend has not continued.

Mr Vara: I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says. As I have said, we are undertaking a review at present.

Other policy reforms, including changes to employment law, which the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston referred to, are also likely to have had some impact on the figures. It is clear, therefore, that a wider range of factors needs to be taken into account if we are to have a proper assessment of the true impact that fees have had, and that needs to be considered in the round. That is why we are doing a review, and that is what the review will seek to evaluate. If, after the review has reported, the Government believe that there are compelling arguments for changes to the fees structure or to the operation of the fee remissions scheme, we will, of course, bring forward proposals for a consultation, to which Members may wish to contribute.

We recognise that fees are never popular, but in the current financial climate we have a duty to consider all possible ways of ensuring that the courts and tribunals are adequately funded, so that access to justice is protected in the long term. Let me be absolutely clear, however, that at every step we have ensured that the most vulnerable are protected through the fee remissions scheme, so that the burden falls on those who can afford to pay. The conclusions of the review will provide us with a clearer picture of how fees have affected the way people seek to resolve their disputes.

Turning to some of the issues that were raised by colleagues in the debate, there was a charge that the fees were a sustained attack on working people. [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] I do not accept that for one moment. I refer to something that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said in his speech—I will more or less quote him—which was along the lines of, “If you are still working, taking your employer to a tribunal is the last thing you want to do.”

That is exactly why an ACAS proposal and early conciliation is a lot better than going to the tribunal. I like to think that the proposal for ACAS fits in nicely in the context of that interpretation of his sentence. The conciliation system is free. Colleagues talk about considering the working man but it seems that, by proposing to scrap or not recognise the free early conciliation system, they are showing that they would prefer a system where lawyers are instead paid by the people whom they speak about.

Jo Stevens: I am glad that the Minister has praised ACAS and the service that it provides. On that basis, will he please therefore speak to his colleagues in government about the fact that Government Departments are not engaging in early conciliation via ACAS, and specifically, on the point that I made earlier in the debate, about the National Offender Management Service?

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Mr Vara: I take on board what the hon. Lady says, and I will certainly look into the matter further. On the remissions system, I have already said we are looking to see how it can be made more user-friendly, and we will continue to look at it. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston also quoted Lord Justice Underhill in the case in which Unison had been involved. I gently point out to him that both the cases brought by Unison to seek judicial review were rejected by the Court of Appeal. Unison is seeking permission to appeal from the Supreme Court, but let me put it on the record that we will object robustly if the appeal process is granted.

Richard Arkless: The Minister is being extremely generous with his time; Opposition Members appreciate that. As part of the brief that he gives back to his colleagues—I am afraid I have had a memory freeze. I will come back to my point. I apologise.

Mr Vara: We still have about three and a half minutes, so I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman again if necessary.

On the issue of women and pregnancy discrimination, let me make it absolutely clear that it is unacceptable that women, pregnant or not—indeed, anyone—should be discriminated against when there are laws against it. We have strict laws and the Government take the matter very seriously, as do all Members of all parties. The reviews that have been referred to will certainly be taken into account by my Department’s review into the employment tribunals.

The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway spoke of the Scottish aspect. I can assure him that my officials are in contact with Scottish officials to ensure that, pursuant to the Smith Commission, there is a smooth transfer in the running of the tribunals. I hope I have managed to persuade colleagues that the matter is not simply about preventing vexatious claims; it is much broader than that and is intended to ensure that where there is a need to reach a settlement with an employer, it is done in an environment that is less stressful than the court environment. Given the financial climate in which we operate, it is right that those who use the court service should in some way contribute to it.

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I will conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston on securing this debate. It is absolutely clear from the 90 minutes or so that we have had that it commands a huge amount of interest from colleagues. I am grateful to him for giving his colleagues an opportunity to air their views, and for allowing me to take on board their comments and views and put on the record the Government’s view.

4.24 pm

Justin Madders: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I will be brief. I am disappointed in what the Minister has said today. I do not believe that he has really taken on board our concerns. I am very disappointed that, despite having had four opportunities to confirm that there is a possibility that the review of the fees will lead to their abolition, he has declined to confirm that. So we have a consultation and a review of the system, but it is nothing more than a comfort blanket to justify the original decision. I am also disappointed that, apart from the Minister, who spoke as best he could in a difficult situation, no one else from the Conservative party was here today to speak up on behalf of the Government’s policy. Perhaps they do not want to defend the indefensible.

It is worth bearing in mind that the Government’s approach is all part of a strategy in a race to the bottom. It is not a race that we should take part in. In the long run, we will all be the poorer for that kind of mentality. Let us get a system that allows workplace justice. Let us have a proper consultation and take on board all the evidence—the weight of evidence from the Justice Committee that we have heard today—about how the fees have really denied access to justice. Let us get a system that really allows access to justice. The only way to do that is to scrap the fees altogether.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the effect of the introduction of fees for employment tribunals.

4.26 pm

Sitting suspended until 4.30 pm.

