Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.48 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I am sorry to have to speak in the debate, but although all rural Members are used to the occasional pub or filling station closure in their constituency, the closure of local sub-post offices in villages in my constituency happens too often. On 27 March, the post office at Bryanston, just outside Blandford, closed. On 12 April, I received a letter headed "'an essential part of everyday life'" which read:

That was the second time that that post office had closed in five years—they had previously found a suitable candidate. The letter continued:

On the same day from the same gentleman on the same headed paper, I received a letter about the Glanvilles Wootton post office branch, which had also closed in 2000. It said:

The first post office that I mentioned at Bryanston was located in a small village shop and its closure was involuntary. Everyone in the village knew where the post office was. Those who used its facilities knew that if they went to the village shop the post office counter was located at the back. But that was not good enough for those who run the post office network. They made it a condition that the person who ran that post office—for only a couple of days a week—would have to relocate the counter so that it was more prominent within the shop. The capital expenditure that would have been required for that would have been out of all proportion to the shop's commercial viability, so on that basis the postmaster declined to renew his contract because he did not have the resources.

So far I have mentioned just three post offices, but the list is not complete. During the last five years, my constituency has lost post offices at Tarrant Gunville; Pimperne, where it has fortunately re-opened; Weston; Lydlinch; and Hazelbury Bryan, where I am also pleased to say that a year ago I was invited to cut the tape as we re-opened the post office. However, the net loss of village post offices is symptomatic of an underlying problem. The village postmasters are under pressure. Forgive me if the evidence is anecdotal; it is none the less valuable. Several village postmasters have told me that village businesses no longer buy stamps from them because they are being offered stamps at a discount direct from the Post Office.

Car tax is a matter for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, not for the Post Office or the DTI, but in the interest of joined-up government, surely it would be good news for village post offices if the Government could give

15 May 2002 : Column 815

some encouragement to the DVLA to allow all sub-post offices to sell car tax. A village garage in my constituency has within its premises a shop and a post office. One can buy a car, insure it and have an MOT done there, but one cannot buy a tax disc.

The key threat, which has already been mentioned, is the changeover in the benefits business. Nothing in the Minister's opening remarks convinced me that the Government are sensitive to the threat that that poses for village sub-post offices. What I heard sounded like an urban agenda. Few of my rural constituents live within half a mile of a post office, which I think was the phrase that he used. The village post office is a key part of the social fabric of the countryside and the strategy for transferring the benefits business is confused for the sub-postmasters involved and for the public whose benefits will be involved.

Kali Mountford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walter: No.

The result will be the closure of more vital village post offices. Too often have I received letters from the Post Office informing me of the closure of yet another post office and giving alternatives up to five miles away. Post office facilities affect the elderly and their closure is a disaster for the many in those villages who have no public transport and is usually soon followed by the closure of the village shop. It is devastating for the social fabric of our villages. I believe that the Post Office and the Government are indifferent to that and I pray that the Government will wake up to the damage that they are doing to rural Britain.

5.55 pm

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): The Minister will be aware that on many occasions I have raised with him problems with sub-post offices in my constituency and the postal services. He and many hon. Members present today will be aware that I have certainly not been slow to raise with Ministers, publicly and privately, concerns that have affected my constituency. Hon. Members speak up for local interests and try to resolve local difficulties as well as possible. But the difference between the approach that I and many of my hon. Friends try to adopt and that taken by some Opposition Members today is that, as well as trying to address some of the local problems and issues, we recognise that there have to be fundamental changes to the post office network and to postal services. Changes are taking place in the marketplace, in technology and in demand that cannot be simply wished away.

I listened closely to the carefully crafted opening remarks of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and read the Liberal Democrat motion, but at the end of the day I saw no real recognition that there are fundamental problems and changes that need to be addressed. Their approach today has been very much along the lines that something must be done and radical steps must be taken, but they are not sure what they are and there must not be any changes.

