Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
I am very pleased to have secured this debate. As all hon. Members will appreciate from their constituency activities, community services, and particularly our local post offices and sub-post offices, are vital to our constituents’ interests and quality of life. That applies equally across town and country, and I say that because there is always a grave danger in such debates that people think that we are talking only about rural areas. We must emphasise, however, that community services are crucial not only to rural areas and constituencies such as mine, but to what might best be described as urban deprived areas, which may be found in large towns and their outlying areas, and parts of a town in my constituency could be described as urban deprived.
It is interesting that we have had a number of debates on community services and particularly on post offices. It is no surprise that they have been supported by Members on both sides of the House, because the evidence before our eyes in our own constituencies and the evidence from our postbags is that there is a gradual, unremitting erosion of local community services and a relentless anxiety about whether post offices, in particular, can keep going. There has also been a loosening of the localness of the provision of vital services. We can see that even from rather informal sources, but it is even clearer to those of us who live right in the heart of the communities that are affected in the middle of our constituencies. We see neighbours having to arrange more lifts to take people to various activities and more carers seeking time off work.
As Members of Parliament, we are sent to the House to represent people, their families and their communities above all others and we need to challenge the Government’s inevitable centralising nature—the Government always to seek to make decisions that apply across the board, and that is an inevitable tendency. Coupled with that are the economies of scale that are part of the natural order of business, which seeks at all times to maintain the lowest possible costs for the maximum amount of delivery to the maximum number of customers. That all works against what we might describe as localism. Coupled with that is the ease of transportation, with which we have lived for many decades and of which the most notable example is the car. That has given people access to services a long way from their homes.
There is therefore an increasing recognition that there is a degree of alienation and a dilution of the community to which people feel that they belong, as well as of their sense of identity and what defines them. That is by no means all bad, and it brings with it plenty of opportunities, because people want to enjoy participating in many wider areas of activity. However, there is also a real sense of loss and fear, and people worry that we shall miss the local community services when they are gone.
The problem is increasingly being recognised in a really determined manner by the number of petitions that have been brought together. That is true not least of the petition initiated by the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, which I hope to find time to present on the Floor of the House on another occasion. The signatures have been gathered by the local community around the post office in Cuddington in the north of my constituency. The post office has served that community well for many years, but the postmaster is thinking of retirement, and there is a struggle to find someone to replace him. Of course, anybody considering doing so will say to themselves, “Is it really worth it? Is it worth the candle? Can I really make enough out of this business? Is there enough sustained income to keep the post office viable and going forward, even with a shop attached to it?” That is a serious issue.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this subject back before us. His point about someone trying to take over a sub-post office explains why it is crucial that the Government come clean about their agenda and where they see the future of the Post Office. The drift is almost worse than having no strategy, because people who decide to retire have no way of persuading the next person of what the business has to offer.
I am grateful for that intervention, which very much anticipates one of the themes that I shall seek to develop. There is no question but that confidence about the future is the key to whether we shall have any form of sustainable community services, not least ones that are centred on local post offices.
I hope that the Minister and the Government will take note of the petitions that have been gathered. Our concern today, however, is that it is just a pious hope that we can preserve in aspic some kind of a golden age and what we have always called our communities. Is there anything that we can do about the problem? Should we even urge the Government to try? I think that we must because, above all else, community services are the first line of protection for the most vulnerable—the very elderly, disabled people, those who are out of work and other benefit recipients.
If we look at the issue across the board, we see that today’s communities are characterised not only by the local post office. Of course, post offices are important because about 75 per cent. of them have a shop attached. There are community post offices not only in rural villages, but in suburban communities, such as John Winward’s post office in Over, in Winsford, which is in my constituency, and Helen Rimmer’s post office in Ashton Hayes. She has managed to hold on and to undertake new development, despite the most appalling provocation and repeated attacks on her, not least by gunmen. She has managed to come through all that and she still provides a vital service to her local community, for which she is much respected.
Communities are also characterised by the pub, which is also under pressure. The traditional local is being taken over by pubs with a theme, and there is a sense that it is perhaps best to attract people from afar who want to eat rather than to drink. We might keep the newsagents and the corner shops if those independent and family retailers—those whose are not part of the Post Office—can hold on in the face of pressure from the supermarkets. Recently, there has been a justified and important campaign to seek recognition of the fact that the traditional practice of demanding rents in advance is becoming deeply injurious to the survival of newsagents and corner shops, and we need to see whether that can be altered.
There is also the rising regulatory burden, which has been a theme for many years among those of us who are deeply concerned about the survival and competitiveness of those in the private sector and in business who must cope with it. The regulatory burden falls hardest on the smaller enterprises. There are also planning pressures, and somewhat draconian planning constraints are often imposed on small enterprises that wish to make small adjustments to increase their offering. Of course, there is the ever-present worry about street and shop crime, which hits small retailers particularly hard. They are often open all hours and they come under real pressure when they become the target of what is often more than petty crime, but they have no local support.
My hon. Friend has brought an important issue before us. He is talking about the fabric and structure of our communities, and particularly our high streets. He mentioned pubs, post offices and newsagents, but will he add pharmacies to that list because they are also under threat? The primary care trust on Canvey Island, for instance, is seeking to reorganise health care. There will be two large centres off the high street and they will be out of the way for vulnerable people, such as the elderly and the other groups that my hon. Friend mentioned, as well as for young families with prams who do not have two cars. Those health centres will have full pharmacies, which will provide a range of retail products, but they will destroy the eight community pharmacies that are run by small retailers and which give a wonderful service on Canvey Island. That is yet another threat to our high streets and community services.
My hon. Friend is entirely correct about pharmacies. I take an interest in that issue in another role, and there has been a campaign to preserve and maintain community pharmacies, which has my wholehearted support. Interestingly, in Farndon, a village in my constituency which is just on the River Dee with the Welsh border the other side, the post office has been combined with the pharmacy. That has been a useful and more profitable way of sustaining a vital set of services to our local community. My hon. Friend makes an entirely valid point; pharmacies are part of the list that I am just beginning to get through, so I am grateful to him.
In addition to pharmacies and the other services that I have mentioned, for some the church represents the essence of their community. As we know, there have been declining church attendances. I cite also primary schools, which are surviving, although in my area and many others there are falling school rolls. That puts terrible pressure on local education authorities to make decisions about whether schools can survive. There are also increasing pressures on bus services, which cater not only for rural areas but for the outlying areas of towns. Where such services are not being used, it is difficult to get a replacement to come in to take over. All of us recognise that we must go much further these days to fill up with petrol or diesel, and that there has been a decline of the small local petrol station. Such petrol stations used to provide an important community service.