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Post Office Closures

4.30 pm

Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered service provision in the event of post office closures.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Gillan. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate about post office provision. I have particular concerns about post offices closing and not being reopened, or not for some significant time. This being a debate about post offices, I very much hope to receive your stamp of approval, Mrs Gillan. I am conscious that other MPs will wish to speak—mail or female—and I will leave plenty of time for them to do so. If I go on for too long, I am sure that Members will tell me in no uncertain terms, “Letters speak!” I shall leave behind the appalling puns and move on to the subject of the debate.

With the Post Office having moved towards a franchise model, local provision is increasingly reliant on private individuals providing a post office as well as running their own business. If those individuals decide to hand in the keys, the Post Office is left to try to find a replacement, and the community is without a post office until it does. I shall explore three areas in my speech. First, I shall provide a brief case study of the closure of my local post office in Heathfield in my constituency, Bexhill and Battle. Secondly, I shall assess whether the Government’s contract with Post Office Ltd obliges the latter to provide replacement post offices following closures. Thirdly, I shall ask the Minister what more can be done to ensure that Post Office Ltd is held responsible for better service provision.

Turning first to the case study on post office closure, Heathfield is a rural settlement serving 12,000 residents. It is the largest parish in the country by population. In most eyes, it is a town, although it is fair to say that I would be run out of town—or, indeed, parish—if I suggested so. As befits a population of that size, Heathfield has a high street with banks, supermarkets, and both national and local shops. Whereas high streets around the country may be struggling, Heathfield’s has strong footfall, with new national retailers opening for business.

In March this year, the postmaster running the post office branch expressed a wish to leave the business. Post Office Ltd identified a potential new postmaster, but he was unfortunately unable to secure a lease agreement on the site. Sadly, the branch closed on 1 April 2015. The Post Office employed an agent postmaster, but he could not agree a lease on the premises either. That leads to my first issue: Post Office Ltd will send in a temporary postmaster to run a post office only from the existing site, so people are at the mercy of the landlord when it comes to making this work. Post Office Ltd will not look at alternative temporary premises for the temporary postmaster, despite there being plenty of premises available in my Heathfield example.

By summer, the pressure applied by the community and our fantastic county, district and parish councillors caused Post Office Ltd to consider a temporary solution in the form of a portakabin post office. Despite the district council offering a berth in the car park adjacent to the existing site, Post Office Ltd decided that that was

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not logistically possible, so it opted for a different car park in Heathfield. Having delivered the portakabin via crane, time was taken waiting for BT and other suppliers to kit out said portakabin. That leads to my second issue: Post Office Ltd must have huge buy-in clout when dealing with its vendors, but there appeared to be an institutional unwillingness to drive BT and others to deliver the required capability, or to hold feet to the fire.

When the portakabin was finally ready to go live, Post Office Ltd engineers found that the site was not flat enough to provide safe access for customers. The portakabin was promptly removed, and no temporary solution has been provided. That leads to my third issue: there are more than 11,500 post offices in operation, so if my local one can close, I am sure that others can and have closed.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sad to hear what has happened in Heathfield. I hope that the same will not happen in Bulkington in my constituency, where the Co-op gave notice of withdrawing its post office franchise only last week. That set all sorts of hares running in the village, with talk of the post office closing down. It is not the post office that is closing down; the Co-op has elected to take away the franchise and has not, at this stage, taken any steps to find an alternative site. My hon. Friend has raised an important problem, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Post Office might deal with such matters.

Huw Merriman: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Indeed, Co-op was one of the retailers we approached in Heathfield to see whether it would be willing to take on the post office, but that particular Co-op franchise at least made it clear that it was not in the business of post offices anymore. That might add fuel to my hon. Friend’s fire.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I found it humorous when the hon. Gentleman mentioned post offices in portakabins—they would not last too long in certain parts of Northern Ireland. Does he agree that although the Co-op might have had some responsibility, so does the Post Office, because post offices are part of the fabric of the community, and are where pensioners and others meet? Surely the commitment needs to come from the Post Office.

Huw Merriman: I absolutely agree, and will touch on that when I discuss the effect on my constituents.

Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I add my concerns to the others expressed, because the post office in Inkberrow in my constituency is up for consultation. The local shop was keen to have it, but the Post Office could not consult properly with local residents. It would be great if post offices could be sited in community facilities such as pubs.

Huw Merriman: I very much take my hon. Friend’s point. One of the challenges we have found has been in trying to find businesses that are willing to take on post office sites. The choice does not seem to be there any longer—at least, not that I can see from the situation in Heathfield.

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Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Huw Merriman: I will give way one more time, because I am a sucker.

Andrew Percy: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In my constituency we have exactly the same problem, with post offices closing and there being a long gap before they are replaced. There are problems even when people are willing to take on a post office. A sub-postmaster in my constituency wishes to take on a post office in another community, but he cannot because the Post Office demands that he goes through all these hoops, despite being a serving sub-postmaster. Often, because of the processes put in place by the Post Office, willing people will not accept the role, and we end up with no facility at all.

