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Mr. Hoyle: Has my hon. Friend suggested to the Minister that there should be signs showing the location of all post offices throughout the country, not just Crown post offices? If so, I support him.

Geraint Davies: I agree. It is remarkable that most of the millions of people who go to East Croydon station do not even know that there is a post office there.

Our local council, a very good council, has offered to man one of the counters at the post office, offering services and marketing them by means of colour literature

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for every household, on a regular basis. As a result, more people will go to the post office, pick up products and provide more revenue.

The development of the site behind East Croydon station will have enormous implications for retail and other sectors. The simple point I am making is that there are opportunities for new products and new consumers. Such opportunities, which will certainly be realised at railway stations, should be taken up elsewhere in the network to preserve the existing service.

In the case of East Croydon station, many people will have to walk an extra mile to visit a post office. I hope to present a petition to Parliament tomorrow signed by 4,000 people who do not want that to happen. I hope that the council and, indeed, the larger retailers who have joined forces to help the post office will succeed. I understand that they plan to work with Connex in the first instance to set up more innovative outlets providing services involving tickets, travel in general, retail and finance—a sort of network reinvention scheme. Sadly, however, the signals I am receiving suggest that closure is imminent and unstoppable. I fear that that is because management mentality is focused entirely on cutting costs rather than on generating revenue innovatively.

As I have said, I think that the opportunities offered in East Croydon can provide national lessons relating to relationships with unions, links with the private sector and links with councils and train companies. The Post Office should consider those lessons.

We live in a mixed economy, in which the wider public interest must be balanced with commercial viability. We do not want to end up with the free market that the Tories wanted. Indeed, their legacy of 3,500 closures would be dwarfed by the carnage that would result from the implementation of their economic and social policies. We need to get the balance right between service levels, prices, universality and fair competition if we are to obtain the right output in the public interest. We need the right regulatory system, promoting service, innovation and efficiency to ensure that a new commercial freedom can make the Post Office secure in the Government's hands.

9.3 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): I shall try to be brief, given the time.

I was interested to read the executive summary of "postal services", which refers to the exercise of

I was also interested to see the figures relating to post office closures in the United Kingdom since 1997. The total number is 1,568, but there are also figures relating to rural and urban closures: in 1999, 167 rural post offices closed, but only 18 urban post offices shut. In 2000, the figures were 271 and 92 respectively.

My constituency is nearly 50 miles long. If the definition of a main post office is one that serves a population of 10,000 or more, only one in my constituency fulfils that criterion. If we bear in mind the fact that sub-post offices are to close, we have some idea of the problems that the constituency faces. It puts things into perspective when we remember that Consignia spent

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£2 million on a name change. As was said earlier, when we take into account changes to stationery and so on, the figure is much greater. We are witnessing a great waste of money by a company that should spend more wisely, especially to try to maintain services for people who can least afford to lose them. That is disgraceful.

The harmonisation of the Horizon system is another problem that I have encountered in rural areas. Many of the postmasters and postmistresses in my constituency are elderly. They are not technically aware and they find it difficult to understand the way in which the Horizon system works, or its purpose. Training for any changes is never carried out locally; it always happens a long way away. Once, it happened in Bristol. It takes much more than an hour and a half to travel from Minehead to Bristol. How on earth is a fairly elderly person expected to do that?

Many rural post offices are located in houses. Some have had to be rewired, costing up to £30,000 a go, for the Horizon system. Rural postmistresses cannot afford that. In one case in my constituency, a post office could not obtain a link to Horizon. A satellite had to be placed in the garden and no one was allowed within five metres of the transmission box. The postmistress had young children and when Consignia refused to move the transmission box she had to close the post office. That is unacceptable. My predecessor, now Lord King, and I fought the closure, but Consignia was not sympathetic, and the lady and the post office have gone.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North–West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said, the police, local tourist boards, social services and many other organisations use rural post offices to get their message across to villages that have no pub and no other shop. We have managed to open a post office, but Labour Members should not get too excited because the building was donated by a wealthy landowner and is staffed by volunteers who work from hand to mouth to keep it open. It not only stocks local produce but provides a place for the organisations that I mentioned to present their ideas and views.

There is an enormous explosion of e-commerce in this country. It is all-encompassing, and even Sir Elton John has said how marvellous it is. Why cannot Consignia use that as a way forward and boost people's ability to utilise it in rural areas? Many people in my constituency shop by e-mail because they have no choice. What will happen in 2003? What is the future of the rural post office? I have asked many people about that. I have also worked in two post offices, and it is incredibly hard work.

I asked the elderly ladies what they would do if they had to use bank accounts, swipe cards and so on. Most looked horrified. They are of a generation who are not used to that; they are not accustomed to going to banks that are not in their local villages. How will they use the service? I ask the Government to bear in mind people who are ill equipped to deal with modern technology and the vagaries of modern life. Labour Members may shake their heads, but I assure them that one group, whose capabilities they know, is running a campaign on the matter: the National Federation of Women's Institutes. It has only just begun; Labour Members should therefore be careful. If it keeps going, they should start to quake.

