Report on the Committee’s Consideration of, and Proposals for, Partnerships that could Enhance the Economic Case for Viable Local Postal Services

AD HOC COMMITTEE ON LOCAL POSTAL SERVICES

Report on the Committee’s Consideration of, and Proposals 
for, Partnerships that could 
Enhance the Economic Case for Viable Local Postal Services

Together with the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee, 
Minutes of evidence and written submissions relating to the Report

Ordered by the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services to be printed 21 May 2008
Report: 31/07/08R Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services

This document is available in a range of alternative formats.
For more information please contact the
Northern Ireland Assembly, Printed Paper Office,
Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast, BT4 3XX
Tel: 028 9052 1078

Membership and Powers

The Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services was established by resolution of the Assembly under Standing Order 48(7) on 21 April 2008. The terms of reference of the Committee were to consider, and make proposals for, partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services, and to submit a report to the Assembly by 2 June 2008.

The Committee had 12 Members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.

The Membership of the Committee is as follows:
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Willie Clarke (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Billy Armstrong 
Mr Thomas Buchanan 
Mr Trevor Clarke 
Mr John Dallat 
Mrs Carmel Hanna 
Mr William Irwin*
Mrs Naomi Long
Mr Fra McCann
Mrs Claire McGill
Mr George Savage

* Mr Adrian McQuillan replaced Mr Stephen Moutray on 6 May 2008
* Mr William Irwin replaced Mr Adrian McQuillan on 12 May 2008.

Table of Contents

Background to the Report

Introduction and Background
Proceedings of the Committee
Acknowledgements

Executive Summary

Summary of Findings
Summary of Recommendations

Report

Background to the Establishment of the Committee
Consideration of Evidence
Key Findings and Recommendations for Viable Economic Partnerships

Appendices

Appendix 1

Proceedings of the Committee Relating to the Report

Appendix 2

Minutes of Evidence

Appendix 3

List of Witnesses

Appendix 4

Written Submissions

Appendix 5

Assembly Research Papers

Ad Hoc Committee on
Local Postal Services

Introduction and Background

1. The Committee was established by resolution of the Assembly under Assembly Standing Order 48(7) on 21 April 2008. The terms of reference of the Committee were to consider, and make proposals for, partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services, and to submit a report to the Assembly by 2 June 2008.

2. The Committee had 12 Members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson; its quorum was five. The Membership of the Committee was as follows:

Mr Robin Newton, Chairperson
Mr Willie Clarke, Deputy Chairperson
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr John Dallat
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mr William Irwin*
Mrs Naomi Long
Mr Fra McCann
Mrs Claire McGill
Mr George Savage
*Mr Adrian McQuillan replaced Mr Stephen Moutray on 6 May 2008
*Mr William Irwin replaced Adrian McQuillan on 12 May 2008

3. It was agreed by the Committee that where Members were unable to attend they could nominate party colleagues to take their place. Three Members, Mrs Anna Lo, Mr Roy Beggs, Mr Thomas Burns participated on the Committee on that basis.

4. The Report and evidence of the Committee are published by the Stationery Office by order of the Committee. All publications of the Committee are posted on the Assembly’s website: (archive.niassembly.gov.uk.)

Proceedings of the Committee

5. The first meeting of the Committee took place on 29 April 2008, the Committee elected Mr Robin Newton as Chairperson and Mr Willie Clarke as Deputy Chairperson.

6. The Committee held seven meetings on the following dates : 29 April 2008 ; 6 May 2008 ; 12 May 2008; 13 May 2008; 15 May 2008; 20 May 2008; 21 May 2008.

7. In the course of its proceedings the Committee took evidence from the following organisations:

  • Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association
  • Post Office Ltd
  • Postwatch
  • Citizens Advice Bureau
  • Rural Community Network
  • Help the Aged
  • Wandsworth Community Centre
  • Rural Community Network

8. The Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee are shown at Appendix 1.

9. The record of evidence given is shown at Appendix 2.

10. A complete list of those representatives who gave evidence to the Committee is shown at Appendix 3.

11. Written submissions and other correspondence received by the Committee are shown at Appendix 4.

12. Assembly Research Service Papers are shown at Appendix 5.

Acknowledgements

The Committee would like to express its gratitude to the organisations and individuals who provided oral and written evidence at such short notice, including the many residents of Groomsport who wrote in opposition to the closure of their local post office. The Committee also wishes to record its appreciation of the assistance provided by Dr Robert Barry, Jodie Carson and Yan Liu of the Assembly Research and Library Services and to the staff of the Official Report.

Executive Summary

Findings

1. The Committee’s key findings were that: -

  • The six week response time to Post Office Ltd’s consultation on the implementation of the closures is much too short to allow for a meaningful response and three weeks for deliberation by Post Office Ltd is too short for consideration of the responses.
  • Post Office Ltd acted in the manner imposed on it by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
  • The process was fundamentally flawed and there was no recognition of Northern Ireland being different from other parts of the United Kingdom in terms of people feeling safe travelling to certain areas because of perceived community backgrounds.
  • There was little evidence that Post Office Ltd consulted widely enough and with sufficient stakeholders in Northern Ireland to consider all the options available to ensure the most appropriate decisions were taken in relation to the closure of local post offices.
  • Insufficient consideration was given to the impact of the closures on the more vulnerable members of Northern Ireland society in terms of access to services, social inclusion, ability to travel to other post offices and the additional costs associated with this.
  • Insufficient consideration was given to the impact of the closures, some of which are of profitable post offices, on the viability of other businesses in the areas or on businesses hosting a post office nominated for closure.
  • There is no evidence to demonstrate that alternative models, such as one-stop-shops and co-location, were considered in relation to the services offered, collaboration with other bodies and practices in other countries.
  • The statistical analysis used by Post Office Ltd 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 than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
  • The access criteria were applied as the crow flies which is totally unrealistic. 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 settings.
  • There is no evidence to show that the alternatives being introduced, such as outreach services, are effective.
  • 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. Post Office Ltd did not engage in an open and transparent process.
  • There is uncertainty surrounding the future of the post office network after 2011.
  • Evidence provided by Post Office Ltd showed that the number of post offices to be closed was decided before any assessment of need and access criteria was carried out.
Recommendations

2. The Committee recommends that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform instructs Post Office Ltd to: -

  • suspend the closure programme in Northern Ireland.
  • consult further and more widely in Northern Ireland before deciding upon closures.
  • ensure that the needs of vulnerable members of society are met.
  • investigate partnerships with local councils, health service providers, retailers, Citizens Advice Bureau, etc for the delivery of services.
  • examine services and delivery mechanisms in other countries.
  • empower local post offices to have opening hours and services that reflect the individual needs of the community they serve.
  • engage with government departments, service providers and voluntary organisations to develop innovative ways to use post offices to disseminate information and services.
  • ensure wherever possible that the national thresholds for access in urban and rural areas are applied fairly and equitably.
  • engage in meaningful, transparent consultation at an early stage on its network plan beyond 2011.
  • At pre-consultation stage Post Office Ltd should contact locally based organisations in each area.
  • The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform should identify future funding allocations for post offices as a matter of urgency.

Background to the Establishment of the Committee

3. In May 2007, the Department for Trade and Industry (now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), following consultation on its proposed strategy for the post office network, published its decisions on the way forward. These included the introduction of minimum access criteria to maintain a national network and protect vulnerable consumers in deprived urban, rural and remote areas, as follows:

  • 99% of the UK population to be within 3 miles and 90% of the population to be within 1 mile of their nearest post office outlet.
  • 99% of the total population in deprived urban areas across the UK to be within 1 mile of their nearest post office outlet.
  • 95% of the total urban population across the UK to be within 1 mile of their nearest post office outlet.
  • 95% of the total rural population across the UK to be within 3 miles of their nearest post office outlet.
  • 95% of the population of the postcode district to be within 6 miles of their nearest post office outlet.

4. This resulted in a decision to embark on compulsory compensated closure of up to 2,500 post offices across the United Kingdom, 42 of which are in Northern Ireland with a further 54 in Northern Ireland being replaced with an outreach service.

5. Post Office Ltd held a six week consultation on the proposed changes. Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly were concerned at the announcement of the closures and considered the six-week consultation period to be too short. They also believed that such closures and service reductions would have an adverse impact on community and social infrastructure in rural and urban areas and would adversely impact upon older people, persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.

6. Members acknowledged that provision of post office services is a reserved matter and established an Ad Hoc Committee to think creatively about, and make proposals for, partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services based on engagement with commercial, voluntary and public-sector partners.

Consideration of Evidence

7. The Committee received written and oral evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals, including written submissions from a large number of residents in Groomsport expressing opposition to the closure of their post office.

8. The Committee identified key issues arising from both the written and oral consultation responses and commissioned research from Assembly Research Services in order to identify innovative examples of potential partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services.

9. Whilst the Committee is cognisant of its remit, throughout the consultation phase a number of important recurrent themes emerged amongst respondents which concerned the Committee and which it would like to highlight. These primarily relate to the length of Post Office Ltd’s six week consultation period; the extent to which Post Office Ltd consulted with all relevant stakeholders; the statistical methodology used by the Post Office in relation to their access criteria, including the definitions of rural and urban areas used by Post Office Ltd; and the important social function which Post Offices have on the infrastructure of local communities.

Post Office Ltd consultation period

10. A significant number of witnesses providing oral evidence and written submissions to the Committee expressed concern at the six week deadline for responses to Post Office Ltd’s consultation on the implementation of the proposed closures. The Committee believes that such a short consultation period allows insufficient time for meaningful engagement between Post Office Ltd and some key stakeholders.

11. Indeed the Committee wrote to Post Office Ltd and to the Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform expressing its grave concern at the limited consultation deadline and requesting an extension to enable the Committee to consult on this issue further.

12. It appears to the Committee that Post Office Ltd had given little consideration to options for improving local post offices’ viability by engaging with stakeholders to explore collaborative working arrangements, such as the co-location of services, with a range of organisations from the public sector, voluntary sector and commercial undertakings. The Committee took oral evidence from a number of organisations such as the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland and the Citizens Advice Bureau who have stated that they would welcome engagement with Post Office Ltd to explore further the co-location services.

Research methodology

13. The statistical analysis used by Post Office Ltd is applied to the UK population as a whole, as set out in the Department for Trade and Industry’s (DTI) access criteria. It does not reflect any regional variations, such as in Northern Ireland, where the population is more adversely affected than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. As pointed out by Postwatch in its response to the DTI consultation, “It is vital that the access criteria should provide an equitable distribution of post offices across the UK. Government should therefore require Post Office Ltd to ensure wherever possible the national thresholds for access in urban and rural areas are applied proportionately.”

14. Unfortunately, DTI appears to have ignored the advice of the watchdog body. Additionally, according to Post Office Ltd, the access criteria are to be measured as the crow flies which clearly does not measure access realistically. The Committee heard evidence from Help the Aged who have highlighted that many older people and vulnerable groups, although they maybe within one mile of their new post office may have to cross busy roads, busy petrol station forecourts and through tunnels, which raises many safety issues.

15. Equally many respondents to the Committee consultation have highlighted that although a post office may be within the one mile access criteria, often bus services to those post offices may be either infrequent or absent altogether, particularly in rural areas. The Committee wishes to ascertain if Post Office Ltd has taken these issues into consideration in the formulation of the access criteria.

16. The Committee is also concerned that the definitions of rural and urban areas used by Post Office Ltd in its research are UK definitions; they do not take into consideration regional differences in the definition of the terms. That is, rurality is defined differently in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) definition uses a population cut-off point of 4,500, whereas the Post Office uses the DTI recommended population cut-off point of 10,000 (i.e. small towns such as Ballyclare or Randalstown would be treated as urban in the Northern Ireland definition, but would be regarded by Post Office Ltd as rural).

17. Similarly by imposing UK methodology the Committee does not feel that Post Office Ltd has adequately taken into account the unique socio-political demography of Northern Ireland. The Committee has heard evidence, from a number of organisations including a group of Post Office sub postmasters, who maintain that some communities would not wish to use post offices in other communities for safety reasons. The Committee does not feel that Post Office Ltd has taken this issue into consideration in the formulation of the access criteria.

The impact on the social infrastructure of local communities

18. The social importance of the post office network must not be underestimated. The Committee is concerned at the loss of what is, for some, their only social network leading to further isolation, lack of involvement and, for others, the loss of independence because of an inability to travel to the alternative service. Working in conjunction with other service providers the post office could enhance the range of services available and tailor them to meet the needs of the local communities.

19. Evidence taken from voluntary groups and others indicates serious concern at the impact of the closures on people with disabilities, elderly people and those with young families. Access is a particular issue with some facing additional journeys, with added cost, to offices which are difficult to access for wheelchair users or mothers with prams. Concern exists that this could lead, for example, to people collecting their pensions less frequently. This could result in them holding more cash leaving them feeling insecure because of fears of theft or attack.

20. This is particularly the case for those who live in deprived areas where alternatives, such as access to basic financial services, may be limited or non-existent.

Key Findings and Recommendations for Viable Economic Partnerships

Small Businesses and the impact on the local economy

21. Small businesses are heavy users of the post office network. When surveyed in October 2006, 47% of members of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) used their local post office more than once per week. 82% think that the closure of their local post office would have a significant impact on their business, in some cases leading to business closure, and 97% of small businesses think that the post office has a role to play in the local community.

22. The commercial realities that exist in the current climate are understood but there is disappointment that nearly 20% of the current Northern Ireland post office network is either to be closed or to have a reduced service. This is very likely to affect small businesses and independent retailers, as post office customers generate footfall for many other local shops and businesses.

23. For small businesses, post office services must be available late in the day, to process essential business correspondence, such as invoices, within the working day. Post is now delivered later in the day, and with further consultations to reduce services, the replacement service must be sensitive to this business need. Parcel services are of high importance to small businesses, particularly where purchases are offered via the internet. In the FSB survey, the most frequent reasons for small businesses using post offices were to send parcels (79%) and to purchase stamps (78%). It is important to ensure that parcel processing services are not reduced and there is concern that the proposed 2 kg package weight restriction for some outreach measures will not meet the needs of businesses.

24. Post offices help generate footfall for a number of independent retailers as many of the customers collect benefits and pensions and then visit local stores to make purchases. Six retailers who have post offices as part of their businesses report that they are extremely busy yet they are part of the closure programme. For those post offices that remain open the Government must ensure that sub-postmasters can invest in their business with confidence in its long term future. To achieve this goal, Government should look to invest in a programme of modernising and updating the remaining post offices to bring them into the twenty-first century.

Recommendation:

DBERR should empower local post offices to have opening hours and services that reflect the individual needs of the community they serve.

Social and town centre regeneration

25. Post offices are often at the heart of local communities and town centres acting as a catalyst for other small business and leading to increased footfall. The number of out of town retail and leisure centres has undermined the development of town centres to the detriment of small businesses. The Committee is concerned that the closure of post offices without giving full consideration to the social and economic impact will add further to the demise of town centres.

Impact of the closures on rural communities

26. The Rural Community Network, which gave evidence to the Committee, recognises the challenges for securing economic sustainability for the rural post office network but argues that the wider public service dimension should have equal consideration.

27. Using Post Office Ltd’s definition, approximately 41% of Northern Ireland’s population lives in a rural area; 151 post office closures will be in urban areas and 341 in rural areas. Deprivation manifests itself differently in rural communities in that it is more dispersed and, therefore, less visible.

28. The post office is seen as an essential service often supporting the only shop in a village. This leads to concerns that closure would trigger a domino effect leading to withdrawals of other key services. In certain areas, because of poor transport links, the trip to the alternative post office could be an all day event which is unacceptable to most people.

Closures in urban areas

29. Much of the focus of the impact of post office closures has been on rural communities. However, concern has been expressed that a number of the closures in Belfast are in areas with high concentrations of deprivation and they will adversely affect the most vulnerable and socially excluded sections of the community. While Post Office Ltd appears to have adhered to the minimum access criteria prescribed this does not reflect the difficulties that the distance can place on older people or people on low incomes who do not have access to a car.

30. Three of the branches are in areas where over half of the households do not have access to a vehicle, which is considerably higher than the average for Belfast of 43.8%. In addition, the public transport options to nearby branches are often restricted. In Belfast there is no direct bus service between two of the ten branches proposed for closure and either of the nearest alternative branches that have been identified. Half of the branches due to close have only one suggested alternative branch on a bus route. The proposed branch closures therefore will affect the independence of those most heavily reliant upon them.

Recommendations
Post Office Ltd should
  • investigate partnerships with local councils, health service providers, retailers, Citizens Advice Bureau, etc for the delivery of services.
  • engage with government departments, service providers and voluntary organisations to develop innovative ways to use post offices to disseminate information and services.
  • ensure wherever possible that the national thresholds for access in urban and rural areas are applied proportionately.
Marketing existing services

31. The Committee was informed that the post office has a total of 108 products and that a number of the post masters/mistresses are not familiar with all of them. There is a need, therefore, for greater training of staff and for increased marketing of all the products available to make optimum use of the full range of services.

A ‘one stop shop’ to government and voluntary services

32. Post offices play a pivotal role in the distribution of government information. For example, in relation to healthcare, post offices provide a gateway for low income groups to receive their entitlement to free health care (e.g. post offices supply, collect and provide general information about the HC1, HC2, HC3 and PS7 forms). A significant number of people, particularly older and vulnerable members of society collect their benefits from local post offices. Many other people use local post offices to pay bills and car tax and to access official documents such as passport applications. Respondents, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau have highlighted the importance of the post office as a hub of information on accessing and using government services and believe that there is scope to extend post offices as a convenient and accessible one-stop-shop point of entry for such services.

33. The Committee believes that Post Office Ltd should engage with voluntary and community bodies in order to identify ways in which the services offered by such groups can be incorporated into local post offices. The Citizens Advice Bureau, for example, advocates that there is a benefit in including a CAB kiosk or other similar kiosk in post offices which could be used not only for disseminating information but also for accessing electronic services. Belfast City Council also concurs that the post office needs to take an innovative and imaginative approach to developing services. The Council recommends that post office services should be merged with other existing local services such as credit unions in shopping centres or shared service locations. The Council also recommends that post office branches could use excess space to host other services, particularly internet services.

Recommendation

Post Office Ltd should consult further and more widely in Northern Ireland before deciding upon closures.

Experiences elsewhere

34. The Committee considered the postal services provided in a number of areas, including Essex County Council, where a scheme was introduced to rescue some of their (32) post office branches earmarked for closure. Lord Hanningfield, the leader of Essex County Council, proposed that local authorities (or community groups) be permitted to step in and fund some continuing provision where post office branches are scheduled for closure and no Outreach service is being provided.[1]

35. This intervention was welcomed by the local councils who had been proposing the same measure. It emerged that up to 50 councils were willing to participate, including Leeds, West Sussex, Northamptonshire, Darlington, Durham, Norwich and Lancashire.[2] Pat McFadden, the Post Office Minister supported the proposal, agreeing that branch closures would be delayed to assist councils in taking over post offices, provided that it did not add to the (£150 million) government subsidy of the network.[3]

36. Essex County Council’s plan to generate a profit from existing post offices is based upon the potential to undertake the provision of additional services, examples of which include:

  • Combining postal services with council services;
  • Local / national government using post offices as centres of information.

37. For Northern Ireland, the model used by Essex County Council might be a feasible consideration; however it is not a devolved matter and the powers of local councils are different in Northern Ireland.

Republic of Ireland

38. The Committee also examined the experience of An Post in the Republic of Ireland. Having been on the brink of financial disaster, An Post, engineered a considerable reversal of its performance. Between 2001 and 2003, it accumulated losses of £67 million[4], and by the end of 2003 it was selling assets and had resorted to an overdraft to fund trading.

39. However, the latest figures, for 2006, showed an after tax profit of EUR 75.7 million (although part of this was attributable to exceptional profit on the sale of a site – the figure excluding this gain was EUR 14.7 million). It is anticipated that the figures for 2007 will reflect further profit growth.[5]

40. The financial turnaround was largely derived from an increased focus on reducing overheads and boosting revenue. To tackle the company’s high cost base greater automation was introduced, non-core businesses were sold (including the loss making SDS delivery business), and work practices were revised.[6]

41. Having addressed internal cost issues, An Post was granted four price increases in the last five years by the regulator Comreg. New revenue streams were also created; a joint venture with Belgian-Dutch bank Fortis has enabled An Post to secure 10,000 savings accounts, and preparations are being put in place to launch a current account. The company also recently secured a contract with eBay to deliver all eBay purchases in Ireland.[7]

42. An Post is currently in the middle of a wide scale review of its post office network with a view to building a network to best serve the needs of society and the economy in the years to come. The review is multi-facetted and is assembling a range of information which will enable An Post to develop and calibrate the network in the future. As this work is underway there is very little information to hand but An Post has stated that it is more than happy to co-operate with the Ad Hoc Committee.

Recommendation

Post Office Ltd should examine services and delivery mechanisms in other countries.

Future

43. The Committee understands that there are likely to be further changes to the post office network after 2011. It is concerned that the long-term outlook for post offices after 2011 is very unclear. The Committee would like to see more transparency in relation to access to Post Office Ltd’s business plans for the Northern Ireland network after 2011.

Recommendation

Post Office Ltd should engage in meaningful, transparent consultation at an early stage on its network plan beyond 2011.

At pre consultation stage Post Office Ltd should contact locally based organisations in each area.

The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform should identify future funding allocations for post offices as a matter of urgency.

[1] Ministers back rescue plan to cut number of post office closures, The Guardian, 20 March 2008

[2] Post offices could be run by county councils, The Guardian, 12 March 2008

[3] The £150 million subsidy is guaranteed until 2011. The Government will not allow the councils to dip into this, since if they did so even more post offices would have to shut. The Post Office has some flexibility to delay branch closures on the basis that subpostmasters are being offered 28 months’ compensation in return for agreeing to shut down. 
Post offices could be run by county councils, The Guardian, 12 March 2008

[4] Almost £43 million was attributable to the 2003 alone. 
An Post gets stamp of approval and delivers profit, Irish Independent, 24 January 2008

[5] Posting a healthy profit, Sunday Business Post, 3 February 2008

[6] These were the latest figures as at February 2008
Posting a healthy profit, Sunday Business Post, 3 February 2008

[7] Posting a healthy profit, Sunday Business Post, 3 February 2008

Appendix 1

Proceedings of the Committee Relating to the Report

Tuesday 29th April 2008
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: 
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr John Dallat
Mrs Naomi Long
Mr Fra McCann
Ms Claire McGill
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Robin Newton
Mr George Savage

In Attendance: 
Mrs Debbie Pritchard (Principal Clerk)
Mrs Mairead Mageean (Assembly Clerk)
Mr William Long (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Jonathan Young (Clerical Officer)

Apologies: 
Mr Willie Clarke
Mrs Carmel Hanna

The meeting commenced in closed session at 16.06 p.m.with the Clerk in the Chair.

1. Apologies

Apologies are detailed above.

2. Election of Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson

The Clerk asked for nominations for the post of Chairperson.

Trevor Clarke proposed that Robin Newton be Chairperson of this Committee.

Stephen Moutray seconded the proposal.

There were no other proposals.

Agreed: That Robin Newton be elected as Chairperson.

The Chairperson asked for nominations for the post of Deputy Chairperson.

Fra McCann proposed that Willie Clarke (in his absence) be Deputy Chairperson of this Committee.

Mr McCann indicated that Mr Clarke would be willing to accept the post.

Claire McGill seconded the proposal.

There were no other proposals.

Agreed: That Willie Clarke be elected as Deputy Chairperson.

The meeting went into public session at 16.10p.m.

3. Declaration of Interests

The Chairperson asked Members to declare any interest, financial or otherwise, which is relevant to that debate or proceeding, where such interest is held by the Member or an immediate relative, by completing and returning the form at Tab 2 in Members’ packs.

The following Members declared an interest:

  • Stephen Moutray declared that he is a sub postmaster.
  • Claire McGill declared that she has a close relative who runs a post office.
4. Committee composition and procedures

Members were advised of the composition of the Committee and of the Ad-hoc Committee procedures.

The Committee agreed the procedures attached at Annex A.

Members were advised that they may nominate one deputy per party to attend in the event that the appointed member is unable to attend the Committee meeting.