We are also aware of the difficulty of maintaining in a viable way vibrant village halls, which are often associated with playing fields next door. That becomes a major source of concern when there is a decline in community activities. There has also been a decline in the number of butchers’ businesses in local communities. I suppose that that has largely been the cost of the higher requirements of inspection regimes. That decline is of grave concern, particularly for those who have been dependent on the rural economy over the years. I cite also mobile libraries and doctors in this context. Notwithstanding the diminution in out-of-hours services and the diminution in the number of NHS dentists in local communities, there has been a sharp fall in the number of district and specialist nurses in our communities. Sadly, that situation will become worse given the continuing financial constraints which arise through the Government’s financial mismanagement of the NHS budget.
There is also increasing pressure in our local communities given people’s lack of confidence in the fire service, with which the Minister has particular familiarity, the ambulance service and the police. That arises for different reasons but it all boils down to one issue: there is a feeling that unless someone is right in the middle of a large conurbation, most people’s community services do not know where they are. People are deeply concerned that when they need those services in an emergency, it will take longer for the service to get to them. There is not the same confidence that comes from a service being localised and placed in the local area where people feel that they have immediate access to it.
I am pleased that the Government, whether by design or accident, are now finding that their plan to merge the Cheshire police force into Merseyside’s seems to be going rapidly backwards, because it would have further exacerbated the lack of community support and direction. All of us are aware of the importance of maintaining community hospitals and the huge number of charities, voluntary sector bodies, and interest and hobby groups that work in our communities.
Above all—I suppose that this is the centre of the argument and the reason for the title of the debate—I was trying to understand from my own constituency experience which is the one place where all these community activities come together. Where do people find that they are talking to one another? Where do they meet and find that there is a commonality of their experience? Where do they find the strength of identity that goes with it? As it happens, the answer is: in the post office. It is difficult to think that the same is true of any of the other places that I have mentioned. Of course, for a large village event there might sometimes be a coming together in the village hall, but not everyone will turn up. Almost everybody, at some point, has to go into the post office, and they will find that that is where they come together. So, it becomes vital to examine closely how we will maintain the local community post office network. It is obviously a tremendous asset and an opportunity. The question is: how do we keep what there is?
As we know, most people still live within 1 mile of a post office—the figure is about 93 per cent. That is not the case in rural areas. Post offices provide services in respect of communications and the receiving of Government-related payments. There are currently slightly more than 14,000 post offices, and they serve 28 million customers. The current Government have presided over 3,800 closures—we have lost two post offices in my patch and between eight and 10 in neighbouring constituencies. There seems to be an average of about 18 post offices a constituency in Cheshire.
The chief executive of the Post Office has a responsibility to run his business most efficiently. If he were to reduce that figure to the number that he thinks that he needs to run his Post Office, one could infer that there would be a significant series of further losses of post offices. While rural areas and the urban deprived ones will be the hardest hit, it is clear that it is not our business in Parliament to tell the Post Office chief executive how to run his business most efficiently. He has a duty to do that. The question is: how do we make best use of that network and how do we preserve it? It might be a partnership. There might well be a need for Government and the Post Office to act together to recognise that the network is something to be valued and that, once lost, it cannot be revived.
I shall come on to that briefly. As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, it is quite a complex subject. It is important to recognise that the Government made a promise to keep post offices open, except in unavoidable circumstances. That was contained in the Labour manifesto of 2001. The pledge was to last until March this year, and I think it has now been extended until this autumn. That is important, because it is still within a relevant period. After much argument and urging the Government eventually made the welcome announcement that they would contribute £750 million—£150 million per annum—up to 2008 under the social network payments. The money is to support the rural and urban deprived community post offices and sub-post offices. We do not yet know whether it will be renewed.
That is important and goes back to a point that was made earlier, because a sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress is no different from someone in the rest of the private sector. They are in the private sector, and have bank managers to deal with and business plans to make. Most bank managers rightly want to see a three-year plan. We are now in a period in which it is impossible for a sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress to say confidently what their income will be.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Does he agree that this is not only about the social network payment and the money that the Government make available to support the rural network? It is also about the level of commitment that they show to providing their services through post offices, the most important example of which so far highlighted is the Post Office card account. Next year, the contract for people buying their car tax disc at the post office comes up for renewal. There was an opportunity with both for the Government to show a commitment to post offices by providing services, not just by providing the funds for rural post offices, necessary though those are.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman; indeed, I shall recite that argument as part of what I think the opportunity is for the Government to ensure that there is a sustainable future for these vital community services.
We were told by the Department of Trade and Industry, as the Minister will no doubt confirm, in November 2005 that it was planning a public consultation on the future of the social—that is the rural and urban deprived—post office network. That was originally planned to start in February and report by the middle of this month—within a few days, I suspect. I am very much hoping that the Minister will have the opportunity to put our minds at rest and say that he is now able to give us a timetable and the expected time of this report. We have been waiting for it with some anxiety. It is vital that it takes place, because it has not yet been started. No announcement has been made about when it will begin, despite the recent creation of a new Cabinet Committee. I think we are all beginning to wonder whether we should be holding our breath, because it will be chaired by none other than the well-renowned Deputy Prime Minister, and will deal with Post Office issues. We hope that it will be more joined-up across Government—
It is a very serious point. I want to report to the hon. Gentleman that recent correspondence with the Deputy Prime Minister about his Cabinet Committee implies that it has not yet met. Perhaps the Minister could put our minds at rest about that. Given the vital importance of the future of the post office network to our rural communities and, indeed, deprived urban areas, that Committee should be actively engaged in putting forward a strategy for consultation instead of sitting on its hands.
The hon. Gentleman made a very serious point if the Committee has not yet met. I would have thought that with new-found time on his hands the Deputy Prime Minister would think that that is one of the most urgent things he could get on with, given that there is so much pressure and anxiety while we wait for the Government to act.
I have had extensive discussions with many of my sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, as well as the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, and have had the opportunity of briefings from Colin Baker, to whom I am grateful. All our post offices have both a social and economic role. It is well recognised that they provide a wide range not only of postal, governmental, commercial and retail services, but in rural and urban deprived areas they are often the only place where cash can be obtained. They represent a vital service for local businesses. Many rural businesses do not have a high turnover and it matters to them that their payment transactions and mailings are dealt with daily and promptly. It is not uncommon for those of us who represent such constituencies to hear of people making the run to the post office at 3.30 pm or 3.45 pm to catch the post because it is vital to the survival of their small businesses. If that service were lost it would be a major impediment to their survival.
