§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Harper.]
§ 10.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Northwich)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise before the House the important matter of the proposed closure of the Bull Ring sub-post office in Northwich, following the retirement of the present tenant next month. I am also grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for staying up until this late hour to answer the debate. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate him on his appointment, on this his first appearance as Minister at the Government Dispatch Box, and of wishing him well.
When it was announced that the post office was to be closed, there was a storm of protest and a unanimous expression of disapproval in Northwich. As the Editor and Manager of the Northwich Guardian wrote to me,I cannot ever recall a bigger explosion in Northwich than this week after it was announced, without any warning, the Bull Ring sub-post office would be closed in May.In a letter from Messrs, Moss and Haselhurst, Solicitors, Mr. John Haslehurst, senior partner of the firm, said:There is not the slightest doubt the Crown Office, or main post office, was in fact the centre of activities 30 years ago, but it no longer is. At one stage the Crown Office was surrounded by populated areas which have since been removed to council estates far remote from the Crown Office. Forty years ago the Crown Office was the centre of population. Now the whole centre of things is the Bull Ring, Northwich. There is no population in the Northwich town centre area. The business activities of the banks, solicitors, estate agents, accountants, shops, etc. are concentrated on the Bull Ring post office.In a letter to the local newspaper, Mr. M. Evans, the branch manager of Hepworth, 70 High Street, Northwich, stated:Whenever I go into the Bull Ring Post office to buy stamps, I almost always find a queue at both counters and the staff busy with one job or another. This surely is not a feature of a trading outlet that is not viable. In contrast, on the occasions I have called at the main post office there are rarely more than two positions manned and the staff are often 696 sitting around talking. I am not suggesting that the staff are lazy—but that the trade is spasmodic and mainly at peak periods, whereas trade at the Bull Ring is more regular and consistent. It would appear, therefore, to be financial suicide for the Post Office to shut down the Bull Ring branch.A final point. As a manager of a one-man shop, I have to close the shop to buy stamps. When buying at the Bull-Ring, this entails closing the shop for only a couple of minutes extra as I buy them on my daily visit to the bank. However, if I were forced to buy at the main post office, that would entail closing the shop for an extra 15 minutes approximately—so in what way does this decision by the Post Office help traders remain efficient? We all realise every trader (except nationalised ones) must be efficient to stay in business. This country cannot afford many more business losses.The post office at the Bull Ring serves many of the town's businesses, including solicitors, estate agents, traders and commercial businesses, and is also popular with many elderly people who cannot face climbing Witton Street to the main office. At times as many as four people arc employed on the main counter.
In a letter to the Chairman of the Northwich Post Office Advisory Committee, Mr. Arthur Platt, the head postmaster at Altrincham, Mr. V. Cooke, stated:little inconvenience should be experienced by the business sector in that part of the town.In a letter to Sir William Ryland, Chairman of the Post Office, I asked what evidence there was for that statement, which runs contrary to the unanimous opinion of business people in Northwich. In a reply dated 14th April. the Managing Director of the Post Office, Mr. A. Currall, makes no attempt to answer that question It is clear that a great deal of inconvenience would be experienced if the Bull Ring sub-post office were to close.
In my letter of 16th March to Sir William, I asked for details of the business conducted at the sub-post office in the last few years, compared with the business conducted at the main office. I informed him that I had written to you. Mr. Deputy Speaker, asking leave to raise this matter for debate on the Adjournment of the House. To my great disappointment, though with little surprise, I have to inform you that in the reply from the Post Office no details are given about the business conducted at either of the post offices.
697 Mr. Currall wrote:although the Bull-Ring is a busy office, the amount of business transacted is considerably less than that of the nearby Crown Post Office. The head postmaster provided some figures confidentially to the Post Office Advisory Committee to illustrate this point which he was invited to attend after you had written to Sir William Ryland.I shall be grateful if the Under-Secretary can say why these figures are confidential and why they are not available to the House. It is quite extraordinary that we should he expected to debate this mattter without the benefit of figures which I specifically requested six weeks ago and which have now been categorised as confidential.
It may be the view of the Post Office and the Government that the closure of the Bull Ring sub-post office is of no concern to this House or to my constituents and that we should be denied the necessary information on which to base our deliberations. If that is so, I very much hope that the Under-Secretary of State will say so himself in terms or on the other hand, and preferably, produce the information for the benefit of the House and my constituents, my constituents having a strong influence in the matter, as, I am sure, has the House.
Mr. Currall continued in his letter to me dated 14th April thatPost Office counter business has declined in the past year by 8 per cent. owing primarily to the withdrawal of the national insurance stamp.He then wrote:the withdrawal of the national savings stamp at the end of 1976 after allowing for the additional traffic that a new television stamp will generate, will result in a further loss of around 4 per cent, of counter traffic.I appreciate that it is the duty of the Post Office to contain counter costs as far as it can, but I cannot see that the general circumstances recited by Mr. Currall have any relevance to the specific case of the Bull Ring sub-post office at Northwich, which is a particularly thriving enterprise. It is almost as if Marks and Spencer were to say "We are closing our busiest store in Oxford Street because we foresee problems facing us in the Outer Hebrides". If, contrary to the unanimous view in Northwich, the Bull Ring sub-post office is not a thriving enterprise, I very much hope that the Under-Secretary of State will produce the facts to support such a contention.
