HC Deb 21 November 1984 vol 68 cc295-6
19. Mr. Alexander

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if, in setting financial performance targets for the Post Office, he takes account of its social responsibility to provide necessary services and facilities to the community.

Mr. Pattie

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Alexander

Is it not a matter of regret that, while some Crown Post Offices, such as the one in Newark, have queues stretching into the street and that it takes almost 40 minutes to buy a book of stamps, there are proposals to close sub-post offices? Is it not a fact that the elderly and the handicapped rely on sub-post offices? Should it not be a matter of social policy that they are retained, or are those people to join the ever-burgeoning queues outside Crown post offices?

Mr. Pattie

As I said in my earlier answer, the queues in post offices and sub-post offices will have affected almost every hon. Member, and I am no exception in that regard. I have discussed the matter with the chairman of the Post Office Corporation, which led him to decide that there should be this moratorium on any further closures, certainly while the Department of Health and Social Security dispute continues.

I repeat to the House that the criteria under which the Post Office Corporation has long operated have been re-examined, especially the operation of the "one mile apart" criterion for post offices in urban areas. As I said in my first answer, post offices supply social needs, and we are satisfied that the Post Office Board has been able to balance the financial and managerial criteria with those of social need.

Mr. Fatchett

When the Minister replied to his hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander), was he saying that he had taken into account the Post Offices' social responsibilities in setting financial targets? Is it not also the case that the Minister has a responsibility to take account of the interests of, for example, the elderly in my constituency who will lose the service of a valued sub-post office? Is it not the case that his earlier answers were simply an exercise in handwashing and show that he is not prepared to meet the Government's responsibilities to look after those who depend on the services of the Post Office?

Mr. Pattie

That is not the case. The Government's responsibilities are to set the financial framework and to make certain that the Post Office is aware of its social responsibilities. How the Post Office meets those needs in relation to one sub-post office or another is a matter entirely for the Post Office Board.

Dr. Glyn

Is my hon. Friend aware that the arbitrary way in which post offices and sub-post offices are closed has a detrimental effect on the elderly and the disabled? His residual power must cover that point. Will he press the matter with the Post Office?

Mr. Pattie

My hon. Friend will be aware that representations made either by post or in the House are drawn to the attention of the chairman of the Post Office. I am certain that my hon. Friend's remarks will be noted in that quarter.

Mr. Ashdown

Does the Minister accept that it is the Government's own financial targets that are the underlying cause of the programme of closures of sub-post offices? Does he also accept that most people recognise that that is the case, and that closure has much more to do with sharing the misery doled out by the Government than the rationalisation programme of post offices? In view of the deep public anxiety about the long and short-term future of the Post Office, will the Minister use his best influence to ensure that the matter is debated on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Pattie

I thought that the hon. Gentleman would know by now that what is debated on the Floor of the House is not a matter for me. I am certain that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will have heard what he has just said. The hon. Gentleman asserted that it is the setting of the Government's targets that has caused this. That is not the case, because the Post Office, like all state-owned undertakings, needs a framework of proper commercial and managerial efficiency within which it can operate—the same as any other undertaking.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

Does my hon. Friend agree that the consultation procedure which is always supposed to follow a proposed post office closure is seen by the public as no more than a device for handling a decision which has been taken and will not be changed?

Mr. Pattie

My hon. Friend is making an assertion about what the public may think. The Post Office chairman and his board colleagues take seriously the consultation process, although the events may not always turn out as my hon. Friend's constituents may wish.