What we as Members of Parliament probably get most concerned about is that post offices provide immense and vital support to the most vulnerable residents in our constituencies: older and disabled people. For example, the complexity of pensions is now so great that 1.7 million people who are entitled to claim the pension credit fail to do so. It is often the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress who can give advice in a way that does not cause anyone to lose face and preserves the dignity of confidentiality, which is vital. They have confidence and knowledge and older people in particular value that and see the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress as having a degree of independence from the Government as well as being knowledgeable and used by the Government as a channel of information. That independence often gives people the confidence to pursue that line of inquiry.
During the previous debate in this Chamber on pension credits more than one hon. Member, including me, raised concern about advisers on the telephone telling people who were entitled to the pension credit that only the first payment could be paid into the post office and that subsequent payments would be paid into their bank account. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that that is another stealthy way of trying to undermine the service? Clearly that is not Government policy, but are they aware of that practice and what are they doing to prevent it?
I have heard about that practice and the hon. Lady raises an important issue. Guidance and encouragement to do the right thing to sustain the relationships and incomes of post offices is needed and it is for the Government to take action. It is in the Government’s gift to influence such matters and they should not wash their hands of that.
The local post office often becomes a community focal point. People often congregate there and the police, local authorities and tourist organisations often display and provide information in them. They are increasingly places where people can go online if they are interested in doing so. Above all, we all have a shared responsibility in our communities and they are places where we can look out for one another. I am sure that we all know of someone in our community—perhaps an elderly person—who has gone to the post office when they were not well. They may have wanted to remain in their own home but have struggled out and the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress did not face that person down with something that they would find embarrassing and difficult to deal with, but waited for a friend to come into the post office and alerted them quietly that the person they saw earlier might need looking after. That is such an important and valuable part of what post offices do in the centre of our communities. They help to preserve dignity and independence. I know that that happens almost weekly at one of the most enterprising small post offices in Wrenbury in my constituency, which Neil and Janet Palmer run to great effect. They are the centre of their community.
We should not lose sight of the fact that there is a multiplier effect in having a post office in the vicinity. Clearly, those who call into a post office will spend money elsewhere, not least if they are able to obtain cash because that is where the first, essential spends are made.
With incomes declining, the trend to non-viability and the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the idea of becoming a sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress attractive for people, particularly young people and young couples, to take over, the pressures of technology and the greater mobility that we all have means that we tend not to walk to a local service but to jump in the car. The question that then arises is, “What can the Government do about it?” They have the power to make decisions about state benefits and, particularly, how pensions are paid. Given the trend and the Government’s efforts to pay pensions electronically into accounts, there has been a substantial reduction in income from encashments. The National Consumer Council said in 2003:
“The end to cash benefits just hasn’t been thought through properly”
and the new arrangements
“take little account of people’s real needs.”
As we have heard, the Post Office card account was brought in in 2003 and it was said at the time that it would not be restricted, but earlier this year we found that it would be for only seven years. We have already had an important discussion about the major effect that that will have on the ability of businesses to plan and to receive investment support, and for confidence. What was amazing about the announcement in January was that the Government said that that was always intended. It cannot have been always intended if we knew nothing about it. I certainly remember the announcement because I was sitting where my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) is sitting now. I well remember our hot debates to try to obtain a commitment that the card was sustainable and would not be limited.
Three years after its introduction, we learn from written answers—the information has only just been revealed—that the Post Office card account with 4.3 million users in the United Kingdom, providing 10 per cent. of the post office income, will be axed by 2010 with massive loss of revenue. No Post Office-based replacement has been announced. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that there will be a son or daughter of POCA. The matter is important to us all and our constituents, not least the 1 million people who have signed the NFSP’s petition.
We heard in interventions about the loss of the BBC television licence contract, which, with other bill payments, represents 5 per cent. of Post Office income. The encouragement to renew vehicle excise duty online has shown a lack of commitment from the Government to encourage services to be provided by post offices as part of the underpinning of their social and community responsibilities and as part of a strategy that goes hand in hand with the commercial activities of the Post Office, which must run efficiently. There is the difficulty of gaining full recognition by the banks that they should see post offices as an extension of their network. That should be strongly encouraged, and I would have thought that the Government could do something to encourage that recognition. With rising costs, we are faced with the real possibility of closures. I am sure that the NFSP’s brief will be familiar to many hon. Members.
The problem is not just the inconvenience, although that is a particular difficulty for those with no transport or with mobility problems, and for older people; the problem is also that, in this more environmentally conscious age, closures will inevitably increase the use of the car, as people will have to go much further to reach a post office. Half of rural residents currently walk to their post office. We will find that increasing dependency on others becomes a feature of our communities, but many older people will simply not look for the assistance that they need, and they will often suffer quietly behind closed doors. We MPs have a duty to take real note of that.
Above all, community spirit will be badly affected. A spirit is always difficult to define, but we know when we have lost it. It is certainly difficult to rebuild. It is not an exaggeration to say that the post offices in our communities give strong evidence of community spirit. The loss of those facilities would have a very negative impact. Of course, if there is a multiplier effect, it will work both ways, including in a negative way.
I hope that colleagues throughout the House will join me in calling on the Government to undertake an urgent examination of the social—that is, the rural and urban deprived—post office network. I fully endorse what the NFSP says: a strategy is needed to combine the commercial and social activities. We have to accept that, as a matter of public policy, such a strategy will not necessarily be funded purely by commercial activities. It may need support, in which case we will need a review, so that Parliament and Government can come to a decision on the allocation of public resources to support a vital social and economic network across the UK. In the meantime, the Post Office can certainly encourage the use of services that can be delivered at post offices.
Communities must be put first, and we insist that central and local government use post offices as their primary outlet for information and services. We recognise that people want the continuing ability to feel an identity and belong to their communities, and want basic things, such as the ability to run their finances with cash rather than a bank account. That is a perfectly proper thing to do, and it can often be a much better budgeting process for those who have the least. We should not prescribe in either way, as there are plenty who would want a bank account, but the unremitting trend of alienating cash from the way that people think about managing their affairs is inappropriate and somewhat patronising.
Community value is strategic and is in the public interest. Our community services, epitomised by the local sub-post office, are the test by which we decide whether we can call ourselves a cohesive society. I call on the Government to act now, before it is too late. At the very least, I hope that the Minister will today announce the dates of the Department of Trade and Industry’s public consultation on the future of the social post office network.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on bringing this well-worn topic back to Westminster Hall. It does not matter that we are going over old ground; until we get clarification of exactly what the Government want to do with the post office network, and of the plans on how to deliver services in rural areas, we will retread the same ground.
