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Post Offices

Volume 689: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many post offices and sub-post offices have closed since 1997; and whether they have established a minimum number of offices in rural and suburban areas to reflect the Government’s policy on sustainable local communities.

My Lords, since 1997, 21 Crown post offices have closed, and there has been a net reduction of 4,818 sub-post offices, including the managed closure of 2,486 urban sub-post offices under the urban reinvention programme. The Government’s proposals for the future of the post office network, which I announced in your Lordships’ House on 14 December last, set out access criteria to ensure that communities across the country continue to have nationwide access to post office services.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. On the point he raises about access, it is said that there will be access to a post office within three miles. Will he confirm that? But it will still be of no help to elderly, vulnerable people living in hamlets where there is a post office under threat of closure. Only yesterday we were told by the Lord Chancellor that this is “a listening Government”. Did the Government listen to the 4 million people who signed a protest last year saying, “Please don’t close these post offices”? It seems that a relentless move is on to close ever more of these post offices; but they are lifelines for some people. Are the Government now putting commercial issues way above social requirements?

Absolutely not, my Lords. Of the 14,300 post offices that exist, only 4,000 are commercially viable. The Government are putting in an investment of £1.7 billion between now and 2011, and we have spent £2 billion supporting the social post office network since 1999. Those are significant funds. I can confirm to the noble Baroness that 99 per cent of the population will be within three miles of the nearest outlet. I also remind her that under the previous Conservative Administration, between 1979-80 and 1995-96, 3,225 post offices were closed.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that quality of life is high on the political agenda these days. Everyone is talking about it. The rich are getting richer and the poor seem to be left; quality of life is vastly important. Does he agree that post offices which are at the heart of communities enhance quality of life?

Yes, my Lords; that is absolutely the case. I agree with my noble friend. That is why we are actively supporting a viable post office network that will ensure that vulnerable communities in both rural and urban areas are properly serviced.

My Lords, will the Minister explain why—and if not, will he ask the Post Office to explain why—the Post Office has stopped the training of non-Post Office employees to work under licence in local community shops?

My Lords, I have no information on that point, but I will certainly write to the noble Lord after I have looked into it.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that if the post office network is to be maintained at a level which I know all sides of this House would wish to see, then significant creative thinking will be required by the Government, because this cannot be a question just of subsidy? If it is simply a question of subsidy, then, as I am sure the Minister will accept, there will be significantly more post office closures. Is he aware of the work that, for example, Age Concern has done? It advocates a social enterprise model which will require action not only from his department but from Defra and can provide small grants and specific skills to help to ensure an increase in the post office network.

My Lords, I welcome Age Concern’s work in this area. The Government are making efforts to ensure that, for example, small remote communities are reached by establishing 500 outreach outlets which will include mobile post offices and services in village halls, community centres and pubs.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Church of England, along with the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church, has recently been negotiating with the rural division of the Post Office to seek innovative ways in which church buildings and chapels might host some of the services being displaced by the closure of rural post offices? If he is aware of that—indeed, even if he is not—will he bring his influence to bear on the heritage lobby to ensure that when adaptations of buildings are proposed, it will be lenient in its approach to those proposals? Will he also confirm that when such projects come to fruition, adequate funding is in place to cover the start-up costs?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has put forward some interesting ideas. I will take them back to officials in my department and we will consider them fully.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that rather than just going through this artificial process of establishing a minimum number of post offices, it makes more sense to establish a minimum use for post offices if they are to be kept open? Otherwise it makes a complete mockery of the laws of supply and demand which Members opposite usually worship in every other respect.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a valid point. Post offices have been losing £4 million a week in the past year. An average of 16 people a week use each of the 800 smallest rural post offices, at a cost of £17 per visit. That is clearly not sustainable. We will look at that when we consult on the future of rural sub-post offices.

My Lords, my noble friend chose to ask her Question in National Post Office Week. As we speak, a huge rally is taking place in the Methodist Central Hall. Thousands of people are over there, fighting for their post offices. Does the Minister agree that the local post office is an ideal location for a bit of constructive thinking on how to deliver the range of local and central government services that the general public in this country would expect from a Labour Government?

My Lords:

“We are committed to securing the future of a sustainable Post Office network with a full range of services, including an enhanced Post Office Card account”.

That is the joint statement from the people who are meeting in the Methodist Central Hall. I am happy to endorse it.