Huw Merriman: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The compliance process is long and detailed. The current consultation in Heathfield means that we will not see a solution until February at the earliest.

Returning to my story, the portakabin was removed because the Post Office Ltd had no plan in place for portakabin roll-outs. If the closures that I believe will come do come, there needs to be a plan. The councillors realised that a permanent replacement was the only option, so they approached a number of national and local stores in the high street. I will give examples that show how difficult it now is to get businesses to take on a post office. Having previously hosted the post office, Sainsbury’s said no, despite losing footfall following the closing of the adjacent post office and having to compete with a new Waitrose. A WHSmith is opening soon, which is a good sign that the town is vibrant; one would think that the business would work well there, but it said no. As I say, Co-op said that it is not taking on post offices. The post office used to be sited in the sorting offices, but Royal Mail refused to accommodate even a temporary outlet. All other retailers declined to apply.

Finally, one local business, an off-licence, was willing to make an application. Thank goodness for that gentleman. That leads me to my fourth issue: the model now seems to be that neither village post offices—often called “locals”—nor main post offices in towns will operate as a stand-alone business now. That would be fine if existing businesses were willing to take on the operation, but as our experience in Heathfield shows, they are not. I question whether the commercial terms will stand the test of time for the other 11,500 post offices when renewal comes up.

As I said earlier, the Post Office is now in consultation with the community until January 2016. The expectation, if all goes well—touch wood—is that the new post office service will be in place in February 2016. That is almost a year after the doors closed to a post office that serves 11,500 to 12,000 residents.

Throughout the period of closure, the vast majority of customers have had to use services at a village a few miles from Heathfield. That is fine for those who have a car and can travel, but like many hon. Members here, I represent a rural constituency in which the bus service has been reduced. The proportion of over-65s in my constituency is 10% above the national average. The elderly cannot jump on a bus and then wait more than an hour in the cold to come back.

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That leads me to my fifth issue and my second key question. Does the Government’s contract require the Post Office to provide a post office replacement following a closure if the branch serves a significant number of community members, or has been closed for, say, six months? It appears that it does not. Post Office Ltd must meet access criteria, as they are called, and overall branch numbers, but as somebody at the Post Office rather haughtily said to me,

“The way in which the Post Office meets the access criteria and branch numbers is an operational matter for the Post Office.”

That may be so, but it is also of great significance to my constituents and those of other hon. Members. The Post Office currently meets the access criteria, but I question how long it will continue to do so in the marketplace that I have described.

My concluding question is: what more can be done to ensure that Post Office Ltd is held responsible for better service provision? If the Government contract required either a temporary or permanent replacement to be in place within a set period, Heathfield would not have been without its post office for so long. I call for the contract terms to be amended to require a replacement post office to be in place within six months if the previous post office serviced a community of, say, 10,000 residents or more. If a replacement fails to be found, there should be financial penalties and ramifications on the career ladder. Although the Post Office staff have done everything they can, their roles are not subject to incentives, and there are no penalties if a post office closes, provided that the general access criteria are met. Those are the changes I ask for.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (in the Chair): Four Members have indicated that they would like to speak, and we must accommodate the three Front Benchers’ speeches. I will not impose a time limit, but I hope that you will all bear that in mind.

4.42 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak on this issue. I commend the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for bringing it to Westminster Hall for consideration. This is a key issue in my constituency—as in, I believe, every other constituency. We have experienced a lot of changes to our post offices over the years, not all of them for the best, although some have been carried out constructively.

The post office is a national institution that has been at the heart of British society since its inception. The post office in my constituency is more than just a post office. The post office is a community hub for people in towns, villages and hamlets up and down the country. It holds together the fabric of society. My post office, although I do not visit it very often, is also a shop, and that is where the change has taken place. It is clearly the thriving centre of the village. For many of the people who go to the post office to post letters or whatever else, the social interaction they get there is vital. Without it, they would suffer.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): On the issue of the other services that local post offices provide, over the past 20 years there has been a reduction of almost 50% in the number of branch post offices, and that trend looks likely to continue. We need a fundamental reassessment of the services provided by branch post offices, particularly in rural areas.

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Jim Shannon: As always, my hon. Friend sums up the whole debate in about two sentences. He is absolutely right. Those are clearly the issues, and that change needs to take place across the whole Post Office.

Post office restructuring and modernisation will affect different post offices in different ways. In some places, there is concern that the post office, its services and its community value will be lost. In others, including my constituency, the concern is about the staff who face dramatically increased working hours for the same wage. That issue has to be taken into consideration. When post offices, their services and their provisions are lost, our role is to protect those who are adversely affected by those changes. Elderly people can be left vulnerable and isolated by the loss of what for many is a community hub.

Over the years, I have had the chance to work with post office counters. I want to mention Mark Gibson, who has worked hard to make the necessary changes. Over the years, with his help and the help of local people, we were able to move local post offices into shops in several villages on the Ards peninsula: Kircubbin, Cloughey, Portavogie, Ballygowan, Saintfield and Ballynahinch. The Scrabo estate post office was moved into the Ards shopping centre. Those are the things that can be done if we have the co-operation of the post office counters and those who own shops.

