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Postal Services (Rye)

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Barbara Keeley.)

According to a recent survey by Help the Aged, nearly 60 per cent. of older people say that their post offices are essential to their lives. The Post Office is a much loved institution and I want to tell my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs that I am proud of what the Labour Government have done to maintain a post office network with a viable future. I am proud that, unlike their predecessor, this Government have recognised the value to our communities of preserving a comprehensive network of local offices, and that they have agreed an ongoing social subsidy of £150 million per year as part of an investment in the service of £1.7 billion.

We know that, if the Post Office were privatised, there would be just 4,000 “profitable offices”, and I suspect that they would be less profitable were it not for the comprehensiveness of the current service. As I said, our Labour Government are providing a social subsidy of roughly £18,000 per loss-making branch. That is an extraordinary commitment to the service, and a clear sign of the Government’s loyalty to it.

In contrast, the previous Conservative Government took a completely different view. I know that that was many years ago, but it is worth remembering that 3,500 post offices closed in an age before technological advances made internet banking a way of life. Today, the Tories say that they oppose all closure plans and yet they will not even commit to the current £150 million social subsidy offered by the Government. So when one looks at the small print of their promise, although one sees that they pledge not to shut the 4,000 branches that make a profit, by my reckoning that leaves another 10,000 facing closure.

Given what I have said, it is my belief that the Government have given quite enough to enable the network essentially to be maintained, but it is in that context that I feel that my constituents in Rye have been woefully let down by Post Office management. The first problem concerns the decision early last year to close the Tilling Green post office that served a huge number of local residents. We petitioned, marched and demonstrated, but all to no avail.

For many people in Tilling Green, using the post office was the only way that they could collect their pensions—and, as Sir Fred Goodwin does not live in Rye, those are pensions that we do not mind paying. If the people running post office services believe that the fury of the residents of Rye has subsided following the closure, they are mistaken. The size of my protest file shows that the number of people who remain concerned is just enormous. Of course, the anger might have been assuaged were it not for the debacle that has followed the closure, but the fact remains that the decisions on post office services in Rye were always flawed, and they remain incomprehensible.

The closure of the Tilling Green office left Rye, a town of some 4,000 people that has a rural hinterland with a further 10,000 inhabitants, with only one post office. That is not good enough, and the resultant chaos is evidence of that.

When the wise leave their offices each night, they back up their computers, but Rye post office services have been left without any back up. What has really upset my constituents in Rye is that, on four occasions over the past year, they have had no service at all, sometimes for a day or two at a time. On one occasion, it was claimed that the office had to be closed for reasons of health and safety and, on another, the agent postmaster failed to get up on time. Most recently—and the House may find this hard to believe—the office was closed because of a problem with the lease.

Older residents waiting for their pensions have been unable to gain access and have been told they must return another day—although they were not strictly told, as the post office door was simply closed, with a notice pinned on it. When the office has been open, there have been epic queues, with elderly customers expected to queue for up to 30 minutes. Sally Holloway tells me that, “These days, they say when a relationship ends you have to find closure.” Well, Rye residents’ relationship with Rye post office is not over—they do not want closure. In fact, they want new openings; that is what we are looking for.

Post Office services are not an optional extra. Things do go wrong. That is why back-ups are necessary. For example, James Black, a local business man whose trade relies on postal services wrote to me asking how on earth businesses reliant on the Post Office for services or banking are supposed to function when certainty of service is undermined.

Let me give two more live examples of what I mean. Pat Salisbury-Ridley wrote to me and said:

“Yet another fiasco at Rye’s Main Post Office.

I, along with around 10 others, waited in the rain for the Post Office to open at 8.30. Nothing. Then at 8.40 someone turned up with a key! Apparently the keyholder had decided not to come in and asked one of the counter staff to collect the keys. Unfortunately, the man who picked up the key turned up with only one key! The door needed two keys—so he had to go off again to collect another key! I had to go off to work dripping wet and no pension. The Post Office apparently opened at 10 am.

Surely this makes a strong case for re-opening the Post Office at Tilling Green?”

Mrs. Mary Jenner wrote and said:

“I wrote to you earlier in the year regarding the disgraceful closure of Tilling Green Post Office, which of course, as we all know, happened. How can this be justified, when the main Post Office in Rye has not been open today, and the notice in the window says ‘closed until further notice’? My 87-year-old Mother walked to the post office for various reasons, to find doors locked and telling her that the nearest post office was Winchelsea. Someone needs to give a few answers to this appalling state of affairs.”

