§ Mr. Speaker
Before we proceed with the debate, I should like to announce to the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I understand that it is hoped to end the debate at about 7 pm. A very large number of right hon. and hon. Members have so far indicated their wish to take part. Unless they speak briefly, we may be here until 10 pm.
§ 4.5 pm
§ Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)
I beg to move,That this House regrets that the financial policies of the Government towards the Post Office may lead to the closure of 78 Crown post offices and 900 sub post offices and to other reductions of Post Office facilities, thus causing serious social harm, inconvenience and disadvantage, particularly to the elderly, the disabled and the parents of small children and imposing extra travelling expense; and calls upon the Government to moderate its financial requirement so that an extensive and socially responsive network of post offices is maintained.I need hardly seek to persuade the House of the social value of the network of post offices that this country has enjoyed for many years. For many communities and, probably, groups in every community, the post office—whether a Crown post office or a more humble sub-post office—is not just a retail outlet for the normal services of a postal system. Post offices happen to be part of the largest retail chain in the United Kingdom, but they are much more than that. The post office is a vital contact point in the administration of our social security system, and it is the most important and often crucial connection between many of our citizens and the organisation of the state.
As the principal disbursement agency for retirement pensions and family and disablement benefits, the post office probably performs a unique role. There are three groups of people who particularly rely upon its services and upon easy access to them. A large majority of our senior citizens in receipt of retirement pensions collect those pensions from the post office. Their weekly visit is not just a business transaction. It is often a social occasion of great importance to them. At the post office they meet their friends and neighbours as well as collect their pensions. For the mothers, and sometimes the fathers, of young children, easy access to a post office to collect child benefit is of great assistance. For the disabled, such access is not only important but is at the heart of the service that we provide.
The post office's customers probably include the least mobile members of society. Small distances can often make all the difference to their capacity to go in person to collect their benefits. Our network of convenient post office counters is one of the most important facilities for disabled people.
Post offices in the United Kingdom may well be unique in that respect. No doubt international comparisons will be made in the debate with reference to the number of post offices in relation to the size of the population. We must always bear in mind that post offices in many other countries do not fulfil the obligations laid upon the post 993 office here as the payment centre for social security. In any event, I am not impressed by international comparisons in this context. It may be pointed out that in West Germany, France, Italy, Japan or the United States, fewer post offices serve as many people. I do not conclude that we should reduce our services to the low international mean. If we have a better service—as I believe that we have—we should retain it. We should remain superior and continue to provide a better service.
The social obligations and the importance of the post offices have been recognised by Parliament, which has placed statutory social responsibilities, as well as commercial obligations, on the Post Office Corporation. At the heart of our debate is the question of balancing social and commercial responsibilities. We believe that the Government's financial policies towards the Post Office have become so rigorous, enforcing commerciality of an especially narrow kind, that the social responsibilities have been allowed to become subordinate and are steadily being eroded.
A closure programme involving 78 Crown post offices and 900 sub-post offices is being embarked upon. I have chosen to state the figures positively in the motion, hoping that they bring home to Parliament and the public the scale of the closure programme. In all of the documents that the Post Office and the Government have provided concerning closures, the issue has been approached in a different way. We are told that there might be some difficulty with the network of counters, but that we can rest assured that 95 per cent. of the network will be maintained. It is never stated that 900 sub-post offices and 78 Crown post offices will be closed, although that is the truth. One of the consultation documents says thatthe strategy involves some proposals for reducing the network, there will be proper consultation before any closures are carried outI know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have some doubt about the effectiveness of consultation, especially in regard to some of the proposals that have been made in their constituencies.
It is all very well to talk in terms of percentages and to say that there will be a 5 per cent. reduction or that the network will remain at 95 per cent. of its former size, but for the area that loses its post office the loss is not 5 per cent. but 100 per cent. For people who depend on the facilities of a post office, such a closure is a serious withdrawal of facilities which makes the service less valuable.
Why are the Government's financial policies having this effect on the Post Office when it is making a profit? In the first six months of this year, the Post Office made a profit of £40 million. As it usually makes much more in the second half of the year because of Christmas and other factors, it is clearly heading for a profit of more than £100 million. Such a profit is a credit to the corporation's efficiency. When the Post Office is doing a good job for the public by making such a large profit and contributing to the state, why should there have to be closures? For financial purposes, counter services are reckoned in isolation, but they also make a substantial profit—it is likely to be £12 million this year.
For the answer, we must go back to 1981 when the Government adopted a new approach. The Government changed from paying the Post Office on a cost plus 2 per cent. basis for services provided to Government Departments to what was called an agency services 994 agreement. The new system was introduced in 1982. The new regime sets much more rigorous targets for the Post Office and effectively demands a given level of profit from counter services. The targets have been set at a level which require counter services to be subjected to a major cost-cutting exercise. That necessarily leads to closures when counter services are under pressure because the Government are taking business away from them by encouraging other methods of paying pensions — for example, by direct payments into bank accounts.
I am not suggesting that the Post Office should be the sole vehicle for payments of pensions and the like, but when the Government are reducing the scope of the work that is handled at the counter it cannot make good sense to impose an especially heavy financial burden on counter services. The targets which have been set for counter services neglect grossly the social considerations that must be involved in the balance of social and commercial obligations. The Government are saying not that the Post Office must staunch losses that have been incurred by keeping a substantial number of post offices open, but that post offices must be sacrificed to reach a level of profitability that the Government have determined. Most of us regard that as quite a different proposition from staunching an outflow of public funds which are subsidising post offices. The Post Office is profitable and to insist on it being more profitable, although that involves closing facilities, seems an entirely wrong set of priorities.
We know that the Government's actions will result in big problems and that the savings will not be great. I should like to give an example that illustrates the case dramatically. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) pursued with the Post Office the costs in closing eight post offices in the borough of Newham. He was informed, after some correspondence, that the estimated savings from closing eight post offices was £39,000. That represents less than £5,000 for each post office. The total cost of post offices in the borough of Newham is £1.7 million. For less than £40,000, eight post offices are being removed from the scene. I fail to see how that can ever be regarded as a sensible balancing of social and commercial responsibilities. The savings are paltry as compared with the loss of service. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South for, as always, pursuing the matter indefatigably and for producing such a good example.
Our criticism is that counter services are being asked to make too high a contribution to overall profits. The result will be a large loss of jobs and a reduction in services for many people. I am sure that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and Conservative Members will give examples, drawn from their constituencies, of the social impact of closures. I do not intend to elaborate as I want to enable as many other hon. Members as possible to speak.
The closures seem to many of us to be part of the relentless process of increasing unemployment and reducing public and community services simultaneously. Not one day, let alone one week, goes by without there being another cut in a community service, thus throwing even more people into the dole queue. The Government do not build, but destroy. They do not open new opportunities for our people, but close facilities that are essential to civilised life. Seldom are they persuaded that they are wrong, and they yield only occasionally to public opinion. This is an occasion for Parliament to speak on a 995 crucial community matter and to act. Many Conservative Members have been vocal in their opposition to post office closures in their constituencies. They have a chance today to speak and to vote. As we know from recent history, there are occasions when Conservative Members do not hesitate to try to influence the Government on issues that are close to their hearts or their sense of self-preservation.
We are not asking Conservative Members to commit their Government to an outrageous extension of public expenditure. All we ask, and all that this issue requires, is some moderation in the financial targets that are set for the counter service section of the Post Office, even after the adoption of which substantial profits would accrue. It is not much to ask, but it means a great deal to many disadvantaged people. That is why we feel entitled to ask for the support of the whole House for the motion.
§ The Minister for Information Technology (Mr. Geoffrey Pattie)
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:'recognises that the future of the Post Office counters network will depend on its ability to compete successfully by operating efficiently and reducing the costs of its operation while having regard to the social needs of the United Kingdom; and fully supports the Post Office's efforts to secure by these means the future of an extensive and socially responsive network.'The Opposition motion states thatserious social harm, inconvenience and disadvantagemay result from the post office closure programme. The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) must not be surprised when I say that, by definition,serious social harm, inconvenience and disadvantagemust have applied with equal force to the post office closure programme that took place in the last five years of the Labour Government.
During the first five years of our Administration 734 net post office closures took place, compared with net closures during the last five Labour years of 1,140. That was 230 a year. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that post office closures under a Conservative Government causeserious social harm, inconvenience and disadvantage",but that post office closures under a Labour Government have a different social effect? Or is he saying that the Labour Government were not responsible for the closures because the earlier Labour Government in 1969 established the Post Office as a separate publicly owned corporation for the purpose of running its own business and with its own board of directors? He would be right, for once, if he were saying that.
Lest there should be any doubt about the matter, the 1978 Labour Government White Paper on nationalised industries set out the basis of the relationship between Government and nationalised industries, and how Government were to discharge their responsibilities for monitoring and control. It is a bit much for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to wax rhetorical, talk about closures and about the Government destroying parts of the framework and infrastructure of Britain. I have just given the figures for post offices. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services were to give the figures for hospitals, it would be apparent that far more 996 hospitals were closed under the Labour Government than under the Conservative Government, and if today we were having the debate that is so strongly desired by the Opposition that they will not select in their own time—the debate on the miners' dispute—it would become apparent that more coal mines were closed by the Labour Government. Who, then, is engaging in closures?
§ Mr. John Smith
Our argument is that the adoption of new financial targets in the agencies services agreement is the reason for the closures and is a point of departure from policy by this Government as opposed to previous Governments. The Minister knows that "cost plus 2 per cent." was replaced by new rigorous targets. Does the Minister deny that the closures are caused by the agencies services agreement and the new targets for counter services?
§ Mr. Pattie
Yes, I do. In 1982–83 the so-called agencies services agreement came into operation. It does not mean a change to a system that requires a mark-up in the services provided for Government Departments. It presupposes real unit reductions consistent with the Post Office's efficiency target. That means that greater efficiency requirements will be made of the Post Office. The agreement does not require a mark-up. The counter network will reduce real unit costs consistent with the whole business target of a real unit cost reduction of 5 per cent. over the three years from 1982 to 1985.
§ Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)
No doubt the Minister is pleased with himself for making the clever point about closures under the Labour Government. Does he not understand that the closures were part of an agreement with the unions involved and the public, which was entered into to bring about postal mechanisation? The complaint now is that, the postal mechanisation programme having been completed and the jobs having been surrendered, the workers and the public are being stabbed in the back by the Government who are breaking that agreement.
§ Mr. Pattie
The Post Office workers are not being stabbed in the back by the Government, or by the Post Office Corporation. Since the establishment of the Post Office as a separate corporation in 1969, no Government have had the power to intervene in the day-to-day decisions and workings of the Post Office. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman talked about modernisation because in today's Financial Times there is news of a new cash machine network which is to be launched, and which has various partners, including the National Girobank. What is being sought is not mere accounting efficiency and returns, but ever-increasing operating efficiency so that the Post Office can compete.
It is important to remind the House that, even after the contemplated programme of closures is completed, there will be the largest retail network of any sort in the country. It will involve 21,000 sub-post offices and 1,567 Crown offices. I shall not make the international comparison to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman alluded, because such comparisons can be misleading.
I share the right hon. and learned Gentleman's belief that many hon. Members will wish to intervene to cite examples from their own constituencies. I imagine that there is hardly a constituency that is not affected by the programme, and mine is no exception. Hon. Members will 997 tell us of the difficulties that certain individuals have in getting to post offices. When the Opposition use the phrase "serious social harm"—
§ Mr. Pattie
I disagree. I am not aware of any products or disbursements of benefits that cannot be disbursed and made available over a post office counter to anyone authorised to act on behalf of a recipient of such a benefit, usually the elderly, infirm and disabled. There are thousands of arrangements of that sort. Throughout the country in the 21,000 sub-post offices and the Crown post offices people draw benefits for other people. The closure programme focuses on urban areas, not rural areas. So long as there are other shops or meeting points in a local community that people can regard as a social meeting place, there will be no serious social harm.
§ Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)
Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency, which has the highest average-aged population in the European Community and where there is therefore an extremely high weekly collection of pensions, there is a proposal to close a sub-post office in Sackville road? Is he further aware that the chairman of the Post Office and senior management have taken a personal interest in the consultation process to ensure that the interests of the many elderly people in the town are adequately safeguarded? Does he agree that that is a clear example of the Post Office's determination to ensure that its social function is properly attended to?
§ Mr. Pattie
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right to say that all closures are considered carefully, in many cases by the chairman of the Post Office in person and by his staff.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman cast some aspersions on the consultation process. Although it is not a statutory requirement, in at least 10 per cent. of the cases where representations were made the decision was varied. That shows that the process is not a charade. The chairman and the Post Office board would resent any suggestion that it was a charade, because all representations are considered seriously.
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
May I ask the Minister about his representations? When he was told about the closures, did he not believe that they may have a major social impact? If he thought that, did he communicate his views to the Post Office? If he did, what guarantee was he given that there would not be the impact that the Opposition believe there will be?
§ Mr. Pattie
I did not believe that there would be such a social impact. Therefore, I did not make representations along those lines. I had to satisfy myself that the Post Office's proposals, which meant that 21,000 sub-post offices and 1,567 Crown offices would remain, would leave the network in an effective condition. Once I was satisfied on that, I accepted the proposals. The Post Office alone decides on its operating requirements.
§ Mr. Pattie
I shall be happy to do so, although I bear in mind what you said, Mr. Speaker, about many hon. Members wishing to speak in the debate.
