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House of Lords

Monday, 5th December 1994.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by

the Lord Bishop of St. Albans.

Crown Post Office Services

Lord Skelmersdale asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What services are available in Crown post offices that are not available in sub-post offices.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, there are principally three major services which are not universally available in sub-post offices but which are available in Crown post offices. Those are motor vehicle licences, British Visitors' Passports and passport application forms, and Datapost.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that answer. My interest is in the middle category of those which my noble friend enumerated. Why is it impossible to obtain a passport application form, as opposed to a British Visitor's Passport, from a sub-post office?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, there are a number of different passport application forms. There are those for new applications, those for amendments, those for children under 16 with their own passport, and British Visitors' Passports. The forms are frequently amended considerably and it is not cost effective to make all those forms available throughout more than 19,000 post offices. They are made available where they are mostly required. Where they are not available, Post Office Counters offers a help line, at local call rates, to advise customers of the nearest post office where British Visitors' Passports or passport forms can be obtained.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the Minister not aware that there is a service which smaller post offices provide for the public which cannot be listed? That service is providing personal contacts in their area for people such as the ageing and disabled. It is often their one point of contact. Will the Minister ensure that the Government bear that service in mind if they discuss the future of the small post offices again?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, is often right, and he is on this occasion. That is an important part of the post office system. Nineteen thousand of the 20,000 post offices are in private ownership. They serve the needs of the populace according to their ability, and very successfully.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, all post offices are part of a network. Does the Minister agree with me that restrictions on investment in a rural post office reduce

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the effectiveness not only of that particular post office but also of the entire network, particularly where information technology is concerned?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, that is why we consider it desirable that they should be in private ownership. That is why they are in private ownership. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, that there are tremendous opportunities for the Post Office in the future. That will require a good deal of investment. That is why we wanted to see that that investment would be available to the Post Office.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, now that post offices no longer have the burden of issuing game licences, thanks largely to the efforts of my noble friend the Minister, does that not mean there is more time to issue passport applications?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, that depends upon the amount of time that was spent issuing game licences. According to my noble friend and some of his noble friends, that was not as great as it should have been.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister consider the matter of the hours that post offices may be open? It is increasingly the custom today to find post offices in supermarkets which can be open all hours of the day and night and at weekends, whereas post offices generally are still restricted.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith touches on a very pertinent point. Crown post offices used to close at 12.30 on Saturdays but are now open until 7 o'clock in order that people--of whom I am sure my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith will be one--should be able to purchase their lottery tickets.

Earl Russell: My Lords, will the Minister give a little more thought to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, about rural areas? It is highly inconvenient to be as much as 12 miles from the nearest Crown post office. Before the Minister again invokes cost effectiveness, will he consider that it is not cost effective to have us all living in conurbations either?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I shall need a little time to work that question out. The fact is that country post offices are required and are available. It has been found that they are more suitable when they are in private ownership. Of the 20,000 post offices, 19,000 are in private ownership. I quite agree with the noble Earl that if people wish to have more sophisticated services, they will have to go to a Crown post office. If that is 12 miles away, so be it. It would be unreasonable to expect all post offices of all natures to provide all services even though the majority of the services may not be required.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I quite agree with my noble friend. However, where a sub-post office postmaster finds a need, for example, for passport application forms, should he not be able to obtain them even if a small charge is levied?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, if I may say so, the answer is quite simple. The passport application forms are available at most post offices. But the fact is that there

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are a number of different passport applications. Over the past few years there have been a great many alterations in the types of passport. The Post Office charges for storing and moving those forms about. It is only realistic that the forms should be available where the demand is greatest. I quite understand that my noble friend might like to see those different forms available in all post offices. However, if only one a year is required, even my noble friend might consider that that was a slight extravagance.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, does the noble Earl really believe that selling a road tax fund disc is a sophisticated service which is not required by a great many people all over the country?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, Post Office Counters acts as agent for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority. It limits the facilities to 4,000 of the post offices. If more post offices dealt with the licences, it would result in higher cost but no extra revenue. I can assure the noble Lady that the forms can be obtained at all post offices; it is merely the issuing of the licences which will be restricted to 4,000 post offices.

London Foot Hospital and School of Podiatric Medicine

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Seear: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare an interest as a grateful patient.

The question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the London Foot Hospital and School of Podiatric Medicine is threatened with closure because of a projected cut of between a quarter and a third of its budget, and what effect this will have on the quality of training of future chiropodists.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, the London Foot Hospital and School of Podiatric Medicine combine the provision of high quality comprehensive foot care with education, training and research. Local discussions are taking place which aim to retain those attributes but to achieve better value for money.

Baroness Seear: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her relatively encouraging reply. However, will she assure us that she recognises that practical training in chiropody is of the greatest importance? While it is desirable that chiropodists understand about feet, it is even more important that they know how to deal with them. It is essential that good practical training be closely related to theoretical training. Where the two aspects are connected geographically, it makes the matter a great deal easier than if the training is widespread. Training in any

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profession is a special skill. It is not satisfactory to assume that because a person is a good chiropodist he or she can also be a good trainer.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I, too, must declare an interest as another grateful patient of the London Foot Hospital, which has made it possible for me, through what I believe is now called podiatry, to enjoy long country walks again. Is not this centre of excellence now being squeezed by the internal market? Is it not another example of the way in which the internal market is reducing services to patients?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, no. The hospital and training centre are unique in that the training is done through the trust which runs the services. In every other instance there is separation between the training of the chiropodist or podiatrist and the services given. The discussions taking place at present are to prevent the unit remaining isolated and to incorporate it into the university, as is the case with every other centre.

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