HC Deb 23 May 2000 vol 350 cc938-50

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

8.15 pm
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

We have started this debate rather early and I hope that that will allow me to make my points in full. However, I shall try not to detain the Minister longer than is absolutely necessary. I confess that I thought that we might be here until 3 am, but one can never tell what will happen with parliamentary business.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise what is an important issue for my constituents. We have had several debates on post offices in the past 12 months, most of which have concentrated on the Government's plans for automated credit transfer and the consequences they might have. I wish to concentrate on other threats to post offices in my constituency which, I am sorry to say, come from the Post Office itself rather than from any Government plans or technological advances. I have given the Minister some notice of the issues that I wish to raise and I hope that has helped him in preparing a response. I wish to look after my constituents in raising the issue, not to make any party political points, and I hope that the Minister will take the debate in that spirit.

I shall deal first with the issue of the Cliffe post office, although some constituents would claim that, as it is in the high street, it is not technically in the Cliffe area. However, most people know it as the Cliffe office. It used to be part of Menzies and then W.H. Smith. It was a busy office. Post Office figures confirm that that small office—it was a tiny unit within the W.H. Smith store—took the equivalent of 50 per cent. of the business of the main Crown office, which is further up the road. It was in the most important shopping centre in Lewes, whereas the main Crown office is some distance away from the shopping centre and somewhat inaccessible.

The survival of the Cliffe office was important, but it has now closed—in my view, because of the failure of the Post Office to deal with problems that arose and to take proper steps to find a replacement office. I have gone through the train of events with the Post Office and W.H. Smith and I believe that my version of events is accurate, although the Minister may correct me later. W.H. Smith told me that when it took over from Menzies, it inherited only three or four units with a sub-post office on the premises. W.H. Smith does not want to have sub-post offices on its premises, so the company told the Post Office at an early stage that it did not wish to renew the arrangement.

The company finally gave formal notice of its intentions to the Post Office late last year. I am reliably informed by the Post Office that the notification was not received. It had been sent to the London Post Office, which did not bother to tell the south-east region about it. As a consequence, vital days or even weeks were lost in the attempt to find an alternative arrangement for the Cliffe post office. Notice having been given, my constituents were concerned by the prospective loss of a vital post office. I wrote on 13 December to Richard Handover, the chief executive of W.H. Smith, to ask him for a stay of execution on the decision to have the post office removed from the premises. It was due to be removed by closing time on 20 February.

I had a telephone conversation and some correspondence with Mr. Handover. I am pleased to say that, as a consequence, W.H. Smith agreed to delay the removal of the post office until 30 April. From my point of view, I had bought the Post Office more than two months longer to find alternative premises. Given the period of notice and the two months-plus that I had negotiated, I thought that that would be time enough for the Post Office to find alternative premises. As I have said, those premises have not been found. The Cliffe post office has closed and people are being seriously inconvenienced.

My first question, on a general issue, is whether the Minister believes that the notice period that franchisees have to give the Post Office is adequate. Given all the commercial pressures that the Post Office must be under in finding alternative premises and finding people to run them, is a three-month period of notice adequate?

I am not pretending that the matter was necessarily easy for the Post Office, but the sad fact is—this was confirmed by speaking to Kevin Ray from the south-east region only yesterday—we are no nearer finding premises in Lewes than we were when W.H. Smith first gave notice at the end of last year. That is a great pity.

It seems that there are two prerequisites for rectifying an unfortunate situation. The first is the location of premises and the second is the identification of those who may wish to run them. In my view, neither of the two presents insuperable obstacles to the Post Office. In a letter to me of 6 January—that is going back some way—the Post Office, through Kevin Ray, said that it had five applicants. Apparently they were ready and willing to run a post office in the area of Lewes to which I am referring.

Nor is there a shortage of properties. Indeed, the local community has been supportive in trying to help the Post Office find properties. It happens that my surgery is close to the post office. Through my window I can see "To Let" signs all the way down the street. There is no shortage of empty premises in the area. That is unusual, because Lewes is a vibrant centre. Yet we are told by the Post Office that it cannot find people or premises. That is unfortunate. It seems that both are in ample supply.