Changes can result in job losses in my constituency, as well as the loss of the community value of the post office. We need to put in place mechanisms, to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred, to enable the post office to do more. For example, why cannot every post office deal with vehicle tax? That could be done in every post office across the Province. They could deal with benefits, banking and other things. I spoke to the Minister before the debate, so he knew that that question was coming. I hope for a full answer when he speaks.

We have some questions about the post offices in Ballywalter, Portavogie and Killyleagh in my constituency. They are coming into the new system. The postmasters and postmistresses are concerned about how the changes will take place, and the staff are worried about their working hours. Hopefully, relocating staff from closing post offices will alleviate that problem.

It seems that when the individual in charge of a post office decides that they no longer wish to trade, they simply shut up shop. On some occasions, post offices have closed. We were able to move all but one of the post offices I mentioned into other shops in the area. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle mentioned a post office that moved into a pub. That is unusual, but it is important that it was retained.

We warned about the drawbacks of the privatisation of the Post Office. Now that it has happened, the Government should do everything they can to ensure that the Post Office has plans in place to make adequate provision. I understand that the contract with the Post Office was geared towards requiring Post Office Ltd to find temporary or permanent replacements for closed post offices. We have to be careful about how the Government push Post Office Ltd. The Government need a hands-on approach to ensure that the major changes happen smoothly, that those who are adversely affected are protected, and that Post Office Ltd fulfils its contractual obligations.

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In conclusion, the post office is an integral part of my society—the villages, estates and towns of Strangford, which I represent. People in those villages and estates need post offices for social interaction and for the services they provide. Post offices are the lifeblood of all the villages and estates in my constituency. My plea to the Minister is that he helps them to remain that way.

4.49 pm

Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whose remarks, as always, were considered.

I hope to inject some optimism into the debate. Our debates in this place are often full of doom and gloom about issues facing our constituencies. Of course, it is right that we advocate on behalf of our constituents, who need to access local services, but some good things have been happening to post offices that have benefited my constituents. I will refer to a few of those things and talk about the issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle raised, of the challenges that communities face when post offices temporarily close, often due to unforeseen circumstances.

Post offices are the lifeblood of many rural areas and of many of the shopping parades on the periphery of our larger town centres. That is certainly true of my constituency. The service that they provide to older people is particularly important, offering a focus in the village or community for people who have little daily contact and may otherwise be isolated. That is particularly true in rural areas of Suffolk. There is some cause for optimism, however, because the Government have taken supporting post offices seriously. At the beginning of the previous Parliament, as a result of the spending review, £1.3 billion was put into securing a modernisation programme for post offices both large and small, including Crown post offices, main post offices and local post offices. The programme is bringing benefits, certainly to my constituents. A further raft of £640 million was announced in 2013, £20 million of which is specifically for remote rural post offices. Residents in central Suffolk have benefited from that.

One issue that was flagged up when the modernisation programme was taken forward was that the Post Office needed to modernise some of its practices, recognising that we now live in a digital age. We need a Post Office that can benefit from economies of scale and from collocation with other community services. Post offices can benefit village shops by attracting more customers and helping to maintain the viability of shops and services that may otherwise be at risk as people move towards online shopping.

Andrew Percy: I hope my hon. Friend does not think that we are all being negative. The post offices at Pollington, Eastoft, Airmyn and Wrawby were all closed under the previous Government’s closure scheme, and we are pleased that that scheme has gone. The concern about the current positive policy is the huge delays when people are told that they are getting a new post office but then it does not open, meaning that people change their behaviour and start using other services or post offices elsewhere. That is the concern, and I would not want

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him to think that anyone who is criticising that is at all negative about what the Government have done on post offices. We have protected them in a way that previous Governments did not.

Dr Poulter: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I am sure that the funding and investment that I have just outlined is welcomed by Members from both sides of the House, because it has gone directly to maintaining the viability of some of the most remote rural post offices. However, the challenge that my hon. Friend throws down, which was also raised at the outset by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle, is a good one.

When a post office is temporarily closed, such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle mentioned in Heathfield, a village with which I am familiar having spent some of my younger days in his constituency, the problem is that the closure can become de facto permanent. Even when a temporary closure is flagged up to the local community and the Post Office many months in advance, the Post Office does not always act quickly enough to put in place either a temporary or permanent solution. I am lucky to have an engaged parish council that considered a number of options for maintaining the viability of the post office in Stradbroke. I helped in that process, and I am pleased that we still have a functioning post office service.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the danger, and the evidence from elsewhere, is that a temporary closure can last for many months. The viability of the service is then lost and many customers start to take their custom elsewhere, which can have a knock-on effect on the potentially fragile local economy that benefited from having a post office. When the original £1.3 billion was provided, conditions were imposed to ensure that services remained accessible and viable. I am interested in what the Minister has to say about how we can better work with the Post Office to deal with the issues around temporary closures and to speed up the process, so that such closures do not become de facto semi-permanent and so that services can be put back in place. At the moment, it seems that a good policy that has benefited and encouraged the viability of many rural post offices, particularly through collocation, can be undermined in some communities by temporary closures.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr Poulter: I will, but I am conscious of the time and the need to close my remarks.

