HL Deb 09 July 2003 vol 651 cc269-73

3.1 p.m.

Lord Greaves asked Her Majesty's Government:

In light of the proposals announced on 7th July to close four post offices in Colne, Lancashire, how many proposals to close urban post offices they have made in the last three months.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, proposals for post office branch closures are an operational matter for Post Office Limited. The company is currently engaged in a process described as the urban network reinvention programme to reduce the number of outlets in urban areas in order to create a viable network for the future and to reduce the risk of unplanned closures. I understand that in the three months from the beginning of April to the end of June, Post Office Limited has entered into public consultation for 233 closure proposals under that programme.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that slightly depressing reply. It may be an operational matter for the Post Office, but the Government will get the blame. I hope the Minister listens. Does he agree that the consultation period that applies to the proposals, generally of four weeks, is not adequate to allow local people and particularly local organisations like parish councils and town councils to give them proper consideration and to make representations? That was specifically the case in Colne. Is he aware that this week is the beginning of local wakes weeks—Colne holidays—when the schools break up for the summer and most people go on holiday? It is therefore a most inappropriate time to hold the consultation. Will he make representations to the Post Office in this instance to extend the consultation period to the end of August?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, the Government get the blame for everything—justified or not. The consultation process starts when Post Office Limited provides Postwatch with two weeks in which to make representations on behalf of the consumers of the post offices. The matter then goes out for general consultation for a one-month period. We are aware that the consultation period in relation to the Colne Valley sub-post offices covers the wakes week period and is traditionally a time when many people are on holiday. In the circumstances I am happy to write to the chief executive of Post Office Limited, David Mills, to ask whether he will consider the merits of what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has said and to see whether the consultation period can be extended.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Post Office report and accounts of 1996–97 referred to 19,251 retail outlets but that as of March this year there were only 17,239? Bearing in mind that Post Office Counters runs a six-day operation, does he agree with my mathematics that in the six years since the Government came to power we have lost on each working day of the Post Office at least one post office? Can he assure me that, while writing about the consultation procedure for closing post offices, he will try to persuade the Post Office to keep a few more open?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I have two points to make to my noble friend. First, the rate of closure of post offices has slowed down considerably in the past two years. The Government realise that it is essential to keep a post office network in urban and rural areas that provides the services that customers need. It is interesting to note that before the closures started 99 per cent of the population lived within one mile of a post office, but after the closure plan has been completed everyone will live within 96.5. I am sorry—

A noble Lord

That's Labour for you.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

That is Labour for you. I shall repeat that to make the situation absolutely clear. Once the closure plan has been completed 96 per cent of the population will live within one mile of a post office.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, is the Minister concerned that 345 sub-post offices closed last year? He did not include in the figures he gave a further 102 sub-post offices that come under the regeneration programme. From April 2002 to March 2003 there has been the closure of some 345 post offices, which I believe is a disgrace. That leaves only 8,894 in urban areas and 8,345 in rural areas compared with a previous figure of 23,000. It is time that the Government took action.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, the problem has to be seen by looking at the infrastructure of post offices in the country and deciding what is needed and what is required. It may be helpful if I tell the House that the general secretary of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters said: We accepted the PIU report's conclusion that in some areas there are too many urban post offices to remain commercially viable, and so if fewer post offices are needed, then sub-postmasters should be compensated for the loss of their asset". He went on to say something that is absolutely apposite in answer to this Question: It is wrong to criticise the industry for being out of date and in decline, and then create panic when we are doing something about it". The Government are trying to construct within the UK an infrastructure of sub-post offices that provides good service to customers in the country.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I ask my noble friend in replying to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to be geographically accurate. The question concerns Colne in Lancashire, an area that we both know very well, and not Colne Valley. I know it is north of Watford, but surely that is no excuse.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I apologise to everyone in Colne for my error. While I am on my feet talking about Colne, I should tell the House that although four sub-post offices are subject to consultation for closure, there are still three in the almost immediate area. The furthest that anyone in Colne will be from a post office after the closures is 0.6 of a mile.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, does the Minister accept that he may have made an error in his Answer, but he also made a significant, what might be termed Freudian slip, when he said that government policy is to do this? I thought that the Minister's first Answer—perhaps he can confirm this—was to the effect that the situation was nothing to do with the Government and that it was entirely a commercial matter for the Post Office. If it is something to do with the Government, does he accept that his indication that 233 or 240 urban post offices would close will cause significant concern, particularly to the elderly and to the infirm?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, the noble Lord is mistaken if he thought I made a Freudian slip. I made no such thing. All I can do is repeat the Government's position that we want to deliver to the public of the United Kingdom a modern, efficient and accessible sub-post office structure. Of course we are aware of those who are less fortunate than us—the disabled—but carers and families will help. We are looking at a massive reduction in the number of post offices, but we are aiming for and achieving a rational and sensible structure of post offices in our country.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, does the noble Lord now accept that the original change in how benefit payments are made has caused absolute devastation to post offices, not just urban ones as mentioned in this Question but rural ones as well? Does he further agree that the new Post Office card account, which is extremely difficult to access, combined with a low information campaign that will probably mean a low take-up, will actually, contrary to what the Minister says, accelerate the closure of post offices because there will be no reason for people to go to them?

Whether or not—bearing in mind the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Razzall —that is down to the Government, since the original mistake was made by the Government how will they rectify this absolute horror caused to post offices all over the country and the consumers who use them?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, that was wonderful rhetoric but it contained little substance. Half the post offices that closed last year had fewer than 70 clients per week coming in. Secondly. the Government are carrying out a major initiative under the universal banking and direct payment of benefits plan. When that was suggested, the Opposition thought it would be a failure; in fact it is a success. We are fully aware that if we are going to have a viable and modern post office structure, it must be available for all the services mentioned by the noble Baroness. That is precisely what we shall do.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, my noble friend says that the change will reduce the percentage of the population living within a mile of a post office from 99 per cent to 96 per cent. If my mathematics are right, that is 1.5 million people. How is that taken into account in the viability calculation that he mentioned? In other words, does the Post Office add in the extra cost to people, or their added difficulty in getting to these post offices from further away, or are the figures purely on the Post Office's own business?

Secondly, my noble friend made a most welcome comment about consulting people on the closure of post offices. Will Royal Mail also consult about those affected by mail rail closures?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I am not here to answer questions about Royal Mail; I am here to answer questions about sub-post offices. My noble friend made a valid point. When Post Office Counters Limited first started its closure plans, it did so countrywide. Now, in the light of its experience, it is doing so on a local basis to make absolutely sure that everyone has the necessary access to his or her local post office. Calculating figures on the national scale is not the answer to the noble Lord's question.

Consultation and policy are now being operated on a local level because obviously issues vary from one part of the country to another.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords—

Lord Swinfen

My Lords

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is the Liberal Democrats' turn.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, reference was made in an earlier answer to operational matters. Yesterday, in connection with mail rail, we heard about commercial matters. Are there such things in post offices and Royal Mail which have a social, environmental or strategic dimension? What are they? Are these not areas in which the Government give a steer and indeed have some influence?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, precisely. The Government give a steer. If we look at the rural network, since November 2000 the Government have made a formal requirement on the Post Office to maintain a rural network and to prevent avoidable closures. Of course there is a social dimension to this problem; it cannot be left to the free market. Having said that, it is, as I said, an operational matter for the Post Office. If I had just said that and sat down, the noble Lord would not have been very happy. I have been trying to give as much information as possible under that heading—that this is a matter to do primarily with the Post Office.