Naomi Long nominated Anna Lo as a deputy.

5. Committee draft Forward Work Programme

The Clerk briefed Members on the draft Forward Work Programme

Agreed: That Members advise the Committee Clerk of any specific groups they wish to invite to provide evidence.

Agreed: That future Committee meetings start at 16.00p.m.

6. Research paper – overview by Dr Robert Barry, Senior Researcher

Dr Robert Barry briefed Members on the key elements of the information paper on Post Office Closures.

Agreed: Dr Barry to provide further research information for Members.

Mr Dallat joined the meeting at 16.24p.m.

The meeting was adjourned at 16.35p.m. to allow Members to vote in a division during Plenary.

The meeting resumed at 17.10 with the following Members present:
Robin Newton, Fra McCann, Claire McGill, Stephen Moutray and Naomi Long.

Mr Armstrong re-joined the meeting at 17.12p.m.

7. Draft Committee Press Notice

Members considered the draft Committee Press Release.

Agreed: Committee to issue Press Release on Friday 2 May 2008.

8. Any other business

Members expressed concern at the six-week consultation period.

Agreed: Chairperson to write to PO Limited asking for the consultation period to be extended.

9. Date, time and place of next meeting

The next meeting will be held on Tuesday, 6 May 2008 at 16.00p.m. in Room 144, Parliament Buildings.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 17.15p.m.

Robin Newton
Chairperson, Ad-hoc Committee on Local Postal Services
29 April 2008

Committee Procedures
Annex A
Witnesses

That the Committee should call for evidence from interested bodies.

Voting procedures

That all decisions are made by a simple majority vote by showing of hands unless a member requests otherwise.

Minutes of Evidence

That the uncorrected Minutes of Evidence shall be copied, in confidence, to those members who were unable to attend an evidence session.

Public/Closed meetings

That all evidence sessions shall be heard in public session and all proceedings of the Committee relating to its draft Report shall be in closed session.

Deputies

That the Committee permits the nomination of one deputy per party to attend in the event that the appointed member is unable to attend the Committee meeting.

Tuesday, 6th May 2008
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: 
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Willie Clarke (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr John Dallat
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mrs Anna Lo
Mr Fra McCann
Mrs Claire McGill
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr George Savage

In Attendance:

Mrs Mairead Mageean (Assembly Clerk)
Miss Eleanor Murphy (Assistant Clerk)
Mr Jonathan Young (Clerical Officer)
Dr Robert Barry (Assembly Research Service)

Apologies: Mrs Naomi Long

The meeting opened at 4.08pm in public session.

1. Apologies.

Apologies are detailed above.

2. Declaration of Interests.

The Chairperson reminded Members of their obligation to declare any relevant pecuniary or other interests before and during each Committee meeting.

  • Mr McQuillan declared that he is currently on a career break from the Post Office.
3. Draft minutes of the meeting held on 29th April 2008.

Agreed: The Committee agreed the minutes of the meeting of the 29th April.

Mr W Clarke joined the meeting at 4.10pm.

4. Matters Arising.

The Chairperson informed Members that Committee had written to Post Office Ltd and the Secretary of State for the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory reform requesting an extension to the consultation period and expressing concern about the implication of the closures.

Agreed: Members agreed that the Clerk follow up with Post Office Ltd and the Secretary of State regarding a response to the Committee’s letters.

5. Committee Correspondence.

Members noted receipt of a letter from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIITRA) and several letters from members of the public regarding the closure of Groomsport Post Office.

6. Research Briefing.

Dr Robert Barry of the Assembly Research Services briefed the Committee on supplementary statistical data relating to the closures.

Mr Dallat joined the meeting at 4.17pm.

The Chairperson suspended the meeting at 4:25pm to allow for plenary division.

The Chairperson reconvened the meeting at 4.37pm with the following Members present:
Mr Robin Newton, Mr Willie Clarke, Mrs Claire McGill, Mr George Savage, Mr Adrian McQuillan, Mrs Anna Lo, Mrs Carmel Hanna, Mr Trevor Clarke, Mr Tom Buchanan.

Mr McCann rejoined the meeting at 4.39pm.

Agreed: Members agreed that Dr Barry seek a meeting with the Post Office to clarify a number of issues relating to the methodology of their statistical data.

7. Evidence Session – Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association.

Mr Armstrong joined the meeting at 5.53pm.

The witnesses joined the meeting at 4.53pm.

Members took evidence from the following witnesses,

Glyn Roberts, Chief Executive, NIIRTA

Charles Henderson, Parkhall Post Office (Antrim)

Liam McGranaghan, Blacks Road Post Office (West Belfast)

Sean Gormley, Carlisle Circus Post Office (North Belfast)

A question and answer session followed presentations from Mr Roberts, Mr Henderson, Mr McGranaghan and Mr Gormley.

Mr Dallat left the meeting at 5.09pm.
Mr T Clarke left the meeting at 5.13pm.
Mr T Clarke rejoined the meeting at 5.15pm.
Mr McCann left the meeting at 5.25pm.
Mr McCann rejoined the meeting at 5.26pm.

The witnesses left the meeting at 5.40pm.

8. Postwatch Submission.

Members noted the presentation submitted by Postwatch.

Agreed: Members agreed to take oral evidence from Postwatch on Monday 12th May, time to be arranged.

9. Any Other Business.

Mr Willie Clarke proposed that the Clerk write to NILGA seeking a written submission to the consultation.

10. Date, time and place of next meeting.

The next meeting will be held on Thursday 8th May, Room 144 at 5:00pm.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 5.48pm.

Mr Robin Newton
Chairperson, Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services.
8th May 2008.

Monday, 12th May 2008
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: 
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Willie Clarke (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr John Dallat
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mr William Irwin
Mrs Anna Lo
Mr Fra McCann

In Attendance: 
Mrs Mairead Mageean (Assembly Clerk)
Miss Eleanor Murphy (Assistant Clerk)
Miss Lynn Gray (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr Jonathan Young (Clerical Officer)
Miss Jodie Carson (Assembly Research Service)

Apologies: 
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mrs Naomi Long

The meeting opened at 2.32pm in public session.

1. Apologies.

Apologies are detailed above. Mr Beggs attended in place of Mr Armstrong. Mrs Lo attended in place of Mrs Long.

The Chairperson informed Members that Mr William Irwin has replaced Mr Adrian McQuillan as a committee member.

2. Declaration of Interests.

The Chairperson reminded Members of their obligation to declare any relevant pecuniary or other interests before and during each Committee meeting.

3. Draft minutes of the meeting held on 6th May 2008.

Agreed: The Committee agreed the minutes of the meeting of the 6th May.

Mrs Hanna joined the meeting at 2.35pm.

Mr Buchanan joined the meeting at 2.36pm.

Mr McCann joined the meeting at 2.36pm.

Mr Beggs joined the meeting at 2.37pm.

4. Meeting on the 8th May.

The Chairperson advised Members that a quorum was not reached for the meeting of 8th May but that a number of Members held informal discussions with representatives of Post Office Ltd and the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland.

The Chairperson drew Members’ attention to the tabled verbatim transcript of the meeting and advised Members that any questions arising from the transcripts should be forwarded to the Clerk.

5. Matters Arising.

Members noted the receipt of an email from An Post declining the Committee’s invitation to provide oral evidence as it is currently engaged in a wide review of its post office network.

Members noted receipt of a letter dated 7th May 2008 from Post Office Ltd declining the Committee’s request to extend the consultation deadline.

6. Evidence Session - Postwatch.

The witnesses joined the meeting at 2.38pm.

Members took evidence from the following witnesses:

  • Professor Maureen Edmondson, Chairperson, Postwatch NI
  • Kellin McCloskey, Postwatch Network Advisor
  • Julie-Anne McMaster, Postwatch Regional Manager

A question and answer session followed the presentation from Postwatch.

Mr W Clarke left the meeting at 3.15pm.
Mr Dallat left the meeting at 3.16pm.
Mr W Clarke rejoined the meeting at 3.24pm.
The witnesses left the meeting at 3.32pm.
Mrs Hanna left the meeting at 3.32pm.
Mrs Lo left the meeting at 3.35pm.

7. Research Briefing.

Jodie Carson of the Assembly Research Services briefed the Committee on her comparative analysis of regional and international countries’ experiences of managing post office closures. A question and answer session followed the briefing. Miss Carson agreed to provide further information to Members on a number of issues.

8. Consultation Reponses.

Members noted the receipt of a number of consultation responses.

9. Correspondence.

Members noted the Clerk’s letter inviting NILGA to provide a written response to the Committee’s consultation.

10. Any Other Business.

The Chairperson asked if Members were content that the statistics produced by the Assembly Research Service be copied to Postwatch.

Agreed: Members agreed that the Assembly Research Service statistics be copied to Postwatch.

The Chairperson informed Members that Wandsworth Community Centre and the Rural Community Network have requested an opportunity to provide oral evidence to the Committee.

Agreed: Members agreed that Wandsworth Community Centre provide evidence at the meeting of 13th May and that the Clerk would check Members’ availability to take oral evidence from the Rural Community Network on 15th May.

11. Date, time and place of next meeting.

The next meeting will be held on Tuesday 13th May, Room 144 at 4:00pm.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 3.48pm.

Mr Robin Newton
Chairperson, Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services.
13th May 2008.

Tuesday, 13th May 2008
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present:
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr John Dallat
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mr Fra McCann
Mrs Claire McGill
Mrs Anna Lo
Mr George Savage

In Attendance: 
Mrs Mairead Mageean (Assembly Clerk)
Miss Eleanor Murphy (Assistant Clerk)
Miss Lynn Gray (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr Jonathan Young (Clerical Officer)
Dr Robert Barry (Assembly Research Service)

Apologies: 
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr Willie Clarke
Mrs Naomi Long

The meeting opened at 4.04pm in public session.

1. Apologies.

Apologies are detailed above. Mr Beggs attended in place of Mr Armstrong. Mrs Lo attended in place of Mrs Long.

2. Declaration of Interests.

The Chairperson reminded Members of their obligation to declare any relevant pecuniary or other interests before and during each Committee meeting.

3. Draft minutes of the meeting held on 12th May 2008.

Agreed: The Committee agreed the minutes of the meeting of the 12th May.

4. Matters Arising.

Mr Savage joined the meeting at 4.06pm.
Mr Dallat joined the meeting at 4.07pm.

The Chairperson asked about Members’ availability take oral evidence from the Rural Community Network on Thursday 15th May 2008.

5. Evidence Session – Citizens Advice Bureau.

The witnesses joined the meeting at 4.11pm.

Members took evidence from the following witnesses:

Mr Paul Herink, Director of Information and Policy Unit, Citizens Advice Bureau.

Mr Andrew Murie, Information and Policy Officer, Citizens Advice Bureau.

A question and answer session followed the presentation from Mr Herink and Mr Murie.

Mrs McGill joined the meeting at 4.20pm.
Mrs Hanna joined the meeting at 4.25pm.
Mr McCann joined the meeting at 4.30pm.
Mrs Hanna left the meeting at 4.32pm.
Mr Buchanan left the meeting at 4.30pm.
Mr Buchanan rejoined the meeting at 4.32pm.
The witnesses left the meeting at 4.42pm.

6. Research Briefing.

Dr Robert Barry of the Assembly Research Services briefed the Committee on his meeting with Post Office Ltd regarding their statistical findings.

Agreed: Members requested that Dr Barry provide the Committee with a summary of his research findings.

Agreed: Members agreed that Dr Barry’s research be shared with Postwatch and anyone else requesting them.

7. Evidence Session – Help the Aged.

The witnesses joined the meeting at 4.51pm.

Members took evidence from the following witnesses:

Mr Duane Farrell, Head of Policy, Research and Communications, Help the Aged.

Ms Ciara Convie, Head of Community Development and Services, Help the Aged.

A question and answer session followed the presentation from Mr Farrell and Ms Convie.

The Chairperson suspended the meeting at 5:11pm to allow for plenary division.

The Chairperson reconvened the meeting at 4.37pm with the following Members present:

Mr Robin Newton, Mr Roy Beggs, Mr John Dallat, Mrs Anna Lo, Mr Fra McCann and Mr George Savage.

Mr T Clarke rejoined the meeting at 5.26pm.

Mrs McGill joined the meeting at 5.29pm.

The witnesses left the meeting at 5.30pm.

8. Evidence Session – Wandsworth Community Centre.

The witnesses joined the meeting at 5.31pm.

Members took evidence from the following witnesses:

Mr Stephen Crosby, Community Development Worker, Wandsworth Community Centre.

Ms Alison Smith, Community Development Worker, Wandsworth Community Centre.

Ms Yvonne Morrison, Member of the Public.

A question and answer session followed the presentation by Mr Crosby.

Mr T Clarke left the meeting at 5.50pm.

The witnesses left the meeting at 6.05pm.

9. Consultation Responses.

Members noted receipt of a consultation response from Belfast City Council.

10. Correspondence.

The Chairperson advised Members that further letters have been received from Groomsport residents regarding the closure of their post office.

11. Any Other Business.

The Chairperson advised Members of the request that the statistics produced by Assembly Research Services be used in a presentation by Research Services to the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI).

Agreed: Members agreed that the statistics could be used in a presentation to the ESRI.

12. Date, time and place of next meeting.

The next meeting will be held on Thursday 15th May, Room and Time to be arranged.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 6.09pm.

MR ROBIN NEWTON
Chairperson, Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services.
15th May 2008.

Thursday, 15th May 2008
Room 106, Parliament Buildings

Present: 
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Thomas Burns
Mr Fra McCann
Mrs Claire McGill
Mr George Savage

In Attendance: 
Mrs Mairead Mageean (Assembly Clerk)
Miss Eleanor Murphy (Assistant Clerk)
Miss Carla Campbell (Clerical Supervisor)
Miss Lynn Gray (Clerical Supervisor)

Apologies: 
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr Willie Clarke
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr John Dallat
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mr William Irwin
Mrs Naomi Long

The meeting opened at 1.08pm in public session.

1. Apologies.

Apologies are detailed above. Mr Beggs attended in place of Mr Armstrong. Mr Burns attended in place of Mr Dallat.

2. Declaration of Interests.

The Chairperson reminded Members of their obligation to declare any relevant pecuniary or other interests before and during each Committee meeting.

3. Draft minutes of the meeting held on 13th May 2008.

Agreed: The Committee agreed the minutes of the meeting of the 13th May.

4. Matters Arising.

The Chairperson drew Members’ attention to two tabled papers from Assembly Research Services.

5. Evidence Session – Rural Community Network.

The witnesses joined the meeting at 1.10pm.

Mr Beggs declared an interest as a member of Glynn Community Development Association which has received funding from the Rural Community Network.

Members took evidence from the following witnesses:
Mr Michael Hughes, Chief Executive.
Mr Mark Allan, Research Officer.
Ms Karin Eyben, Policy Officer.

A question and answer session followed the presentation from the Rural Community Network.

Mr Savage joined the meeting at 1:32pm.
Mr McCann left the meeting at 1.35pm.
The witnesses left the meeting at 1.59pm.

6. Consultation Responses.

Members noted receipt of a written submission by Down District Council.

7. Committee Report.

The Chairperson advised Members that any suggestions on the findings and recommendations of the report should be forwarded to the Clerk as soon as possible.

Mr Beggs left the meeting at 2.05pm.

8. Any Other Business.

The Chairperson advised Members that the closing date for responses to the Committee enquiry was 12:00pm on Friday 16th May and that the Committee would need to meet on Tuesday 20th May to agree submissions and the motion for plenary.

The Chairperson further advised Members that the Committee would also need to meet on Wednesday 21st May to agree the full report.

The Chairperson informed Members that Postcomm has requested a meeting with Members on Thursday 29th May.

9. Date, time and place of next meeting.

The next meeting will be held on Tuesday 20th May, Room 135 at 12:30pm.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 2.12pm.

MR ROBIN NEWTON
Chairperson, Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services.
20th May 2008.

Tuesday, 20th May 2008
Room 106, Parliament Buildings

Present: 
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mr William Irwin
Mr Fra McCann
Mrs Claire McGill
Mr George Savage

In Attendance: 
Mrs Mairead Mageean (Assembly Clerk) 
Miss Wendy Young (Assistant Clerk)
Mr Jonathan Young (Clerical Officer)

Apologies: Mr Willie Clarke

The meeting opened at 12.35pm in closed session.

1. Apologies

Apologies are detailed above.

2. Declaration of Interests

The chairperson reminded members of their obligation to declare any relevant pecuniary or other interests before and during each committee meeting.

3. Draft minutes of the meeting held on 15th May 2008

Agreed: the draft minutes of the meeting held on 15th May were agreed.

4. Matters arising

There were no matters arising.

5. Consultation responses

Mr McCann joined the meeting at 12.38pm.

Mr Buchanan joined the meeting at 12.43pm.

Agreed: Members noted the consultation responses from individuals and organisations and agreed their inclusion in the report.

6. Research Paper

The committee noted and discussed the research paper on potential funding sources.

Mr Irwin joined the meeting at 12:49pm.

7. Members’ input to the Committee’s report

Mrs Hanna left the meeting at 1:02pm.

The chairperson drew the committee’s attention to the draft report findings and recommendations.

Agreed: The committee considered and agreed amendments to the report findings and recommendations.

8. Committee Motion

Agreed: The committee considered and agreed amendments to the revised motion for plenary tabled at the meeting.

8. Any Other Business

There was no other business.

9. Date, time and place of next meeting.

The next meeting will be held on Wednesday, 21st May 2008 at 1.30pm in Room 21 Parliament Buildings.

The chairperson adjourned the meeting at 1.40pm.

MR ROBIN NEWTON
Chairperson, Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services.
21st May 2008.

Wednesday, 21st May 2008
Room 21, Parliament Buildings

Present: 
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr John Dallat
Mr William Irwin
Mrs Naomi Long
Mrs Claire McGill

In Attendance: 
Mrs Mairead Mageean (Assembly Clerk) 
Miss Eleanor Murphy (Assistant Clerk)
Mr Jonathan Young (Clerical Officer)
Dr Robert Barry (Assembly Research Services)

Apologies: 
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr Willie Clarke
Mr Fra McCann
Mr George Savage

The meeting opened at 1.39pm in closed session.

1. Apologies.

Apologies are detailed above. Mr Beggs attended in place of Mr Savage.

2. Declaration of Interests.

The chairperson reminded members of their obligation to declare any relevant pecuniary or other interests before and during each committee meeting.

3. Draft minutes of the meeting held on 20th May 2008.

Agreed: the draft minutes of the meeting held on 20th May were agreed.

Mr Dallat joined the meeting at 1.42pm.

4. Matters arising.

There were no matters arising.

5. Research Brief.

Mr Irwin joined the meeting at 1.44pm.

Dr Robert Barry of the Assembly Research Services provided an update on his engagement with Post Office Ltd and Postwatch in relation to the access criteria methodology. Dr Barry noted that both Postwatch and Post Office Ltd had been helpful in regards to the discussions he had with them.

Members noted Dr Barry’s research brief on a further analysis of the post office access criteria. Members noted the letter of response from Post Office Ltd to the Assembly Research Services statistical analysis.

Agreed: Members agreed that the Dr Barry’s research paper and the Post Office Ltd’s letter of response be included in the Committee report.

6. Consideration of Draft Committee Report.

The Committee considered the executive summary of the report.

Paragraph 1 – read, amended and agreed.

Paragraphs 2 – read and agreed.

The Committee considered the main body of the report.

Mrs Long left the meeting at 2.14pm.

Paragraphs 3 to 7 – read and agreed.

Paragraphs 8 to 12 – read and agreed.

Paragraphs 13 to 17 – read and agreed.

Paragraphs 18 to 23 – read and agreed.

Paragraphs 24 to 27 – read and agreed.

Paragraphs 28 to 31 – read and agreed.

Paragraphs 32 to 38 – read and agreed.

Paragraphs 39 to 42 – read and agreed.

Paragraph 43 – read, amended and agreed.

Agreed: Members agreed to embargo the report until the commencement of debate in plenary.

Agreed: Members agreed that the Chairperson signs the minutes of the meeting on behalf of the Committee to allow them to be included in the printed report.

Agreed: Members ordered the report to be printed.

7. Press Release.

Members considered the draft press release.

Agreed: Members agreed the draft press release subject to a number of amendments.

Mr Dallat left the meeting at 2.28pm.

8. Any Other Business.

The Chairperson advised Members that the draft report was scheduled to be debated in plenary on 2 June 2008.

The Chairperson reminded Members of the meeting with Postcomm on Thursday, 29th May at 2.30pm.

9. Date, time and place of next meeting.

Thursday, 29th May, 2.30, room to be arranged.

The chairperson adjourned the meeting at 2.40pm.

MR ROBIN NEWTON
Chairperson, Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services.
21st May 2008.

Appendix 2

Minutes of Evidence

6 May 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr Willie Clarke
Mr John Dallat
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Ms Anna Lo
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Fra McCann
Mrs Claire McGill
Mr George Savage

Witnesses:

Mr Sean Gormley
Mr Charles Henderson
Mr Liam McGranaghan
Mr Glyn Roberts

 

Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association

1. The Chairperson (Mr Newton): I welcome representatives of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA), led by Glyn Roberts.

2. Mr Glyn Roberts (Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association): I thank the Chairperson and Committee members for seeing us so soon. Bearing in mind the extent of the problems that we face, we welcome the fact that the Assembly acted with such speed to set up this Committee. I have been in contact with the Committee Clerk several times, and I assure the Committee of our full support in providing any information that we can. I have been able to assist the Committee in obtaining information from Essex County Council — I shall return to that matter later.

3. I am accompanied by Sean Gormley, who runs the Carlisle Circus post office and a convenience store that is based there; Liam McGranaghan, who runs the Blacks Road post office and a retail store; and Charles Henderson, who runs the Parkhall post office and a convenience store. Charles is standing in for his sister, Elaine Murdock.

4. All three businesses that are represented today are earmarked for closure, which will result in the loss of 76 jobs. That is an important statistic, which we want to make clear from the outset.

5. Although we understand the commercial realities, it is disappointing to us that so many post offices are going to close. That is a blow not just for local communities, but for the local economy. As many members will be aware from their constituencies, post offices are useful in generating footfall for local businesses. For example, people who cash benefits and pensions at a post office may subsequently shop there, or perhaps go to a nearby newsagent, baker, etc. If that post office closes, that footfall is lost.

6. All three representatives with me today run convenience stores. Several years ago, the Post Office said that, in future, it wanted its network to move into convenience stores. One can imagine the obvious annoyance and disgust among our members when they were told that they had to close their post offices.

7. It is important to point out that the closure of post offices is clearly connected to the decline of small, local high-street shops, which have already had to put up with disastrous out-of-town planning applications and the anti-competitive practices of the big multiple stores. We outlined those problems in our recent report, ‘Nightmare on every Street’, which we launched at Stormont a few weeks ago.

8. Six NIIRTA members are affected by post office closures. All six run convenience stores, which will all have to close down entirely if their post office outlets are withdrawn. The loss of the convenience store and the post office represents a double blow to the local community. Just under 50% of people who will be affected by the proposed post office closures are small retailers of some type. If they are forced to close, well over 200 people who are employed in post office outlets and in the convenience stores could lose their jobs — that is a conservative estimate.

9. In order to tackle the problem, it is important that the Committee and NIIRTA make proposals and offer possible solutions. First, however, it is important to state that it is nonsense to expect anyone to be able to fully consider the problem in the space of six weeks. That is a joke. I understand where that notion comes from: it is the UK Government, not Royal Mail. Six weeks is not even half the time that is required to consider the situation. Indeed, a Committee researcher has told us that we are only scratching the surface of the negative impacts that the closures will have on the community as a whole.

10. I suggest that the Committee examine several areas of concern. The Assembly should actively consider the Welsh small-business rates-relief scheme as part of any investigation of the long-term viability of post offices and other small retailers and businesses in the high street. The Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI) recently carried out an investigation into the case for a small-business rates-relief scheme in Northern Ireland, and published a report on that subject. The Welsh scheme began by helping rural post offices to survive, and it was extended as a result. That was a demonstration of the commitment of the Welsh Assembly to helping indigenous small businesses, particularly in disadvantaged rural areas.

