[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
I will call Gerald Jones to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. In accordance with the convention for 30-minutes debates, I am afraid there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up at the end.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the restoration of Post Office services in Treharris.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I am pleased to have secured this important debate on behalf of residents in Treharris. Figures from Citizens Advice show that almost half of all adults visit a post office at least once a month. Sadly, that has not been the case for my constituents in Treharris, as three years ago this month the post office closed. The community of over 8,000 people has had no access to the post office services that were established in the village for decades.
I have previously raised this issue with the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), who assured me that taxpayers’ money had been made available to Post Office Ltd. Despite that, Post Office Ltd has made no effort to restore a post office branch in Treharris, even though I understand that several parties have expressed interest in operating a service. Shamefully, the Post Office has left Treharris and many other communities across the UK in limbo, as it allows what was supposed to be a temporary branch closure to drag on indefinitely. Quite frankly, that is inexcusable.
I have been working closely with local councillors Gareth Richards, Ernie Galsworthy and Ian Thomas, and my Senedd colleague Dawn Bowden MS, all of whom have received representations from residents and businesses about the closure. Indeed, a petition launched less than six weeks ago has already secured almost 700 signatures from people who want a post office restored in Treharris, and it is not hard to understand why.
Until just a few years ago, Treharris was home to three major banks, all of which have now closed. The post office was a lifeline for residents and businesses. Treharris is still home to many businesses that have had to make alternative arrangements now, often at great inconvenience and cost. Glib suggestions by Post Office Ltd about using branches in Trelewis or Nelson fail to take account of issues such as low car ownership—around 30% of my constituents do not own a car—or the hour-long walk up steep hills to access the nearest post office. Public transport is sporadic, with a service once an hour at best. Long difficult walks and uncertain bus journeys—it appears Post Office Ltd has little understanding of the geography and topography of our area.
One local resident told me recently that they rely heavily on the post office service and budget their weekly bills using the cash they withdraw when they receive their pension. Over the past three years, they have had to make a weekly trip to Trelewis or Nelson to withdraw their pension, which involves taking half a day for a return bus journey and the added cost that entails. That is an unnecessary cost and an inconvenience that has a detrimental impact on many of my constituents.
In the three years since Treharris post office closed, there has been no attempt to provide mobile provision, and despite my office asking about that, no response has yet been given. Post Office Ltd’s own statement of principle says that it
“will provide an update to locally elected representatives if the status of the temporarily closed branch has not changed after 12 months.”
That did not happen.
Treharris is not alone in this situation; there is something very wrong with Britain’s post office network. Citizens Advice, the statutory consumer advocate for postal consumers, says in “Post: The state of the sector in 2022” that
“by September 2021, 1,291 post offices across Great Britain were temporarily closed, nearly twice as many as 5 years ago. And many ‘temporary’ closures last a significant period of time - more than 8 in 10 are shut for over a year. In reality many of these post offices are permanently closed.”
The report goes on to say that one rural post office in three in Great Britain is now provided as a part-time outreach service. Those post offices are open for an average of five and a half hours a week, although many are open for an hour—just one hour—a week.
I have some specific questions for the Minister. How can the Government allow so many post offices to be, essentially, permanently closed without the courtesy of consultation, discussion or debate with the communities they serve? How can it be that the Government provide money to Post Office Ltd to reopen branches, yet so many communities are left without a service?
As we have seen from the scandalous way in which Post Office Ltd treated its own sub-postmasters, its modus operandi is to keep quiet and hope that the problem goes away. I can assure you, Mr Robertson, and, more importantly, Post Office Ltd that the community of Treharris will not just sit silent. Treharris is a vibrant and viable community that is rapidly expanding owing to its proximity to Cardiff. There is, I believe, more than sufficient demand to sustain post office branches in Treharris, Trelewis and Nelson. The fact that Treharris does not have an operational post office when there is such strong local support is shocking.
