HC Deb 17 April 1985 vol 77 cc374-80

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

11.45 pm
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make known in the stongest terms the opposition of the people of Pontarddulais to the closure of their sub-post office at Bolgoed road.

I raised the matter on the Floor of the House on 28 February this year during the annual Welsh affairs debate. I then pointed out that the Post Office has a code of practice for the closure of post offices, which is supposed to take into account six factors. None of those factors seems to have been considered in relation to Bolgoed road post office, which serves people up to two miles away who will now have to walk 2½ miles to collect their pensions, benefits and stamps, because there is only one other office to cope with their business. They will have to join existing queues for service at that other office. Most of the people affected are pensioners who will have to negotiate a long hill into Pontarddulais. There is no regular or reliable bus service.

The closure will take place despite the fact that Pontarddulais is scheduled in the local plan, following the efforts of the local chamber of trade and County Councillor Gareth Williams, for further development.

There are six ways in which the code of practice should operate in favour of Bolgoed road post office. I have received over 100 letters from people in Pontarddulais protesting at the closure and asking me to do what I can to prevent it.

I shall read just three of those letters, which are short, to the point and representative, to illustrate the hardship that the closure will create. Miss E. Williams of 49 Bolgoed road states: May I make the following observations in connection with the closure of Bolgoed Road Post Office.

  1. 1. In recent years there has been such a great deal of additional building of houses, e.g. Pentre Road and the new Council Houses in Pantiago (which also cater for infirm and disabled persons), that the above-named Post Office has served not only the upper end of Pontardulais, but also these new estates.
  2. 2. Planning permission has also been granted for a new site for approx. 80/90 houses on the old Brickworks in Boigoed Road, which would mean further business for this Post Office.
  3. 3. Speaking on a personal basis, my Sister (an old-age Pensioner) is Blind and the only time she ventures out is to collect her Pension on a Thursday. The other residents of this road watch out for her so that they may help her across the road. This is her only walk of the week and she feels she accomplishes something herself by collecting her Pension. There is no way she would be able to walk down to the Dulais Road post office.
  4. 4. As I work from 8.0 a.m. to 5.0 p.m. and have to travel, there is no way I can collect her pension from the Dulais Road Post Office, and this would mean I would have to collect it on a Saturday morning.
  5. 5. At present the queues in the Dulais Road Post Office are not conducive to Old Age Pensioners, many of whom find it difficult enough to walk distances and then have to stand for a long time.

Surely, in this day and age, when there are so many Pensioners, it is ludicrous to even suggest closing a Post Office which serves so many people so well. Also, when so many people now purchase stamps for electricity, gas, television, etc., this again is a service, and should be preserved. The second letter comes from Mr. Victor Davies, of 11 Twyniago road, Pontarddulais. He says: Dear Sir,

As regards the closing of Bolgoed street Post Office, Pontardulais, this will mean to the wife and myself three quarters of a mile walking, as there are no buses available. We both are pensioners and are over 83 years old, 'registered disabled' persons, and unable to walk only very short distances. How we are going to manage I don't know. We have no children, and no relations at hand. The third letter is from Mr. W. B. Jones, of 208 St. Deilo street, Pontarddulais. He says: I am in total agreement with not closing Bolgoed road sub-post office. My wife prior to her death was the sub-postmistress there for many years and I have some knowledge of how convenient it was for the aged, a few who are blind and many who suffer the malady of rheumatism, etc. Add to this the people who now live in sheltered homes, now opened in this area, the new housing estate at Pentre road with its young mothers and children, etc., then one can see where opposition against such closure stems from. I also cannot see what the 'Crown Office' in Swansea would save by this closure, for it is the Sub Postmaster himself who pays the rent, rates and other overheads appertaining to the business, not the Crown Office. The office in Dulais road is not a 'Crown Office' but another 'sub-office'…but with the closure of Bolgoed Road he would obviously get a higher remuneration, the saving to the 'Crown Office' would be minimal and would do nothing to alleviate the catastrophe of larger queues on the short and narrow stretch of road which is used by buses and other vehicles. It would mean the appointment of traffic wardens and even police at times, and our rates are high enough without this addition. So speaking as a healthy old age pensioner and for ones not so healthy, may your fight against this closure be victorious. We thank you for your help. The Post Office document, "A Strategy for the Future", and Mr. Potter, chairman of Wales and the Marches Postal Board, speaking at the all-Wales conference on the closure of sub-post offices at Merthyr Tydfil on 15 February this year, said that urban sub-post offices must close so that the money saved can be spent on equipping Crown Offices with new technology, and on making them more attractive. The question is, attractive to whom? To the people in town who can already use a plethora of existing banks and building societies? One third of the Post Office's business is DHSS payments. Those customers need a local service. They do not want, nor can most of them afford, to pay bus fares to collect their pensions and benefits. The people of Pontarddulais tell me that they would sooner have their pensions and benefits paid into the bank than walk 2½ miles to collect it at the town post office.