§ Mr. Park
The Minister has got it the wrong way round. Did the Government say to the Post Office, "Your 998 profits must be 4 per cent. instead of 2 per cent. and you must meet this?" From my correspondence with Ministers I have learnt that they said, "We set the targets and it is up to the Post Office to implement them." How could the Minister make representations after doing that?
§ Mr. Pattie
I was asked by the hon. Member for Birkenhead, (Mr. Field) to say whether I shared his view and the view of the Labour party that there would be extensive social damage. I told him that I did not. However, I understand, as does the Post Office, that it cannot close post offices anywhere without causing some inconvenience and increased cost to those who must travel further. But neither factor leads to serious social harm.
The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East said that he was worried about the effects not only on Post Office customers, but on staff. I must ask what is best for the Post Office, its customers and staff? Would it help the staff if the Post Office board gave no thought to the efficiency of its operation? What would be the reality of having a post office on every corner? It might be very convenient, but the facility could not be enjoyed for long without someone having to pick up the bill and the entire business being jeopardised. If the Post Office counters network is to operate successfully, it must provide a service that is efficient and effective at prices that customers are prepared to pay. The majority of the business undertaken at counters is work which the Post Office handles on an agency basis for Government Departments, public corporations and local authorities. They use the counters network because it provides a cost-effective way of meeting their requirements. It would be wrong for Departments to be expected to use the network irrespective of the cost of the services provided.
Therefore, to retain existing business and secure new business, it is essential that the counters network provides an efficient and cost-effective service. In this way, the Post Office will secure a future for the counters business, to the benefit of its agency customers, its staff arid those who use the services. If it fails to follow that path, it will slip quickly into a vicious circle of charging unattractive prices, losing business, having to charge higher prices to cover its costs and, as a consequence, losing still more business. Once it is in that position, the future of the entire network would be imperilled. I cannot believe that the Labour party would regard that as sensible or desirable.
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
How can the Minister say that the future of the network will be imperilled when the Post Office counters network is making £12.5 million a year?
§ Mr. Pattie
I would ask the hon. Gentleman to raise his sights for a moment to the future and to say that the important thing for any business is to ensure that it maintains its efficiency. If it makes profits today, that is fine, but will it make profits next year or the year after?
Among those who have made representations to my Department about the closures was the Union of Communication Workers, which expressed concern about the implications for its members in Crown post offices. Clearly, the precise implications must be discussed by the union and the Post Office board. However. I understand that the Post Office expects to carry out the reduction in Crown post offices without redundancies. Apart from 12 closures during the past 18 months, the Post Office plans to close between 60 and 70 Crown offices out of a total 999 of 1,567. The reduction is hardly draconian. The House must recognise the important points that I have made about how vital it is to the future of the network and, therefore, to the jobs in those Crown offices, that the Post Office continues to try to improve efficiency.
As the House will be aware, since 1945, the Post Office has had a criterion of providing post offices at one-mile intervals in urban areas. In 1983, the Post Office instituted a review of the town sub-office network, which showed that against that criterion, despite closures over the years, there was an excess of 2,000 offices. The review also showed that if the Post Office were to limit the urban network to offices that made a financial contribution to central overheads, again, the number of offices was 2,000 more than could be justified. Nonetheless, because of its social obligation, the Post Office decided to restrict the number of sub-offices to be closed to 1,000 or 5 per cent. of the total, with a similar proportion of Crown offices.
A major reason for the excess over the standard criterion was that changes in the distribution of population had not been reflected in the provision of post offices. That was especially the case in the cities and in some inner city areas that had had substantial reductions in population in recent decades, which were not matched by appropriate reductions in the number of post offices, although many offices had been opened to service new centres of population.
Reference has been made to the special needs of areas of social deprivation in old inner city areas. Again, the Post Office has taken that into account. For example, during the past 20 years, the population of inner London has decreased by 28 per cent. The reduction in the network is nothing like that, and inner London will continue to benefit from a network of sub and Crown offices that will be about twice as large as it would be if the Post Office standards in existence since 1945 were applied rigidly. It should also be noted that until the Post Office review showed that the great majority of sub-offices in rural areas were run at a loss to the Post Office, for social reasons the Post Office intended no closures there, except where it was unable to find an acceptable sub-postmaster willing to take on the job.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
The Minister mentioned the social reasons for not closing post offices. Is he aware that the managing director of Post Office counter services told me that there would be a facility for a friend or welfare worker to collect pensions or allowances on behalf of the elderly or disabled? He speaks as though social workers grew on trees. It will be impossible for many elderly and disabled people to make arrangements for the collection of their benefits. Is he further aware that post offices are regarded as community centres where information is available? Will he reconsider the entire proposal?
§ Mr. Pattie
The hon. Gentleman was not present at the start of the debate, when the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East was deploying similar arguments and I dealt with some of those points. In particular, I said that there are many examples of arrangements to ensure that the appropriate benefits are collected, whether by social workers, friends or relatives.
The Government were informed of the outcome of the closure review and of the Post Office board's subsequent 1000 decision to reduce the size of the urban network. In accordance with our responsibility for general policy matters, we considered the proposals and were satisfied that the proposals were not inconsistent with the Post Office's statutory duty both as regards social needs and efficiency.
The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East spoke about serious social harm. This suggestion does not bear close examination. I have already said that the review revealed 2,000 urban offices in excess of the one-mile criterion and 2,000 urban post offices that are unprofitable, as are about three-quarters of the 11,000 rural post offices. A hard-nosed commercial approach would see all or most of these offices closed. The fact that they are to remain open is the strongest possible evidence that the Government and the Post Office both recognise that the Post Office is not simply a commercial organisation but has social responsibilities as well. The Post Office takes these responsibilities extremely seriously.
§ Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)
Is my hon. Friend aware that in my tight urban constituency, of the 27 sub-post offices, only one is proposed for closure? That is a quarter of a mile from an under-used Crown office and a quarter of a mile from another sub-post office. Keeping that office open would be taking the social responsibility of the Post Office too far.
§ Mr. Pattie
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, which requires no further amplification from me.
A further illustration of the acceptance by the Post Office of its social responsibilities was its decision—with no prompting from Government or anyone else—to defer all the Crown office closures then under consideration until the effect of the DHSS's dispute was dealt with. Although the strike has now been resolved, it will still be some four or five months before normal service is resumed, and the closure programme will not be reactivated before then. It also decided to defer all sub-office closures where the sub-postmasters concerned were willing and able to remain in business for the same period. The Post Office has acted with real responsibility during this dispute, and unfairly taken criticism for long queues resulting from industrial action in which it had no involvement.
I pay tribute at this point to the dedication and hard work of the counter staff, who have had to endure many months of an appalling increase in their workload because of the cynical and unjustified strike at the DHSS offices in Newcastle.
I have referred to the Government's recognition of the role that post offices play in the social life of the country, a role that has been recognised by previous Governments and is reflected in the legislation. I have also made it clear that this Government, like their predecessors, also recognise the commercial nature of the business, and this too is covered in the legislation. I think that it would help the House if I set out the statutory position on the Post Office's duty, and correct the misleading impression which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has given by his selective interpretation of the relevant provision.
§ Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)
Is not the Minister ignoring the fact that the role of the Post Office has changed dramatically in the post-war period, year by year? Post offices have now become an outlet for the 1001 payment of benefits, and there is a clear responsibility on Government to see that that provision is made. If it is not made by the Post Office, some other agency should be taking up that responsibility. When this matter has been raised, the DHSS, which has prime responsibility for the distribution of benefits, has appeared not to be interested. Traditionally, this has always been a matter for the Post Office, so it is nonsense to say that these closures will not cause social difficulties and hardships. The Minister should visit post offices where sometimes queues for benefit payments extend for 20 or 30 feet outside the post office. What will happen in the future if further closures—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. Interventions should be brief. Many other hon. Members are waiting to take part in this debate.
§ Mr. Pattie
I am probably unwise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in that, in seeking to assist the House, I gave way perhaps more frequently than I should do, although I was aware of Mr. Speaker's injunction to keep speeches brief as many hon. Members wish to speak in this debate. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall restrict myself to not giving way any more.
Section 59(2) of the British Telecommunications Act 1981 imposes on the Post Office, in providing its services, a duty to have regard to the social, industrial and commercial needs of the United Kingdom and to efficiency and economy. The Labour party has chosen to ignore the requirements as to efficiency and economy. The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East referred to efficiency and economy.
§ Mr. Pattie
I did not say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had misled the House. I should think long and hard before saying that.
I make no apology for the fact that the Government, like their predecessors, look to the Post Office to satisfy its statutory duty as regards efficiency and economy—just what the right hon. and learned Gentleman would—just as we look to it to satisfy the requirement as to social needs. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has accepted the economic requirement, and we all know that it was established originally by a Labour Government in the 1969 Act. He has rightly said that conflict clearly arises between satisfying the social requirement on the one hand and the efficiency requirement on the other. A post office on every street corner might satisfy social needs but would not be efficient or economic.
In formulating its plans and policies, the Post Office's statutory duty requires it to seek to strike an often difficult balance between the social needs of those whom it serves and the need for reasonable economy and efficiency. It will always be a matter of judgment whether in any particular case it has got the balance right. As I have explained, our judgment was that the Post Office's proposals for the urban counters network were not inconsistent with the Post Office's statutory duty.
However, that is the extent of the Government's involvement. My Department has received a very large number of representations against specific closure proposals, as have other Ministers and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I hope that I have made clear to the House why the response in all cases has been the 1002 same. That is to say that the Government are not involved in specific closure proposals and have no power or desire to intervene. I am sure that many hon. Members will give us details about their constituencies, but when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry replies to the debate the answer will be exactly the same.
The need for the Post Office to respond to competition is reflected in the Post Office announcement of a network of 180 automatic telling machines, which, in time, will be part of a much larger network provided by it and its partners. Response to competition is why the Post Office is so keen to come forward to the Government with a programme of counter automation this spring.
That also is why the Post Office wants to modernise its premises—so that it can compete. However, it cannot afford to do this if it continues indefinitely to provide a network that remains so much in excess of standards that have existed for 40 years. It was absolutely right that the Post Office should publish the facts so that we could understand what it was doing to provide a viable modern network for the future.
It has been claimed that the Post Office has only had to consider closing post offices because of Government policies, which have taken work away from the counters network. This is another assertion that does not stand up to examination. It is of course a feature of the counters network that it is an operation that has high fixed costs and the economics of running it depend heavily on the volume of business that is undertaken.
When the Post Office put its proposals to us, these included its intentions 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, which provides for consultation with local interests before final decisions are made to close an office.
§ Mr. Pattie
I shall not give way. Had the hon. Gentleman been here earlier, he would have heard me say that I had given way consistently and was not prepared to do so any further.
I am aware that criticisms have been made about—
§ Mr. Pattie
I said earlier, whether or not the hon. Gentleman heard me aright, that over 10 per cent. of the proposals that have been examined have resulted in the decisions being varied. It would be something of a slur, which I am sure that the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) did not intend, upon the Post Office board and upon the senior personnel of the Post Office to suggest that the consultation process, which is not a statutory requirement, is a charade. I know that the hon. Member is not saying that.
§ Mr. Pattie
The hon. Member is, then, saying that. It is most unworthy. He now says that it is a sick joke. I have told him that over 10 per cent. of these consultations result in the decision being varied. It means that if consultation 1003 had never taken place there might be some substance in what the hon. Member is saying. The fact that the Post Office has withdrawn proposals in a number of cases demonstrates that it listens to local views. If anybody is open to reason, that must dispose of the suggestion that the consultation procedure is a formality in advance of a foregone conclusion.
I repeat that when the Post Office told the Government about its proposals for reducing the size of the urban counters network we were satisfied that they were not inconsistent with the statutory duty of the Post Office. In undertaking the review and in framing the proposals for closures the Post Office is looking to improvements in the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the counters network and to securing its future. This exercise must be to the benefit of the community. The Government fully support the Post Office in these efforts.
§ Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley, Central)
I was very disappointed in the Minister's speech. He had a cold, unemotional script. He did not appreciate the problems faced by our communities. He gave the impression of not understanding what is happening in the towns, boroughs and rural areas of Great Britain.
I was disturbed and sorry to note in the press of December 1983 a report about the future of town sub-post offices. The report said that more than 1,600 post offices faced closure as a result of an internal review undertaken by the Post Office. The review was to examine the profitability of town sub-post offices and main post offices. Internal minutes of the September meeting of the Postal Business Joint Council revealed that the study concluded that 1,609 of the 9,533 town sub-post offices should be closed if the Post Office insisted that they all made a profit. We all know that the review was forced upon the Post Office as a result of the tough financial targets set for the service.
The Post Office is now specifically looking for loss makers. It is the profit test. Profit, not need, is now the theme. I never thought, as a former Postmaster-General, albeit for a short time, that I would see the day when the profit motive would be determining the existence and future of our sub-post offices. When I was Postmaster-General I was imbued with the spirit that the Post Office cares. All my civil servants cared about the rural post offices, the country pillar box, the rural telephone kiosks. They cared about the service that they provided and they were proud of it. That caring rubbed off on me. That is why I intervene briefly today. However, the profit motive can never be the test of country or rural sub-post offices. Nor should it be the test where a case of need exists and is seen to exist in a town sub-post office. This is a harsh streak in Post Office policy now, emanating from the Government's monetarist policy which is already causing distress to many thousands of people who are sorely in need of help but who, by the Post Office closure decisions, are being denied that help.
