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Sub-Post Offices (Closure)

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 31 January 1979

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do not adjourn.—[ Mrs. Ann Taylor.]

11.16 p.m.

I wish to speak about the effect of the closure of sub-post offices. This is a matter of particular relevance to the city of Manchester, but it has wider implications. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) will intervene with some comments about the effects in rural areas.

The Post Office is not merely a commercial concern: 80 per cent. of post offices are run as shops or grocers or newsagents, and as such they are run on a commercial basis. They are paid by the Post Office a fee which is based upon the amount of business that they do, and which takes account of their overheads. To some extent this is a curious combination—a normal business combined with a post office service.

In addition, the Post Office acts as an agent for the Department of Health and Social Security. Post offices are, in effect, the smiling face of the Welfare State. Whatever we decide, here or in Whitehall, results in business at the post office counter, and this is important to the recipient. That is where the money passes, and that is what really matters. Therefore, it is important to get this bit of the system right.

The Post Office is paid £125 million a year by the DHSS and another 21·5 million for the writing of Giro cheques for the DHSS. Therefore, the Post Office gets a considerable sum as the agent for the Welfare State.

I turn to the question of encashment This is officialese for paying people in need the money which the State decides they should have. There are 19 million people in this category, therefore there are about 19½ million transactions a week across post office counters. By definition, these payments go to the elderly, the sick, the disabled and the unemployed. Post offices also pay child benefit. These benefits have increased. It is true that the Post Office has given up responsibility for national savings, but, by and large, the total number of these transactions has increased.

In those circumsances, it is important to understand the nature of the customers before doing anything about the sub-post offices. Because they are elderly, sick, disabled, and so on, these 19 million people have particular difficulties. If they have to change to a second bus or go with a pram or a push-chair to the post office, it is that much more difficult for them than for people without those disabilities. It is very important whether these post offices are situated on a hill or in the local shopping centre. These are crucial matters for the particular audience with which we are concerned.

The situation can be well illustrated within the city of Manchester. First, there is the question of closures. The Post Office says that it will not provide a new sub-post office within a mile of an existing post office in a city or within two miles in a rural area. That sounds all right, except that one must bear in mind that before 1945 the rules were different and were more generous. At that time post offices could be within a mile of one another. Therefore, the change of policy meant that the Post Office began shutting sub-post offices.

As a result, when a sub-postmaster retired, or when an authority was redeveloping the city and knocked down an old post office, the Post Office was only too glad to grab that opportunity to knock another office off the list. Consequently, the number of post offices has diminished. In 1971 there were 136 closures nationally whereas last year there were 203. So the pace has accelerated. In Manchester we have lost a tenth of our sub-post offices—a reduction from 115 in 1971 to 102 today.

It is not as though we were over-provided, because the ratio of population to post offices in Manchester is double the national average. We have more old people and pensioners than most places, and we have more people on social security payments. Yet the closures are continuing. This has nothing to do with the failure to find new postmasters. In at least two well-documented cases in Manchester the city council could show that there were people willing to take over this responsibility from the chaps who retired.

The Post Office says that it does not apply these rules rigorously. If that is so, it is not visible to the naked eye. In one case in Manchester, in an adjacent constituency to mine, the closure was fought heartily by a local county councillor, Mrs. Margaret Davies. The sub-post office had been there for 60 years. It was in the local shopping centre, and the protest embraced over 1,000 people. It included the church and Age Concern, an organisation particularly concerned about elderly people. Nevertheless, the trade was switched to another post office, which has considerably increased the hazards confronting people going to it. I cannot emphasise too strongly the importance of the circumstances of each post office, and the rules of the Post Office are generally not satisfactory.

I should like to mention quickly the other side of the coin, which concerns the opening of new post offices. This is admirably illustrated in my own constituency, in the Barlow Moor area, because in one case there is a new housing estate in an area badly served by the Post Office. About 200 or 300 people have moved in. A little further down, in a similar area, there is an estate on the wrong side of the road from the post office. That is a road called Princes Parkway. It may not mean much to hon. Members, but it is a main road linking the centre of Manchester with the motorway network. The traffic whizzing up and down it has to be seen to be believed. We spent a long time getting another two seconds on the red light at the pedestrian crossing. One can, therefore, imagine what kind of road it is. One has to be pretty swift on one's pins to get across that road at all. If one is a pensioner, it is a major exploit to get one's pension during the week.