I welcome this morning’s debates. I see this as a three-hour debate; I hope that all hon. Members will stay for the second part, which is on the future of affordable housing in rural areas. To me, the two subjects are inextricably linked. It is no good talking about service provision unless we consider who lives in rural communities, and how they can afford to live in them.
I start by laying down a challenge. Too many rural communities want to maintain their services, but do not think about how they will do that. All rural communities need to regenerate themselves. They either grow in a sustainable way, or they die.
The hon. Gentleman is a well known campaigner and fighter for rural communities, but does he acknowledge that post offices are important to urban communities, too? They have been hit hardest over the past five years, with the number of urban post offices falling from about 9,000 to only 6,500. They are just as important to vulnerable people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous. I shall refer tangentially to the Sustainable Communities Bill. The hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of rural communities and their wider sustainability, in terms of supporting services such as post offices. Does he agree that, unfortunately, rural communities are often hamstrung and have no control over important aspects of their future sustainability, such as over the growth in the number of second homes? At the moment, there are no restrictions on that growth, which is one of the key drivers in undermining the social, economic and environmental sustainability of many rural communities.
I thank the hon. Lady for that; of course, I agree with her. I shall push on and try to connect some of the points made.
I stress that in the Sustainable Communities Bill—I hope that the House will treat that subject increasingly seriously—there is at least the idea of a strategy on how local communities can take back power and responsibility, as they perceive, at least, that they have lost it. I think that often that is a perception, rather than a reality, but of course if a community has an out-of-town shopping facility, that is a reality that it cannot escape from.
There are three levels, and we have to start at the level of the individual. Too often, individuals complain about the loss of their post office, pub or village school, yet they drive past that school with their children, or drive past those facilities to the supermarket, or they work 200 miles away. That may well be the nature of the world that we live in, but it is not a good world, a sustainable world, or a world that will be fit for purpose in this decade and beyond. The adage “use it or lose it” applies, and too often we lose it, because people become concerned about a facility only when it is about to close. That is sad and reprehensible, but it is avoidable; we must start with the individual.
One of the problems with the Post Office card account is that too few people in the know have signed up to it. I have signed up to it; that is a moral responsibility to which I have adhered. I hope that the decision-makers see the value of it, and run it alongside bank accounts. It was never supposed to be a pure alternative to the bank account; it was supposed to be a different way for people to withdraw money. I know that that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but he has to talk to the Department for Work and Pensions about what plans it has for POCA. We just need coherence. A lot of people signed up for POCA because it is easy and successful, but also because they believed that that was how to keep their post offices open. Let us build on that.
Next, we move on to the level of the community. I believe that the whole community has a responsibility to its service provision. I declare an interest: I am still a town councillor in my town of Stonehouse. We were faced with the post office not necessarily closing, but being moved from a specially built building, and with a possibly deteriorating service. The town council, because it had money, invested in that facility and took the whole building on; now, the town council building abuts the post office. To me, that is the best of both worlds. A lot of smaller community councils do not have the money or wherewithal to do that. However, when they produce their annual report for their parishioners, they should state whether they have engaged with their post office and service deliverers in order to determine whether there are things that they could do better together, whether there is a mutual support mechanism, and whether they should go out to their community and say, “We need to invest in those services.” The idea of the common bond and the money that could be raised therein is not a fantasy. People can sign up to the belief that their services are important, and they can put their money where their mouth is.
The Library’s debate pack provides an excellent run through the issues. I am featured on page 3—I hope that it does not go to my head—in a story about Paganhill in my constituency. Paganhill post office was situated within a one-stop shop. There is a Tesco less than a mile away, but Tesco took on the one-stop shop and announced that it intended to move the post office out. Catastrophe! The community were up in arms, but what could they do about it? It just so happened that the Maypole hall, which was round the corner from the post office, was willing to consider assimilating the post office. It was a long saga, but 18 months down the line, 10 days ago, the new, refurbished post office opened in the Maypole hall.
There were three heroes: Alan Churchill, who chairs the Maypole hall committee, Robin Craig, who has taken on two sub-post offices and is looking to take on more, and Cyrsta Harris, who works for Stroud district council in its community development department. They all worked hard to make the transfer happen, and it is people like that who keep our services alive. Tesco, the Post Office and others played a part, but that is what is vital: people have to make things happen, otherwise services will be lost.
I was in Oakridge yesterday, a small village on the outskirts of my constituency. Mike and Kim Gorney live there, and she runs the sub-post office. Two hamlets, Oakridge Lynch and Far Oakridge, came together to keep a sub-post office going throughout all the recent difficulties. She has run it for the past 12 years, but Mike and Kim want to move in order to improve and extend the post office and introduce longer opening hours. I do not want to pre-empt the planning process, but I hope that they receive permission. Yesterday, they took me through how they will fund the development, and they are looking for help. One important aspect of the figure of £150 million is that it is supposed not only to pay a pure subsidy to keep businesses going, but to reward innovation. However, when the Gorneys look for funds, it always seems that the funds are spent up or they are not the right ones.
The last two pages of the excellent debate pack refer to the different funding streams available. The rural capital start-up subsidy scheme has gone, to be replaced by the rural re-start scheme. Interestingly, it has to be match-funded, and the Gorneys made it clear how difficult that is. When one raises money to buy a building and undertake much of the work, one has to pay for the movement of counters, security and so on. The rural investment fund was launched in October 2004, but it has only £1 million. Against the thousands of post offices that are trying to keep themselves going, let alone improve, it is not a great sum of money. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will explain how we can bolster it. Many post offices are able to take advantage of the rural rate relief, but it does not help when one moves a business. A small rural post office is already likely to have drawn down that money.
The Government need to be clear. They cannot keep withdrawing services. The Post Office card account is a classic case of worthy investment, and to announce that it will be run down over the next couple of years and replaced with bank accounts is not good news, because it is a psychological kick in the teeth. People have invested a lot of money in their business and they have run it not to make money. The submission that I think we all received from the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters shows that the average drawings are less than £1,000 a month. There are some bigger post offices, but as the submission says, it means that an awful lot of people take substantially smaller sums than even two years ago. They are minuscule. However, those people are heroes, and that is why communities owe them an obligation. It is no good saying, “Isn’t it terrible that they no longer want to carry on and nobody wants to take this business on from them?” One must be slightly mad to take on those businesses, such is the level of reward; however those people are true heroes and they should be rewarded financially and because they are key people in their communities.