11. Bearing in mind the extent of the threat to the high street that I have already mentioned, the Department of the Environment must publish planning policy statement (PPS) 5 as soon as possible. The high-street stores have to contend with the anti-competitive practices of Tesco and unfair planning decisions that are clearly biased in favour of the big multiple stores. We should also ask Departments whether there are services within their remit that they could provide to the post offices to ensure that more people do business there. During my time in my previous job with the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), I became aware that many small businesses still used their local post office as a bank.

12. Our main proposal is similar to one that was made by Essex County Council on post office subsidies. I was able to obtain some information from Essex County Council, copies of which have been distributed to members. Without going into much detail, the council decided to spend £1·5 million in order to save 15 threatened rural and urban post offices. That move was approved by the UK Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, Pat McFadden MP, and has attracted interest across the UK. I spoke to a representative of Essex County Council this morning who told me that the Scottish and Welsh Governments have also registered their interest in such a move.

13. The proposal involved taking over the subsidy that many post offices received from the Post Office and, indirectly, from the Government, for a three-year period, which worked out at £18,000 for each post office. However, the scheme was aimed at ensuring that, at the end of that three-year period, all of the post offices would be economically viable. If issues such as small-business rates relief, examining how Departments can offer more help to post offices, and tackling the underinvestment in our high streets were addressed, many of the post offices could be self-sufficient within that time frame.

14. The Executive could introduce such a proposal, and there could be a discussion about which Department would hold responsibility. The money could be distributed from the Department of Finance and Personnel and administered by local authorities. However, the details may require further discussion.

15. Chairperson, you will be aware of the fact that Invest Northern Ireland subsidises foreign call centres in Northern Ireland to the tune off many millions of pounds. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to ask the Northern Ireland Executive do likewise for small businesses — given their role in the local community and their contribution to the economy — to ensure that they continue to provide services, limit job losses, and ensure that they eventually become self-sufficient.

16. I shall now invite my colleagues to outline the situation in which they find themselves.

17. The Chairperson: It is likely that members may have to leave for a Division in the Chamber and, rather than have to cut you off in your prime, I ask you limit your time — without wishing to take anything away from the presentations.

18. Mr Charles Henderson (Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association): I am the sub-postmaster of the post office at Parkhall shopping centre. Last year, my post office won a UK award, and the Post Office arranged to fly myself and my wife to the Celtic Manor resort, where we were named Northern Ireland regional winners for sales growth. Our post office had the highest sales growth of any of the community post offices in Northern Ireland. We competed with six other regions in the UK and, fortunately, we walked away with the top award for the whole of the UK.

19. My salary has increased by about 50% over the past two years, and our customer numbers have increased by at least 40%. Then I received a letter from Post Office Ltd to say that my post office was closing. That came totally out of the blue. I had thought that, after winning the award, there was a good chance that the hard work that I had put in and the money that I had invested would ensure that my post office was safe and that I could grow the business.

20. I am still in shock as I give this presentation to the Committee. No one in Post Office Ltd appears to be listening. It has its criteria, and it has allowed a six-week window in which to make representations. However, I have only managed to arrange this meeting to speak to local representatives. I have tried very hard to invest money in deprived areas, mainly due to peace in the country and the good job that is being done at Stormont. I took that risk because I saw that there was an opportunity for peace, and I wanted to invest in the community where I live. I am investing my money and employing local people, yet I am being told that that is not good enough because of criteria set down at Westminster.

21. I would like to challenge those criteria. I cannot make accusations, because I do not have the resources that the Assembly has, but I would like to know whether those criteria were measured properly. I urge the Assembly to use every research tool available to ensure that the criteria that are being employed are the criteria that were set. I hate to think that my post office is being closed simply because the criteria were not applied properly. That is something that I have already picked up from this meeting, which is helpful.

22. Post offices are important for local people. I feel sorry for the pensioners. There were approximately 40 pensioners at our recent local public meeting, and they wanted to know what they had done to the Government or their local representatives that resulted in them paying more for food and travel, and which meant that they were now being asked to travel an extra two or three miles to lift their money. They do not have cars. They want to know what they have done to deserve that treatment. We should be looking after the pensioners and young families. The pensioners are here today because of what they have done in the past, and the young people are the future. However, we are standing on the sidelines and making their lives more difficult.

23. The post office is the hub of a community; it is where people meet, talk and solve their problems. All communities will be affected by the post office closures. The best thing to come out of the problem is that all the representatives have met and spoke together with one voice. I want to tell that to Post Office Ltd. They are civil servants; I remind the Committee that the Post Office is paid by the Government and told what to do by the Government. Gordon Brown has made a lot of mistakes, and he has been embarrassed over the abolition of the 10p tax band, for instance.

24. We must stand up and say that Northern Ireland will not accept the closures. The post office is at the heart of our community, and we cannot let that go. Not everyone can go to Tesco; we must keep the hub of the community in the community. Everyone who is sitting around this table has a big part to play.

25. Mr Liam McGranaghan (Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association): I represent the Blacks Road post office, and I also own the site on which the post office is located. We have operated there for 10 to 12 years, and our post office serves all communities. We are in the hub of the communities — between the Protestant community in the Suffolk area and in Brook, and all around Blacks Road.

26. My colleagues and I are business people, and we know that any decisions that have been made should have been based on the commercial viability of the businesses. The post office at Blacks Road provides a take-home pay of between £45,000 and £48,000, and it has 1,000 to 1,500 customers a week. It does not make any sense to close it.

27. The criteria states that 95% of the population should be within one mile of a post office. We are located between the Dunmurry post office — which is 1·1 miles from us — and the Stewartstown Road post office. We are building a future for our children. We have all been through the past, and we can see the future. The closure of the Blacks Road post office might kick off trouble again in the area.

28. There is a post office at the bottom of the road, which faces Suffolk and Lenadoon. The Catholics in the area have made it clear that, in the current climate, they do not feel comfortable walking through the estate, and they will not do it. They would have to go through Brook, Willowvale and Riverdale to get to the post office — a total of 1·6 miles. Local Catholics have also made it clear that they would not feel comfortable going to Dunmurry post office in the other direction, because flags are flying during the marching seasons, and they would feel intimidated. They have made that clear.

29. The majority of the Protestant community have said that they do not use the Stewartstown Road post office at the local Costcutter, because they are afraid of being targeted from Lenadoon. The Blacks Road post office provides a happy medium. It is also a healthy site. Dunmurry post office does not have any parking facilities, and it displays a notice that states that prams will not be admitted. Are people expected to leave their prams outside?

30. We have 22 car-parking spaces, one disabled car-parking space, a low-level entrance to the shop and automatic doors. Everything is there for customers, so the decision just does not make sense.

31. There is an old folks’ home that is a lock of yards away from the site, on which there is a BP petrol station with a substantial shop, which is an integral part of the business. According to projected figures from our accountant, if the post office side of the business is removed, a minimum of 5% will be lost from the bottom line, which equates to £22,000. A 5% reduction is quite substantial, but it could possibly be 10%, which equates to £44,000. The 40 staff who work on the site could then drop to between 15 and 17. Therefore, the economy will suffer.

32. Many businesses use the site to deposit money because it is safe and secure, with digital cameras and security on the door. As a result, they feel content to come in to deposit money. We are also self-sufficient; we do not take any cash from the Post Office, bar change, because we pay out the money that comes in. There is no aggregate cost involved. Therefore, basing the reason for closure on distance does not stack up.

33. There is a similar BP site on the Stewartstown Road. I asked the Post Office’s network development manager, Sheila McCann, why the decision was made, and she could not answer me. I pressed her on the issue, and still she could not answer. The Stewartstown Road BP site, and the Dairy Farm post office across the street, which are right beside each other, are not earmarked for closure, but we are.

34. Blacks Road has developed immensely, as Mr McCann will know. The Visteon Ford factory sold off a bit of land and houses were built there at Mayfield Square. There is outline planning permission for 240 houses on another piece of land that the company has sold. There is a nursing home on the road. There are chimney pots everywhere. The road is used by the young, the elderly, and businesses because it is a central part of the community. I am shocked at what Post Office Ltd has done, and it cannot provide a reason. The branch is a major cross-community hub in the area, and Post Office Ltd is pushing it away.

35. Mr Sean Gormley (Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association): My business was burned out in 2000, and I decided to try to extend the enterprise and to get back into business. I approached Post Office Ltd when I learned that lower Donegall Street post office was closing. They were glad of the enthusiasm that was shown for a new post office at Carlisle Circus, because it would be a cross-community facility.

36. I have been at Carlisle Circus for 23 years, through some of the worst of the Troubles. I was recognised as representing the ideal cross-community solution because I had stood up and defended what was mine. Post Office Ltd loved the fact that people from both sides of the community, from the lower Shankill area and the lower Antrim Road, use the branch. Carlisle Circus was always known as no-man’s-land, belonging to neither one side nor the other. Post Office Ltd liked the fact that I was claiming that site for both communities.

37. When I opened the branch in 2003, Allan Leighton, who had just been appointed Chairman of Royal Mail, visited us and said that the branch was the perfect example of a cross-community enterprise because of the way in which it was fitted into the back of the shop and integrated into society. When I was burned out in 2000, every business in Carlisle Circus subsequently closed or folded as a result of the Troubles. In 2003, I reopened my own off-licence business, before extending into the convenience sector, the post office, and the bar. Six other businesses have opened around Carlisle Circus, and the area has been totally regenerated in the past four years.

38. Carlisle Circus is a main arterial route into Belfast, which has recently been refurbished, with assistance from Belfast City Council. Employment through the post office, in my own small shop, has helped to generate 20 jobs. That has extended to the surrounding businesses, and that is what makes a community.

39. Patients from the nearby Mater Hospital use the post office and the shop. Residents of Clifton House — which was redeveloped from a residential home into sheltered accommodation for the elderly — also use the business. Those people are not confined to Clifton House, but they can leave only in controlled circumstances, and some of the residents are disabled and require 24-hour care.

40. If Carlisle Circus post office is closed, people will have to travel through the lower Shankill estate, up the Antrim Road, past Duncairn, up to the waterworks, through nationalist areas — and they do not feel safe doing that. Vice versa, people from the lower Antrim Road cannot be expected to go over to the Shankill. They may be in a better position to do that, but I do not think that it is fair that people have an unfair advantage in respect of where they can chose to collect their money because of where they live.

41. There are other post offices in the area which happen to open later and close earlier — Tesco post office at Yorkgate, for example. If we sub-postmasters tried to dictate our opening hours, the post offices would be taken from us straight away, but Tesco can get away with it. I do not believe that that is fair. In fact, it is a disgrace.

42. The Chairperson: Do members wish to ask questions of any of the delegation?

43. Mrs McGill: Glyn, what about the post offices in the west? Do you have any members in that area? I wish to comment on my concerns later. I would like to know about the situation in the west.

44. Mr Roberts: I have been in discussion with Vincent McGirr, who runs a Costcutter store and post office in Strathroy, and is a member of NIIRTA. We have discussed the six post offices that we are immediately responsible for, which includes Dungannon, West Tyrone, and east Belfast, as well as the three that are represented today. There is a much wider problem than one that affects six post offices. There are a number of post offices that, in order to survive, have taken on responsibilities and become small retailers in their own right. Some of them have grown as a result of that.

45. The danger is that, if the closures go ahead, up to 200 businesses could be affected. I think that a lot more than that will go. I keep in touch with Vincent McGirr in Strathroy, and I know that he has been talking to and working with MLAs in west Tyrone.

46. Mrs McGill: Could you elaborate on the post offices that are not closing — the ones that are having to put in place new arrangements?

47. Mr Roberts: At this stage, the major issue is the need to highlight what is happening with the 42 post offices that are earmarked for closure. We do not represent all of them, but the six closures that are represented here will grow to 42, and then up to 96, which is the final figure. If they all close, it will have a huge impact on local communities and on the local economy.

48. Many of those small businesses are struggling anyway, and the additional pressure on them is simply unacceptable. This is just as much a community issue as an economic issue. Small businesses need to see the Assembly working for them and, although it is very important — particularly this week, when we are trying to attract foreign investment to Northern Ireland —indigenous small businesses that have experienced many difficult times over the past three to five years should not be forgotten. Those people have kept their heads down, they have provided jobs and a service to the community. That has been mentioned by my colleagues today.

49. Now that we have much greater political stability, postmasters cannot understand why this is happening. Their post offices are being closed down, but anti-competitive practices and bad planning systems are still in place — factors that favour the big multiples.

50. Mr F McCann: Mr Gormley has mentioned the fact that post offices act as a catalyst for providing regeneration, particularly in north Belfast. However, there are sub-postmasters who want to move. What happens then in the communities that they serve? Should we be arguing for such post offices to be moved on to a new sub-postmaster?

51. Mrs Hanna: Thank you for your presentation. The information that you have provided helps us because we need to be as well informed as possible. Challenging the criteria is very important. I asked Peter Robinson in the Chamber about the rates relief issue, and he agreed with me. I also asked him what other measures he might consider. Mr Robinson gave a long, positive response. Several matters were mentioned, but nothing definite was agreed. I will need to review exactly what was said by Mr Robinson because the response was so lengthy. However, I detect a willingness on the part of the Executive to be more helpful in relation to these matters, and we need to exploit that.

52. Mr Roberts: As a result of the closure programme, there are postmasters who want to take the money and close down. Essex County Council had a number of postmasters in the same position. The 15 that they decided to save did not include those postmasters who wanted to close. There may not be an easy solution to any of this, but we believe that the Essex County Council model may have a positive impact and it is the best option that is on the table at the moment.

53. In response to Mrs Hanna’s point, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that does not currently have a small-business rates-relief scheme. I was very disappointed with the ERINI report, which went to great lengths to suggest that Northern Ireland did not require rates relief for small businesses.

54. Small businesses and retailers have some of the highest insurance costs, energy costs and levels of business crime in the UK. We currently do not have a small-business rates-relief scheme, and that should be a priority for the Department of Finance and Personnel.

55. Mrs Hanna: Mr Robinson has responded positively on that issue.

56. Mr Roberts: Yes. I hoped that your counterparts in the Committee for Finance and Personnel would take on that issue, and I understand that that is now the case.

57. Mr W Clarke: When you made your representations to Post Office Ltd, how did they react?

58. Mr Gormley: They said that it was a done deal. It did not matter what we said to them.

59. Mr W Clarke: Did they make that response as an organisation, or as individuals?

60. Mr Gormley: They took no interest — it did not matter what we said. It was like water off a duck’s back to them.

61. Mr Roberts: This brings into question why they had a consultation at all.

62. Mr Henderson: That was to save face. They were just going through the motions.

63. Mr W Clarke: Has the consultation been very poor?

64. Mr Roberts: It has been ridiculous. In the course of doing my job, I respond to consultations all the time. Generally, in a consultation process, some matters are fixed and some are not. However, if the decks are going to be stacked so completely against us, what is the purpose of a consultation process? Furthermore, what is the point in Post Office Ltd holding meetings and briefings with various Committees in the Assembly, and with Ministers, if it has already made the decision on post office closures?

65. Mr Gormley: Post Office Ltd based their decisions partly on the population in areas around the post offices. There is a great deal of redevelopment currently ongoing at Carlisle Circus, including the 26-acre site at the former Girdwood Barracks, which will be redeveloped for social housing and other amenities.

66. Henry Place and Carrick Hill are also in that area. Those areas have never been viable for redevelopment, but they are viable now because of peace in Northern Ireland. There are masses of brownfield sites in the lower Shankill area that will be redeveloped for social housing. Post offices are there to help the clientele who use social housing. Those people are our bread and butter, but that has never been brought into the equation.

67. The Chairperson: I understand that part of the criteria was that potential for additional housing or business growth would be taken into account.

68. Mr Roberts: It appears that those criteria have not been applied.

69. Mr T Clarke: Some of the questions have been of a parochial nature, so I will continue in that vein. Charles Henderson’s post office is in my constituency. I attended a public meeting at which Parkhall post office and Greystone post office were represented. Although Northern Ireland is coming out of conflict, people are being forced to go into areas to which they do not want to go. Statistics show that antisocial behaviour is worse in Greystone than anywhere else in Antrim, and people are being asked to leave Parkhall to use that area.

70. When post office closures were being considered in GB, it was not necessary to take into account the same problems that exist here due to the conflict. No dispensation was made because of that. Perhaps Charles Henderson could better explain the situation at Greystone post office. At the recent public meeting, he said that Parkhall was the award-winning post office in the area. Is it correct that Greystone post office would have preferred to close, and that it was not making a profit?

71. Mr Henderson: That is absolutely correct.

72. Mr T Clarke: That proves that the location and viability of businesses has not been considered.

73. Mr Savage: We have heard all the arguments that the Post Office has put forward about why certain branches will be closed. The entire Committee backs you to the hilt in your efforts to keep your businesses open. Is there anything that the Committee should do to help your case?

74. Mr Henderson: The main decisions were made at Westminster, before devolved Government got up and running. Westminster will listen to the devolved Government, and Glyn Roberts has set a model that is based on funding from councils. Northern Rock went bankrupt, and it cost every man, woman and child in the UK £1,700 each to subsidise that bank. The cost of subsidising our small post offices that are to close could be measured in pennies.

75. In the UK, the cost of subsidising every post office in the UK to keep them all open for ever would be £5 per person. How does one value Northern Rock? How do members feel about paying £1,700 to keep a bank going, when it would cost £5 to save the post offices? The Government are using £1,700 from you and me to subsidise Northern Rock. That is a massive amount of money, yet people seem to be saying that that is all right. This issue should be raised at Westminster to draw the distinction between £1,700 to alleviate the problems of Northern Rock and £5 to subsidise post offices, which mean more to the community. That point must be sold to the Government at Westminster.

76. Mr Savage: A post office is often a lifeline and the contact to the outside world for an elderly person. It may be the only place that a person in a wheelchair can go for a bit of craic.

The impact that closures will have, especially on elderly people, will be unbelievable.

77. Mr Henderson: We seem to be doing everything that we can to disrupt the lives of elderly people. What have elderly people done to us, that we are treating them in this way?

78. The Chairperson: Trevor made the point that another post office is sited in close proximity to yours. I do not know whether it is appropriate to speak on its behalf or not.

79. Mr Henderson: I did try, Chairman.

80. Mr Roberts: To answer Mr Savage’s question: one action that the Committee could take would be to consider seriously the Essex County Council proposal, and, if agreeable, ascertain what room for manoeuvre the Minister of Finance and Personnel has locally. The paper that I provided to the Committee contains a question that Lord Hanningfield, the leader of Essex County Council, asked the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Lord Digby Jones. His response to the proposal was as follows: “However, Post Office Ltd is putting in place a process for responding to serious expressions of interest and where a firm proposal for local funding emerges, Post Office Ltd will delay physical closure of the existing branch in that locality for a stipulated period to allow both funding and a contract to be put in place.”

81. Clearly time is a factor, so we must move very quickly if the Essex County Council proposal is to be a runner here. Were the proposal adopted, it would be possible to delay some of the proposed closures to allow more time for a considered view of the issues — for example, which Department should take the lead; whether local councils should be responsible for the administration of the scheme; and what the criteria should be. Given that the consultation period will last for only a few more weeks, the Committee could ascertain the views of the Department of Finance and Personnel as a matter of priority.

82. Mrs McGill: Glyn, you and the others said that the consultation is practically meaningless. I would have pushed for an extension of the consultation period, but you seem to believe that there is no point in that.

83. Mr Roberts: We have said that, at the very least, the consultation should last for 12 weeks. The response to the parliamentary question seems to suggest that the only way in which we can delay closures is to find alternative funding. Serious proposals for alternative funding may be our only way forward.

84. Mr T Clarke: I think that Glyn means that there should be meaningful consultation for 12 weeks, as opposed to six weeks of consultation on a done deal. Is that what you are saying, Glyn?

85. Mrs McGill: I am not sure that he was saying that. When he spoke, Charles was nodding, and I got the sense that he did not agree.

86. Mr Roberts: Six weeks is not a lot of time. There does not seem to be any indication that Royal Mail will move on this issue at all. We must come up with solutions that Royal Mail cannot ignore, and the Committee has an important role to play in finding those solutions.

87. Mr Gormley: When Royal Mail notified us about this matter, we were not allowed to breathe a word about it until 1 April, because to do so would have broken our contracts. We were not even able to put any proposal in place to try to counteract what was happening and to speed up the appeals process. We were not allowed to do anything until 1 April, so the situation was unfair from the outset.

88. Mrs McGill: I am still unclear as to whether the Committee should push for an extension of the consultation period.

89. The Chairperson: Just for clarity; the Committee pushed for an extension at last week’s meeting. Members decided to write to both the Government and the Post Office to indicate that we were dissatisfied with the six-week consultation period and to call for an extension. As was mentioned at the start of the meeting, the Committee has not yet received a reply to either of those letters. The Committee Clerk will make some telephone calls tomorrow to find out when we will receive responses.

90. Ms Lo: I had a meeting with Arthur Magee of Royal Mail last week. He seems to believe that, because our consultation is tied in with the overall UK consultation — the deadline for which is 12 May — the Committee will not be granted its request for an extension of the consultation. That was his view, at any rate.

91. He also said that, if we are to make submissions, there is no point in arguing on the basis of how many people are opposed to it, or how many elderly people are going to lose the services — we have to work on meeting the four criteria. I agree with that. When the changes were proposed in England, consideration was not given to our special circumstances, namely people’s not feeling safe about having to travel to a different community in order to access a post office. That is a key point on which we should be focusing.

92. The Chairperson: Glyn, do you wish to say anything?

93. Mr Roberts: I want to reinforce my support for the model that has been introduced in Essex — that may well be a serious runner. As Lord Digby Jones has suggested, the Post Office and the Government may be willing to suspend the closure programme if there were serious evidence of alternative funding being put in place. That is the real priority for the Executive, and they need to get their skates on if they genuinely want to save the post offices.

94. Mr T Clarke: Although I am not dismissing Glyn’s suggestion, I have a problem with the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that the post offices that are being closed are costing money. If a post office is making money, we should not have to fund it. I am not trying to knock Glyn’s suggestion, but I am unclear as to why we are making a case to Westminster to promote that model, which I believe is unfair. I read each of the submissions, and they all include profit-making post offices that are not costing the Exchequer any money. The submissions should be focusing on the post offices that are costing money, and asking why they are being kept open.

95. Mr Henderson: The problem is that there is a belief that another wave of such closures may be coming along, and it will be easier for the profitable post offices to obtain subsidies, now and in the future, if they are taken out now. You must remember that the Post Office is a public body.

96. Mr Roberts: In response to Mr Clarke’s point, I agree that the six members that we represent are all profitable and economically viable, and I do not think that they need a subsidy. However, clearly some post offices are subsidised, and there needs to be some focus on them. I cannot speak for them —

97. Mr T Clarke: I am sorry to cut in on you; I do not mean to be rude. However, my problem is that I do not understand why there is a suggestion that we cut viable post offices in order to subsidise ones that are not viable. Why should the viable post offices not be considered safe, and the non-viable ones —

98. The Chairperson: That is obviously a strong point that we will make.

99. Mr Gormley: Most of the non-viable post offices are located in rural areas.

100. Mr Roberts: I want to hear how Royal Mail would answer that question, because I convened a meeting at which those questions were all asked, and it seems that that issue does not matter — it is pressing ahead with the closure programme, no matter how viable the post offices are. We have highlighted that to the press. We asked a very simple question: why is Royal Mail shutting down viable post offices, such as the six that have been mentioned?

101. Post offices need help and support in some areas, certainly in some rural areas. Essex is an example of quite a rural area, and Mrs McGill has highlighted areas such as West Tyrone. However, it is not simply the approach that is being taken in Essex that we are proposing; we have proposed a range of measures such as rates relief, more Government Departments directing more work to post offices, investing and supporting small businesses and small retailers, and the publication of PPS 5. All of those measures will help those small retailers and small post offices to provide a service to the community and contribute to the economy.

102. The Chairperson: Thank you, gentlemen — Charles, Liam, Sean and Glyn — for attending this afternoon’s meeting.

8 May 2008

Four Members of the Committee met with Post Office Ltd and the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland on 8 May 2008. The Committee wishes to thank participants for consenting that the following verbatim transcript be submitted to the Committee as evidence.