Why do my constituents find themselves in that situation? The problem is that the Post Office plan was flawed from the very beginning, because it failed to take account of the many, not the few. I understand why some far-distant rural offices have been subsidised by thousands of pounds, but we need to recognise that the consequence has been that post offices in semi-urban areas, such as Tilling Green, have been closed, despite the need for only a small subsidy.

Nearly 1,000 people have been inconvenienced, so that a service can be provided for a few score. Nearly 1,000 people who are in the main deprived, disabled and elderly have been sacrificed, so that a few people can maintain their rural outlets, to which most of them drive anyway.

There is a democratic deficit in the decision-making process of the Post Office organisation. The whole system is wrong, and we should never have agreed to it. As a Member of Parliament for the past 12 years, I have become increasingly troubled by the inability of elected representatives to effect the wishes of their constituents and Rye post office has been a prime example of that impotence. In the years to come, we do not want to have to say, “We were only following postal orders,” but that is the way that it feels.

The service belongs to the public, not to Post Office Ltd. I have told my right hon. Friend the Minister before and will say again that we as a Government can delegate decisions, but we cannot delegate responsibility, and the anger that remains about the decisions of the Post Office will continue to remain and we will be blamed.

This cloud may yet have a silver lining. In the past few weeks, the Post Office management has said that it has found an alternative site in Rye, within the local Jempsons-Budgens supermarket, that will provide a comprehensive service with disabled facilities and adequate parking. Mr. Stephen Jempson is an experienced postmaster and is apparently prepared to invest £2 million in a new facility, incorporating a new in-store post office. That is great news, and I wish the proposal well, and if it comes to fruition, good—but even if it does, Tilling Green residents will still be disadvantaged, and the town still needs a back-up should anything go wrong.

As a Government we need to recognise the anger and concern of so many people about what some regard as the abdication of decision making to the Post Office. It is not good enough that we are better than the Tories. That is easy. We need to be listening, and people need to listen to those who are elected to tell the story. If we took back control, perhaps listening politicians would make better decisions.

I hope very much that my right hon. Friend will study the Rye case carefully, for at every turn in the past, decisions have been wrong. Simply put, the Rye debacle is a master-class in how not to do things. I hope, even at this stage, that he will ask Post Office services to look yet again at the need for an outlet in Tilling Green and beyond and that we can learn from the mistakes.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) on securing this debate on post offices in Rye. I know that he cares passionately about post office services. He is an excellent constituency MP, and he campaigns assiduously on behalf of the people of Hastings and Rye, not only on this issue but across the board.

It is not the first time that we have debated the issue. There was an Adjournment debate just over a year ago about post office services in his constituency. I hope that my hon. Friend would agree that we are in a somewhat different position now. The network change programme has drawn to a close. Post Office Ltd has been awarded the new contract for the card account for pensions and benefits. That will help to secure the network of around 11,500 branches. As he said, the Government have committed to a subsidy of £150 million a year over the coming years, which means that the Post Office can look forward to a period of greater stability than it has had for some time.

My hon. Friend’s concerns, quite fairly, relate to the provision of post office services in his constituency, and Rye in particular. He is particularly concerned about recent events affecting the service at Rye post office. We have corresponded on the subject, and he has had extensive contact with the management of Post Office Ltd on the issue.

Post office services in Rye have certainly been disrupted a number of times in recent months. I appreciate that that has caused concern and frustration to my hon. Friend and, even more importantly, to his constituents. As he will know, there were problems between Post Office Ltd and a former sub-postmaster, which resulted in temporary provision outwith the usual location. Of course, that caused confusion and a degree of frustration to local people, but I believe that Post Office Ltd did what it could to ensure continuity of service. However, I accept that that was not ideal for his constituents, and that a permanent solution has to be found in Rye.

As my hon. Friend has made clear, throughout the period, he has assiduously pursued with Post Office Ltd his concerns about how the issue was handled, and about the continuity of service for his constituents in Rye and in nearby Tilling Green. I do not want to repeat the debate that we had last year about the network change programme and the closures in his constituency, but I want to put it on record that following that debate, and the closures in his constituency, Post Office Ltd picked one of the locations in his constituency to pilot a new service, Post Office Essentials, which is a lower-cost way of providing post office services. Of course, it is early days for that service, but I understand that so far it appears to be working well. We will monitor that model closely to see whether it might be applicable more widely, in other locations.