Would the Minister, relatively young and fit as he is — and, at any rate as far as I can detect, free from arthritis and rheumatism — think it right that he should have to walk 2½ miles to collect his income each week? From his face, I note perhaps a lack of enthusiasm. Perhaps we are fortunate in this House not to have to walk many steps to enter the Members' post office. Yet this is the way the Post Office intends to expand its business, despite knowing that more and more of its customers are already opting for their pensions and benefits to be paid directly into their bank.

Mr. Potter said that if people use automatic telling machines outside post offices, they would go inside the post office to do other business. I disagree completely. People use automatic machines outside banks so that they will not have to queue inside, are not confined to one bank and can obtain cash outside bank hours.

The strength of the Post Office is its extensive local network. If people do not have a post office within easy reach, they will not use the service except to stock up on stamps. The attempt to turn post offices into banks will hasten their decline, not reverse it.

What about the social functions, supposedly laid down by statute, that the Post Office claims it cares about? Certainly the Post Office does not care about the social function of Bolgoed road sub-post office. The Post Office informed me in a letter dated 7 August 1984 that pensioners could nominate someone else to collect their pension. That showed a complete disregard of the morning spent on an hour's walk to the post office and back, with extra time spent chatting to friends on the way. That is what many pensioners do. Apart from the fact that they enjoy it, it is good for them to get out and be independent. That will be denied to the customers of Bolgoed road because they would have to walk too far, but the Post Office does not care. The Post Office does not take these social factors into account because to do so it would have to cost them, and that it has been unable to get right.

Mr. Potter says that these closures are taking place because of the financial limits which the Government have imposed on the Post Office. He said at Merthyr Tydfil that the Government had insisted that last year's profits of £70 million had to be invested in Government stock, and that those profits could not be used for development, but only the interest. The Post Office strategy document says that the Post Office must meet the Government demand of a 4 per cent. profit on turnover for the financial year 1984–85. It seems to me that the Post Office is being asked to do so with one hand — its profits — tied behind its back in Government coffers. Certainly it is to meet this financial requirement that the Post Office is closing 5 per cent. of its urban sub-post office network, despite the social cost.

I sent the letters that I received, over 100, to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for his examination. The reply I received from the Under-Secretary of State said that regretfully the Government's role was confined to broad issues of general policy and to matters of overall financial control"; therefore, the closure of Bolgoed road was a matter for the Post Office. I expect that the Under-Secretary will make the same response tonight. But I must tell him plainly that from the viewpoint of the people of Pontarddulais and mine that will not be a good enough answer.

Under the Post Office Act 1969, the Post Office became a corporate body responsible for its own actions. Clearly, if the Government's role is with broad issues of policy, and if the Government dictate how profits will be used, or in this case not used, then it is Government policy and Government action that determine what happens to local post offices. The Government cannot wash their hands publicly of the responsibility for closures which result from the policy they dictate and from their financial controls on the Post Office service.

The Government and the Post Office have underestimated the strength of opposition to the closure of sub-post offices. It is an issue that people feel strongly about because it affects their day-to-day living. The fact that over 100 people, representing, as families, well over 200 of my constituents in one part of Pontarddulais, took the trouble to put pen to paper, demonstrates how strongly people feel.

Therefore, even at this late stage, and despite the comments made in the House on Monday by the Minister for Information Technology, I urge the Minister to reconsider his position and urge the Post Office to review the closure of the post office in Bolgoed road, Pontardclulais, I genuinely feel that the hardship to the people of that village in my constituency will be enormous and the service of which they will be deprived will make the quality of their lives poorer than it is at the moment, with the post office open.