I should like to put three points which might help to improve the situation both in Manchester and generally. First, there should be no more closures in Manchester and there should be a review of the policy generally. The White Paper, published last year, acknowledged in paragraph 50:
"the size of the network is about right … and the Post Office has no intention of making major changes in the size of the network".
I hope that the Minister has that quotation. Will he make sure that he includes Manchester in that change of policy so that we do not suffer any more closures?

Secondly, the review committee on the Post Office criticised the Post Office for having too restrictive a view of the opportunities for expansion. This did not relate specifically to sub-post offices but included things such as other agencies which the Post Office could count. I hope, therefore, that the Post Office will look at new places where it can open rather than adopt a constantly retrenching attitude about its future in this area.

Thirdly, I want the Post Office to be run as a profitable concern. There is no reason for its not doing that, but it has a public duty as well and it must discharge that duty properly.

I understand that there are problems about security in mobile post offices, but there are other experiments which can be tried—for example, by post offices which open for, say, two or three days a week which would cater for some people. That must be done with no charge to the Post Office, and is a service for which it should negotiate a fee with the DHSS. If the Post Office feels that it is undercharging, it must negotiate a proper fee. There is no reason why the DHSS should get its services on the cheap. This should be a proper administrative charge and be included in the Department's budget rather than be hidden in the diminished profits of the Post Office. It should not be used as a reason for closing sub-post offices which are so essential.

Those three things are of great importance: the stopping of closures, a more open policy on new opportunities for the Post Office, and a proper fee from the DHSS to the Post Office.

The Post Office has a strange combination of commercial efficiency and social duty. I accept that it is a difficult job, and I accept also that it tries to carry it out, but the evidence that I have from Manchester—and I believe that this applies nationally—is that it is not discharging that combined responsibility as well as it might.

11.26 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) for allowing me a few moments in which to intervene. I endorse everything that he has said about the difficulty which the closure of sub-post offices is causing to people.

In my constituency a number of village sub-post offices have closed recently, and if I tell my hon. Friend that the inconvenience caused to people living in country areas is that much greater than to people living in urban areas, he will understand. Considerable difficulties arise when an elderly person who has always drawn a pension or some other allowance or has simply bought stamps from the village post office is told that it is to close and he has to travel for five or 10 miles for those services.

In the recent icy and wintry weather, the problem of getting to the bus stop, catching the bus getting to the main post office—in my case in Newbury—and then returning home is of such an order as to make one wonder why the Post Office has shown itself to be unimaginative in finding a substitute for the sub-post offices which have closed. The Post Office seems to take the view that unless a post office offers its full service for five or six days a week, it has no alternatives that it wishes to put forward.

It is on the lack of imagination of the Post Office that I want to say a few words to the Minister. I shall put three suggestions to him and ask him to convey them to the Post Office as a matter of some urgency and as a possible way of remedying the problem which faces country people when their sub-post office is forced to close.

My first point, on which my hon. Friend touched, relates to the mobile post office. There is nothing new in the idea. At any country or agricultural show during the summer, the chances are that there will be a large Post Office vehicle there to provide a full range of services. If the Post Office can provide those services at a country show, why can it not provide a mobile post office in a village?

The Post Office argument that it must provide a five or six-day-a-week service or nothing is not what village people want. If they have lost their sub-post office, they want a facility which allows the elderly to draw their old-age pension, allows people to buy stamps and allows those who have allowances which come through the post office to collect them. If they do that on only two days or even one day a week, that will suffice. At the moment, however, it is the sub-post office or nothing, and that will not do.

Next, I suggest to the Minister that there should be much closer links between social workers and the postal authorities. What is required here is for elderly people, some of whom are practically housebound, to be able to get their pension, even if the weather is against them and they cannot go out. I suggest, therefore, that the postal authorities, working with the social workers, should arrange for the pension to be brought to the householder, and, conceivably, the postmen who could do that job might also be able to sell them stamps.

Lastly, I ask the Minister what thought has been given to extending the village hall post office experiment which has been tried successfully in Dorset, Shropshire and Bedfordshire but which, as far as I know, has not gone beyond the experimental stage. The Minister may well know that in that experiment the village hall is turned into a post office for two or three days a week and it provides the full range of services, apart perhaps from dog licences or one or two less important services. It means, therefore, that the village hall is the place where those who cannot now go to their sub-post office can go to get the postal facilities which they want. Thus, the inconvenience and the cost of travel at present caused in local areas when sub-post offices are closed is saved. I assure the Minister that that is a real saving since travel on country buses is an expensive business.

