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Post Office Closures

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 3 April 2008

7. What recent discussions he has had with the managing director of Post Office Ltd on the process of consultation on the closure of sub-post offices. (198417)

I regularly meet and discuss issues relating to the post office network with the managing director of Post Office Ltd, which of course include the current consultation process, which we are in the middle of, and the proposed new outreach services.

There is a widespread and increasingly desperate view that every conceivable question on post offices has already been asked, with not a single acceptable answer given, but let me try this. Of the nine closures in my constituency, at least two—Bayford and Charlton Horethorne—are close to the border with Dorset, which has a different consultation process. Many communities in Dorset will be affected by those closures, but their views are not being sought. Do people not count if they live the wrong side of a line?

Of course they count, but any proposal based on a geographical area will involve people on either side of a line. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I am sure that the Post Office will do its best to take local views into account in what is a difficult process. I say again, however, that without the extensive subsidy that the Government are putting in, thousands more branches could be under threat. We have given financial certainty to the network over the next few years, which is something that it did not always enjoy in the past.

In its report of 8 February, the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee expressed concerns about certain aspects of the consultation process, many of which could be addressed quite quickly. Despite the significant funding that the Government are putting into the network, we are concerned that there is apparently no policy in place to prevent the further shrinkage of the network from 11,500 to the 7,500 figure that meets the access criteria. Does the Minister therefore understand my disappointment that despite the early indications that the Department would expedite its response to the report, it so far looks unlikely even to meet the informal deadline, which is normally two months?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the serious work that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Select Committee has done on this issue. It has now issued three reports, and we will respond very soon to the report that he mentioned. I note the Committee’s specific proposal to make it clearer that the basis of the consultation was the implementation of the programme rather than it simply being a referendum on whether there should be closures. As we now know, both parties accept the need for closures. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson made that clear in the debate on the subject a couple of weeks ago. The hon. Gentleman’s Committee made a very good point on that subject, and I hope that Post Office Ltd will take it up.

Eight post offices in my constituency are threatened with closure. Two in particular—at Primrose Hill in Lydney and at Ruspidge—have a strong case for remaining open. Will the Minister confirm what the Prime Minister is reported—in one of our excellent local newspapers, The Citizen—to have said, namely that, if people had a strong case against the planned closure of their local post office, they could appeal and take the matter right to the top and to the chairman of Royal Mail, Allan Leighton, if necessary? If those two post offices are told in early May that they must close, will the Minister confirm that Allan Leighton will meet me, and any other Member of Parliament who wishes to meet him, to discuss in person the case for keeping those post offices open, as the Prime Minister promised?

The Prime Minister was absolutely right to say that a review process is built into this procedure. As I have said before, it is triggered by Postwatch and begins at local level. He was also right to say that the process can ultimately go right up to Allan Leighton, the chairman of the Royal Mail Group, if need be. The question of Mr. Leighton’s diary commitments will have to be answered by him, rather than by me, however.

The Minister will be aware that Essex county council has committed £1.5 million to keep certain post offices open, including two profitable branches at Billericay and Wickford in my constituency. Despite assurances from the Minister—which I do not doubt—that he would get in touch with Post Office Ltd, and despite the Secretary of State’s letter of 19 March, Post Office Ltd is still dragging its feet in its negotiations with Essex county council by not releasing essential financial information. Will the Minister now personally ensure that Post Office Ltd does not drag its feet further, and that it engages in full and frank conversation with Essex county council? Will he also ensure that Post Office Ltd does not decommission branches that are set for closure until those negotiations are complete?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have encouraged Post Office Ltd to talk to Essex county council. I have spoken to the chief executive personally about this on two occasions, and I hope that those discussions will take place.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the decommissioning of equipment, he will understand that post offices are normally private businesses owned by their sub-postmasters. The Post Office has said that it will extend the period of notice, at no cost to the sub-postmaster, when there is a local authority expression of interest. On some occasions, however, the sub-postmaster might want the equipment removed so that the rest of the retail premises can be made use of. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but we need to take into account the fact that these businesses are privately owned in most cases.

I am sure the Minister is aware that many other councils share Essex county council’s frustration at the slow progress of their attempts to save some of their local post offices from closure. First, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), they are finding it very difficult to obtain the realistic costings that they need to decide whether to proceed. Secondly, there is a complete lack of clarity from the Department on whether such support would fall foul of European Union state aid rules. Thirdly, in some cases, equipment is removed from post offices while the discussions are still taking place. That is not happening only in post offices that the postmasters wish to close. Will the Minister get a grip on the situation, and ensure that councils receive immediately from his Department any information that they need to proceed? Will he also ensure that no post offices are closed if they have a realistic prospect of being saved?

It is for Post Office Ltd and individual councils to negotiate the details of the process. As I told the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained in his letter of 19 March the basis on which the discussions should take place to both the Post Office and the Local Government Association. That letter refers to the state aid rules. That is the Government’s position, as set out by my right hon. Friend.