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Post Offices (Closure)

Volume 887: debated on Monday 24 February 1975

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1.22 a.m.

It is more than a year since the House last debated the closure of post offices in country areas, on the initiative of the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson). This is a matter of such importance to the countryside that I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for the opportunity to raise the subject again.

My impression is that during the last year, there has been a continued loss of sub-post offices in the countryside. It can only be an impression, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us figures to show exactly how the situation has developed. Certainly in my county of Oxfordshire five sub-post offices have closed in the past year and only two have reopened. If Press reports, and reports that I have had from my hon. Friends, are correct, they suggest that there has been a considerable loss in other parts of the country, too. It is hardly necessary to describe the hardship which the closure of sub-post offices can cause to people who live in villages.

There are few people who do not rely on postal services for some part of their lives which is important to them. There is the sale of stamps, of postal orders—particularly important if people do not have a bank account—and the increasing use of Giro for such purposes as rent collection. It is worthy of note that post office is a source of public information. People go into it to read notices on all kinds of matters which may concern them closely but which they do not have the chance to study in detail unless there is a post office handy.

Above all, the post office is used for collecting pensions. It is in paying out pensions that the post office is most valuable to people in villages. There is plenty of evidence of the hardship caused when a sub-post office closes. It is true, as the Post Office has pointed out, that pensions can be collected from other offices and that a pensioner can ask a friend or relative to collect the pension for him or her. The Post Office and the Department of Health and Social Security, whom I have tackled on this, are a little complacent, as if they were dealing with the problem.

I refer to a note I have received from the chairman of a parish council in one of my villages—Beckley—where the post office has closed. He writes:
"In a small community such as this the rôle of the post office is vital, especially to old age pensioners who very often cannot afford or are unable to go to adjoining post offices to collect their pensions. They resent the loss of privacy involved in getting a friend to do this for them, and the meeting"—
that is, of the parish council—
"felt that in any case this was an invidious and unsatisfactory expedient."
In a similar vein but simpler language an old-age pensioner from another village in my constituency which lost its post office this year wrote to me saying:
"Pensioners like to be independent and not have to rely on relatives and friends, so please give us a post office."
No one could fairly blame the Post Office for the closure of sub-post offices. Normally the post office is the village shop, which, for economic reasons, closes down—temporarily or permanently—and the post office services go with it. Villagers have been able to buy things more cheaply at the supermarket five or 10 miles away and the village shop has felt the difference. I am not sure this trend will continue for ever, and I suspect that we may be entering a period when, with more expensive bus fares and dearer petrol, the village shop may take on a new lease of life as customers find that it is no longer cheaper for people to do their shopping in the supermarket.

My complaint against the Post Office is not that it is responsible for the closures but that it reacts in a defensive and unimaginative way towards them. In Beckley, which has 45 old-age pensioners—a large number for a village of its size—the parish council and I worked out a scheme to deal with the situation when the sub-post office closed last spring. We found a sub-postmaster in a neighbouring village who was willing to come and operate a postal service on Wednesday mornings. We found a room where he could work and an escort who would fetch him and be with him. The last time we devised such a scheme the Post Office agreed to the arrangement. This time it was turned down, even though we had done the homework and set it all up.

The Post Office turned it down not for financial reasons but on grounds of security. It felt that a man coming to provide a service of his own volition would be a risk. It is right to have regard to security. There have been tragic incidents in the past when sub-postmasters and postmistresses have been coshed and robbed. This is one of the facts of life of 1975. But if in this sad world public services are to be withdrawn every time there is a personal risk, there will not be many public services left.

It is reasonable to ask the Post Office to recognise that there is a balance to be struck here. The security argument is valid but it must be weighed against the needs of the village. It should not prevail automatically. I am worried about the security review which the head of the Post Office tells me he is conducting. If that review leads to increased protection, and, better grills, safes and screens for the smaller post office, that is all well and good. I understand that £200 is being given to each post office so that it may purchase its own equipment. But if the review leads to the withdrawal of existing services, it is a damaging retreat, which the Post Office will eventually regret.

So far I have been discussing ways in which the hardship of the temporary disappearance of sub-post offices might be relieved by more flexible and imaginative methods. Perhaps the Minister will say something about the use of vans to deal with the more permanent situation. The Post Offices dismisses these on the ground that they are expensive to run. Any information on that point would be useful.

There is another possibility which I have tried out on the Post Office, namely, that people should be allowed to provide postal services for fewer than the minimum hours at present insisted upon. Whether such people would be called sub-postmasters or something else is not important. I suspect that quite a number of people, perhaps retired people, would be willing, for one or two mornings a week, to provide a full postal service, but they would not be willing to meet the full conditions now imposed upon a sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress.

