I am delighted to have secured this debate on the future of Brayton Road post office, which, to some of the pensioners and other users of the post office, is every bit as important as the Olympic bid that we have just been discussing. I have sympathy for my hon. Friend the Minister, because replying to such debates in this Chamber is becoming a bit of a habit for him. Newcraighall post office and Birkenhead post office have already been discussed, and there are probably many more such debates to come.In fact, when I reviewed the list of the post offices that have already closed under the urban reinvention programme, with names such as Primrose Hill, Bluebell Hill, Digswell, Polbarn Lane, and Wimbledon Chase, I was rather reminded of the Flanders and Swann song, "Slow Train", which celebrated similar names after the Beeching axe on railway stations. I will not sing from that song, but part of it went:
"From Selby to Goole, from St. Erth to St. Ives.
They've all passed out of our lives
On the slow train
Of course, we cannot approach the subject of Brayton Road post office just from the point of view of romance: we have to use hard-headed economics. After all, like many of my hon. Friends, I voted for the urban reinvention programme, of which the closure is part. However, I thought it was well worth bringing my experiences of the past month concerning the closure to hon. Members' attention, and I shall try to draw some general lessons from those experiences. After all, the Minister has been robust in saying, in the House and elsewhere, that he thinks that the consultation under the urban reinvention programme is going well, and that Postwatch is playing a valuable role. I want to comment on the distinction between rural and urban post offices, which is crucial to the process. Brayton Road post office is in my constituency. The Post Office kindly faxed me its latest list this morning, and it mentions 46 post offices in my constituency. Six were classified as urban, but I remember writing to appeal one of those classifications nine months ago, and it was reclassified as rural, so there are now five that can be considered urban. In the past six years, on my watch as Member of Parliament for Selby, only two post offices have closed permanently: Appleton Roebuck, which we still have hopes of reopening, and Stillingfleet. In previous years, Burn, Hirst Courtney, South Duffield, Thorganby, Womersley, Barkston Ash, Kelfield and Stutton post offices closed. It is worth noting that, in a rural area such as Selby, the efforts that the Government have made on rural post offices are working. There is now an entrepreneurial spirit, and people are going out trying to save rural post offices.' shall not go into great detail about Drax post office, but it was saved by the Post Office, who worked to do so with the Countryside Agency, the council, me and others. It was closed for nigh on a year, but it was reopened in much better form than it was in when it closed. That side of things is working well. The definition of post offices as urban or rural is important to the urban reinvention programme, so when the latest list from the Post Office was faxed through this morning, I was surprised to see that Brayton Road post office—which, as I understand it, was closed under the urban reinvention programme—is classified on the list. which is in the Library, as rural. The Post Office said in a note that it would update the list in the Library at the end of the month; however, the latest information in the Library is that it is a rural post office. When did it change? The list dates from last year, but the Post Office says that it is the latest available—and it knew that I was introducing a debate on the subject this afternoon. Did the Post Office decide to close the Brayton Road post office, and then reclassify it from rural to urban? What was the sequence of events? It does not give anyone much confidence in the integrity of the process when, on the day of the debate, the Post Offices faxes me to say that a post office that it is closing under the urban reinvention programme is rural according to its latest list. At the very least, it would be an improvement if, every time the Post Office proposes a change, it sent a courtesy note to the local MP, who takes an interest in these matters, and to the local council to say that it is reclassifying and to state the reasons why. It should do so, because there is a human story behind all post office closures, and although some may be necessary where post offices are unviable, it is important that the consultation process has rigour and is conducted properly. The Selby Times has been covering the case of the Brayton Road post office in some detail. It quoted Queenie Ward of Doncaster road, who stressed that closure would make life difficult for her—crippled by arthritis in her back and hip, she also suffers from angina, asthma and thyroid problems. She said:On the slow train."
Florence Gloag is 88 and lives near the post office. She says it is handy for her because she can get her groceries there, but she is worried about how she will do that if she is ill and the post office closes. She is not the only one. Mr. Henley is worried about what will happen in the winter when he has to go into Selby town to the nearest post office. Mr. Beavis and his wife are in good health, but they worry for people who are not in such good health, as walking into town could be a problem. They say that when a person gets to 80, they do not want to go traipsing around. There is clearly a human story here. I listened carefully to the debate on 15 October 2002 when the Minister said:"The little bit of independence I have will go if I depend on others to go for my pension, even though my neighbours are very good".
