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5 November 2002

The future of Post Office networks

Westminster Hall Debate

Mr Deputy Speaker, can I start by joining other Members in congratulating my honourable friend, the Member for Roxburgh & Berwickshire, in securing this debate. I also want to pay tribute to all his hard work over many years, indeed stretching long before I was elected to this House, in support and defence of our post office network.

Mr Deputy Speaker, there are 21 post offices in my constituency in West Edinburgh. According to correspondence I recently received from Consignia, 18 or these are classed as 'urban'. With one third of the urban post office network to be closed and if the law of averages come true in my own constituency, as many as 6 post offices could close.

Such a prospect Mr Deputy Speaker, has left many of my constituents deeply worried, concerned that it will in fact be their local post office which gets the axe as part of the closure programme. In the space of only a few months, almost 6,000 residents in my constituency have signed my local petition campaign, similar to those being conducted by the Liberal Democrats across the country, which calls for a halt to the closures.

However Mr Deputy Speaker, for many, the worry soon turns to anger because they, like I and many others, simply do not believe the case has yet been made for so many closures. Postwatch has clearly said 3,000 is too many and uneccessary and I and my constituents are inclined to agree.

But Mr Deputy Speaker, it's not just a problem with the urban offices, there are still serious questions over the future of the rural post offices in my constituency as well.

Some months ago, I received a letter from the Post Office Ltd telling me of their intention to close the post office in Dalmeny, a small village in my constituency.

Betty Hardie, who had served the village tirelessly for many years as the post office's subpostmistress, decided it was time to retire. However, the inability of Consignia to find a replacement for Betty left the post office facing closure, leaving my constituents in Dalmeny, including many elderly people, with the prospect of having to travels miles to alternative post offices in South Queensferry or the South Gyle to post their parcels, collect their pension or pay their bills. Dalmeny is not a village well served by public transport Mr Deputy Speaker and the alternatives put forward by Consignia were simply not realistic.

Thankfully though, thanks to the people of Dalmeny, a local campaign saw several people come forward, interested in taking over the running of the post office. As a result, Betty, the retiring subpostmistress, kindly agreed to stay on whilst Consignia conducted their interviews. Thus Dalmeny post office has, at least at the moment, won a stay of execution.

I tell this story Mr Deputy Speaker, because I believe the blame for such circumstances as those seen in Dalmeny fall squarely on the Government's door. The problem is that this Government has still failed to tell the House, the post office industry or the public how they intend to make up the massive loss in post office revenue which will arise from ACT.

I searched through Hansard's report of the 15th October debate and still found no answer from the Minister. The answer clearly will not come from the 'Your Guide'scheme, despite what I believed were relatively successful pilot schemes.

If the Government do not provide answers on this crucial question, they are leaving the remaining urban and rural post offices with a very uncertain financial future. Quite simply, without answers, no sane person will want to enter an industry filled with such uncertainty and cases like that in Dalmeny village, where the post office faces closure because of a failure to find a replacement subpostmaster will become more and more common. I call on the Minister to take today's opportunity to address this crucial point.

Mr Deputy Speaker, the briefing prepared by the regulator Postwatch last June gives an excellent background to the Government's policy to move the payment of benefits and the state pension to Automated Credit Transfer. In that document, on page 4, under section 5.3, it states it is important to

"ensure benefit recipients are fully and fairly informed."
And to

"ensure that there are no hidden pressures to favour one type of account over another"

it went on to say under section 6.1.2 that
"the information presented to benefit recipients must be complete and impartial."

Clearly Postwatch had concerns that pressure could be applied on benefit customers in favour of one of the options on offer, namely ACT into current or universal bank accounts. It is clear to me and other honourable members that these concerns were justified as more and more evidence is coming out that customers have and continue to be being pressurized not to take up the post office card accounts. I ask the Minister to take these matters seriously, as such evidence clearly goes against the recommendations of Postwatch.

Mr Deputy Speaker, it has been said many times but it deserves to be reiterated time and time again. Post offices and the services they provide are vital to the communities they serve. The closure programme, veiled by the Government under the heading 'regeneration', the prospect of losing 6 post offices in my constituency through the programme and maybe even more because of the insecurity which will remain, is quite frankly frightening to me and my constituents and must not be allowed to happen.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.