103. The Chairperson: OK, could I welcome the three delegates from the Post Office Ltd, Nick Beale, who, I understand, has come over especially for this meeting — and we are very grateful to you for that — Barbara, we are getting quite used to seeing over this last few days, and, indeed, Sheila, as well. You are very welcome to the Committee.

104. Can I just explain the situation here? You are probably aware, having arrived here today, it has been a very special day for Northern Ireland — a most unusual day in terms of the activity within the Parliament Buildings, Stormont, and the very prestigious guest list that there has been here. It has left us with the situation of not being able to move forward in a quorate situation. Having said that, that really only takes away from some of the procedures of the Committee that the Committee is required to adhere to in a formal sense.

105. We are going to go ahead with the meeting in terms of receiving evidence from you, so, apart from the formal side of the Committee meeting, the meeting will take place just as if it were a formal Committee meeting.

106. The three of you are very welcome to the Committee. You will understand the concerns — I know Barbara will understand from a meeting that we were at one evening the concerns that there are throughout Northern Ireland, the very high number of people who turned out particularly for the east Belfast one, which I think was the largest attendance, and the very passionate feelings that there are, which were expressed at that meeting, which I have no doubt will be replicated at other meetings throughout the Province. Maybe if I could ask whichever format, whichever way you would want to deliver, if you would make your presentation first and then we would go on to a number of questions from the members and, indeed, we had planned to allocate about 30 minutes for that.

107. Mrs Barbara Roulston (Post Office Ltd.): I think what we decided we would do was just very briefly sum up where we were in the process and then devote the majority of the time to questions for you to ask to us. That might be the best use of the time.

108. So, just to summarise, you’ll be aware that we’ve put into public consultation proposals to close 96 post office branches across Northern Ireland, 42 of those complete closures and 54 of those to be replaced by an outreach post office service, which will be in a variety of formats, from a partner service, to a hosted service, to a mobile with differing numbers of hours depending on the current customer usage. We have been out and about during the past five weeks. I think we have had 60 meetings, both with public representatives and a variety of different stakeholder groups. We have been very much in listening mode, because although the Government have given us the difficult job of implementing their decision to close 2,500 post offices across the UK, what we have put forward are proposals. We have done a lot of planning and research and worked with Postwatch, our consumer watchdog, for them to have a look at what we were planning, and what we want to happen during the public consultation is for people to consider whether what we are proposing leaves them with reasonable access to post office services, and that really is the key thing in the public consultation. So, we have been very much in listening mode.

109. As you know, the public consultation closes on Monday 12 May. There will then be three weeks when we will literally read every single piece of correspondence that has come in to us, and Sheila will review it and take on board any comments and new evidence that comes to us about particular situations and particular proposals, and then, on 3 June, we will be announcing what our final decisions are.

110. The Chairperson: Can I just ask the very simple question at the very beginning — it is a consultation process. If a case is made for, and I know it has to be made against the criteria that you have set down, first of all, how rigid is the criteria and is it flexible? Can a post office be saved?

111. Mrs Roulston: We have, even before we went into public consultation, we changed 14 % of our original proposals and that was liaising and meeting with Postwatch and also walking the ground and taking local factors into consideration. In other regions where the programme is a bit further ahead than here, we have certainly changed our minds about post office proposals, but that is on the basis that we will put another one in to replace it, because the fact remains that we have been tasked with closing 2,500 post office branches. So, yes, if local evidence comes to us that makes us think that there is a particular social need or some other factors, which mean we need to retain a particular branch, we will certainly change our minds, but we will then put another one forward for proposed closure.

112. The Chairperson: So, the position really is that 42 will close and a total of 96 will be changed?

113. Mrs Roulston: In and around that, yes.

114. The Chairperson: In effect, the consultation period — at the end of the consultation period — then 42 post offices will close.

115. Mrs Roulston: Well, if we change our mind, they might not all close. We would then put another office into public consultation for a further six weeks. But, at the end of the process for Northern Ireland, we would be probably looking at closing in and around 96.

116. Mrs McGill: Just immediately, that is the first time that I heard from yourself that if you reconsider proposals to retain post offices earmarked for closure, and you change your mind about what happens, that another post office will close. Now, that is desperate if that is the strategy. I have to say I have been to a number of these and have spoken with yourselves. I have heard you at Strabane District Council. That is the first time I heard that comment.

117. Mrs Roulston: The Government has asked to close 2,500 post office branches. They have said they will only subsidise a network of 11,500. And they have said that every region of the UK must take a proportion, a share, of those changes. I am sorry if that has not come out to date, but we have not been hiding that fact. We have said it to anybody who has asked us.

118. Mr Nick Beale (Post Office Ltd): And it is also what has happened in all the plans before as well.

119. Mrs McGill: Can I ask is that — those comments that you have just made — are those comments in all of the documentation that you submitted to stakeholders, to ourselves, to councils? Was that included in any of the literature that you furnished us with at any stage?

120. Mrs Roulston: I am not sure it is written down, but any questions we have had about saving post offices we have made it clear that a substitute would follow.

121. Mrs McGill: Chair, it was never clear to me that that was the case, I have to say.

122. Mr T Clarke: Can I tease that slightly further if you bear, Chairman. I probably share, I did not realise that we might be arguing over 42 now, but if we change our mind on this, we are going to look at another 42. But surely, was part of the reason, I mean — and you did say that they were not going to subsidise any longer; they were going to subsidise less. We had a presentation here on Tuesday, and I think six of the people that was referred to in that presentation were all making a profit, so they are not allowed in a subsidy, so why close post offices that are not looking to be subsidised?

123. Mr Beale: I think there is a very important distinction to be made here between the profitability for the person that is running the branch against the profitability for the post office, and they are fundamentally different things. We recognise that for the sub-postmasters that run branches, it probably is profitable. That is why they run them. What makes it profitable for them partly is the fact that we pay them and pay them a subsidy, effectively, out of the funding that the Government provide us. That is what makes it unprofitable partly for us —

124. Mr T Clarke: Sorry, I need to break in on that. Whilst, yes, you are subsidising them — now, and I mean, I know that at a public meeting that Barbara, you were at, and there was various conversations about other people who ran post offices and you would not get into how much post offices made. But there was one person here — and it is probably in the minutes, or it is on the Hansard — who said, and, I mean, I will not identify the individual who said this, and it is not the one from South Antrim — but, first of all, what I would like to ask you, Nick, how much do you subsidise them by?

125. Mr Beale: The Government, at the moment pay, us a social network payment of £150 million, and that is the amount of money that they have committed to continuing to pay the company after the closures, the 2,500 closure programme. So, that money is effectively what helps fund — it is not all spent on sub-postmasters. Part of that funding is to cover the losses that the loss-making branches make.

126. Mr T Clarke: You are going away into a depth here where I do not want to go. I want to know to what extent do you fund each post office. Are you saying that you lift £150 million and you divide it by the number of post offices and give them an equal share? How much do you subsidise each individual post office in Northern Ireland?

127. Mr Beale: Every branch has an individual contract and within that contract there is a remuneration framework for them.

128. Mr T Clarke: Can you give me a range for the branches in Northern Ireland where that range starts and finishes?

129. Mr Beale: It will depend on their size and part of what we fund them will be a fixed payment, and part of what we pay them will be based on the transactions that they do. It will range from a very small amount to a much higher amount – from £1,000 up to £25,000.

130. Mr T Clarke: Is £25,000 the ceiling?

131. Mr Beale: There is no ceiling. It is a contract. I am giving you a range so that you can get an understanding of it. I am not prepared to give you specifics for specific branches. I will be quite clear on that, because I do not think that is the point here.

132. Mr T Clarke: Is the maximum £25,000?

133. Mr Beale: I cannot tell you what the maximum is. I do not know what the maximum is off the top of my head, but it is of that order of magnitude.

134. Mr T Clarke: This individual put on record in Hansard that his post office earns him £48,000 a year, so if you take away the £25,000, he is still in a considerable amount of profit.

135. Mr Beale: If he is earning £48,000, what does he mean by that? Is he being paid £48,000 by the Post Office?

136. Mr T Clarke: I thought you said that the limit was up to £25,000.

137. Mr Beale: I said the fixed payment. In addition to that fixed payment, they receive a payment for the transactions that they do, which is variable. So, every time they sell a stamp or pay a bill payment, they are paid a small amount by us for doing that. So, in addition to the fixed payment that they get, they get a variable payment. That £48,000 that you refer to may well include that. I cannot comment on that specifically. Obviously, I do not know the particular dynamics of that example. That may well be £48,000 from the Post Office that he receives. What I am saying is that out of the funding that the Government give us, a certain amount of that funding is used to help to fund the payments to the sub-post offices and a certain amount of that funding is helped to pay infrastructure costs that exist for that post office to run the cost to us, so, for example, the IT systems in that branch. Both of those things are what contribute to it being loss making from Post Office’s perspective. The fact that that sub-postmaster gets £48,000 from us, how that £48,000 works into his accounts and makes his profit and loss account operate, we do not know that. We have no sight of his staff costs, his running costs, etc.

138. Mr T Clarke: Surely, if a post office is going to continue making money anywhere, it is a positive sign where you are going to be paying him for so much of the service that he is providing. That means that his post office is busy. If he is getting so much for selling a stamp and for all the transactions that he is doing, that means that he is turning over an income for the Post Office. The Post Office is making money and he is getting his portion back.

139. Mr Beale: Yes, but we are not making a profit. We might be getting income from the transactions that he does, but we do not make a profit on that unless the volume of transactions that he does is significant enough for us to make a profit. Out of that income that we derive, we have to pay for the transaction, we pay them a fixed payment and, effectively, we pay for the infrastructure costs. Part of that is helped by what the Government are subsidising us for, but they are not paying us for the whole of the cost infrastructure in the company — they are only paying for a part of it. So, in a simple sense, these numbers are illustrative, they are not indicative or exact. However, if that business is doing transactions that derive income for us of £20,000, and we are paying them £10,000 to do that and another £15,000 fixed payment before any infrastructure costs, that branch is losing £5,000 for the Post Office.

140. Mr T Clarke: Part of the presentation that the Post Office made in the past in public meetings, you said that some of the branches had only 30 people over the doors in a week. This branch has 1,200, so the case that you are making when you go to public meetings is the small turnover in the post offices. However, we have here one individual who is putting on record how much he is earning from the post office and he is telling us that he has 1,200 people over his doors using the post office services per week. So how can you come to a decision to close such a post office?

141. Mr Beale: OK. I cannot comment on what has been said in the public meetings, but I shall certainly try to explain how the branches across the UK, including Northern Ireland, have been selected, and that has been on a consistent basis. Government were very clear in their decision document about the access criteria we were required to achieve when this programme is completed, and I think they will be familiar to you.

142. I can obviously say what they are if you wish me to, but I think they are familiar to you. What they were not explicit about were the criteria by which we close branches, by which we select branches to close or outreach. They introduced into their decision a number of factors; so they said, for example, that the closures must be a combination of least used and least commercial. They have introduced criteria that have said there must be, broadly speaking, an even spread of closures across the UK. They must be evenly spread between rural and urban areas. They have also said that the impact on customers must be minimised — clearly not eradicated, because that is impossible if you close a post office.

143. So, using all of those factors, we have developed, in the first instance, a desktop plan, which is the first aspect, which is brought into the blueprint validation process, which, eventually, after validation and scrutiny by Postwatch, makes its way into the public consultation. Barbara made reference earlier to the fact that there are a number of changes made to that plan — that desktop plan — prior to it going into consultation.

144. Based on the parameters that the Government have set, they certainly have not set a ceiling on anything in terms of the size of post office that must not be shut, and in order to meet the balance of factors that the Government have set here, we have to close a combination of very small used post offices that are some distance from other post offices, so thereby minimising the impact by it being a very small post office, and some of the post offices that we have to close are much larger, in terms of customer usage, but are much nearer to other alternative services. And bearing in mind that the consultation is about ensuring that the service provision after the proposed closure is correct, within the parameters that the Government have asked us to work, that is why you will see some large post offices closed.

145. Now the other point —

146. Mr T Clarke: Sorry, Chairman, we are going in a bit a deep now. At the outset, you said that some of the factors were least used and least commercial, and now you are saying that some of the decisions might show that that is not the case. Is that not contrary —

147. Mr Beale: I didn’t say that.

148. Mr T Clarke: I can think of the one in South Antrim, where the one in Parkhall is more commercially viable than the one in Greystone.

149. Mr Beale: Well, that may well be for the sub-postmaster, but it won’t necessarily be the case for Post Office Ltd.

150. Mr T Clarke: Sorry, can you tell me the footfall difference between the two?

151. Mr Beale: I can’t, no. I don’t have that information in front of me. I’m sure that —

152. Mrs Roulston: From recollection, Greystone has the bigger footfall, but the fact of the matter is that when we take the four factors of customer transactions, proximity to neighbouring branches, capacity-absorbed footfall and the commercial benefit to Post Office Ltd, those other branches are more viable than Parkhall in that instance, and that is just a fact. Now, this is where our sub-postmasters sometimes say from their perspective, as an individual businessperson, their post office is viable and profitable. But, as Nick has been trying to explain, to Post Office Ltd, they are not.

153. Mr Beale: Can I also add to that that actually the outcome here is about viability of the whole network after the proposal — not individual branches. Obviously individual branches make up that whole, but it is about the whole. The consequence of closing a busy branch is for business to go somewhere else. That is our aspiration and that is our intention. By that business going somewhere else, that improves the viability of other branches and thereby improves the whole.

154. The other factor to mention here, which again Barbara touched on, is about the financial side of this. The profitability of the branch, whether it be our profitability or loss — as is the case in these branches — or for the sub-postmaster, is not the financial fact here: it is the amount of money that we will save by closing that branch. And that is not the same as the profit at the branch. Because when we close a branch, we save on the infrastructure costs and we make a saving related to the fixed payment we are making to that sub-postmaster that I explained earlier. That is the financial contribution to the Post Office that is derived from closing these branches. In larger branches, that will be a higher number, which is why some of the branches we close are higher because we do have to reach a certain amount of saving in order to be able to continue to fund the rest of the network within the envelope of funding that the Government have committed to.

155. So, they have said that we will continue to give you £150 million. In order for that £150million to cover all the losses across the remaining branches, we have to make savings by closing those branches and invariably those savings will range from very small numbers in very small branches to larger numbers in larger branches. Where it is a large branch, it is proposed on the basis that there is access to post office services in a relatively easy way for the customers that use that branch now.

156. The Chairperson: Can I just establish that you have said that the closure programme is the 42 and a total of 96 and that is it?

157. Mr Beale: That is the current proposal in Northern Ireland. Yes.

158. The Chairperson: But that is not going to change.

159. Mr Beale: It could change after the consultation.

160. Mr T Clarke: That is not what Mrs Roulston said.

161. Mrs Roulston: What I said is that we may make some having reviewed the feedback.

162. The Chairperson: Let me just finish. The closure programme is the 42 and the 96 — that is what Mrs Roulston said. In terms of a decision, to not close one may result in another one closing.

163. Mrs Roulston: It may.

164. The Chairperson: The question really is all about, and Mr Beale has just said it, it is all about viability.

165. Mr Beale: No, I am sorry, that is not quite true. Viability is one of the issues that we have to take account of.

166. The Chairperson: You have got your £150 million. You have to live within your £150 million.

167. Mr Beale: In terms of the financial aspect that is absolutely correct. Yes.

168. The Chairperson: So, it is viability. Pure viability.

169. Mr Beale: It is about that £150 million being able to support a loss in the branches that are not making a profit for us. Yes.

170. The Chairperson: How does the Government describe that £150 million?

171. Mrs Sheila McCann (Post Office Ltd): A social network payment.

172. The Chairperson: A social network payment. Ok. Can I just ask you how can the Post Office make an award to a sub-postmaster as the best postmaster in Northern Ireland and the best postmaster in the UK and then decide to close that post office?

173. Mrs McCann: Can I just answer that? They did not. He won an award. We had lots of different categories; for sales, and so on. The gentleman that you are referring to won an award at the time and he earned it at that time. We are operating in a changing world and it constantly changes.

174. The Chairperson: But that was just last year.

175. Mrs McCann: Yes, it was, and our Post Office business is losing £4 million every week. We have to take account of that as well. As we have to allow so many post offices to close, we are invariably going to affect some people exactly like people who have won awards for us. It takes everybody into the mix, and I think that it also shows that we are not favoring anyone else. It is as per the criteria.

176. Mr Beale: I think that it is worth making the point that we are not selecting people and that is precisely the point. We are selecting locations of branches where, in the context of the parameters that we have set, we feel that it is appropriate not to have service provided any more.

177. Mr T Clarke: That is actually a contradiction of the factors that you discussed earlier. If someone is making high profits, the profit is commercial, less commercial, you talked about earlier or less usage —

178. Mr Beale: Sorry, they are not profitable —

179. Mr T Clarke: His award was for the highest sales growth.

180. Mr Beale: That does not imply or ensure that the branch is profitable. It is clearly regretful that an individual that is committed to the business, etc., etc., is selected for closure. However the factors that are used are not about the individual.

181. It was quite clear in the Government’s decision that this is about customer access and the long-term viability of the network. The wishes of the individual sub-postmasters was not a factor to be taken into account. It is not a voluntary exercise on their part.

182. That is clearly quite a sensitive issue, of course it is, and we absolutely understand that. However, I think the point we are making is, if anything, and it would not have been derived like this, but if anything, the fact that we have selected that branch is clearly indicative of how we are applying the criteria and the factors that the Government have asked us to apply rather than focusing on branches where we think that there are bad people running post offices.

183. Mr Armstrong: You get your £150 million from the Government, so then there is a cost or a make of loss to the number of post offices that we have. What is that figure likely to be?

184. Mr Beale: For Northern Ireland as a whole? We do not calculate it on an individual branch basis.

185. Mr Armstrong: I am talking about overall.

186. Mr Beale: I am not sure I understand what you are saying.

187. Mrs Roulston: Well, 85% of our post office branches are loss making to us.

188. Mr Armstrong: Right, but how many million is that that you are losing in a year across the whole post offices?

189. Mrs Roulston: Last year, we lost £99 million.

190. Mr Armstrong: So, then, what you are saying here is that there is a certain number of customers out there and you are putting them over a smaller number of post offices because there is no way to increase productivity in the post offices. There are no opportunities there to increase productivity. The productivity is not able to be increased because Government have taken away services from the post offices.

191. Mr Beale: The prime focus of this meeting is about the closure programme, but I think it is worth having, and hopefully this will answer your question: the challenge that we have been set, the task that the company has been set, is to, by 2011, be profitable.

192. One of the ways that we are reducing that loss, removing that loss, is by this closure programme. However, that is just one of several strands of activity, and sales growth and introducing new products into the branches, which remain in the network, is another fundamental one of those strands. It clearly is a big challenge for us, and you are absolutely right in the inference that you made, I think, about the fact that we have a particularly difficult business problem because of what has happened with some of the Government business. The loss of income that has happened as a result of things like the way benefits are now paid and the fact that the BBC contract — which is a commercial contract, not a Government contract, incidentally — is not a contract that we won. You know, those things do not help.

193. In isolation, the closure programme is not the only thing that is being done to close that gap in profit. There is sales growth, and, in addition to that, we are taking significant costs out of our central overhead structure, which in itself will improve effectively the viability of the branches which remain, because they will become less loss making through that central overhead that is removed and the costs that are associated with that.

194. Mr Armstrong: Should you not then be out looking for new services to make yourselves more profitable?

195. Mr Beale: We are looking for new services, absolutely, and we have introduced quite a new range of new services in the past. Well, certainly in the past two or three years, our range of financial services has increased significantly. We are having extremely detailed dialogue with Government about how we can introduce — and, in some cases, reintroduce — other Government services. We strive to do that constantly.

196. But I think that the point that I would like to make on that is that clearly is an aspiration that is correct to have, but we are operating now in an extremely competitive environment, and the vast majority of products and services that we transact are available elsewhere. Apart, I think, from the postal order, any of the services that we offer are available from other retailers, other competitors, or through things like the Internet, etc. The whole nature of the business has changed significantly in the past four or five years, which is why the customers that use branches has declined from 28 million to 24 million in that period.

197. Mr Armstrong: Should you not have looked more deeply into that direction before a decision was made to close post offices, in case that there is some other product out there that you could service through your post offices that would be very profitable, instead of taking that decision so early?

198. Mrs S McCann: We did not take the decision. Remember that it is a Government decision.

199. Mrs Roulston: We went into a joint venture with the Bank of Ireland to underwrite all of our financial services and products four years ago. However, it is a very competitive marketplace, and that is a new type of customer that we are trying to get through the door. Foreign currency and our travel products are extremely successful. We have one office in Belfast that sells more foreign currency than anywhere else in the whole of the UK. So, there are things that are bringing people through our doors and that are very successful, but our challenge is to reduce the gap between our declining revenue from traditional services like pensions and benefits and drive up the revenue from those new products and services.

200. We are working incredibly hard at it and doing a lot more marketing than we used to. You may have seen the new TV adverts that have been out recently, describing the variety of things that people are not often aware of that you can do at local post offices. I know that we have had some criticism that we were spending money on advertising at the same time as we were closing post offices, but it is just an illustration of the investment we are putting into making post offices viable.

201. Mr Armstrong: We know that everything is very competitive now and anything that is worth the having, if it is not competitive, it is not going to be profitable. Of course, everyone else knows what profits are in everything. You could have made a better effort at looking at new and innovative ways of putting services into the Post Office without taking this, without letting Government push us in this direction.

202. The Chairperson: We will go to Trevor, and Claire, do you want to ask questions at the same time? Then maybe you would respond to the two questions.

203. Mr T Clarke: I want to ask — pardon my ignorance — does the Post Office have any of its own sites any more?

204. Mrs Roulston: In Northern Ireland, we still have nine that we run directly ourselves.

205. Mr T Clarke: I am sorry, Chairman, there are a couple of points in this.

206. The Chairperson: Go ahead.

207. Mr T Clarke: Do they make a profit?

208. Mr Beale: In that part of the network, there are nine — you did say nine?

209. Mrs Roulston: Yes.

210. Mr Beale: In the UK as a whole, there are 400.

211. Mr T Clarke: I am focused on Northern Ireland.

212. Mr Beale: I think I will answer your question, though. So, if you would please bear with me. That part of the network, which is known as the Crown part of the network, lost last year around £78 million.

213. Mr T Clarke: Out of a total £90 million?

214. Mr Beale: That part of the network is not subsidised by Government. Part of what this programme is about is the agency part of the network. The Crown part of the network makes a loss at the moment. Part of another of those strands of activity that I was referring to earlier is to take that network itself into profit as well, without subsidy. There are a number of initiatives that are doing that, one of which, and the most publicly known one, is where we franchise those post offices. In other words, we stop operating them directly, and that reduces the cost to us, and, therefore, improves the profitability of that part of the network. So, as a whole, they do not make a profit.

215. Mr T Clarke: Out of the £70 million, is that £70 million out of the £90 million, or is that another £70 million on the top of the £90 million you talked about now?

216. Mr Beale: No. The £90 million that Barbara referred to is the overall loss that the company made. That included within it an element of subsidy that I referred to earlier. I apologise now, if this is going to sound complicated, and I will try to explain it — I do not mean that in a disrespectful way, I am just saying it. There is quite a nuance here.

217. That £99 million loss included a subsidy of £75 million from Government. So, halfway through — and do not ask me why, I am not an accountant, so I am not going to comment on this — the accounting year that that referred to, the subsidy that Government are giving us, £150 million, was put into the accounts. So, if you take the subsidy out, the total operating loss that the company had was around about £170 million. That is the £90 million plus £70 million.

218. Mr T Clarke: Is that Northern Ireland again?

219. Mr Beale: No, this is the UK.

220. Mr T Clarke: Have we lost £90 million in Northern Ireland?

221. Mr Beale: No. None of the numbers that we have referred to referred to Northern Ireland at all: they have all been referring to the UK.

222. Mrs Roulston: We do not break down our profit and loss into regional figures. There are just national figures: we do not have local ones.

