§ 1. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD)
How many post offices in Greater London closed in each year from 1997 to 2003; and how many she expects to close in (a) 2004 and (b) each of the next two years. 
§ The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services(Mr. Stephen Timms)
Data for Greater London are available from March 2000. Post Office Ltd. closed 10 branches in the year to March 2001, 16 to March 2002, 44 to March 2003 and 89 in the nine months to December 2003. The current programme will lead to a national network of urban post offices that can prosper, given today's requirements, with at least 95 per cent. of urban residents living within a mile of a post office and the majority within half a mile. There is no predetermined list or number of future closures.
§ Simon Hughes
People will need to take time to digest the Minister's figures, but Postwatch suggests that about 160 of the current 214 that have been considered have already been closed or are ready to close. We are likely to have 14 out of 15 London post offices closed, at this rate. That is a slash and burn policy. What will the Minister do to change it and to listen to the hundreds of thousands of people who say that they value their local post office and want it to stay?
§ Mr. Timms
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong about the numbers and the nature of the exercise that is taking place. Just before the switch to direct payment started last year, 43 per cent. of benefit recipients were paid through their bank accounts rather than by giro, compared with just 26 per cent. in 1996. The needs of customers in London are changing—and changing quickly—and the post office must change as well.
Our response was to invest half a billion pounds in technology so that a modern banking service could be provided at every post office branch in the country, and to support a programme to reduce the density of post offices in urban areas so that the size of the network 396 reflects the business available. Across London, and across the whole country, the outcome will be a post office network that serves benefit recipients and many new customers, too. As I said, 95 per cent. of people living in urban areas will still be living less than a mile from their nearest post office, and most of them less than half a mile.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I would like to call the hon. Gentleman, but unless he represents Greater London I cannot do so.
§ Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
This is an important question, so in considering the urban reinvention programme will the Minister ensure that attention is given to the significant number of post office closures that have taken place in London during the past seven years? Does he agree that that context needs to be considered in relation to the closure programme over the next two or three years?
§ Mr. Timms
That is absolutely right, which is why the process we have been going through since last September sets out for each area what the ultimate configuration of the post office network will be, and takes account of all the changes that have already taken place. In that way, everybody can see where this process is leading. Through the consultation, which is important in this exercise, we can make sure that we end up with a configuration that best meets the needs of all our communities in London, as elsewhere in this country.