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Volume 482: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2008


Wednesday 5 November 2008


Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

Post Offices (Essex)

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


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 .]


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:

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.


NHS GP Surgeries

The Petition of supporters of NHS General Practice surgeries,

Declares that in the 60th year of the NHS the House of Commons should support existing NHS GP surgeries, improve services to patients by further investment in existing GP surgeries and be aware of the risks posed by Government plans to promote the use of commercial companies in general practice. further declares that they do not want public funding to move from GP practices to commercial companies who are accountable primarily to shareholders rather than patients, and declares that they wish to be treated by GPs who see them as patients, rather than as customers.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Secretary of State for Health to continue support for existing GP surgeries, improve services to patients by further investment in existing GP surgeries, and to halt its plans to promote the use of commercial companies in general practice because this risks destabilising local surgeries and threatens the comprehensive, high quality care currently received from GPs

And the Petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Mr. Philip Dunne, Official Report, 21 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 21P .]


Observations from the Secretary of State for Health:

The Government is investing record amounts in GP services (an increase of over 50% since 2003/04) and there are a record number of GPs (19% more than in 1997). This investment has secured major improvements in access to services and in the quality of care for people with long-term conditions. Public satisfaction with GP services is generally high.

The Government is continuing to invest in GP services. We are consulting the British Medical Association (BMA) on a £105 million package of investment in GP services for 2008-09, including some £50 million for local schemes to make services more accessible and responsive to patients and a further £50 million to improve the range and quality of clinical services.

Despite generally high levels of patient satisfaction, members of the public have told us that their number one priority for improving the NHS further would be to be able to see a GP at times that are more convenient for them, for example in the evening or at weekends. In March 2008, the BMA agreed the Government's proposals to reward surgeries that offer evening and weekend opening. PCTs are now working with GPs to agree arrangements that meet the needs of local people. In the first three months there has already been significant progress. As at September, over 51 per cent. of GP practices across England are now providing extended opening hours, and by the end of the year we expect at least half of GP practices will be offering this service to their patients.

Last autumn, the Government also announced £250 million of new investment to enable every PCT to provide a GP-led health centre—open 12 hours a day, 7 days a week—and to help tackle inequalities by establishing over 100 extra GP surgeries in areas with the fewest GPs and greatest health needs.

With the new GP health centres, one in every PCT area, patients will be able to remain registered with their own GP but may also use the services provided by the health centre if they wish. This will mean people can see a GP for a routine consultation if they are away from home or at times that their local GP practice is not open, either by booking ahead or just turning up. These services will be in addition to, not instead of, existing GPs.

There is no truth whatsoever in the suggestion that the Government is moving funding from existing GP practices in order to pay for these new services.

It is open to any provider to bid to run the GP health centres and new GP surgeries, whether it is a group of local GPs, a voluntary organisation, social enterprise or an independent provider. Allowing this wide range of potential providers to bid helps to drive up quality, innovation and value for money and to ensure that patients receive the best possible service. The early indications are that the majority of expressions of interest are coming from existing GPs and that there are a number of collaborative bids between GPs and other sectors.

We already have excellent examples of GP services and other primary and community care services throughout the country. Our aim is to ensure that all patients have universally good access to high quality services and the ability to make increased choices about the services they receive