Jason McCartney: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate all those who have contributed to the debate. I was not aware that other Members were in the same situation as me. My own village post office in Honley has now been closed for six weeks and I have been struggling to get any explanation from the Post Office as to why. Business has been migrating elsewhere. Only this afternoon, the post office in Meltham, which is where we were supposed to go, has also closed. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, which I am now aware exists across the country, not just in my constituency.

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Dr Poulter: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that any community could face temporary closures. The great tragedy of such closures, some which can be unforeseen and happen at short notice, perhaps due to the death of a long-standing postmaster, is that they are often not sudden and are flagged up many months in advance when a postmaster wants to retire. We need prompter action and early engagement from the Post Office in such circumstances. Given the conditionality of the money in the £1.3 billion modernisation programme, I am interested to hear what further steps the Government can take to ensure that the Post Office gets it right. We do not want temporary closures to become permanent, and we must recognise that temporary closures can have a detrimental effect on the other shops in a village or community that relied on the footfall brought in by the post office.

The Government have taken some promising steps towards reinvigorating the Post Office. I believe that 150 new branches opened last year as a result of the modernisation programme. That is good news, but we need to address temporary closures properly. I look forward to the Minister’s remarks.

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (in the Chair): Order. We still have five speakers left, with half an hour to go. I call Dr Paul Monaghan.

4.57 pm

Dr Paul Monaghan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (SNP): Thank you, Mrs Gillan, for the opportunity to discuss the important issue of service delivery in the event of post office closures. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing the debate and on highlighting his case study, the features of which I recognise only too well.

Post offices play an enormously important role in the lives of communities across the UK, and nowhere is that more evident than in constituencies such as mine that have many remote and rural communities. Indeed, the post office is the heart and soul of many villages in my constituency, and for many people it is the only means to interact with the outside world. They do so not only through postal services and parcels but through banking and accessing business services, submitting identity documents, obtaining a passport or driving licence, accessing cash, building up a modest savings account, receiving pensions and collecting benefit entitlements. I appreciate the challenges that the Post Office faces in delivering that range of crucial range of services, and I appreciate that it is working hard to ensure that its services remain as accessible as possible, particularly for older and disabled customers.

Between March 2001 and March 2015, 531 of Scotland’s post offices were closed. That is equivalent to over 27% of all post offices being lost—more than one in four. Each of those closures is a disaster for the local community, depriving it of the means to interact with the world in the ways that I described. On 8 November 2015, just a few weeks ago, The Mail on Sunday published an article stating that there had been a large number of temporary post office closures in rural villages and towns of Scotland. Figures obtained by the paper showed that 90 post offices in Scotland are now officially registered as temporarily closed. I say “temporarily”, although a

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third have been closed for more five years. Commenting on that sad fact recently, the consumer spokesman for Citizens Advice Scotland noted:

“Local Post Offices are vital for remote and rural communities as consumers and business there can face difficulty in travelling to alternative branches.”

The paper noted that new figures provided by the Post Office under the Freedom of Information Act demonstrated that as of 31 March 2015 there were 1,492 post offices in Scotland, of which 1,402 remained open. Of the 90 classed as temporarily closed, 77 were in rural areas. Several of those are in my constituency. Of the temporarily closed post offices, 34 have been closed for five or six years, six for four years, two for three years, seven for two years and 14 for one year. Within the past year alone, 27 post offices have closed temporarily throughout Scotland.

The effect of post office closures is dramatic, not least because many of the post offices have evolved to take on responsibility for delivering a range of banking and business functions, in addition to the traditional post office role. That evolution has taken place because many of the banks operating in the UK have implemented a programme of branch closures and reduced opening hours in many communities. In the rural areas of my constituency that often means that the local post office is the only available financial service provider within a 60-mile radius. It goes without saying that where the banks have closed and the post office follows, communities are left in grave circumstances. Such a situation is far too common, as we have heard.

To be clear, accountability for the post office network lies with the UK Government, who have a responsibility to ensure that post office services are available for Scotland’s rural communities. In those communities there is no alternative to post office services.

The Postal Services Act 2011 sets out the minimum requirements of the universal service obligation, on which the Post Office must deliver. The requirements are statutory and may be altered only with the consent of the UK Parliament. The minimum requirements are: at least one delivery of letters every Monday to Saturday to every address in the UK; at least one collection of letters every Monday to Saturday; postal services at an affordable, uniform tariff across the UK; a registered items service at an affordable public tariff; an insured items service at an affordable public tariff; a free-of-charge postal service to blind or partially sighted people; and free carriage of legislative petitions and addresses.