That is very specific. Selby has a convenience store in which the post office is located. It is run by Mr. and Mrs. Mander and, for operational reasons, Post Office staff from headquarters are staffing that post office at the moment. It is hard to see why any postmaster would request their business to be closed in those circumstances. I note that in the same debate the Minister said that he wanted a planned, orderly and managed process for closures. He said:"At the start of the programme, all the closures will be in response to requests from postmasters who have said that they wish their businesses to close."
Since that debate, something called the pre-consultation period has been instituted. That means that for two weeks prior to a post office's closure Postwatch exclusively knows certain information. It is given lots of information—far more than an MP ever gets—about footfall in the post office and the model that the Post Office has developed on where customers of a closing post office will go. All that information is provided to Postwatch on day minus 14—that is, 14 days before the Member of Parliament gets to hear about it. Postwatch must cover the whole of the north of England, but it cannot possibly have the knowledge that an MP or a councillor would have about a local community. If we really wanted a planned and managed process, could not an MP be trusted with the commercially confidential information with which the 14 or 15 people on Postwatch are trusted? I would be happy to sign a form. Are we so untrustworthy that we cannot be given the same information as Postwatch? I won the Derby on Saturday. After watching it on television, I wanted to watch something else. I turned over to the BBC Parliament channel to calm down, and I saw debates from the Trade and Industry Committee last week. My hon. Friend the Minister put on his usual suave, successful performance before the Committee. Allan Leighton also attended—the Committee lasted three hours, and the pubs were nearly closing by the time it finished. Allan Leighton said that he thought that the process had been ad hoc until now, and that closures had been made on a one-off basis. He said that he wanted to see a more planned approach to things in future. He even invited the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) to come and see the model for his area. I rang the Post Office to find out whether that was a general invitation to MPs, but the staff did not seem sure and said that the man who knew was on holiday. However, it would be good if we could do that. The critique from the Government of letting closures happen by market forces is that if that happens it will do so in an unplanned way. The danger of leaving that entirely to people who rejoice in names such as network reinvention manager and customer stakeholder liaison officer—some of whom have written to me—is that it may still be done in an unplanned and ad hoc way. It would be good in an area such as Selby for me and the council to sit down and have a look at what the post office model is for the area: otherwise, at the end of this process, postmasters and postmistresses from relatively viable businesses but approaching 60 or 65 might come forward wanting retirement, whereas younger postmasters and postmistresses with entrepreneurial flair in smaller post offices that might be less viable than those that are closing might not come forward. This process does not seem planned and managed at present. If MPs and councils could be trusted, and if Allan Leighton got his way, it would improve. I share the Minister's confidence in some of the new management in the Post Office, but it will take a while for its writ to get down to the regional level. It was about six months after Allan Leighton said that the name Consignia was no good and he was going back to the Post Office name that his managers thought, "Well, we'll have to do this," and they finally did it. We could make some changes there. It is also important that the code of conduct is rigorously enforced. There is this phrase in that code:"The consultation will be conducted by Post Office Ltd., closely involving Postwatch, and it will include writing on day one to the local Member of Parliament."—[Official Report, 15 October 2002; Vol. 390, c. 233.]
It is not at all clear to me that that was followed in the notice that closed Brayton Road post office. The Postwatch North chairman wrote to me:"The ability of other branches to absorb the work without detriment to service."
The implication is that they unspecifically considered it. The main post office in Selby, which is one of the alternative post offices that was mentioned for users of Brayton Road post office, Doncaster, is cutting staff. Half a member of staff has gone in the past two weeks. The information should have been clearly put on the notice, as it was meant to have been, according to the code of conduct. I understand that although the Post Office is not legally admitting that it got it wrong, it is going to change its standard letters as a result of the experience in Brayton Road post office to show that it is explicitly considering the capacity of other offices to take the slack. When in doubt, loyal Labour MPs obviously look to the words that come from Downing street, and particularly those of the much-admired performance and innovation unit, which was the inspiration behind this whole urban reinvention programme. The House of Commons Library note informs us that the PIU recommended:"I agree that the wording of the letter does not specifically say they have considered this point."
