Skip to main content

Torphichen Sub-Post Office (Closure)

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012

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

The reason why I have called for this Adjournment debate is to warn all Members of the House that what happened to the sub-post office in the village of Torphichen could happen in every constituency in the UK, and is likely to do so, given the plans of the Post Office.

I should like to draw a timeline for the House. At the time of the last review of the post office network there was no proposal to close Torphichen sub-post office. In my constituency there were a number of closures in very small villages with very small numbers of post office users. However, Torphichen is a village of over 600 residents living in over 300 dwellings. It is a very well-known heritage village where the priory of the Order of St John was founded after the knights left the Holy Land, and it is visited a great deal by tourists passing through West Lothian on their way to Linlithgow palace, where Mary, Queen of Scots was born. The village’s natural attractiveness makes it very popular with people who want to buy houses and commute into Edinburgh. It is not a village with a down-at-heel population who have very little use for a post office. Moreover, it has many elderly residents.

On 2 November 2011 the most recent postmaster, who had not been a shopkeeper before and had been renting the premises for some nine months, decided to give up the premises, stop being a shopkeeper and give up the licence at the same time. The person who previously ran the post office and very popular shop—the only shop in the village—had done so for a long time. That is the crucial point. It is the post office that has sustained the village shop for many years, as do many post offices in communities across the shires of England and the counties of Scotland.

On 8 November Post Office Ltd sent a letter under the name of Brian Turnbull, the change manager, to MPs, MSPs and local authorities saying that there had been a temporary closure. It put an apology for the temporary closure on the window of the shop. Interestingly, I believe that that is the same Brian Turnbull who used to be the manager of the post office in Bathgate, who got me and my constituency party to campaign for some years to keep his post office open. When his Crown post office shut, all the people who worked there got their books and were made redundant. Obviously he then got taken on to carry out the same task in other areas.

The odd thing about the letter was that it was written from an address in St Albans. It referred to a couple of telephone numbers, but when I called them I heard things like, “Press 1 if you want this, press 2 if you want that, or press 3 if you want nothing.” The website that the letter referred to was just a general website with nothing at all about what was happening to Torphichen post office. There was no way of communicating.

In the past, the network manager for Scotland would have had the courtesy to phone the Member of Parliament, because this is a reserved matter. They would have spoken to the Member of Parliament and involved them in any difficulties, temporary closures, or proposals for changes or for a reopening. That has always been the case until now. The new network manager for Scotland, Ms Sally Buchanan, did not take the trouble to do that. In fact, we had to search out her telephone number so that we could contact her.

Ms Buchanan had been contacted by Neil Findlay, the adept MSP for Lothian. He contacted the address in Edinburgh and received a reply on 21 November. The reply was interesting because it said that the Post Office had done modelling. I do not know when it had found the time to do that modelling between 2 and 8 November. Having done the modelling, it had decided that the Post Office Local option, which was mentioned when we debated the Postal Services Act 2011, would be best for that property.

We discovered that, despite the fact that somebody in the village had approached the owner of the post office building and offered to buy it, the Post Office had got the key from the previous owner and stripped out all the security that a normal sub-post office has. For some reason it drilled holes in the safe so that it could no longer be used to store money. When I challenged the Post Office on that matter, the reply was:

“That we removed the Post Office owned equipment, including the computer system, from the premises is not indicative of future service arrangements; it is normal practice for us to recover our property where there is any doubt over our ability to have continued access to the premises.”

As I wrote to the Minister and the head of Post Office Ltd, Ms Vennells, it is quite clear that this was an act of vandalism by the Post Office. I can see the point of taking out the computer, but not of ripping out all the security that a normal sub-post office uses. It is clear that the Post Office had taken the decision to downgrade the sub-post office without any consultation with the public.

I have never had to put up with anything like that. I do not think that any Member from any part of the House or from any party would find that acceptable. I certainly would not have found it acceptable in the past and did not expect it to happen in this case.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am a neighbouring Member, representing Livingston in West Lothian, and I am therefore well aware of the community to which he refers. He said that there was no consultation with the community and little consultation with him as an elected Member of Parliament. Is it not the case that the code of practice for the post office network requires full and meaningful public consultation if any changes to particular post offices and sub-post offices are to be made?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention because I am about to come on to that subject. The code of practice was attached to the original circular that was sent to MPs and MSPs. The Post Office apologised for the inconvenience of the temporary closure and attached to every circular its code of practice, which states:

“We’ll let you know about any change as soon as we possibly can. Sometimes, change is out of our control, but we’ll try to keep you as up-to-date about what’s happening as much as we can. We try to make sure you have 4 weeks’ notice before anything happens. If we’re going to make big changes, there’ll be a ‘consultation period’ which lasts about 6 weeks.”