223. Mr T Clarke: So, back to that: the £90 millions are UK. Are the £70 millions UK? Or are the £70 millions —

224. Mr Beale: The £70 million is UK.

225. Mr T Clarke: That is not just the ones from Northern Ireland?

226. Mr Beale: It is UK.

227. Mr T Clarke: Have you ever considered then, in relation to the ones that are keen to stay on, that you remove the subsidy to let them stay? The fixed payment —

228. Mr Beale: It does not really work like that.

229. Mr T Clarke: Outside, you told us that was a fixed payment; and that that is where you spent a lot of the £150 million. If you removed the fixed payment, then it would work —

230. Mr Beale: If we removed it?

231. Mr T Clarke: Yes.

232. Mrs Roulston: But part of what we are trying to do is give our remaining post office branches more customers.

233. Mr T Clarke: But, Barbara, you know that that is not the case in South Antrim, because the one in Greystone does not even want to stay. You are forcing a post office to stay in business that does not even want to stay in business, and closing one that wants to stay in business, which is a total contradiction of what you are saying.

234. Mr Beale: Well, it is not really, but I understand your point. What we are certainly doing separately, to what you see in terms of the proposed closures, is working with the National Federation of SubPostmasters, so that where there are sub-postmasters whose branches we have selected for closure, who want to stay running a branch, we are working with them to try to find branches for them to operate and invest in.

235. The concept of them running that branch where the sub-postmaster doesn’t want to stay is activity that we are facilitating with their federation.

236. Mr T Clarke: There is another point in that. I mean this is something that hasn’t been looked at in relation to that — and it came up even in the presentation, Chairman — in relation to the location. I mean we have come out of 30-odd years of trouble in Northern Ireland. We are still in a divided community; we have various communities. I am very parochial — I am sorry about that, Chairman — but if we go back to South Antrim, we are asking people from one side of the community to visit a post office in the opposite side of the community. I mean that was Protestants now going to Catholics; when we had a presentation the other day, it was actually the other way round. So, one of the considerations that hasn’t been given in this overall proposal is the social element where people have to come from and go to.

237. Mrs S McCann: We have actually looked at that. We are not telling people where to go to.

238. Mr T Clarke: Sorry, Barbara, with respect. I know you want to come on to the statistics and the research that was done but if you want to go that direction, if what you are saying, and going back to the Antrim scenario, that the people who should use Parkhall, “Well, Greystone is probably your closest, but if you don’t want to go to Greystone, you’re probably going to have to go to Antrim”, that’s further. So, that is outside your 95% that you’re supposed to be satisfying. So, if you want to bring that into the criteria, we would be more than happy with that.

239. Mrs S McCann: We gave people a selection of offices to go to. Our research shows that if a post office has to close, the customer base doesn’t go en masse to the next office along. They migrate, they spread out and they go to where their husband works, where they drop the children off at school, and so on. So, they migrate out of the area but there will be numbers go to the adjoining offices. We do give people a choice of where they go to. We don’t tell people what post office they must use. We give them a reasonable choice.

240. Mr T Clarke: Once you give them a choice, the statistics of the 95%, Chairman, doesn’t work.

241. The Chairperson: Could I maybe just comment on that one just before we go to Claire? I know that we quoted the statistics at the Belmont meeting and had some contact with your office upon that on whether or not you have had an opportunity to follow up with the Assembly on those statistics.

242. Mr Beale: I have only just seen the statistics, which I think you’re referring to. There were a couple of aspects of them that I was slightly concerned about in terms of what I think is misinterpretation of the criteria that the Government have set in place here. I am obviously slightly speculating because I don’t think I am having the conversation with the person who has put them together. I am very happy to, separately, if that would help, but just to explain what I mean by that, if I may. There are two things, I think, that are very important here. There are six criteria that the Government has established and all but one of them —

243. The Chairperson: I think really, Nick, in terms of them, I mean, there was such a gap between what you were quoting —

244. Mr Beale: If I could explain why I think that gap exists, maybe that would help you understand. I’ll be very brief.

245. The Chairperson: I think it would be better, actually, if you agreed with the researcher whether or not the figures were correct.

246. Mr Beale: OK, but I would like to put on record the two issues that I’ve got, if I may, because I think it’s very important that maybe this Committee hears them.

247. The Chairperson: We are using up more of your time, and —

248. Mr Beale: Well, I don’t mind that personally.

249. Mrs S McCann: We haven’t been given a chance to explain our position and those figures are now being put out in the public domain.

250. The Chairperson: I am not in any way — I mean, in putting them out in the public domain, Sheila, I indicated to you that they were produced by the Assembly —

251. Mrs S McCann: With the wrong assumptions; with differing assumptions.

252. The Chairperson: — and invited you to actually clarify with the Assembly whether or not. And the concern was there was such a large disparity between them. But really, rather than try to explain to us not having produced the figures, it would be better if I clarify, I think, with the Assembly research.

253. Mrs Roulston: We would certainly like to do that and maybe in writing and get it clarified.

254. The Chairperson: Absolutely, and I think that’s only but fair.

255. Mrs S McCann: We sat down with them yesterday, and Nick has had a chance. I mean the assumptions they are using are totally different to the ones we are using.

256. Mr T Clarke: How do we know yours is right?

257. Mr Beale: Because ours are based on clarification from Government.

258. Mr T Clarke: Ours is based on GPS.

259. Mr Beale: I’m sorry but that is not —

260. The Chairperson: The discussion will not go anywhere within the context of this meeting. It would be better to get clarification between yourselves and —

261. Mrs Roulston: We would certainly like it minuted that we have concerns about the basis on which those figures have been produced, and we need to clarify those.

262. Mr T Clarke: Can I also note that I have concerns about the Post Office: how they have come to theirs also?

263. Mrs McGill: I just want to put on record that I represent a rural constituency, and that constituency is West Tyrone, and I know there has been an awful lot of talk about economics and all of that and viability, but rural people and people that I represent and stakeholder groups would argue that the Post Office — this is a compliment in many ways — that the Post Office is about more than making money and should be within the rural community, you see.

264. I would also say — and this is not a political point at all, Chairman — this is not England. When you take the figure of 2,500 post offices that have to close and you are now telling us that if some of these get a reprieve —

265. Mrs S McCann: We are now telling you, Claire. We have not made any secret of that fact, but we have mentioned it at several public meetings.

266. Mr T Clarke: Well, I never heard anything.

267. Mrs McGill: I beg your pardon, Sheila. I just want to say I never heard it. I am prepared to put my hands up and say that you said it, and I did not hear it. That is a possibility, but I am saying I never heard it until today, and when I asked Barbara about it, Barbara said that if you were asked, you gave that answer. I did not hear anybody ask it, I have to say, but I want to emphasise the point that rural communities do believe that post offices should be about a lot more than just economic viability, so that is important that I would make that point, coming from a rural constituency.

268. Where arrangements have been made within my constituency, and there is some agreement, I mean I welcome that, and that comment is in reference to those post offices that obviously are not going to finally close. In the case of one, Strathroy, I spoke yesterday with Vincent Maguire, and he mentioned that 550 houses will be built in the proximity of that post office that exists, and he wonders did you take that into consideration.

269. And generally on these points, submissions that have been made to yourselves, what consideration really will you give to those submissions and, for the sake of argument, if you come to the conclusion that, for example, five, six, seven of those post offices earmarked for closure should not be closed, what then happens? Are we into this same process all over again? What does happen in that case? Because that is, I believe, the context that you made your comments in, Barbara, that some will close.

270. And just one other point, Chair, when we met here some weeks ago now, I asked Arthur Magee, and we were talking about benefits and the long-term viability of the benefits being paid through the Post Office, and I asked for that information and other information in writing. I know he spoke to my office since that, but I did not get anything in writing, so I am just wondering might that —

271. Mrs Roulston: I apologise, because I think Arthur —

272. Mrs McGill: Would that maybe come in writing? I am just, really the last point and it is for further clarification. The Chairman himself picked up in this, others may close, I mean it is the word “may” I am wondering about. Is that maybe drawing back from what you established, in my view, earlier in this discussion that they would close? Maybe I got that wrong. “May”, “might” or “will”? I thank you, Chair, for that.

273. Mrs S McCann: Could I just pick up your first point, Claire, about the housing? We wrote out to every local authority last July and asked them what the plans were for their area: whether there was road structure and differing things. So, we do take that into consideration. We then wrote out and reminded them if there was anything that they needed to tell us about that as well. Even if they tell us, some sent us in plans that said this is our plan to 2030 — well, I mean, this is only our plan to 2011 and, therefore, we can only take into consideration what is happening within that timescale as well. New housing does not always translate as new customers for post offices, and invariably, we find it is the opposite because people taking on new houses, they go elsewhere, they will go into the banks, and new claimants these days for benefits are driven to banks as well by the benefits people. So, new housing does not always guarantee us new customers, and, in that instance, we have spoken with Omagh Council, as you know, and their submission will be taken into consideration as part of the consultation, as will any council’s submission to us as well.

274. Mrs McGill: Just on the submissions taken into account, but you know, what kind of consideration do you give to it? Do you just read it and that is it, or what really do you do when you read a submission?

275. Mrs McCann: Alluding back to what Barbara said about, we may have to make changes, you know, we have carried out a lot of these plans over in England, and by way of the information we get during consultation, that is when we make the changes and we decide. We were not aware of that information, it does have an impact on that plan. Therefore, that office can remain but we may have to put another one back in again, and, again, in some instances, there have been three offices that would remain open. Two went back in again, so, in that instance, it may not be like for like but we have to consider that Northern Ireland has to meet its share of the numbers. We have to give that consideration.

276. The Chairperson: We will go to Billy for the last question, I think.

277. Mr Armstrong: You said earlier that some post offices may get a reprieve. On what basis? How would you be considering giving them a reprieve? Have you criteria?

278. Mrs Roulston: There is not really any specific criteria, but it is whatever feedback or new evidence we receive during the consultation period. Just for an example, in England, where some of changes have been made, it is possibly because we have been unaware that there was specific housing for vulnerable groups like disabled people or specifically for elderly that has, you know, had an impact on, and it is where we do give regard to that social need factor. So, it could be things like that, it could be where there are road changes to road systems, which have an impact on the distance or proximity criteria. It could be any of those kinds of things.

279. Mr Armstrong: Right. Well, I just want to know what your thoughts was there, and I just think that you are led by Government in what services that you can provide.

280. Mrs McCann: We are owned by Government.

281. Mr Armstrong: All this is Government led.

282. The Chairperson: We will go to Claire for a very quick one because we have another delegation.

283. Mrs McGill: Yeah, and I appreciate you letting me back in again. It is back to the rural theme again. It has been pointed out to me that there is an inequality in the criteria. Ninety-nine per cent of the population within urban-deprived areas will be within one mile of the nearest branch and 95% of the population within rural areas will be within three miles of the nearest branch, and it has been pointed out to me that there is an inherent inequality in that, and I want to also put that on the record, and I submit to that that it is unequal.

284. Mr Beale: Shall I respond to that. I think two points. Those criteria are the criteria the Government have established in their decision and they were the criteria that the Government consulted on during their consultation between December 2006 and March 2007. So, that is where that decision was made, and I think that the other point that I would make is that the criteria are national criteria anyway. They are not criteria at a level below national. So, particular areas, particular constituencies, particular regions are not required to meet those criteria. The UK as a whole is. That is one of the important points to make particularly without reintroducing an earlier part of the debate but it is an important distinction to make within the assessment that your statisticians have done because they are measuring those criteria on a regional basis and that is not where the criteria have been targeted.

285. They have been targeted on a national basis by the Government, and it is very important, I think, that that is recognized, because that is why some of the numbers are different, because they are being measured in a way that the Government have not prescribed, because they prescribe them to be targeted, and, therefore, measured, on the UK as a whole, not individual areas within the UK.

286. The Chairperson: No doubt we will come back to that one. Could I thank you for coming, to the three of you, and I apologise for you having to wait outside the door for that period of time. No doubt, Barbara, we will speak with you at some later stage, and thank you for coming over specially for this.

287. Mr Beale: You’re welcome.

288. The Chairperson: I appreciate it. Could I ask Mark Neale and Richard Price, of the Pharmaceutical Society, to come forward. I think both of you were in the room when we explained the procedure that but obviously that it will still be recorded. Thank you for your submission. I know you have got to be away by 7.10pm, so really whatever way you want to do your presentation. You have had the opportunity to listen to Post Office Ltd’s response to questions. Can I ask you just to whatever pattern you wish to follow.

289. Mr Mark Neale: (Pharmaceutical Society for Northern Ireland): Thank you, Mr Chairman. My colleague Richard Price and myself are here on behalf of the Pharmaceutical Society. You may find it a bit strange that we, as the regulator of pharmacists, are here to talk to you about post offices, but we also have a remit to represent pharmacists, and so we feel that there is something we can add to this debate. We looked at the purpose of your Committee and we saw that it said looking to make proposals for partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local post offices, and that is what we aim to do. However, I have to make a note — I have listened to what had gone before, and I think that some of our proposals, no matter how good they may be, may not fit within what Post Office Ltd have just said. That may well be a private comment, but I think it is one that is probably pretty valid.

290. The Pharmaceutical Society represents 1,950 pharmacists throughout Northern Ireland. Of that, about 1,500 are based in community pharmacy, and there are 500 pharmacies in Northern Ireland. We see ourselves dealing with the same group of people, broadly, as post offices in many cases. We see ourselves dealing with the socially disadvantaged, the elderly and those in rural areas, and we feel that there is a key message of accessibility that needs to be heard in relation both to pharmacy and to the Post Office services. On that basis, we do feel that there is an opportunity for the consolidation of services within bringing services together for pharmacies and post offices. We have some examples that we will take you through that will deal with that, and I would ask my colleague Richard Price to take you through a further presentation and then we will be pleased to answer any questions.

291. Mr Richard Price (Pharmaceutical Society for Northern Ireland): Yes, we have tabled today a sort of five-point plan for mechanisms for perhaps advancing co-location between pharmacies and post offices. So, I would like to try and talk you through that but also give a bit of an introduction as well. Basically, there is a shared problem in terms of our declining high street services.

292. The Chairperson: Richard, could I just stop you. Are you referring to the presentation that you had sent through to the Committee — this single-page one?

293. Mr Price: Yes, the single-page five-point plan. Pharmacies and post offices have a mutual interest in solving the shared problem of our declining high streets. Numerous studies have demonstrated the rapid loss of local services over recent years can frequently lead to a tipping point when the declining number of retail outlets leads to a dramatic reduction in the quantity of money circulating in our local economy. People find there is no point in trying to do a full shop within an impoverished range of outlets.

294. This leads to a sudden and dramatic loss of services and leading to service deserts, frequently in our most deprived communities. And so, this underlines, really, a poor motivation of the Pharmaceutical Society to appear before you today. We have our own vision of pharmacies in the future delivering enhanced public-health services and being very much public-health walk-in centres for the community and we can do this through our unique position as delivering instantly accessible health on the high street. This vision is, is somewhat endangered if there is no high street to which services can be delivered. So, the reality of co-location is present that the, there are a number of pharmacies across Northern Ireland that already host postal services within their premises. And to give a few examples, the County Down village of Saintfield, where, over 10 years the independently run pharmacy there has located the village post office within its premises and this has been to the mutual benefit of both parties, increasing footfall and delivering economies for scale in such areas as business rates and rent.

295. Other examples include on the Upper Malone Road, the Medicare pharmacy shares its premises and, with the post office to a similar set of advantages, enabling both postal services and pharmacy services to be delivered to high-income groups and low-income groups that reside in the area. Indeed, Michael Geurin, the managing director of Medicare pharmacy group, is also the sub-postmaster of two other post offices, one in Strabane and one in Limavady.

296. So, we know this model of co-location can work, and work well. The question, then, is how can we further this model and develop in the future. And, to that end, we have tabled to the Committee a five-point plan.

297. I think the first requirement is more communication. The society conducted a fairly straightforward research exercise yesterday afternoon. And we looked at those pharmacies earmarked for complete closure under the current proposals. We then matched those up to our own registry of pharmacy premises, which is available on our website. And this snapshot found that in a large number of cases — but, it should be said, not all — there was a community pharmacy within under half-a-mile of a planned post office closure. And yet, speaking to those very pharmacies, there had been no communication from Post Office Ltd into the possibilities of co-location.

298. We think this is a mistake. We believe and would recommend Post Office Ltd take a more proactive and imaginative set of approaches to investigate the viability for co-locating services before making any decision on closure.

299. Secondly, we would advocate a Post Office Ltd plan on co-location, very much in line to the previous point. We believe that this should set out how the Post Office will communicate with pharmacy; how it will facilitate the process of co-location and make it as easy and straightforward as possible; and any financial instruments that can attract pharmacies to make the initial investments required to bring co-location to fruition, which leads me to the third point in the plan — help with upfront costs above conversion. This rather thorny issue, but it is frequently referred back to us as probably the primary obstacle in more post offices not being relocated, co-located within a pharmacy, and so it, therefore, is a hurdle that must be overcome. Start-up costs include refurbishment of premises, the lengthy time spent training and understanding the new requirements of running a postal service from within a pharmacy, and the additional security measures, which must be installed in the premises, as required by regulation.

300. Some limited help already exists to meet these costs, but we would challenge Post Office Ltd to, perhaps, do more.

301. We would also make a suggestion to the Committee that a small amount of Executive funds, perhaps, be made available for the protection of local postal services. An example has been set by Essex County Council, where, I believe, a fund of £1•5 million has been put aside for that purpose.

302. Closer to home, the recently agreed Northern Ireland investment strategy makes an allocation of £500 million for regeneration and neighbourhood renewal — only a very small slice of this fund could go a long way towards retaining postal services through such mechanisms as co-location and halting neighbourhood decline, let alone promoting neighbourhood renewal.

303. Fourthly, flexible arrangements with opening hours is something that pharmacists, pharmacists- postmasters have expressed to us, could help in ensuring the long-term viability of postal services. And finally, five, we’d recommend an independent study of co-location economics.

304. The Pharmaceutical Society do not hold any figures on the economic performance of pharmacy-post-office co-locations, and, indeed, nor should we. We do not represent pharmacies’ commercial interests, but we are more here to advocate for survival on the high street in order that pharmacy can deliver to the public.

305. That being the case, we suggest an alternative organisation, potentially the Post Office Ltd, maybe in conjunction with the Department for Social Development, fund an independent report into the economics of co-locating pharmacies and post offices, and make further considered recommendations as to how co-locations can be better facilitated in the future.

306. So, I hope that the plan may be of use to the Committee in their deliberations and will endeavour to take any questions, albeit, we may be more use to questions on coproximol and pseudoephedrine.

307. The Chairperson: Can I just make the assumption that none of the pharmacy-based post offices are under threat at this moment of time? Is that correct?

308. Mr Neale: Not to our knowledge.

309. The Chairperson: Can I ask you — as was emphasised by the Post Office, this is a UK-wide initiative — do you represent the society in Northern Ireland?

310. Mr Neale: Correct.

311. The Chairperson: Is what you are doing in Northern Ireland being replicated in other parts of the UK?

312. Mr Neale: Anecdotally, we spoke to our colleagues in the Royal Society, who represent pharmacists in Great Britain, and, anecdotally, they tell me there are other pharmacies in the UK that are post offices as well, particularly in the rural community. So, it seems to be a growing thing in the rural community, and they suggest that there may be good examples in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands.

313. The Chairperson: Sorry, it was just that the five-point plan that you have — are the Royal Society pursuing that, or is this just a Northern Ireland initiative?

314. Mr Price: That is a Northern Ireland — home-grown.

315. Mr Armstrong: Have you made any representation to Post Office yet of what you might consider?

316. Mr Neale: We haven’t, Mr Armstrong, but, at this stage, we would be speaking to the Committee, but, obviously, what we are saying to you we will also send to the Post Office as part of their consultation.

317. Mr Armstrong: So, then, in my view, it would be like a franchise that you would be working within a post office?

318. Mr Neale: As I understand postal services, it is virtually a franchise from the Post Office, and, therefore, it would match with the community pharmacy. Most, in fact all, community pharmacies are private businesses. So, they could take on those services without any problem, as long as they were granted to the pharmacist by the Post Office.

319. Mr Armstrong: And it would increase the revenue in post offices?

320. Mr Neale: It would certainly increase the footfall. We have to be very careful as a society not to be looking too closely at the revenue, but I think what we have to bear in mind is that we are there for public protection and for the advancement of public-health improvement.

321. One of the key aspects of post offices, as I understand it, is that it is widely used by the elderly, and they use it for social network; they use it to go and actually have someone to talk to, if that is not too patronising. Pharmacies are also used in a similar way. We are aware that doctors give patients weekly scripts just to ensure that the patient actually goes out of the house and actually interacts with other people. Now, we are saying that we can meet both those needs if the post office is willing to co-locate within a pharmacy, and they keep the services local.

322. Mr Armstrong: So then you would like to increase the numbers of persons through a post office door?

323. Mr Neale: We are happy that if by doing so that that is a consequence, yes.

324. Mrs McGill: Thank you. Just briefly, there would be a difference between how this impacts in the urban area and in the rural area, yes?

325. Mr Neale: There will, yes. But, I think it is something we can build on in the rural area particularly. I think there are some good examples.

326. Mrs McGill: Yes, in Strabane.

327. Mr Neale: We have mentioned Strabane and other areas there, and I think there’s opportunities here.

328. Mrs McGill: Chair, can I ask where in Strabane?

329. Mr Price: It is the Medicare Pharmacy. I think it is. It was two post offices, I am led to believe in Strabane, and one of them is co-located within that Medicare Pharmacy.

330. Mr Neale: We can get back to you —

331. Mrs McGill: No, no, I’ll do a drive around. Thank you, Chair.

332. Mr T Clarke: No; I am content this time. I can see from how you summed up about people using them. My mother is getting on and uses the pharmacy maybe more than I would like to see her at it, but it is a bit like the Post Office, and I can see how you can tie the two together. It does make sense when you see it, especially from the elderly point of view. I do not know about any of the rest of the elected Members who have been at public meetings, but it is essentially the elderly who have been most represented at the ones that I have been at. It is the elderly who have the biggest concern because they do see it as that. The case you are making has a lot of merit.

333. The Chairperson: My concern is that, from what you said, this is not that far advanced.

334. Mr Neale: We have to be careful because the commerciality of it would go beyond what we, as a society, wish to be involved in. What we are saying is that, if the Committee is looking at partnerships, this is an example of partnership that we believe could work and it might inform your recommendations. Obviously, it would then be for individual pharmacists to seek to be postmasters, so it is a bit difficult for us to go further than that, but as an idea it has merit.

335. The Chairperson: I would be interested to know what reaction you get from the Post Office. Maybe, you would be willing to communicate with Mairead on that matter?

336. Mr Neale: Slightly naughty; they were very interested in what we were going to say before we arrived.

337. The Chairperson: If you can put something to Mairead, I would be pleased with that. I thank you — you are well within your time limit. I thank you for your attendance and your patience, as you sat at the back of the room. I am pleased that you have taken the opportunity to come along.

12 May 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Willie Clarke (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr John Dallat
Ms Carmel Hanna
Mr William Irwin
Ms Anna Lo
Mr Fra McCann

Witnesses:

Dr Maureen Edmondson
Miss Kellin McCloskey
Miss Julie-Anne McMaster

 

Postwatch Northern Ireland

338. The Chairperson (Mr Newton): I welcome Dr Maureen Edmondson, chairperson of Postwatch Northern Ireland; Miss Kellin McCloskey, the network adviser with Postwatch Northern Ireland; and Miss Julie-Anne McMaster, the regional manager of Postwatch Northern Ireland. I thank you all for coming at what must be a busy time. Committee members should refer to the presentation in the members’ pack.

339. Dr Maureen Edmondson (Postwatch Northern Ireland): I thank the Committee for having us and congratulate you for trying to get ahead of the game. It is fantastic that someone is looking forward to 2011, because it is only a couple of financial years away.

340. Postwatch NI is independent of Post Office Ltd, Royal Mail Group Ltd and the regulator Postcomm. We were set up under the Postal Services Act 2000 to be, in essence, the consumer watchdog, although we have a special duty to put our arms around the more vulnerable consumers.

341. We have been tasked by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), which is the Westminster Department responsible for the closure programme, to ensure that it adheres to Government criteria. To that end, we scrutinise the proposals and ensure that the consultation process, which ends tonight, is meaningful and taken seriously by Post Office Ltd. Sadly, we do not have a veto and cannot insist on anything. However, we can draw attention to proposals that do not adhere to the Government criteria or when we believe that Post Office Ltd has not taken the concerns of consumers seriously.