The Post Office, posts and postal services are reserved to the UK Government under the Scotland Act 1998, but the Scottish Government are committed to strengthening the long-term sustainability of the post office network in Scotland, consistent with the national performance framework. Recognising the importance of post offices, the Scottish Government have determined to provide funding to local post offices to maintain their crucial service delivery through, for example, the post office diversification fund for Scotland. The objective of the fund is to contribute to the regeneration of deprived urban areas by sustaining and improving post office branches on the margins of viability that provide socially important services and facilities and that act as an anchor for other retail activity. Such objectives clearly

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apply to rural areas as well. In 2011-12, for example, 48 post offices throughout Scotland received funding of upwards of £25,000, individually awarded to various outlets for a variety of improvements, including refurbishments, improved security, retail equipment and so on.

The Scottish Government recognise the valuable social role of post offices, particularly in deprived and remote areas of Scotland. That is why the Scottish National party continues to promote innovative approaches to delivering public services through post offices. We want to support local authorities, local enterprise networks and third sector organisations to work together to find sustainable solutions that place post office services at the heart of community-based services.

The UK Government must do all in their power to protect rural communities from the destructive impact of post office closures. Post offices perform a vital service in many areas of the UK. They have a pivotal role to play and are often the only place where letters and packages can be sent and received, bills paid, cash withdrawn and savings deposited. For communities that as often as not do not have internet connections, such services are essential in every meaning of the word.

Scotland has many remote and rural households and communities, and in common with communities in other countries in the UK, they should not have vital services taken away from them. I call on the UK Government to improve strategy and policy and to secure post offices for communities throughout the UK, but particularly in remote and rural areas.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (in the Chair): I would like to start the wind-ups at 10 minutes past 5, with five minutes for each of the Opposition Front Benchers and, I hope, 10 minutes for the Minister. That is what I am aiming for, so I hope Members will accommodate it.

5.5 pm

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on bringing this important issue to the Chamber. It is not only important for rural communities, although I understand what hon. Members have been saying.

In August, the shop in which the post office was operating in the community of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in my constituency went into liquidation—in a flash, just like that, the post office was closed. Newbiggin is a lovely seaside village of about 6,000 people where lots of them depend on the post office services. There is no bank in the area—the village is at least three miles from a bank or any other post office—and the area is in the top 10% of deprived lower layer super output areas, so a lot of people depend on benefits and there are a lot of elderly people in the village. To have the post office taken away means, almost within minutes, a devastating impact on families, individuals and isolated people. As has been mentioned, those people might not be able to jump into a car or have great transport links to get to the next nearest post office and, to be honest, a lot of those elderly or vulnerable people might not have a clue where the next post office is. The issue is really important.

It is easy to criticise the Post Office and everyone else concerned, but we have to think about the communities, the people and the devastating impact on them, not just in Newbiggin in my constituency, but in villages and

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towns throughout the country, as has been explained in the Chamber this afternoon. We have got to have some sort of reliable post office provision, and it cannot be that if the old lady or gentleman who runs the post office sadly passes away, that provision is basically withdrawn. People depend on these services and there has got to be some form of contract between the Government and the Post Office so that in the event of a liquidation, a death or something like that, people can still use post office services, the lifeblood of their community.

I urge the Government to think about how we can come together with a strategy—a community contract—between the Government, the Post Office and the community to ensure services whatever happens. Unfortunately, in life things do happen, and post offices have been closed not because of anything that the postmaster or postmistress has done, but because of circumstances outside their control. The Government should be ensuring that that provision cannot, even temporarily, be withdrawn.

5.8 pm

Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP): I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing the debate and I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Gillan.

We have heard a similar story in all parts of the House: how vital post offices are in their communities and the extent to which they are more than just a service—they are about the community hub and their impact on a whole range of different sectors of society. I find myself fully in agreement with the speech just made by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). He highlighted the impact on people in deprivation when a post office is closed. Those are often the people who have less access to public transport, the internet and other vital services, which shows how vital post offices are in the community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) highlighted the Scottish situation, which I am a bit more familiar with, and the good work done by the Scottish Government through its post office diversification fund. That is an example of what can be done. That fund has been key in saving post offices on the cusp of viability, certainly for larger communities of more than 10,000 people, which is a beacon for the way forward, because it has allowed those post offices to continue and act as an anchor for other services, which gives great vitality.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) talked about the problem of delays in getting temporary offices up and running, while my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned the impact of temporary closures that go on way beyond what anyone would think was in the realms of temporary. Upwards of five years is not temporary; that is semi-permanent. Perhaps the Minister might look for a way to address that blight. If we think a closure is temporary, we can accept a bit of grief for a few months, but we cannot accept that for years.