I can verify that ripping out the equipment happened within days of the Post Office finding out that the closure had taken place.

From then on, it was clear that the Post Office had immediately been contacted by someone in the village who wished to purchase the building and reopen the post office—Miss Oonagh Shackleton and her partner Ian Jamieson, who run a very good manufacturing company in another village. They were keen to give the shop back to the village, and they talked to the Post Office immediately. We also know that the shop’s previous owner, Mussarat Aziz, who had been the sub-postmistress and was also the sub-postmistress in Boghall in Bathgate in another part of my constituency, was approached by the Post Office to ascertain whether she would take over the post office temporarily and run it as a sub-post office. On the one hand, the Post Office was saying that it wanted to keep the sub-post office going, and on the other hand, it had been approached by someone who wanted to do a similar thing.

At the public meeting that we held in the village, Oonagh Shackleton said that she had a business plan, which included financing a sub-post office. In the agreement that we had when the post office network review took place, the money that the Government gave the Post Office included money for running a sub-post office in Torphichen. The money had not been taken away or withdrawn, and it was therefore assumed that it would be available. However, for some mysterious reason that point was never confirmed to Oonagh Shackleton. She decided that she wanted to open the shop in the village again anyway, and she went ahead and purchased it.

However, now that all the security has been torn out, we are told that Mr Brian Turnbull says that if we want a post office service of any kind in that shop in the village, we can have only a Post Office Local. I call that blackmail. All that stuff about removing the equipment not meaning that the Post Office had changed its mind is clearly a bluff.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment at what has happened to his post office. In four locations in Northern Ireland—Ballyhalbert, Portavogie, Cloughey and Kircubbin—all the changes were made with consultation and a time scale for the changeover. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there should be a successful transition period before the handover, so that everything runs smoothly, and to stop debacles such as that in his constituency?

I totally agree. Every hon. Member would expect that. I am sure that the Minister would expect it in his constituency. We would expect the Post Office to say, “We have a closed shop and someone who might want to buy it. We’ll consult the public on what kind of set-up they want, and support the shop on the basis that previously existed.” That would have been sensible.

The Post Office’s precipitate action was driven presumably by a policy from above to drive down the level of service—that is what happens with Post Office Local. The Post Office probably now finds that action irreversible —or perhaps it acted deliberately to ensure that the action was irreversible.

If people consult Hansard, they will find that when we debated the Postal Services Act 2011 and heard talk of Post Office Local, I informed the House that I had had in my constituency its forerunner, which was called post office essentials. The shopkeeper who took that on board eventually after six months decided that it was not worth the trouble, because of a number of things. The shopkeeper of a Post Office Local has to provide all financing out of their own pocket; no money comes from the Post Office in advance. The Post Office will tell people that it might give them a loan in the interim to see them over to the point when they are viable, but in reality, financing for a Post Office Local—or a post office essential, as it was called—comes out of the pocket of the shopkeeper.

Another problem for the shopkeeper was that people could come in and say that he had kept their pension for five or six weeks and they would like to have it because they were going on holiday: they would be asking for £500, £600, £700 or £800. Small shopkeepers do not keep that kind of money in their shop, so the shopkeeper who ran the post office essential in Linlithgow Bridge in my constituency told me that he had to say to people, “I’m sorry. I can’t supply that kind of money. I can’t shut the shop to go to the bank, so you’ll have to go to the main post office,” which was at the other end of town. Of course, people then started saying, “What good are you?” and he started to lose customers. In fact, he decided it was not worth the trouble to have a post office essential.

That was in a town environment, but if it happened in Torphichen, and if people found that they were not using the shop because they were not getting the service, and that they had to go to the main post offices in other towns to get large sums of money, I believe the shop would become unviable, close and be turned into a house. I have seen that happen again and again in villages that have lost their post office.

The shop will be taken away from the village if the proposals do not succeed. The people who offered to open the shop in the belief that they would get a sub-postmaster’s salary, get money delivered by the Post Office securely, and have a safe, secure and insured transit of money, find those things denied to them by Post Office Local. It is a travesty that that has gone ahead, and everything I have had from the Post Office, right up to Miss Vennells, and sadly from Ministers, who have just copied letters coming from the Post Office, does not stand up to scrutiny.