I suggest that the hurdles have been set too high. I understand that the Post Office is demanding a relocation fee of £48,000 from whoever takes on the responsibility. It is demanding a licence fee of £12,000. It is estimated that it will take up to £10,000, once someone is in the new premises, to get the business up and running. The Post Office concedes that someone will have to put £70,000 up front to get hold of premises. In addition, there are the regional fees that are payable to the Post Office. If those are the moneys being demanded, it does not seem that many people will be prepared to take on the responsibility. Perhaps that is why, even though there are so many people interested in running a post office and there are empty premises, we are no further forward.

My second question is whether the hurdles are too high. I believe that they are. I believe also that the Government are trying to avoid post office closures throughout the country, but do they accept that they will take place if we have difficulty replacing units which have been closed or which people had given up? There is the danger that we shall see a slow death of post offices that will be outside the Government's control. The Government should deal with the hurdles and explain why there is still no post office in what is known as the Cliffe area.

The word Lewes comes from the Anglo-Saxon for hill, and the alternative premises are at the top of a steep hill. That is the situation of the Crown office. It has always been a busy office, as was the Cliffe office. However, it is now heaving at the doors. Queues extend beyond the door and it is clearly unable to cope, despite the best wishes and endeavours of the staff who work there. I pay tribute to them and to those who worked at the Cliffe office. Nothing that I say this evening should be taken as criticism of those at the front line of post office counters. However, my remarks are critical of Post Office management.

People in Lewes have been told that they can go to two alternative offices. They can go up a steep hill to a place that is heaving at the door, with people queuing into the street, or they can go to a sub-post office a long way away, in Southover high street. Many of my constituents, like those of other hon. Members, are elderly or disabled. It is not a sensible proposition that they should access the Crown office, when all the other facilities that they want—supermarkets, chemists and bakers, for example—are where the Cliffe post office was. They would have to make a special trip to the Crown office, which for many would mean getting a taxi.

Many of my constituents who are living on pensions and little else—they have no money to spare—would be forced into taking a taxi up the hill to the Crown office to get their pension. That is money that they could ill afford to spend. Effectively, that is a tax on being old or disabled. That is the result of a post office no longer being in the centre of the town, where people want it to be. It is a serious problem.

I suggest that the way forward is for the Post Office to reduce the hurdles of entry for those who wish to take up premises. The Government and the Post Office must accept that there must be premises at the Cliffe end of town, and that they must facilitate them. If no one is interested because the asking price is far too high, the price must come down.

I know that the Post Office is considering, controversially, relocating the Crown office to the bottom of the high street. Some might think that that would provide a solution. It might be, if the premises were large enough. However, the present premises are not big enough. We have to think not only about the population of Lewes. It is the county town and the headquarters of the county council, Sussex police, the health authority and the ambulance service. It is a main rail junction in the area. The white-collar work for the county is in East Sussex, which means that Lewes post offices are heavily used by the local population and by those who work in Lewes and who come into it every working day.

We need two post offices. It may be argued that the Crown office should be at the bottom of the town and the sub-post office at the top, but we cannot continue with only one Crown office in the wrong place. I ask the Minister to accept that and to give me an undertaking that he will do what he can to rectify this serious problem.

I shall move on to deal with another post office. Unfortunately, the incompetence of the Post Office is not linked only to Lewes. In some respects, the situation in Newhaven is even more slapstick than that in Lewes. Under the previous Government, it was suggested that Crown offices were not necessarily a good thing. Many were shutting and franchisees were being encouraged to take over Post Office facilities. That left Newhaven without a proper Crown office. I cannot blame the present Government for that. However, the Newhaven Crown office shut, to be transferred to a franchise operation in a different part of the town centre. That left an empty space in front of the sorting office, which had before been a shared building.

I question whether that is a sensible arrangement. Presumably, taxpayers are still paying for the empty space—it has been empty for years—while they are paying also for the post office to be in someone else's premises. It is a rather odd arrangement.

