HC Deb 16 November 1982 vol 32 cc253-8

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

11.42 pm
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

I should like to draw the Minister of State's attention to our proceedings on 19 February 1980 when we had a considerable debate on Post Office closures. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) opened the debate for the Opposition. He drew the attention of the Secretary of State for Social Services to the closures that would be caused by the Government's proposals. The Minister will probably remember the demonstration and lobby at the House by sub-postmasters. It seems that now the chickens have come home to roost. The Post Office closures have taken their toll.

There are 635 constituencies in this country. If a sub-post office closed in each one, there would be 635 closures. There has been a similar amount of closures since the Conservative Government took office. However, there has not been an average of one closure in each constituency. There have been four closures in the rural areas in my constituency. There has been nothing but suffering following the decision of the postmaster in Nottingham.

The rural post office service is under threat because of the events of the past few years. The number of rural post offices continues to fall. No doubt the Minister has been provided with the number of sub-post offices three years ago and the present number. The figures reveal declining rural post office services.

On 19 February 1980 the then Secretary of State for Social Services said: The Government came into office committed to examine the cost and efficiency of the public sector and, wherever possible, to make savings in administration."—[Official Report, 19 February 1980; Vol. 979, c. 273.] It seems that that is exactly what is happening. Those in rural areas, especially the elderly and young mothers, are being denied the right to a service that has been theirs for many years. This is happening across the nation but my constituency has been hit especially hard.

I agree with many of the comments that have been made, even by the Government, to the effect that the provision of a sub-post office involves someone taking on the job of running it and at the same time selling various commodities. The result is that various licences are issued. The Department of Health and Social Security uses sub-post offices in the rural areas quite heavily for Girocheques for pensions, children's allowance, unemployment benefit and for payments to those who are sick or away from work due to an accident.

There are many in rural areas who regard the sub-post office as a bank. However, the service that is provided by it is being denied to so many. The Ashfield district council has its rental payments paid at post offices. Tenants take their books to post offices.

Most local authorities carry rent arrears. The loss of a local post office encourages some tenants not to pay their rent and to go into arrears. That happens if the service that has been provided for many years is withdrawn.

The most recent closure took place because the post office service was provided in a co-operative shop. The shop provided also the services of the Nationwide building society and a bank. When the co-operative society decided to close the shop, the post office went too.

The area concerned is one of the largest parishes in the country, with more than 11,000 people. The centre of the village, where the post office was, lies in a basin. The loss of the post office means that people now have to go to the outer perimeter of the village for post office services. In the central part of the village there are a number of complexes where elderly people live, and many mothers with young children. Moreover, because the village is in the middle of a mining area many of the elderly people who have retired after a lifetime's service in the pits suffer from chest complaints. Yet they are now expected to climb a hill in one direction or the other to the post office yonder.

The people of that area demonstrated their views powerfully, although in an orderly fashion, when they sent the postmaster a petition begging him to provide a local service. A local newsagent then expressed a willingness to take the job on. As the newsagent's shop had been built as a post office in the first place, there would have been no problem about security.

I know that there are supposed to be guidelines on these things, but I am at a loss to understand what is going on. In view of what the Secretary of State for Social Services said about saving money in the public sector I can only conclude that pressure is being applied over and above the guidelines and that is why there is to be no post office in that central area. The local authority has decided to develop the area by providing more shops. We already have a supermarket and there is to be a health centre across the road. The lady running one of the shops is quite prepared to take the post office job on.

I quote from a briefing given by the National Council For Voluntary Organisations: One interesting point about rural post offices is that in many villages where the proportion of pensioners and other recipients of State benefits is high, correspondingly the proportion of DHSS agency business in that local post office may be much higher than the national figure of about 35 per cent. and it can reach 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. That is almost the case in the area to which I refer. Yet the postmaster is adamant that a post office will not be provided.

I therefore applied for this Adjournment debate in the hope that the Minister will take note of what has happened and influence the Post Office to provide those people with the services to which they are entitled. I cite the wonderful example of an old lady of 86 who did not draw her pension for six weeks after the sub-post office was closed. In the end, someone had to take her. There are other problems. It is fair enough to suggest that someone should fetch the pensioners and others who cannot climb the hill and help them as much as possible. At the same time, they are entitled to a certain amount of privacy. Not every old-age pensioner wants everyone to know his business.

The newsagent who offered to take on the sub-post office recently said that she would operate it for nothing. Surely that is an incentive for the postmaster to provide the so desperately needed service. The guidelines refer to distances between post offices, the terrain and profitability. Those guidelines fit the problem in the village of Selston. Yet the postmaster has seen fit to turn down the application.

I hope that the Minister has listened carefully. I hope that he will use his influence to secure the provision of a sub-post office in Selston.

11.56 pm
The Minister for Industry and Information Technology (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

I wish to convey to the House the apologies of the Under-Secretary of State who deals with such matters and who should have replied to the debate tonight. His wife went into labour earlier today, and he is at her bedside. I am pleased to reply to the debate. The hon. Gentleman has fulfilled a pledge that he gave in his local newspaper to bring the matter to Parliament.

The Government are conscious of the importance of sub-post offices in rural areas. They are not only providers of important business services but are community meeting places that meet a social need. In many small communities they provide the necessary cement for the community.