12.1 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. John Butcher)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) on his tenacity in fighting the case in which he so passionately believes on behalf of his constituents. I have examined the quite thick file of correspondence that he has initiated. Perhaps he himself, in fighting this case on behalf of his constituents, has gone some way towards making a significant contribution to the turnover of the Post Office. Of course, that was not his prime objective. His prime objective is to use our procedures legitimately and properly to raise a matter of considerable urgency.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard Ministers say from the Dispatch Box that they share his concern, or are equally worried about one phenomenon or another, but I say to him at the outset that there is hardly a Member of Parliament on either side of the Chamber who has not been faced with excruciating dilemmas similar to those which the hon. Gentleman exposed to us when deploying his arguments.

The hon. Gentleman described in some detail the efforts that he has made to persuade the Post Office that the Bolgoed road post office in his constituency should not be closed. It is, of course, quite right that he should have undertaken those efforts on behalf of those of his constituents who use that post office, and I can understand his disappointment over the fact that the Post Office has, nevertheless, decided to close that particular sub-post office.

The hon. Gentleman explained why he believes that that decision was wrong and why it should be reversed. However, as he rightly surmised, I am not able to comment on the particular circumstances of the particular case or to make any assessment of the Post Office's decision. Later I should like to flesh out that observation by pointing to the fact that there has been no change in the procedure adopted by this Administration compared with the procedure adopted by the previous Labour Administration. The hon. Gentleman has not raised the matter as a party political point. He has not sought to sensationalise the argument in political terms, and I shall not respond in that way. However, I am sure that if he were to examine later this week the number of closures by previous Administrations, and the way in which the policy has been implemented, he would find consistency, but it is that consistency that is upsetting his constituents at the moment.

My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in his reply to the hon. Gentleman's letter of 11 March to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, said that he was unable to comment, and referred the correspondence to the chairman of the Post Office. That was not because he was being obstructive or unhelpful. He was following the clear and consistent policy of this Government and their predecessors on such questions, which are operational ones for the Post Office to decide on, and are not for the Government under normal circumstances.

It should be clearly understood that the Post Office is responsible for running the counters network and that decisions about individual post offices are operational ones for the Post Office and not for the Government. This is in accordance with the clear distinction, of which the hon. Gentleman is aware, between the respective roles of the Government and the Post Office Board. Since the Post Office was established in 1969 as a public corporation with its own board, it has been the policy of successive Governments, embodied in the relevent legislation, that decisions concerning the day-to-day management of the business are the responsibility of the board. The role of the Government is confined to broad issues of general policy and matters of overall financial control.

I think that the majority of right hon. and hon. Members of this House have constituents who are affected by post office closures. The hon. Gentleman's arguments are at this very moment being deployed in my constituency. Of course no post office closure is popular, because it will inevitably mean some inconvenience to people who will have to travel further to the nearest alternative. It is quite understandable that the average post office customer's primary interest is in the particular post office which he or she is used to going to and is concerned if a decision is made to close that office. But the Government are required to take a wider view.

As far as the network of post offices is concerned, the Government's interest and responsibilities relate to the network overall, and the Government considered the Post Office's proposals for the urban network where most of the controversy has arisen in this context.

The Government have frequently stated their recognition of the valuable role that post offices play in the economic and social life of this country. However, if the network of post offices is to continue to play such a role in the future it is vital that the Post Office, in running the network, should look to ways of improving its efficiency and effectiveness.

By its nature, the counters business is an operation that has high fixed costs, and the economics of running it depend heavily on the volume of business which is undertaken. I must stress that the Post Office is a commercial organisation, and it is under no illusions that it is owed a living. It recognises that there are effective competitive alternatives for many of the services available in post offices and is well aware that if the counters network is to retain existing business and win new business it must provide an efficient and cost-effective service at prices which customers are prepared to pay. The majority of the business undertaken at counters is, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, work for Government Departments, public corporations and local authorities. They use the network because it provides a cost-effective way of meeting their requirements. It would be quite wrong to expect these agency customers to use the counters network irrespective of their costs, which are of course borne by their customers, taxpayers or ratepayers.

Since 1945, the Post Office has had a criterion of providing post offices in town areas at intervals of not less than one mile. This is not, and was never intended to be, a precise and inflexible standard. It represents what the Post Office has regarded as a reasonable balance between the service its customers would like and the costs involved.

