HC Deb 13 April 1984 vol 58 cc691-6 1.31 pm
Mr. John Hunt (Ravensbourne)

I welcome the opportunity to initiate a short debate on an issue of great importance and concern to many people in my constituency. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who has, I know, come to answer the debate at some personal inconvenience.

This is indeed Friday the 13th for the Chilham way sub-post office in my constituency, because tomorrow the post office will close its door. The purpose of this short debate is to register the strongest possible protest on behalf of myself and my constituents at what we regard as an arrogant and arbitrary decision by the Post Office.

Chilham way is part of the Hayes place estate, which is a small post-war council estate. It was completed at about the time when I was first elected to Bromley council for that ward in 1953, so I know the estate well. A feature of the development was the provision of accommodation for the elderly in the vicinity of Chilham way, where the council also provided a small shopping parade, including the post office and newsagents shop, which is now to close.

This little precinct within the estate is a meeting place for the elderly. The present sub-postmaster, Mr. Wiggins, who is retiring—which is, I think, partly the reason for the closure—tells me that no fewer than 80 per cent. of his customers are pensioners, which is, I believe, an above-average proportion for post offices. There is now a fear that without this post office the other shops in the precinct will no longer be viable and will also close. That would be a tragic blow to the whole community in that part of my constituency.

The closure of this post office has aroused anger and anxiety among many people living in the Hayes area of my constituency. On the afternoon of 24 February of this year I visited the Chilham way sub-post office to receive a petition which had been signed by well over 1,000 local residents. The petition pleaded for the retention of the post office. I recall that it was a bitterly cold afternoon, and for me it was a moving and touching experience to see how many elderly, frail and infirm people had turned up to make their personal plea to me for the retention of their post office.

I passed the petition which they presented to me to the local head postmaster, and I wrote on a number of occasions both to him and the chairman of the Post Office. I was left with the distinct impression that the decision had already been taken and that the representations from myself, from Bromley council, from the Hayes Village Association, from the parochial church council and from countless individuals within the area were being treated with scant regard and with minimal concern for the interests of the Hayes community. It is our feeling that the decision has been taken in a rushed and precipitate way, which to us shows that no real consideration has been given to the many representations which have been made for further thought about the closure.

My hon. Friend will know that in 1981 a code of practice on the closure of sub-offices was agreed between the Post Office and the Post Office Users National Council. It is my contention that the code has been breached in this instance. In the code are six specific points which the head postmaster is required to review in reaching his decision. Apart from the distance of other offices and the amount of business done, point 3 is: The type of business done (eg are a lot of pensions paid?) Point 4 reads: The difficulty customers would face in getting to another office (eg is there a suitable bus service? Would there be steep hills?) I have already said that the Hayes place estate, in which the sub-post office is situated, houses an above-average proportion of pensioners. I have told the House that 80 per cent. of the users of the post office are pensioners.

In a letter to me dated 23 March the head postmaster, Mr. F. Wade, who has recently come to the post office in Bromley, told me: Our first and primary consideration is whether closure would result in undue inconvenience to the local community, and in the case of Chilham Way we are content that it would not and that adequate alternative Post Office counter facilities exist. I challenge that. The head postmaster maintains that the nearest post office in Hayes street in Hayes village is less than half a mile away and that there is another post office in Station approach, which is within three quarters of a mile. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will advance the same arguments when he replies. I agree that the two nearest post offices are half a mile and three quarters of a mile away from the Chilham sub-post office, but in both instances there is a lack of public transport and a steep incline for elderly pensioners to negotiate.

I asked the head postmaster whether he could quantify the financial savings that are likely to result from the closure of the sub-post office. We have all assumed that that is the principal reason for the decision to close it. The head postmaster's reply was extraordinary. He said that it would I feel be a distortion to quote the financial grounds since this would tend to cloud the main issue. He did not specify the main issue. He went on: Suffice to say that having satisfied ourselves on the service to our customers aspect, the closure of this office will produce a worthwhile financial saving. Again he gave no more details. We are entitled to more precise information and I hope that my hon. Friend will be a little more specific.

In a letter to me dated 1 March, the chairman of the Post Office, Mr. Ron Dearing, who, throughout the controversy, has tried to pass the buck to his local head postmaster, told me that the Post Office have to balance carefully the service we give our customers with the cost of providing it". I accept that, but we, as customers, are entitled at least to see the balance sheet.

Later in that same letter Mr. Ron. Dearing dismissed the possibility of hardship being caused to the elderly by the closure of the Chilham way sub-post office. He said: You may find it helpful to know that where pensioners are unable to make the journey themselves we offer the facility for a friend or relative to collect their pension for them and this works very successfully in many places. That may be so, but that comment ignores the social benefit that pensioners derive from meeting and chatting with people during their weekly visits to the post office. For many of them that is their only outing of the week. To take that outing from them in that way is cruel and insensitive.