Let me return to the situation in the post office in Rye. In essence, the Rye post office was run on the same premises by a temporary sub-postmaster on behalf of Post Office Ltd throughout the period in question, until Friday 6 February this year. As a result of rapidly escalating concerns about continued access to the post office premises—my hon. Friend referred to some of those concerns in his speech—Post Office Ltd took the decision to close the office at 3 pm on a Friday afternoon to remove cash and stock and vacate the building. As a result, no post office service was available in Rye on the Saturday morning. However, by the next working day, Monday 9 February, Post Office Ltd had been able to establish an interim post office service in a nearby vacant shop. That interim branch was open for 42 hours a week until more suitable temporary arrangements could be established.

By 21 February, two days earlier than originally scheduled, a three-counter position branch had opened, providing service from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm Monday to Friday and 8.30 am to 1 pm on Saturdays under the management of a new sub-postmaster. More importantly, work was also being done to identify a longer-term solution to post office services in Rye. Subject to local consultation and resolution of a planning issue, it is planned to introduce a new state of the art post office in Rye as part of a £2 million redevelopment of Jempsons- Budgens supermarket.

My hon. Friend spoke with some frustration about the inability to influence events, and I appreciate that it has been a frustrating time for his constituents, but the new post office appears to offer a long-term solution and it is anticipated that it will be completed in about six months. That should provide a good post office service for the people of Rye, which both he and I want.

My hon. Friend has argued for the establishment of a Post Office Essentials service to replace the former post office provision in Tilling Green, akin to the Post Office Essentials service that exists elsewhere in his constituency at Old Town in Hastings. As I said, that is a lower-cost model of delivering core post office services—perhaps not every service, but most of the commonly used services—which is being piloted in both urban and rural areas. I understand that Post Office Ltd has looked carefully at that suggestion but believes that it could adversely impact on the viability of the new post office at Rye, and in particular on the business plans on which the development of the new, improved post office facility is based.

I always tread carefully at this point in Adjournment debates because I am not familiar with the local geography, and obviously my hon. Friend knows his constituency very well. I understand that distance does not tell us everything, and that communities can be distinct, but I am told that Rye post office is little over 0.6 of a mile from Tilling Green and that there is a bus service between the two locations. One of the difficult decisions that Post Office Ltd will have to make when deciding the provision of service is the viability of the existing post office network.

That was the reason behind the National Federation of SubPostmasters’ acceptance, albeit with reluctance, of the closures over the past year. It understood that the number of post offices in existence a couple of years ago simply did not have enough work in the face of changing lifestyles and a reduction of custom of some 5 million customers a week to sustain those branches. The viability of existing post offices or, in this case, planned future post offices affects the decision. I hope that the new post office planned for the Jempsons store will provide a long-term solution.

As my hon. Friend said, the Government are in the midst of providing £1.7 billion to support the post office network over 2006-11. We do that because we do not believe that that is a purely commercial network. If it ran as a purely commercial network, instead of 11,500 branches we would probably have closer to 4,000 branches. We will continue to subsidise this socially and economically important network right up until 2011. Although I cannot commit to numbers beyond that, I believe the social value of the post office and the Government’s recognition of that will continue beyond that date.

As the network change programme draws to a close, we are able to ensure greater stability for the post office network, with the card account decision having been taken and new Government services such as the savings gateway being available through the post office. There is an appetite to secure new services for the Post Office that may not have been there in the past. Part of that is down to the post office network’s reaching out and developing new services; today, in fact, we have been discussing an expansion in banking and financial services for the Post Office. That could bring significant new custom to post office branches.

I cannot say yes to my hon. Friend’s proposal for Tilling Green. Post Office Ltd has considered it, and it was happy to support the Post Office Essentials service elsewhere in his constituency. I hope that the new provision planned for the Jempsons Budgens store in Rye offers a long-term solution. I understand that there has been a lack of continuity in the services for the constituents of Rye in recent months. We do not, of course, want that to continue; we want a more permanent solution. It seems as if the plans are now in place and I believe that that will make a difference to post office services in his constituency, give local people the continuity of service that they reasonably expect and offer greater satisfaction, for which he has campaigned skilfully and determinedly in recent years.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.