I raised the case for the survival of the Union Court sub-post office in Barnsley. The postmistress was about to retire. The postmaster and the chairman of the Post Office used the words "seizing this chance" to close it. That is the language of the profiteer. It is not the caring Post Office that I used to know. The head postmaster in Barnsley 1004 informed the interested parties that because the postmistress had tendered her resignation he had formed the view that Union Court could close and that the needs of its customers could be adequately met elsewhere, naming Dodworth road sub-post office as an alternative as well as the town's main post office. The mayor and the councillors met the postmaster and explained the harshness of his decision. The alternatives meant a long walk along hilly terrain for pensioners, with no bus service to cater for them, negotiating traffic through the town, the difficulties of the winter months and the persistent queues in the town post office and a counter service where people queue for 20 minutes for any service at all. Their protest was long and it was loud.
But why all this fuss? Why did the entire town council express opposition to this closure? There was a petition that contained 1,800 signatures in opposition to the closure. There was a demonstration of opposition by pensioners and disabled people outside the general post office. There was a major intervention by Age Concern in Barnsley and district, because this post office was right in the centre of a housing development that was built mainly for pensioners and disabled people, all within 100 yards of the post office. Around the post office are flats and maisonettes just for these people. The fact is that 138 pensioners from nearby high-rise flats use this post office, and eight out of 10 of the disabled and elderly people who live there depend upon it.
This was a special case. The post office was built with local authority assistance. It was custom built, because of the circumstances. It was opened only in 1969 because of the special needs at that time. Since then there has been more development. The local authority is building another 28 dwellings to house 58 aged and handicapped people in the immediate vicinity. The local authority made the appraisal that this post office was an absolute necessity. It would be handy and convenient because of the preponderance of old people in the area. It was a sensible, caring decision. It was caring based on need. That is why we have had over 50 years of unbroken Labour party local authority in Barnsley. It is because the local authority cares.
Nevertheless, the postmaster and the chairman of the Post Office ignored all pleas from all quarters and went ahead with the closure. The mayor, echoing the feelings of the townspeople, said:It is an inhuman decision taken with callous disregard for the needs of the elderly and disabled living in the area".Even the housing director issued a statement, saying:It seems very unreasonable to me, the council having gone to such considerable capital expense, that the post office should unilaterally withdraw their facility. So much for consultation with the postmaster and the chairman of the Post Office. These were all storms of genuine protest from all sections of the community. Everybody but the head postmaster believed this closure to be an outrage. The image of the caring, compassionate Post Office service in my town has been blighted. The community will never have the same faith, trust and confidence in the Post Office again.
But that is not all. Since that closure one of the alternatives quoted to us all that could be used, namely, Dodworth road sub-post office, has now been given its notice to close. Indeed, I have no doubt that but for the Newcastle computer strike it would have been closed by now, or we would be once more in the midst of a battle 1005 to save it. However, let the Post Office and the Minister beware that that is yet to come. All over the country there are skirmishes and battles taking place to try to preserve the social role of the Post Office. The point is that 157 sub-post offices closed in the year ending March 1980; 162 in 1981; 62 in 1982; and a further 98 in 1983, most of which have been contested by local people.
The differences between the closures when a Labour Government were in office and now is that need was then recognised. Now it is profit that is recognised. Why should the Post Office be so heartless when the half-year gross profits for 1984–85 are £40 million? Gross profits are therefore running at an annual level of £80 million. The profits are so high because community need is now being neglected. The Post Office is losing its social conscience. That is my sad conclusion.
My Department will be feeling sad and sore at this most invidious predicament in which it finds itself. For the first time that I can remember the British Post Office is being blighted throughout the land because it is being forced down the path of profit and efficiency to the complete disregard of its social, caring and human qualities.
The Government will no doubt reap their electoral reward through all those people whom they have hurt. That time will not be long and when it comes those people will be able to register their national disapproval of the targets that have been set by the Government to force the Post Office down this callous and cruel road.
§ 5 pm
§ Mr. Conal Gregory (York)
Both the substantive motion and the amendment refer to the economic and social aspects of the Post Office's work. I appreciate that the Post Office cannot be treated exclusively as a commercial organisation. and therefore it is right that today we should debate one aspect of its policy. Who is the biggest customer of the Post Office? It is the taxpayer, through the agency of Her Majesty's Government. Efficiency with a social heart should be the watchword of today's debate.
My constituency of York has experienced the closure of three sub-post offices since my election. Those closures illustrate the specific nature of the debate. The Post Office plans to close some 500 post offices nationally in this financial year. It tells the local authority of any office proposed for closure to allow views to be made known. That is well and truly putting the cart before the horse.
The Post Office has seen a decline in its agency work performed for the Government. If it continues to reduce counters, there may well be demand for offices in building societies and clearing banks to take on the agency functions such as cashing pension allowances and family benefit. But the elderly population relies on state pensions.
The Post Office has given an assurance that 95 per cent. of the network will be maintained over the next three years. I have been pleased to learn from the managing director of counter services that the policy to close sub-post offices in urban areas that are within one mile of each other is not rigid. My hon. Friend the Minister for Information Technology referred to a flexibility there. I chose not to join all those hon. Members who intervened, but he did not say where the criterion of one mile came from. Is it because the Post Office's compass works on local geography of one mile? I have not heard a justification for that and I should like to hear it in due course.
1006 How much credence can one attach to the Post Office's statement thatEach closure proposal is made after full consideration of the economic and social factors"?I should accept that if the Post Office had consulted the professional people involved—the social workers and voluntary agencies such as Help the Aged, Age Concern, and so on. But in the examples that I am about to come to the social workers and professional people involved were not consulted. The Post Office suggested that the local authority, if it deemed fit, should contact those agencies.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
The hon. Gentleman may care to reflect on an answer that the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry gave to an Adjournment debate on 9 March 1984 when I raised the question of the one-mile interval. Referring to the Post Office, he said:This, it believes, is representative of the fair balance between the service that its customers would like and the costs involved." — [Official Report, 9 March 1984; Vol. 55, c. 1156. ]Does that not reveal that we are back at the same old formula that the Minister came out with earlier today about service and cost, with cost predominant in the thinking of the Government and the Post Office?
§ Mr. Gregory
I well recall reading that Adjournment debate. We are back to the difficult matrix between the social philosophy and the economic aspects to which], and I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members, will return.
If we take into account not only the distance but also the type of terrain, which may be important in the case of a community home, the alternative facilities, local transport, future plans for the development of the area, and the ability of other offices to absorb the additional business, we can see that a complicated formula faces the Post Office.
Let me refer to three examples from my constituency which illustrate those factors. Poppleton road in York illustrates the agency business. That has now been closed by the Post Office following, as at so many sub-post offices, the retirement of the postmaster. The business was relatively small and the number of pensions dealt with had fallen by some 6 per cent. to about 346 a week and family allowance payments had been reduced by 12 per cent. to 219 in the years 1982–83. But—this is an important factor to bear in mind when considering the elderly, the disabled and the young mother with children—it meant a one-and-a-half-mile round trip to the alternative post office.
Cromer street serves some 8,200 inhabitants in York, of whom 1,335 are elderly. It is in a primarily residential shopping area and is certainly disadvantaged. In that catchment area over 900 people claim housing benefit and 229 claim rent allowances. Clifton sub-post office, the alternative, lies about one mile away, but that involves crossing a busy main road. That is another factor that the Post Office management needs to consider seriously. Crichton avenue sub-post office is some 740 yards away.
If the post office in Heslington road is closed. as has been proposed by the postmaster, the elderly will have to cross the heavy traffic at Barbican road, Lawrence street and Foss Islands road, which are en route to the proposed alternative of Walmgate sub-post office. We are talking about 6,500 people in that catchment area.
1007 I appreciate that hon. Members may not be able to follow the detail of this but the argument two years ago for the closure of another sub-post office at Lawrence street was on the basis of its proximity to Heslington road. Now that the Heslington road office is to be closed we are seeing the decimation of the urban area of the fine medieval city of York.
People prefer to collect their own pensions rather than make alternative arrangements with neighbours and managers of community centres, relying upon the good will of other people.
At no stage has the Post Office in any of the three examples that I have given, given any economic justification either in private to me or in public. Are they making a profit or a loss? I am sure that the people not only of York but nationally would like to know. It is understandable that the postmasters are attracted by voluntary redundancy when sums of about £17,000 are offered as an inducement. In Yorkshire more have applied for redundancy than there are offices proposed for closure.
Why is there not more adequate consultation? Will the professionals and volunteers in the field, whom I have mentioned, be consulted at a much earlier stage when considering effects? Surely in any proper evaluation the consequences should be taken into account. Should we not look at the role of market research? The customer rather than the bureaucrat must come first, especially as the Post Office recorded a pre-tax profit of £40 million in the half year to September 1984.
By all means encourage the Post Office to attract new business, modernise its services and buildings and allow marketing, not rigidity, to rule. Some sub-post offices are prohibited from selling postage stamps and other services before the clock strikes 9 am. If they want to open earlier and sell newspapers, why on earth should they not? That would prevent people being driven from their local post offices. It is a curious aspect of local service that I would commend and it would lead to a better future for users, particularly the elderly, the disabled, the infirm and young parents.
The briefing document "The Post Office Counters Network: A Strategy for the Future", published in May 1984, concludes thatthere is a fine balance between meeting social needs and the statutory requirement to run an efficient service".The proposals for York fall far short of that criterion. They do not display the flexibility referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie). Senior Post Office management should have greater social awareness and care within the exciting possibilities offered by new technology.
§ Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)
I do not think there is any need to go into all the detail that has already been covered by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason). We have to try to explain to the Minister what it is like in the real world outside. There have always been closures of post offices. In areas like mine, when the Co-operative used to run the shop on the corner, it doubled as a post office. With the rationalisation of the Post Office there have been closures. A post office was opened on a new 1008 estate in my constituency recently, so negotiations can work both ways. I have had meetings and discussions with the head postmaster for Nottingham and I have no complaints about my negotiations with the Post Office.
Last year I was surprised when I was notified that four sub-post offices in my area were to be closed. The local council and I said immediately that we wanted negotiations with the postmaster. Before the negotiations took place the matter was covered in the local press. Suddenly I found out that the people who were running the post offices had already been contacted by the Post Office. I was told that redundancy had been offered and accepted. Therefore, I wondered if it was all a fait accompli. Then I had a phone call from one of the sub-postmasters saying, "I know you have to do your job, but do not do it too well and do not be too successful." I had to tell him that, although I might sympathise with his position. I had to think about the social consequences for the people who use the post offices.
I should like the Minister to explain where he gets the 10 per cent. variation. Three of the post offices proposed for closure in Mansfield feed directly to the general post office. The local councillors and I had a good meeting with the postmaster. However, I suppose it takes a poacher to catch a poacher. It was not long before I found myself in a Chinese bargaining position. All of us who have bargained in the trade union world know what that is. If the authorities want to close three post offices, they say that they want to close four. It is so obvious that one should not be included that at the end of the day they can give a victory on that one.
We got our victory, but three are still to be closed. Unfortunately, those three feed on to the general post office. In the discussions I think the postmaster agreed that the facilities at the general post office in the centre of Mansfield leave a lot to be desired. At Christmas, in the foul weather and driving snow that we have had recently, there have been queues outside the general post office, even before the others have been closed. This must not be taken as a reflection on the staff of the general post office. Facilities in that post office cannot cope with business now, never mind what will come from the post offices that are to be closed.
We had our victory. The postmaster was very good. He listened to all our complaints. Then he went away, got out his little wheel and walked down into the centre of Mansfield. It is downhill all the way from Victoria street, one of my areas; then one has to cross a busy main road. The postmaster is a fit young man in his forties or fifties. The general post office in Mansfield is on the lowest ground and it is uphill from it in any direction. Victoria street is in one of the older established areas and needs a post office. I am told that the post office there must be closed. I could have understood the argument about the closure of some of the sub-post offices if the general post office could take the extra workload, but it cannot conceivably cope with any more business.
I am sorry for the postmaster in Nottingham. Those in charge will suffer the brunt of the wrath of the people. I had not been at the meeting in Mansfield town hall long before I realised that a Government Minister should have been there to answer for the Government. The blame for these closures can rest only on the decision of the Government and not on the Post Office. Once again, because of the actions of the Government, it will be the weaker sections of society who will suffer most. I hope 1009 that Government Back Benchers will not just voice their opinions but will vote according to their opinion to try to shock the Government into carrying out their responsibility properly.
§ Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)
It has been difficult to secure this debate, partly because these days no Government Minister takes day-to-day responsibility for the decisions of the Post Office and also because it is hard to call the Post Office itself to account for its day-to-day decisions. It is closing two excellent little sub-post offices in Newark. The decision is causing widespread concern, anxiety and resentment.
These emotions are held against a background of seriously deteriorating service in the Crown post office, such as the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) has described in his constituency. Queues often stretch into the street. The chairman of the district council, as an exercise, went into the post office recently to buy stamps. It took 40 minutes between going in and coming out for him to get a book of stamps. Yet the head postmaster in Nottingham has told me in correspondence that the decision to close the sub-post offices can be carried out without undue hardship to his customers. I tell him that he is wrong.
It is the elderly, the handicapped and the mothers with young children who are not so mobile who will have to trudge to the Crown post office. They will have to swell the queues. The Crown post office will not be able to cope. I am astonished that the Post Office is willing to contemplate the resulting hardship.
I listened with great care to what my hon. Friend the Minister said about dealing with the hardship. He said that the elderly or the handicapped can find a friend to go to the post office for them. Perhaps some can, but many elderly people live on their own in total, splendid isolation and they are proud, private people. Their families have gone. They do not have the close friends that they can trust with their personal affairs. It is just possible that a social worker will come on the scene, but generally the change will cause hardship to many elderly people. It was particularly galling for them just before Christmas when it was announced that the sub-post offices were to close, because there was a lot of advertising on television showing smiling old ladies popping into their post offices, collecting their money and savings within a few seconds, and sweetly coming out very happily. The grim reality of the Newark Crown post office and of others in Britain bears no resemblance to some of that advertising.