Hey presto! Bingo! Brayton Road post office fits that bill exactly: it is a convenience store par excellence. In fact, even though it is now set to lose the post office, it is fighting back, and I can exclusively reveal to hon. Members that Mr. and Mrs M ander, who run the shop, are, as of tomorrow, opening a pay point facility that will allow the payment of TV licences, electricity bills, and British Gas and British Telecom bills—BT is going to promote the facility in the area around the shop when it sends out its next set of bills. Alliance and Leicester has put a bank machine in the shop, which is doing well. Pensioners can have no charge when they withdraw their money and have their money paid directly into their bank accounts. I have got the Countryside Agency adviser to come down on Thursday to advise on other measures to help the shop be viable. It is likely that the convenience store will survive, much to the delight of many of my constituents. It is a bit of an irony that Government agencies and I are making such efforts and the net result will be that little business transfers to other areas. Let me say a little about Postwatch. When the Postal Services Act 2000—legislation that changed consumer representation—was going through Parliament, a gentleman from York haunted all my public meetings. He asked whether I was absolutely sure that abolishing the post office users council and the local bodies that were affiliated to it, which formed the consultative body, was the right thing to do. I looked at Ministers' words and said that it was a voluntary body with a part-time chairman, 16 voluntary council members and few staff, whereas the new, super Postwatch, instead of having a budget of less than £1 million would have nearly £9 million and 60 full-time staff, three or four in the region, so that would be far better. I have a great deal of time for Hilary Putnam, who is on the Postwatch committee and lives in my constituency, and for the chairman of Yorkshire Postwatch committee. However, the new body does not have grit or spice, passion or commitment, although it might gain them. I ask the Minister, in an idle moment to check: does anybody on the Yorkshire regional committee, or the national Postwatch committee, not have a car? There are many people with business backgrounds. Last year, they allied with the regulator in trying to open up the market, largely in favour of business. Ordinary post office users were much more cautious about the proposals. It seems a bit cosy. I was invited by the Post Office to meet Postwatch at a regional CBI dinner. I could not go anyway, but that was not the right environment. Postwatch was represented at a meeting that I organised. Its representatives sat through the meeting, yet subsequently did not oppose the closure. Although I have a lot of time for many Postwatch people, somebody should have had the courtesy to say, "We have heard what you say, but we cannot oppose the closure for these reasons." It was a pity that they did not. Under the urban reinvention programme, 200 post offices have been closed so far. Four appeals have been successful—none of them in the north of England. One has more chance now of appealing successfully against a murder one death penalty conviction in Texas before a governor who is facing re-election next week than of overturning a post office urban reinvention closure proposal in the north of England once the consultation has started. The consultation concerning Brayton Road post office was not wholly good. Even today, there is confusion about whether it is a rural post office or an urban one. That might be grounds for starting the whole process again. It seems to be going completely against the performance and innovation unit report in terms of linking post offices with convenience stores, and there is no postmaster or postmistress who is getting redundancy terms. I leave one challenge to Postwatch to establish its credibility among post office users. The Post Office subscribes to a target of 3,000 post office closures. I do not think that the Minister has ever subscribed to that target, but I should be interested to know whether he has. Postwatch says privately that 3,000 is too many; it should say that publicly. At least it should say that it will review the matter after the first year of the programme, and judge whether 3,000 is about right or too many. It needs to justify its £8 million or £9 million and £20,000 for a two-day week for chairmen of the various committees by coming to a judgment: is 3,000 right or not?"By taking urgent action to modernise and re-invent the network in urban areas—in particular, by re-locating post offices with convenience stores—the Post Office should be able to provide a better quality service for many of its existing customers. Post offices which are well presented, open longer hours and are co-located with shops which sell a wide range of products will also attract a broader range of customers."
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on having secured the debate, on his energy in the campaign on behalf of Brayton Road post office and its customers and on his record in stopping the trend of decline in the post office network in his own constituency—supported, of course, by the framework that the Government have put in place. I note that coverage in his local newspapers and in The Sunday Times refers to his great commitment in addressing the issue in recent weeks.I want to assure him again, as I have assured the House, that we are committed to maintaining a viable nationwide network of post offices. We fully recognise their importance as a focal point for local communities, particularly for elderly and less mobile people. The network of post offices serves about 24 million people each week. There are more than 17,000 outlets, which is half as many branches as all the banks and building societies in the country. It is the biggest retail network in Europe. My hon. Friend referred to the recommendations of the performance and innovation unit, or PIU. Those recommendations form the basis of Government policy for the post office network. He will recall that a key recommendation was that if the Post Office decided that fewer offices were needed in some urban areas, the Government should consider providing funding to ensure that sub-postmasters affected could be adequately compensated for the loss of their business. That is not an issue in the case of Brayton Road post office. We accepted all the recommendations of the PIU. My hon. Friend has already referred to the debate that led to parliamentary approval of the funding, and the programme that is now in place. My hon. Friend raised the question of the classification of the Brayton Road office. I understand that in the April 2002 list—a copy of which is in the Library—Post Office Ltd. incorrectly classified the office at Brayton road as rural. I assume that that is the list that was faxed to him. I have been told that that was a clerical error that was quickly noticed in May of last year and rectified. The error arose because there was some confusion with the nearby Brayton office, which is in a rural area.