342. As a consumer watchdog, at one level we would, of course, love to protect all post offices, keep them all and love them all. As taxpayers, however, we must be realistic. Almost 90% of rural post offices are losing business. In Northern Ireland, 20% of post offices have fewer than 100 customers a week, and 10% have fewer than 30. What that means in practice for those branches with fewer than 100 customers a week is that whenever I buy a second-class stamp out of one pocket, I pay £17 tax out of the other. That is the level of subsidy required to keep such post offices open: every transaction costs £17 in overheads and subsidies.

343. Government transactions have been part of this loss-making exercise and lose the post office network £4 million a week. Those transactions have fallen from 40% of Post Office business to less than 10%, which is a huge hit, and one that no business can take.

344. Mail volume, too, is dropping, with four million fewer customers compared with two years ago. In the electronic age, we all want to move and change how we do things so that they are efficient, effective and environmentally friendly. However, that has an effect on post offices. The Government have put £150 million into the network per annum, recognising that it is more than just a business and has a social importance, too. Nevertheless, the business is still losing £4 million a week, and the Government are, in effect, putting in £2 million to £3 million a week.

345. Therefore, Postwatch — reluctantly — has had to agree that a structured change is better than change that happens topsy-turvy all over the place, with people falling out, leaving a network with huge holes in it. To that end, the Government announcement was made, and the consultation process was launched in 2006. An unprecedented 2,500 responses were received during the consultation process, of which, sadly, only eight came from Northern Ireland. As a result of the consultation, however, the Government agreed that 2,500 post offices had to go from the network, and that the Government would invest £1.7 billion to manage that change. Importantly, the Government laid down access criteria, because this is a managed change and not voluntary. Therefore, post offices will be taken out of the network, based on Government criteria and Post Office Ltd’s financial criteria.

346. The most recent urban-network change, which some of you might remember in Northern Ireland, was voluntary, when people could volunteer to leave the network. This process is not a voluntary change but a managed one.

347. The access criteria, which are contained in our submission, are set. The good thing about them is that they will last until 2011. Therefore, even at the end of the current programme of change, at the end of this year, if someone were to decide that he or she wished to retire from running a post office, or if he or she were to die and leave the business in that unfortunate way, Post Office Ltd would have to put something into the network to ensure that there would be a service, and it would have to comply with the access criteria. The criteria not only apply to the current network programme but will last until 2011.

348. As we have said, our goal is to get a financially and socially sustainable network of post offices. The Government have set criteria that are primarily based on distance, but they have said that Post Office Ltd must take account of social and demographic factors as well as topographical features and major thoroughfares, and so on. If people have to cross the M1 to get to a post office, it is clearly not viable. I live in Portaferry, and my nearest post office, as the crow flies, is in Strangford; unfortunately, there is a big pond between the two. Post Office Ltd must take account of the fact that that is no good, because Portaferry to Strangford is a 45-mile drive. It must take into account such issues as well as the distance criteria.

349. As members will know, 42 post offices in Northern Ireland have been marked for closure and 54 will have a change of service, which is a total of 96 in the network. On average, that is the same level of change as in the rest of the UK — about 18%. Some 94% of consumers will see no change to their current post office services. We hope that that will mean that there will be some sort of stability in the network. I emphasise that because, since 2002, many changes have been made to the network. People have been dropping out of the network. The programme of change is not the only reason for closures — people drop out all the time. The difficulty is that that may result in a network that has big holes like a lump of Emmental cheese. Those closures are unplanned, and they result in people having to travel too far to get to a post office. Therefore, the system must be planned.

350. The Committee will know about the consultation process. We have found from experience that Post Office Ltd has been listening, and we are, therefore, optimistic that it will have listened to the input that it will get up until 5.00 pm today, and that they will seriously take account of it and make some more changes. To date, our input has made 13% to 14% of changes to the original proposals, so we are optimistic that Post Office Ltd is listening.

351. The Committee will know that four different types of outreach service are available. Each type has a different service level; they are not identical to the current services. For example, the partner outreach service has a big benefit in that it probably will have longer opening hours, because it will be open during shops’ opening hours. That is a major advantage, because services may be available in the evenings, on Saturdays or on Sundays. However, it will not provide all the postal services that are currently available in a post office. For example, one would only be able to post a package weighing up to 2 kg. That is a major problem for Postwatch NI. I can access many services on the Internet, or through other means of communication, but I am stuck with parcels, because I must take them to the post office. Therefore, reduced postage services is a big issue for us, and we will discuss it further.

352. Hosted outreach services involve a person working part-time, for example, several hours a day for two days a week, in an existing shop, community hall or church hall — whatever it happens to be — and the core post office in the next village will provide that service. It is similar to a mobile service, except that Post Office Ltd owns the vehicle that provides the service. As an absolute last resort, there will be a home service. In such cases, the Post Office cannot provide a mobile service because it cannot get the connections or find premises in which to establish a hosted service, or it may find that there are no shops in the village to provide partner services. As a last resort, people can telephone Post Office Ltd and get postal services on demand.

353. It is worth pointing out that there will be shared pain across the whole of the UK. No particular group has been hit disproportionately. Everybody anticipated that the changes would affect rural areas only, but, in fact, they affect rural and urban areas. Everybody is sharing the pain. The closures must be proportionate across the whole UK. That is why the changes that will affect the 96 post offices — or 18% — here are similar to those that are happening in other parts of the UK.

354. I now come to the scenario in 2011. I have painted the bleak financial picture for post offices and pointed out that the subsidy is necessary until 2011, because post offices are not profitable and, without several miracles, are unlikely to become profitable. Therefore, further support is needed to avoid more restructuring.

355. BERR’s 2007 document states that local government and local authorities will be encouraged to engage with, and provide local funding at, post offices, particularly after 2011. The Committee has a copy of a letter from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, John Hutton, about local funding of post offices, because Essex County Council — as most of you already know — said at the beginning of the change programme that it would be interested in doing something.

356. John Hutton states that it is critical that local funding offers be long, not short, term. Even with the introduction of successful new products such as financial, banking and travel services, very small post offices with around 30 transactions a week will not be profitable.

357. The difficulty is that people do not want to run them. The income of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses has dropped 6% annually for the past number of years, and I do not see many people rushing out to run a loss-making business that will reduce their income. At present, the approximate £10,000 annual payment for setting up and running post offices, along with transaction income, means that they may not be totally making a loss. However, the funding of post offices that are losing money for Post Office Ltd is critical and will change.

358. John Hutton states that, in the long term, funding must cover costs. Where there is local funding, post offices will not have access to any part of the£150 million that BERR is providing. It is critical to understand that, where local funding is provided, there will be no BERR funding. The BERR funding supports Post Office Ltd in delivering the network that it has been told to deliver.

359. Another critical element is that local funding to rescue a post office could lead to that post office’s drawing business from other planned post offices around it, and so put them in jeopardy. Therefore, Post Office Ltd has been told that it must take that balance into account if it is going to engage with local authorities to support post offices. Then, of course, there is all the stuff about state-aid clearance, where the Government are paying to close post offices and local government is paying to keep them open.

360. Apart from money, other things can be done. Some of the suggestions in the letter include co-location. For example, is it more cost-effective to place post offices in civic centres or local-authority buildings? On the issue of procurement policies, can local government or central Government services, be made available to consumers through post offices, which will provide them with a footfall? Can local authorities reduce post office running costs and stabilise the network by adjusting business rates?

361. We need to look at whether post offices can become vehicles to deliver cost-effective front-line services, perhaps delivering library services. We could also look at whether other services, currently provided through local authorities and central Government, could also be provided by post offices.

362. One of the things that we at Postwatch have also been calling for from central Government is clarity. I encourage this Administration to ask BERR to provide that clarity, by asking what it is to do about funding after 2011. At present, the £150 million referred to is for the whole of the UK. It goes to Post Office Ltd, and will not be allocated on the basis of X% to Northern Ireland, Y% to Scotland and Z% to Wales. Based on the financial criteria of each of their different post office businesses, Post Office Ltd will decide whether to subsidise some and not others, as well as deciding on the size of that subsidy.

363. There are currently 14,500 post offices across the UK, approximately 500 of which are in Northern Ireland. That equates to about 3·5% of the £150 million. Therefore, we are talking about £5 million, if allocated proportionally. At present, we do not know exactly what the details of the finances are, but, on average, that is what it would need to be.

364. We also need to know what the Government’s future plans are. There is also the issue of whether postal services will ultimately be devolved. Other powers need to go into the box marked “devolved” before postal services, but it merits consideration. Furthermore, if postal services are devolved, from where will the funding come?

365. The application of access criteria alone is not enough. Access is important and prevents big holes in the network, but when deciding the future of post offices in Northern Ireland, social and demographic factors must be examined, as do the local population’s needs.

366. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro-businesses are a key part of Northern Ireland’s economy. In order for them to undertake e-fulfilment and e-procurement and to conduct their business, they require postal services. Indeed, they are disproportionately dependent on postal services, and in Northern Ireland the Post Office does not have the growing competition that exists in Great Britain. It is essentially the only real major service provider.

367. We also do not know what is to be done about the Post Office card account. Post Office Ltd is tendering for that and whether it will get it, we do not know. However, more benefits go through the Post Office in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK. My colleagues could tell the Committee more about that.

368. The Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) does not seem to have been particularly engaged in the process this time around. I hope that they will become more involved. We again press central Government to adopt a long-term approach.

369. The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. Before I call other Committee members to ask questions, may I ask you about state-aid clearance? That obviously requires a submission to Europe. Has that been done before in any other part of the UK?

370. Dr Edmondson: I do not think that that has been done yet for postal services. Essex County Council was the first to suggest it, and John Hutton, in his letter, clearly states that state-aid clearance would need to be achieved. Even for the £1·7 billion that BERR agreed to invest in the current change programme, state-aid clearance was required.

371. Mr Dallat: You have made no reference to our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, who, I suspect, have gone through a similarly painful process. However, through linkages with financial services, they appear to have achieved two goals: to keep post offices open; and to bring banking within the reach of the 8% of the population at the bottom of the socially deprived sector. However, the Committee has yet to get to the stage of putting any meat on the bones.

372. Your report, although authentic and straightforward, does not really offer anything like that. You suggest that post offices might help to provide services that local government and central Government currently provide. There is the possibility that an odd library here and there may link up with the Post Office, but there is nothing concrete when it comes to making post offices sustainable. That means that the Committee has much work to do.

373. No one here would argue that we want to save post offices that have 10 customers a week. I would be happy enough if I could save a post office in Coleraine that caters for 12,000 customers a week. I am not entirely sure of Postwatch’s remit, although I try to keep in touch with it. We must search further to find out how we might integrate post offices with other services.

374. Dr Edmondson: Kellin has done some work on An Post and banking, about which she will tell the Committee.

375. Miss Kellin McCloskey (Postwatch Northern Ireland): I have carried out some research. I watched the recent debate in the Chamber and noted that banking was mentioned. Fortis, which is a European bank, identified a niche market where it could enter a ready-made network. That cannot happen here, because Post Office Ltd has already linked up with Bank of Ireland and Northern Bank. Customers of those banks can already lift money and lodge it in accounts through Post Office Ltd. That sort of idea would, therefore, not work here.

376. Dr Edmondson: It would not add extra value — it already delivers some value. It is not a new concept, however, because Post Office Ltd already does it

377. Mr Dallat: Do you agree that, probably by 2011, we will have neither post offices nor banks in many of our towns and villages?

378. Dr Edmondson: That is true, and, as the banks pull out, that will give post offices additional opportunities. Post Office Ltd has the capacity and the arrangements in place with those two banks to facilitate banking. The system already exists.

379. Mr T Clarke: I may be wrong, but it appears from your presentation that we have already conceded that branches will close. Although we would like to focus on the 42 post offices that are earmarked for closure, we are told that 90% of rural post offices fail to make a profit. Glyn Roberts from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) and three colleagues who run post offices gave evidence to the Committee last week. They all conceded that they were making a profit, and one of them disclosed that his post office was making a considerable amount of money. I am at pains to see how we can decide to close post offices that are profitable and that are bringing in 1,200 customers a week. I accept that it is not sustainable to have post offices with 30 to 100 customers — those cannot make money. However, we have post offices with 1,200 customers. One gentleman last week referred to the amount of money that he was making, and if the £10,000 annual payment were taken from him, he would still be making a considerable amount of money.

380. Postwatch NI has conceded, even in its presentation today, that it is looking to the future and is forgetting about the 42 post offices that will close.

381. Dr Edmondson: I shall make two points. Postwatch NI has recognised the need for 2,500 closures — that was the Government’s decision. We have been told that we are part of the scrutiny process. Yes, a total of 2,500 post offices will leave the network, with 96 of them being in Northern Ireland. Some of the figures will change, and we have not given up on all those post offices. We are still part of the engagement and consultation process, although the consultation closes this evening. We will see the input to the consultation process, and we will scrutinise that to see whether Post Office Ltd is taking account of what is being said and whether it will change any of its proposals.

382. The Government decided how many post offices will close. We are stuck with that number, and it could be said that we have given up on that because that is what the Government are required to do, and we are required to be part of that process. That is why I am saying that it is good that the Committee is looking to the future. Negotiation will take place over the next two to three months on the detail of the 96 closures. We have the capacity to escalate that negotiation if we feel that some closures are wrong.

383. Another comment about the profitable or non-profitable post offices is that if one looks at the access criteria and at the many post offices that will survive this round of closures, many of them are very small and not profitable. However, there is difficulty with the access criteria. Thank goodness that it is there; otherwise, there would be massive holes in the network, and people would not have access to postal services. Many of the unprofitable post offices have to stay in that network at the moment, or else some people would have no access whatsoever to postal services. That is socially unacceptable, at least from Postwatch’s point of view.

384. That means that where there are, for example, six or seven post offices within a two- or three-mile radius, some of those post offices will go, even if they are profitable. Therefore, it is not a case of getting rid of only unprofitable post offices and keeping those that are profitable. Approximately 96 post offices from the Northern Ireland network will have to close, and some of those will be profitable and some will not. It is a question of distance and whether there is duplication of service. It may not make sense from a business perspective, but it is what BERR has decided.

385. Mr T Clarke: You said earlier that you did not know how much of the £150-million subsidy will come to Northern Ireland. It is strange that they know that we have to close 96 post offices in Northern Ireland to help meet the criteria for closing 2,500 overall, but they cannot tell us how much of the £150-million subsidy will come to Northern Ireland.

386. Dr Edmondson: We do not know how much of the subsidy will come to Northern Ireland — we cannot get that information, perhaps you too have asked them for it. We do not know how that money will be distributed throughout the post office network in Northern Ireland.

387. Mrs Hanna: You talk about the opportunities in 2011, but the problem is that many of the post offices will be gone by then because of this round of closures, the short consultation period and the fact that Post Office Ltd does not seem to listen to people. I consider that to be more than simply a perception.

388. Although the post office network must be economically sustainable, there is a strong social argument, in some cases. That argument may be made on the basis of the remoteness of rural areas or, in relation to my own area of South Belfast, on the grounds that there is a large elderly population, as well as a minority ethnic population and students — those people do not use banks: they want to work with a person rather than go to a hole in the wall. We talk about building and supporting communities; however, it seems that, where the post office is the hub of the community, it is quite often being torn out of it.

389. You mentioned the subsidy: so much of community support involves some form of subsidy. Banks are also subsidised and the services that have been transferred to banks are provided in a much less friendly way — a lot of the services are very remote and are provided through machines. Although the argument about economic sustainability is important, the social argument must also be taken into account. The issue cannot centre only on the matter of the subsidy because subsidies are provided in so many areas. For example, banks are private sector organisations; however, we pay a huge subsidy for their services: every transaction through the banks comes out of our purses.

390. Dr Edmondson: As representatives of Postwatch NI, we agree. We argued very strongly on the basis of the social aspects of post offices, but we are genuinely concerned that the Government may not maintain that social focus. That is why it is important to look ahead to the decisions that will be made in 2011 and press the Government about the rural and social needs and the deprived communities whose post offices will need a subsidy.

391. Post offices are businesses, and it is important that they should operate as efficiently as possibly and strip out unnecessary costs. They are, however, more than simply businesses. Often the post office is the last shop in the community and is part of community cohesion. Those factors must be taken account of, and local government, in particular, must consider how the post office is an important part of the hub of their community. I could not agree more on that point.

392. Mr W Clarke: Carmel Hanna touched on many of the issues that I was going to raise. One issue that I want to highlight is that, as a country, we are emerging from a conflict. Our situation is, therefore, different to the situation across the water. We have consulted with people from several post offices, and they mentioned that some of those post offices provide a service for both communities in interface areas. Has the fact that post offices serve as neutral areas, and bring the community together, been considered in any consultation or any discussions that you have had with Post Office Ltd?

393. Miss McMaster: The public consultation brought that aspect to light, and it is something that we will consider further. During talks, Blacks Road was raised as a prominent example of that.

394. The public consultation drew that matter to our attention. We will discuss it with Post Office Ltd, in a bid to take it forward. That is the purpose of the public consultation — to garner opinion on the issues that need to be examined.

395. Mr F McCann: After meeting representatives from Post Office Ltd and listening to you, it strikes me that this is a done deal; there is nothing that we can really do.

396. Post Office Ltd representatives have said that in many areas three post offices have been earmarked for closure. Therefore, this feels like a pointless and frustrating exercise. One example that Trevor Clarke used a couple of times last week and that amazes me is Parkhall post office, Antrim. Parkhall post office is hugely profitable, compared to another post office in the same area. Customers who use the less profitable post office are willing to change and use the more profitable one, but will be unable to do so because it faces closure. There seems to be no logic in that.

397. Socio-economic factors must be taken into consideration. A number of years ago, the decision was taken to open the Waterfront Hall, about which debate remains. It was opened in the knowledge that it would lose money, but in the hope that it would be a catalyst for attracting investment. Post offices act as catalysts for economic development and employment in many areas, especially for small shops. The closure of a post office will have devastating effects on some of the businesses in the surrounding area.

398. Last week, I raised a question about the distance between post offices. We were told that in certain areas some post offices are only 0.6 of a mile away from another, which results in a black mark being put against it for possible closure. However, that distance relates to the periphery of the area, not the centre. The distance is more than 1 mile if it is measured from the centre. There are many issues relating to that. One is the impact on pensioners who rely on home help. A pensioner may be provided with a home-help service for only 15 or 30 minutes a day, so if it was necessary to travel further to the nearest post office, that service could be taken up in doing that.

399. The mind boggles at how Post Office Ltd is able to justify closing Parkhall and a number of other post offices. Last week, the three gentlemen who were here said that despite all having profitable enterprises, Post Office Ltd will close the post office that is only 0.6 of mile away, but will keep open the one that is an area of high social deprivation. Post Office Ltd makes those decisions without taking into consideration the impact that it will have on the social fabric of that area. There are many issues that Post Office Ltd did not take into consideration.

400. I view this stage as the run-up to 2011. I predict that when that time comes, the Committee will say that it is a shame, but it must close another 100 post offices. I have difficulty with that, too.

401. Dr Edmondson: We hope that some of the issues that you mentioned will come out during the consultation. From the outset, we have been encouraging people to make their concerns known to Post Office Ltd and Postwatch NI. What issues will make life difficult? What is wrong with the service? Which days of the week are not suitable? Will it affect pensioners who rely on home help to get their money or their pension? Those are the things that should show up in consultation. There should be real evidence that people cannot get to the post office, perhaps because of inadequate DDA compliance, or that post office waiting times are lengthy, so that pensioners’ allotted home help time is used up. Only local consultations can highlight the issues that affect local people.

402. The consultation period finishes tonight. We are optimistic that we will have buckets of information to trawl through, as will Post Office Ltd. So far, we have found that Post Office Ltd has listened and has taken account of the issues that were drawn to its attention. It also took account of the issues that it missed, which were pointed out after people walked the ground.

403. Kellin and the regional committee of Postwatch NI walked the ground in every single area, but we cannot discover every concern — we need the help of local people. That is part of the consultation process. We would have liked that process to last for 12 weeks, but the Secretary of State decided that it would last for six weeks. Despite all the input that he received from across the UK, including the input from Postwatch NI, he refused to lengthen that period of consultation. We have had to live and work with that. We hope that that will come out in the consultation.

404. I forgot to mention future opportunities, one of which is urban outreach. No outreach programmes have been recommended for urban areas: only for rural areas. It is possible that there could be urban outreach programmes. We do not know what form those would take, because a different model to any used in rural areas will be necessary. Different models of the provision of post office services will need to be created at a local level by local people for local needs.

405. Perhaps the Committee is disappointed that we did not come here with many different ideas as to how that could be done, but those need to be developed at a local level, with local authorities, businesses and enterprises, who will see those as the catalysts for future economic development in an area or small community, and decide on a particular model to use. Local entrepreneurs are needed to put ideas into the system and will pilot them with Post Office Ltd to see whether they work.

406. Mr F McCann: When the Antrim scenario is considered, if arguments are proposed regarding the profitability of a post office — for example, those of the three gentlemen who attended the Committee last week — are you saying that Post Office Ltd would be willing to pull back the closure plans?

407. Thousands of new dwellings are being developed in the east of the city, for example, in the Titanic Quarter. There will be a continuous expansion of dwellings in the Blacks Road area over the next five years. I live at the bottom end of the Falls Road, where there are continuous expansions of mostly private dwellings. There are, perhaps, only 30 dwellings there at present. However, through development over the next five years, there could be 2,000 dwellings built there. Has that been taken into consideration?

408. Miss McCloskey: We contacted all the local councils for information about local regeneration. We then took the information that we received into account in our pre-consultation work. A great deal of information came on board after public consultations with local councils. We are putting that to Post Office Ltd and asking if it has considered that.

409. In the east of England, a plan to close a post office was overturned because of local regeneration in the area. Post Office Ltd has to take those factors into consideration, and it is listening. Those arguments are certainly viable. However, regeneration does not necessarily guarantee more post office customers, because many people commute and use a post office near their work.

410. Mr Buchanan: In response to Trevor Clarke, you mentioned post offices that have survived this round of closures. You indicate that this roll-out programme will close 96 post offices now and will close more in the future. That causes a great deal of concern.

411. You mentioned that some post offices that will close despite being profitable. I have been informed that the spreadout from the closures of those post offices is intended to sustain others What work has been done to justify that type of argument?

412. Dr Edmondson: I will comment on the first question. Kellin will then go through the criteria that Post Office Ltd has used to determine how it selects the targets for closures. We will then come back to your generic point.

413. Perhaps I have portrayed a scenario of doom and gloom, but that view is partly personal. Considering the financial status of post offices and the situation with postal and letter businesses, there will be future closures. There is no evidence that there will be future closure programmes after 2011, but the Government have made it clear that they will provide the subsidy until 2011: that is their only commitment at present. That does not mean that they will not continue with the subsidy; in fact, it might be increased. However, we must be prepared for future closures — although we do not have black-and-white evidence that there will be more. The economics involved, and the fact that the Government have said that they will provide a subsidy until 2011, make me suspicious. Perhaps I am a suspicious person.

414. Post Office Ltd uses four criteria for their selection.

415. Miss McCloskey: The Government have given a commitment that they will sustain 11,500 post offices in the United Kingdom until 2011, so there is not room for many more closures in the meantime. Post Office Ltd has used four criteria in their selection process. First, it found out how many customer sessions each post office received — in other words, it received an account of how many customers came through the door of each post office. A customer session can be a transaction in which a customer buys a book of stamps or one stamp, or taxes his or her car.

416. Secondly, the Post Office Ltd used a criterion that was based on financial savings. However, it was not based on the profitability of a post office. I am not here to defend Post Office Ltd, but its interpretation of whether a post office is profitable is not necessarily based on the remuneration that Post Office Ltd receives. Post Office Ltd has to take into account the cost of the transit of cash to that post office and its computer system, which is one of the main costs to the business. All sorts of elements are factored into the overall picture.

417. The other two criteria were proximity and relative size. Post Office Ltd considered the proximity of post offices to each other and measured the distances between them. In assessing the criterion regarding relative size, Post Office Ltd considered whether another branch could sustain the customer footfall that would migrate to it following the closure of a post office.