We are told that the Post Office wants to cut its costs. Let it cut out unnecessary and misleading advertising for a start. From time to time we receive glowing reports from the Post Office. Indeed, we received a report this week called "News Review", dated January 1985. We are told that there is a "World First for Intelpost" — whatever that may be. We are also told that there areGirobank Postcheques for Corporate Customers.Perhaps one day we will receive a report saying "Average waiting times in Crown post offices cut to five minutes. Sub-post offices extended throughout the country." I urge the Post Office to cut out all that frippery, to put its stodgy Crown post offices into the 20th century and to bring back 19th century standards of service, courtesy and speed for its customers.
1010 Crown post offices would not be convenient for all, even if they could get in and out of them promptly. Often the post office is bang in the centre of town, and customers find it almost impossible to park nearby. The bus station is generally well away from it.
Although the technology might be fantastic at the rarefied level of international business, the plodding clerking that goes on in the Crown post offices remains a disgrace. A person still cannot buy a pound's worth of stamps in a slot machine and walk away. The technology in the Crown post office is generally nil. Yet, as the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) said, in the last half year the Post Office made £40 million before tax. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked, and regrettably my hon. Friend the Minister did not answer, why, if the Post Office has that money—and there is no reason to suppose that it will not have another £40 million after the next half year—it decided to cut the number of sub-post offices despite the hardship that that will involve? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that point. Only some of that £40 million need be used to keep open the sub-post offices instead of going in for the international computerisation that we have heard about.
People want a nearby, friendly, safe service. That is all that they ask for from their post offices. Old people do not want a pile of leaflets stuffed in front of them whenever they go into a post office. They want prompt service, and a smiling helpful face. They find that helpful face in the sub-post office. Without any disrespect to those who work in Crown post offices, it must be said that, as they are busy, they cannot be so helpful or friendly to the many people who need help.
I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that, if we are to close anything, we should think of closing the Crown post offices and of building up the sub-post offices. But, of course, the Crown post offices are virtually a nationalised industry and are not responsive to customer demand or need. They certainly could not do much worse under private enterprise than they are at present, and even most Opposition Members will perhaps agree with that.
The decision concerning my constituency is a disgrace. It has been taken against clear evidence of hardship for the least fortunate—those who are least able to cope and those who need help most. Life for them will become more grim and more harsh as a result of that decision. That should not be happening in a caring, civilised community.
§ Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)
I begin by declaring my interest, being the only Member of Parliament to be sponsored by the Union of Communication Workers. Together with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith), I had the pleasure—I suppose that some would say the doubtful pleasure—of receiving outside the House a petition that contained more than 150,000 signatures complaining about the proposed closure of 700 sub-post offices and 70 Crown post offices.
The hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) spoilt a good speech towards the end by suggesting that the Crown post offices should be closed. Of course, their closure would be just as big a disaster as the proposal to close the 700 sub-post offices. It would be wrong to assume that, as no Minister takes day-to-day responsibility for the Post Office, Ministers do not have a hand in what 1011 goes on. If we thought for a moment that the Government did not have a hand in these proposals, we would not have raised this subject for debate. But we not only think but know that the Government are behind the proposals to close the Crown post offices and sub-post offices, and that is why we decided to initiate a debate on this important subject.
There was an interesting forerunner to this debate. The hon. Members for South Hams (Mr. Steen) and for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) raised points of order because the closure of the post office in the House for perhaps an hour or two caused them great inconvenience. But the proposed closures will cause great inconvenience to hundreds of thousands of people, because those post offices will be closed not for one or two hours but permanently.
I was bitterly disappointed that the Minister should seem to say that later tonight his ministerial colleague would virtually tell hon. Members that they were wasting their time in holding a debate, because the Government had made up their mind that the closures would go ahead. That was a very distressing attitude for the Minister to adopt.
§ Mr. Pattie
I was attempting to make it clear that because the Government had no responsibility for the details of individual closures—the merits of one street versus another—any such representations would receive the same answer as we have already given in correspondence.
§ Mr. Ewing
I am grateful to the Minister for making that clear, but I intend to show that the Government have responsibility and authority, even in the case of individual closures.
I wish to put on record my disagreement with the Minister about the number of closures that took place under previous Labour Governments, particularly between 1974 and 1979.
One of the legitimate complaints of the Union of Communication Workers, which has a vast membership in the Post Office, is that the closures which took place between 1974 and 1979, and, indeed, later in the early years of the incoming Conservative Government, were part of the postal mechanisation programme. In the process of that programme, 1,700 postal officers posts went by agreement. These closures were part of an agreement made between the Union of Communication Workers and the Post Office as part of the postal mechanisation programme with effects on job security and the continuation of the Post Office counter network as we know it. The complaint of my union is that that agreement is being thrown overboard. Those workers had pledged themselves to modernise the industry.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Newark who suggested that we should take the Post Office back into the 19th century. Some of us have fought long and hard to drag it out of the 19th century. Workers who fought long and hard and who co-operated in bringing the Post Office out of the 19th century into the 20th and 21st centuries are now being betrayed.
The members of the Union of Communication Workers who are employed in the Post Office feel that they have been betrayed by the Government and, to a certain extent, by the Post Office as a result of these proposals, although 1012 there are mitigating circumstances in the case of the Post Office in that it has no control over the external financial limits imposed on it by the Minister acting on behalf of the Treasury.
One of the problems that the Post Office faces at present and will face in years to come is the requirement to meet the external financial limits imposed on it by the Government. The Post Office has mistakenly come to the conclusion that the only way in which it can meet these external financial limits is by closing 700 sub-post offices and 70 Crown post offices. The Minister states that even after those closures the Post Office will still have the largest retail network in comparison with any similar organisation in the country. That is true. However, that will be so only until the next round of closures because, judging the Government on their record, what we are debating tonight is only the beginning. While we are worried about the present proposals, we are also worried about what will ensue.
The Post Office is working under the severe handicap of the external financial limits that are placed upon it. The social responsibility of the Post Office is written into the British Telecommunications Act 1981, as are the Minister's powers. Section 60 of the Act provides that the Secretary of State has powers to give directions to the Post Office. That the Minister is currently failing to do. He is not giving any direction to the Post Office in response to the representations that are being made by the public and by hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I deal next with two constituency points. I recognise the point that was made in this respect by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason), a former Postmaster-General. In my constituency of Falkirk, East I had notification that two sub-post offices were to be closed, one in Grangemouth and one in Bo'ness. The difference in the attitude of the two head postmasters in different areas — and I suspect that this goes on throughout the country—would have to be seen to be believed. To deal first with the Bo'ness closure in a small part of the town called Grangepans, when the head postmaster of West Lothian wrote and informed me that the office was to close, I requested, and subsequently had, a meeting with him. I did not need to go to his head office, which is in another part of West Lothian, but he willingly came to Bo'ness where we met. I persuaded the head postmaster that it was necessary not only to consult the local authority but also to speak to community groups such as young mothers' clubs and old-age pensioner organisations.
I wish to place on record my thanks to the head postmaster of West Lothian, who met all the community groups that asked to see him. As a result, he changed his mind and the decision to close the sub-post office in Bo'ness was reversed. I pay tribute also to the sub-postmaster, because, as was stated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon), the sub-postmaster had in his pocket an offer of £20,000 to give up the sub-post office. He too joined the decision to reverse the closure for which I pay tribute to him.
With regard to the proposed Falkirk closure, the head postmaster of Falkirk wrote to me. He consulted only the district council. He did not bother to consult the old people's organisations, the young mothers' clubs or any other group. The users of the sub-post office which he intends to close were never consulted. He stuck to his 1013 original decision: the Oswald avenue post office, Grangemouth, according to the postmaster of Falkirk, is surplus to requirements and will, therefore be closed. The people who use that post office will have to walk not one mile but something like two or three miles across busy main roads. That illustrates the difference in approach of various head postmasters which I suspect is to be found throughout the country.
I return to the central theme of the debate which was set by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East in opening the debate. The Union of Communication Workers has a proud record of cooperation in modernisation. As I said earlier, we gave up 1,700 jobs in order to bring the Post Office into the 21st century.
The union and the Opposition do not intend to sit back and take the closures as if they mean almost nothing. They cause genuine social hardship. The Minister has failed singularly to understand or to appreciate the social hardship that they entail. For that reason, I know that my hon. and right hon. Friends who have at heart the concern of the people who use the post offices will vote enthusiastically to seek to impress upon the Minister that he has a duty and can use the powers contained in section 62(1) of the British Telecommunications Act 1981. He can give directions to the Post Office. He is not at liberty to hide behind the coat tails of Ron Dearing or of any other member of the Post Office board. He is the responsible Minister. We ask only that he accept his responsibilities.
§ Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)
As a former employer of the Post Office, it may be appropriate for me to declare an interest, however obliquely, in the matter before the House. Having taken a view as a manager, and more sharply now as a consumer, I hope that I may have a balanced view of the issues under debate.
The Opposition motion, which seeks to blame Government directly for sub-post office closures, is arrant nonsense. It stretches logic rather too far to complain about the level of profit in order to complain simultaneously about the stringency of Government targets. One has to have a degree of balance about the management of post offices.
It has been a remarkable task over a decade and a half to transform a Civil Service department into a commercial body with not a little agony and with great credit upon the people who have worked in that organisation. It must be a relevant consideration that we have one of the most compehensive post office networks in the world.
§ Mr. Galley
And even after these closures, which I do not entirely support. The hon. Gentleman should not jump the gun. Even after the closures as proposed, we shall have one of the most comprehensive sub-post office and post office networks in the world.
It must be a relevant consideration that there is to be £25 million of additional expenditure on refurbishing and modernising Crown offices, and grants will be available to improve sub-post offices. It also has to be a relevant consideration that about £20 million will be spent on the automation of counters and, at long last, the installation 1014 of cash dispensers and the like. The Post Office has lagged behind the banks in many respects. It is at last beginning to grapple with the need to modernise in many areas.
§ Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)
I am following my hon. Friend's comments with great interest and I can see that there may be a case for closing a sub-post office if a Crown office is to be establised in that area.
However, what does my hon. Friend say when a sub-post office is closed in a well populated area and its customers are obliged to go to another sub-post office which cannot properly cope with even its existing customers? Does my hon. Friend agree that in such circumstances there should be a pause for reconsideration so that the social difficulties can be avoided? If no Crown post office is planned for an area, ought not this silly and anti-social business be abandoned?
§ Mr. Galley
The point made by my right hon. Friend may be valid, but so may mine. There is a need to modernise the counter network and to market new services and compete in many areas. There is also scope to allow the Post Office more commercial freedom in its counter operations and what may be sold in post offices.
It must be a relevant consideration that there have been significant demographic and housing changes resulting in some sub-post offices being in the wrong place. That is the case with one of the closures in my constituency. Many of the surrounding houses have been pulled down and the sub-post office is no longer needed.
The revision of the counter network has been based on a combination of discovering which sub-postmasters would be willing to accept compensation for the closure of their office and the acceptability of those offers to the Post Office management, working on the criteria of the agreed guidelines.
I applaud the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, consultations have taken place and decisions changed in 10 per cent. of cases. However, I have some reservations about the consultation procedure. It is my impression from most of the cases with which I have been dealing that nobody was prepared to budge from the decision, despite considerable public pressure, extensive petitioning and proof of serious social problems.
The House has to balance its judgment about the need to modernise the counter network and, in the same way, the Post Office has to balance its judgment on the closure of sub-post offices by considering the social and commercial factors. That is a matter for the Post Office and not for the Government.
Historically, it has been the practice in making such decisions to take into account the topography and the terrain of an area, along with the composition of the population and other social factors. It has also been standard practice to take into account the availability and quality of services in the surrounding area.
It is not acceptable to close a sub-post office when the standard of service at the Crown office a mile or so away is accepted by Post Office management to be inadequate. I do not wish to go into detail on local cases, because they are not the responsibility of the Government.
Attempts have been made to improve staffing arrangements and staff are working more efficiently. I know that the Post Office faces great difficulties because of the peaks and troughs of its business during the day and during the week. I accept that the DHSS strike has 1015 produced enormous problems for the Post Office for a long time. The callousness of those involved in that strike is incredible.
However, it seems insensitive, to say the least, for the Post Office to close a town centre sub-post office when there is an inadequate Crown office service in that centre. If such closures must go ahead, the public must be convinced that the service at the Crown counter has been improved.
A more widespread cause of concern is the fact that it is not acceptable to close a sub-post office in an area where a large proportion of the population served are elderly and the terrain is hilly.
It is argued that the friends, neighbours, home helps and social workers of elderly people can collect their pensions, but that is not true in every case. I have submitted to my local head postmaster, so far without effect, some harrowing letters from people in their 70s and 80s in an area where many of the local people are elderly. Their friends and neighbours are elderly, they have no home help or social worker and, because of the mobility of our modern society, their families have moved away. What are they to do? There is no one to whom they can turn for assistance.
It is argued that many elderly people would have to make a journey during the week to do their shopping. However, many elderly people can buy most of their day-to-day needs within a small area near their home. Not every pensioner will take a long journey each week to do the shopping.