I want to end with a couple of things that make me think this is not just happening in this village. I wrote to Miss Paula Vennells, the chief executive of Post Office Ltd, on 3 February, asking:

“Who took the decision to take out the Sub Post Office infrastructure?...Who decided not to re-open the Sub Post Office but to re-brand/re-offer a Post Office Local to the new owner of the Torphichen Sub Post Office?”

No reply has been heard from the Post Office since then.

We discover that the Post Office proposal, when we discussed the Bill, was to have new operating models—that is what they are called—in 50% of its branch network. Post Office Ltd’s own plans say that at least 2,000 branches will be converted to the new local operating model. That is potentially four sub-post offices in the constituency of every Member in the House. This debate is about that happening in a precipitate manner.

We have tabled early-day motion 2841 calling for a moratorium on the use of the Post Office Local model. As I have said, the post office essential model is not much different. Shopkeepers do not get parcels, and there are limits on the amount of benefits that can be drawn from the shops, because people draw them on the resources of the person who is running the post-office local, or sub-post office.

I am asking the Minister to look again at what has happened in Torphichen, and to say to the Post Office that it has not consulted properly or used its own agreement. It has not yet had a public meeting in the village. We took letters to the community council because nothing has been written to people in the village. Post Office Ltd is secretly badgering the person who has bought the post office to take a Post Office Local. It is saying, “If you don’t take a local, the village will be most upset because they haven’t got post office services. You’ll get no help or money from us, and you’ll get such a miserly sum for every transaction that it really won’t be worth your while, but you’ll have to take it or the village will blame you”—the person who rescues the shop—rather than the Post Office, which deserves to be blamed.

I hope the Minister will look seriously at this situation. The Government might say, “We can’t interfere; this is a commercial matter,” but this is such a breach of the Post Office’s own rules and practices. Will the Government say to their Back Benchers and to Opposition Members that that new model is acceptable? I hope not.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) on securing this debate. Adjournment debates are an important opportunity for Members to raise issues of importance to their own constituencies. He has taken that opportunity, and I applaud him for doing so. He has been passionate in pursuing this issue. As a Member representing a rural constituency, I agree with him about the importance of maintaining the rural sub-post office network, and I welcome the opportunity to respond to the concerns reflected in a petition to Parliament from the residents of Torphichen, which, I am told, is a very beautiful village.

The hon. Gentleman spoke passionately about the importance of the post office in Torphichen and about its future. It is a matter he has written to me about, so I have some understanding of his concerns. I think back, however, to the extensive debates in the House, to which he referred, on the Postal Services Act 2011, which was passed last July. He will remember that he opposed the Act, not withstanding its clear objectives, which were to secure the future of the universal postal service and, critically in this context, to secure the future of the post office network. As I said, I care passionately about achieving that.

I shall briefly reiterate, for the record, the commitments to the future of the post office network made by my predecessor as postal affairs Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey). It is important to do so, because the Government’s commitments are particularly relevant to the situation at Torphichen. Over the course of this Parliament, we will provide £1.34 billion of funding to secure the long-term and sustainable future of the post office network. That will be achieved through investment to modernise about 6,000 post offices, improving them for the future while continuing to provide funding to maintain a network of at least 11,500 post office branches.

Alongside that was the fundamental commitment that there would be no programme of post office closures. That is important to this debate and the situation in Torphichen in particular. As I explained in my correspondence with the hon. Gentleman, Torphichen post office temporarily closed—he made that point—last November, following the resignation of the previous sub-postmaster with immediate effect. That is really important. Those two words—“immediate” and “temporary” —are significant. Normally, when a sub-postmaster wishes to resign, they are obliged under the terms of their contract to give Post Office Ltd three months’ notice to enable the Post Office to identify a new sub-postmaster or mistress and, if necessary, nearby premises from which post office services can continue to be provided.

I understand that the previous sub-postmaster at Torphichen resigned with immediate effect, so Post Office Ltd had no opportunity to ensure a proper and timely transition of service in the community without a break in service. That was the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Of course, ideally, we would seek to achieve a smooth transition from one sub-postmaster or mistress to another, but that is simply impossible where the sub-postmaster resigns with immediate effect.