On behalf of my constituents, I ask that the Government do all in their power to ensure that the service is restored to Treharris post office as quickly as possible. I hope that the Minister will provide much needed answers to give the residents of Treharris the assurances that they seek and very much deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing today’s important debate. I thank him for his commitment to the post office network, in particular his commitment to his constituents in Treharris and to getting postal services for them, especially given the social value that post offices provide to so many people.
Post offices play a crucial role in communities and for small businesses around the United Kingdom, and they comprise the largest retail network in the country, with more than 11,500 branches. Over the past 10 years, the Government have provided more than £2.5 billion to support the post office network. Crucially, that has included an annual subsidy to ensure the viability of rural and community branches. Since 2019, that has been maintained at £50 million a year, and I can confirm that it will remain at the same level until 2025. That shows that we in the Government are committing significant funding to the future of the network.
The country has faced unprecedented challenges in responding to the covid-19 pandemic, and post offices were essential services and postal workers key workers. That enabled the continuation of essential services provided by post offices, which would not have been possible if it was not for the hard work of postmasters and postal staff, who worked tirelessly to ensure that those services could continue. That enabled people to keep in touch with loved ones, which provided a lifeline to our communities and to the most vulnerable. That goes to the heart of what the hon. Gentleman was talking about: why people in Treharris value services that are as close to them as possible.
I would like to take a moment to thank postmasters and post office staff for their tireless efforts, the immense contribution made to communities across the UK, and their continual hard work and support. I am extremely thankful to all postmasters, who are pillars of their communities.
In a network as large as this, there will be variations in the number of branches open at one time. That is usually outside the Post Office’s control and is subject to external changes, such as postmasters retiring or branches closing and new ones opening. The network fluctuates and changes over time. That churn in the network is part of the modern and dynamic business that is the Post Office, but the Government-set access criteria ensure that services remain within reach for all citizens, which helps to protect the network: 99% of the UK population are within 3 miles of a post office outlet, and 90% within 1 mile.
To allow itself time to identify alternative ways to provide services, the Post Office requires operators to provide six months’ notice of a branch closure. Those plans apply to all partners, whether a multiple retailer or an individual postmaster. Where notice is given, the Post Office works with communities to ensure that the service is maintained.
As we have heard, Treharris post office has been closed for nearly three years, and I recognise that that is extremely frustrating for the hon. Member, and indeed for his constituents. He has been campaigning extremely hard to reopen Treharris post office, whether it be on the existing site or a business taking over that site. I thank him for his commitment to ensuring that the impact on his constituents is fully understood by the Government, the Post Office and the House. It reminds us how important post offices are to our communities, not only acting as a hub with social value but connecting to the country, from Swansea to Stockport, indeed to Strangford and Stirling, as we have seen from our absent hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who would normally be here contributing to the debate. Post offices are valued across all four nations of this great country.
Changes to the network are extremely concerning to members of the community who daily rely on postal and other services. I understand that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney recently met with the Post Office to discuss the future of Treharris post office. As he is aware, the Treharris post office will remain closed. He mentioned the Trelewis branch, just under a mile away. That was subject to a commercial transfer, which resulted in an extension of opening hours from 7 am to 9 pm, seven days a week. Two branches in such close proximity could reduce the viability of both businesses, based on current levels of post office footfall in the area.
Like many businesses, Post Office is operating in a challenging economic climate, and having two businesses open may not be sustainable. Post Office Ltd carried out a comprehensive review of the network, to ensure it is meeting the evolving needs of customers. It assessed the current services in Treharris and concluded that customer demands have been met, but I appreciate what the hon. Member said about the pressures on the local community due to the bus service. I hope the Post Office will listen to that, as well as the debates in this place, and reflect that in any further considerations of the area’s coverage.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for his speech. I support his comments about post office workers, who have been essential to the national effort during the pandemic. I want to re-emphasise the topography for communities such as Treharris. A mile away does not sound a lot but, with steep hills and a poor bus service that is sporadic at best, those challenges are too great to overcome for communities and residents alike in the valleys.
