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Post Offices (Essex)

Volume 482: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2008

The Humble Petition of the residents of Castle Point and others,

Sheweth

That our local Post Offices are important to community cohesion, that they provide a vital service to the local community, particularly to vulnerable people, but that their future is threatened by uncertainty over Her Majesty's Government's support for Post Offices generally, and specifically by the possible abolition of the Post Office Card Account in 2010, which would be totally unacceptable to the residents of Castle Point, especially vulnerable groups who rely on Post Offices and the viability of our important high street shopping parades.

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House call upon Her Majesty's Government to review its policy on Post Offices and to recognise that they are greatly loved by the community.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, &c.—[Presented by Bob Spink, Official Report, 6 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 10P .]

[P000268]

Observations from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform:

The Government fully recognises the important social and economic role of post offices, particularly in rural and deprived urban communities. That is why it is determined to maintain a national post office network allowing people to have reasonable access across the whole country and has put in place a new policy and financial framework to achieve this. The Government has been investing substantial sums in the post office network, totalling £2 billion since 1999. That has, for example, paid for a computer link-up for every post office as well as support for non-commercial branches since 2003.

In its response to the consultation on the Post Office network the Government announced in May 2007 confirmation of its decision to extend funding of up to £1.7 billion to 2011, including provision of £150 million Social Network Payment to support the post office network up to 2011. The Government strategy includes provision for 2,500 compensated closures and 500 new Outreach services.

The 500 new and innovative Outreach locations, operated in partnership with other local services such as in pubs, village halls, churches or in mobile post offices, will mitigate closures, primarily in smaller and more remote communities. Post Office Limited (POL) announced on 9 April that it will extend Outreach trials into urban areas which, if successful, could mean additional Outreach branches over and above the 500 originally planned. Nevertheless, there will need to be up to 2,500 compensated post office closures within the defined access criteria.

POL is responsible for implementing the network change programme at a local level. It has developed a rolling programme of 42 local consultations on detailed area plans, based on groups of Parliamentary constituencies. The first area plans went out to local consultation on 2 October last year and these plans were rolled out at regular intervals until August, with the whole programme scheduled to be complete by the end of this year. The consultation period for South Essex, South Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire has finished and POL has published its Area Plan Decision Booklet on its website. Having considered all representations and the criteria for the network change programme POL have confirmed that the Dovervelt Road and New Thundersley branches are to close. Details of the closures and further review are available on the POL website at: www.postoffice.co.uk/networkchange

POL develops its proposals with the participation of sub-postmasters, local authorities and the consumer watchdog, Postwatch, and takes into account the numeric access criteria set out by Government as well as local factors affecting ease of access, such as local geography: rivers, mountains etc when drawing up its implementation plans. POL is also required to consider the availability of public transport and alternative access to key post office services, local demographics and the impact on the local economy. Local consultations provide the opportunity to raise any specific concerns over particular proposals.

The Government does not have a role in proposals or decisions for individual post offices. No decisions on individual Post Offices are taken until after local consultations. Those decisions are made by POL in light of the responses to the consultation while subject to a four-stage appeals process involving Postwatch. The Review Process for closure decisions after public consultation process applies where Postwatch shows that, for an individual branch:

POL has not given due consideration to material evidence received during the public consultation in coming to its decision or;

where evidence emerges from the consultation that the proposal for the branch does not meet the Government's policy requirements.

The aim of the further review process is for POL and Postwatch to reach an agreed way forward by bilateral review with 3 stages available at increasing levels of seniority. An addition to the review process last November provides that for very difficult cases which remain unresolved after stage 3, Allan Leighton, Chairman of Royal Mail Group will review the issues and reach a final decision.

The current contract for the Post Office card account (POCA) ends in March 2010 and the Government has made clear that there will be a new account after that, to be known as the Government card account. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is the contracting authority for POCA, and is currently managing the procurement process for the new account. A decision is expected later in the autumn.