I received a letter this morning about a sub-postmistress in Suffolk giving up for this reason. My correspondent says:
"She told me that if she could have opened on, say, three mornings, she would have happily continued to provide a service, which is of great value to, admittedly, rather few people in a tiny community".
The Managing Director of the Post Office tells me that he is examining the possibility of rather more flexibility in the hours, so as to increase the number of people willing to provide a postal service in villages. I hope that the Minister can persuade him to press forward speedily with this examination.

I know—and if I did not, the hon. Gentleman would soon remind me—that the Minister has no power to direct the Post Office or to control its decisions in such matters, but he can nudge and encourage it. I hope that he will do so.

What we are talking about is the fabric of the English village, and, for all I know, the Scottish village as well. The traditional fabric includes the church, the chapel, the pub, and the village shop with the post office. These institutions have all changed through the years. They once again have the choice whether to change or retreat.

It would be a great pity if, because of the real difficulties, which we all recognise, the Post Office decided that its future lay only in the towns and cities. More than any other public service, the Post Office still enjoys the liking and esteem of the public. I sometimes have the impression that it looks on this popularity as a liability rather than an asset. I very much hope that, with the Minister's encouragement, the Post Office will look upon that popularity as something not which it should build and not something from which it should retreat. I hope that, with his encouragement, it can respond imaginatively and sympathetically to the appeals now reaching it from all over our countryside.

1.32 a.m.

I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) for giving me the opportunity to say something about the Post Office and about counter services of the kind of which he has spoken. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the zeal with which he has expressed his concern. What he has said tonight has been only the end of a long and hard year for him in putting forward constructive suggestions to the Post Office about the matters concerning his constituents. The concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed is one that I and many members of the Government and back benchers on both sides of the House share.

What the hon. Gentleman said about rural life in England is true of rural life in Scotland. As one who comes originally from a small Highland parish, I know what importance we all attached to having a good sub-post office. As the Minister immediately responsible for Post Office affairs, under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry, I know of the difficulties which people in the hon. Gentleman's part of the world face. Therefore, I welcome the opportunity to say something about the postal services.

The hon. Gentleman stressed what he knew I would say about my statutory rôle as the Under-Secretary with responsibility under the Post Office Act 1969, which established the Post Office as a nationalised industry. In common with other nationalised industries the Post Office is responsible for managing its day-to-day affairs. The Act gave it powers to provide postal services, including counter services, and imposed upon it a duty so to exercise its powers as to meet the social, industrial and commercial needs of the British Isles, while having regard to, among other things, efficiency and economy. Whilst the Secretary of State has certain reserve powers, it is clear that the nature and scale of counter services in a given locality are management matters for the Post Office. Successive Ministers of both parties have refused to intervene on detailed sub-office questions. That may be a matter of regret, but it is a direct and necessary consequence of the changes enacted in 1969. To do otherwise would be to act contrary to the will of the House of Commons, as expressed in the 1969 Act, and to cut across and undermine the authority and competence of the Post Office Board. In other words, my concern and that of my right hon. Friend is not to usurp the functions of the Post Office or to interfere in any way with its day-to-day business but to ensure that it exercises its statutory powers in accordance with the duties laid upon it by the Act.

It is against that background that I want to say a word about Post Office policy with regard to the provision and closure of its sub-post offices. It is very simply that the Post Office seeks to maintain a balance between the reasonable needs of the community on the one hard and the cost, which I regard as important, of meeting those needs on the other hand. The hon. Member referred briefly to this. Translated into practical terms, this means that a post office is not normally opened within a mile of an existing post office in a town or within two miles of an existing office in a rural area.

These criteria are generous, and have been in operation, I am given to understand, since 1948. These standards compare more than favourably with those used in other advanced western nations. Indeed, when I looked through the information provided to me, I was surprised that we provided a service which is very much better, I think, than that of almost any other country in western Europe with the possible exception of West Germany.

Those criteria, however, are not applied rigidly, and many other factors which the hon. Member mentioned in his comments tonight are taken into account. They include the volume of business transacted at the office concerned, the nature and terrain of the area it serves and the availability of local bus services. I emphasise, in view of what the hon. Member said about old people, that full consideration is given to the needs of local residents and retirement pensioners in particular. Well before the event, local authorities and Post Office advisory committees are advised of any impending closures and the reasons for them. Any views which they or other interested parties express are taken fully into account before a final decision is reached.

The hon. Member asked me about the number of post offices which have been closed in recent years, and perhaps I can do no better than give him the figures based on those which have been published in the Post Office accounts over the past five years. In the five years since the Post Office became a public authority, the total number of sub-post offices has fallen from 22,970 in 1969–70 to 22,276 in 1973–74, a net decline, after taking account of new offices opened as well as old offices closed, of only about 0·5 per cent. per annum. Over the 10-year period going back to 1964 the annual rate of net closures is lower still at about 0·4 per cent. This is not a record of which the Post Office necessarily needs to feel embarrassed. In the light of all this, therefore, I can assert that the Post Office acts with a great degree of responsibility in considering whether to close a sub-office.

