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Post Offices: Closures

Volume 697: debated on Monday 17 December 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they were consulted by the Post Office on its recent statement that no post office closure decisions will be made before the local elections on 1 May 2008, and whether they support it.

My Lords, Cabinet Office guidelines clearly state that consultations should not be launched and decisions relating to them announced in an election period. Successive Administrations of both parties have observed those arrangements for many years. The application of the guidelines will have limited impact on the start of public consultations and announcements of decisions as they will relate only to those that would otherwise have been made in the three-week period preceding the local elections on 1 May 2008.

My Lords, I appreciate what the Minister says but perhaps I may quote from a letter of 20 November that was sent out to post offices:

“As you will be aware, the closure of any Post Office can be highly sensitive and can potentially become a local political issue. For that reason, we have been asked by Government”—

I emphasise, asked by the Government—

“to introduce a freeze on some elements of the Network Change Programme during the run up to these elections”.

Is that not government intrusion into the ordinary running of elections in the United Kingdom? Is it not a deliberate ploy to hide the bad news—the truth—until it is too late for the electors to do anything about it?

My Lords, I am very surprised that the noble Lord should consider that to be the case. I shall quote, in my turn, from the guidelines:

“If a consultation is ongoing at the time an election is called, it should continue as normal”.

However, care should be taken to avoid taking action during election periods,

“that will compete with … candidates for the … attention”

of the public. That effectively means not undertaking publicity or consultation events,

“for those consultations that are still in process”.

In answer to the noble Lord’s second question, no, it is not a case of suppressing bad news. In fact, the plan for London has been brought forward so that the proposals there will now be published before the moratorium on new consultation starts. They were planned to be published during the purdah period but now they will be produced early. That is hardly suppressing bad news.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the issue of post office closures is extremely sensitive, particularly in local elections, and that, notwithstanding the guidelines he referred to, there is a danger that the Government will have appeared, both last year and this year, to be postponing these decisions simply to protect the interests of the Labour Party?

Again, my Lords, I am surprised that the noble Lord should take that view. It could not be more wrong. Purdah has been accepted by both parties for many years and it means that neither good news nor bad news can be given out during the period of an election. As I have already explained, in London the purdah period means that the consultation period will be delayed but the proposals will be published early.

There are two parts of the country where consultation will not begin where it would otherwise have begun during the purdah period; namely, West Yorkshire and Devon. I am hopeful that the Labour Party will do extremely well in Devon, but if you were going to pick and choose somewhere for the reasons that have been suggested, I do not think Devon would be the place.

My Lords, in view of the proposal for 500 outreach offices, what is being done about working with places of worship to encourage their possible use as post offices?

My Lords, that is not directly related to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno. However, the intention is to open 500 outreach offices as a counter to the closures that may well take place. The right reverend Prelate will know that that will work by sub-postmasters or ex-sub-postmasters going to village halls or church halls for limited periods in order to provide some of the post office services. That programme is going ahead.

My Lords, may I add to the Minister’s level of surprise? My memory says that in eleven and a half years as a Minister, I never recall purdah starting more than six months ahead of an election; nor do I recall political influence being exerted more than six months ahead of an election in order to try to protect the Government from the voters’ ire. Why will the noble Lord not just admit that a political decision has been made?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is slightly mistaken. The purdah period lasts from 3 April to 1 May; it does not start on 17 December.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Scrooge has come early this Christmas? Post Office Ltd is capping the amount of Christmas stamps allocated to sub-post offices. When I went to buy 200 second-class stamps last week, I was told that there were not any. Post Office Ltd was not allocating any more. Is this a deft way of closing sub-post offices?

My Lords, that question is best directed to Post Office Ltd. The answer is probably no. My advice to the noble Lord would be to go into Central Lobby and buy his stamps there.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, regardless of an election period coming along, the general perception of the public in this country is that the consultation procedure is a sham anyway? Will he place in the Library a list of the Crown post offices and sub-post offices that have closed since May 1997?

My Lords, it is no sham. Following the consultations, Post Office Ltd and the Post Office Users Group look at the results and then the decisions are announced. Some decisions have already been altered as a consequence of that period. This is not a sham at all, but a very difficult process and we are determined to keep a proper network of post offices in the country. This is, I am afraid, part of being in government: you have to take tough decisions. I am not sure that either side opposite is prepared to do that.

My Lords, does not the recent accidental publication on the Government’s website of a list of post offices scheduled for closure show, as the Minister’s noble friend says, that the Government’s so-called consultation is a complete and cynical sham? Was it merely incompetence, or something more sinister?

My Lords, I hoped that I had answered my noble friend. I have to give the noble Lord opposite the same answer. Consultation is not a sham. If there is evidence of it being a sham, I am sure the noble Lord will let us know.