8 February 2008: (PN 23)
Post Office closure programme shortcomings highlighted by MPs
A report from the Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee today warns the Government's process of consultation to determine which post offices should close as part of its Network Change Programme lacks clarity, does not take sufficient account of accessibility issues and should involve MPs and local councils more closely.
Peter Luff, Chairman of the Committee said:
"This is not a report about the principle of closing 2,500 sub post offices as that is settled government policy and one on which we have commented previously. It is a report about how the process is being managed and the implications for communities. As we always feared, the time constraint for the implementation of the Network Change Programme has meant that consultation has been curtailed, and the whole process has been rushed. It has been improving as more experience is gained, but it still has serious problems.
"There is not enough clarity about the basis of the consultation and we are concerned that it does not always take accessibility into account. The secrecy in which the pre-consultation period is shrouded is also creating the impression that by the time it gets to the public consultation stage the decision on a post office's future is a fait accompli. If the closure process is going to go smoothly, it is essential that there is genuine consultation and it is seen as such. Importantly, the needs of communities must be given greater priority when offices are closed. We hope that all those involved will use our report as a prompt to make improvements very quickly indeed."
Key among the report's recommendations for improving the process of implementing the Network Change Programme are:
-Post Office Ltd should be far clearer about the basis on which the public is being consulted. All its literature should make clear that there will be reductions in Post Office provision, and that the question being asked is simply whether the right branches have been identified for closure.
-There may be some details which need to be kept confidential, but this should be strictly limited, given the substantial public investment in the network and the keen public interest in the outcome. If people are to respond sensibly to proposals to close a particular sub-post office, they need to know why that branch has been put forward for closure.
-The Committee is unconvinced that Post Office Ltd itself is fully engaged with the need to ensure that services are accessible to all and calls for this to be given much higher priority.
-There should be a presumption against closing a post office where this is the last shop in the village, or in a deprived urban area
-In areas where there is no ready access to alternative offices, Post Office Ltd must take great care over reductions in compensation to sub post offices that are closing but where the business that remains wishes to offer competing services. It should always err on the side of caution, giving the benefit of the doubt to the business and the community it serves
-The Committee welcomes the proposals to introduce Post Office provision to remote areas. It recommends that if this cannot be done by voluntary outreach arrangements, the Post Office should provide the necessary services itself. A single outreach session of two hours a week is generally unacceptable and there should normally be at least two sessions per week.
In the longer term, Post Office Ltd. should be obliged to use its best endeavours to keep the network at a minimum of 11,500 fixed outlets. In answer to a Parliamentary Question, the Government said a network of around 7,500 offices would suffice to meet the national access criteria. The Committee does not think it is satisfactory simply to accept that the network may continue to shrink in an unplanned way between now and 2011.
As a consequence of Machinery of Government changes announced in June 2007, the Department for Trade and Industry ceased to exist and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was created. Following this decision, the Trade and Industry Committee has now been dissolved and a successor committee has been created, with the following membership:
Chairman: Peter Luff MP (Con) (Mid Worcestershire)
Mr Adrian Bailey (Lab) (West Bromwich West)
Roger Berry (Lab) (Kingswood)
Mr Brian Binley (Con) (Northampton South
Mr Michael Clapham (Lab) (Barnsley West and Pen.)
Mr Lindsay Hoyle (Lab) (Chorley)
Mark Hunter (Lib Dem) (Cheadle)
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Con) (Bromsgrove)
Anne Moffat (Lab) (East Lothian)
Mr Anthony Wright (Lab) (Great Yarmouth)
Mike Weir (SNP) (Angus)
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