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Stafford Post Office

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2008

It is a great pleasure to see you in the chair, Mr. Weir, as you watch over our debate on an issue of great importance to many people in the county town of Stafford. It will not have escaped your attention that my hon. Friend the Minister has often appeared in this Chamber to respond to debates about the closure of post offices under the Post Office network change programme. When I learned last week that I had secured this debate, I made a point of seeking him out to tell him that this is not one of those debates. I say in passing that he will know that the network change programme is under way in Staffordshire at the moment, and we are in the middle of the consultation period.

Perhaps it is an opportune moment for me to place on record my thanks and gratitude to the Minister for agreeing to see me in his Westminster room on 1 April to talk about the proposals for my constituency in which four post offices are to be closed. He might recall that I said that he and Post Office Ltd should do as much as possible to stop the closures of post offices if they are the last retail outlet in a village. The greatest focus of protest in my constituency is in the village of Great Bridgeford, which will lose its last retail outlet post office if the proposals go ahead.

Today, we are debating Stafford’s Crown post office. It is one of those included in the commercial arrangements that Post Office Ltd and WH Smith came to a year or so ago. It might be worth beginning by saying to my hon. Friend the Minister that for most of the 20th century, Stafford’s main post office—its Crown post office, its only post office in the town centre—occupied a very beautiful building called Chetwynd House. The building was built in 1746 by William Chetwynd whose family seat was Brockton Hall, which is now a well-known golf club in Stafford. The house was sold in the 1780s to William Horton, then a famous shoe manufacturer. A plaque on the wall of the post office testifies that Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the very famous playwright and the less famous MP for Stafford in the late 18th and early 19th century, often stayed there with his friend William Horton. It is a very imposing building that is listed because of its character and design. It stands on an important corner in Stafford’s main thoroughfare, Greengate Street, by what would have been in the middle ages the southern gate of the walled town of Stafford.

We have now moved our post office to WH Smith, which is also on Greengate street, so it has not moved far. Personally, having read all the information about the commercial tie-up between Post Office Ltd and WH Smith, I can see why both partners made such an arrangement. I understand the commercial pressures that both were under and I can see that both businesses are reasonably compatible. Therefore, I was not going to go to the stake saying that, if selected, Stafford post office should not move into WH Smith. I waited for the proposals and found that we were in the list of 70 post offices to move into a WH Smith store following what was claimed to be the success of the six pilots. I was willing to consider whether we could make a success of the plan in Stafford until I learned that the post office was to be located on the first floor of the shop in a building that has questionable arrangements for disabled access. It was at that point that I took the view that I did not think that such a move would work. I was one of 45 consultees who objected to the transfer of the post office. I know that in 20 of the representations, access issues were specifically raised before the transfer went ahead. The decision was made that the move would take place despite the objections, and it happened last October. I pointed out in a debate about post offices in this Chamber on 29 November that I had objected to the move taking place, and that it had gone ahead against objections.

Having seen that we could not save our post office from being moved, I resolved that I would do everything possible to make a success of the move. I had accepted the commercial pressures that drove the partners to work together. I wanted my post office to be successful, and it was fine that a famous trading business such as WH Smith should be successful in the town of Stafford. I wanted it to continue that success. I therefore arranged a meeting on site at the post office with managers of Post Office Ltd and WH Smith, representatives of Postwatch and Stafford borough council and, crucially, senior officers of the Stafford and district disabled access group, a man named Derek Boult and a woman named Joyce Middle, who are both strong and passionate campaigners for disabled access and disabled people’s rights. Joyce Middle is confined to a motorised scooter because of her disability.

We all met at the site before the move took place to talk about the changes that would be needed to make the building accessible to disabled people. In fairness to the management of WH Smith, they listened carefully and promised to make changes. They made the minor changes that we recommended, which were not costly, and I am grateful to them for that. It was a bit of a success. However, we saw that day that the post office was to be on the first floor and approached using an old-fashioned, wide staircase that is not particularly suitable for many disabled people or groups such as mothers with pushchairs. The store has what looks like a little goods lift in the corner of the building, and it was proposed that it would provide access to the first floor for disabled people. We expressed our view that it was not a big enough lift and asked whether a bigger one could be provided. We were told that that was out of the question because of the cost, the location or both—I am not sure which. WH Smith drew the line and would not agree to a larger lift.