The issues to do with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which the hon. Member for Eddisbury highlighted, and that TV stamps saga all give out the wrong signals. They may not be problematic as discrete decisions, but collectively they are doing immense damage.
Those issues not only send the wrong signal, but downgrade a service. In my constituency there are 41 sub-post offices in which people can obtain a TV stamp, but there are only 16 PayPoints. It seems rather sad that the two organisations could not come together to work out how they could have maintained a mixed system in rural areas. The Post Office could have assisted people, as it has with banking, and reached further into the rural community.
I agree. I shall refer to the ATM issue, because I seek clarification from my hon. Friend the Minister about their—and perhaps other services’—introduction in rural post offices.
The Post Office sold me on the hub and spokes idea, whereby the main post office, which the Post Office might own, becomes the hub and uses its delivery mechanism to work in tandem with sub-post offices. As the hon. Member for Eddisbury said, they can remain independent private businesses, but it does not mean that they cannot co-operate. It is far better they do, rather than compete against one another and fail, with all those businesses suffering as a result.
I make no apology for concentrating on rural businesses, because they are under greatest threat. We have been through the urban reintegration issue, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will clarify where the hub and spoke idea has got to. It affects what we do in Stroud, but it seems to happen by accident. Perhaps it happens by osmosis, but it does not seem to happen by design. It is not as well planned as it could be, and I want to know that sub-post masters and sub-post mistresses are being given all the help that they require to keep their businesses going, expand them and co-ordinate them with others.
The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) referred to banking and financial services. It is a crucial issue, because the whole system needs to hold together. Last week I received from the Post Office a long press release about the installation of ATMs in more sub-post offices. Even though my hon. Friend the Minister does not speak for the Post Office, he can talk to the Post Office, and I read into the press release that ATMs would be free of charge. We need to build up a bond of trust with customers and keep them using post offices, and if there are no banks easily accessible for miles around, they could be tempted to use ATMs and allied services. Foreign exchange has been a huge success story recently.
I want the process clarified. It is no good putting out press releases if we do not know what they mean in detail. If the post office is to become the community’s financial hub, we want to know that it will be invested in properly, and that it will be affordable, which means that we do not charge the poorest people more than they would pay if they could get to a bank. We have to make the process as easy as possible.
The challenge exists, but it will not be met by the Government alone. Communities and individuals bear a responsibility, too. The Government must set the strategy correctly and put the money in, and clearly £150 million will not be enough next time. We shall have to consider how we revisit and rework what we are doing in the more urbanised areas, as we are now considering the true urban centres, which face somewhat different problems. That is the challenge. I hope that we can move forward, and this debate has been a worthwhile opportunity to do so.
Several hon. Members rose—
I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on securing the debate, which is important. The fact that we have had a series of debates, on both the Post Office card account and the Post Office, shows how concerned hon. Members from all parties are about the future of the post office network.
The Post Office has suffered three blows this year: the announcement that the Post Office card account will be withdrawn in 2010, the encouragement to motorists to renew their car tax over the internet, and now the removal of TV licensing. What strikes me is that we have in the Chamber the Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry who is responsible for the Post Office, but those decisions have all been made by other Departments, which seem to be under pressure to cut their budgets and appear to be acting independently of the DTI.
We have heard that the Deputy Prime Minister is the Chairman of the Cabinet Committee that is supposed to be co-ordinating Government policy on the Post Office. I was extremely shocked to find out that the Committee has not even met yet. It is easy to make jokes about the Deputy Prime Minister, but as this is a serious debate I will avoid doing so. I simply point out that the Deputy Prime Minister seems to have nothing to do other than chair Committees, so if the Minister takes one thing away from the debate it should be to go to the Deputy Prime Minister and say that the message from all parties is that we want him to get on with the job of getting the Committee up and running and to come up with a solution.
The Post Office card account is clearly an important part of the business. I shall not go into detail on that subject today, because we have had plenty of debates on it already. However, I stress its importance and the need for a Post Office account to follow on from POCA and allow people to collect their benefits and pensions from the Post Office and from their Post Office account. Again, it is important that we have an early announcement on that subject. To emphasise a point that has already been made, as sub-postmasters and mistresses retire they will not be able to find anyone to take on the business unless it is seen to have a secure future. The most important thing that the Government can do is to make an early announcement that there will be a Post Office successor to POCA.
The other issue that I wanted to mention was that the Government have taken away TV licence renewals from the Post Office, which is taking away a service from rural communities. The contract has been given to PayPoint, and PayPoint tends to be based in Co-ops and Spar supermarkets and nearly all the outlets are in towns. It rarely has outlets in villages, so the service is being removed from rural communities.
PayPoint also seems to have an incompetent computer system that tells people the location of their nearest PayPoint outlet. Most worryingly, TV Licensing, too, is using that computer system to tell people where their nearest outlet is. I have a licence renewal letter that was sent to a constituent of mine in the village of Cardross, on the north bank of the river Clyde with a population of more than 2,000 people. It has a post office where people have been able to renew their TV licences for many years, but it does not have a PayPoint outlet. The letter to my constituent lists the local PayPoint outlets, and gives two, both in Port Glasgow. The PayPoint website says that Port Glasgow is only 2 miles away from Cardross. That is all very well, but the only problem is that the river Clyde is in between. The Minister knows the geography well, and if someone wants to get from Cardross to Port Glasgow they have to drive 10 miles up the north bank of the Clyde to the Erskine bridge, cross the bridge and drive 10 miles back. Clearly, the computer system is totally incompetent. There is a PayPoint outlet 3 miles away in Dumbarton, but the letter does not point that out. How can the Government possibly have given such an important contract to such an incompetent company, which does not have outlets in rural areas?
Another disadvantage of PayPoint is that because it does not have outlets in rural areas it causes great difficulties in many of the islands in my constituency. Seven of those islands—Lismore, Iona, Coll, Colonsay, Luing, Jura and Gigha—have post offices where people can renew their TV licences. There are no PayPoint outlets on any of the islands, so how are people there supposed to renew their TV licences? Clearly they can do so over the phone or through the post with a postal order, which, if they do not have a bank account, they will have to pay a lot of money to get, but they cannot take advantage of the new card that is the successor to the TV stamp scheme. People in those islands are being excluded from that important Government service.