In the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks he implied that there was a Government policy to reduce the numbers of sub-post offices. I do not want to make a political point, but I have the figures for closures during the past few years. During the lifetime of the Labour Government, the closures averaged about 200 a year. In the financial year ending March 1974, 234 closed; in 1975, 216; in 1976, 256; in 1977, 261; in 1978, 201 and in 1979, 129. The rate of closure fell a little in 1980 to 157, and in 1981 to 162. In the year ending March 1982 it fell to 62. Since March this year only six have closed. The matter has nothing to do with politics. I assure the hon. Gentleman that in no way have I or any of my predecessors influenced the Post Office on sub-post office policy.

I fully understand the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman. The future of sub-post offices, especially in rural communities, is of concern to the Government. Ministers have frequently referred to the value that they attach to sub-post offices as a central part of rural community life. The matter was debated 18 months and two years ago. That is why my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Social Services—he is now the Secretary of State for Industry—in his statement to the House on 12 May 1981 pledged to ensure the maintenance of an adequate sub-post office network. I welcome the opportunity to reiterate that commitment.

The hon. Gentleman may find it helpful if I set out the statutory position. In common with other nationalised industries, the Post Office is responsible for managing its day-to-day affairs under the powers that were vested in it when it was established as a public corporation by the Post Office Act 1969. The legislation also imposed a duty on the Post Office, in exercising those powers, to have regard to efficiency and economy and also to the social, industrial and commercial needs of the community. I remember those words being repeated as I took the British Telecommunications Bill through the House in 1981.

The nature and scale of counter services in a locality are, therefore, operational matters for the Post Office. A decision whether to close a post or sub-post office is one for the corporation. I therefore completely refute the hon. Gentleman's allegation that the Government are putting pressure on the Post Office to close sub-post offices. That is untrue. No Government has done that. The previous Labour Government did not do that. Governments do not have the power to do so.

Successive Governments have taken the view that it would not be right, even if they had the necessary powers, to intervene in the detailed provision of sub-post offices. I repeat, however, that the Government are committed to the maintenance of an adequate sub-post office network.

I shall now deal with Post Office policy on the provision and closure of sub-post offices. The hon. Gentleman expressed disquiet about the criteria. I understand that it is based on the need to maintain a balance between the reasonable needs of the local community and the cost of meeting those needs. In practical terms, that translates into a broad criterion that a post office is not normally opened or replaced within one mile of an existing office in a town or within two miles of an existing office in a rural area. Those standards are not applied rigidly, and many other factors are taken into account. Such factors include the volume of business that is transacted at the office concerned, the nature and terrain of the area that it serves and the availability of bus services.

In view of the hon. Gentleman's comments about the aged and the infirm, I emphasise that the Post Office specifically consider the needs of that group. The procedure for the closure of an office takes careful account of all those factors and provides for consultation with local representatives to ensure that local interests are taken fully into account.

Although those criteria have applied for a considerable time, the opportunity to consider whether a sub-post office is replaced usually occurs on the resignation or retirement of the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress or, in this case, the closure of the local co-operative society shop. As those positions might have been held for a long time, during which population movements could have taken place, the circumstances in which the original sub-post office was justified may change significantly. In each case, the post office must balance the need to serve the community and the need to provide a service at a reasonable price.

I accept that in some cases the decision may seem harsh. Nevertheless, I know that the Post Office takes a great deal of care when making decisions about closing sub-post offices. The examinations are carried out most thoroughly. It should not be forgotten, however, that in some cases an office has to be closed because no suitable applicant for the sub-postmastership can be found.

I have asked the Post Office to provide me with details of the case that has been raised by the hon. Gentleman. The village of Selston had three sub-post offices until the closure of the central sub-post office at the end of August 1982 as a result of the closure of the shop that housed it. As the two remaining sub-post offices at each end of the village are some 1.3 miles apart—well within the normal two-mile criterion for rural sub-post offices—the head postmaster did not think that a replacement sub-post office would be justified, particularly taking into account the fact that one of the remaining sub-postmasters has offered to deliver pensions at no extra cost and there is the existence, I understand, of an hourly bus service. One applicant, who, as the hon. Gentleman said, has received considerable publicity, through her offer to provide a service free, has been turned down on the grounds that her premises are less than half a mile from the existing sub-post office. The Post Office has commented that it would still have to meet the initial costs of setting up a service, including security and future administrative costs. There is only a limited amount of business available. A new sub-post office would take business away from the existing two sub-post offices.

The hon. Gentleman asked if I would exercise powers to try to ensure that the sub-post office was reinstated. I do not have those powers. I would not seek to exert pressure on the Post Office. I have looked into the case in some detail. I am satisfied that the Post Office has operated its procedures. I am sorry that it has given inconvenience to some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents. I feel, however, that the procedures have been followed properly and reasonably. I would not wish to bring any influence to bear to try to ensure that they are reversed. I am following the precedent that all Ministers who have been responsible for these matters in the past have followed. It is surely right that a body like the Post Office, which is very responsible and aware of its social responsibilities, should be allowed in these matters to conduct its affairs in its own way.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Twelve o'clock.