The Post Office has not applied the criterion rigidly but has, over the years, made decisions about particular post offices in the light of local cirumstances. Up to the late 1960s the network grew as a result of new housing development population growth and growth in business. However, with some exceptions, closures were considered only when sub-postmasters resigned or retired and the distribution of population was not fully reflected in the provision of post offices. A review which the Post Office undertook in 1983 revealed an excess of about 2,000 offices against the general criterion. The excess of offices was particularly evident in the cities, especially the inner city areas.

The post office was, of course, aware that any proposals to tackle this excess of offices were bound to be unpopular and I think that it is to be commended in that it did not take the easy option of doing nothing but had the courage to draw up its proposals to reduce the number of post offices in urban areas.

The Post Office informed the Government about the outcome of the review and the proposals to reduce the size of the urban network. Our concern was to ensure that the proposals did not prejudice our commitment to the maintenance of a network adequate to enable the Post Office to fulfil its statutory duty as regards efficiency and economy and social needs. The Post Office's proposals included its intention to consult the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, the Post Office trade unions and the Post Office Users National Council. It also confirmed that individual closure proposals would be subject to the existing code of procedure agreed with POUNC in 1981, and revised in January 1984 to include Crown offices, which provides for consultation with local interests before final decisions are made to close individual offices.

We were satisfied with the overall balance which the Post Office was seeking to strike between the needs of those whom it serves and the need for reasonable economy and efficiency, and that the proposals were not inconsistent with its statutory duty. That, however, is the extent of the Government's involvement. We are not involved in decisions which the Post office takes on particular offices, nor are we involved in the process of prior consultation.

That is the background. Perhaps I may now deal with some of the points which the hon. Gentleman made, although, for the reasons that I have given, my comments are of necessity general ones and not specific to the circumstances surrounding the Bolgoed decision. As I have said, the Government have to take the broader view and consider the network as a whole.

In undertaking the review of the urban counters network and in framing the subsequent proposals for reducing the size of the network, the Post Office's aim was to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the network. The Post Office is well aware that the closures are not popular, but it believes that the exercise is essential to secure the future of the network to the long-term benefit of the community. The Post Office has the Government's full support in that regard.

The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about the operation of the code of procedure setting out the process for the Post Office to consult local interests before closure decisions are made. That concern has been echoed by a number of hon. Members and I am bound to say that there may be disagreement about the interpretation of the code in some areas.

As I have said, the Post Office does not apply the 1-mile criterion rigidly and the code sets out the other factors which are taken into account. As well as the distance from other offices, it considers the amount of business done, the type of business and whether, for example, a lot of pensions are paid there, the difficulty customers would face in getting to another office—for example, whether there is a suitable bus service and whether there are steep hills—the ability of nearby offices to absorb additional work and the likely future development of the area.

The hon. Gentleman has gone through those factors and explained why he disagrees with the Post Office's assessment in the case of the Bolgoed road sub-post office. I am not in a position to make a judgment on whose view is the better one. Clearly any assessment is bound to be a mixture of fact and subjective judgment, but at the end of the day it is for the Post Office to make the decision. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman is not alone in his criticism of the consultation process, but a distinction has to be made between criticism of a decision and criticism of the route taken to reach the decision.

In more than 10 per cent. of cases the Post Office has withdrawn proposals to close offices following local consultation, so consultation has certainly not been a cosmetic exercise. I think that that is clear evidence that the approach is not rigid and inflexible and that the Post Office takes the consultation process, which is not a statutory requirement, very seriously. It listens to local views, and when it has been convinced by the arguments it has changed its mind. To describe the process as window dressing or a sham, as some hon. Members have suggested, is to do the Post Office a grave injustice.

With regard to powers to intervene, section 11(2) of the Post Office Act 1969 refers to directions of a general character to remedy a defect in the general plans or arrangements of the Post Office for the exercise of its powers. A particular closure decision clearly cannot be regarded as a general plan or arrangement.

The hon. Gentleman raised two or three other issues which, for the sake of further clarity, we may wish to pursue in further correspondence. I am grateful to him for raising an issue which has specific implications for his constituents but which is also a matter of general concern. I hope he will be reassured that we are aware of the issues and are anxious to respond in an appropriate manner.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Twelve o' clock.