If people on the islands are not able to buy their TV licences, I have a solution: we should simply make using a TV on the islands free from the requirement to obtain a TV licence. If the Government are not prepared to set up outlets for people to buy their TV licences, the quid pro quo should be that a licence is not needed to operate a TV on any of the islands. Those are my messages for the Government today.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) for leaving me time to speak. I feel very sorry for the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), and the Minister ought to listen to him. Week after week he turns up to Westminster Hall, because he has a majority of only 350, and tells the Chamber about how the Government are cutting services in his constituency. The Minister, who has the benefit of a majority that is nearly 20 per cent. of the vote in his constituency of Poplar and Canning Town, ought to listen to the hon. Gentleman because it is the seats such as his that are keeping Ministers in red boxes and croquet sets. I hope the Minister will listen. It is also important that the hon. Gentleman is the only Labour Member who has bothered to turn up to the debate at all, which highlights a cause for concern.
I hope that the Minister will take time during the summer recess to visit a constituency such as mine—he would be welcome in Banbury—to see how rural or semi-rural England works. The Minister represents Poplar and Canning Town; most Ministers seem to represent inner-city constituencies and they have little understanding about how rural and semi-rural England works. Indeed, the Minister’s responsibilities include London. I hope that someone in the Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for the English countryside, rural areas and how they function. I do not think that anyone is.
The Government make much about social exclusion, which, for them, seems almost entirely synonymous with inner-city deprivation. There seems to be no understanding in the Government that we can have rural social exclusion, and that we can have social exclusion in housing estates on the edge of towns such as Banbury and Bicester. They ought to see the Post Office as an opportunity.
Where does government interact with the people? We hear a lot from the Prime Minister about enhanced delivery of public services, but we are seeing a continuing alienation and remoteness of government as more is done online. That is fine for younger generations, who might be competent and au fait with being online and using the internet, but for older generations that is not always the case. We see the removal of services that gave people face-to-face contact with government such as Jobcentre Plus, which has disappeared entirely in a big town such as Bicester, one of the fastest-growing towns in England. If one cannot get online, the only other way to connect with the machinery of government is through call centres and the infuriating process of having to press serial buttons, which drives constituents and all of us completely crazy. We are privileged with most of those systems, because the Government have realised that they do not work, in having MPs’ hotlines so that we do not all go mad with Ministers in the Division Lobby.
The Government ought to see Post Offices as a real opportunity where the state and the machinery of government can interface with people and tackle some of the issues of social exclusion that the Government talk about.
The withdrawal of the Post Office card account from 2010 is absolutely crazy. At a stroke, it will undermine the viability of practically every village and urban sub-post office. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) said, it was also disingenuous, because when the scheme was introduced everyone thought that it would go on for ever—that there would be a degree of continuity and substance. The Government’s withdrawal of the card account will undermine the post office network, and once that has happened it cannot be replaced. Once the post offices have been sold and the premises disposed of, they will never be available again.
I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman, desperate to hold on to his majority of 350, should implore the Minister to throw him a lifeline by maintaining rural post offices, but if Ministers do not start to listen to the voice of England they will lose many more constituencies than Stroud. People are fed up with a Government who have become increasingly distant and remote—a Government who simply do not listen to those who want to see protection for the elderly, the isolated and the disadvantaged.
I thank the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) for initiating the debate. I also thank all hon. Members who have spoken. I have a word of consolation for those of my hon. Friends who were unable to speak because of time constraints. The Liberal Democrats, like all parties, believe that this is an important issue, but I shall be brief in my response to this wide-ranging discussion, as we all look forward to many of our questions being answered by the Minister.
It seems to me that two forces are pulling against each other—the Government and the community. Communities want control over their lives and their surroundings. The Government have a tendency for centralisation, which they use in the name of efficiency and standardisation.
In Solihull, neighbourhood policing has worked most effectively, as has community support. The idea of localisation, of familiarity with one’s immediate area, has been extremely successful for Silhillians and, I am sure, for all in the United Kingdom who have been able to enjoy its benefits. I understand that an announcement will be made later today on the merger of police forces into super-forces; I hope that the plan will be shelved.
Similar things are happening to ambulance trusts, with 29 forces being reduced to 12. Again, that is a removal from the local area and local knowledge.
On the merger of ambulance services, I can tell my hon. Friend that in my constituency recently, first responders—they provide a remarkable service, particularly in rural areas, by getting to critically ill people before the ambulance arrives—have not been called out because the system has been changed. It is now more centralised and more automated, and because the service covers a larger area peoples’ lives are being put at risk. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about that development?
I do indeed. My hon. Friend gives an important illustration of what can go wrong when over-centralisation takes place.
About 80 community hospitals are under threat. We have lost 1,400 beds since 1999. The idea of a market-driven concept does not sit well with community hospitals. It seems to be their fault if they cannot make ends meet, and they have to close as a result. There is much concern among local people; community hospitals is a hot topic in many areas.
Hon. Members have already spoken about small shops, pubs, pharmacies and many other organisations. I remind the House that 30,000 independent retailers have closed during the past 10 years. We have often debated the encroaching role of the supermarkets, whose non-food sales have doubled in the last five years, and we have spoken of their predatory pricing and their squeezing of suppliers, and particularly in rural areas, those selling at the farm gate. That all gives rise to great concern.
As many as 20 per cent. of post offices have been lost in the past five years. The Government’s contribution to that, I am sorry to say, comes in the withdrawal of tax disc renewals, pension book payments and the Post Office card account. That all illustrates how much more difficult it is for post offices to make a living. However, I am pleased that the social network payments have been retained until 2008.
I am pleased also that other innovations are being explored that one hopes will be implemented in many areas. One idea is the hub and spoke system in which a major village has a post office with satellites in the surrounding villages in pubs, village halls, mobile post offices and in partnership with libraries, the police and so on. Those are all innovative ways that could help support the vital community link.
It has been alleged that members of my party and others who are extremely worried about the sustainability of communities are clinging on to a romantic concept of the village and the community as they used to be 50 years ago. We certainly cannot go back, but we can use what works. I have already mentioned neighbourhood policing. Solihull is also spearheading a care trust, a partnership between health and social services working as one, which I am excited to see and which I hope will have a good result.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) has introduced the Sustainable Communities Bill, and I understand that an early-day motion supporting it now has the support of more than 50 per cent. of Members. I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the issues dealt with in that Bill. While speaking of private Members’ Bills, my Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill seeks to ensure that local communities have some say in the planning decisions that affect their lives.
In control is where people want to be. People want to be in control of their lives, their destinies and their communities. When that control is taken away, the sense of community breaks down and we see alienation in the countryside and the town, where the need, particularly of the young, to assert identity manifests itself in a plague of graffiti and other forms of antisocial behaviour. We see elderly people alone, afraid to go out, with nowhere to go, and with their shops and post offices shutting down; and we see communities disintegrating as their character is changed beyond control and beyond recognition.