418. Dr Edmondson: Postwatch NI does not have access to the Post Office Ltd’s financial modelling. We know about the modelling that they did with the four criteria, but we do not have access to the post offices’ financial data. I am glad that sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses presented evidence to your Committee, because they are the only people who can give you that information: it is their private business. We do not have access to it, so I cannot answer the second part of Mr Buchanan’s question.

419. Mr Irwin: I am concerned about the post office closures. Owing to low customer use, two post offices in my constituency are scheduled for closure. Partial closure of the post office, or a reduced-hours scheme, will cause even more concern. As Miss McMaster is aware, one village post office’s business hours were reduced from 37·5 hours to eight hours per week. That meant that it was necessary to have one customer every two minutes for a successful throughput.

420. If the criteria were used to bring about that decision, it prompts one to ask whether the system is working. If, for instance, a decision can be made to partially close a post office, meaning that each customer will have only two minutes to conduct his or her business, it seems that that post office will certainly close in the future.

421. Dr Edmondson: People end up queuing. I hope that that input has been made. Post Office Ltd is aware of the number of customer sessions of each post office. Its Horizon computer system logs all customer sessions, so the Post Office Ltd knows how many customers that each post office serves. It uses a formula to calculate how many hours are required for a particular amount of customer sessions, and it bases the number of outreach hours on that result. Time will tell whether that is the right formula.

422. It is vital that the local community submits data on whether the offices are open often enough and long enough to meet local needs, and that the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress informs the local population of customer numbers so that that information can be included. It is absolutely key that openings are on the right day of the week and for the right number of hours.

423. Pilot outreaches have thrown up some worrying results. We joke about one in Lack, County Fermanagh, which failed because not one customer used it. It was advertised and publicised, but people had developed a pattern of shopping that took them elsewhere. In that case, outcry about the provision of a service came to nothing: in the end, no-one used it.

424. Time will tell whether the outreach offices succeed. Post Office Ltd is committed to reviewing their use after six months. That is why it is absolutely critical that local people collect data and nail down the issues at review.

425. Mr Irwin: Absolutely, in that particular instance was the problem that the service was reduced to such a level that it was no longer practical for people to use it?

426. Dr Edmondson: Exactly, then it fails totally.

427. Mr T Clarke: Given the four criteria, is it fair to say that, to be profitable, a post office must have many opening sessions?

428. Dr Edmondson: Post office managers say it depends on the type of sessions.

429. Mr T Clarke: Last week, the Committee heard from a man making £48,000 a year and I put it to Post Office Ltd that such a turnover must have involved a lot of sessions. Even if you take away the £10,000 allowance he is still left with £38,000. I believe he had a weekly footfall of 1,400. How can his office be selected for closure over loss-making offices with 30 to 100 customers a week?

430. Dr Edmondson: It is probably the access criteria.

431. Mr T Clarke: Much of this exercise was about Post Office Ltd losing money. Three of those criteria I could apply in that case, but he has failed on the access criteria. However, fixing the access criteria is not going to save Post Office Ltd across the UK any money. We have a profitable post office that is carrying out a large number of transactions; is it to be shut just on access criteria?

432. Miss McCloskey: Are you talking about a typical example, such as Parkhall?

433. Mr T Clarke: Not in this case; however, I could cite Parkhall as an example.

434. Miss McCloskey: These are some of the arguments that are emerging. As Maureen said, we do not have access to financial records. We do not know whether offices are profitable. All we know is that the four criteria have been used to rank post offices.

435. Mr T Clarke: How can you regulate that? If you do not have the full information to judge how Post Office Ltd has reached a decision, how can you ensure that the criteria have been correctly followed? I think that your hands are tied.

436. Dr Edmondson: No, Post Office Ltd has set the criteria and has the numbers to feed into the economic model that it has created. The Government ordered Post Office Ltd to close 2,500 post offices and spelled out their access criteria. The Government also told Post Office Ltd to take into account socio-economic, demographic and topographic issues, particularly in relation to vulnerable communities.

437. We have to scrutinise against those criteria. In that role, Postwatch UK has pressed Post Office Ltd to tell us what model it is using to select which post offices are going to close. Selecting the post offices for closure is Post Office Ltd’s job, not ours, and they are selecting them against those criteria.

438. Customer sessions do not, necessarily, translate into profit. Financial savings for Post Office Ltd will also be about the type of transaction. Proximity to other branches may well have a big effect, because if they are very close to other post offices they are more likely to be closed than if there is a bigger distance between them. Another factor is relative size of the branch and where people may take their business.

439. Therefore, the one or two post offices you describe may well have been run through the model, been allocated a ranking, and targeted for closure.

440. The trouble is that, if one is saved, the model is run again because Post Office Ltd has to get rid of 2,500 branches. The model is run again, and another one comes out — the next nearest in that particular vicinity — because closure has to be spread fairly evenly across the country, rather than concentrated in one area.

441. We have been informed by economists that the validity of the model is reasonable. None of these economic models is perfect; however, we are told that that is a reasonable model, and that it is not unreasonable to use it for this purpose.

442. Mr T Clarke: So hypothetically we could have a situation where all the profit-making branches are closed and branches that are losing money are retained, just to keep them in the right location?

443. Dr Edmondson: I do not think that it is quite as simple as that. Some unprofitable branches would stay; otherwise, if just the unprofitable branches were removed, great swathes of Northern Ireland and the UK would be left without any post offices. In effect, the system would be wiped clean.

444. That model is not socially sustainable as there would be many people without access to any postal services whatsoever. That is the dilemma that Post Office Ltd have to deal with.

445. The Chairperson: I thank Postwatch for coming in this afternoon, for their presentation and for answering the Committee’s questions.

13 May 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr John Dallat
Ms Carmel Hanna
Ms Anna Lo
Mr Fra McCann
Ms Claire McGill
Mr George Savage

Witnesses:

Mr Paul Herink
Mr Andrew Murie

 

Citizens Advice Bureau Northern Ireland

Ms Ciara Convie
Mr Duane Farrell

 

Help the Aged

Mr Stephen Crosby
Ms Yvonne Morrison
Ms Alison Smyth

 

Wandsworth Community Centre

446. The Chairperson (Mr Newton): I thank you for coming, gentlemen. The Committee has set aside 30 minutes for your evidence session. Perhaps you would outline your presentation in 10 to 15 minutes, and leave the remainder for questions and answers.

447. Mr Andrew Murie (Citizens Advice Bureau Northern Ireland): I hope that Committee members will forgive me for repeating the briefing that I have already provided to the Committee, but, in the short time available, it was all that I could put together. Citizens Advice is the largest advice charity in Northern Ireland, working against poverty and meeting the information and advice needs of some 260,000 people a year. Citizens Advice NI has formal links with national Citizens Advice in England and Wales, and a close working relationship with Citizens Advice Scotland. Together, the three associations constitute the largest advice network in Europe, with more than 60 years’ experience of providing advice and information to the public.

448. Citizens Advice has funding relationships with 24 of Northern Ireland’s district councils, and, in the 12 months up to March 2008, it had a turnover of some £4·5 million, of which the Citizens Advice regional office accounted for £1·6 million.

449. The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) service delivers advice from 28 bureaux across the country. In addition to the comprehensive network of CAB offices, from urban city centres to isolated rural communities, we also provide extensive outreach services in locations ranging from GP surgeries and hospitals, to community centres and mental-health facilities. Citizens Advice depends on 278 volunteers and 165 staff across the 28 bureaux.

450. The post office network plays a number of incredibly important roles for CAB clients, many of whom are among the most vulnerable members of society. That is particularly the case for those who live in rural or urban deprived areas, where alternatives, such as access to basic financial services, may be limited or non-existent. The CAB network reaches into almost every corner of Northern Ireland, so our evidence is the result of actual experiences gained by CAB advisers based on anonymous client-case evidence. That is made possible by the CAB services’ social-policy feedback mechanism, through which bureaux can highlight problems in their area by sending in specific case examples that are indicative of wider issues.

451. In response to the invitation to give evidence to the Committee, we also undertook a specific survey of CAB advisers. We had wanted to conduct a survey of our clients, but, given the time constraints, that was difficult, so, instead, we asked our advisers what they thought about what was happening. They were asked their thoughts on the services and products that the post office network offers to CAB clients; the strengths of the network; its failings; and, perhaps most importantly, what the future of the post office network should be.

452. Any reduction in the number of post offices will hit the most vulnerable groups hard. An overwhelming 95% of CAB advisers believe that vulnerable people in their community would suffer if their local post office were to close. Closures would also have a profound impact on the wider community and other local businesses’ viability. The adviser survey also shows the principal reasons for post office usage: 100% said for postal services; 95% said for collecting benefits; 90% said for paying bills; and 86% said to access official documents like passport applications, although I think that that service is becoming unavailable in post offices. A number of advisers highlighted the fact that, for many people, it was a one-stop shop for collecting benefits, paying a bill and sending a parcel.

453. When asked how people valued post office services, the community role scored extremely high, at 95%. Convenient location was particularly important, scoring 68%. Some 68% of advisers cited helpful staff as being one of post offices’ main selling points. Staff will often refer clients to CAB if they are having difficulty accessing cash, or having problems with payments.

454. Post offices also play a broader role in the community, with many people using their local branch as a place to meet, chat and exchange information. The social cohesion that that creates is difficult to quantify or define, but it may include elements such as convenience, neighbourliness, and providing a community with an identity and focal point.

455. A recent Scottish Executive study into the role of post offices in rural communities highlighted three main social roles: promoting financial inclusion; acting as a hub for the community; and providing advice and support through post office staff that extends beyond providing counter duties to playing a wider community role.

456. CAB clients and advisers place significant value on post offices and believe that any closures will have a detrimental effect on individuals and communities. Communities will become eroded, with the loss of bus services, community centres, shops, schools, banks and post offices. It is impossible to save every community centre or post office. However, unless we try, communities will disappear.

457. A decline in business is a key threat to the viability of post offices. Innovative ways in which to extend and revitalise the post office network must be sought in order to secure its long-term, sustainable future. That means creating an emphasis other than the sole existing one, which is to rationalise and reduce services.

458. The CAB adviser survey supports other well-documented evidence on the social benefits of the post office network, particularly in rural areas. The survey shows that significant numbers of people across the country use a post office for governmental services, such as paying car tax, collecting official forms and discovering information. That indicates the scope that exists to develop post offices into convenient, accessible, one-stop shops for Government services.

459. However, the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Various Government agencies are withdrawing services from post offices and delivering them by other means. The BBC, for example, awarded TV licensing to PayPoint, and the UK Identity and Passport Service favours a private organisation over post offices’ counter services.

460. Departments should think more deeply and widely about innovative ways in which to use the extensive post office network. Great benefit could be derived should central Government and local government deliver services and disseminate information through post offices. Voluntary organisations may also have a role to play that could increase footfall. For example, CAB kiosks in post offices could be used not only to distribute information but to access electronic services not directly available through post offices.

461. Citizens Advice wants Departments to add post offices to other access channels for their services, products and information. Government should also encourage local authorities to do the same with much more of their services. Local councils should consider taking over the running of local post offices as a way of combining postal and council services. The Local Government Association (LGA) in England and Wales has already recognised that as a viable option.

462. To allow postal services to be delivered from local community centres is also feasible, particularly in remote rural areas. That approach is being evaluated in the Scottish Highlands, where proposed closures will impose social hardship on many people.

463. As I have said, Citizens Advice deals with around 260,000 people a year in Northern Ireland and, like the Post Office, commands community trust. At the heart of our service is an abundance of social capital, which has been established through a web of relationships and through goodwill created by its volunteer ethos. The Post Office also values its social capital in communities. It is a trusted agency at the centre of a social structure and is not seen as overtly commercial.

464. Citizens Advice wants to develop partnerships that enable postal and CAB services to be accessed at single locations. That would considerably increase the footfall for both services and improve economies of scale. The adviser survey also found that 81% of advisers considered partnerships with community organisations were a good idea.

465. Mr Paul Herink (Citizens Advice Bureau Northern Ireland): The Post Office has not had the freedom to operate commercially, in the true sense of the word. Therefore, the Government must decide on one of three options. First, the Post Office could be given the freedom to operate commercially, so that it might compete with private-sector organisations, the consequence of which would be the removal of a commitment to universal service and charging. Secondly, the Government could apply a cost-benefit analysis and subsidise the service as an important part of the social infrastructure, thereby benefiting from the historical social capital. Finally, the Government could allow the Post Office to operate as a social-economy enterprise, as defined by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) in its publication ‘Developing a Successful Social Economy’.

466. To conclude, 95% of our advisers felt that vulnerable people in the community would suffer badly from the closure of their local post offices. Advisers most frequently cited the community role, convenient location and helpful staff as positive features of the Post Office for our clients. Of the problems that CAB clients experience with post offices, 68% cited withdrawing cash and 59% cited long queues.

467. Some 100% of advisers said that CAB clients use the post office for postal services; 95% said that clients could collect their benefit income there; and 90% said that clients used it to pay bills. The closure of local post offices would reduce the custom of nearby businesses, according to 81% of advisers, and 72% stated that it might put the future of local businesses at serious risk.

468. When advisers were asked what they thought should be the core services and products of post offices, 86% stated postal services, 87% cited access to cash benefits and 87% said the ability to pay bills there. A vast majority of advisers felt the closure of local post offices to be not a good idea.

469. We have considered several options that must be energetically evaluated to try to address the current trend of post office closures across the United Kingdom. Government at local, regional and national levels should make greater use of post offices as an access channel for information and services — as opposed to the current situation.

470. Local councils could take over, or run, post offices in partnership. That trend is attracting much interest across England and in Wales. Essex County Council led the way, but Falkirk Council in Scotland is considering running post offices, with a view to their being cost-neutral and providing a vehicle for the delivery of local, as well as postal, services.

471. The establishment of community-run post offices, particularly in the more remote rural areas, is also viable, and has been considered for parts of the Highlands. Communities there are isolated, and the closure of post offices would have a significant detrimental effect on the community, particularly on those who have disabilities or mobility issues.

472. There is also mileage to be made from partnerships between CAB and post offices. We are expert at providing information and advice, and, as post offices are the access points for some of those services, there is the opportunity for excellent synergy.

473. The crux of the matter is that the Government must define the future of the Post Office: is it to be a purely commercial enterprise or has it a role in binding the social fabric?

474. The Chairperson: I thank Andrew and Paul for their presentation. Your submission states that the option of allowing local councils to take over the running of local post offices:

“has been recognised as a viable proposition by the Local Government Association in England and Wales.”

475. I presume that a study has been carried out on that.

476. Mr Herink: The extent of proposed closures, particularly in the north-east, means that 50 councils in England and Wales have been considering that option, which is backed by the Minister at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), who is responsible for postal affairs.

477. Mr Murie: I am not aware of any feasibility study on the proposal for local councils to take over local post offices.

478. Mr Herink: Essex County Council has carried out some financial studies on the proposal, and it is convinced that it can take over the ownership of post offices and run them as a cost-neutral service over the course of three years’ investment.

479. The Chairperson: Did you not say that the LGA had recognised that as a viable proposition?

480. Mr Herink: The proposal certainly has the LGA’s support. Therefore, we can assume that the LGA is aware of the negatives but that it does not consider them to outweigh the positives, at least for the moment.

481. Mr Beggs: I sense that the Government and other public bodies have been directing benefits and other payments away from post offices. Now the Government complain about the lack of payments going through post offices. Government have been encouraging benefit claimants to have their payments made directly, as a first option, to a bank account; secondly, to a basic bank account; and, finally, through the Post Office card account. That goes back to the transition from benefit books to the new system. Are the Government still encouraging people to process payments through alternatives to post offices?

482. Mr Murie: They certainly are. It is clear that the Government are taking away many of the services that post offices used to provide.

483. Mr Beggs: We were talking about public bodies; for example, the BBC’s TV licence fee can be paid for through PayPoint. I have had a poor experience of that. One of my constituents, a pensioner, complained about not being able to trace an initial payment, and that caused him considerable inconvenience and worry. Do you encounter such issues regularly?

484. Mr Murie: Yes. One of the major issues with the Post Office card account was the concern that, when the pension books were withdrawn, elderly people would not know what was happening. Previously, they took their pension books to the post office and collected their money. Now they do not have a clue what goes into their bank accounts, because of the Post Office card account. That is the main complaint that the bureau receives.

485. Mr Beggs: In the case of the BBC licence fee, the pensioner had his receipt for a payment. He telephoned the licensing people and quoted the figures from that receipt, but he still received threatening letters from them. Have you come across such cases?

486. Mr Murie: No, not personally. However, if I were to ask advisers in the bureau, I am sure that that issue would have arisen.

487. Mr Beggs: You mentioned that even the UK passport service may be available through other bodies. Passports are available from the UK Identity and Passport Service, or one’s post office will check an initial application and forward it to the that organisation. What other options are there?

488. Mr Murie: One can still apply for a passport in some main post offices, but that service has been taken away from some rural post offices.

489. Mr Beggs: Your submission seems to suggest that some additional routes are being opened up, and that even the passport service is being directed away from post offices.

490. Mr Herink: The UK Identity and Passport Service’s primary interface is now the Internet. One can fill in forms on the website and receive an application form in the post, so the need to visit a post office can be bypassed. There are proposals to conduct interviews for passport applications, and that suggests that the viability of using post offices as an intermediary may disappear altogether.

491. Mr T Clarke: You referred to the Essex County Council model, and although I do not disagree with that in principle, it seems as though some of the alternatives are being introduced because post offices are not viable. What we hear, in evidence from various groups, is that viable post offices are being closed. To look at the Essex model is to ask local government to subsidise mistakes that have been made by central Government. From that point of view, I have a problem with the idea that local government should roll out post offices across Northern Ireland to subsidise central Government’s mistakes. I have a problem with the Essex proposals and with some of the other models that you suggested.

492. Mr Herink: Essex County Council does not propose taking on the whole network. I do not know enough about the financial background of that move. However, the model is that the post offices will remain as a vehicle for delivering other governmental services, so they will be part of a rationalisation. It is clearly stated — although it is yet to be proven — that those post offices would not be run as loss-making enterprises.

493. We would be concerned if it were a simple case of moving the goalposts, and if the burden of debt were being moved from one part of the public sector to another. Post Office Ltd is a very large organisation, with very large overheads. If it was being run at a more local level, perhaps the overheads —

494. Mr T Clarke: If central Government cannot make a post office viable, then moving responsibility for it to local government does not make it any more viable. Some of the decisions that have been made about some of the 42 proposed closures prove that those post offices are viable; the decisions were made on access criteria.

495. Mr Murie: Are you talking about viability from a profit point of view?

496. Mr T Clarke: Yes. From a business point of view, viability means profitability.

497. Mr Murie: That would depend on whether it was desirable that the post offices should continue on a commercial basis.

498. Mr T Clarke: That is the point that I am trying to make. To ask local government to examine the Essex model is to ask local councils to consider subsidising mistakes made by central Government.

499. Mr Murie: That is only an option, as far as we are concerned. We are looking at any viable options that could save local post offices. It is up to the people in Government to decide how that goes forward. Most of the subsidies, for example, will go to local rural post offices in that part of the network which, as you say, is not viable. Most of the post offices based in shops are more viable, and they will not close. The local rural communities are the ones that will suffer. As far as I am concerned, it is not a question of subsidies; it is about social investment. Post offices should not be seen as commercial enterprises; they have a social function.

500. Mr Dallat: How much of this has been forced on us by European legislation, and by competitive pressures? Has it had a central role in bringing about the current crisis?

501. Mr Herink: I do not know. I know that the Post Office Ltd is in a difficult position, because it is forced to operate in a commercial market without the freedom to operate commercially. It still has some public service functions, and, as we have said, that element must be examined and recognised, and a decision must be taken. We recognise that the current situation is not viable in the long term.

502. Mr Dallat: At the beginning of the last century, the first cars were made to look like horseless carriages, because that was all that people would drive. We are in a situation now in which the Post Office Ltd has to take on a new concept that, so far, we have not seen. The debates on the subject that took place in Westminster, four or five years ago, dragged on forever. The Assembly set up a pilot study group, which got as far as Coleraine before the Assembly was suspended. It might be useful to examine the work that was done by that group.

503. My own view is that bits and pieces of the puzzle remain, but they do not easily attach. Some post offices in England have become a point of contact in areas where police stations have closed. That is worth considering in Northern Ireland, bearing in mind the huge number of police stations that have closed. The financial element that makes post offices viable is the relationship with the banks. We have been told that they are tied up with the Northern Bank and the Bank of Ireland, so that is a non-starter. However, the credit unions, which are community-based organisations with very low overheads, are keen to be included in whatever discussions take place. I imagine that that applies to both kinds of credit unions, because they all work on the same principles.

504. As a group, we must get to the stage where the paradigms are much wider. Otherwise, we will end up producing a report that concludes that there is nothing to be done. I am sure that the Citizens Advice Bureau would be the first to say that post office closures will impinge on the poorest people in society who currently do not even have a bank account because they cannot get in the front door of a bank. However, if the post offices were open and accessible, that missing 8% would have the right to be included. That should be noted so that we can examine it again.

505. Mr Murie: I certainly believe that the Government have to grasp the nettle on this one. It is not just a question of finance: it is a social question.

506. Local areas need the post office; it is part of the local community. Banks, pubs and garages are disappearing, and now post offices are being closed as well. As soon as the post office is taken out of a village, the heart is taken out of the community, and that village becomes a place that people merely pass through, because there is no reason to stop. Local people gather to talk at the post office. I know of pensioners who meet their friends at the post office without even having to arrange to do so; they know who will be there at a particular time. If that is taken away, the heart will be taken out of their community.

507. The Chairperson: It is important that we keep to time. Anna Lo and Trevor Clarke will ask their questions respectively, and unless members have any burning questions, we will keep to our timetable.

508. Ms Lo: I believe that the post office should operate as a public service; however, your paper states that the Government should provide Post Office Ltd with the freedom to operate commercially. How would that work?

509. The Chairperson: Trevor Clarke will ask his question, and you can respond to the two questions together.

510. Mr T Clarke: If something funded by local government takes over a post office that was up for closure, that will have an effect on those that were not.

511. Mr Murie: We do not suggest that every post office has been targeted for closure. I understand that some post offices will close. Do you suggest that one post office will be run on a commercial basis while another is run by local government as a public service? That is not what we suggest.

512. Mr T Clarke: You said that the local post office is a social hub. That might be so, but some are viable and some are not. You suggest that the system be replaced with something akin to the Essex model. One criterion set by the Post Office Ltd was that the neighbouring post office must have the capacity to cope with the extra business, which would increase its profitability. However, if a post office is kept open under your suggested model, the purpose of what the Post Office Ltd is trying to achieve will be negated.

513. Mr Murie: We are not making any hard-and-fast proposals; there needs to be a lot of thought about this. If we want post offices, we must look at how they can be maintained. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution; neither will there be universal provision of local authority-provided post offices. We do not have any answers. We have merely suggested that our options should be examined and judged on their own merits.

514. Other communities have been faced with similar challenges, and they are going through the same process. For a long time, there has been a view that local post offices are necessary; however, in their current form, that view is unsustainable. We need to be creative, and we are here today to help stimulate that debate.

515. Ms Lo: You have suggested that the post offices could operate commercially. How will that work?

516. Mr Herink: It is inevitable that there will be more post office closures in the future, unless the Post Office Ltd can get onto a sound commercial footing. The Government have to decide whether they will allow the Post Office Ltd to compete commercially. If it can, it is possible that fewer post offices will close in the long term. It is in an unholy halfway house at present, because, although it has to compete, it cannot do so on the same terms. We see another phase of closures, which will, probably, be followed by closures in years to come.

517. Mr Murie: I do not envy the Committee’s position, because not even the Government know whether to offer post offices commercial freedom. Until that is sorted out, the only thing that we can do is suggest alternative models. As it stands, all hands are tied.

518. Mr Beggs: In what areas do post offices not have commercial freedom? After all, they provide household insurance, foreign currency, travel insurance.

519. Mr Herink: The big issue is that the Post Office Ltd has to provide a universal service at a universal price. Private carriers can cherry-pick; they can take the profitable routes and leave out the rest.