The Post Office must take into account the needs of the elderly and the disabled when taking detailed decisions and it must show more sensitivity. If sub-post offices must close, it may be possible for the Post Office, in conjunction with charitable organisations such as Age Concern or Help the Aged, to set up a joint scheme, at little cost, to provide a delivery service to pensioners in difficulties. I urge the Post Office to consider that option. There may be difficulties about the security of cash, but that does not seem to be much different from what happens when neighbours collect pensions. It may be argued that the Post Office is not running a social service, but it has a responsibility to its many customers.
Single queuing has been implemented at many Crown post office counters, to good effect in many cases. However, there are still difficulties because of the wide range of transactions that take place at the counters. Some are simple stamp purchases or money transfers, but some are complex licence or passport applications. It is about time that the Post Office followed the banks and established quick service tills for the simple transactions. That could be operated within a single queuing system.
There are many problems and I believe that the Post Office is not being sufficiently sensitive. I accept that it is trying to implement many laudable schemes, but it must not steamroller through sub-post office closures in difficult areas to the extent that it is now doing.
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
I listened to the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley) with some interest. He made the sort of speech that we have come to expect from someone who has been a chairman of the Young Conservatives in his area. I listened with more interest and 1016 in more agreement to the hon. Members for Newark (Mr. Alexander) and for York (Mr. Gregory), who made a powerful case against the Government's proposals. If the hon. Members for Newark and York fail to find the courage to vote for the Opposition motion and against the Government amendment, many of us in the House and many outside it will find their brave speeches somewhat empty and designed, apparently, more for their local newspapers than for the central debate.
A local post office is a social resource and not merely a facility. It is for many pensioners and others one of their only points of contact with the outside world. In many instances, it is the means by which those engaged in small businesses can find an assured income of sufficient size to enable them to run a small shop. The closure of local sub-post offices in our towns and cities means the removal of facilities for cashing pensions, buying stamps and changing postal orders, but in many instances, especially in cities, it means the closure of yet another corner shop. That is a loss that must be added to the closure of so many of our churches, pubs and small schools. Our local communities depend on these facilities as they give a sense of identity within the faceless conglomeration of cities and towns.
We live in a harsh and no doubt troubled and brutal world in which, perhaps, efficiency, profit and cost-effectiveness are gods which we are required to worship. Perhaps we must grit our teeth and remove sentimentality from our minds if that costs us money. If the Post Office counter network were making a loss, there might be good reason to wield the knife and slice off cosy and human inefficiencies, if inefficiencies they were, which we loved but could afford no longer. However, the Post Office is not making a loss. It is making a profit of perhaps £110 million this year. The counter network is about to make a profit of £12.5 million, as the Minister agreed.
It is true that the return on investment and capital is not up to commercial standards, but the Post Office is not solely and wholly a commercial organisation. That is reflected in section 59 of the 1981 Act. The Post Office is a balance between economy and social need. The closures are not coming about because of loss or diminished social need. The contrary is the case. The social need to provide child benefits, for example, is greater than it was. The closures are taking place because the Government have decided to impose a new and more stringent set of targets. Indeed, they have added £10 million to their target figure to make it £70 million. That has been done in pursuit of inefficiency that is measured in economic terms but most assuredly not in human terms. The Government require higher counter turnover.
The closure programme is the direct result of a hastily and insensitively implemented Government policy. The Minister was right to say that there have been closures previously, but they have all been carried out in return for a greater degree of efficiency, the automation of our postal services and a better service for the public. The present closure programme will result in a worse service for the public. There will be a net loss of service. That is what distinguishes the present closure programme from previous ones.
The Government are responsible for the closure programme but the Minister claims that the Post Office is responsible for the decisions that are taken. So be it, but behind the decisions of the Post Office is the Government's new policy. The Minister is responsible 1017 ultimately. The Minister can say until he is blue in the face that he has no responsibility for the closures, and the Under-Secretary of State may well decide to hand the matter back, as it were, to the Post Office when he replies, but that is not what the facts tell me. Section 11(2) of the Post Office Act 1969 states:If it appears to the Minister that there is a defect in the general plans or arrangements of the Post Office for exercising any of its powers, he may, after consultation with it, give it directions of a general character for remedying the defect.Does the Minister agree that that means that we can take every individual case for closure to the Minister to ask him to remedy what we regard as a defect? The Minister has ultimate responsibility in law as well as in fact. He is the ultimate arbiter and he cannot dodge that responsibility. It is clear that it rests with him.
We need a serious review of the Post Office. We must decide how the social function which is set out within the 1981 Act is properly to be funded. We shall not be able to create a decent network which responds effectively to the economic nature of the world and social responsibilities until the Government are prepared to come clean on the way in which social responsibilities will be honoured. Unless that is done, all subsequent reviews will be, as this one is, inappropriate, insensitive and damaging.
The consultation process has proved to be a sham. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) has reiterated the statement of other hon. Members that closure decisions had already taken place in October 1984. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) has fought hard against the closure of five post offices on the island. He tells me that the Post Office had already decided that many, if not all, of the closures should take place. He has spoken of the Post Office acting as judge and jury. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North- East (Mr. Freud) has said that, even if a Member manages to save a post office, the postmaster, "flushed with redundancy payments, is up and away in any event." My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) has said that the post offices concerned have accepted the direction as if it were inevitable.
I shall squeeze into my speech a constituency example. I asked Post Office officials to tell me what the savings would be from the closure of the sub-post office in Station road, Ilminster. I was told that the information was not available. The Government and the Post Office tell us that they want to make savings and yet there was no information about the savings that would flow from the closure. Having gone to the top and seen the director of counter services, I was offered a global figure. There was no back-up information to provide evidence on which I could judge whether the figure was correct. I was told that the savings over the year would amount to £4,000.
There are 100 pensioners in the area that is covered by the sub-post office at Station road, Ilminster. They will have to go into Ilminster to collect their pensions. They may be robbed of the facility provided by the shop in which the sub-post office is presently situated. If 100 pensioners cost 50p a week in these terms, the Post Office might save £3,000, but that sum will be dumped on the backs of pensioners. The net saving to the community will perhaps be £1,000 or about £3 a day.
That does not take account of the fact that 11 firms use the sub-post office regularly for all their postal services. The work forces of those firms use the facilities of the sub-post office during their lunch times. They will not transfer 1018 their business to the post office at Ilminster. What a ridiculous way to go about cutting a service that has proved so successful and useful for my community.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is really naughty. He has just walked into the Chamber and he now wishes to intervene. Many hon. Members are waiting to take part in the debate.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The House knows that this matter is beyond my control. Clearly interventions are made at the expense of other hon. Members. Some hon. Members have been waiting a long time to participate in this debate.
§ Mr. Hughes
I wish to add a brief point of great importance. In the case of an important office, such as the south-east district office, there will probably be no saving. There will probably be a profit, and there will be, therefore, no justification for closure. Will the Under-Secretary of State take responsibility if the consultation process does not allow such post offices to remain open?
§ Mr. Ashdown
That is an important point, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will address his remarks to it.
I do not mean to suggest—I am sure that other hon. Members do not wish to do so either—that the Post Office has no problems. We recognise that the business of the Post Office is changing. We recognise that there has been a decline of 30 per cent. in the sale of stamps over the counter, that the number of postal orders issued has decreased from 502 million to 61 million and that national savings business decreased by 5 per cent. in 1982–83.
We recognise that, because of demographic changes, some post offices have become stranded in inadequate catchment areas. We need to review our post office services, but that should be done as part of a long-term strategy — not as a panic measure to meet the Government's latest whim. Page 12 of "Post Offices Counter Network 'A Strategy for the Future'" says that the review is part of such an overall strategy. The Post Office, however, gave the game away on page 9 when it stated:Closure is only considered when post masters retire or resign.Sub-post offices are singled out for closure not because they incur a loss or do not perform a social service but because they happen to suffer from the supreme had luck of having a postmaster who is ready for retirement. What a way to set up a decent strategy for the Post Office of the future.
Our post office network is the envy of Europe, but this chaotic programme of closures threatens that structure. This programme has been brought about by Government policy. It is the result of the Government's whim. The programme is being insensitively and capriciously carried out. The public consultation promised is a sham. Closures will cause the further destruction of our communities and more misery for the vulnerable. We need a comprehensive strategy for the post offices, not a short-term panic measure to implement theoretical targets instituted by the Government, irrespective of the cost or disruption to a vital institution.
The Liberal-SDP alliance would not oppose a sensible, long-term plan for the restructuring of the post office 1019 network, but it opposes this shortsighted and destructive programme of closures which will save little and add much to the burden of misery for many.
§ 6.3 pm
§ Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)
My hon. Friend the Minister for Information Technology made a telling point when he gave us the figures for closures under respective Governments. He said—he can correct me if he wishes—that in their five years of office the Labour Government had closed 1,140 sub-post offices and that in the past five years the Conservative Government had closed 734 sub-post offices. The position is clear. There have been steady closures for many years. My only difficulty lies in the fact that there is unsatisfactory consultation about the sub-post offices that should close. I believe that the consultation procedures are not adhered to by those concerned.
I was extremely embarrassed when I first heard of the closure of a post office in my constituency in a letter written on 4 July telling me of the need to close the post office at Lower Brownhill road, Redbridge, Southampton. Mr. Gilbert, who is an excellent head postmaster in Southampton, said that he had already telephoned the sub-postmaster concerned. The sub-postmaster told him that he would be willing to accept voluntary redundancy under the terms recently agreed between the Post Office and the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. Mr. Gilbert said:If there are, however, any other factors which you feel I should take into account or if you have any other comments on the proposals, please let me know.As soon as news of the closure was reported in the local press, I received a massive number of complaints. A local Labour councillor got in touch with me and gave me a petition from more than 500 pensioners who were dismayed at the closure. They admitted that the sub-post office was within the one-mile limit set down, but they believed that the road they had to travel was one of the trickiest roads in that part of Southampton.
Who decided the distance between sub-post offices? Was the decision made in Victorian times? Was allowance made for the fact that Southampton is a sea port? Did people think of master mariners with peg legs and parrots on their shoulders? Was some other criterion used? Each time closures are decided, it is simple for the head postmaster to note on a map any two post offices within one mile of each other. The head postmaster can immediately telephone one or both of the sub-postmasters and ascertain whether a sub-postmaster wishes to take voluntary redundancy. I believe that the consultation process has been pretty thin.
Following the complaints, I got in touch with Mr. Clinton, the managing director responsible for counter services. He said:I appreciate that when an office closes the elderly may experience some difficulty".Mr. Clinton will be old one day, but perhaps he will not experience the same difficulty. He continued:I sympathise with those who may be affected in this area. It is however possible for those who do experience difficulty travelling to a post office to nominate a friend"—how does one nominate a friend?—relative, or member of the welfare service to collect their pension or allowances for them".Does not Mr. Clinton realise that the very elderly already do this, because many of them are housebound? Is this not 1020 an additional burden on welfare services? Could welfare services cope if overnight there were a serious number of closures?
I believe that the Post Office began to listen to some of the protests about my closures. A letter dated 14 September 1984 told me that the Post Office had "carefully reviewed" the position. The letter stated:from this first trawl the only office to emerge as a candidate for closure in your constituency was Lower Brownhill".The letter went on:We have however considered very carefully the views expressed by our customers who took the trouble to write in".That sounds democratic but, unfortunately, another letter from the Post Office dated 27 September 1984 stated:Before reaching the final decision"—I believe the Post Office was close to making that decision—we took very careful account of the views that had been expressed to us, and I would add here that in addition to the letters from Councillor Allan, only three other letters were received concerning the closure.Why did the man who could possibly avoid making the closures receive only three letters, while I received dozens of letters and a petition from more than 500 people? Why was he almost in purdah? Why did he not receive the necessary information? Could he not have arranged for a leaflet to be dropped in the area saying that the sub-post office was about to close and asking whether any people objected to the closure? One Opposition Member with such a wonderful head postmaster in his constituency was able to attend all the public meetings. Was there no way of saying to the local councillors, myself or even the chief executive of the Southampton city council, "Call a public meeting. I shall attend that meeting and listen to the protests?" That is democracy. That is what a Member of Parliament must do from time to time, and I do not understand why the Post Office should not do the same.
I am all for economies and efficiency. I am delighted that the Post Office made a profit of £40 million in the first six months and that it may make a further £40 million in the next six months. I also agree with closures that must take place of necessity, but I am far from delighted at the lack of consultation and the lack of sympathy shown for the problems caused. I should say in the Southampton head postmaster's defence that in the middle of this fiasco Mr. Gilbert was moved to another area. But why does the head postmaster not involve himself more? Why does he just sit in his office waiting for protests? Why does he not go out and face the protests head-on rather than saying that, although everyone knew about the proposed closure, he received only three letters? We can all keep our heads tucked down behind the barricades and then say that we have received minimal post on a very important matter.
My hon. Friend the Minister put up a first-class case, given that he had no trump cards at all. I hope that he will now ask the chairman, Sir Ronald Dearing, a very able person, to consult further. The exercise may end with exactly the same result, but at the moment there is strong feeling in the area that consultation has not been good enough and we hope that the chairman of the Post Office will think again.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
The Minister stood at the Dispatch Box for 31 minutes without telling us anything that we did not already know. The problem is not the Post Office but the Minister and the Government. You, 1021 Mr. Speaker, will recall pulling me up the other day when the Secretary of State for Employment announced the closure of many skillcentres and I called him a coward.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I am not sure that that is quite right. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman really meant that.