As soon as the post office opened, mothers with pushchairs and disabled people in bigger than average wheelchairs or in motorised scooters started to complain that they could not fit in the lift. A subsidiary problem, which we had predicted, was that the ground floor was full of WH Smith customers and the check-outs were immediately between the doors to the store and the little lift in the corner. We had predicted that there would be queues of people blocking access to the lift, and so it has proved. We have had almost as many complaints about people not being able to get to the lift as about people not being able to fit in it when they do get there.

In response to the complaints, we asked whether more changes could be made. To give credit again to Post Office Ltd and WH Smith personnel, they agreed to meet us in the store again to talk about the changes. I was there, along with the council, Postwatch and Derek Boult and Joyce Middle. We again pointed out the big problems of getting to the lift and fitting in it, as well as one or two smaller problems that had arisen since the post office had been in operation. Again, people listened carefully and attentively and promised to make changes. The few modest changes that we suggested were made, but, crucially, the two big ones—allowing room for people to get to the lift and fit in it—could not be, or were not, addressed. The problems remained, and people could not reach the lift because of customers obstructing their route and could not fit in the lift when they got there.

Despite that second meeting and the attempts to reconcile our objections, we still received complaints from members of the public. Last month, I spoke again to Derek Boult of the access group and asked him, “What do we now think is the situation?”. We both concluded that if there is never going to be a bigger lift for customers, a first-floor location is not suitable for Stafford’s main post office. We agreed that we should ask WH Smith and Post Office Ltd to consider bringing the post office down from the first floor, which is unsuitable for access by some groups of the community, to the ground floor. I did so in writing to both partners, and then I requested this debate.

Stafford is the county town, and its population is 60,000. The borough’s population is more than 120,000 and the county’s population is nearly 1 million. The town attracts a considerable number of visitors, and to lose a beautiful, historic, ground-floor post office in a listed building, Chetwynd House, replaced by a first-floor post office with access routes that are insultingly inaccessible to some groups in our community, is just not good enough. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees with that. What can he do to lend his weight to our campaign to ask for the post office to be brought down to the ground floor?

I checked with the Disability Rights Commission, as it was then called, about the store and what the owner’s obligation was. It advised me that it was the owner’s obligation to make reasonable adjustments to make the building and its services accessible to all groups in the community and that, if the owner failed to do so, it was the responsibility of a disabled individual to take a case to a county court. I shall pursue that course if I must, but it seems a shame, especially considering that Post Office Ltd is in the public sector and might feel that it has a social responsibility to care about groups such as disabled customers.

I say to both WH Smith and Post Office Ltd that it makes good social sense to ensure that all members of the public have access to the services in their stores, but it also makes good commercial sense. The demographics of this country show that our population is expected to get older and that more people will have access difficulties. The Post Office is peculiarly reliant on older people as customers, and if the business is not accessible to such groups, it will be deprived of a considerable chunk of its potential customers. I am fortified in my view that post offices should be accessible to people with access difficulties because my argument is sustained by Age Concern south Staffordshire, Mencap mid-Staffordshire and the Communication Workers Union for the midlands region. We all take the view that the present arrangements are not suitable.

To make the matter personal and real for everyone in the room, I shall give an account that I received from a disabled visitor of their visit to the store this March. The person was in a motorised scooter and found that a filing cabinet obstructed the reversing space needed to get into the lift, that shopping baskets were piled next to the cabinet so that there was no room to manoeuvre and that the lift would not take the motorised scooter because of its size. They were asked to move from their scooter into a store-provided wheelchair, but there was no room and they needed help to move. There was nobody around to assist, and there was no electric bell to summon assistance. Their calls for help could not be heard by members of staff, because they were busy some distance away dealing with customers. There was therefore a delay. When they were eventually helped into the store wheelchair, they had to have their crutches and shopping on their lap as they made the short journey to the first floor.

As a result of that experience, that person wrote to me that:

“The postal services are essential and should not provide an obstacle course for the disabled”.

That is a perfectly sensible point for anybody to make to their elected representative. Derek Boult told me:

“Although WH Smith have been willing to listen and have carried out certain alterations, it is quite evident that the only way the post office is going to succeed is to place it on the ground floor”.

He has also said:

“Complaints are being received on a daily basis and the time for talking has to stop”.

It seems to me that complaints on a daily basis put pressure on people such as me and the Minister to listen and try to take action to help. There is a strong commercial imperative for something to be done, as I said earlier, and there is certainly a strong social imperative.

When I was preparing for this debate yesterday, I noticed a news report about a Hastings woman who has been given leave in the High Court to challenge the current post office closure programme. One of the grounds on which she has put her case is that the closures are contrary to disability anti-discrimination laws.