I have been in touch also with the Post Office Users National Council, whose role has been somewhat less positive than I should have liked or expected. In its reply to me of 5 March, POUNC referred to the pressures that have been building up in recent years with a declining agency business and tight Government financial targets. In his letter to me, Mr. J. F. Heath, the secretary of POUNC said that the pressures are putting the Post Office in an increasingly difficult dilemma with trying to provide a valued social service at the same time as running a commercially effective retail network. I hope that my hon. Friend will comment on that point, because it is important to reiterate that the Post Office is more than just a commercial operation and that the Government's financial targets, necessary though they may be, must take accont of the Post Office's social obligations to the community it serves. I hope that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that principle.

I hope that my hon. Friend is prepared to ask the Post Office, even at this eleventh hour, to look at this closure again to ascertain whether it can, after all, recruit a new postmaster and continue to provide a local service that is much needed for and valued by the residents of the Hayes place estate. In almost 20 years as a Member of Parliament I have rarely felt a greater sense of anger and outrage at any official decision than I have at this one, which crucially affects my constituency.

I hope that my hon. Friend will tell the Secretary of State and other Ministers that we in Bromley have recently been living in what I can only call "a climate of cuts". It has been a depressing and demoralising experience. We have had cuts in our local health service and train service, and now we have the closure of this post office. It is affecting the quality of life in my constituency in an unwelcome and unacceptable way. I hope that we shall have no more of it.

1.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. David Trippier)

May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) for the kind things that he has said about me. I fully understand his anxiety about the Post Office's decision to close Chilham way sub-post office in his constituency. I pay him a warm tribute. He is always vociferous and diligent on behalf of his constituents. I recognise that no post office closure is popular because, by definition, it means that some people who have used that office will have to travel further to the nearest alternative. It will also mean a change in the routine for customers.

I fully appreciate that for many people, especially the elderly and the infirm, that can be unwelcome. I am sure that I do not have to convince the House of the valuable role that post offices play in local communities, not just as providers of services, but often as community meeting places that fulfil a social need—a point on which my hon. Friend touched.

The Government recognise that role. However, it should be recognised that the Post Office is a commercial organisation, and it is right that it should look at ways of improving efficiency. While always mindful of its social obligations, it must strike a balance between those and the need to provide services in a cost-effective way. In the case of the Chilham way sub-post office, the Post Office feels that striking that balance requires that the office should close.

I should stress that the Post Office does not take such a decision lightly. As my hon. Friend will be aware from the vigorous representations that he has made to the Post Office in connection with the Chilham way sub-office, although it is not a statutory requirement, the Post Office follows a careful procedure which ensures that there is full consultation before a final decision is made. My hon Friend responded to the invitation to submit his views to the Post Office in his customary and conscientious manner.

The sub-postmaster of Chilham way tendered his resignation on 16 January this year, to take effect as from 16 April. In accordance with the Post Office's standard practice, the continuing need for the office was reviewed. Such reviews take into account the distance from other offices, the amount and type of business that is done, the difficulties that customers would face in getting to another office, the ability of nearby offices to absorb the additional work and the likely future development of the area.

In the case of offices such as Chilham way, which are in built-up areas, the Post Office has for many years aimed to provide counters at one-mile intervals. Given that there are four offices within a mile of Chilham way, and taking account of the other factors that I have mentioned, a preliminary assessment was that the office could be considered for possible closure. On 13 February, in accordance with the usual consultation procedure, the Post Office wrote to the interested parties, including my hon. Friend, the local chamber of commerce and the London borough of Bromley, seeking their comments on the proposed closure.

After carefully considering all local views, including a petition which my hon. Friend presented to the head postmaster at Bromley, it was decided that the office should close, and interested parties were informed on 13 March. Taking into account all the circumstances, the Post Office does not believe that the closure will cause undue inconvenience to the local community, given the close proximity of alternative offices.

My hon. Friend mentioned the code of practice agreed between the Post Office and the Post Office Users National Council in 1981, and asked whether it has been followed in this case. I am satisfied that it has been. I am told that Hayesford park sub-post office is 1,300 yards away. That, of course, is the walking distance. Westmoreland road sub-post office is about one mile away, and although the Post Office would not regard this as a suitable alternative for many of those who currently use Chilham way sub-post office for pension and other benefit payments, it is possible that some of those who use Chilham way may live in parts of Hayes, which would make Westmoreland road sub-post office a reasonable alternative.

To the south of Chilham way sub-post office, on the other hand, there are two other sub-post offices which the Post Office considers to be reasonable alternatives. Hayes sub-post office—generally referred to as Hayes village post office, I believe—is less than half a mile's walking distance away. The sub-post office in Station road, Hayes, is also an alternative, being only about 1,000 yards from Chilham way sub-post office and, of course, being close to Hayes main line station, it will be convenient for those who use Chilham way sub-post office and also use the train from time to time.