§ Mr. Haynes
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I was afraid that I was in trouble again. I shall not call the Minister a coward today. I shall simply say that the Minister is hiding behind Ron Dearing and his organisation. The problem is not the Post Office but that lot on the other side of the House. I am glad that so many Conservative Members have spoken out today. I hope that they will be going into the correct Lobby to vote. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) laughs. If he has the opportunity to speak in the debate, I shall be interested to hear his contribution. The Government in general and the Minister in particular are hiding behind the Post Office.
Consultation on post office closures in my area was a complete waste of time because the decision had already been taken, due to Government pressure on the Post Office to close a certain number of offices and to save a certain amount of money. [Interruption.] If the Minister spends his time talking to his Whip instead of listening, how can he reply to the debate? He is being really naughty.
It has been suggested that redundancy is being offered to people who have reached the age of between 59 and 65 years, but in my area it is being offered at the age of 42. That is very early retirement. Moreover, no one else will be able to take the job, so there will be one more person on the dole queue. The Government talk about their compassion for people who cannot find work. Yet here they are destroying jobs yet again. We have not heard much about that aspect from Conservative Members.
I have been through all this before when a post office in a rural area was closed. It was situated in a basin, so the elderly people using it were forced to climb a hill to use any other post office. There is much talk about how far people have to walk to reach the next post office. Our postmaster in Nottinghamshire, a man in his forties, talked about how long it took him to walk from the post office to be closed to the next available office. If I told the House how long he said that it took, hon. Members would wonder why he is not representing this country in the Olympic mile. It is ridiculous that elderly and disabled people should be expected to walk such long distances.
There are two complexes with 52 elderly people in each just across the road from the sub-post office proposed to be closed. Many of those people walk with frames. Going to the post office just across the road is a little exercise for them, but, according to the Government's policy, they should be expected to walk a mile. The Government know very well that that is just not on.
The Government must take note of what is being said in the House and outside. I hope that the Minister will take this seriously because we are not satisfied with what is going on. If that sub-post office is closed, elderly people will have to cross a busy main road without a pedestrian crossing. They should not have to do that, but the Government are trying to push them into it. The Government are supposed to represent people too. I wonder whether the Minister knows where the sub-post offices are in his constituency. I very much doubt it. If he did, he would understand the message of this debate and 1022 the problems caused by the Government's attempts to close post offices. I hope that the Minister has now understood that message. He has had his ear clobbered today, and if he does not change his mind he will have it clobbered again.
§ Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)
My ever-friendly Whip, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), has asked me to make a short contribution. He should not knock the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) too much for giving way to his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) after making constituency points on behalf of his hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft), Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) and Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) because one cannot hope to become leader of the Liberal party if one does not pay attention to that kind of detail. Moreover, they have now all disappeared except the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey.
I proposed to say that this was a very timely debate for many hundreds of my constituents. However, it will be timely only if Ministers will listen to it. There has been no evidence so far that they intend to take note of the points that have been made. I am always giving the Parliamentary Under-Secretary advice, in Committee and in the Chamber. I advise him now to stand up for himself. He should stand up to his senior Ministers and make his own contribution, because I believe that he has a future. He must face some of the detailed points that have been made.
In my constituency, a sub-post office has been closed in an area where many elderly and disabled people rely on it very much. Like other hon. Members, I have received nothing but the greatest co-operation from the postal board. The chairman of the North-Western postal board has been most helpful, and the postmaster has stomped the area with me and met many of the elderly people and many representatives of pressure groups. Our quarrel is not with the postal board but with the Government and their rigid approach to the question. The Government have ignored the social consequences of their actions. They are trying in a deceitful and underhand manner to use Post Office cuts in their spending programme. In my constituency, industry is affected as well as the disabled, the pensioners and the less fortunate.
The sub-post office was closed on 7 January. Yesterday I received a letter from Mr. Varney, managing director of Allen-Wellerman Limited, which is an industrial concern in my constituency. Mr. Varney says:I write to add the support of our Company to your campaign to have the above"—in other words, the sub-post office—re-opened. The Company started in business on Commercial Brow in July 1984 and, although its level of activity during the remainder of the year was relatively low I anticipate a turnover in the region of £2 million during 1985, rising steadily thereafter. The loss of this facility will therefore represent a significant inconvenience and cost.The decision to close has had a significant effect. There have also been protests and representations. I hope that the Minister will therefore intervene and ask the Post Office to reconsider that decision. There must be flexibility.
A massive petition has been organised in my constituency by a lady who lives there and by Councillor Clark. The lady has written to me telling me of a visit to the central post office in Hyde where she joined a queue that spilled out into the snow. There were many elderly 1023 people in the queue. The lady is in despair. She relies on me and other hon. Members to put pressure on Ministers and on others outside the House so that she and others may enjoy a proper service.
I have been brief, as I was asked to be. In conclusion, I should like to point out that we have heard courageous speeches from the hon. Members for York (Mr. Gregory) and for Newark (Mr. Alexander) and others. We have heard about their compassion. We expect them to have guts as well. We expect them to join us in the Lobby tonight and show how much they disapprove of what the Government are doing. I hope that there will be a healthy vote tonight, and that we shall be joined in the Lobby by many Conservative Members.
§ Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
I declare my interest as an assistant secretary of the Post Office Engineering Union. I protest not only against the Government's insistence upon post office cuts but also against the way in which those cuts have been implemented. Both Ministers and Post Office management are at fault. They try to hide behind each other, but in doing so they simply make it clearer that the Government have ordered cuts and that the management has carried them out in a docile, cynical and ham-fisted fashion.
The document prepared by Mr. Brian Roberts, the director of industrial relations, suggests breaking a solemn agreement—the job security agreement—and sacking up to 5,000 post office engineers and motor transport staff. It was a bombshell to my union. It is the most shoddy, disreputable and disgraceful document that I have seen in 25 years as a national union officer. Management says that it is only a working document. I advise management to scrap it.
Management claims to have legal advice that the job security agreement is negotiable. The job security of the union's members is not negotiable against the background of over 3 million unemployed. The Post Office management entered freely into that agreement and will not be allowed easily to renege on it now. We want our members to be at work, not on the dole. Problems should be settled by negotiation on shorter hours — on the POEU's "broad strategy," which has already been presented to the management. Many POEU members and Union of Communication Workers counter staff joined the Post Office as civil servants. They accepted lower pay than they could have earned in industry in order to enjoy the job security and pensions of civil servants. The POEU accepted craft flexibility and productivity bargaining because of the existence of job security, and job security must stay. The Government and the management are determined to make a shambles of the Post Office.
I am concerned about the public service aspect. Last year the local postmaster shut the George street sub-post office in my constituency. I argued to keep it open. The arguments were strong and familiar. The closure of the post office brought hardship to many old people. They either have to walk up and down to the bank—although many of them are ex-potters, ex-miners and ex-foundrymen suffering from chest complaints — and through a subway which they hate, or to travel by bus with all the attendant difficulties. The remaining post offices are crowded and the old people have to wait for ages. Our 1024 Crown post office is understaffed and cannot cope properly with extra business. One sub-post office to which those once using George street were directed now displays a notice asking people not to call on Tuesday or Thursday unless it is essential for them to do so.
That is the state that we are in. Our post offices are now more crowded on Thursdays than was the black hole of Calcutta, but the talk is not of relief but of further closures. Why should we treat our old people in such a way?
The response from authority to my arguments was less than helpful. Our local postmaster, Mr. Cole, commended the local bus service. Perhaps that is why the Government mean to take it away. He also suggested that relatives or friends could collect pensions. That must be the standard response given by postmasters to Members of Parliament who complain.
We are concerned for the dignity of pensioners. They do not want to be reliant upon other people. They want to collect the pensions themselves. I also wrote to the Director General of Fair Trading, Sir Gordon Borrie, who sent my complaint to the Minister for Local Government. If the Director of Public Prosecutions received a complaint from the police, would he send it to Dr. Crippen? In this case, Dr. Crippen turned out to be the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. The Minister for Local Government himself had more sense than to send me daft replies. The Under-Secretary wrote that this wasa matter for the Post Office Board and the Government cannot intervene.I was referred from the Post Office to the Minister, and the Minister referred me to the Post Office. Off I trotted to see Sir Ron Dearing. He told me that it was hard luck, but that the Government were insisting on a 5 per cent. cut. The Government have discovered the secret of perpetual motion. I was referred from the Office of Fair Trading to the Government to the Post Office to the Office of Fair Trading. It is a vicious circle, but our people are caught in it, and they are fed up with it. The closure of George street post office was a disgrace, but even more disgraceful was the inability of local people to challenge the decision and the buck-passing of those in authority.
I should have liked to have spoken longer. but time is short. We in the Post Office unions oppose the closures. We want service for the public, we want time to give service with a smile, we want work, not the dole, for our members and we want the Government and the management to stop destroying this great public service.
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
I represent a constituency where two post offices have already been closed-both almost by accident. One was closed as a result of robberies and the other was closed as a result of legal proceedings.
I should like to give the figures concerning one post office—the Post Office has been helpful in supplying them. Every week, the post office served 1,500 main customers. More than 750 were pensioners, more than 500 were people picking up child benefit, almost 100 were picking up Girocheques and the rest were making Giro deposits and Giro withdrawals. That gives a total of 1,500 people who made good use of the service each week. Saying that they should turn their attentions elsewhere and travel a longer distance is to apply to post offices the type of argument that is used against mines. They are closed 1025 because of a definition, which is conjured up by the Government, of what is uneconomic, without paying regard to the needs of the community and the customers.
The reaction of my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), who has worked with me on this matter, has been anger and astonishment. There have been masses of meetings, petitions and letters. We have both seen the director of the London region and Sir Ron Dearing, but without success. I was amazed at the self-satisfaction of the Minister for Information Technology when he talked of people collecting pensions. I wonder whether he or the civil servant who wrote the speech trudge down to a post office in the cold and I wonder whether they would like to trudge another 1,300 yards in a city where bus services are to be cut. I wonder whether they will see the time of home helps being wasted. I also wonder whether they will risk robbery.
We read in The Standard that the special patrol group has been drafted into Brixton and that there are surveillance and targeting operations because there are so many robberies on the streets. What do the Government do? They close the post office in Croxted road so that people must walk a lonely path to the main Crown post office, thus being exposed to risk of robbery. And what happens when people get to that post office? I wonder whether the Minister or the civil servant who wrote that speech would like to be in a queue of 80 people, as has been reported by some of my constituents. Relying on Post Office figures, they would find 55 people in front of them in the queue at 9 am, 38 at 9.45 am, 37 at 10.45am and 31 at 14.45.
The closure is wholly unrealistic and has been proposed by people who do not live in the real world where vulnerable and poor people will have to suffer the inconvenience of going to Crown post offices which are grossly overcrowded because they are unable to cope with the weight of business. It is impertinent for the Minister to tell us that he will do nothing about any individual closure—the blame rests fairly on the Government's shoulders. They treat the Post Office and other nationalised industries worse than the Mafia treats the victims of a protection racket. They extract from the Post Office a profit of £80 million a year at the present rate, compel it to reduce its unit costs by 5 per cent. and require it to make a profit on turnover of 4 per cent. So far, that is analogous to the Mafia which extracts money out of those whom it controls, but if the Mafia were extracting money from ice cream parlours, the last thing it would do would be to demand, as the customer, that it pay less for its ice cream. However, that is what the Government are doing because 20 per cent. of the Post Office's business is the mail, which makes a profit, about 16 per cent. is the savings bank and the rest is business for which the Government are the customer. The Government are putting the Post Office in a double grip. At one end they are demanding a higher rate of return and greater efficiency—ignoring social responsibilities—and at the other, acting as a monopoly customer of the Post Office, they are saying that they are not prepared to pay the right amount for the job.
All we can do when we see Ron Dearing or our local regional director is choose which of two evils is to be executed. The Post Office says that it must maintain a balance between social responsibilities and economic ones. It says in its standard letter that it is finely balanced. It is not. It is crudely balanced because of the way that the 1026 Government have weighted the scales. The Government should at least have the decency to own up to their own responsibilities.
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
The noticeable feature of this debate is that nobody, not even among Conservative Members, has defended the Government's policy. Even the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley), who came nearest to giving a defence, strained at the leash for much of his speech, wishing to criticise Government policy. We have all centred some of our comments on the criteria that the Government have decided on to judge whether there will be hardship. The more the Minister for Information Technology tried to defend himself with the one-mile formula, the more I was reminded of a comment that Aneurin Bevan was reported to have said having listened to a speech by Neville Chamberlain: "Listening to the Prime Minister is like a trip round Woolworths—everything is in place and nothing is over sixpence." We have been trying to tell the Minister that our constituents' needs do not come in neat packages, nothing costing more than sixpence. Saying that there is to be a sub-post office within one mile of those which are to be closed does not mean that there will not be real hardship.
If the Minister is still in doubt about the hardship that closures will cause, I advise him to get in touch with the chairman of the Post Office north-west region who came to a meeting called by Merseyside county council and at which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and I were present. We described, as did many local councillors, the effect of the closure programme on our area.
As we have been asked to be brief, I shall concentrate on just one closure in my constituency—the one in the St. Anne's district. We are told that my constituents will have little or no difficulty using other post offices or sub-post offices. We are told that they should go to Hamilton street. Going from St. Anne's to Hamilton street involves climbing a gentle incline. It is easy enough for the Minister and for me to climb but it is much more difficult for people who suffer from emphysema, who use a wheelchair or who have children to push. We are told that, alternatively. they can go to one of the Crown post offices, but the Crown post offices in Birkenhead are on major roads. It is easy enough for the Minister or me to cross them but it is difficult for many of my constituents.