I can go further and say that the Post Office rarely closes a sub-office unless the postmaster resigns or, as happens, in some cases—when, for example, no replacement can be found—the decision is effectively taken out of the hands of the Post Office. That is what happened in the two cases about which the hon. Member has been concerned over the past year. The Post Office can no longer provide a counter service in these two villages because in one case the postmistress resigned and at Blackthorn the tenant did not wish to continue to manage the office. In both cases, I am assured, the Post Office tried very hard indeed to find a replacement, but to no effect. It is very unfortunate, but I do not think we can blame the Post Office for that, because it really tried exceedingly hard, by advertisements and all other means, to fill these vacancies.

I am aware of the efforts which the hon. Gentleman has made to resolve the difficulties which have arisen in his constituency. He has made a number of suggestions, both to the Post Office over the past year and in the House tonight. I am sure that the Post Office will take note of them. Indeed, I understand that it is already reviewing the question of greater flexibility in the terms and conditions under which it employs sub-postmasters as its agents.

In addition, the hon. Gentleman will know that certain other possibilities exist. In many rural areas the delivery postman will sell stamps, obtain postal orders, accept letters and parcels and help in many other ways as he goes on his rounds. Postmen have always been helpful in this way and I am sure we are all grateful to them for their friendly help and wish to give them a pat on the back.

The hon. Gentleman was concerned about the question of pensions. The payment of pensions is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Security. For my own part, while I understand why some pensioners may not like asking others to draw their pensions, I believe that many have found this to be a convenient and satisfactory alternative to a long journey, and that many others make use of a further facility whereby they can arrange to receive periodic payments through a bank account. Every method has its drawbacks, but I do not think the House would expect the Department of Health and Social Security or the Post Office to incur disproportionate expense in providing counter services for individual pensioners no matter where they happen to live.

I turn to a point which also concerns the hon. Gentleman, namely, the matter of security. I appreciate the scheme which he suggested, and obviously he was concerned that the Post Office did not feel able to accept it. This is a difficult matter, but I have no doubt about it in my mind.

I do not feel that it is for me to comment on all the hon. Gentleman's remarks about security. However, I do not think that we can let some of his comments about security go unchallenged. He seemed to feel that the Post Office placed too much emphasis on this aspect in rejecting the expedients which he had suggested to fill the vacuum left by the departure of the sub-postmaster.

I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House that in the last year alone three sub-postmasters have been killed during attacks on their offices and there have been a number of other incidents. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to give the most serious consideration to the whole question of security and will want to ensure that in future we have no more of these regrettable incidents. I believe that the Post Office is quite right to be concerned, as I am sure is the hon. Gentleman, about the security of employees and agents. The Post Office has spent a considerable amount of money in helping to improve the security of sub-post offices; and its long experience cannot be lightly dismissed. At the same time I cannot agree with him that the Post Office is adopting a defeatist attitude to the problem of safeguarding the provision of counter services. I understand that one of the aims of the current review of the terms and conditions applicable to sub-postmasters is to see whether part-time services can safely be provided. This is an open question at present, although I am sure the Post Office will examine what has been said in this debate.

I am following the Minister's words closely and with much sympathy. However, does he not agree that there are many other walks of life—there was an example only a fortnight or so ago—where for people performing public services there is no way of guaranteeing them against risks? There are many villages where postal services are provided at present without absolute security. Would it not be better today if, on the grounds of security alone, those services were withdrawn? It is the matter of balance that is important, and it is that balance which we should seek to ensure.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but I have considered the amount involved, and it is a considerable sum. Bearing in mind the sort of experience that we all have of day-to-day postmen and sub-postmasters, for example, I do not think that I would wish to go against the judgment of the Post Office. It is giving the matter a great deal of thought.

I hope that in the time available to me I have been able to reassure the House that the Post Office is doing its best to maintain counter services in rural areas. The difficulties it encounters reflect to some extent the changing pattern of life in the countryside. In many places I understand villagers no longer want to provide enough support to make a local shop viable. This trend must necessarily make it more difficult to find suitable premises for a post office.

I have referred to my awareness of the difficulties faced by people who lose their post office. It is perhaps only in such circumstances that we appreciate the value of the post office. Too often we take it for granted.

I conclude by thanking the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses throughout the country for the valuable work that they are doing. I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates their worth, and I have no doubt that despite his own constituency problems he would wish to associate himself with this tribute to the men and women who serve the community so well in more than 22,000 sub-post offices throughout the Kingdom. These remarks apply equally to the Post Office counter clerks who man the larger post offices in the busy centres of population. The Government and, I know, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, are grateful to them all for the invaluable contribution they make to the nation's life.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Two o'clock.