In the light of what has happened—I am sure that there are many other examples across the United Kingdom—is it not time that post offices put in place a system whereby they have someone on standby who can fill in as a changeover takes place? Is that something that the Minister would consider?

The problem is that we are dealing with private businesses. Most sub-post offices are owned individually as private businesses, so it would be difficult to put in place a network of people who are immediately available perhaps to move into premises that are privately owned and not accessible to a third party. The emphasis is on trying to get as smooth a transition as possible, but obviously there are real difficulties when someone walks out without giving any notice. I absolutely sympathise with the concerns of the people of Torphichen, who have been suddenly confronted with the loss of a really important service and who obviously fear for its future. I completely understand that concern.

As a result, the post office in Torphichen has been closed temporarily since 2 November last year. A temporary closure is exactly that: temporary—closed for a limited period while Post Office Ltd seeks to identify a new sub-postmaster to restore services. Where a temporary closure occurs, it is obviously preferable that it lasts as short a time as possible. I understand that in the majority of the 602 cases over the last nine months where a sub-postmaster has chosen to leave the network—whether because they are retiring or moving elsewhere, or for other reasons—there has been a seamless transition between the outgoing and incoming sub-postmasters, with no break in service for the post office’s customers. However, that cannot necessarily happen in all cases.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk used the term “downgrade”. Let me address that concern. There was no decision to downgrade the Torphichen post office. He talked about the removal of security equipment, so let me deal with that. I have noted his concern, but I should explain that where a sub-post office temporarily closes, the temporary removal of valuable Post Office-owned equipment for safe storage should not be misinterpreted, or otherwise misconstrued, as suggesting that post office services will be permanently removed or downgraded; rather, it is purely to ensure the safekeeping of equipment. It is standard practice until such time as the equipment can be reinstalled.

As the representative of a rural constituency, I fully understand the considerable distress and inconvenience that the closure of any post office causes to a community. That is why I am so delighted to be in a position to say that this Government are investing in the post office network, not spending large sums of taxpayers’ money closing it. I am well aware of the inconvenience that the temporary closure of Torphichen post office is causing the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but I can give him this reassurance. Post Office Ltd has not considered the permanent closure of Torphichen post office, and is actively engaged in measures to re-establish the post office service there.

I hope that the Minister will accept what I said before, and what I will say again: the Post Office is badgering the person who has bought the shop —they own it—to take only the Post Office Local option, which is all that it is offering. There is no equipment going back in, no security going back in and no safe going back—it was taken out for scrap. The Post Office had already made the decision when it wrote to the MSP for Lothian on 21 November that it would offer only a Post Office Local—no consultation; no consideration of keeping the sub-post office. How can that be justified by anyone? All the money that is being spent on the Post Office will not be spent in Torphichen.

The hon. Gentleman uses the term “badgering”. My understanding from the explanation I have received is that discussions are continuing and that the owner of the shop is keen to provide post office services. There has not yet been a conclusion to those discussions, but I think there is optimism that a successful conclusion will be reached.

I want to deal with this issue, because it clearly concerns the hon. Gentleman, and I want to address his concerns properly. I have noted his comments about the future of the post office, and in particular his concerns about the Post Office Local model. Given the importance of the post office network, both the Government and Post Office Ltd have invested a great deal of time and energy to ensure that the future strategy for the Post Office strikes a balance between providing a fair income for sub-postmasters and ensuring that Post Office Ltd is financially sustainable. Both elements of the strategy are underpinned by the commitment to maintaining the network at its current size, with a focus on providing improved service for the Post Office’s customers. The Post Office Local is an important element of the strategy. It offers genuine benefits and opportunities for the sub-postmaster, for the company and also, critically, for customers.

The hon. Gentleman says, “Rubbish,” but let me develop my argument. The Post Office Local model has been extensively piloted over the last year. It is now operational in more than 150 locations. Critically, where it is being piloted, customers—the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in Torphichen—are reporting high levels of satisfaction, and operators are seeing more sales and are benefiting from greater flexibility.

When we look in detail at the Post Office Local model and at the independent research that has been conducted, the reasons for high levels of customer satisfaction become apparent. Not only are post offices staying in communities, but they are offering access to the vast majority of post office services—95% of the transactions that typically account for customer visits across the network—during much longer opening hours.