In the case of Stafford’s main post office, we are not debating a closure and the taking away of the physical post office, but talking about moving a ground floor post office to a first floor location without providing adequate means for disabled customers and other groups with special access needs to get to their post office services. Therefore, I wonder whether the situation in Stafford is in fact a breach of those disability anti-discrimination laws. We should not have to wait for someone to take out a case themselves in the county court before we act.

There is one last, minor point I would like to make to the Minister. I say “minor” in the sense that it is not germane to today’s debate, but it is certainly a vital subject of debate in Stafford. It is the question of what is going to happen to Chetwynd House, which I walk past every day when I am in Stafford. The building is now boarded up and closed and there are very visible ‘For Sale’ signs on the outside.

I have written to the building’s owners, Post Office Ltd, several times to ask how things are going with the sale and they tell me, “It’s none of your business, it’s a commercial transaction.” I said to Post Office Ltd, “If you get lots of people who make satisfactory offers for this building, there is a lot of concern in Stafford about what the use of the building will be, so would you consider consulting me, an elected representative, and other representatives of the local community, about which offer would be the best to accept?” Post Office Ltd said, “No. Go away.” That is disappointing, coming from a body whose only share is owned by my hon. Friend the Minister, so maybe he could persuade Post Office Ltd that it ought to give a little more attention to a Member of Parliament who would like what I consider to be some sensible information and dialogue about a key building in his constituency.

I want to leave the Minister time to respond. In conclusion, I am objecting to the lack of an adequate post office service for a significant proportion of the community living in and visiting Staffordshire’s county town, I am objecting as someone who has worked positively and constructively for half a year to try to make unsatisfactory arrangements work, and I am objecting in the knowledge that many organisations with a special interest and expertise in access issues agree with me . I certainly know that many members of the public also agree with me, including the people who are disadvantaged by the present arrangements.

In asking the Minister to help us, I leave the last word to Derek Boult, who said in his most recent contact with me this week:

“The relocation of the post office to the ground floor is the only solution that will provide the type and standard of service that the public expects. Nothing less will do.”

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can understand the strength of feeling in Stafford about this matter, which I hope I have been able to convey to him in this short debate, and I hope that there is something that he can do to help us.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on his success in securing this afternoon’s debate and thank him for initiating it. He has very clearly and eloquently outlined the importance of postal services to his constituents and, in particular, their concern about the move of the former Crown office in Stafford to WH Smith last October.

My hon. Friend said at the outset, and he is right to have said it, that postal services are very frequently debated in the House; in fact, it is less than an hour since the last debate on the subject ended. One of the features of these debates is, of course, that people talk in great detail about their constituencies. I was very touched by the obvious care and concern with which he spoke about his constituency; he spoke not just about his constituency as it exists today but about the history of the building that housed the former Crown office.

With regard to the arrangements of the post office branch in WH Smith in Stafford, my hon. Friend has, of course, visited it a number of times and is very familiar with the layout. I hope that he will understand that I have only received some briefing about the branch and have not visited it personally.

Let me say a word or two generally about franchising branches to WH Smith. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that he understands the logic behind such an arrangement. The franchising process is being undertaken because the Crown offices, which numbered about 450, lost £70 million in the year 2006-07 and clearly that position—where 450 post offices are losing nearly £1.5 million a week—is not sustainable.

The Post Office was quite right to look at arrangements to see how services could continue to be provided in other ways. That is how the franchising arrangement with WH Smith developed. As my hon. Friend said, on the face of it there would appear to be quite a good fit between the type of products sold in WH Smith and the type of reasons that one would have to go to a post office.

The franchising process with WH Smith has involved 70 branches in total. Although some hon. Members have not taken the open-minded and positive attitude that my hon. Friend has towards such franchising arrangements, very often the choice is between that type of arrangement and not having a post office at all, in circumstances where the Crown offices alone were losing £1.5 million a week.

I should also say that franchising is nothing new; the arrangement with WH Smith is not the only one of its type that the Post Office has entered into. There are other franchises—for example, in the Co-op, TM Retail, RS McColl, Asda and Tesco, all of which operate successful post offices within their retail networks. So, on the face of it, this arrangement with WH Smith is a perfectly sensible, commercial arrangement for Post Office Ltd to enter into.

