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Post Office

Volume 459: debated on Thursday 3 May 2007

6. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the safeguards established to oversee the Post Office reorganisation process. (135432)

Post Office Ltd and Postwatch are discussing the role of the new National Consumer Council in developing area plan proposals for local consultation. We expect to set out the agreed role in our formal response to the Government’s consultation.

Thousands of post offices have closed under this Labour Government. Moreover, the disappearance of Postwatch is on the cards and coincides with 2,500 closures over 18 months. Given all that, what customer guarantee can be given to people who use post office services in rural England, Scotland and Wales that the future watchdog will be more effective? How will people be assured that the sort of nonsense that I saw the other day will not happen again? A post office in York had been closed, and a new one opened after a local community campaign—yet the business was clearly a viable commercial operation, which should never have been closed in the first place.

Clause 16 of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill replicates the provisions in the Postal Services Act 2000 that apply to Postwatch, which will ensure that the National Consumer Council has a specific function to investigate matters relating to post offices, and there will be a redress scheme. The hon. Gentleman and his party supported the amalgamation of those services into the new National Consumer Council. We are working hard with Postwatch to make sure that public protection and the consultative arrangements when Post Office Ltd makes its restructuring plans are as robust as possible.

In 1997, my hon. Friend’s colleague, now the Minister for Trade, intervened to save Ilford Crown post office, which was under threat from the plans of the then Conservative Government. Will my hon. Friend look closely at the bad announcement made last week by the Post Office that it intends to close the Crown post office in Ilford, and 70 others, and hand them over to WH Smith? That will not be good for my constituents, who at present can get a bus to the Crown post office; elderly people will have to walk long distances to the Exchange shopping centre.

I am sorry to hear my hon. Friend’s reaction to the announcement from Post Office Ltd and WH Smith about the 70 franchise arrangements that will protect and save services for his constituents. Experience and the results of mystery shopper and MORI surveys on pilot schemes run by Post Office Ltd and WH Smith have been exceptionally high. I think that when my hon. Friend sees the arrangements in place, he and his constituents will also welcome the improvements in services. The vast majority of the 14,500 existing post offices and sub-post offices are run on a franchise or sub-postmaster basis, which ensures that the services can be protected for the future.

Conversely to what the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) describes, the Crown post office in Daventry has not yet had an agent nominated for its forthcoming management, and there is a strong local rumour that it will shut altogether. Only this week, we have heard that rural sub-postmasters face similar pressures, being cut off at the knees and unable to deliver their services. Does the Minister at least agree that one of the great strengths of the Post Office is that it is a universal service? Long may it remain so.

Obviously, I am happy to agree. The Post Office provides an unrivalled service to our constituents right across the country, whether in urban or rural areas. That is why the Government have spent £2 billion since 1999 and why we intend to spend a further £1.7 billion between now and 2011 to make sure that the service, when it is restructured, will be on a sound financial basis for the future.

A postmaster in my constituency has told me that it would be rash to spend money on new stock or repairs while the office is under the threat of closure, and that he needs to know where he stands as soon as possible. Will the Minister report back at the earliest opportunity on the outcome of the Post Office consultation, and does he accept that rural post offices are finding it extremely difficult to conduct their business in the climate of uncertainty they face?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The uncertainty needs to be dealt with as soon as possible, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make an announcement to the House fairly shortly, which will, I hope, put greater certainty into the arena. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) referred to rumour and speculation about closures, which we can understand, and where we can, we kill off such speculation, about which a number of Members have written to us. We refer such matters to Post Office Ltd, which is able to give certainty in particular areas where there are clearly no plans affecting major centres. The important thing is for my right hon. Friend to make his announcement, and then for Post Office Ltd and Postwatch to get on with the implementation of restructuring. We know that sub-postmasters across the country have been waiting a considerable time for that, which is why we want to expedite it.