Friday, March 21, 2008

The great Post Office debate

I was going to write an article here about how disappointed I was that the MP for Copeland, Jamie Reed, failed to support local Post Offices on Wednesday, and instead voted for the closure programme. Nineteen of his Labour colleagues, including fellow Cumbrian MP Eric Martlew, did vote for our post offices (I don't often agree with Eric but credit where credit is due.)

But the reasons why Jedi Jamie should have voted with us to save local post offices were already so much better put during the debate by his Labour colleague Mr Gordon Prentice (MP for Pendle) that I shall simply quote his speech in full. What a shame the MP for Copeland wasn't paying him more attention.

Gordon Prentice MP (Pendle, Labour)

"I shall be very brief, but I want it put on the record that I will vote for the Conservative motion this evening. I can see nothing wrong with it. I read it through two or three times in case I was missing something. I see nothing in it that my friends or colleagues on this side cannot vote for.

I listened with interest, as I always do, to my friend from Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), who spent 18 years working in the Post Office. She will be voting with the Conservatives. I am pleased to see my friend from Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who chairs the all-party sub-post offices group and will also be voting with the Conservatives. There is no need for anyone on this side to feel at all frightened about the prospect of voting with the Conservatives. Let me explain that it is the only option left open to us. It is the only option we have left to stop or suspend the closure programme.

Let me tell you this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I participated in a Westminster Hall debate with my Lancashire colleagues, including my friend from Morecambe and Lunesdale. In Lancashire, we face 59 closures and many of my friends spoke about that in the debate. I spoke, too. If I did not vote for the Conservative motion now, I could not look my constituents in the eye; I simply could not, because I railed against the closure programme in that debate. It is no good my colleagues, tucked away in Westminster Hall, speaking with great passion on 4 March only to fail to support the motion before us tonight. My own constituency is losing six post offices. Since I have been its Member of Parliament, we have lost 10. We started out with 28, so the post office network in my Pendle constituency will have been more than halved, which is unacceptable.

Now is not the time to slag off the Conservatives — [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] I spend so much of my life doing that, I know, but this is not the time. Let me say this, however. The Conservatives would get more support from the Labour Benches if they were more open with us about the level of subsidy that they would put into the post office network. My friend on the Front Bench here has told us—he told us in Westminster Hall on 4 March as well—that only 4,000 post offices are commercially viable. We have a network of 14,000, which is going down to 11,500, so post offices will always need to be subsidised.

I believe that post offices are a social good. They are not just about selling people stamps. The network could not be recreated; if it were smashed, it could not be put together again. There are all sorts of exciting, innovative things we could do with a revivified post office network. Let me finish on this point. I hope that my friends swallow the prejudices of decades or whatever and do the right thing, which is to support the Conservative motion.

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