The main office was moved to the franchisee, but the business went bust at the end of the year—an inconvenient time—over the Christmas holidays. Within two or three days it was shut. My third question for the Minister concerns the financial checks that are made on the suitability of franchisees to ensure that such closures do not happen. Surely we should be able to prevent that happening, or we should put something in place to ensure that, if nothing else happens, at least the post office can continue to operate from the premises, pending another arrangement. However, there was no other arrangement.

Newhaven now has its post office in a portakabin. I pay tribute to the Post Office, because that facility was put in place quite quickly. However, the only post office in Newhaven—the main port on the south coast in the area which I represent, the gateway to Europe as it used to be called, the main access to Dieppe, with a large population and thousands of people working there at Parker Pens, Cash Bases, Concord Lighting and other major employers—is a portakabin in a car park. That has been the position for months.

It is ironic—it would be funny if it were not true—that the sorting office in which the post office had been located is sitting empty. Therefore, a building that was designed to be a post office is empty, while people are using a car-park portakabin as a post office.

In winter, a portakabin is not without its problems. The generator regularly breaks down, so that, without notice, the post office has to be closed. Pensioners and other people struggle to get to the post office, only to find on the door a notice saying, "Closed until further notice because of generator failure". What are they supposed to do? They do not have private transport. They struggle to get to the sub-post office, but then they are told to go to a sub-post office that is located far away, at Denton Corner. We cannot expect people to do that. But that is what they are told to do.

There is no proper disabled access to the portakabin. Many people in my constituency want to use the Newhaven post office, but they have trouble accessing the portakabin in which it is located.

Additionally, conditions in the portakabin are terrible for post office staff. The temperature inside the portakabin alternates between hot and cold. The conditions are quite unsuitable for Post Office operations.

I agree that a portakabin is better than nothing and that, in the very short term, it might be necessary to use one as a post office. However, it does not say much of us that we have got ourselves in such a situation. The problem is that the move to the portakabin happened last year, and that—as I have now been told by the Post Office—it will be used at least until August. In total, the portakabin will be used for nine or 10 months.

The Post Office has said that it will get back in the sorting office as soon as possible, and it has promised units in the high street. On 8 March, Ian Frampton, the Post Office's assistant press officer for the south-east, faxed a message to Tom Pugh at The Leader newspaper in Sussex. It said: Post Office Counters is delighted to say that we are in the final stages of finalising a new site, in the central high street, for our Newhaven post office. However, in addition to finalising the deal, it will also take some three to four months to install counter facilities. We can assure your readers that our application to the district council— on temporary permission for the portakabin— is purely a safeguard while we make our final arrangements to move to the permanent site. Does not all that sound fine and dandy? The final arrangements are being made, and it will not be long before the situation is sorted out. However, I spoke to Kevin Ray, from the Post Office, and he told me that the plans are all off, and that the portakabin will be used for a while yet. On 4 March, he went to see Newhaven town council, reiterated that statement about the high street, and said that the situation would be sorted out by August at the very latest. He said that, after eight months of the portakabin business, we would have a new post office.

Kevin Ray also promised to keep the town council up to date with developments, but he has not done so. On 19 May, Newhaven town council had to write again to him. The council said, "You haven't told us what is happening. You haven't kept us up to date. What's the position?" Yesterday, I rang Kevin Ray. He told me that there is now a problem with the roof of the building that they had hoped to used, and that the moving date has now been put back to 9 October, at the very earliest. Meanwhile, there is doubt about planning permission for the temporary building.

Does the Post Office intend to attempt to renew temporary permission for the portakabin, which has already been in the carpark for six months? The permission to keep it there expires in June, and I should like to know whether it will be renewed. Lewes district councillors are not very happy at the thought of renewing permission to keep a portakabin in a carpark. They think not only that the portakabin is unsightly, but that that is not how the Post Office should be run. There is no guarantee that the application will be approved.