698 Particular concern has been expressed at the role of the Northwich Post Office Advisory Committee in this matter. I take the opportunity of paying a tribute to its efforts to save the Bull Ring sub-post office. It appears that the committee is now the only one still in existence within the area covered by the Altrincham Head Office. I shall be most grateful if the hon. Gentleman will let me know whether it is the policy of the Post Office to discourage such committees or whether it has no policy towards them.
Feelings in Northwich are very strong that decisions have been taken by the man in Whitehall, or perhaps more accurately I should say by the man in Manchester, without the slightest notice being taken of local opinion. The head postmaster in Altrincham notified the local Post Office advisory committee on 2nd March that the sub-postmaster had resigned and that after full consideration it was decided that the office should be closed. The notification took place prior to any consultation. A consultation took place after the decision had been made known to the committee. I cannot see how that fulfils any of the criteria normally related to the word "consultation". The consultation should have taken place in advance not only of action being taken but of the taking of the decision.
Following the meeting between the Post Office advisory committee and Mr. Cooke, a letter dated 15th April and received on 21st April was sent to Mr. Harold Hocking, the Northwich Town Clerk, in which Mr. Cooke wrote thatresultant upon that meeting much further thought has been given to the case by myself, by my Regional Headquarters, and at Post Office Headquarters, and to date I have not received the final decision from my headquarters and have thus made no public announcement.Surprisingly, however, a letter from Mr. Currall, Managing Director of the Post Office, was sent to me on 14th April, the day before Mr. Cooke's letter, in which he says:having personally examined the case I must support the Head Postmaster's decision.It seems that there has been an unfortunate lack of communication both within the Post Office and between the Post Office and the Post Office advisory committee. It seems apparent that the 699 decision had already been taken at the time when Mr. Cooke wrote to Mr. Hocking on 15th April.
In a letter dated 13th April to the head postmaster at Altrincham, the Town Clerk of Northwich, on the instruction of the Northwich Town Council, wrote as follows:At last night's meeting of the Town Council the Town Mayor (Councillor Harold Fletcher) reported on his attendance at the meeting of the Northwich Post Office Advisory Committee held on the 1st April 1976, when you discussed with the Committee your decision regarding the future of the above sub-post office. According to the Town Mayor you stated during the above meeting that the Northwich Advisory Committee was now the only surviving committee in your area which appears to support the views of the Town Council that such advisory committees will only continue to function if they are permitted to operate in an effective manner and, in this connection, I would refer to your letter to me of the 24th March last in which the following paragraph appears.Then Mr. Hocking quotes:'The Post Office Advisory Committee is a body set up in an area by local people, and not by the Post Office, for the purpose of considering the needs of that area in so far as Post Office services are concerned. The Committee meets quarterly and, when there are items of the Agenda, which require comment or explanation, they invite the Head Postmaster or the General Manager, Telephones, or their respective representatives to the meetings.'Mr. Hocking continues:As far as I am aware the Post Office Users Council was established by Section 14 of the Post Office Act 1969, and Section 15 of that Act reads"—and he quotes:'"Before the Post Office so puts into effect any major proposals relating to any of its main services as to affect the persons for whom they are provided, it shall be incumbent on it subject to the next following subsection, to refer the proposals to, and consult thereon with, the Post Office Users' National Council.'Mr. Hocking says:In my opinion the word 'consult' in the above mentioned Section 15 means in law that you must supply the Advisory Committee with sufficient information to enable them to tender advice to you on such matters as the future of the above Sub-Post Office and also give them sufficient opportunity to tender their advice.He continues:Your letter appears to indicate that you consider you are at liberty to reach a decision 700 on the future of the Bull Ring sub-post office and then, as stated in your letter"—and he quotes,'to explain how and why the conclusions have been reached'".Mr. Hocking continues:The Town Council have instructed me to take up with the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and the Post Office Users' National Council, the question of the role of Advisory Committees having regard to the procedure adopted in this particular case but, before taking any further action, I would welcome your further observations on this matter.Fortunately, this House will be relieved to know that we are not too late to save the situation. The Bull Ring sub-post office has not yet been closed. In view of the serious implications of the points raised in the Town Clerk's letter from which I have quoted, and of the wholly unsatisfactory explanations which have been forthcoming, I appeal to the Under-Secretary to tell the House on behalf of the Government that it is the Government's intention to reverse the decision to close the Bull Ring sub-post office until the whole matter has at least been the subject of a thorough inquiry, the results of which should be made public and available to my constituents and should be reported to the House. Once that has taken place, I am sure that it will be seen that there is no possible justification for withdrawing from my constituents a service which is so vital to them and which has been provided so efficiently by a very thriving and viable sub-post office.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Les Huckfield)
I should like first to thank the hon. Member for Northwich (Mr. Goodlad) for the kind remarks and good wishes that he has expressed, and to congratulate him on the excellent and very comprehensive way in which he has dealt with this matter on behalf of his constituents. I can imagine the problems of the hon. Members' constituents. Not long ago I was a Back Bencher and raised similar problems with my present Department. Until something like this happens the Post Office is often taken for granted because of the comprehensive nature of the services which it provides. The hon. Member for Northwich expressed the feelings and difficulties of his constituents very well.
