[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered post offices in Wales.
It is a real pleasure to have you here speaking your excellent Welsh on this fine September day, Mr Hollobone, and to speak to you and to those assembled on the issue of post offices in Wales. As constituency MPs, we all know this is a matter of great importance to the people we represent.
It is important at the outset to recall that post offices are a great public institution and that they remain a public institution. There is a deal of confusion at the present time about the various statuses of Royal Mail, post offices and so on following the privatisation of Royal Mail, but the Post Office is, of course, still a public institution that is fundamentally owned and run by the Government. It is for that reason that I feel particularly animated by events occurring in Wrexham at the present time relating to our post office. Not just in Wrexham but across Wales, various proposals are being put forward that affect access to post offices for the people we represent.
As those of us who have been here for a number of years know, a number of bright ideas concerning post offices have led to reorganisations and various moves of post offices in recent years. As someone who bears the scars of the reorganisation that took place under the last Labour Government, I can point out that I opposed a number of closures locally. I regretted them then and regret them now, but they were taken forward by the Labour Government before 2010.
This particular case in Wrexham has animated me even more than those moves before 2010 because I think it is very important that all of our constituents should have access to a post office. That is not just my view; it is also the view of the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). I wrote to her concerning this issue and she said in her reply:
“Facilities and services that need to be accessible to a wide spread of the general public, such as Post Offices, should ideally be located at ground floor level.”
Following a move of the post office in Wrexham town centre a number of years ago to a site in a pedestrianised area of the Post Office’s choosing, which the Post Office initiated, it has now decided it wishes to leave. It has moved a distance of only some 200 metres or so to another premises within Wrexham town centre. My main concern is that those premises are at first floor level and are situated within another shop—WHSmith—and are accessible to those who cannot go up the stairs only by a single lift at the rear of the premises. Quite simply, access arrangements for the post office are now much more difficult than previously, particularly for those who are disabled. I think, in the 21st century, that that is fundamentally wrong.
The post office and WHSmith staff who have dealt with me on this issue have been courteous throughout, both with me and with those I represent, but they cannot change the fact that the decision is fundamentally wrong. We have gone through a process that has been called a “consultation”. I was notified at the beginning of the summer that the move was going to take place and asked if I wanted to make any representations, which I did in writing as well as by meeting with representatives of the Post Office to express my strong disquiet that the premises was being moved to a first floor. Notwithstanding the strong views I expressed, I received no indication whatever that there would be any change of view.
I was also contacted by a number of my constituents through our excellent local voluntary organisation—the Association of Voluntary Organisations in Wrexham. I met with the disability access group in Wrexham and we discussed our concerns about the move. AVOW runs a Shopmobility project within Wrexham and has a number of clients that regularly use Shopmobility scooters to facilitate access within Wrexham town centre. Those Shopmobility scooters can be quite bulky on occasion and are often used by some of the most disabled members of our society. There was particular concern about moving around the store using scooters and the accessibility of the lift to get to the post office.
We arranged a site visit to the post office with the disability access group and, again, the post office and WHSmith staff were very helpful in organising the visit and were helpful and courteous throughout. I attended the store before the new post office premises opened with one of my constituents who uses a wheelchair, two other constituents who were using Shopmobility scooters and a number of other disabled constituents. We negotiated our way through the ground floor of the store to gain access to the lift and, one by one, the constituents were able to go into the lift—only one could go in at a time—and go up to the first floor to inspect the post office premises.
It was difficult for a number of my constituents to negotiate their way through the store downstairs to get to the lift, which is not very large and can hold only one person. Frankly, I was ashamed when I went to the store and saw how difficult it was for the individuals concerned to gain access to the post office. This is a post office that has always been on the ground floor in Wrexham town centre and has been moved by the Post Office, presumably for commercial reasons, to its new premises.
Within Wrexham town centre, like many other town centres nowadays, there are a number of empty ground floor premises. The previous post office premises and the current one are only 150 to 200 metres apart, and a number of ground floor premises are available for use as a post office, but that has been rejected by the Post Office.
I apologise for coming late to the debate, Mr Hollobone; I was held up a little bit. My hon. Friend from Wrexham raises a pertinent point. In Pontllanfraith in my constituency we are losing our post office; a campaign has been set up by councillors Gez Kirby, Mike Adams and Colin Gordon and it has attracted over 300 names. The real issue we have is that there is a lack of commercial help from the Post Office. When the sub-postmaster finds that business is slow, the Post Office needs to come in and give ideas on how to improve the business. Another post office in the constituency has come to me to say it is having serious problems. Having seen the post office move to a first floor in Wrexham, does my hon. Friend recognise that the post offices perhaps need to take a more commercial approach to their business?