I should like to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said about the risk of crime. He is the only hon. Member to have mentioned it. Those of us who represent inner city areas are aware of the level of crime and the frequency with which our constituents suffer muggings. It is not uncommon to see in our surgeries constituents who have tasted their second or third mugging. The Government are doubling the journey, and therefore the risk of being mugged, of people who go to post offices to pick up their main, or only, income.
If the Minister is still as satisfied with the one-mile rule as he appeared to be at the beginning of the debate, I should like to make one plea to him. If he lived in central Birkenhead, the closure that he and the Post Office are proposing would be unacceptable to him and his family just as it would be unacceptable to me and my family. If it is unacceptable to us, it is unacceptable to my constituents. I hope that the Minister who is to reply will 1027 show that he has listened to what the House has said. I hope that he will say that the closure programme will be considered and that the one-mile radius and the making of profits are not the only criteria. Having said that, St. Anne's is to be closed although it is making a profit. I hope that he will recognise the message that the House has given—that people's needs matter more than profits.
§ Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)
I agree with my colleagues who said that many hon. Members who have taken part in today's debate aimed their criticisms at the wrong target. Post office closures are one more facet in the illusion being created by the Government that they are determined to ease the burden of taxation. While the Chancellor of the Exchequer dangles the carrot of reductions in income tax, he is engaged in increasing charges, which force up the cost of living. Apart from the Post Office, the water, gas and electricity boards have all been required to raise their charges above the necessary levels, and the Treasury takes the excess profits that are generated.
We may get income tax cuts, but the cost of living is definitely higher. That particularly affects those on low fixed incomes, and that same section of the population are most hurt by the closure programme outlined in the post office document, "A strategy for the future". I am surprised that there has been only passing reference to it. The Government set the targets and stepped back, and the Post Office produced a revealing document.
On page 1 of the document it states that:Savings…will be ploughed back into the businessbut it does not say that during the past three years the Post Office has been required "to loan" £72 million to the Government. In the foreword on page 3 it states that the Post Office has worked out a policy designed, among other things, tomeet social obligations to the communities".How that can be reconciled with the closure programme, which will force pensioners to travel further to already busy offices to stand in longer queues, I fail to see.
Page 6 deals with "The Changing Market". It gets to the heart of the matter because it illustrates how the Government have completely changed the method of running the Post Office. From being a public service operating on a cost—plus pricing agreement, it is now committed to cutting its counter services by 5 per cent. and to making a profit of 4 per cent. on turnover in 1984–85. The conclusion must be that public service has taken a back seat in favour of commercial considerations. That is affirmed in the "Conclusion" on page 12.
The Post Office has shown a profit for eight successive years. In 1984 the profit amounted to £116,900,000. Because each sector must individually show a profit, it means that high profit sectors must not support the less profitable sectors, as is normal practice in industry and commerce.
The Post Office is well on the way to meeting the recommendations of the Rayner report of 1982. It recommended the closure of 200 main Crown offices and 3,000 sub-post offices. The closure programme has already hit 2,500 offices. The Government have an arms length approach right across the board. Their policy is, 1028 "We set the targets. You carry out the work, and don't come to us about it". From my correspondence with Ministers it is clear that that is their approach.
Head postmasters are given the responsibility of designating which offices in their areas are to close to meet the 5 per cent. target. The Coventry head post office covers the city of Coventry and most of Warwickshire. Closures in Warwickshire are largely excluded because it is a rural area. That means that the closures in Coventry are proportionately heavier. Page 9 of the document states that town and country areas are to be taken together. The national figures given in the Post Office annual report show that on average the United Kingdom has one post office for every 2,480 people. In Coventry, before the latest closure programme, there is already only one post office for every 4,500 people.
It strikes me as odd that, although 12 or 13 considerations are to be taken into account in deciding whether to retain sub-post offices, the Post Office has chosen consistently to use the distance-of-a-mile consideration. All hon. Members know of the anomalies that that can create.
Page 15 explains that the closure programme begins with the resignation of a sub-postmaster. At the two public meetings that I arranged and to which I invited the head postmaster—I hope that the House will note that I arranged the meetings and he attended them—the head postmaster, having carefully gone through the technical side—I have no personal grouse against him—said that if the sub-postmasters concerned had not resigned the two sub-post offices would not have been closed. That blows the whole matter sky-high.
When I contacted a postmistress, she said that she had been unable to get any assurance about the future life of her sub-post office and had therefore accepted the 23 months' salary on offer, as against a three months' salary which she would have received if she had stayed and then been told that her sub-post office was to be closed. That is a perfectly understandable decision to take.
It should be borne in mind that refurbishment of post offices, as detailed on page 11 of the document, relates only to the Crown offices. Paragraph 5 makes a fleeting reference to the fact that any refurbishments or improvements at sub-post offices are the responsibility of the people who run them. How many of them will wish to take up the loan suggested, even at preferential rates, for an uncertain future, as the Government change the targets? In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) said that discussions have already started about massive redundancies among staff in post offices.
Finally, I wish to draw attention to the local government and housing association aspects. About 200 local authorities and 300 housing associations use the Giro system for rent collection and issue Girocheques for housing benefit payments. The charges are high, considering the number of sub-post offices available when they were fixed. They will need revision when the network is decreased. If the closures are to continue, local authorities may have to consider ending their use of the Giro system and looking for an alternative. That cannot be in the long-term interests of the Post Office.
In conclusion, many hon. Members referred to the effects of closures on elderly people, and I do not intend to go over them again as by now the House should know about them well enough. If we cannot get the programme 1029 withdrawn or amended, I hope that we shall place the responsibility squarely on the Government's shoulders, because they are the initiators of the closure programme.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
The Minister for Information Technology must be looking forward to the speech of his hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary because it will be the first one this afternoon that may support the Minister's opening speech.
This has been a remarkable debate, with protests from Conservative Back-Bench Members. Usually the Government find it possible to identify some placeman, poodle or man of ambition who is willing to support the Government, but today not a single supporting voice has been heard. That is hardly surprising. The Government's proposals could mean the closure of 78 Crown post offices and 900 sub-post offices.
That would be bad enough in terms of morale within the Post Office, coming as it does after a carefully negotiated and agreed programme of mechanisation in which 1,700 jobs were lost, against an assurance of job security for those who remained. It is small wonder that the word "betrayed" has been used to describe the attitude of those who work in the Post Office. The proposal is not only disastrous for morale; it is completely unnecessary. The Post Office made a profit of £40 million in the first half of the year, and it will almost certainly make a bigger profit in the second half. The proposal has nothing to do with the internal requirements of the Post Office or the redundancy of sub-post offices and Crown offices; it relates to the arbitrary imposition of a £10 million external financing limit by the Government, which by coincidence is the amount that the Post Office will save as a result of the operation.
Although the Government will gain an additional £10 million, the weak will suffer. Many hon. Members have referred to the elderly and the handicapped, and the Minister does not seem to understand the reality of the suffering that the proposal will cause. He said that the elderly could nominate friends to collect their pensions. However, one should not overlook the fact that some people are extremely proud. Some regard such matters as confidential. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) rightly said, in some areas those who collect multiple pensions could become targets for mugging. But, even more importantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) passed me a note saying that he consulted his local DHSS office about the procedure of nominating a friend to collect one's pension. It was made clear to him that the DHSS regards this only as a temporary facility. It should not be a permanent arrangement. As my hon. Friend said, the proposal will present special problems in multi-ethnic communities, especially in those where some beneficiaries may have difficulty with the English language and may not be able to establish their identities at the post office counter.
It has also been suggested that home helps should collect pensions for the elderly, but home helps are being cut and the remaining ones are overworked. This would be a misuse of the home-help system, and it would be unfair to impose such responsibility on them.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed doubts about the consultation that took place. The hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) said that in 1030 areas with a predominance of elderly and perhaps handicapped people no attempt had been made to seek the advice of the social workers or those who look after the interests of the elderly and the handicapped. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) gave the example of a sub-postmaster in his constituency who told him that he had already agreed his terms for compensation with the Post Office before the consultation started. There is a grave suspicion that the consultation was more cosmetic than real.
Even Conservative Members, who will feel the wrath of their constituents, recognise that the result of the proposals will be longer queues at post offices, longer waiting times, longer walks to reach post offices and more bus fares, insofar as bus services will be allowed to survive. Those who are lucky enough to have ears will probably discover that it is almost impossible to park near the main post offices.
The best thing that the pensioners' organisations can do, if they have a Tory Member of Parliament in a marginal constituency near to where they hold their meetings, is to lobby him and tell him that they also have power. They should tell him that they are not impressed by the financial arguments of the Treasury and that their dissatisfaction will be expressed in the appropriate way at the appropriate time. Those hon. Members who had the courage to attack the Government today—as I said, no one had the courage to defend them—for the shortcomings of their policy should follow that attack to its logical conclusion. I invite them to join us in the Lobby and vote against the proposal.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. David Trippier)
The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) and his hon. Friends have competed with each other in the passion that they brought to their condemnation of the Government in this matter. We have heard many emotive phrases. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) called it a "sick joke". The right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason) referred to our monetarist policies, and the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) went further and referred to a stabbing in the back.
Yet if we examine the charges and wade through the crocodile tears to reach the solid facts, what do we find? Opposition Members are accusing the Government of following the very policies that their right hon. and hon. Friends continued when they were in office between 1974 and 1979. They were also followed by the Conservative Administration, having been introduced by a Labour Government in 1969. I wonder whether it was as a result of "monetarist policies" that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), the then Secretary of State for Industry, aided by his lieutenants the right hon. Members for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. MacKenzie) and for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), and the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), presided over the closure of 223 post offices in 1974–75 and a further 270 offices in 1975–76. Was it "stabbing in the back" when the former right hon. Member for Chesterfield, aided by his lieutenants the right hon. Members for Gorton, for 1031 Rutherglen and for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), presided over the closure of 266 post offices in 1976–77 and a further 203 post offices the following year?
The hon. Member for Falkirk, East told us about an arrangement—he called it an agreement. During the debate we checked with the Post Office, which is unaware of that agreement. The Department of Trade and Industry is certainly unaware of it. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Union of Communication Workers' proud record of co-operation on mechanisation, but I wonder why he did not tell the House when the union will lift the embargo on the extention of mechanical inward sorting that it has maintained for the past few years.
§ Mr. Ewing
I suspect that the UCW is more concerned with its distrust, as a result of the Government's directive to the Post Office—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who has just returned to the Chamber, should learn to shut his mouth now and again and to listen to what is said. The problem for the UCW and its members is that they no longer trust what is being said to them because of the way in which the Government betrayed them over the closures.
§ Mr. Trippier
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, he is changing his case and taking an entirely different line. I would not suggest that he means to mislead the House, but he gave a clear understanding that there had been an agreement. As we have now checked this with the Post Office—
§ Mr. Trippier
We can probably solve this problem through correspondence. However, it is important that, as a Government spokesman winding up this debate, I should say that we do not know about that agreement in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Post Office does not know about it either.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman must not say that the Minister deliberately misled the House. He may say that the Minister inadvertently misled the House.
§ Mr. Ewing
For the sake of good order, I shall withdraw the "deliberately". During the period of postal mechanisation, the Union of Post Office Workers, as it was then—the Union of Communication Workers as it is now—willingly entered into arrangements with the Post Office whereby, in exchange for job security for those who are left in the industry after mechanisation, it agreed to shed 1,700 jobs. It does not matter a tuppenny damn what the Post Office says to the Minister. That was the position, and that is why the union feels betrayed.
§ Mr. Trippier
I have been fair to the hon. Gentleman in allowing him to intervene on two occasions. I understand that, and what he said in his main speech. I am simply saying that the Post Office board says that it is unaware of any arrangement or agreement, and the Department of Trade and Industry is also unaware of such an agreement.
A number of hon. Members have argued that the Government should intervene to prevent the closure of 1032 particular offices within their constituencies. I can obviously understand that, but when Labour Members seek to imply that the Government are somehow different for refusing to intervene in individual cases. I am bound to ask why they are so coy about telling the House of their successful intervention to prevent individual office closures during their term of office. How many times did the right hon. Member for Chesterfield intervene when he had responsibility for these matters? I understand why Labour Members are so coy about telling the House how many times the Labour Government intervened. We have heard a number of speeches from hon. Members who were members of that Government, and so had collective responsibility as Ministers within that Government. Not once did the Secretary of State for Industry in the last Labour Administration, or the one before that, intervene on any closure. They were pursuing the policy that this Government are pursuing now—that individual office closures are a matter for the Post Office board and not for the Government.
An interesting question is which right hon. or hon. Member first thought of creating the Post Office board and forming the Post Office corporation. Surprise, surprise, it was the right hon. Member for Chesterfield—that flag-carrier of the lunatic Left, the headless dragon, the man who spends a lot of his time in the House trying to play the part of Pontius Pilate. He will have a great deal of difficulty in washing his hands of this one. He was responsible for setting up the board that had the delegated powers to deal with closures, collectively and individually. He will have to take his share of the responsibility for that.
So much for the sincerity of the view expressed by Labour Members. The main feature of today's debate has been that it has exposed the hypocrisy of Labour Members who seek to condemn this Government for following policies that they pursued when they were in office. I have no doubt that they would pursue those policies again in the unlikely event of their ever regaining office.
I and my hon. Friend the Minister thought that my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) raised an interesting point on the service being made available before 9 am. I am sure that the board will look at that.
The House should be clear that the Government are not closing post offices any more than the previous Labour Administration were.
§ Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)
Is my hon. Friend aware that I have received a letter from the head postmaster of Derby, saying that the sub-postmistress in a village has resigned because only 10 pensions and 12 allowances were collected a week, and the Post Office has been unable to attract any applicants for this sub-post office, although it has advertised profusely? The sub-postmistress offered to open for three days a week, but, quite rightly, the Post Office does not feel that it should be following this course. One other point arises—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman should be making an intervention, not a speech. One point is enough.
§ Mr. Trippier
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It does not require any amplification.
Some hon. Members have suggested that post office closures are a direct result of the financial and performance objectives set by Government. Indeed, some Labour Members have sought to suggest that such targets are some 1033 sort of wicked Conservative invention—ignoring the fact that the Post Office has had a financial target for 20 years and performance targets were first set in the late 1970s by the Labour Government.
The essential rebuttal of that charge is that the benefits of the closures will not be realised during the period for which targets have been set. But, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Information Technology said earlier, the Government make no apology for pursuing the policy set out in the 1978 White Paper on the nationalised industries. The White Paper established a framework of financial discipline within which the Post Office is required to operate, notwithstanding the fact that it was a White Paper setting out the policy of the Labour Government.
So what is this debate about? It is about the Labour Members seeking to claim that they, and they alone, care about pensioners, mothers of small children and all other users of post offices, and that they have some sort of monopoly on compassion. Mr. Speaker, that is the ludicrous fantasy of the Opposition. The plain fact is that there has been no change of policy since 1969.
Of course this Government care. They care that the Post Office should be in a position to offer a wide range of services on behalf of Government Departments and other public sector bodies.
The Post Office will not do that through charging prices that are higher than those charged by competitive organisations. The Government are not forcing people to have their pensions paid into their bank accounts. To remain competitive and ensure its future the counters business must remain efficient. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander). If that business remains efficient, that will bring benefit to the public, to sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and to Post Office staff. There is nothing new in this view. As I have shown, the need for efficiency and economy in the operations of the Post Office was recognised by the Labour Government in their 1969 Post Office Act.
I must correct the view put forward by some hon. Members today that the Post Office is somehow mishandling the issue of individual closures. The Post Office goes to great lengths to ensure that all those with an opinion on a particular closure have the chance to make their views known—this was accepted even by the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon)—and those views are considered carefully.
It is the job of Her Majesty's official Opposition to oppose the Government, as their Leader keeps reminding them. They do not listen, but he keeps reminding them. I am deeply disappointed that some Labour Members have chosen to attack the Post Office board. Even the right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) alleged that it does not care about the public that it serves. I know that such remarks will deeply offend the chairman, his board and his senior managers. I find it sad that hon. Members opposite should have stooped to such a low form of attack. We owe to all of these people a debt of gratitude. They have been dealing with a very difficult situation, particularly due to the strike at the Department of Health and Social Security in Newcastle.
In conclusion, the post office counters business has made significant advances over the last few years. The Government recognise that. We also recognise that the counters staff deserve credit for much of this 1034 improvement, through their co-operation with management, in bringing in changes. But no one owes the Post Office a living. In the real commercial world there is effective competition for many of its services. If the counters business is to build on recent advances and to thrive, it will do so by offering good service at a price that the customer is prepared to pay. That is the way to ensure that volume is maintained and increased. That is the way to protect jobs. That is the way to fight closures. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for the amendment.
§ Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 208, Noes 348.1037
|Division No. 75]||[7.11 pm|
|Abse, Leo||Douglas, Dick|
|Adams, Allen (Paisley N)||Dubs, Alfred|
|Alton, David||Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.|
|Anderson, Donald||Eastham, Ken|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Edwards, Bob (W'h'mpt'n SE)|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Evans, John (St. Helens N)|
|Ashton, Joe||Ewing, Harry|
|Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)||Fatchett, Derek|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Field, Frank (Birkenhead)|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)|
|Barnett, Guy||Fisher, Mark|
|Barron, Kevin||Flannery, Martin|
|Beckett, Mrs Margaret||Foot, Rt Hon Michael|
|Beith, A. J.||Forrester, John|
|Bell, Stuart||Foster, Derek|
|Benn, Tony||Foulkes, George|
|Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)||Fraser, J. (Norwood)|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald|
|Blair, Anthony||Freud, Clement|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Garrett, W. E.|
|Boyes, Roland||George, Bruce|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Godman, Dr Norman|
|Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)||Golding, John|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Gould, Bryan|
|Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)||Gourlay, Harry|
|Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)||Hamilton, James (M'well N)|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)|
|Buchan, Norman||Hardy, Peter|
|Caborn, Richard||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter|
|Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)||Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith|
|Campbell, Ian||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Healey, Rt Hon Denis|
|Canavan, Dennis||Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)||Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Home Robertson, John|
|Cartwright, John||Howells, Geraint|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Hoyle, Douglas|
|Clarke, Thomas||Hughes, Dr. Mark (Durham)|
|Clay, Robert||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Hughes, Roy (Newport East)|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Cohen, Harry||Hume, John|
|Coleman, Donald||Janner, Hon Greville|
|Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.||John, Brynmor|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton North)||Johnston, Russell|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)|
|Corbett, Robin||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Kennedy, Charles|
|Cowans, Harry||Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Craigen, J. M.||Lambie, David|
|Crowther, Stan||Lamond, James|
|Cunningham, Dr John||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)||Leighton, Ronald|
|Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)||Lewis, Terence (Worsley)|
|Deakins, Eric||Litherland, Robert|
|Dewar, Donald||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Dixon, Donald||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Dobson, Frank||Loyden, Edward|
|Dormand, Jack||McCartney, Hugh|
|McDonald, Dr Oonagh||Robertson, George|
|McGuire, Michael||Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)|
|McKelvey, William||Rogers, Allan|
|Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor||Rooker, J. W.|
|Maclennan, Robert||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|McNamara, Kevin||Rowlands, Ted|
|McWilliam, John||Ryman, John|
|Madden, Max||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Maginnis, Ken||Sheerman, Barry|
|Marek, Dr John||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)|
|Mason, Rt Hon Roy||Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)|
|Maxton, John||Silkin, Rt Hon J.|
|Maynard, Miss Joan||Skinner, Dennis|
|Meacher, Michael||Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)|
|Meadowcroft, Michael||Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)|
|Michie, William||Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)|
|Mikardo, Ian||Soley, Clive|
|Millan, Rt Hon Bruce||Spearing, Nigel|
|Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)||Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)|
|Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)||Strang, Gavin|
|Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)||Straw, Jack|
|Nellist, David||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon||Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)|
|O'Brien, William||Thorne, Stan (Preston)|
|O'Neill, Martin||Tinn, James|
|Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Torney, Tom|
|Owen, Rt Hon Dr David||Wainwright, R.|
|Park, George||Wallace, James|
|Parry, Robert||Warden, Gareth (Gower)|
|Patchett, Terry||Wareing, Robert|
|Pavitt, Laurie||Weetch, Ken|
|Pendry, Tom||White, James|
|Penhaligon, David||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Pike, Peter||Williams, Rt Hon A.|
|Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)||Wilson, Gordon|
|Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)||Winnick, David|
|Prescott, John||Woodall, Alec|
|Radice, Giles||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Randall, Stuart||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Roberts, Allan (Bootle)||Mr. Frank Haynes and|
|Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)||Dr. Roger Thomas.|
|Adley, Robert||Brinton, Tim|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Brittan, Rt Hon Leon|
|Alexander, Richard||Brooke, Hon Peter|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Browne, John|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Bruinvels, Peter|
|Amess, David||Bryan, Sir Paul|
|Ancram, Michael||Buck, Sir Antony|
|Arnold, Tom||Bulmer, Esmond|
|Ashby, David,||Burt, Alistair|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Butcher, John|
|Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H.||Butler, Hon Adam|
|Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)||Carlisle, John (N Luton)|
|Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)||Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)||Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)|
|Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)||Carttiss, Michael|
|Baldry, Tony||Cash, William|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Chalker, Mrs Lynda|
|Bellingham, Henry||Channon, Rt Hon Paul|
|Bendall, Vivian||Chapman, Sydney|
|Bennett, Rt Hon Sir Frederic||Chope, Christopher|
|Benyon, William||Churchill, W. S.|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)|
|Blackburn, John||Clegg, Sir Walter|
|Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Cockeram, Eric|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Colvin, Michael|
|Bottomley, Peter||Conway, Derek|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Coombs, Simon|
|Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n)||Cope, John|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Cormack, Patrick|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Corrie, John|
|Bright, Graham||Couchman, James|
|Cranborne, Viscount||Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)|
|Critchley, Julian||Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Crouch, David||Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||Hubbard-Miles, Peter|
|Dicks, Terry||Hunt, David (Wirral)|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||Hunter, Andrew|
|Dover, Den||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward||Irving, Charles|
|Dunn, Robert||Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick|
|Durant, Tony||Jessel, Toby|
|Dykes, Hugh||Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Eggar, Tim||Jones, Robert (W Herts)|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael|
|Evennett, David||Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith|
|Eyre, Sir Reginald||Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Kershaw, Sir Anthony|
|Fallon, Michael||Key, Robert|
|Farr, Sir John||King, Roger (B'ham N'field)|
|Favell, Anthony||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey||Knight, Gregory (Derby N)|
|Fletcher, Alexander||Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Knowles, Michael|
|Forman, Nigel||Knox, David|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Lamont, Norman|
|Forth, Eric||Latham, Michael|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Lawler, Geoffrey|
|Fox, Marcus||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Franks, Cecil||Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel|
|Fraser, Peter (Angus East)||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Freeman, Roger||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Fry, Peter||Lester, Jim|
|Gale, Roger||Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)|
|Galley, Roy||Lightbown, David|
|Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Lilley, Peter|
|Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)||Lloyd, Ian (Havant)|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Lord, Michael|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Luce, Richard|
|Gorst, John||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Gow, Ian||McCrindle, Robert|
|Gower, Sir Raymond||McCurley, Mrs Anna|
|Grant, Sir Anthony||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Gregory, Conal||MacGregor, John|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)||MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)|
|Grist, Ian||MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)|
|Ground, Patrick||Maclean, David John|
|Grylls, Michael||McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)|
|Gummer, John Selwyn||McQuarrie, Albert|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||Madel, David|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Major, John|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Malins, Humfrey|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Malone, Gerald|
|Hannam, John||Maples, John|
|Hargreaves, Kenneth||Marland, Paul|
|Harris, David||Marlow, Antony|
|Harvey, Robert||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Mates, Michael|
|Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael||Mather, Carol|
|Hawkins, C. (High Peak)||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)||Mawhinney, Dr Brian|
|Hawksley, Warren||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Hayes, J.||Mayhew, Sir Patrick|
|Hayhoe, Barney||Mellor, David|
|Hayward, Robert||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Miller, Hal (B'grove)|
|Heddle, John||Mills, lain (Meriden)|
|Henderson, Barry||Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)|
|Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael||Miscampbell, Norman|
|Hickmet, Richard||Moate, Roger|
|Hicks, Robert||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Montgomery, Sir Fergus|
|Hill, James||Moore, John|
|Hind, Kenneth||Morris, M. (N'hampton, S)|
|Holt, Richard||Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)|
|Hordern, Peter||Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)|
|Howard, Michael||Moynihan, Hon C.|
|Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)||Mudd, David|
|Murphy, Christopher||Speed, Keith|
|Neale, Gerrard||Spence, John|
|Needham, Richard||Spencer, Derek|
|Nelson, Anthony||Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)|
|Neubert, Michael||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Newton, Tony||Squire, Robin|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Norris, Steven||Stanley, John|
|Onslow, Cranley||Steen, Anthony|
|Oppenheim, Phillip||Stern, Michael|
|Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.||Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)|
|Osborn, Sir John||Stevens, Martin (Fulham)|
|Ottaway, Richard||Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)|
|Page, Sir John (Harrow W)||Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)|
|Page, Richard (Herts SW)||Stokes, John|
|Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Parris, Matthew||Taylor, John (Solihull)|
|Patten, Christopher (Bath)||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Patten, John (Oxford)||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Pattie, Geoffrey||Terlezki, Stefan|
|Pawsey, James||Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.|
|Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter|
|Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Pollock, Alexander||Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)|
|Porter, Barry||Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)|
|Portillo, Michael||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Powell, William (Corby)||Thurnham, Peter|
|Powley, John||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Prentice, Rt Hon Reg||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Price, Sir David||Tracey, Richard|
|Prior, Rt Hon James||Trippier, David|
|Raffan, Keith||Trotter, Neville|
|Raison, Rt Hon Timothy||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Rathbone, Tim||van Straubenzee, Sir W.|
|Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Renton, Tim||Waddington, David|
|Rhodes James, Robert||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas||Walden, George|
|Rifkind, Malcolm||Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)|
|Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey||Ward, John|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Robinson, Mark (N'port W)||Warren, Kenneth|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Watson, John|
|Rost, Peter||Watts, John|
|Rowe, Andrew||Wells, Bowen (Hertford)|
|Rumbold, Mrs Angela||Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)|
|Ryder, Richard||Wheeler, John|
|Sackville, Hon Thomas||Whitfield, John|
|Sainsbury, Hon Timothy||Whitney, Raymond|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)||Wilkinson, John|
|Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Shelton, William (Streatham)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Wood, Timothy|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)||Woodcock, Michael|
|Shersby, Michael||Yeo, Tim|
|Silvester, Fred||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Sims, Roger||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Mr. Robert Boscawen and|
|Soames, Hon Nicholas||Mr. Ian Lang.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 33 (Question on amendments) and agreed to.
§ MR. SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House recognises that the future of the Post Office counters network will depend on its ability to compete successfully by operating efficiently and reducing the costs of its operation while having regard to the social needs of the United Kingdom; and fully supports the Post Office's efforts to secure by these means the future of an extensive and socially responsive network.