The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) made many valid points, including on the impact of temporary closures. A strong message we can take from the debate is that we need something done about that. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out how vital post offices are as

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community hubs, which is a point everyone has made in the debate. They go beyond a service and while we might now live in a digital age, many elderly people who may not be as digitally competent are utterly dependent on those services, as are businesses who have poor broadband connections and need those services for general business and communication. That covers a huge range. I hope that I have not missed out any contributors to the debate, but I think we pretty much agree with everything said in all parts of the House. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

5.12 pm

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this important debate. He is keen to ascertain what the Government will do to ensure that the Post Office has proper plans in place for provision and that, where there are problems, it acts quickly to ensure an available replacement, whether on a temporary or permanent basis.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) hit the nail on the head and spoke for everyone when he said that the post office is the heart of the community. Post offices are indeed an essential part of British life, providing somewhere for people not only to buy their stamps and post letters and parcels but, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) said, to access many other vital services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said, sometimes they are the only places where people can access such services—it might not be possible to go anywhere else.

Of course, things do change. Quite often that is as a result of technological change. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) summed that up by saying that we are in a digital age and, as a result, the number of post offices has fallen in recent years. Most post office branches are operated by franchise partners or sub-postmasters who are independent business people, so, in order for their post offices to remain open, they often rely on Government subsidy. Despite some reassurance, clearly there are still real pressures, which have not been helped by the controversy surrounding the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.

Many hon. Members have raised cases in the House in which it appears that honest and hard-working sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have had their reputation tarnished and livelihood threatened—in some cases they have lost their liberty—having been accused of improper accounting. Whatever the truth, in those cases computer software was responsible for the loss of large sums of money. Unquestionably, that may have acted as an off-putting factor for those who might have considered running a post office as part of their business.

In addition, as has been pointed out, some post office proprietors have been resigning from the business because they are concerned that their post offices are not financially viable. Local papers throughout the country are full of stories—I see them in my constituency—of postmasters and postmistresses struggling to stay in business. Often, that occurs where Post Office Ltd has changed the status of a local post office as part of national changes to the service, which leaves them having to rely on commission to offer what services they can.

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When that happens, the survival of the post office is dependent on the viability of the shop in which it is contained and some complain that they cannot afford to run the post office, in particular owing to the extended opening hours demanded by Post Office Ltd. Will the Minister tell us how many sub-postmasters have resigned in the past year as a result of being unable to run their business profitably with a post office in their premises? What procedures do the Government expect them to follow when it becomes clear that a post office is in danger of closing?

Without proactive policies, thousands of constituents can be left without a local post office because Post Office Ltd is unable to rely on the good will of an individual operator. Does the Minister believe that Post Office Ltd is taking adequate steps to be proactive in preventing closure and acting swiftly enough to ensure that a replacement is available locally when a post office has to close? Indeed, does he believe that conditions put on replacements, such as very long opening hours, are unreasonable?

Jim Shannon: One thing that has not been mentioned but the Minister could take on board for his response is the possibility of incentivising financially those who want to take over a post office. Perhaps the Government need to offer a small financial bonus or incentive to enable people at least to consider that, based on a contract and proper conditions. That has happened in Northern Ireland and perhaps it should happen here as well.

Yvonne Fovargue: That is certainly something to put to the Minister. The Government have committed £640 million from 2015 to 2018 to fund the network transformation programme and to protect branches where vital services are provided to communities but the post office is not commercially viable. Is the Minister content that sufficient funding is being provided to fulfil that task? What will happen when the subsidy runs out in 2018? Can he guarantee that after that point the transformation programme will have ensured that remaining post offices are commercially viable? I look forward to his response.

5.17 pm

Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing the debate and the way in which he has championed this issue most effectively since his election to Parliament. He raised a number of points that it may be helpful to address at the outset, on whether this is a new model in the Post Office, to what extent it is commercially attractive and how the Post Office is being held accountable.

Like my hon. Friend, I represent a rural constituency and I have a similar change programme in my area. I am also aware of the challenges in areas such as mine on public transport, to which he alluded. As for whether the franchise model is new, it is not; it has been around since the 1990s and it is long-held practice to collocate a post office and a shop. What is changing to a certain extent is the number and scale of post offices being collocated, and while in the past we had post offices

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with shops that sold sweets, birthday cards and various other things—many of us will remember that from our childhoods—now we more often have shops with a post office attached to them.

On whether running a post office is commercially attractive, the footfall generated is very attractive to many shop owners. Indeed, having one counter as opposed to two can mean that customers do not have to queue twice and can make managing staff in the shop more efficient. There are therefore commercial attractions to collocating a post office in another business nearby, which is part of the appeal for many taking that approach forward.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly spoke of the social hub that the post office offers. That is why I hope he will support the Government’s manifesto commitment to secure 3,000 rural post offices and, as part of the arrangements with the Post Office, to maintain 11,500 branches as part of the network. The Government recognise, through the funding that has been allocated, the important social hub that post offices provide. Indeed, that is in stark contrast to the previous Labour Government, under which at least 5,000 branches closed as part of their closure programme. The Government have made a commitment to the Post Office in recognition of the exact point the hon. Gentleman raised—that post offices make an important social contribution to communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) injected a welcome note of optimism to the debate, recognising that, in securing the network as the Government have done, we have increased significantly the hours that branches are open, often on Sundays, compared with the past.

