HC Deb 29 January 1960 vol 616 cc600-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Denzil Freeth (Basingstoke)

After discussing the licensing laws and driving, we come to what may appear to be a very small problem in a very small corner of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, it is a problem that affects the inhabitants of that small corner very deeply indeed, namely, whether or not I can succeed in melting the traditionally stony heart of my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General into providing a sub-post office at the village of Little London, near Andover in Hampshire.

I fully realise that, on sheer grounds of expense, it is not possible to provide sub-post offices in every part of the United Kingdom where there may be two or three gathered together, or where bus services may have become inadequate for what the inhabitants may regard as their normal wants and conveniences. However, there does come a time when small villages approach the borderline mark, and where occasionally, I think, a Member of Parliament is justified in trying to melt the traditionally stony heart that is handed down from Assistant Postmaster-General to Assistant Postmaster-General on the question of sub-post offices, bearing in mind the functions that those sub-post offices perform.

Down the years, an immense diversity of function has been added to the post office. The local post office is not least the place where people may buy stamps or postal orders. It is also the place where people draw their pensions and various insurance benefits and allowances under the National Assistance Act. A post office is also a place where mothers draw their family allowances and where people go for their licences for wireless sets, television sets and dogs. It is, indeed, a place to which nearly every citizen has to go very often, and where those who are the most busy, the most elderly or the weakest have to go most often—the wife to draw her family allowance, the elderly to draw the retirement pension, the bereaved or sick to draw widow's benefit, widow's pension or industrial injuries benefit of one kind or another.

I ask my hon. Friend to direct her thoughts to Little London. It is really not one village, but two villages: the village of Smannell and, about a quarter of a mile up the road, the village of Little London, perched on a hill rather like the places one sometimes sees in an engraving or picture of a Cornish village. I should never have asked my hon. Friend to provide a sub-post office in this village if it had not been for the substantial council house development which has taken place during the last four years at the Little London end of the two villages.

My hon. Friend has already given to Mr. Green, of Smannell, the right to sell postage stamps in the small general shop he runs in Little London. We are, of course, grateful for that. But she has consistently refused to grant in Mr. Green's general shop facilities for a sub-post office.

In January, 1957, there having been a refusal by the local head postmaster, the people of the area put their heads together, and, about a year ago, a petition was sent from the village signed by no fewer than 70 people who happened to visit Mr. Green's shop within a relatively short period of time. In Little London and Smannell there are today about 198 voters. I mention voters since they are persons over the age of 21 and, presumably, therefore, they comprise most of the population using the post office service. There are about 20 retirement pensioners in Little London alone, quite apart from those who live in Smannell. In the two villages there are at least 50 mothers drawing family allowances every week, and, of course, there are people drawing temporary benefits and widows' benefits under the National Insurance Scheme.

For persons living in either of these two villages to reach a post office there are two alternatives. The first is to catch the bus not from Little London, but from Smannell to Andover. Andover is 3¾ miles away, and the return journey costs 1s. 4d. It is rather much to suggest to a retirement pensioner that he or she should spend 1s. 4d. a week out of 50s. in going to the post office to draw the pension. The same applies to anyone else who goes to Andover only for that or similar purposes.

My hon. Friend said in a letter she wrote to me in November last year that people can always offer to draw the retirement pensions of the aged, and she added: Cases where arrangements cannot be made for the pension to be collected by a friend or relative free of charge would, I think, be rare. I rejoice to know that there is such a charitable mind in the Department, but, unfortunately, it is not true that people are always willing to go to Andover specially to draw the pensions of the elderly, nor is it true that people are willing to go to Andover and make a special journey to the post office without sometimes charging the old people part of the bus fare as some recompense for the effort made.

This is partly, I think, because the bus service is very inopportune in the times that it runs. There is a bus from Little London to Andover leaving at 8.40 in the morning. This is rather early if a housewife has to get the "old man" off to work and the children to school. People can catch the 10.18 to Andover, but then, to come back in time to give the children their mid-day meal, they have to catch the 11.45 from Andover.

If a wife decides to catch the 1.28 to Andover in the afternoon, she must catch the 3 p.m. out of Andover to be home in time to cook a meal for her husband when he returns. Therefore, the chances of being able to delay on such trips to draw family allowances are not very great if the person happens to be a working mother or a busy mother living at home.

There is, therefore, a case for granting sub-post office facilities at Little London. My hon. Friend may say that people can, instead of going to Andover, go to Enham-El Alamein. Officials of the Post Office have spent a great deal of time, and, doubtless, our money, in working out that the distance from the centre of the village to the post office in Enham-E1 Alamein is exactly l¼ miles. To have to walk l¼ miles is quite a lot when one is old. It is not a walk down well-lit streets, with level pavements which are swept by an urban authority, but down country lanes, which are pock-marked, full of rain, slippery when leaves have fallen and almost impassable in the kind of weather which we had a week or two ago, when the snow banked up and it became almost impassable for the old people. It seems to me a little hard to suggest that the very old should have to try to use up energy to walk l¼ miles down narrow, twisting, uneven country lanes to draw their pension.

I should have thought that in places like this, with a population of over 200, where one is at least l¼ miles away from the nearest post office, with no bus service or where one would have to pay over 1s. return to get to the nearest post office, the time has come when the Post Office should provide a sub-post office. Someone is willing to operate such a sub-post office. He has shown himself to be a person who can be trusted by the Post Office, as is evidenced by the fact that my hon. Friend allows him to sell stamps.

