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Volume 458: debated on Thursday 22 March 2007

8. What progress has been made in discussions on the role of Postwatch in scrutiny of the post office closure process. (128955)

The Government’s consultation on the post office network ended on 8 March. We have received more than 2,500 representations, and are grateful to those who took time to participate in the process. We are giving full consideration to the comments received and hope to be able to announce our final decisions in May. Discussions are in progress between Post Office Ltd and Postwatch, and we expect to set out Postwatch’s role in developing local area closure proposals in our decision.

Does the Minister agree that when the Government are about to embark on a huge post office closure programme, which he has acknowledged will have a massive impact on consumers throughout the country who rely on that important service, the idea of simultaneously abolishing the Post Office watchdog is madness?

We have included specific provisions in the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill, which had its Second Reading this week, to ensure that the new national consumer council has a role, as Postwatch does now, in advising on the number and location of post offices and their accessibility to users. We are also involved in ongoing discussions between Post Office Ltd and Postwatch to make sure that the arrangements are as robust as they need to be.

I am glad to hear how many organisations and individuals took the trouble to take part in the consultation; I hope that their contributions will be read carefully and listened to. However, does my hon. Friend agree that one simple way of making sure that communities have a voice and are able to retain their services is to accept the Sustainable Communities Bill, which is going through the House? What it provides would be much better than any regulator, because communities would have their own voice and their own means of retaining their services.

I am sure that the Sustainable Communities Bill will provide adequate opportunities to enable communities best to defend themselves. As my hon. Friend knows, we have just completed Second Reading of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill, which we believe offers the appropriate place to integrate the Postwatch service, and which will provide consumer protection for those who use any of the services of Royal Mail Group.

The Secretary of State has said that 2,500 post offices will be closed with compensation, but the national access criteria will allow thousands more post offices to close. How does the Under-Secretary reconcile those two facts?

The hon. Gentleman has participated in many of our debates on the future of Post Office Ltd. There is clear recognition that the estimated £4 million a week that the Post Office loses is unsustainable, and there is consensus across the board that something must be done to put the post office service on a more sustainable footing for the future. That is agreed by the National Federation of SubPostmasters and by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, and we are doing our best to ensure that that happens. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make his announcement in due course—in May—and we hope that as a result of that, the future of Post Office Ltd will be more secure.