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Post Office Network Change Programme

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

3. If he will make a statement on the progress of the Post Office network change programme in Scotland. (179989)

The Post Office launched the first of Scotland’s area plans in October last year, and expects to complete the consultation process by September. Let me add, for the sake of completeness, that I understand that the plan for the Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire area, in which the hon. Gentleman’s constituency falls, is due to launch a consultation next month.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, which ranged much more widely than Scotland. Is it not the case, indeed, that the consultation process in all parts of the United Kingdom, including my constituency—and, indeed, Scotland—is divisive, because it effectively pits one community against another? It has become clear that if a community saves one post office, another will have to close in its place. This is all about numbers, not about communities and their vital services.

No, I do not accept that. There are criteria laid down under which such decisions are taken, but we are not leaving this to market forces. If we were, only about 170 of the 1,200 post offices in Scotland would be left open. We are intervening with enormous amounts of taxpayer subsidy because we recognise the value of post offices in the communities they serve. However, we also recognise that people’s shopping patterns have changed: people access services over the internet, which they did not do previously. To do nothing was not an option, but we are not leaving this to market forces; we are intervening, because we recognise that the post office plays a valuable role in many communities, particularly, but not exclusively, rural communities.

Is my hon. Friend content with the performance of Royal Mail deliveries in Scotland? I understand that there are various problems—one of which is that there have been only a handful of replies to the Scottish National party’s “national conversation”. The reason for that problem might not lie with the Royal Mail, but does my hon. Friend have a view on this question?

I was shocked to see that despite spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of Scottish—or rather, UK—taxpayers’ money on its so-called national conversation, the SNP has had only a couple of dozen replies. The problem might reside in the Post Office, or it might reside in the fact that the people of Scotland repeatedly, in election after election, reject the option of breaking up Britain and the narrow nationalist approach of the SNP.

I think that people in communities the length and breadth of Scotland will note the fact that instead of standing up for post offices facing closure, the Minister engages in petty political posturing. Does he not agree that the consultation on closures is a complete sham? It offers the chimera of reprieve in one community, yet will close post offices in another. One community is pitted against another community; one village is pitted against another village. Why does the Minister not stand up for those post offices, instead of posturing?

The House will have noticed the hon. Gentleman referring to the national conversation as petty politics. I agree: it is petty, partisan, posturing politics of the worst sort. On the serious business of the Post Office, this Government have already committed £2,000 million to sustaining a post office network, and we have also committed a further £1.7 thousand million to that. That speaks of a Government who are passionately committed to seeing a post office network exist in Scotland and throughout the rest of the UK, in contrast to the hon. Gentleman’s “do nothing” option, which would see the Post Office wither on the vine.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the Post Office code of practice, particularly regarding temporary closures? There have been 12 such temporary closures in my area in the past three years, with a varying degree of outcomes; five of them are still outstanding. Does the Minister agree that it would be quite against both the spirit and the substance of the code of practice if the Post Office were to include such outstanding temporary closures in the current consultation, thereby denying local communities their say? Will he make that point in any discussions he has?

I shall be happy to make that point. It is important that there is a transparent process with objective criteria, so that local communities can see why a particular post office has been closed and why others have been kept open. I understand that in the highlands of Scotland there are 18 proposed closures out of a total of 198. If we were taking a purely commercial decision, that figure would not be anywhere near 198; it would be massively reduced. We are committed to providing the subsidy to make sure that the Post Office remains viable, but it is important that this is done in an objective way—that there is transparency, and criteria that are adhered to.