I have regular such discussions with ministerial colleagues. The Minister of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr McFadden), recently visited Dumfries and Galloway, where he saw different methods of postal services provision working well in rural areas.
Under this Labour Government, a quarter of post offices in the west of Scotland have already closed. Next week, when the public consultation starts, we shall learn which of the remaining 300 will face the axe. Does the Minister think that the consultation will be meaningful? Does he expect that if the public voice strong opposition, a significant number of the post offices earmarked for closure will be granted a reprieve?
As I have told the hon. Lady in the past, the Government are firmly committed to maintaining a viable and sustainable post office network. That is why we have already invested £2 billion and are investing a further £1.7 billion. As the hon. Lady knows, however, the Post Office is subject to all sorts of pressures, and there are all sorts of reasons why individual post office branches must close. The hon. Lady found that out for herself recently when she campaigned to save a branch, only to discover that the reason for its being threatened with closure was that the local Liberal Democrat council was selling the building that housed it.
My hon. Friend is entirely right, but I would go further: the problem is not just the length of the journey but the impediments in the way of it. I have encountered examples in which a journey described as being only about half a mile involved a motorway which prevented people from travelling the half-mile. That is why the consultation will consider factors such as the placing of motorways, as well as bus routes, sea crossings, rivers, mountains and so forth. All those factors must be taken into consideration. We are committed to ensuring that people can still have access to postal services, because we believe in the value of the Post Office. That is why we are investing so heavily in maintaining a post office network.
The official consultation period shows that there are a mere 12 weeks between the announcement of the proposals to the public and their implementation. The Post Office seems reluctant to engage in public meetings throughout the process in the areas concerned. As the largest stakeholder, will the Government ensure that Post Office management face the public in those areas and answer their questions? Will they also ensure that the benchmark used in deciding which branches are closed relates to whether people view a post office as a necessity rather than a convenience?
The hon. Gentleman is right to this extent: there must be a proper and transparent process. People need to see the criteria against which decisions on individual post offices will be made. We are not adopting a purely commercial stance on this issue; if we were, the Post Office would be decimated not only in Scotland but throughout the UK. Instead, we are capping a maximum number of closures, and we are continuing with sustained investment. I must also say that this transparent, open and sustained programme of post office closures stands in stark contrast to the 3,500 post office closures when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power, when there was no proper management, no proper investment, no proper strategy and no proper help and support for the communities left bereft.