HC Deb 21 July 2004 vol 424 cc311-2
1. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

What help he is giving to post offices in deprived urban areas. [185307]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope)

Among a range of Government measures to support post offices, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has set up a £15 million fund for 2002 to 2005 to support post offices at risk of closure in deprived urban areas. To date, 194 post offices in the most deprived 10 per cent. of wards have been supported. We anticipate that this number will rise to 350 on completion of the fund. A further £210 million is available from the Department of Trade and Industry for managing the long-term sustainable future of the urban post office network.

Ms Munn

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and welcome the fund. However, Jordanthorpe post office, in a deprived area of my constituency, was assessed for the fund and met the criteria, but was told that there were insufficient funds for it to benefit from the scheme. That post office is enormously important in supporting a whole community and shopping area. Will he give me further advice on what Jordanthorpe post office should do to keep providing the service that it does?

Phil Hope

My hon. Friend is a strong champion of the residents of her constituency. I fully understand her concern for ensuring that her urban post offices stay open and I shall listen carefully to her representations. She may not know that since 1997 the Government have invested £2 billion in the post office network. I urge her, as a specific action, to encourage the Jordanthorpe post office to investigate the option of gaining access to the additional funding for the urban post office network that has been made available by the DTI.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

Consultation on the closure of post offices in Northern Ireland has become a farce. There is obviously a clear policy on closures. Waterloo road post office in Larne in my constituency was signalled for closure. A neighbouring business man was prepared to provide new post office accommodation and to buy out Waterloo road post office's rights and interests with the full support of his community. That was refused and he received no support from Postwatch. Is any appeal open to my constituents as we had accepted the closure of several other small post offices?

Phil Hope

The ODPM does not provide support for post office networks in Northern Ireland. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concerns, which I shall convey to my ministerial colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office and ensure that he, his constituents and the business he describes get the fullest possible reply to those concerns.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

Some farce is also associated with the closure programme in England. In my constituency—one of the most genuinely deprived inner-city communities in the land—more than 40 per cent. of the post offices will be closed. It would help enormously if the Post Office came clean about how the process works and opened up the books so that when people tell me that post offices are viable yet the Post Office still closes them, we know whether it is the Post Office that is abusing the rules or simply a misunderstanding of the position. I think that the Post Office is abusing the rules.

Phil Hope

I understand my hon. Friend's concerns and I will certainly convey them to my ministerial colleagues in the DTI who have responsibility for the post office network. It is true to say that the previous Government presided over 3,500 unstructured closures, with no plans for the long-term sustainability of the network. This Government are providing a huge investment in both the rural and the urban network to ensure that there is a planned process and a sustainable future for post offices in both urban and rural areas.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)

I have recently been told that 50 per cent. of my post office network faces closure by this time next year. Although I fully understand the economic necessity for a reduction in the network, does my hon. Friend realise the impact that that has on urban communities as well as rural communities? Will he urge the Post Office to think carefully about what it does, especially in the complex social situation of London, where rich and poor areas jostle side by side, and ensure that it accepts that post offices are part of the lifeblood of local communities in urban villages, as they are in rural communities?

Phil Hope

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the urban post office network is essential. That is why the Government are investing over £180 million to fund compensation payments to sub-postmasters whose offices close, and we are investing substantial extra resources through the urban reinvention programme that I mentioned earlier. Post offices play an important part in community life, and without a rational approach the unplanned closures that occurred under the last Conservative Administration would continue, leaving damaging gaps in the network. The DTI is working hard to ensure that there is a planned process for ensuring the long-term sustainability of post offices in urban as well as rural areas.

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