I ask the Minister to convey to the Post Office the need for more imagination, more flexibility, and a greater willingness to innovate, to experiment, and perhaps to consider the three proposals which I have made as possibly, at least in one respect, offering a way to meet the need which undoubtedly exists when sub-post offices are closed.

11.32 p.m.

I note the pleadings of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) and his hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), and I am grateful for this opportunity to have a short debate on a subject which is obviously of vital importance to people in both urban and rural areas. I have to say to the hon. Member for Withington that he is not the only Manchester Member who has raised this matter with me. Indeed, he comes rather late in the day in so doing, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) has also raised it with me on two occasions, as has the town clerk and chief executive or the council to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I have to tell the hon. Member for Newbury that the last recorded correspondence which I have seen is when he wrote to the chairman of the Post Office, Sir William Barlow, on 27 July last year.

So I can say to both hon. Gentlemen that there are far more consistent ways by which the case can be pleaded, although I recognise, of course, that Adjournment debates present their own opportunities.

I note that the hon. Member for Withington referred to the structure and status of the Post Office under the Post Office Act 1969, under which it is for the Post Office itself to take decisions and have prime responsibility for the provision of sub-post offices. I am glad that he recognises that, and I think that his party also recognises it. Indeed, I have not heard that it would wish to disturb that arrangement. But it is the fact that when the Post Office was made a nationalised corporation under the 1969 Act, Parliament clearly intended that the Post Office itself should be responsible for matters affecting the day-to-day management of the services which it provides. I think that both hon. Gentlemen would agree that post offices and sub-post offices definitely come within that ambit.

It is true that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has certain general reserve powers, but I do not regard those general reserve powers as being applicable or appropriate to such occasions as this. This matter is the prime responsibility of the Post Office, and it has a statutory obligation to exercise its powers in providing a postal service, including counter services, to meet efficiently and economically the social, industrial and commercial needs of the British Isles. Indeed, the chairman of the Post Office, Sir William Barlow, has more than once gone out of his way to stress the importance that he attaches to providing an efficient service to the public.

The Post Office has that prime responsibility, and no one doubts the importance of the service that it provides for the range of benefits to which both hon. Members referred. I refer to family allowances, retirement pensions and supplementary benefits for the needy sectors of the population, particularly those who are old and immobile and depend upon the local post office. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Department of National Savings and the Girobank, and I do not want to detract from the importance of those services. However, because of the wide range of services provided by the Post Office, it is unfortunate that they are sometimes taken for granted and the dedication of the Post Office in providing them tends to be overlooked.

Let me refer specifically to the Manchester area, to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe wrote to me on 16 November and 18 December about this. He presented me with a detailed paper which had been prepared with a great deal of care by Manchester city council. The council refers to the changing patterns in population, age structure and employment in the area and relates these to the provision of post offices. The council takes the view that certain areas would benefit from greater provision of this important facility.

The Post Office informs me that the city of Manchester has 207 sub-post offices. Since 1971 there have been 15 closures, but during the same period—the hon. Gentleman did not mention this—three new offices have opened. These new offices, at Moss Lane M14, Hulme M15 and the Manor office in M33, took account of new housing developments in those areas. The majority of the closures took place in areas of redevelopment. These followed the normal practice of the Post Office on these occasions of a thorough review of and consultation about the adequacy of sub-post office provision in the areas concerned. In all these cases the judgment of the Post Office—and there is an adequate period during which consultation takes place—was that the service was satisfactory in terms of its normal criteria, to which I shall refer in a minute.

Let me give one example. In August 1977 a compulsory purchase order was placed on the Chester Road sub-post office in Manchester 18. The provision of facilities for the area was reviewed and found to be satisfactory. The nearest other post office was only a quarter of a mile away and there were two other sub-post offices within a mile. Chester Road post office was closed in March 1978 and the terrace in which it was situated was demolished some time later. That is just one example of how the Post Office goes into these matters in great care.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that during the last two years 32 other sub-post offices have been reviewed following the resignation of the sub-postmaster, but they were retained. It is facts and figures that demonstrate to me that there is no deliberate intention on the part of the Post Office to reduce seriously post office provision in the area, and the figures in no sense indicate to me a neglect of Manchester's needs, although I recognise the strong feelings that have been put to me by my right hon. Friend and by Manchester city council. In all these cases, thorough consultation was undertaken.