Finally, I ask my hon. Friend to consider this whole matter again and see whether it is possible to grant to the people of Little London a sub-post office in the near future.

4.12 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Miss Mervyn Pike)

My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Denzil Freeth) referred to the traditionally stony heart of the Assistant Postmaster-General. In view of his eloquence, I am glad that I have a reasonably strong head to control my own personal inclination to give way to his very eloquent plea for a sub-post office in Little London.

Like my hon. Friend, I have a very close knowledge of life in the countryside. I have lived all my life in a village which is smaller than either Smannell or Little London. As a parish councillor, I have fought for amenities similar to those about which my hon. Friend has spoken. From my own personal experience, I know the sort of problem the people in Little London and Smannell are facing, but my difficulty, as my hon. Friend said, is that we must have regard to economic factors, and these loom very large at present.

There are 23,000 sub-post offices in the country. We are increasing that number by over sixty a year. We are also increasing the number of Crown post offices each year. As housing development goes forward apace, greater pressure is being brought upon us all the time to increase the number of sub-post offices. As we increase the number, so we increase our overhead charges and make it increasingly difficult to give an economic service to the community as a whole. That is why on all these occasions I must be absolutely certain that it is the reasoning in my head which takes precedence over the softness of my heart.

Little London and Smannell together have 80 houses—55 in Little London and 25 in Smannell. We do not think that there will be any further development at present. I estimate that any further development will take place at Enham-Alamein. My hon. Friend said that this village is 1¼ miles away and that anyone wishing to walk to the post office has a considerable walk, often in very bad weather conditions. I accept that, but at the same time I point out to my hon. Friend that people living in Little London and Smannell have to go into Andover to do their shopping. There is only one very tiny shop in Little London. No travelling shops serve these two villages.

The bus service by country standards is an extremely good one. My village has one weekly. Little London has five buses a day going both ways between Andover and the village. My hon. Friend said that it was difficult for a young mother to catch the 8.43 bus which gets into Andover at 8.53. Her husband will have gone to work by 8 o'clock and her children will have got the school bus just after 8 o'clock into Andover. Normally, I do not think it would be too difficult for a woman doing her weekly shopping to get the 8.53 bus, which gets into Andover at 9 o'clock, and to come away again at 11.45. Having got to the main bus stop. she will find that there are two post offices, one within 500 yards and another within 300 yards. She could, of course, get off the bus before the main stop, and then there is a post office within 150 yards.

I am not suggesting that it is easy, but I am suggesting that it is not quite as difficult as perhaps my hon. Friend has led us to believe, because people have to go in to do their shopping, and there is no great hardship, when they get to Andover, in their picking up an old-age pension or a family allowance. My hon. Friend said that many people were unwilling to go specially into Andover to pick up these old-age pensions, but he did say that there were about 50 mothers—we estimate the number at something less, but say that it is about 50 young mothers—going in to pick up children's allowances. I cannot believe that they are so ungenerous, particularly in inclement weather, as not to collect their friends' and relatives' allowances at the same time.

In looking at these things I have to see what the amenities of the district as a whole are. My hon. Friend, I think, made a mistake when he said the people of Little London had to go to Smannell to get the bus. My reading of the bus timetable leads me to believe that they get the bus at Little London and go right through Smannell into Andover.

Having looked at the amenities, I cannot accept that in this case we can override all the economic arguments against establishing a sub-post office in Little London. I should very much like to. I should very much like to give to the countryside an amenity which we are building up the whole time in our urban areas, but, as I keep on saying, we have to have regard to the economic factors. We cannot go on increasing the number of sub-post offices up and down the country. Each sub-post office has a minimum charge, and, of course, in the small villages the cost is disproportionate to the service which we render.

I hope that my hon. Friend will realise that we have gone into this whole problem very carefully indeed. He mentioned that the Post Office people had measured the ground and in that way had spent the taxpayers' money, but I think it is a good thing that we should send our people over the ground to consider carefully and investigate each one of these cases as carefully as possible. I would claim that no effort is too great to find reasons for me to change my mind and to give the amenity which my hon. Friend wants, and if our people have gone over the ground a great deal in recent weeks it is because I have been trying to find reasons why I should say "Yes" to my hon. Friend's request on this occasion.

Having gone very carefully into all the reasons, and having regard to the position in the country as a whole, I cannot give any hope at all that we can give a sub-post office to Little London, but I believe that the inhabitants of Little London, knowing our difficulties, and knowing the difficulties of the old people, will make it as easy as possible for those old people to have their pensions collected for them.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Harry Gourlay (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

It was not my intention to intervene in the debate, particularly since it was to deal with a constituency matter, but by the long arm of coincidence I received a few moments ago a green card from one of my constituents, and the object of his visit was to raise the question of the provision of a sub-post office at Kirkcaldy.

This has been discussed with the Postmaster-General on previous occasions and he has refused to recognise the need for a sub-post office there. The reply given by the hon. Lady this afternoon appears to show that the reasons against providing sub-post offices in new urban areas and remote villages are economic. While accepting that one must consider the need to run post office services on an economic basis, service to the community is an important factor.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the need for sub-post offices in new areas. The Postmaster-General ought to be more generous in his outlook and provide services to meet the needs of the people. The reasons against providing such services should not be purely the economic ones advanced by the hon. Lady.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Four o'clock.