In January, when the problem first arose, I said to the Post Office, "Let us put the post office back into the sorting office. It is sitting empty, and people are used to going there. It is purpose-built as a post office. Why don't you go back in there?" The Post Office said that it would consider it. Subsequently, I was given a ludicrous estimate of the costs of returning to the sorting office. I was told that it would cost almost £250,000, although it had been sitting empty since it was vacated. I do not know why it should cost so much. All the security and other arrangements have already been installed and, presumably, could be reactivated.

Yesterday, the Post Office told me that perhaps it could go back into the sorting office, and that it may cost only £20,000. That is a miracle! The cost of the move has been transformed from £250,000 to £20,000.

What about the waste of public money? If it is now possible to return to the sorting office for £20,000, why could not that money have been spent before the post office was closed, in December? Why has the Post Office wasted public money on getting a portakabin, only to plan on spending more money either on continuing to use the portakabin or on returning to the sorting office? It does not make financial sense.

What is the cost to the taxpayer of having a sorting office that was designed as a post office sitting empty while the Post Office pays for a portakabin in a carpark? It is absolute madness. The Post Office did not need to pay for the portakabin, because a Post Office building was waiting to be used.

There is only one alternative post office, at Denton Corner, which is a long way from Newhaven. The distance between them is not walkable, and the Denton Corner post office is accessible only by private car. The situation is hopeless. It is also ludicrous to suggest that, should the Newhaven portakabin have to close—because of generator failure, for example—people will be able to go to Denton Corner. People have been inconvenienced. I have had very many letters telling me that people have turned up at the portakabin to get their pension, but it has been closed. The situation really is most unsatisfactory.

I am not sure that the financial and contract arrangements at Newhaven were satisfactory. If they had been, the problem would not have arisen. Subsequently, the Post Office has certainly not handled the situation very well. It is unacceptable that, according to the Post Office, in October 2000–10 months after the situation arose—people will still be using a portakabin. Does the Minister think that that is fair or right? What is he going to do about getting a proper post office for Newhaven before 9 October—assuming that the date does not slip again?

I would not want unfairly to attribute blame in relation to the third issue that I should like to raise—the closure, on 31 May 2000, of a key sub-post office in my constituency. Although I do not think that the closure is the Post Office's fault, it is an important issue for my constituents.

The sub-post office serves the Studd Farm estate, in Polegate, which is a long way from other post offices. The first we knew of the matter was communicated in a letter to me, dated 5 May, from the Post Office. I find that a little odd, because no one else was told about the closure. Neither the town councillors, district councillors nor county councillors were told about the closure. I am glad that I was told about the closure, but it is unfortunate that no one else was. It is also a little odd that we were given three weeks' notice of the closure, whereas my understanding of the contract is that it specifies that three months' notice of withdrawal should be given. In fact, it has already shut. The sub-postmistress has pulled down the shutters and closed the place. That is far less than three months' notice—it is not even three weeks' notice.

I am aware of the difficulty for the postmistress and it would not be proper to dwell on that. I intend no criticism of her. The Minister will be aware of what I am talking about. However, a key part of Polegate is without a post office at no notice—although, in this case, it is through unforeseeable circumstances. That is causing immense difficulties for many people.

The principal alternative is the main post office in Polegate high street. It has the capacity to handle the demand, but it is quite a way from the Studd Farm estate and, more to the point, to reach it people need to cross the A22, which is a busy trunk road. Many of the people who need the post office are frail pensioners who do not have access to private transport. Many of them are frightened of crossing that road, but they now have to do so to access a post office. Polegate also comes in the top 10 in the country for percentage of the population above retirement age. I hope that the Minister understands that there is a genuine issue of access to the post office for retired people.

The problem has not been helped by the town council's decision to withdraw the community bus, although it was not aware of the post office closure at the time. That is a regrettable decision, but it has now been taken, which means that people cannot even get to the post office by public transport. The Post Office tells me that it intends to advertise the vacancy at Studd Farm and try to find somebody to run it, but if the financial requirements and entry fees are the same as for Lewes, nobody will be found and the post office will remain closed. I believe that the Government are committed to post offices. If they want to maintain post offices on estates, which are vital to many people, they must find a way round the Post Office's entry terms. The system does not work. That post office will not open if those entry terms are applied.

