Sir George attacked the Government's proposals to close a quarter of the post offices in his constituency (see below)
"I had hoped to speak at greater length, but so many MP's wanted to speak in the short debate that I curtailed my remarks. The Minister came under sustained attack and I hope he takes on board the criticisms made."
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who made some perfectly valid points about economic and social changes, which are reducing the footfall in post offices, and ended with some positive suggestions about how one might increase turnover. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and the Select Committee on their report, and on their diligence and persistence. They did exactly what a Select Committee should do—hence the attendance at this debate. Indeed, one could argue that this, rather than the one being held in the Chamber, is today’s topical debate.
I declare an interest: 35 years ago I was economic adviser to the Post Office, which generated me a modest entitlement to an occupational pension, which I declare.
The house names of Hampshire villages tell a story. The Old Station house marks where Dr. Beeching visited us; the Old School house marks the retreat of the village school; the Old Rectory marks the retreat of the Church of England. In my constituency we now increasingly have houses called the Old Post Office. We have one in my village. The Government can say that the process did not begin in 1997—and they are right. In North-West Hampshire we face the prospect of losing, within six months, more than a quarter of our remaining post offices. That is a tremendous shock to the system—a disproportionate and, I believe, wholly indefensible hit. That is roughly twice as many as the national average.
I have had the same dialogue with Mr. Nickolls at the Post Office that I expect other hon. Members have had. He is the executioner of the programme. He has made it clear that if I secure a reprieve in one place, there will be a fresh conviction elsewhere. It is quite clear that the target is 2,500. There are some very perverse results. Ashford Hill lost its conventional post office 10 years ago, and it was relocated to the back of the pub, the Ship. People can go in and ask Reg Rabbetts for a pint of lager and a book of stamps. It is a popular facility, in a village with no bus service. That is now being held out as the model—outreach—but it is now proposed to close the post office at the back of the pub.
Sandra Gidley: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned outreach. Does he share my concern that the branch access reports have been produced for branches that have been recommended for full closure, but that we do not have the same, albeit limited, information for those for which outreach is proposed? It is very difficult to make the relevant comparisons.
Sir George Young: I take the hon. Lady’s point, which brings me to St. Mary Bourne, a resourceful village that raised money and built a village shop and post office 10 years ago. That is a community shop of exactly the type that has been mentioned, but it is now going to be closed. Outreach has been negotiated, which means that the post office will remain in the same shop, but the strong room in which the post office was located must be destroyed and relocated, at some cost, alongside the counter. Nevertheless, Mr. Rod Sutcliffe has negotiated a skilful and successful outreach deal. I have also had a petition from a small and popular rural post office in Linkenholt and another from the post office in St Giles Road in Tadley. I visited all the post offices except one. One post office has, at the Post Office’s request, spent a large sum investing in a strong room: it completed that about a year ago but is now about to be closed.
Two neighbouring villages—Goodworth Clatford and Anna Valley—are going to lose their post offices. If I had to single out one example, although it is invidious to do so because I do not think that any of these post offices should close, the most effective campaign has been run by Goodworth Clatford, where Richard Green has headed a successful campaign called SOCPO: Save Our Clatford Post Office.
Taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) and the hon. Member for Stafford, my point is this: two of the three local authorities in my local area are interested in saving the post offices. I have had a dialogue with Mr. Nickolls and asked whether, if the local authority wants to rescue a post office, this can be done. The answer was that it is difficult but, in theory, yes. Perhaps the local authorities place a higher value on keeping these institutions going than do the Government. Can local authorities find the information that they need from the post office? No. They need to know how much they have to put in to keep the post office open, but they cannot get that information.
I hope that we get at least one thing out of this debate: the Minister should instruct the Post Office that, where a parish, district or county council, in good faith, wants to open negotiations with the Post Office to keep a post office open, it should be given the necessary information. If the Government are serious about devolving decision making and empowering local communities, it would be monstrous if a centrally driven programme led to the closure of popular local institutions, even though local people were prepared to put up the money so that the Government were not out of pocket.
I hope that when the Minister replies to this debate he will at least accede to that request so that negotiations can get underway to stop the unnecessary closure of successful and popular post offices.