The psychological health of our nation and our communities is at stake. It is worth more than a few figures on the balance sheet. We want community services to be just that—services run by and for the community. We say no to ghost town Britain. We say yes to sustainable villages and towns, which are defined by thriving local economies, environmental protection, community involvement and democratic participation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on securing this important debate. There is an element of “Groundhog Day” about it; we regularly pop into the Chamber to discuss the future of the Post Office network. We last did so on 14 June, when I welcomed the Minister and said that we were prepared to give him a small exemption because he was new to his post, but that he had to come up with some answers soon. I went on to say:
“We are watching the whole network crumble while Ministers simply wash their hands of responsibility”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 14 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 293WH.]
That was an interesting mixed metaphor; I hope that the Minister has now finished washing his hands and that today he will break out of the Groundhog day tradition to give us clear answers about the future of the Post Office network.
The debate has been extremely wide-ranging and has covered a tremendous number of issues of enormous importance to our rural communities and others. My hon. Friend set those out with great clarity and understanding. He made a particularly important point in saying that we were not seeking to preserve communities in aspic, but trying to find a realistic way forward to bring new life, vitality and business into them. We are not trying to preserve something for the sake of tradition.
My hon. Friend outlined some of the other issues that we are considering in this debate: the village shop, the pub, the churches, the school bus services and village halls. We have also heard about pharmacies and ambulance services. One of the most startling points made to me by the excellent head of the Sussex ambulance service, Paul Sutton, was that only 5 per cent. of people in this country who have a cardiac arrest outside hospital will be alive two years later. In Finland, a much more rural country, 10 times as many—nearly 50 per cent.—will be alive two years later because there are defibrillators in the local communities. The issue is not only about relying on the local ambulance service, but how to put new services into the communities that will help people, and improve and save their lives.
Safety is a further aspect that should be mentioned. If we had had this debate 10 years ago, none of us would have said that there was a problem of antisocial behaviour in the communities that we are talking about. However, such behaviour has now spread out of the cities and into the big towns—into large villages as well. One of the things about which people are most concerned is the lack of a police presence in those communities and the lack of a sense that crime is being brought under control in them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was absolutely right to highlight the extent to which Government services have been systematically removed from our communities. Such services are becoming more and more remote. My hon. Friend highlighted how, ultimately, they are moved to call centres with no connection whatever with the people whom they are supposed to serve. That process, of course, is part of the Government’s regional agenda, so beloved of the Deputy Prime Minister.
It was intriguing to hear the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) criticise those changes; the Liberal Democrats are also committed to the Government’s regional agenda. If the hon. Lady wishes for such an agenda, she should know that the consequence is that increased remoteness of services. The only way to break away from that is to scrap that agenda and move decision making and power back to the communities that are most affected.
This debate is not just about whether Stroud, or a range of other marginals, will continue to be a Labour seat after the next election; we take it for granted that they will not. The issues are much more important. They are about the whole range of facilities that people enjoy in their communities and the survival of those communities. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some good answers today.
The Post Office had declined dramatically. In 1999 there were 18,374 post offices in this country. There are now 14,400—a decline of 20 per cent. in just five years. In 1999, there were 43 post offices in my constituency. Now there are 28, a decline of a third in just five years.
Rural post offices account for about half the network; there are, perhaps, about 7,800. Nevertheless, they account for only 10 per cent. of the business. On average, they have something like 350 consumers a week, but 1,000 rural post offices have fewer than 50 consumers a week. We need to be sensible; we cannot simply preserve a business that is not operating well. Sometimes the postmaster or postmistress decides to move out. However, we need a strategy and long-term vision for what role the Post Office should play.
This year, the Post Office network will lose £2 million, and that loss is expected to double next year. In the course of that, the Government are withdrawing £168 million in Government contracts from the Post Office network. As we have heard, that will get worse. There are the issues of the Post Office card account, the changes in respect of renewing car tax licences online, and the moves, on commercial grounds, not by the Government but the BBC—although the Minister was accused of being responsible—to take the TV licence away from the Post Office and to give it to PayPoint.
The chief executive of the Post Office, Adam Crozier, has said that he can fulfil his legal obligations with just 4,000 post offices. We have to be very careful about how we interpret that; he is not saying that that is what he wants. We should also pay tribute to the outstanding job done by him and Allan Leighton in turning around the Post Office. However, we need to understand that Mr. Crozier can meet his legal commitments with just 4,000 post offices. If we want more than that, it is up to the Government to come forward with a strategy. The Post Office has a business to run, but a Government strategy and vision is completely lacking in this debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury said, current Government funding for the Post Office network runs out in 2008. Decisions are being made now. In the coming months, people will sit down to decide whether they should close down or sell on their business. They may turn it into a house because they simply do not know what the future holds.
The Minister has to start coming up with answers. We look particularly to him to give examples of how we can bring new business into the Post Office network. Could post offices be used as centres for storing undelivered parcels? Courier companies often cannot deliver huge numbers of parcels. Rather than taking them back to their bases, why should they not take the parcels to the village post office, where they could be collected in due course? Can more be done with what is called the first mile of the postal network? Businesses in communities might bring their post to the Post Office and send it to whatever postal service delivery network they wished to use.
What are the Government doing about a successor to the Post Office card account? Ministers have to take the lead on that issue. In the 14 June debate, I said to the Minister that there had been too many examples of people being instructed to move from Post Office card accounts to bank accounts for that to have been happening by accident. Ministers must confirm that they will send a message to every single agency stating that they should put no pressure on people to move away from the POCA if they do not wish to do so.
In the months since then, has the Minister had a meeting about the issue? Has he written or spoken to his counterpart in the Department for Work and Pensions to make the point clearly? Furthermore, has he told his counterpart that DWP Ministers cannot simply stand back from the issue and say that it is a matter for the Post Office? It is a matter for the Post Office and the Government, and the banking community should be brought in as well. We need the Minister to take a lead on the issue, and I hope that he will give some more encouraging news today.
In the light of what we have heard today, will the Minister ensure that he has a discussion with the Deputy Prime Minister soon? The Deputy Prime Minister has very little else to do apart from sticking his tongue out at the media, so why has the Committee that he chairs not met? We are debating one of the most important issues, which affects every single constituency in this country. If the Deputy Prime Minister, with his reduced responsibility, has not found time to chair that Committee, that is a complete scandal.
