Assembly Speech Ad Hoc Committee on Postal Services 2 June 2008

Print

I beg to move “That the Assembly expresses its concern and deep disappointment at the planned closure of, and service changes to, certain local Post Offices; approves the report of the Ad Hoc Committee set up to consider, and make proposals for, partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services; and agrees that it should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform as a report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.” 

Mr Speaker [ or Deputy Speaker], I welcome the opportunity to propose this motion on local postal services. The Assembly first debated the issue on 21 April this year and the following week it agreed to establish an ad hoc Committee to look at ways to enhance the viability of local postal services.  The Committee had a very short period of time in which to take evidence and to produce recommendations and I want to acknowledge the contribution of the Committee members, and their deputies, for their hard work and commitment to this very important matter.  A large number of organizations and individuals provided oral and written evidence to the Committee and I would like to thank them all for responding to us at such short notice.  I would also like to record my thanks to the Assembly staff who supported the Committee in its work.

At the outset I think it is work pointing out that Post Office Ltd acted in the way that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform instructed it to and that the Committee felt that the whole process was seriously flawed because of this.  As post offices are a reserved matter the Committee calls on  the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Rural Development to suspend the closure and network change programme to allow Post Office Ltd to give full consideration to innovative alternatives such as collaborative working with government departments and agencies, organizations like the Citizens Advice Bureau, Pharmaceutical Society and so on.   In planning the closures and network changes there appears to have been very little recognition of the fact that Northern Ireland is different from the rest of the United Kingdom in that it has a more rural population, poorer road networks and public transport systems and that it is recovering from many years of conflict.  Evidence heard by the Committee suggests that the access criteria used by Post Office Ltd failed to recognize the unique socio-political situation of some communities in Northern Ireland.  The Committee has serious concerns about the access criteria and the statistical methodology used by Post Office Ltd.  The statistical analysis is applied to the UK population as a whole; it does not reflect any regional variations, such as in Northern Ireland, where the population is more adversely affected by the closures than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.  The definition used for urban and rural was not the definition normally used in Northern Ireland which has some of the highest levels of social deprivation in urban areas.  The Committee urges Post Office Ltd to ensure wherever possible that the national thresholds for access in urban and rural areas are applied fairly and equitably. The Committee was amazed to learn that the distances measured by Post Office Ltd to assess the criteria were as the crow flies – a new slant on pigeon post.   As well as that, the distances were measured between the post office earmarked for closure and the nearest post office to remain open rather than from people’s homes and the new post office that would serve them i.e. the real distance.  While Postwatch, the consumer body, stated that they walked the new routes the Committee saw no clear recognition of the fact that there could be steep hills, no footpaths, infrequent or no public transport which would have a significant impact on people without a car. Before I turn to the main recommendations in the Committee’s report I think that it is worth pointing out that there were a number of issues that perturbed the Committee and which came out clearly in the evidence sessions. One of the key recurring themes in all the evidence was that the six week deadline for responses to Post Office Ltd’s consultation on the implementation of the closures was much too short.  On top of that Post Office Ltd itself had only three weeks in which to consider the responses to it and to firm up on its decisions.  This could be interpreted as (a) Post Office Ltd wasn’t expecting many responses or (b) it had little intention of paying much heed to them.This is quite incredible given the potential impact of the closures, not only on the vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society, but on small businesses and particularly on other retailers in the areas affected.  The post office is very often at the heart of the community and Post Office Ltd appears to have paid little or no attention to the impact particularly on the elderly and on disabled people for whom it is very often their only social outlet – where they catch up on news, get information on benefits, access their money and where the staff know them and would notice if they hadn’t been in to collect their benefits or pensions.  While Post Office Ltd acknowledges that there is a social role for post offices, this role seems to be diminishing with no obvious replacement. The people who rely most heavily on post offices are those in receipt of benefits and pensions and they are also the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our society.  There was no acknowledgement of the difficulties that people with mobility problems could face; they may now have to encounter busy roads, garage forecourts or to go to post offices that are hard to get into for wheelchair users; this is on top of longer queues and strange areas and is very distressing for some vulnerable people.  The Committee also found that not enough consideration was given to the impact of the closures on the viability of other businesses in the areas or on businesses hosting a post office nominated for closure. There is a serious concern that small businesses particularly those who use Ebay and the internet for their businesses would suffer unduly.  These businesses rely heavily on being able to get to their local post office quickly and easily to send and collect parcels; having to go further and face longer queues takes time and in business, as we well know, time is money.  It is also well known that businesses feed off one another by increasing each other’s footfall.  The closure of post offices is likely to affect other shops as fewer people will be in the area to collect their benefits and pensions and will not pop into the other shops to buy goods. This is particularly relevant in rural areas where the domino effect could lead to the closure of what could be the last remaining shop in the village.   Other recurring issues were the closure of post offices that were actually making a profit.  Indeed one post office had received an award last year for having the highest sales growth in the whole of the United Kingdom, yet, incredibly, it is marked for closure.  The Committee knows that post offices need to change to reflect the changing needs of today but it believes that there are alternatives to closures that Post Office Ltd should consider. The Committee looked, for example, at the possibility of establishing one-stop-shops for the delivery of a range of services such as a Citizens Advice Bureau kiosk, local council services, health service providers.  It feels that Post Office Ltd should talk to these types of organisations as well as to government departments, service providers and voluntary organisations to develop innovative ways to use post offices to disseminate their information and services. Post Office Ltd is introducing alternative services such as outreach in some rural areas yet there is no evidence that these actually work.  Research shows that there are a number of models operating profitably in other countries and the Committee calls on Post Office Ltd to look at these as alternatives to closures and at the experiences elsewhere in providing alternative delivery methods.  It was reported that post offices are limited in what they can do in terms of the services they can offer and their methods of working.  The Committee recommends that post offices should be empowered to have opening hours and services that reflect the individual needs of the communities that they serve. Looking ahead there is uncertainty surrounding the future of the post office network after 2011.  In this current exercise organisations have had little success in obtaining the basis on which the closures were proposed with many having to resort to Freedom of Information requests to obtain information.  The Committee urges Post Office Ltd to adopt a more open and transparent process in the future and for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to advise it of its budgets at an early stage so that Post Office Ltd knows what it has to operate with and can plan ahead in consultation with the key stakeholders. In summary, the Committee believes that the closure and change process should be suspended until more consultation and research has been carried out to ensure that the changes needed and the resulting services reflect the needs of the people and businesses of Northern Ireland.  I commend the report to the House