The Minister charitably suggested that the Liberal Democrats would not oppose the closure of some post offices, but the line that they have taken today and on

15 May 2002 : Column 816

other occasions has been to suggest that no post office anywhere in the country should ever close. If I do the Liberal Democrats an injustice I invite them to show me a single Liberal Democrat "Focus" newsletter anywhere in the country that has done anything other than condemn a sub-post office closure as outrageous, scandalous and attacking the fabric of the community. If I am being unfair and any of the diminishing number of Liberal Democrats here can show me such a leaflet, I shall be happy to give way to them.

Mr. Allan: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, in the context of local campaigning, I have yet to see a single copy of Labour's "The Rose" or the Conservatives' "In Touch" saying, "We are happy with the post office closure." I think that we should accept that we are talking about the big issues of the future of the Post Office in our motion and that any local party of whatever persuasion is bound to campaign against post office closure. It is unrealistic to think otherwise.

Mr. Lazarowicz: I am touched by that refreshing honesty. In my constituency, I have a problem where two sub-post offices in one area are closing and I have done my best to campaign, with the assistance of the Minister, for the retention of those postal services. I accept that the best solution may be one post office in place of two, so we do not all take the hon. Gentleman's approach.

Mr. Waterson: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen the Liberal Democrat campaign document that advises candidates to "act shamelessly", "be wicked" and "Don't be afraid to exaggerate". It concludes with advice relevant to the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, saying:

Mr. Lazarowicz: I am glad of the hon. Gentleman's support on that point, but I now come to a criticism of his position on the matter. Although I enjoyed his quoting from the briefing of the National Federation of Sub- Postmasters, he showed, I believe, that it is always dangerous selectively to quote from a briefing that is sent to all hon. Members, as others are invited to draw attention to the other points that are made in that briefing. The federation has a realistic approach to the problem facing the sub-post office network, by contrast with Opposition Members. It states:

It goes on to state:

That is a realistic approach. Of course, the federation makes other comments, as one would expect from a lobby group whose role is to be critical of the Government and which is likely to demand action that they may not be able to support. The basic point, however, is that the federation supports the urban reinvention programme, and that should be emphasised in this debate.

15 May 2002 : Column 817

A dose of reality is required when we discuss sub-post offices and postal delivery services. Of course, all hon. Members support the universal service obligation; the Government and every hon. Member who has spoken support it. The universal postal delivery service must remain. Along with many hon. Members, I have signed a number of early-day motions strongly criticising the Postcomm proposals, as I do again today. At the same time, we must recognise that times have changed since the postal service was the only way in which communities—remote ones in particular—could stay in touch with the rest of the world.

Of course, the postal service still plays a vital role in communities throughout the country. We should be proud that, through the postal service, somebody in the Isles of Scilly can be in contact with somebody in Lerwick—or Leir-vik, as I believe we are meant to call it—just as easily and at the same price as somebody here in Westminster can communicate with somebody in the City of London a mile down the road. However, it is one thing to say that we should provide a cross-subsidy to enable people throughout the country and especially in remote areas to enjoy the same postal service as everyone else and allow them to stay part of the community and to stay in touch with friends and relatives, but quite another to say that we should give the same large cross-subsidy to enable direct mail marketing companies to send the same junk mail to everyone in the country—the sort of rubbish that finds its way into the bin whether it is delivered in Thurso or Truro, Edinburgh or London.

That is the reality of the changing way in which the postal service is used. There are no easy solutions. I am not calling for the abolition of the universal post; far from it—I want it to be retained. However, we must recognise changes in the marketplace and in the role that the postal service plays in our society.

The way forward is not to stay stuck in the past, but to rebuild a post office network to take account of changing needs, technologies and opportunities. The "your guide" initiative is an excellent scheme; like many hon. Members, I saw the display in Portcullis House. There are many opportunities to develop that system, perhaps by involving local government and other services that can be provided for communities.

The Liberal Democrats' approach seems basically one of managed decline of the sub-post office network. They do not have the same grounding in reality as the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. We are all concerned about change in our areas and communities, and all of us will speak up for the interests of our communities whenever they are threatened, but I recognise that fundamental change is necessary. I welcome the fact that the Government are taking that need seriously and putting in £270 million to back up what they say with actions.

Next Section

IndexHome Page