I would like the post office in Wrexham, as a public institution, to contribute to the local economy. It is a Crown post office in Wrexham, and it is the main post office. In fact, it is now the only post office in the town centre of Wrexham, which is the largest town in Wales. The post office is taking business rates away from the local economy, because it has gone upstairs into another store that is already occupied by a WHSmith and is not paying business rates on a separate premises. So less income is coming into the town as a result of this decision. Furthermore, it is treating disabled people with a lack of respect by insisting that they go to a first-floor premises to avail themselves of services that we all take for granted.
There are relevant pieces of legislation relating to disability. I have no doubt that this particular example is legal, but there is no doubt either—I have seen it for myself—that these arrangements are much more difficult for disabled people than those that existed previously. I felt so ashamed when I went on the site inspection that we have a post office in this day and age insisting, for its own commercial reasons, on moving the premises to the first floor when ground-floor premises are available in other parts of the town. That is disrespectful to disabled people and not something that any Government organisation should be doing in this day and age.
I have made that position very clear to the Post Office, and I am pleased that the Minister for Disabled People has made clear her view that post office premises should be on the ground floor. I find it extraordinary that I even have to say that. It comes to something when a commercial decision of that type is made in a society where we should be treating all our constituents and all the people we represent with equal respect. I know that the Post Office is considering shifting various post offices to first-floor premises in other parts of the country, for commercial reasons. It is very important that a strong message is sent to the Post Office that it is not acceptable so to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I face similar concerns in my constituency about proposals to move the location of post offices. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the Post Office pays due notice to the consultation process? It is imperative also that the views of local communities in these situations are taken on board and not disregarded.
Indeed. There is no doubt that my constituents, particularly those who are disabled, feel very strongly about this issue. They have visited the post office on a number of occasions to make clear their views. They have supported me in the protestations I have put forward, and I will continue to put them forward, because I want the post office in Wrexham back on the ground floor. I also want the Post Office to give a commitment that it will not allow post office premises to be constructed on the first floor when ground-floor premises are available.
I am ashamed that I have to make those points to the Post Office; it should be using ground floor premises in any event. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me the assurance that I want to relay to my disabled constituents—that they will be treated with equal respect, despite the fact that they are disabled.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, on this very warm September day. May I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) for securing this debate? This is an important issue that affects all of us in Wales and in other parts of the country. We all recognise that post offices are an important part of civic life and provide a service that is invaluable to many of our constituents. May I also pay tribute to him for not being partisan in his opening comments? He acknowledged not only a rebellion between 2001 and 2010, when a significant number of post offices were closed, but that the reduction was unfortunate—and, indeed, possibly a mistake.
From a general perspective, it is important to point out that there has been significant stability in the post office network throughout the United Kingdom since 2010. This Government have committed to have 11,500 post offices within the post office network—a figure that has been maintained—with an investment of some £2 billion between 2010 and 2020. That is a significant public investment in the post office network. Wales has seen a slight decline of some 4% in post office numbers since 2010, compared with a decline of 34% between 2001 and 2010.
In general terms, the aspiration to protect the post office network is something on which this Government and the previous coalition Government have come up to the plate and delivered. I believe that the aspiration to carry on protecting the network in a Welsh and UK context is shared by Members on both sides of the Chamber today. The overall picture is one of significant investment and, it should be stated, one of a reduction in the subsidy required to maintain that network.
I hear what the Minister is saying, and it is good news that we all share the same aspiration to save post offices where we can. When postmasters come to me and say that their post office is under threat, the major issue is business rates. Have the Government looked at any ways of reducing business rates specifically for post offices?
Clearly, business rates will vary from business to business, depending upon the area. Certainly business rates are an issue for many small businesses in the Welsh context, and the Wales Office is very happy to raise with the Welsh Government the need to ensure that we have a structure in place that is beneficial to small businesses.
There is a commitment to protect community post offices and, indeed, to invest in modernising them to ensure that they provide a service for local communities. It is worth pointing out that where community post offices are lost, they are quite often replaced by a mobile service. In my constituency of Aberconwy, a number of rural villages are now served by a mobile post office service.
I will make only a brief intervention, as I know the Minister will want to answer the points raised by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). In relation to the recent reforms, one issue that has arisen is the designation of sub-post offices, especially in some rural communities. For instance, we have a fantastic post office in Llangadog, but it has lost its community post office status, which means a loss of around £8,000 a year in grant. It has been designated a post office local because there is another shop in the village that could offer different services. The Post Office is playing businesses off against one another. Does the Minister agree that it is time we had a look at that and worked to strengthen those community post offices, giving them the support they need to expand the services they offer?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. It is difficult for me to comment on the particular situation in the village he mentioned, but in terms of the overall picture, the commitment to community post offices has been strong. For example, where a community post office is transferred to new ownership, the community status is maintained. I am more than happy to take representations in written format in relation to the particular village in question, but it is difficult for me to comment at this point in time.