When such franchising happens, there are, of course, important contractual arrangements. Franchises are bound by those arrangements to ensure that service standards remain high, and that is, of course, also true of the 97 per cent. of the network that is run by sub-postmasters. Therefore, although entering into such an arrangement is an operational decision for the Post Office to take, my hon. Friend and his constituents are right to expect a certain standard of service from anything that carries the Post Office branding and provides Post Office services, whether that is in a WH Smith branch or in a Crown office.

As I have said, I have not visited the post office in the WH Smith branch in Stafford, but I have visited one of these franchise branches in WH Smith. It worked well, and the customer surveys of the first half dozen of these franchise branches in WH Smith were quite positive in their feedback. However, on one or two occasions, the issue of disabled access has been raised, and that is because among the 70 post offices in WH Smith branches, about 20 are either on the first floor or perhaps downstairs from the main retail enterprise, possibly alongside other retail products.

Before I go on to my hon. Friend’s specific points about disability access, one of the advantages that franchising in WH Smith has often brought is extended opening hours, and that is important. The branch that I visited was open for several hours on a Sunday. At a time when people are juggling family and work commitments, that type of flexible opening is a great help to customers.

Having said that, of course it is important that these services are easily accessible to people with mobility problems and to people with disabilities. Post Office Ltd has given an assurance that all branches will be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and accessible to consumers. My hon. Friend will be aware that WH Smith, as a prominent and highly regarded retailer, is also fully aware of its responsibilities under the Act.

I do not think that access issues are always to do with franchising or who is running a particular branch. Dare I say it, perhaps even in some of the existing Crown offices disability access may not always be as we would hope it to be, but it is something that Post Office Ltd takes seriously. My hon. Friend’s explanation of the responsibilities under the Act to take reasonable steps to ensure access is exactly the same as my understanding of them, so WH Smith and the Post Office both have responsibilities under the Act.

On the specifics, my understanding is that if a customer for some reason is unable to use the lift or if there are stairs in the branch, alternative arrangements should be available to ensure that they can be served on the ground floor. I will say more about that in a moment. My hon. Friend has followed this matter through in some detail with the WH Smith branch in Stafford. He has visited it, and he met representatives of local interest groups and the store manager and senior staff of both WH Smith and the Post Office.

I understand that some action has been taken. A well-defined route to the lift area has been created, the facility has been somewhat improved by installing a handrail and a mirror, and the branch is keen to investigate how it can further improve access to the lift control panel itself. Post Office Ltd and WH Smith are aware of the problem, and they are more aware of it because I contacted them yesterday to say that my hon. Friend had secured this debate and to flag the issue up with them and discuss my understanding of the generality of what he would raise.

In respect of service on the ground floor, my understanding is that there is a mobile unit on the ground floor and that it can be operated by a post office staff member if customers are unable to access the first floor for any reason. It comprises a Horizon terminal, which is the IT system that the Post Office uses, and customers can access the full range of Post Office products from it. It may be that more needs to be done to make people aware that that option is available in the store.

I am intrigued by that. Perhaps we would not be having this debate if there were such a facility on the ground floor. In preparation for the debate, I sent my hon. Friend a copy of my letter to Post Office Ltd about my campaign to bring the post office down to the ground floor, and I attached an e-mail from Derek Boult from last month in which he said that he and I remembered that we had been told about trolleys on the ground floor in other stores, and that we could have one in Stafford. I have been there twice and never seen one, and Derek says in his e-mail that we were promised a trolley but that the Post Office has reneged on the promise. He has been to the store much more often than I have, and nobody has seen a trolley.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I said, he will of course be closer to the detail of what is on the ground floor in a particular store in his constituency. I have been told that a trolley is available in this store, so I can only say that in good faith.

To cut to the chase, some improvements have been made. My hon. Friend and local campaigners have raised more fundamental questions about whether the lift is large enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Again, I have been told that it is. It appears from what he said that the accommodation is not always satisfactory.

I agree with my hon. Friend that accessing services should not involve getting through an obstacle course. That is important. He is absolutely right to say that it is in no one’s interest if customers are discouraged or put off from conducting their business at a post office, whether it is in WH Smith or anywhere else. The issue is what can I do for him. The detail must be handled by Post Office Ltd. I contacted it yesterday about the generality of what I expected in this debate. Having heard what my hon. Friend said today, I am happy to contact Post Office Ltd again on his behalf to ask it to review disability access arrangements at the branch. He may be fed up with meeting representatives of Post Office Ltd and WH Smith, but I am happy to ask for another meeting to see what we can do to ease the problem.

It being Fifteen minutes past Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.