701 Let me begin by making it clear that the Government are not responsible for the provision of or closure of post offices or, as in this case, sub-post offices. The Post Office, by an Act of 1969, is no longer a Government Department. By that legislation it was made a nationalised corporation. In giving the Post Office full responsibility in the 1969 Act to operate as a nationalised corporation, Parliament clearly intended to remove any need for the House to intervene in matters affecting the day-to-day manage-men of the services provided by the Post Office.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry has certain reserve powers under the Act to give the Post Office directions, but only of a general character. I am sure the House would agree that it was not intended that these powers should be used in respect of day-to-day management decisions affecting particular sub-offices. The Post Office has a statutory obligation to exercise its powers in providing a postal service, including counter services, so as to meet efficiently and with economy the social, industrial and commercial needs of the British Isles.
The broad criterion which the Post Office adopts in reviewing the need for a sub-post office is that an office is not normally opened within one mile of an existing office in a town, or within two miles in a rural area. Local factors are also taken into account. These include the volume of business transacted at the office concerned, the nature and terrain of the area it serves, and the availability of local bus services. The Post Office assures me that it also gives full consideration to the needs of local residents, retirement pensioners in particular. Many pensioners in my constituency are not very mobile. Well before the event, local authorities and Post Office advisory committees are notified of any impending closures and the reasons for them. Their views and those of other interested parties are taken fully into account before a final decision is reached.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the lack of information about business transacted at this sub-post office, but the figures that he sought are not mine to give. The Post Office regards it as important not to publish such information for security reasons. I am sure that the 702 hon. Gentleman understands that. The district head postmaster gave the advisory committee comparative percentages of business between the Bull Ring sub-post office and the Northwich Crown office.
I remind the House of the corporation's policy in respect of the provision and closure of sub-post offices. There are now 22,000 sub-post offices, which, together with 1,600 Crown offices, represent an area served per post office and population served per office one of the best services in the world. The rate of net decline is less than ½ per cent. per year.
This certainly does not bear out any suggestion that the Post Office is failing in its responsibility under the 1969 Post Office Act to provide adequate counter services for national needs. The provision of sub-post offices is important. The Government recognises this. The Post Office recognises it, too. It has stated publicly that substantial changes in numbers of offices will not be made.
I now turn to the question of consultation. I cannot accept what the hon. Member for Northwich has said about the inadequacy of the consultation procedures, either as they apply to normal Post Office proposals for closures of particular post offices, or to the more general issues affecting customers or users of the Post Office services.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, too, in his constituency duties has come across the Post Office Users' National Council. Only today my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry announced that parcel charges would be increased not by 25 per cent. but by only 13 per cent., very much as a result of the council's representations. Therefore, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have an effective watchdog.
The arrangements and procedures are part of a continuous dialogue between the industry and its users. Nobody is barred from putting forward his views and complaints about services. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Post Office welcomes the committees as useful sources of advice on local needs and problems, but their status is as set out in the letter from the Post Office official which the hon. Gentleman quoted. They are not 703 statutory bodies, but rely on being spontaneously generated by local enterprise, whether local authorities or chambers of commerce.
The hon. Gentleman can also have a rôle to play. If he does not find that the advisory committee procedure is sufficiently active in his constituency, he can do a great deal to encourage a more active local machinery. The consultation procedures have been established for some time and are therefore well tried.
I understand that the proposal to close the Bull Ring sub-post office in Northwich was notified to the local Post Office advisory committee some three months in advance of the proposed closure date and that the district head postmaster in person explained to the committee the facts on which his proposal to close it was based.
I do not know how the proposed closure burst into Press before all the normal procedures had been followed, but I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that it was no part of the intention of the Post Office to present his constituents with a fait accompli which they could not discuss. I have already stressed the comprehensive nature of the normal Post Office consultation procedure.
704 The Post Office had strong reservations about the suitability of the counter and access facilities of the Bull Ring sub-post office. I understand that within half a mile three alternative post offices, especially the Northwich Crown office, are available to handle business. The Post Office takes local factors into consideration before coming to final conclusions, after submitting the matter to the normal consultative procedure.
It would not be proper for me to intervene in the normal day-to-day operational affairs of the Post Office. Therefore, I could not reverse the decision in this case. However, having noted the way in which the hon. Gentleman has put his case on behalf of his constituents, I shall expressly draw the attention of the Chairman of the Post Office Corporation, Sir William Ryland, to the points he has made. I am sure that the Post Office will take careful note of them.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will regard this as a very useful debate. I am only sorry that I cannot give him some better news to take to his constituency this weekend.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.