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Post Office Network

Volume 478: debated on Thursday 3 July 2008

2. What recent representations he has received on the future of the post office network in rural areas. (215942)

The Department receives representations on a wide range of issues relating to the post office network, including, of course, its future in rural areas. The access criteria for the post office network ensure that 95 per cent. of the total rural population across the UK are within 3 miles of their nearest post office outlet.

More than 300 people from the Vale of York alone took the opportunity to respond to the consultation. Twenty-three branches have been earmarked for the outreach programme, which constitutes nothing less than post office branch closures. For sometimes only two hours each week, a man in a van is going to present himself at these villages. Does the Minister not accept that he is being less than honest with the public? People in the Vale of York feel that they are being taken for a complete ride. They have not been listened to, branches are closing, village shops—where they do exist—are even being threatened, and the level of service is being reduced to virtually nothing. Will he apologise to the people of the Vale of York?

I accept that this is a difficult process, but I am afraid that I do not accept that I have been less than honest throughout it. The hon. Lady referred to outreach, which is not the same as a post office closing. She will in future find, I believe, that outreach can provide a very valuable service to her constituents. My understanding is that the number of outreach facilities planned for her constituency is six, not 23, as she stated.

My hon. Friend will know that with the growth in the number of outreach branches, some sub-postmasters are taking on several branches. One sub-postmaster in my constituency is running three outreach facilities and another is running four, yet they get only the one piece of portable kit to enable them to go around the villages delivering this service. That reduces the number of hours that they can do and the flexibility of the service. Can my hon. Friend therefore make representations to the Post Office so that, where sub-postmasters are running several outreach branches, they have more than one piece of portable kit to enable them to offer a more extensive and flexible service?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. He is right that the provision of outreach is dependent on a core sub-postmaster providing that service in two or three villages. I am very happy to convey to the Post Office his point about the equipment.

Two of the rural post offices in my constituency, Inverkeilor and Carmyllie, along with Arbroath’s Cairnie street post office, are scheduled to close. The rationale, apparently, is that the business will transfer to the main Arbroath post office. However, in the middle of the consultation period the Post Office suddenly announced that the franchisee of the main Arbroath post office did not wish to renew their franchise in the early part of next year. I contacted the Post Office, and although it confirmed that the main office would have be relocated, it could not tell me who would run it, or where or what size it would be. Does the Minister not accept that even under this inadequate consultation process, such a material change in circumstances must mean that the proposed closures are put on hold, at the very least, until the future of the main post office is clarified?

I certainly accept that where closures take place and there is an assumption of migration to a different branch, that branch should be capable of dealing with that business. I am very clear that that should happen in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in others.

Many hon. Members have raised the question of post offices in the House, but is my hon. Friend aware that the Post Office proposes to start the consultation in my area on the day after the parliamentary recess begins? Dozens of MPs are in the same situation, and their constituencies contain about 5.5 million people. Will he reflect on that situation and discourage the Post Office from beginning and finishing the consultation during recess? Otherwise, millions of people will be disfranchised because Members of all parties will be unable to express their views.

I do believe that the consultation can proceed during a parliamentary recess. I believe that our constituents can still take part even if Parliament is not meeting. The timetable was set out in some detail about a year ago, so we would not recommend its suspension for a few months during the parliamentary recess.

I very much look forward to the opportunity to answer questions rather than just ask them.

How can the Minister tolerate the restrictive practices being imposed by the Post Office on rural and other shops where post offices are being forced to close? Is he aware that sub-postmasters, who were not allowed to have a national lottery terminal, be a PayPoint outlet or work with carriers other than the Royal Mail simply because they had a post office are now being told that they may not offer those services simply because they no longer have a post office? Does he understand how angry postmasters are that they face losing compensation simply because they want to help what is left of their business to survive? Does he not think that it is utterly wrong that the policies of Post Office Ltd should lead to the closure not just of post offices but of many of the private businesses that house them?

The compensation arrangements for sub-postmasters leaving the network were negotiated by Post Office Ltd and the National Federation of SubPostmasters. They are fair in relative terms, and quite rightly so. They amount to some 28 months’ compensation for sub-postmasters leaving the network. People will not be banned from having a lottery terminal or entering into an arrangement that would put them into competition with the post office down the road, but their compensation will be adjusted. That was defended by the general secretary of the NFSP when he spoke to the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

As for closures, I can only remind the hon. Gentleman of the words of his hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), who recently said in the House:

“Let me make it clear that we fully expect the network to shrink in size. We have never given a guarantee that no post offices will close”.—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 947.]

That is the position of the hon. Gentleman’s party.