I think that the sequence of dates may be a little awry. The list that I received, which was described as the latest one, is dated June 2002.
I stand corrected. It was my understanding that the Post Office corrected that error in May. However, if one reads the definition that the Post Office uses—which concerns whether an office is in a community of more than 10,000 people—it is clear that the Brayton Road office should be classified as urban. Confusion with the Brayton office led to the incorrect classification.Post Office Ltd. is ensuring in a properly managed way that the post office network meets the current needs of the communities that it serves, and fits the level of business that the network has going through it. There have been reduction, in post office usage for all sorts of reasons. The great danger would be a process of unmanaged decline in which individual sub-postmasters simply decided to shut down and leave. Such an unmanaged process would be much more damaging to the interests of constituents in urban areas than the one that we are going through. In the case of my hon. Friend's constituency, I understand that Post Office Ltd. is looking into an application for refurbishment of the Flaxley Road post office, the nearest alternative post office for customers of Brayton Road. I am sure that he will welcome that news and agree that it is important that sub-postmasters be given encouragement to improve and develop their offices in line with the slogan in the PIU report concerning "bigger, better, brighter" urban sub-post offices. That requires the process that we are going through. Proposals that the Post Office makes for closures under the programme are determined by how many offices are close to each other in an area, the current and projected business volumes and whether individual sub-postmasters have already indicated that they wish to leave the network. Those are by no means the only criteria. The factors that matter to customers are the key; they include the convenience of the other branches, the public transport links, the facilities provided at the alternative branches, access for disabled people at those alternatives and the ability of other branches to absorb the work without damaging the service that they provide. Post Office officials visit each area where proposals are made. They walk around the area, not drive through it, and they study the configuration of the offices and of local factors before submitting a proposal. The aim is to ensure that it is as easy and convenient as possible for customers to use the alternative post offices. After all, the Post Office wants to maximise the number of customers who continue to use the network, thereby maximising the amount of business from a closing office that is captured by other offices in the network. The interests of the Post Office, which wants to keep as many of its customers as it can, coincide with the interests of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who want to maximise the convenience for their constituents. My hon. Friend made a number of points about Postwatch. I do not have details of the car ownership of the members of the regional committee serving his area, or of Postwatch as a whole, but I believe that Postwatch is proving a to be doughty defender of the interests of those to whom he referred—those who do not use cars, those with mobility problems and those who are disabled. I do not agree that Postwatch is solely a business-focused organisation. I shall provide him with more information in order to substantiate my claim. Postwatch was set up as a consumer watchdog for postal services in order to ensure that post offices, Parcelforce, Royal Mail and any competing postal providers give the best possible service. It is not true to say that there is a cosy relationship between Postwatch and Postcomm. Indeed, those organisations have had some sharp exchanges over the past few months. Postwatch has a key role in representing the needs of users in the reinvention programme. It has to be consulted on all Post Office proposals; it examines each one and monitors the programme. It is right that it should have the opportunity to consider proposals before they go into the public domain. On day one of the public consultation process, information is provided to the local Member of Parliament. It would not be right to send information to the local Member and ask him to keep it secret for a while—that would put him in a rather invidious position—but it is appropriate that Postwatch should have the chance to consider those proposals on behalf of customers and, if they are not appropriate, to say so immediately, before unnecessary alarm and concern are caused in the area. At the start of the process, Postwatch set out for me the funding that it would require in order to do that job well. That required the appointment of a number of field advisers. It has appointed field advisers throughout my hon. Friend's region to look in detail at each proposal, and that includes local visits. The field advisers have the resources necessary to do the job. The Postwatch budget for the current year includes the additional funding in full, and staff have been recruited accordingly. We made that commitment because we recognised that the Postwatch contribution is essential for the programme to be successful. I have frequent contact with Postwatch, and I have been to its headquarters to see it in action. I assure my hon. Friend that it demonstrated the capability and the commitment to being effective in its role of ensuring that Post Office decisions are in the best long-term interests of customers. Postwatch has accepted the findings of the PIU report—it states that changes to the urban network are needed to achieve economic viability—but, although it does not oppose the principles behind the programme, it needs to set the aims of Post Office Ltd. against the needs of customers in order to ensure that the latter are paramount; and it will monitor carefully the implementation of the process. I understand the point that my hon. Friend made about the code of practice on post office closures and relocations. Postwatch has worked with the Post Office to ensure that all the publicity material on urban reinvention proposals has been written in plain English, is as accessible as possible and contains the information that people will need in order to evaluate the proposals. I understand the strength of feeling that has been expressed on the matter and we shall watch closely as the programme goes—
Order. Time is up.