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Post Offices

Volume 724: debated on Monday 17 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will ensure a viable local network of post offices.

My Lords, we have made it clear that we are committed to the long-term future of the Post Office. We will provide £1.34 billion of funding for the Post Office over the next four years. This will enable the modernisation of the nationwide network of around 11,500 branches and the development of new revenue streams, longer opening hours and reduced queues. We are clear that there will be no programme of post office closures under this Government.

I thank my noble friend for that extremely encouraging Answer. However, is she aware that in 2010 nearly 1,000 sub-post offices were up for sale because they are unviable, and that hundreds, if not thousands, of small businesses use these local post offices every day? In particular, 300,000 pensioners use the green giro. Can she make sure that this problem is addressed urgently and that within, I hope, the current Session, we will see some positive action in this area?

My Lords, I am glad you have given me an opportunity to address the point about the closure of post offices. Most, as you know, are privately owned businesses and it is inevitable and normal that there will be some changes in ownership. It is a condition of the £1.34 billion we have provided that the Post Office will continue to provide a network of at least 11,500 branches.

The noble Lord's second question was about collecting pensions from post offices. This will continue. People will be able to use the Post Office card account to withdraw money from a basic or current account free of charge and, for a small proportion of them, by cheque.

The noble Lord’s third point was about small businesses using post offices. It is clear that we should keep post offices alive and well close to the people who need to use them, particularly people such as me who live in rural areas and villages, and small businesses. They provide an enormously good service and we are very happy to support them.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that “viable” can be interpreted as a public service that is available to members of the public who use it? Is she aware of the great difficulty that many people in rural areas have experienced because of the closure of local post offices, particularly young mothers with children who have to be pushed in a pram, and pensioners? Will she concentrate on the difficulties that these areas are experiencing?

That is always a worry and a difficulty, particularly, as my noble friend has pointed out, for young families. The Post Office Ltd network works hard to try to secure new ownership for a post office when it is going to close. As noble Lords will know, the access criteria specify that 99 per cent of the population should be within 3 miles of a post office, and in inner cities they should be within 1 mile of one. If the post office closes in an area like that, it causes hardship. Post Office Ltd is very keen to get the churn better handled. It is natural for someone who wants to open a post office to be fully enthusiastic. I have a goddaughter who has just opened one. She has a very young family herself, and is struggling and finding it difficult to keep the business running. She thought it would be much easier than this. When things are difficult like that, we need to give all the help that we can.

Does the noble Baroness appreciate that some sub-post offices in rural areas also act as sorting offices? Last Christmas, I had reason to complain about the activities of a postman. I found it impossible to do so. I phoned a national number and was referred to the internet. On the internet they have someone called, I think, Sarah who will answer your questions, but she did not respond to mine. How can one speak to a person in a post office to file a complaint?

Will the Minister endorse the view that the Post Office should be able to obtain a banking licence in its own name, thereby allowing people to bank with an organisation that is universal in its coverage, that, unlike banks, is not closing branches, and, importantly, that is trusted?

The noble Lord knows this subject very well. I have a long note here on how complicated, expensive and difficult it is to set up one of these licences. We have looked at the idea of a state-backed post bank, but it would be simply unaffordable in the current financial climate.

Will Her Majesty’s Government give assurances that where a post office is threatened with closure, perhaps because it is part of a small shop, pressure will be put on Post Office Ltd to make sure that it works with community groups to find an alternative location, as is suggested by the notion of the big society?

As the right reverend Prelate will know, a Bill on the privatisation of the Royal Mail will come to the House on 25 January. Postal services will be discussed then, and it would be a good time to bring up the question again.

Is the noble Baroness content that many post offices are now applying for licences to sell alcohol and displaying it on a wide scale immediately alongside the areas in which giro payments are made? Are the Government prepared to do something about it?

That is a very interesting question. I have not come across it before and will look into it. I can see where the noble Lord is coming from. Youngsters come in to buy sweeties et cetera and see alcohol very close to them. As with the big society, we will look to see what is going on.