Out of courtesy to the hon. Member for Wrexham, I should say that, although this is a debate about post offices in Wales, his comments were primarily about disability access in Wrexham. I understand the situation there. I was in Wrexham last Friday morning, speaking to a business professionals group, and Wrexham is in a very interesting situation. It is a thriving town in many ways, but there have been a number of retail developments in parts of Wrexham that have changed the centre of gravity on the high street.
I know Wrexham fairly well, having been born in the vicinity a long time ago. The changes on Wrexham high street are a concern to the hon. Gentleman; I fully appreciate that. I am also well aware, from reading the north Wales papers that he has highlighted, of the number of empty premises in Wrexham. It is important to note that the post office in Wrexham remains a Crown post office. Unlike the many agreements with WHSmith, the post office is run by Post Office members of staff. It is hosted by WHSmith but remains an independent Crown post office.
The hon. Gentleman’s summary of how the public consultation took place is similar to that provided by my officials. There was a six-week consultation period, which is par for the course when there is a possibility of moving a Crown post office to new premises. There must be a plan in place for accessibility. I understand that fewer than 10% of such moves have resulted in a post office facility being on the first floor, but the hon. Gentleman said that any such move is unacceptable.
It is important to note that the Post Office works within its own guidelines. That ensures that there is an assessment of accessibility, and I am more than happy to share those guidelines with the hon. Gentleman if that would be helpful. In addition to following the guidelines, it is necessary to consult and to ensure that people with disabilities have an opportunity to see whether the facilities work, and I understand that the hon. Gentleman attended when that opportunity was afforded. He highlighted that he felt ashamed of what he saw. I am surprised that that disappointment was not reflected in the consultation process. His concerns were not fed back in the wider consultation process.
The question of whether there should ever be a post office on a first floor has been highlighted, and the accessibility issue includes accessibility in terms of the law and the guidelines. The Post Office assures me that on both counts that is the situation in Wrexham. I take fully on board the comments of the hon. Gentleman, but highlight the fact that the process has been followed in accordance with the Post Office’s guidelines and ensuring accessibility. The hon. Gentleman is clearly of the view that that is unacceptable, but his comments have been heard by the Post Office today.
I objected to the proposal. I visited the store the day before the post office was to open, which was after the decision had been made. Only at that point did I see what the arrangements were because they had not been constructed at the time of my initial objection. That is when I was ashamed of what I saw. It was the first time I had seen them.
I am grateful for that clarity and, again, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s comments will be noted.
I understand that since the post office relocated on 18 August, seven customer satisfaction feedback forms have been completed. All have been positive and, again, this issue has not been raised. In addition, it is worth pointing out that the early indications are that footfall at the new post office in Wrexham has increased and customer usage of the facility has increased. I stress that it has been open for only a month and I fully understand that these are early days. The hon. Gentleman still has his concerns but the initial feedback seems to be constructive and positive. I am not in any way ignoring the real concerns that he has raised, but the initial feedback seems to be quite positive.
I should highlight the fact that there is an alternative option in the post office in Wrexham; if someone is unable to access to the first floor facilities, there is a portable till point on the ground floor. That service is made available when any post office counter is on the first floor. I understand that during the month the post office has been operating from WHSmith in Wrexham, that portable facility has not been used, but it would be manned by post office counter staff from upstairs, not by anyone working for WHSmith downstairs. The service would be equivalent to that available upstairs, as would the training required.
It is important to have debates on situations such as that in Wrexham. It is crucial that a service provided to the general public and our electors by the Government with taxpayers’ support is debated in Westminster. We all have our concerns when we hear of post offices being relocated. I had a similar situation in the summer when the Crown post office in Llandudno was relocated to WHSmith, but on the ground floor.
I think I am right in saying that the main concern in Wrexham is not whether the service is of equivalent value or whether the same service is available. The real concern is accessibility. All I can offer the hon. Gentleman is my assurance that the Post Office has operated under its own guidelines and within the law. However, this opportunity to express some of his concerns and those raised by some of his constituents is the right use of this Chamber and ensures that the Post Office hears those concerns.
I turn to other comments that have been made. I emphasise that in general the Post Office is a success story in the Welsh context. We have an obligation to ensure that those services continue at a level that ensures that the needs of people in all parts of Wales are dealt with. It is worth pointing out that 90% of the post offices in Wales that are eligible for the modernisation programme have been through that process. That is a high and positive percentage. There are individual cases that cause concern to Members, but it is fair to say that the overall position is positive and we should be proud of it.
In addition, we should acknowledge the significant work that the Post Office has done to ensure that the provision of services is as good as it has been during a period when the subsidy paid by the Government has reduced considerably. We have a leaner, more efficient and more effective Post Office, yet there has been only a very small fall in the number of post offices operating in Wales since 2010.
I can offer no significant assurance to the hon. Gentleman about the situation in Wrexham, but I am sure we can share the Post Office guidelines with him. He can then discuss the provision in Wrexham and communicate the basis on which the process was undertaken to his constituents who are interested, and in some cases distressed, by the changes.