Given the difficult circumstances, I have asked the Post Office for some breathing space and a temporary arrangement under which somebody from the Post Office came to run the post office element for two or three months—with the consent of the sub-postmistress and leaving the rest of the shop unaffected—while alternative arrangements were made. I understand that that has been done elsewhere. It would be helpful to my constituents in Polegate if the Minister leaned on the Post Office and asked it to look at that solution.

Those are the three post offices that I wanted to mention—two closed and one functioning in a portakabin. I hope that the Minister will have sufficient information from the Post Office to give my constituents some good news. However, I would not be doing my duty if I did not also mention the more general problems of sub-post offices in my constituency.

The Minister will be aware that earlier this year I delivered to 10 Downing street a petition of 6,500 signatures of constituents who were concerned about possible closures of local sub-post offices. I have looked at all the sub-post offices in my constituency and I cannot think of one whose closure would not cause significant inconvenience to those who depend on it. We have already lost a number from villages, which has caused massive inconvenience. The Minister will also be aware of the multi-million signature petition that was delivered to 10 Downing street. I continue to receive petition signatures from the Women's Institute in Ringmer, Newhaven and elsewhere.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments, which have been dealt with at length in the House. I am conscious that I have already taken half an hour and I do not want to go on indefinitely. However, I wish to make one or two quick points. The Minister has said that automated credit transfer is inevitable. I agree that it probably is. Technology has its own pace. However, I am concerned that the Government have given themselves a short window of two or three years in which to bring in alternative measures to protect our post offices. My great fear is not that the Government do not have a heartfelt commitment—I believe that they do—but whether they can deliver alternative business to the post offices before ACT kicks in. That has not been answered.

I am grateful to the Minister's office for letting me have a copy of the useful speech that he delivered in Eastbourne. The Government are clearly thinking of a number of useful ideas on how to take post offices forward, including universal banking, the establishment of sub-postmasters and mistresses as Government practitioners and the full exploitation of e-commerce opportunities. I particularly welcome the fact that the Government have said that they are prepared, under certain circumstances—I do not know what they are yet; perhaps the Minister will tell us—to pay a subsidy to keep post offices going. Those are all welcome steps and we should give credit where it is due. However, it is important to understand what the powers to pay subsidies are. I hope that the Minister will explain them.

Are any of those powers available now to ensure that we can restore a post office service to Cliffe at Lewes and to Studd Farm at Polegate, and to ensure a permanent arrangement for Newhaven in place of the joke post office that we currently have? If the Minister can do that, as I hope, I shall be the first to congratulate him and to tell my constituents that the Government have helped me.

8.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alan Johnson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on securing this debate on the future and provision of post offices in his constituency. I have listened carefully to what he has said and shall come on to his specific cases later.

The future of the post office network has been debated many times in the House in recent weeks and months, most recently on 12 April, when two debates took place, coinciding with the lobby of Parliament on the same day and the presentation of a record-breaking petition to 10 Downing street containing more than 3 million signatures, a few thousand of which came from the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It expressed the concern of communities all over the country, whether rural or urban, about the future of the network.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the focus of that concern is the migration to ACT. However, as we all know, the network has been in slow decline for many years. The impact has been disproportionately hard on the rural part of the network, which has shrunk by 25 per cent. in 20 years, despite commendable efforts by the Post Office to prevent it.

I will say a word about the inferences made about Post Office management. I have dealt with Post Office management for many years. I am the first to offer criticism and say that they do not always get it right. However, the House should acknowledge the tremendous work that goes into maintaining a huge and ubiquitous network, sometimes in difficult circumstances. The Post Office's efforts, generally, are to be commended.