I recognise that these are matters of serious concern to Manchester Members. That is why, and because of the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe, I am glad to confirm that a meeting has been arranged for 28 February between the chairman of the North-Western postal board and the chief executive of the city of Manchester. I hope that on that occasion it will be possible to explore in depth the points of concern. I know that the Post Office will take on board the important points that will be made. I know, too, that the city council feels that there ought to be a body with power to require the retention of a sub-post office where it is felt to be necessary in the interests of the local community.

If a local authority believes that the benefits of a sub-post office that is due for closure are essential to the community that is served, it is able under the terms of the Post Office Act 1953 and the Local Government Act 1972 to maintain that office by underwriting its losses to the Post Office. I recognise that any council such as Manchester has many calls upon its scarce resources. However, I hope that the city will consider that possibility in its discussions with the Post Office.

It is interesting to note that, despite some of the hon. Gentleman's complaints, Manchester's housing manager has recently said that he is well satisfied with the way in which council house rents are being paid by the Giro system. Although Manchester city council has expressed concern, it has paid tribute to the efficiency of the Giro services that are operated through the Post Office.

I refer to the overall picture to which the hon. Gentleman also referred, and especially to the importance of the Post Office network. There are now about 21,000 sub-post offices and 1,600 Crown offices. Together these represent, in terms of area and population served per post office, one of the best services in the world. In America, for example, where the area served is 17 times greater, there are only 30 per cent. more post offices. I can give more figures than that to prove the adequacy and the extent of the coverage of the Post Office. We do not always give the Post Office the credit that is due to it for operating a large system in such an efficient and economic manner.

The broad criteria that the Post Office adopts in reviewing the need for sub-post offices are that an office is not normally opened within one mile of an existing office in a town or within two miles in a rural area. Local factors must be taken into account, and the Post Office does so. These include the volume of business transacted at the office concerned, the nature and terrain of the area that it serves and the availability of local bus services. All those factors are taken into account. The Post Office assures me that it gives full consideration to the needs of the local residents generally, and retirement pensioners especially.

Even bearing in mind the fair criteria that are used in making a decision—and I hope hon. Members will accept that they are fair—some closures are bound to be inevitable, for some of the reasons that I have described. Over the past six or seven years a slight contraction has taken place in the Post Office network, although during that period the net rate of closures has never risen above 1 per cent. per annum. It is only natural that as the fabric of the nation changes the nationwide services that sustain it should also change. The reduction in the number of sub-post offices, especially in the inner urban and more remote rural areas, is, I believe, but a reflection of wider national tendencies.

The hon. Member for Newbury referred to the provision of postal services in rural areas. The Post Office interprets the provisions under which it operates and the services that it may provide in the most flexible manner possible. Sir William Barlow's letter gave the hon. Gentleman a fairly adequate explanation of some of the difficulties that are encountered in the operation of mobile post offices. There are many problems, including vandalism. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the village hall concept to which he referred is being further explored by the Post Office, although I am sure he recognises that it does not provide the continual and regular service that some would like to see.

Wherever a closure takes place, local authorities and, where they exist, local post office advisory committees are notified well in advance of the closure and the reasons for it. Their views and those of other interested parties are taken fully into account before a final decision is reached. Hon. Members will be aware that the Post Office Users' National Council—or where appropriate its regional councils—has a statutory duty to consider representations on post office closures.

I am glad that reference has been made to the recent White Paper, in which it is stated that the Post Office recognises that the present network of post offices fulfils an important social as well as business need. It is stated in the White Paper that no major changes in the number or nature of the Post Office network are envisaged. Both Crown and scale-payment offices will continue to be provided when the locality and the volume of business meet the agreed criteria.

While aiming to maintain its network at broadly its present size, the Post Office is committed to playing an important role in support of both urban and rural communities. I shall take on board what both hon. Gentlemen have said tonight and relay their remarks to the Post Office. Like the hon. Member for Withington, we look forward to the outcome of the meeting on 28 February which has been instigated by my right hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.