I am informed that the nearest chemist's shop is in Hayes village, that the Station road sub-post office is situated in a shopping area, and that the terrain is not unduly hilly or difficult. Many people using Chilham way sub-post office will make regular visits to one or other of those areas. If, however, there should remain people who, while able to reach Chilham way, are unable to reach one of the alternatives that I have mentioned, the Post Office provides a facility for pensions to be collected on their behalf by a nominee.

My hon. Friend pointed out that many pensioners use Chilham way. An post offices have a number of pensioners among those who use their services, and I hope my hon. Friend will see from what I have said that the Post Office does take into account the needs of pensioners when coming to decisions on closures. While I understand my hon. Friend's disappointment with the decision not to keep Chilham way sub-post office open, it should be recognised that it is an operational one for the Post Office to take and not one in which the Government may intervene.

The Post Office was a Government Department until 1969, when the Post Office Act established it as a public corporation. In common with other nationalised industries, the Post Office was given considerable powers of autonomy in that Act for the management of its day-to-day business. It has been accepted by successive Governments that it is for the Post Office to run the business, with Government involvement limited to detailed discussion of broad policy matters and, of course, the setting of financial and performance targets. My hon. Friend referred to those targets in his speech and questioned whether they were instrumental in the closure of Chilham way sub-post office. While the Post Office naturally has proper regard for its financial targets, the decisions that head postmasters take on sub-post office closures are based not on those targets but on the applicaton of long-standing Post Office criteria.

On a related issue, my hon. Friend referred to the fact that the head postmaster had been unwilling to quantify the savings from the closure of the sub-post office. I do not find that surprising, partly because such information would be commercially sensitive, as it would relate largely to the remuneration of the present sub-postmaster.

The Government's concern is in the Crown and sub-post office network as a whole, and in the adequacy of the network to enable the Post Office to fulfil its statutory duties and provide efficient services which meet the needs of the community. The Government have consistently made clear their commitment to the maintenance of an adequate network. However, it is up to the Post Office to run that network and make decisions about opening and closing specific offices.

As I have mentioned, since 1945 the Post Office has aimed to locate post offices at one-mile intervals in urban areas. This, it believes, is representative of the fair balance between the service its customers would like and the costs involved. This distance standard is not applied rigidly. Account is also taken of other factors, such as the age of the population, the terrain, likely development in the area and the availability of public transport, and the ability of neighbouring offices to absorb the additional work.

Up to the late 1960s the network grew due to new housing development, population growth and growth in business. During the past 15 years, however, there has been a decline of population in inner city areas. A review of the urban counter network, the first for many years, was carried out in the early part of 1983. It showed that while a major network of post offices was well justified, there was over-provision in urban areas against the distance criterion. It was this review that led to the announcement by the Post Office in February of its decision to phase out a number of main and sub-post offices.

The Government were fully advised by the Post Office of its plans to reduce the network in inner-city areas and are satisfied that the Post Office has taken ample account of its social duties in reducing the network to a more efficient size without prejudicing the one-mile distance criterion. Neither the review nor the closure programme extends to offices in rural areas.

The Post Office has confirmed that in making decisions about specific closures within the overall programme the existing procedure for consultation with interested parties will be maintained, as the Post Office has no desire to cause hardship and would wish to be fully aware of any special circumstances which it would consider before coming to any final decision on whether to close or keep open a sub-post office.

Mr. John Hunt

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that, in this case, the time scale has been extremely short? He said that the original closure proposal was made on 13 February and confirmed on 13 March to take place on 14 April. That is inconsistent with his assertion that adequate time was given for consultation.

Mr. Trippier

I considered carefully the timetable, recognising, as my hon. Friend has acknowledged, that full consultation took place. I am satisfied that adequate time was given.

I would just add that there are already in existence schemes for compensating sub-postmasters whose offices are closed by the Post Office, and an improved scheme for closure in connection with the network review has been agreed with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters.

I should stress that the review of post offices in urban areas and the programme of closures should not be seen in isolation. To do so would be to give a misleading and negative picture of the future of the network. The review of the provision of counters in cities is part of the overall strategy to secure the long-term future of what will still be by far the largest retail network in the country. Also included are the Post Office's recently announced plans for automatic counters. These plans are not just aimed at reducing costs, although as a commercial organisation the Post Office must clearly give a prominent place to these factors in any plans for the future. The plans are more than that; they look to establishing an extensive network of post offices which are linked by computer both internally and externally to their main customers and present exciting possibilities for the Post Office to offer new services and facilities for customers. It is not only right but essential for the Post Office to keep its operations under review to ensure that it responds both to the needs of its customers and the need to operate efficiently and effectively.

The Post Office is very conscious of the fact that a decision to close a sub-post office is unpopular with certain members of the community. It is aware that decisions need to be taken carefully and only after a thorough consideration of all the relevant circumstances. It is aware of the importance of sub-post offices to the local community, and it serves it no purpose to offend or upset the people who use the services provided over its counters network. I have seen no evidence to suggest to me that its decision on Chilham way departs from its normal thorough and reasonable consideration of all the issues, including local representations.