I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman said that the move to ACT was inevitable. We announced the decision to move to ACT over a two-year period from 2003. The hon. Gentleman asked about the timetable. As I said to the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters' conference, in my 32 years' association with the Post Office, during which I have complained on many occasions that it is under-promoted and under-utilised, I have never known such a focus and such a searchlight on the business. There would be problems if that slackened; I do not think that moving the dates from 2003 would help the network at all. In fact, I think that the situation has had a positive effect in galvanising everybody—the Government, the Post Office and sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses—into looking at how the network can be protected in future.

Given that the previous Government's well-intentioned computerisation benefit payment card project went belly up and that the Select Committee on Trade and Industry said that the project was blighted from the start, the Government decided on a conventional procurement to complete that computerisation. That project is going well—post offices are being converted at a rate of 300 per week, and the programme of computerisation will be completed by spring 2001.

It was a difficult decision to salvage Horizon and plan for the change to ACT. The soft option was to abandon the failed private finance initiative, do nothing, and see the decline of the network turn to crisis and crisis turn to collapse. It has been suggested that we are forcing the change through, but it is an inescapable fact that people are already voting with their feet. ACT take-up is increasing by 500,000 customers a year. The move to ACT will accelerate as a whole new generation used to cashless pay comes up to pensionable age.

It cannot be sensible for the Government, nor can it be of any lasting benefit to the Post Office network, to ignore those trends. The solution that we have to reach now must concentrate on how we allow people to access their cash at post offices, as we are committed to doing, once it is transmitted to them via ACT.

We must also focus on finding new areas of work for this under-utilised and under-promoted network. That is why the Prime Minister asked the performance and innovation unit to do a project on the future of the network. That project is nearing completion. From the work that has already been done, the Government have identified an emerging vision for a modernised network. That vision includes concentrating on areas such as financial services, in which the good work already done with banks such as the Co-operative, Lloyds TSB and, most recently, Barclays, can be extended so that people can access their bank account, whatever their bank account is, across a post office counter. I hope that other banks, with the incentive of the Horizon automation platform, will soon be attracted down that route.

In the same vein, we welcome the Post Office's work in developing a universal bank. In his Budget speech, the Chancellor invited the banks to work with the Post Office to offer a basic banking service to all. A universal bank could help to address the problems of financial exclusion in partnership with the banks. It would greatly reduce the number of people who do not have bank accounts. It could also provide a post office-based solution for benefit recipients who continue to want to collect their pensions in cash, across a post office counter, weekly—if it is paid weekly at the moment—without any dilution by bank charges.

The Post Office is well placed to play an expanded role in financial services and to take advantage of increased use of e-commerce. It needs to think creatively about how to take advantage of those opportunities. It could become the place in which many customers order and pay for goods over the internet or collect products. Those are important parts of the Government's emerging vision for the future of the Post Office.

We also believe that the reach of post offices makes the network a major national asset. Millions of people already see post offices as places where they can do government business. There is potential for sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to become practitioners providing a range of services, particularly given that the Government are pledged to provide all services online by 2005. The network could be the ideal access point.

We will have to work with sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to make that vision a reality. We want rapid movement, and I hope that, when the performance and innovation unit report is published—hopefully within the next couple of weeks—we can unite behind that vision and work to make it reality.

The hon. Gentleman raised specific concerns about three post offices, at Cliffe in Lewes, at Newhaven and at Studd Farm. He has maintained close contact with post office network managers about his concerns, and he is plainly more au fait with the situation than I am. However, I shall try to address some of his important points.

At Cliffe, the post office formerly operated in the W. H. Smith store closed at the end of April following the company's decision to resign from its sub-postmaster contract. Although the vacancy has been advertised since December and several firms in the area have been approached about it, Post Office Counters has been unsuccessful in finding a new partner to take over or re-establish a post office service in Cliffe. POC is continuing its efforts to restore the service. In the meantime, additional staff have been employed at Lewes Crown office, which is 700 m from the former Cliffe post office, and at Southover, which is 900 m away, to handle the business of customers who previously used Cliffe.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the three-month notice period was adequate, and I shall return to that point later. He said that there was no shortage of premises, and I shall take that point up with the Post Office, which, I am sure, will read the Hansard report of this debate. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the £48,000 requirement. In my time both as a Minister and with the Post Office, I have never heard of that being a particular problem. In this case, in order to attract a client, the Post Office has offered to stage the payment over three years instead of demanding it up front.

