MPs prepare to fight for post offices

LORNA MARSH MPs are preparing to challenge a fresh round of post office closures feared to hit rural branches most as the government finalised the level of financial support it will give the loss-making network.

LORNA MARSH

MPs are preparing to challenge a fresh round of post office closures feared to hit rural branches most, as the government finalised the level of financial support it will give the loss-making network.

Opposition parties, sub-postmasters, and business and campaign groups urged ministers not to sanction wholesale closures among the 14,500 offices spread across the UK.

But they look inevitable because of the scale of the losses, especially in rural areas where 1,600 offices have fewer than 100 customers each.

The post office network is losing £4m a week, up from £2m last year following a series of decisions which have cost post offices valuable business, including pension and child benefit payments being made directly into bank accounts.

Television licences, driving licences and passports have also switched to being sold at other sites or online.

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Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk which has seen a number of closures, said he would be trying to table an adjournment debate concerning measures to save rural branches.

He added: "The closures would be tragic. It is part of a picture of neglect of rural areas as the government targets community hospitals and post offices, and so it goes on."

Mr Lamb said the government needed to inject a cash lifeline into the post office network and revitalise it by lifting the restraints on services it can offer, such as parcel handling from private companies.

Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, said it was "doubtless" Norfolk's rural branches would be hit.

The government spends £150m a year supporting the 9,400 rural post offices and the money is due to run out in 2008.

Trade and Industry secretary Alistair Darling will tell MPs next week how much money the government is prepared to give the Royal Mail which will help shape the future size of the postal network.