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Postal Services

Volume 467: debated on Thursday 22 November 2007

Post Office Ltd has put out to local public consultation its proposals for post office closures and new outreach locations in 10 area plans, including the plan for east Essex and Suffolk, which covers the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The process will continue over the next year or so. It has ended in four areas, including east Essex and Suffolk, and final decisions on the area covering his constituency are planned to be announced next month.

The Minister will be aware that profitable post offices in Billericay and Wickford in my constituency are set for closure under the Government’s closure programme. Given that the population in that part of the world is expanding, not shrinking, as evidenced by the Boundary Commission creating an extra constituency, and given that the closures will hurt many people, particularly the elderly and the disabled, can the Minister honestly explain to the House why those closures are taking place, in view of the profitability of those post offices and the level of population growth? Will he meet me and other Essex MPs to discuss the matter?

I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman and colleagues, if he wishes. As I explained earlier, the closures are happening because the Post Office is losing several million pounds a week and because several million fewer people are going through the doors of our post offices than was the case a couple of years ago. He mentioned profitable post offices, and there are two factors to remember in that regard. First, there is the amount that will be raised and spent within the post office branch. Secondly, the central support cost from the post office network to post office branches must be taken into account. Calculated in that way, some three out of four sub-post offices around the country are unprofitable to Post Office Ltd. That is why the Government have put forward a subsidy of £150 million a year for the post office network. That is a subsidy that did not exist when the Conservatives were in power.

My hon. Friend mentioned the macro-economic factors behind the closure of post offices. However, will he pressurise Post Office managers over the fact that the two post offices in my constituency—Trafalgar Road in Portslade and Richardson Road in Hove—are the centre of tight-knit, old and established shopping areas? Will he meet the local traders, who are filled with alarm at the closures and are worried that they will have an extremely negative effect on their businesses?

I will happily meet my hon. Friend about those issues. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), the closures are happening because of the declining use of post offices and the losses that post offices are sustaining. The decision was announced some months ago. I understand that it is difficult and unpopular in local communities; it is the kind of difficult decision that parties in government have to take.

Does the Minister not accept that given that sub-post offices are closing, fewer collections are taking place and morale in the postal services is at an all-time low, the only things that are increasing are the salary and bonus of the chief executive? Bearing in mind that the Government are providing a subsidy to the Post Office, does the Minister not think that we should get rid of Mr. Crozier, who is doing such a bloody awful job?

I got a little carried away, Mr. Speaker. I do believe that Mr. Crozier should go, but I withdraw the word “bloody”.

Right hon. and hon. Members can speak freely, as we have just seen. I do not share the opinion expressed by the hon. Gentleman. The Post Office is a service and business facing a significant challenge and it is having to go through difficult change. That process is difficult to manage and requires the commitment of both the senior management and the excellent people who work in our post offices and for Royal Mail.

Bolsover is in the bottom 50 in terms of deprivation, mainly because of all the pits that were closed under the Tories. But does the Minister accept that when we heard the news that 10 post offices—10—were going to be closed in Bolsover, that was a real body blow to all the affected communities? Will he therefore speak to people at Bolsover district council, which has launched a campaign against those 10 closures?

Whatever the Minister does about this Crozier fellow, who I think is a waste of space, he should not send him back to the Football Association.

I have said to other hon. Members that I will meet them, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend about those issues. I understand that the situation is difficult and that a large number of closures are proposed in his constituency. The issue is difficult for local communities; the closures are happening because of the losses being made across the Post Office network. That is why we have committed to providing a subsidy—one that did not exist under the Conservative party—of £150 million a year. In fact, that subsidy is part of a total package of support for the Post Office of £1.7 billion until 2011.

Does the Minister understand why communities feel so betrayed at the consultation exercise, which will make no difference whatever to the number of post offices that will be closed? Why has he ordered the Post Office to stop all closure announcements in the run-up to the local elections in May? Is not the decision to change the date for announcing the closure of one in six of the capital’s post offices from just three weeks before the mayoral election more connected with saving Ken Livingstone than with genuine consultation? Will Londoners not see the elections as their final chance to have their say on the future of the post offices? What is bad news for the postbox will be bad news for Labour at the ballot box.

The suspension of announcements during local elections is part of the normal purdah procedures that have existed for years in this House and have been observed by Governments of both parties. If it is the opinion of the Conservatives that purdah should be suspended, that would be an interesting constitutional innovation. If that is not their opinion, I suggest that they stop criticising us for applying the normal rules that have applied to Governments of both parties for many years.