Once the Postal Services Bill is enacted, these issues will be important to the new regulator and the revamped and reinvigorated consumer body, which may be able to advise us on issues and procedures that have been with us for many years and which may need to be revisited. I do not say that the £48,000 requirement is either a negative or positive aspect of the problem, but it ought to be considered. The Post Office in the hon. Gentleman's area has offered to stage the payment.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman make his point about not criticising front-line post office staff. In the cases that he raised, including the two offices near Cliffe, the staff are doing their jobs in difficult circumstances.

At Newhaven, the Crown office was converted into an agency office in early 1997, and was relocated to the Mayfair Cards store. Unfortunately, the Mayfair Cards group went bankrupt in late 1997, when Post Office Counters took over the running of the post office. Until termination of the lease in December, it continued to operate on the same site. As a temporary measure until new premises could be secured, the post office operation has since been maintained in a mobile facility, and there have been problems. The generator broke down for three days, denying the service to the public, albeit only for three days.

I understand that a new site has now been secured but that, because of the necessary structural and fitting-out work mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, it will not be ready until the autumn. Consequently, from August, the post office will temporarily move back to its original site—in the old Crown office, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out—until the new premises are ready. A permanent return to the original site has been ruled out because it is not large enough to accommodate an associated retail business with which the costs can be shared.

Mr. Baker

If the Post Office has decided that it is possible to move the office back temporarily to the previous site, why could not that have been done when it left Mayfair Cards at the end of the year?

Mr. Johnson

I cannot answer that question, but I will ensure that the Post Office advises me on the matter; the hon. Gentleman's point is reasonable.

At Studd Farm, the post office closed last week, following the resignation of the sub-postmistress on health grounds. It was hoped that the closure would take place at the end of May, but for reasons that I agree we cannot go into, it happened earlier than expected, due to circumstances beyond the postmistress's control.

Although the vacancy has been advertised, as the sub-postmistress gave three months' notice of her resignation, unfortunately, no applicants have yet expressed an interest in buying the business. In the meantime, the two nearest alternative offices at Polegate, which is a little more than half a mile away, and at Wannock, which is about three quarters of a mile away, have the capacity to handle the business previously transacted at Studd Farm.

The specific issues relating to the three offices that were raised in tonight's debate highlight the range of problems and circumstances that can arise in managing and maintaining a retail network of more than 18,000 post offices. The points raised by the hon. Gentleman are related to those matters.

The hon. Gentleman questioned whether the period of three months' notice was adequate. If he thinks that three months is too low, what would have been the effect on the sub-postmistress at Studd Farm? She has been working out her three months' notice while waiting to retire on health grounds. The Post Office faces a huge range of circumstances. If three months is considered to be too short a period for companies such as W. H. Smith, how would one deal with the problem of a postmaster or postmistress who wants to retire through ill health or for some other reason? A longer period would be unreasonable for them.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that the hurdles set for taking over a new business were too high. He also referred to the financial checks made on sub-postmasters. If there were more rigorous checks—as perhaps there should be—that would create another hurdle and delay the introduction of a new post office service.

Those are complicated matters. The spotlight that the debate has directed at the network gives us all an opportunity to consider them. The hon. Gentleman has done his constituents a service by raising those points; I shall take them up further and in detail with Post Office management.

In many ways, the problems highlighted by the hon. Gentleman epitomise the challenges faced by the network. The Government are committed to finding solutions that preserve an essential detail of our social fabric and that have our support, that of the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and, most importantly, that of the communities that they serve. All hon. Members appreciate that, despite the problems described tonight, which are highlighted in many of our constituencies, the Post Office does a tremendous job. We want to keep a ubiquitous network and to ensure that a continuous service is provided to the public. We need to ensure that the review of the service solves as many problems as possible—including those raised in tonight's debate—without creating a new set of problems, as might occur if we take a shortsighted approach.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Nine o'clock.