Uncertainty about the future of post offices is a cause of great concern for elderly and vulnerable people. Last year four million people signed a petition calling on the government to save post offices; despite this Alistair Darling announced that a further 2,500 would be closed over the next two years.
In addition to more than 4,000 branches having already closed, this government has earned itself the record for closing post offices faster than any other in history and almost three times as fast as the last Conservative government. And to make matters worse, the government has given no assurance that the number of future closures will not be higher than the 2,500 they announced.
The government does not have a long-term strategy for the Post Office. Despite good intentions and warm rhetoric, ministers have repeatedly failed to make the reforms necessary to underpin the network.
Ministers have removed business from post offices; customers no longer have the option of buying a TV licence there or of having a pension book. These measures not only reduce direct revenue for sub-postmasters, but also reduce footfall in branches.
The government is also refusing to give certainty to post offices regarding the levels of subsidy they can expect in future years. Ministers have refused to give figures for how much this would be – however they did admit that it was “not expected to exceed the current annual sum of £150 million”. We can only conclude that the government is planning further cuts.
There was one item of positive news in the statement the government made last December – that they had bowed to opposition pressure to replace the Post Office card account. This account is used by millions of people and represents ten per cent of a sub-postmaster’s net pay. However, the government will put this contract out to tender, posing a huge potential threat to the Post Office.
When Alistair Darling came to parliament last December, he tried to sweeten the bitter pill of post office closures by claiming that its new “access criteria” would ensure that the most people lived within three miles of a post office. However the prime minister’s performance and innovation unit has previously rejected this proposal saying that “numerical access criteria could well undermine the government’s policy rather than strengthen it”, and pointing out that “it would be possible for the Post Office to close down two-thirds of its rural outlets whilst still ensuring that 99 per cent of people in rural areas lived within three miles of a post office”.
What the government should have announced in December was giving sub-postmasters greater freedom to find new business opportunities and encouraging local councils to see what services they can provide through post offices. Conservatives are developing policies to secure the long-term future of the network through opening post offices up to new markets and new customers so that they can thrive and continue to fulfil the important role that it plays in our local communities.