That is really important. In the past, the service to customers has often been constrained by limited opening hours. With the Post Office Local model, a post office can remain open for as long as the shop is open. That makes it much more convenient for people to obtain those services in an evening, for example, if that suits their working habits. That will mean that more people will use the post office’s services in their local sub-post office. So far, the evidence is that sales have gone up by 9% in those Post Office Local models. Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses are reporting their own satisfaction with the model. So customers and sub-postmasters support the model in the vast majority of cases.

The Minister mentioned the discussions that had taken place on the move to the Post Office Local model. Presumably, those were internal discussions within the post office network. Has there been any public consultation involving local communities on the issue?

Let me deal with the consultation and with the issue of compliance with the code of practice. I know that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has expressed concern that the code has not been complied with, and I note that concern. The code of practice that was agreed between Consumer Focus and Post Office Ltd governs changes in the post office network, and it has to be followed. I see from the hon. Gentleman’s letters to me that Post Office Ltd wrote to him on 8 November to explain why the branch had closed and to say that the company would

“work to find a solution that will provide a post office service to the Torphichen community.”

The code of practice contains details of when and why a consultation will be held. In the case of a temporary closure—which this is—such as that caused by the sudden resignation of the previous sub-postmaster, the code states:

“We will aim to restore the quickly as possible. As such, and given the emphasis on speed of activity to ensure the service interruption is as temporary as possible, this would not be a matter for public consultation—rather it is an issue of effective communication to keep customers informed.”

That is why a letter was sent to the hon. Gentleman very soon after the closure occurred.

As I have made clear in my correspondence with the hon. Gentleman on this matter, the benefits of the local model far outweigh the reduction in the availability of a very small number of services. He might not take much comfort from my words on this matter, but I hope that he will recognise that many sub-postmasters, old and new—potentially including those in his constituency—see the benefits of the Post Office Local model. Given what has happened in the 150 pilots that have been conducted over the past year, and given the very high levels of customer satisfaction that have been reported, I ask him to keep an open mind and to reflect on the fact that, if customers in other branches that have been piloted over the past year have responded so enthusiastically, it might just be that his own constituents in Torphichen would respond positively to a Post Office Local in that community.

But the Minister must accept that if the Post Office Local model does not provide an adequate income stream for the business model of the person who has bought the shop, and if the shop closes because of inadequate footfall in the village, it will be because there is inadequate supporting income, given the miserly payments from Post Office Local to the people who run them. If that were to happen, the Minister would be responsible for shutting that shop. He will see from the petition and the letters and notes sent by the people in the village that the village was dead during the period in which the shop was not open. No one was traversing the high street, and people were not talking to each other as they had no place to meet. If that happens again, the Minister will be responsible.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that warning. I come back—[Interruption.] That sort of abuse is surely unnecessary.

Given that the pilots pursued over the last year have proved so successful—both for sub-postmasters and for customers—I repeat that the hon. Gentleman should have an open mind to the possibility that this might work in his community. I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about footfall. That is why the discussions are continuing—to see whether this will work in that particular location. As I say, the pilots elsewhere have proved to be highly successful, so it is important to be open-minded.

I understand that the Post Office is holding the commercial discussions with the interested party in Torphichen, who is keen to provide post office services in the community. Crucially, a particular interest was expressed in the Post Office Local model—perhaps because of the flexibility it offers and its popularity with customers.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that there should be a moratorium, but given that this model has been so successful and so popular, it would surely be disastrous to stop it. We all have a common goal in ensuring the sustainability of the post office network. Given the quite dramatic decline in footfall over the last decade, things have to change; we have to find new ways of attracting people into the shop. One attractive aspect of the local model, as I have said, is the fact that opening hours are so much longer. That is an attractive prospect for customers in Torphichen, as elsewhere.

My Department has received many letters from the residents of Torphichen about the future of the post office, with many also signing the petition calling for its reopening, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I can tell him that that is very encouraging, because if everyone who signed the petition were to visit the new post office on a weekly basis, its business would be increased by over 50% on previous levels. If we can get agreement with the shop owner and the post office service is resumed, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do all he can to encourage customers in the local community to use the facility.

Before I finish, let me reiterate the fact that the hon. Gentleman’s assumption that this is all about downgrading or closure is simply not the case. If we are confronted with someone walking out on a business, giving literally no notice, a temporary closure is inevitable, as I explained. Everything is being done to try to make sure that the service is resumed as quickly as possible for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I thank him for raising this issue and for presenting me with the opportunity to reassure him and his constituents that steps to restore post office services in Torphichen are being actively pursued as a matter of priority.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.