I have no doubt. This is where it is right to bring to bear the hon. Member’s local championing and expertise. It is easy for us to look at a bit of paper or at Google Maps, but that does not emphasise the topography he describes. I very much take that on board. I hope that the Post Office will equally take that on board, as it listens and reads Hansard, and will reflect on that when considering wider views on the Post Office network in the hon. Member’s area. Because the Post Office operates as an independent commercial business, the company has the commercial freedom to deliver the branch network within the parameters we have set, but I want to reassure the hon. Member that his concern has been taken seriously. I will continue to monitor network numbers in his area.
He referred to recent Citizens Advice research that highlighted the number of branches classed as temporarily closed. I agree that the overall number of branches classed as temporarily closed needs to be reviewed. Post Office has started that review and is engaging with Citizens Advice on the process to reclassify the majority of branches classed as temporarily closed to permanently closed. I will engage with Post Office to find out its plans regarding this specific branch, as part of that exercise.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney talked about outreach, as he has done on other occasions, not being a substitute for a bricks-and-mortar shop. Clearly, we would all prefer bricks-and-mortar shops in our communities. That is the ideal for any post office services. In absence of that branch, it does provide a full range of services and remains an important means of maintaining access. Post Office does try to keep set times for outreach services for each week, so local communities can rely on them timewise. They know the patterns, so they are not hoping and waiting for a service to come, but I freely admit that we would all rather have that bricks-and-mortar post office, both for the convenience and for the social value I have talked about.
The retail sector has undergone a significant period of change, which has been accelerated by covid-19 and has raised many challenges that we are working hard to address. The Post Office continues to explore new business opportunities to ensure a thriving national network for the benefit of communities, businesses and postmasters up and down the country. Post offices play a key role in supporting high streets across the UK and helping keep town centres vibrant, as well as levelling up communities throughout the country. On 15 July, we published the “Build Back Better High Streets” strategy, which set out the Government’s long-term plan to support the evolution of high streets into thriving places to work, visit and live.
As demonstrated during the pandemic, the Government have sought to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods while supporting businesses and public services across the UK. Post offices, like many other businesses on the high street, are eligible for Government support. We will continue to provide 66% business rate relief until the end of the month and a temporary 50% relief in 2022 and 2023 to eligible businesses; reduce the burden of business rates for all businesses by freezing the multiplier for 2022-23; introduce a new relief to support investments in property improvements; and introduce measures to support green investments and the decarbonisation of non-domestic buildings.
However, the trend towards online shopping has been accelerated by covid-19, resulting in more and more of us shopping online. Post offices, whether in Treharris and Trelewis or further afield, will clearly need to keep up to meet those consumer demands. A new agreement has recently been signed with Amazon and DPD, and more than 3,100 branches now offer click and collect services, allowing consumers to receive their goods quickly and conveniently.
To conclude, I thank the hon. Member for his contribution; for bringing this debate before the House; and for making sure that the voice of Treharris has been heard, not only by this House, by me as the Minister or by Government, but by the Post Office, which—as I said—will be monitoring this debate.
Just to reiterate, the community has not had a consultation on the temporary closure. I seek reassurance from the Minister that any changes from a temporary closure to anything more permanent would be subject to a full community consultation, because the community deserves nothing less than to have its voice heard in a consultation process.
I will certainly reflect that in the conversations I have with post offices, not just in Treharris, but all around the country. It is important that the Post Office operates as an independent commercial business, but none the less it has a responsibility to provide social value as well as economic value to reflect the communities it serves. In doing so, it needs to listen to those voices and consider all aspects of this issue, because the most vulnerable in our communities—the hon. Gentleman talked about the topography of getting from Treharris to Trelewis—are often those who need access to cash and services because they do not necessarily have good online access, or the any online access at all. We need to work through a reasonable listening exercise to make sure any decisions are taken in full knowledge of the facts and the views of the people the Post Office network serves.
We in this place all share a common cause: ensuring that a vital national asset continues to serve our constituencies for many years to come. I reiterate that I too am absolutely committed to safeguarding the post office network, and will continue to work closely with the Post Office to deliver that sustainable network and deal with the challenges faced in a post-covid world.
Question put and agreed to.