Rural post offices matter in rural areas. If they are allowed to go, that is it. There is nothing else to which many villages can turn.

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9.9 pm

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I apologise to the House for missing some of the earlier speeches, as I had to attend a Standing Committee sitting. However, I was able to hear the opening speeches, so I have an idea of the gist of the Conservative party's attack on the Government and heard the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate, especially because, like many hon. Members, I have been very concerned about postal services since I was elected last year. I have received a fair amount of correspondence from people who are anxious about the postal service and have also had much contact with people with such concerns in my constituency office and surgery. Concerns have also been expressed about the sub-post offices in the area. In the Stockbridge area of my constituency, both sub-post offices were closed down during the latter part of last year, causing particular difficulties for a community with many thousands of elderly residents. It is not only rural areas that suffer from post office closures; sometimes urban areas can be affected just as seriously. The closures have caused great difficulty for many of my constituents.

I have raised those issues in the House, with Ministers and with Consignia, and I make no apology for doing so. Labour Members who are keen to see high-quality services also recognise that it does the public service no favours not to point out failings, as it is only by pointing out failings that we can improve the services. At the same time, I am also happy to pay tribute to them when they are successful. In the two cases to which I referred, there have been a number of improvements during the past few weeks. I would not be so arrogant as to claim the entire credit for such improvements, although for the purposes of a constituency newsletter, I may claim some of it. I know that the letter delivery service has improved markedly in a number of areas in my constituency. Indeed, a number of the businesses that complained to me about the quality of service last year have written back to say that it has improved. Hon. Members throughout the House will agree that it is not too often that people come back and make contact to say that a service has improved after having made complaints.

On the sub-post office closures in the Stockbridge area, I am pleased at the way in which Post Office Counters has been trying to provide alternative premises to replace those that have closed. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the former postmistress at the Stockbridge sub-post office, 83-year-old Pat Burford, who delayed her retirement for some weeks to allow the service to continue. I pay tribute to her public-spiritedness, which I know is typical of many of the people who run sub-post offices throughout the country.

I mention those improvements in the service and the provision of sub-post offices in my constituency because I think that it is important for those of us who make complaints about public services also to recognise improvements from time to time and to make it clear that a positive response has been made to complaints when we manage to achieve one. Such positive stories about the Post Office are also a reminder of the fact that, although criticisms can rightly be made about its services, there is still a lot that is good about the postal services in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) pointed out that some of the European

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examples have not been too successful for the consumers, postal workers or Treasuries of the countries concerned. Most consumers in most European countries can only dream of a service that allows them to post a letter at 5 pm in one part of the country and have it delivered 400 miles away, more often than not the next day if it is first class. That is a standard of service of which people in most countries can only dream.

Although a lot can be said for the postal services in this country, it cannot be disputed that the previously high standards of UK postal services have begun to slip. It is perhaps precisely because we have a history of a high-quality postal service in this country that our constituents expect the services to meet such high standards.

I regret that the Opposition motion does not contribute substantially to the debate about how we improve postal services. I am a new Member, but I understand the reality that Opposition day debates are usually knockabout affairs where every crime that can be dredged up is thrown at the Government. That is something to which one becomes accustomed in this place. Even by those standards, the negativity of Conservative Members' contributions has been staggering.

Perhaps that is not surprising, because the Conservative party, when in government, was responsible for many of the problems in today's postal service. There was the failure of the then Government to grant the Post Office the commercial freedom that had been sought for years by unions and management. That lies at the heart of many of the problems affecting postal services.

No doubt that explains the evident contradictions in what Conservatives say they want to do with the Post Office if they ever have the chance to get their hands on it. There is a coy refusal to tell us whether they favour privatisation. Some Conservative Members tell us that they do not know what their party's policy will be. Others say that they are not in favour of privatisation. Hon. Members who read Hansard tomorrow will be able to check for themselves and see that there was a clear indication from the Opposition spokesperson that privatisation was something that he wished had happened earlier and something that he would no doubt try to introduce were he to get his hands on the service in future.

Combined with a wish to see a hands-off approach, as Conservative Members would describe it, there are calls from Conservative Members for day-to-day interference in the management of postal services of the type that would more commonly be associated with the command economy of Stalin's Russia. The Conservative party cannot for ever sit on the fence and claim that it is in favour of privatisation and commercial freedom on the one hand but wants to see day-to-day interference in the way in which the Post Office is run on the other.

Like many Members who have contributed to the debate, I pay tribute to the thousands of postal workers throughout the country who have kept the service going through rain, wind and snow. I have not been uncritical of some of the actions taken by trade unions in the Post Office, but I recognise the frequent pressures on staff in the Post Office and the provocations that they face. The record of local management in many areas has not been good. It has certainly been responsible in many instances for bringing about a negative reaction from the work force.

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Whatever else we see in the future of the Post Office, there must be a new relationship between trade unions and management. There must be a relationship that leads to a constructive approach for the benefit of the community. That is essential if the challenges of the many market threats that face the Post Office are to be successfully met in the years to come.

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