The local economy is one of a number of factors taken into account by Post Office Ltd in developing its proposals. In the London area, which covers the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, there will be no change to the post office currently used by some 89 per cent. of people, and more than 99 per cent. will see no change or be within 1 mile of an alternative branch.
In my area, four post offices have been proposed for closure, and the closure of three of them will threaten a parade of shops and the local economy in that part of Southwark. Can the Minister assure me at the Dispatch Box that the Post Office will take into account the effect on the whole business community of each of those closures, and in each case, before any decision, will it talk to the local authority about any alternative that might keep open post offices that are crucial and central to a business, trading and social community?
As I said, Post Office Ltd does take the local economy into account. We have encouraged it to talk to local authorities, and although it takes all such matters into account, I have to remind the hon. Gentleman that this process is happening because the Post Office is losing £500,000 a day, and those losses have to be addressed.
In the case of a post office such as the one in Burnham lane in Slough, which is threatened with closure, one of the difficulties that local businesses have pointed out to me is that the alternatives offered are difficult to get to and a relatively long way away. People will have to queue for a long time with parcels, and those who run businesses that require them to send things from home will have their costs added to by a formula that means long queues in alternative post offices. Will the Minister think about that in his decisions?
Another factor that has to be taken into account is the capacity of alternative branches to absorb custom. My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that point, and it is one of the factors that Post Office Ltd will have to look at in making what are difficult decisions.
With 30 post offices in Shropshire due for closure, and three in my constituency—Sambrook, King Street Wellington and Church Aston—does the Minister share the concern of local residents and the many local businesses that have to use those post offices? If he does share the concern of my constituents, and of six of his Cabinet colleagues, will he it put on the record that if a business case is made that those post offices are viable and needed in the community, he will intervene with the Post Office and stop the closures?
With regard to viability, the hon. Gentleman will know that the fact that the Government are putting in up to £1.7 billion in support of the post office network keeps viable thousands of post office branches that would otherwise be threatened with closure. I remind him that his own Front Bench spokesman said during a recent debate:
“we fully expect the network to shrink in size.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 947.]
His own party, therefore, accepts the need for closures, too.
May I inform my hon. Friend the Minister that on Monday I met a Post Office representative at the start of the consultation period? He told me that 2,500 post offices were to close. I said, “I think you’ve got that wrong. It might finish up being 1,983, but every post office should be considered on its merits.” What is the point of having a consultation period when I, like many of my colleagues in the House, have been given a figure of three that will shut in our constituencies? Is it because there are three non-viable post offices in everyone’s constituency, or are we just sharing the misery out? While going through the consultation period with my constituents, I have recognised that one or two post offices might be non-viable, but not three. What chance of success—
Of the 14,000 branches currently in the network, some 4,000 would run as a commercial network. We do not believe that the network should be reduced to that size, which is why we subsidise it to the extent that we do. As the Post Office made clear last summer, the consultation concerns the detail of how the change is to be implemented, and the overall figures were announced to Parliament in May of last year.
May I offer to the Minister as a working example the post office in Levenwick in the south end of Shetland, which is due for closure? It operates as part of the shop there, and if the post office closes, the community fears that the shop will not be far behind. If the shop closes, not many people will want to use the campsite in the summer months, and the campsite subsidises the village hall. When he was setting up this whole process in the first place, what instructions did he give to the Post Office about considering such a domino effect on local economies?
The Post Office considered the special and specific circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As matters stand, there are more than 70 post offices—I believe that the figure is 73—there, and I understand that six are to go. The access criteria are specifically designed to protect rural and sparsely populated parts of the United Kingdom such as that that the hon. Gentleman represents.