There are ways forward, but so many of them are in the hands of the Government. We look to the Government and the Minister to give clear examples of how to move forward. However, I want to finish on a positive note. At this time of year, we go every weekend to village fêtes and to see what communities are doing to make themselves vibrant, successful and good places in which to live. We owe an incredible tribute to the people who make that happen: those who write the parish magazines, put on the village fêtes, run the local sports clubs and give cricket, football or rugby training for youngsters.
The communities in this country remain incredibly special. The fact that our communities are losing some of their economic vitality should concern us all. However, they remain immensely special places because of the desire of so many people who live in them to contribute to and improve their communities. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the many people in our constituencies who make that happen.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mrs. Humble. I associate myself with the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). It was clear from the response of other hon. Members that they also supported those remarks.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O’Brien) on securing this debate. I shall keep my remarks to a minimum but try to respond to as many of the points raised by hon. Members as possible. However, I am not able to provide a definitive timetable, so the outcome of the debate will not be to everyone’s satisfaction.
Let me make it perfectly clear that the Government have heard everyone’s concerns and will take heed of them in their continuing deliberations on the future of the post office network. If it is to survive and have a sustainable future, it must adapt to the changing circumstances and environment in which it operates. Many sectors of the post office network lose substantial amounts of money. The rural network loses some £150 million a year, and the directly managed Crown offices have been losing some £70 million annually. The status quo is simply not sustainable. Several important steps to restructure and revitalise the Post Office have already been taken but the future of the network rightly remains an issue of national debate.
I acknowledge the generous comments of the hon. Member for Wealden about the success of the chairman, chief executive and staff of Royal Mail in turning around that service, which only a few years ago was losing £1 million a day. It has moved back into profitability and is investing on behalf of the taxpayer in a much more successful business. However, as everyone acknowledges, that involved painful changes.
As the Minister with responsibility for postal services, I have a contradictory role, given the circumstances in which I find myself. I want to help ensure the widest provision of services but also a sustainable network. Just before the debate, the hon. Member for Eddisbury and I discussed that contradiction in the corridor. There is clearly a need for a community network, but it must have the bedrock of a sustainable commercial network.
I appreciated the tone of the debate. It would have been easy for hon. Members to come here and criticise. I am not saying that there were no criticisms—clearly, there were—but in the vast majority of the contributions they were delivered in a constructive way. I assure hon. Members that I and officials at the Department of Trade and Industry are working extremely hard with officials and Ministers from other Departments on the issues that were raised in the “Groundhog Day” debate only a few weeks ago. Obviously, we will consider issues that have been raised today that are separate from those, but I suspect that all the bases have been covered in our considerations. We want to arrive at the best possible strategy in our conclusions. As colleagues would expect, I have also initiated discussions with Post Office Ltd and the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters in past weeks.
The hon. Gentleman said that the number of signatures on petitions shows the depth of feeling. Our response to that is straightforward: many people express an affinity with their post office by signing petitions. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, that does not mean that they use the services. There is an affinity with rural services but translating such support into commercial usage of the post office is obviously one of the challenges that we face. The least used 20 per cent. of offices in the rural network average 40 customer visits per week, and the least used 10 per cent. average just 16 customer visits per week. At £17 per visit, those figures loom large in our calculations.
The hon. Gentleman and other colleagues discussed the difficulty in selling on sub-post offices because of the uncertainty of the future. We recognise such concerns, but the sale of sub-post offices on a commercial basis continues. In 2005-06, there were 1,243 successful transfers—649 rural and 594 urban—and an increase on the number for 2004-05, which was 1,179.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that post office partnerships with stores such as pharmacies and with churches ought to be considered. From our initial £450 million support package, £25 million was set aside for a flexible fund to enable the Post Office to pilot new ways of delivering services in rural areas in a sustainable way.
The hon. Gentleman made some interesting suggestions about how other partnerships and other business services could increase viability. The Post Office is undertaking several pilot initiatives aimed at increasing usage of rural post offices; for example, the pilot with the police, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), in which the local sub-postmaster or postmistress handles simple inquiries in the community and can report crimes. Post Office Ltd is also considering working with tourist information offices to enable the local post office to offer advice.
Furthermore, the Post Office is testing alternative means of service delivery. The core and outreach model, which was mentioned by colleagues, is being piloted by the company to expand the reach of the network to meet the needs of outlying small communities. Typically, the core sub-postmaster provides a service at locations such as the local village hall or pub for several hours each week. The Post Office published its report on the pilot trials in March. The lessons from the pilots will play an important part in the consideration and informing of the Government’s longer-term decisions on the future of the network.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Adam Crozier’s comments about what he would need to fulfil the licence obligations. He answered his own question when clearly identifying them as a hypothetical response.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am trying to get through as many answers as possible.
The hon. Member for Eddisbury said that 93 per cent. of people lived within a mile of a post office, but that that was not the case in rural situations. In rural areas, 85 per cent. of households are within 2 km of a post office. That compares with 79 per cent. of rural households that are within 4 km of a doctor’s surgery. There are 8,000 rural post offices—some 55 per cent. of the network—catering to only 19 per cent. of the population. That clearly suggests an imbalance.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is not in his place, so I will pass by his question. The hon. Member for Eddisbury said that the Government were forcing people away from post offices. I do not want to be partisan, but it was the previous Conservative Government who first introduced direct payments. Not only this Government have changed how benefits are provided.
The hon. Gentleman said that the Government should use post offices as a primary outlet for their services. I assure him that other Ministers and I are considering exactly what we ought to be doing to ensure that we identify the protection that Government services might be able to offer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud asked about fee-charging automated teller machines in some offices. Post Office Ltd has changed its cash machine strategy and is withdrawing from its contractual arrangements with the existing ATM suppliers, which supply fee-charging machines. A new partnership with the Bank of Ireland will result in the introduction of 1,500 Post Office-branded free-to-use ATMs across the network in the next few years. My hon. Friend may take that message to his constituents.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) asked whether the Government are to blame for the decline in the post office network. I remind colleagues that we cannot force people to use post offices. We ought to do as much as we can to provide Government services through them, but we also provide services on the internet, by telephone and by mobile phone, and people readily access them through such means. We must work within the context of that trend. I am sure that those who are responsible for television licensing will receive suggestions about free use of TVs on islands and respond to them directly. However, I am not sure that they will agree.
My final comment is to the hon. Member for Wealden. I had a meeting with a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions on the Post Office card account and other issues raised in our last debate and with other Ministers on the issues that clearly are of concern to both Government and Opposition Members. Inevitably, suggestions for change in and restructuring of the post office network—