HL Deb 23 April 1986 vol 473 cc1155-7

2.56 p.m.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether in view of the concern expressed in many isolated rural areas, they will obtain assurances from the Post Office that no programme exists to close rural sub-post offices.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Lucas of Chilworth)

My Lords, I am assured by the Post Office that there is no programme to close rural sub-post offices.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, I am delighted to have that reassurance from the Minister. May I urge him to ensure that that never happens, because the use of sub-post offices in rural areas is absolutely vital to the community? I hope that the Government will continue with that principle.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, it is not a principle with which the Government can continue, as it is a matter entirely for the Post Office to deal with in terms of operational requirement. But I am assured that there is no programme as such to close rural post offices.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, the noble Lord says that there is no programme to close rural sub-post offices. Is it right that there is a policy to close them? Does he not realise that that causes great hardship in areas where public transport is virtually non-existent?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, there is no policy to close rural post offices. Rural post offices do close, usually when a sub-postmaster retires or resigns and the Post Office cannot find a suitable replacement to take on the office. Of the 1,100 rural post offices there have therefore been some closures and some openings. In the past six years the result is a net figure in closures.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the closure of rural post offices, especially in the remoter areas of the country, is a severe deprivation to those who live in the villages concerned and in the surrounding countryside? I refer, for example, to pensioners and other such groups. Is there not a policy? Do not noble Lords and Members of another place receive representations, as I have done from Lleyn in North Wales, from areas where it is proposed to close post offices? Is the fact that the postmaster has died a sufficient reason for declaring that post office closed? Would it not be a good thing for the Government to have a clear policy which makes it plain that rural post offices will be kept open where there is a strong case for it?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition raises a number of points. The House will know that the Post Office is under a statutory duty to provide its services economically and efficiently while having regard to the social needs of the United Kingdom. That, I am quite sure, the board of the Post Office has in mind. We, as well as the Post Office, are aware of the impact that the loss of a village sub-post office has on a rural community. Nevertheless, there are some 1,100 post offices in rural areas. With regard to the death or retirement of a postmaster, while the Post Office may very well wish to maintain the service in that area, it depends upon a suitable postmaster or postmistress coming forward to take up the vacancy.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that where it is not possible to find a new sub-postmaster for a sub-post office in a rural area, perhaps because the work does not justify a full-time job, it ought to be possible for a bigger central post office to send out for one or two days a week a member of its staff?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the Post Office has on a number of occasions reviewed the opportunities that there may be, first, for opening on a part-time or limited basis, and, secondly, for operating a mobile post office. Such matters are given consideration on appropriate occasions.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, in spite of the carefully worded replies that the Minister has given today and the assurances that were given in another place a few months ago, is he not aware that throughout the country there is widespread disquiet and uncertainty among sub-postmasters about their future? In view of the unique services that sub-postmasters give to their communities—and they are extremely valuable services—will the Minister say something to give rather more reassurance to sub-postmasters?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

Not on this occasion, my Lords, as the matter is wide of the original Question on the Order Paper. In an earlier answer I may have said that there are 1,100 rural post offices in operation; I should have said 11,000.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in some areas there is a strong feeling that insufficient care has been taken to discover whether there is a social need or a strong local demand for the maintenance of a post office before it is closed? Will the Minister use his influence to make sure that steps of that kind are adequately publicised locally so that the local population may make its view well known to those in charge?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am not able, with my knowledge of the board of the Post Office, to agree with the noble Lord's suggestion. Nevertheless, I give an assurance that I shall draw his comments to the attention of the chairman of the board.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, may I make an appeal to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House before Question Time finishes? Will he use his influence to see that when Ministers come to answer Questions they are fully briefed? Is it not misleading the House to give comparative figures in cash terms when they ought to be given at least in cash and in real terms?

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, the noble Lord invites me to suggest that my Ministers are not fully briefed when they come to answer Questions. I totally repudiate that. The noble Lord would expect me to do just that. I shall discuss with Ministers the various points made, but equally I must point out to the noble Lord and others—and I hope that I am not being unreasonable in doing so—that the Procedure Committee has laid down that supplementary questions should be material to the original Question. If they are outside the original Question or are wide of it, it is inevitable that sometimes Ministers will have to say that it is a matter that they will answer if a direct Question is put down. I hope that the House will remember that.

The noble Lord frowns, and he is entitled to frown if he wants to. However, I am making a point, and I know that the House feels that we must try to stick to the Questions that are asked. Ministers will be briefed. They may not give answers that are satisfactory to noble Lords, but they certainly will be briefed. But they cannot be expected to answer questions that are totally wide of the original Question that has been put down.

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