Alongside the allocated funding, there is a specific £20 million community branch fund, which I urge Members to take advantage of. The fund encourages branches that may be the last shop in their community to bid for things they may need to make their businesses more viable, so measures are available within the funding mechanism to help preserve post offices where they are aligned with the last shop in a village or community. That is part of the wider £2 billion allocated since 2010 as part of this programme.

Before I come to the specific case in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle and the chain of events behind the post office’s temporary closure there, I turn to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who raised the issue of the hoops that have to be jumped through, causing frustration and adding to the time taken to open a new post office or appoint a new postmaster. I think we all share that frustration, but there are good reasons for it, given the significant position of trust that postmasters and postmistresses hold within their communities and the large sums of money they often handle. It is therefore right that a thorough consultation process is part of those appointments, but that can have an impact.

Andrew Percy: I think any reasonable person would accept that. We could perhaps do better by ensuring that interim measures are in place while something else is being worked on. That is the problem. Everyone understands the importance of a postmaster’s job and the compliance regime that must go behind it, but the

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length of time between the closure of a post office and the opening of a new one is unacceptable, and we need to smarten up on that.

Stephen Barclay: My hon. Friend raises a valid point. These things are looked at on a case-by-case basis, and each case tends to be different. That is highlighted in the case of the post office in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle, where a number of interim measures were tried. He alluded to a portakabin being used and the attempt made to look at whether that could be located close to the store or needed to be further away. The issue of temporary staff was considered. A mobile van was also considered, which is sometimes suitable, but the volume of customers at the Heathfield store was too high. There were specific issues with the portakabin, but that solution was tried.

Attempts are made to mitigate the time taken, but sometimes local factors work against that. Unfortunately, in my hon. Friend’s case, a chain of events has made it more difficult to put the interim solution in place. I hope that better news is imminent. I know he supports the proposal for a new permanent host for the post office in Heathfield: Unique Wine Ltd, which is on the high street. The consultation is ongoing, so I hope there is light at the end of the tunnel for him.

In terms of locating a post office in an existing business—in that case, an off-licence—there are plenty of examples around the country of such collocation working well, not least due to the longer hours in which it enables the public to access the post office. I take slight issue with the suggestion from the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) that the Post Office is imposing unfair terms by asking for longer hours. She also suggested that the public are not getting access to post offices. I think most customers will welcome the fact that a post office, through collocation, is open for longer hours. That is part of the public benefit.

Yvonne Fovargue: I will simply give the Minister an example from my constituency, where a local shop has a post office in it but is finding it difficult to maintain a profit with that post office because of the hours for which it has to maintain that particular counter. It is thinking of closing the service, rather than keeping it open for shorter hours.

Stephen Barclay: Indeed, but the proposed new branch in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle would be open for 21 hours longer a week than the previous store. Notwithstanding the time taken to put the new branch in place, once it is in place, subject to the consultation, the collocation means that the post office will be open for an additional 21 hours, which I think will be particularly welcome to his constituents.

The Post Office is tasked by Government to maintain a network of 11,500 branches and to meet specific access criteria—for example, that 90% of the UK population live within 1 mile of a post office. The Post Office is meeting those criteria, as set out in the annual report it

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publishes. That agreement does not specify that every community must have or retain a post office. That is because the business needs the flexibility to respond to local circumstances in each case. Were we to require the Post Office to maintain individual branches or reopen them within a set period—an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle raised—it could lead, in extremis, to a new post office having to be built if a lease could not be secured on an old site. Such a restriction would be counterproductive to protecting the commercial viability of the network.

The economics of the Post Office is such that with the changes brought about by the internet and the digital world, small stand-alone post offices sometimes do not generate enough business to be sustainable on their own. The modernisation programme that the business has been following for the past few years has been about moving local post offices into a vibrant shop where the overheads of a business, such as property and staff costs, are shared with the host business, which is what we are seeing in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

The experience of the Post Office’s directly operated branches—the Crown branches—is illustrative. Collectively, those businesses have moved from making an annual £50 million loss to breaking even. That underlines the Government’s commitment to the Post Office network and a mix of modernisation, automation, labour reform and, in no small part, the franchising of weaker branches that are not delivering that performance. Were the Post Office to be forced to run more directly operated businesses with weaker turnover than in busy town centres, those branches would not be sustainable without greater public subsidy. Rather than force that on the business, we are allowing the estate to manage itself in a more value-for-money way, while protecting the 3,000 rural branches and the wider network.

It is regrettable that the Post Office has been unable to maintain service provision at Heathfield since April. However, that is not due to a lack of effort or expense by the Post Office. Unfortunately, local circumstances sometimes prevent the ideal outcome, as we saw with the portakabin example. In most cases, the business is able to find a way to maintain provision successfully. I am glad that a potential branch has now been found in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I know he supports.

In seeking a solution at Heathfield, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Post Office is delivering a service that is open for more hours, with less public subsidy, and therefore offers a better, value-for-money service for the taxpayer. That reflects the Government’s commitment to maintaining the branch network and recognising the social hub that the hon. Member for Strangford described so well.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered service provision in the event of post office closures.

5.30 pm

Sitting adjourned.