520. Mr Beggs: There is a European directive, which prevents cross-subsidisation between Royal Mail and the Post Office Ltd.

521. Mr Herink: There has been a lot of news coverage since last week’s report, which said that the consumer has not so far had a good deal as a result of deregulation. That is partly because private enterprise can cherry-pick the commercially-viable business and, quite often, use the Post Office Ltd for the high-cost low-return local delivery. There has to be a level playing field.

522. The Chairperson: Mr Savage has a burning question. George, please keep it short.

523. Mr Savage: The words have been put in my mouth. Bearing in mind that Citizens Advice is fairly well financed by local government, do you envisage a link-up in the near future?

524. Mr Herink: We can see a model for joint provision of services under the same roof. Whether the Citizens Advice Bureau would ever become a substitute post office is another matter.

525. Mr Savage: Do you accept the possibility of what was described as a one-stop shop; and can the Citizens Advice Bureau see itself being involved in such an undertaking?

526. Mr Herink: Without looking into a crystal ball, nothing can be ruled in or ruled out. There would be synergies in an advice-giving organisation such as ours working closely with the postal service in providing advice on services delivered by the Post Office Ltd.

527. The Chairperson: I thank Andrew Murie and Paul Herink for appearing before the Committee.

528. Mr Herink: Thank you for allowing us to put our case.

529. The Chairperson: I welcome Duane Farrell and Ciara Convie from Help the Aged. Thank you very much for your attendance. Duane is head of policy, research and communication; Ciara is head of community development and services. A period of 30 minutes has been made available for the presentation and questions from members. The Committee would be grateful if you could stick to that timescale.

530. We may be required to attend a vote. If a division bell sounds during your presentation and we leave the room, it has absolutely nothing to do with your presentation. The Assembly might demand our vote.

531. Mr Duane Farrell (Help the Aged): Thank you very much. We can easily meet your 30-minute timeline. We will talk to you proactively for approximately five minutes, and then leave some time for questions and answers.

532. We appreciate this opportunity to address the Committee. As a charity that works locally in Northern Ireland to free older people from the disadvantages of poverty, isolation and neglect, we are seriously concerned about the proposed programme of post office closures in Northern Ireland. Post offices play an important role for older people. Sometimes, that role is very formal; at other times, more informal.

533. It goes without saying that older people in Northern Ireland constitute a very diverse group, from some of the wealthiest people to some of the poorest. Our focus is on those older people who, day and daily, experience isolation, neglect and poverty. It is their views that we represent today.

534. The reality for those older people is quite harsh. One in five daily experiences social isolation. One in four lives in poverty, and up to 49% of older people in Northern Ireland are entitled to benefits that would alleviate their poverty, but that they do not claim.

535. If that issue is taken out of the Northern Ireland-wide context and considered in a specifically rural one, we find that up to 53% of older people in rural areas are at risk of poverty.

536. Over the last few years, Help the Aged has been heavily involved in the post office debate in the UK and Northern Ireland. In our report of a few years ago, ‘In the Right Place: accessibility, local services and older people’, we spoke to older people to find out what was important in the services that they received in post offices.

537. Most older people rated the post office on a par with doctors’ surgeries, as a place they visited weekly and from which they received important information. They told us that, for the post office to be a viable service for them, close proximity was necessary. That was defined as a walk of no more than 10 minutes, calculated to be about half a mile. We used that information to make a submission to the Department of Trade and Industry, which urged application of the minimum access criteria. We felt that that was delivered in the initial consultation.

538. Through compiling that report, and our ongoing discussions with older people, we learned that the post office serves obvious functions, such as collection of pension and access to commercial services; however, older people have told us about the many other roles that the post office provides. It is a social outlet in the community; a space in which to meet friends and neighbours; and it is a source of information on services and benefits. Furthermore, active members of the community can, for example, recognise if a woman from down the road, who comes in every Tuesday, fails to come in one Tuesday. In that way, thoughts can be triggered in people’s minds about checking on older people.

539. Help the Aged in Northern Ireland is recognised as a regional charity. It is perhaps not best placed to get involved in individual debates about which post offices remain open and which close; however, the needs of older people must be at the forefront of that debate. Members have seen copies of the briefing pack that we produced and disseminated to older people earlier this year. That asks them to walk the routes, and collect the evidence that will build a case as to what proposals will work in their areas.

540. That has thrown up some interesting evidence. We talked to an older woman who found that, although the proposals met the proximity guidance and the minimum-access criteria, that her walk was mostly uphill and that she could not face it every week. Another woman had to use an underpass which was a gathering-place for local homeless people. A threat was perceived, particularly since she was going to the post office to pick up her pension.

541. Our effort, through community development, has been to support older people in their communities, and encourage them to walk the routes and collate the evidence. We strongly believe that the needs of older people must be front-of-mind in the current exercise. Those are our current concerns.

542. We are happy to answer members’ questions.

543. The Chairperson: Has Help the Aged made any survey or collated results in respect of this matter?

544. Mr Farrell: No; however, we offer to support people in tabulating results in local areas.

545. Mr Dallat: You make comparisons between Northern Ireland and Britain. Are there not significant demographic differences between the two, for example, in relation to the urban/rural split? My impression is that Northern Ireland is much more rural.

546. Mr Farrell: I am sorry: I do not understand your question.

547. Mr Dallat: In Britain, there are large concentrations of population in urban areas. Northern Ireland, outside Belfast, is fundamentally rural. I wonder what difference that makes to local communities where there is an absence of rural transport, footpaths and street lighting, and where there are hills and all the difficulties that you have mentioned.

548. Mr Farrell: The accessibility of those services is an ever more pressing need. We have been speaking to the witnesses from Wandsworth Community Centre, who are scheduled to give evidence to the Committee next. They have examined the absence of transport and infrastructure. They have spoken about the very issues that we have mentioned, such as the perceived threat of walking along streets. It brings into play community-safety considerations, and the issue of whether older people feel safe and secure accessing those services and coming home with their weekly pension in their pocket. There is an ever more pressing need for accessibility, because Northern Ireland is a largely rural population. We know that the rural transport infrastructure is poor in Northern Ireland. Our organisation has a specific set of concerns about the context of that debate for rural communities in Northern Ireland.

549. Mr Dallat: Is it also true that, being a rural population, we are dependent on the convenience of the Spar, the Mace and other local shops, which themselves depend on the local post office for survival? If the post office goes, the local supply of food goes, too.

550. Ms Ciara Convie (Help the Aged): Absolutely. Some of the evidence that we have heard locally from older people has told us that the post office is the centre of the community, and attracts other business to the area. For example, if the post office were to close, the pharmacist next door could also go, as could the doctor’s surgery. Where would that leave communities? Once the post office goes, there will be knock-on implications.

551. Mr Dallat: It is useful to bear that in mind, because, at the end of the day, it may prove highly significant.

552. Mrs McGill: You mentioned that your organisation has been engaging with the Post Office on that issue for some time. What has been its response? How susceptible has the Post Office been to your argument?

553. Mr Farrell: A couple of years ago, we produced a report that examined the proximity issue, and the fact that there is a real correlation between disability and old age. At the initial stage of the closure programme, when the consultation was carried out, we felt that some of the minimum-access criteria that we had proposed were taken on board throughout that exercise. Much of the engagement has been on a UK-wide basis with our colleagues in London.

554. Mrs McGill: Given what we have discovered today, it has been highlighted that there really is a difference between here and England in how some of the criteria have been drawn up. For example, to determine population numbers, what constitutes “urban” and what “rural”? You say that you have been speaking to colleagues in England?

555. Mr Farrell: To our colleagues in London, yes.

556. Mrs McGill: Has that point been made that there is a difference? Is that difference recognised?

557. Ms Convie: Our position, historically, has been that our organisation would prefer post offices to remain open. Unfortunately, however, the business case that has been presented makes it clear that some will close. We recognised that we would not win a national campaign that was aimed at keeping every post office open, and that the way in which to work was from the ground up. We have equipped people to challenge the closures locally in order to have more success. We could pave the way with a set of minimum-access criteria, which we successfully formulated. Those criteria would apply, irrespective of the location.

558. Mrs McGill: Did you say that you were successful in your fight to establish minimum-access criteria?

559. Ms Convie: No, a success for our organisation would have been to keep all post offices open, but when we knew that was not viable, we fought to ensure that everybody had access to a post office.

560. Mrs McGill: Therefore, no undertaking was given that the post offices would remain open?

561. Mr Farrell: Absolutely not, no.

562. Mr Savage: The methodology of pensions, and so on, being paid through post offices seems to have resulted in the latest closure programme. Where will it stop? I know that the closure of post offices is a bitter pill to swallow, because they are a lifeline to elderly people in a community.

563. What can we do to stop closures? I asked the same question last week. So many post offices are closing now, but what concerns me most is whether we shall learn about more closures next year.

564. Ms Convie: The Government strategy for benefit uptake will involve benefits being accessed through an online system and a direct payment being made into people’s bank account. A considerable number of older people still will not access their benefits in that way. That may change, however. The elderly population in 10 or 20 years’ time will be very different from today’s, but, until then, a considerable number of older people will not use technology to access their benefits.

565. Mr Savage: The older generation will find that very hard to adapt.

566. Ms Convie: Yes, particularly the very old — they are probably the most vulnerable group and are the people about whom we are most concerned.

567. Mr F McCann: Like everything else, it is quite depressing to hear about the impact that post office closures will have. We have raised the issue of areas of high social deprivation. During a meeting where I live, it became clear that a catchment area of several thousand people was not enough to keep the post office open. Trevor Clarke mentioned a profitable post office in his area that is also closing. There are areas where old-age pensioners completely rely on the services that post offices provide.

568. I am not sure whether you have any statistics available, but I am concerned about the impact that closures will have on pensioners who rely on home helps. I know people who have a home help come in only a couple of times a week for 15, 20 or 30 minutes. If the distance that they must travel to a post office is extended, all the home help’s time may be spent getting them there. The home help’s role would then be reduced to simply going to the post office, because they would not have time to do anything else in the house. Has any of the arguments taken that into consideration? I know that, when I raised that issue with Post Office representatives, at least one of them appeared not to have taken that into consideration. It also has an impact economically, especially in areas of high social deprivation.

569. Mr Farrell: Your point relates to the challenges presented by an ageing society and how we are not currently stepping up to meet those challenges. Help the Aged’s ‘Spotlight Report 2007’ highlights how 23% of older people feel that they do not get the help necessary to leave the house or undertake everyday tasks, such as visiting the post office. It is a real challenge to determine how to value the more social aspects of people’s lives and the impact that being able to access services has on those; for example, the role that a post office plays in older people’s lives. That has not been taken into consideration. A very economic- and business-based approach seems to have been taken in devising the closure programme. The social impact of it — that is, how it impacts on people’s lives — must be considered.

570. Ms Convie: Older people are probably the highest client users of post offices, so that is another blow for them.

571. Mr F McCann: Many of them will also never access a bank account.

572. Ms Convie: That is true. You point relates to our ongoing campaign to apply age-discrimination legislation beyond education and employment, into ensuring access to good facilities and services. If something were available to protect older people, we would not be in that position.

573. Ms Lo: We have been running a campaign on the Lisburn Road to save its post office. As you mentioned earlier, many elderly people told us that they are very concerned about safety and security. Do you have any figures that demonstrate that elderly people are particularly concerned about carrying their benefits for an extra half a mile — or even a mile — when they are returning from the post office?

574. The Chairperson: The Division bell has sounded, so I ask you to consider your answer to that question. We will go to vote and will return as soon as possible.

Committee suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming —

575. The Chairperson: Ms Lo asked a question before the Division bell sounded.

576. Ms Lo: Mr Farrell, you obviously have much contact with elderly people. They would be concerned about their safety and security if they had to walk that extra half a mile to and from the post office. Many older people on the Lisburn Road are concerned that their post office is to cease being a purpose-built post office and will move to a shop, where there will be other shoppers. Their fear must be that people would see them collecting their money. Would that fear be common?

577. Mr Farrell: Absolutely. We have some statistics that show that 23% of people aged 75 and over are very concerned about being burgled and that 20% of those aged 75 or over are very concerned about being mugged. The correlation between the experience of crime and the fear of crime varies, because younger people are more likely to be victims of crime. However, that fear, and that perception of being a victim of crime, is debilitating for older people. Indeed, we have older people involved in the age sector who lock seven doors before going to bed. If anything were to happen in the middle of the night, emergency services could not gain access to the house.

578. The community safety strategy for older people was promised in 2002, yet it still has not been delivered. A draft strategy is currently with the Northern Ireland Office. As part of the debate on post office closures, community safety is a major concern for older people. Those statistics are from the 2005 Northern Ireland Crime Survey.

579. Ms Convie: We know that older people are deterred from going to the post office to collect their pension, because of the barrier that filling out forms creates. However, we have no doubt that, if certain post offices were to close, people who claim benefits and entitlements would face another barrier, despite our best efforts to increase awareness.

580. Mr Beggs: Thank you for your presentation. Your briefing pack on local campaigns includes a Postwatch survey that found that there was a 99% satisfaction rate with the 73 pilots for outreach services throughout the UK. That figure strikes me as surprisingly high, given that the people using the outreach services would also have been affected by the closure of their local post offices. Has Help the Aged gathered any information, from its members and contacts, or anecdotal information about people’s reactions to the new pilot services?

581. Ms Convie: We have encouraged people to think about what would happen if their post office were to close. To encourage people in their campaign against post office closures, we have asked them to consider ways in which access to postal services could be improved; ways in which older people could be encouraged to use them; and ways in which post offices that are earmarked for closure could be replaced.

582. Some older people have expressed concern that a mobile post office could increase the opportunity for crime in their area. Moreover, some may not view that service as normal or traditional.

583. There is also a concern that someone who provides a daily mobile outreach service across Northern Ireland would not deliver the same type of service as a postmaster who looks after his community and watches out for Mrs Jones, who goes to the post office on Tuesdays to collect her pension.

584. We have tried to encourage older people to gather evidence themselves to build a clearer picture of what could happen. We have also encouraged communities to look at alternative methods that could be used to maintain postal services for older people if their nearest post office were to close.

585. Mr Beggs: Does Help the Aged have any statistics or information on satisfaction ratings for the different types of pilots that have taken place?

586. Mr Farrell: We do not have that information to hand.

587. Mr Beggs: Have you encouraged individuals to gather evidence and responses?

588. Mr Farrell: Yes. We do not have any specific information that relates to satisfaction ratings in Northern Ireland. However, our colleagues across the UK may have some UK-wide statistics. If we come across any new information we will pass it on to the Committee Clerk.

589. Mr T Clarke: Although there are plans for 54 post offices to provide outreach services, do you share the view that that is only stopgap before they are closed altogether? I understand that those post offices will make business cases against the provision of outreach services, because it is not a viable option in light of the time given.

590. Mr Farrell: That is not something that we have examined closely, so I cannot answer that question.

591. The Chairperson: I thank you for your presence here today. You have provided the Committee with a rounded view on all aspects of the post office closure programme. You have been very helpful. Thank you for leaving information with us.

592. Mr Farrell: We appreciate the opportunity to address the Committee.

593. The Chairperson: If any new information becomes available you can give it to the Committee Clerk. We would be grateful if you could get that information to us before Friday, which is when we will start to put together our report.

594. I welcome representatives from Wandsworth Community Centre. The Committee feels that it is important to look at a community group which is representative of an urban position. A rural community network will make a presentation to the Committee on Thursday. I would appreciate Members’ attendance at that meeting to hear a rural perspective.

595. I welcome Stephen Crosby, committee member of Wandsworth Community Centre; Alison Smyth, development officer for Wandsworth Community Centre; and Yvonne Morrison, a member of the public who is associated with the community centre. The Committee has set aside 30 minutes for each round of evidence. Please make your presentation and allow the balance of time for the Members to ask questions.

596. Mr Stephen Crosby (Wandsworth Community Centre): I shall distribute some papers relating to Belmont Post Office, on which we focus. It is in east Belfast, and is very close to Knock and Knocknagoney, areas that have already experienced post office closures. The post office, therefore, covers quite a wide catchment area. The branch report offers the alternatives of Ballyhackamore and Strandtown. We do not support Belmont to the detriment of other post offices. There is a case for all three.

597. We live in a very densely populated area, with a high percentage of elderly people. One of our difficulties as a community centre is that the issue is divisive. In the area served by the centre, people are starting to compare one post office with another. We do not encourage a reversal of the decision on one post office to the detriment of another. The days of community fighting community should have passed. Belmont is, and can be, a viable post office; unfortunately, however, if the decision on Belmont post office is reversed — which we think is necessary — the impact on other post offices causes division among other communities, even in east Belfast. We are not here to compare one area to another.

598. Initially, Yvonne Morrison and other concerned residents contacted us, as a community centre, asking for a public meeting to be set up. We did that.

599. We invited our local MP, five MLAs, including Lord Browne — who is a regular user of Belmont post office — and local councillors. Everyone responded. The closure of Belmont post office is an all-party issue in east Belfast. I am sure that that is the case for other post offices across Northern Ireland. It is good for us, as members of the public, to see all parties united in the post office cause. Wandsworth Community Centre is cross-community and attracts people from all religious and political backgrounds, not just unionist.

600. Northern Ireland and Scotland appear to be bearing the brunt of post office closures. In Northern Ireland 18% of branches are under threat. That is significantly higher than the UK average, which, I understand, is approximately 5%. If I were cynical, I would suggest that that is because Northern Ireland and Scotland probably do not have any real power in the United Kingdom. However, that is a different issue. I hope the Committee will alert Westminster to the significantly bigger impact of closure plans in Northern Ireland.

601. Thanks to investment of £12,500 roughly two years ago, Belmont post office is wheelchair-friendly, and provides a disability service that some other post offices — even those in our neighbourhood — cannot.

602. With regard to customer footfall, Belmont does not fall into the under-100-a-week category that makes up 20% of Northern Ireland post offices. Belmont, Strandtown and Ballyhackamore post offices all have 1,000-1,500 customers a week.

603. We held a public meeting to discuss the closure. Did the Committee get minutes?

604. The Chairperson: Yes, for members’ information, the minutes of the public meeting that was held in CIYMS rugby club are tabled.

605. Mr Crosby: The public meeting was attended by 200 people. I believe it was the largest of 22 such meetings held in Northern Ireland to discuss 42 planned post office closures. Leading politicians were present, and the meeting gave us a mandate to fight for the retention of Belmont post office.

606. Figures provided to us by N.I. Census, show that Belmont’s general population density is 33·71%, and stands at 22·4% for people aged over 60. In comparison to Belfast and the Northern Ireland average, therefore, there is a strong case for three post offices. The need and the demand are there. Census figures show that 15·4% of households are occupied by lone pensioners, and that 37·4% are home to one or more persons with long-term illnesses. That gives an idea of the impact that closing Belmont post office will have on east Belfast — a relatively highly populated area — as a whole. Almost 1,800 physically disabled people live there.

607. Staff from Post Office Ltd responded poorly when confronted with those statistics at our public meeting. They were being shot down every time, and they refused to reveal whether an individual post office was making a profit — from which we can infer that it was. The representatives of Post Office Ltd dug a bigger and bigger hole for themselves every time that they spoke. I chaired the meeting, which became heated, and twice I was almost at the point of asking one gentleman to leave. The vast majority of concerned people who attended the meeting were elderly, although not all, as Belmont is one of the larger post offices.

608. I am not naïve enough to think that Belmont post office exists purely to provide a nice social service. It must make money. One of our recommendations, however, is that alternatives to its closure should be considered. That post office has the facilities to expand, but its request to provide motor tax, passports and ATMs was refused. It can, and wants to, provide those services, but has been denied the opportunity to do so.

609. As the previous witnesses perhaps mentioned, there is no direct bus service to any of the alternative post offices — not only from Belmont to an alternative post office, but from Knocknagoney, which is in the Knock direction.

610. One of the alternative post offices is located in a garage, and previous witnesses mentioned a concern that people coming to collect their money would be spotted and followed. The Government are parading an option in which elderly, vulnerable people throughout Northern Ireland would go to the post office less often and, therefore, carry larger amounts of money.

611. Belmont Post Office is peculiar, in that it provides an education programme to a local primary school, situated approximately 40 metres way. It brings kids in and trains them on how to use a post office. That is typical of the social service that it provides.

612. Belmont post office is open to meet public needs from Monday to Friday, with no lunch breaks and no half-day closing on Wednesday. A fair number of people who run small businesses, through eBay for example, spoke at the public meeting. Many try to run their businesses while looking after kids, and so forth. They said that the post office needs to be open at lunchtime to suit people, including those who run businesses in the area.

613. For the reasons that I have outlined, Belmont post office should top the list of post offices for which the reversal of the decision to close should be considered. It can, and wants to, expand but has been the refused the opportunity to do so.

614. The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland — I’m not sure if that was the original PSNI — suggested that diversifying to provide a limited pharmaceutical service could further strengthen the business case of a post office. A high percentage of people in the Belmont area are elderly, disabled, or parents with young children, and there is a girls’ school beside the post office. Belmont post office provides much more than a social service and, if allowed, its profitability can increase.

615. The Chairperson: Thank you, Stephen. Your point about setting one post office against another was made in an earlier submission from the Post Office Ltd to the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

616. In replying to a question, Post Office Ltd said that it was closing 42 post offices, and that was that. If one was kept open, another would have to close. That seemed to be a very unfair part of a consultation process. You made the point well, and it is of concern not just to this Committee, but to other Committees that have received presentations from Post Office Ltd.

617. Mr Dallat: How critical is the post office to your sense of community?

618. Mr Crosby: In the minutes of the meeting, people have given their views. One lady said that three generations of her family use the same post office, to which she even takes her snake. Staff in post offices have an excellent rapport with individuals, and I am sure that that is the same in every post office in Northern Ireland. They know individuals; they know what day and what time a person is due to be at that branch, like the milkman, who knew that there was something wrong in a house if the milk had not been taken in. So it is with staff in post offices: they keep an eye on people and realise that something is wrong if, for example, the weekly pension is not collected. If that care comes to an end, an additional financial burden is then placed on social services. From a broader perspective, therefore, Post Office Ltd is being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

619. One wonders what impact post office closures will have on the medical wellbeing of elderly people when someone is no longer looking out for them. In addition, those who go out only to collect their pensions, will have to travel further. The result will be more broken bones and more ailments, which will be an additional burden on the NHS. Does the Government not care? That is where we want more transparency. One of the issues that emerged at our public meeting was a total lack of transparency from Post Office Ltd. They did an excellent job in refusing to answer questions.

620. Mr Savage: First, congratulations on your presentation. Looking at your figures, I am baffled as to what excuse Post Office Ltd has to close that branch. I had intended to ask you about one-to-one relationships with customers, but your answer to the last question took care of that. How far will people, including the handicapped, have to travel to the next post office if that branch is closed?

621. Mr Crosby: The issue is not simply one of distance: I fear that many people will not be able to travel at all.

622. Mr Savage: That is the important issue.

623. Mr Crosby: It is a two-pronged problem: those who can travel, will have to travel further. I do not want to fall into the trap of comparing that post office with the other two, because I believe that there is a business case for all three. However, one of the alternative post offices has a step. It is a smaller post office, and it does not have provision for expansion. It is in a busy area at the bottom of Belmont Road, close to the cinema and other shops. It is impossible to park a car in any of the side streets, so even people who drive have to walk for quite a distance. One cannot get a wheelchair into the post office.

624. The alternative in the area is to use a post office that is part of a garage. It is a busy garage, with a Spar shop, and the post office is in the far corner of that shop. One would have to try to manoeuvre a wheelchair around all the other customers. Less desirable people will look on anyone who uses a post office in a garage as an easy touch. They will walk in to a garage, pretend that they are looking for a tin of beans, and follow that person out.

625. Mr Savage: The most important point is that those people, especially elderly people, who use post offices in garages will be strangers in a strange land and will feel very vulnerable.

626. Mr Crosby: The forecourts of garages are busy, and as we recorded in our minutes, a couple of people drew attention to the fact that elderly people have almost been knocked down in the forecourt of a garage. All forecourts are busy and people have to have their wits about them. I have to have my wits about me and I am not near pension age. A person who uses a wheelchair or a frame, or an elderly person, may be slow.

627. Mr F McCann: A new angle on the issue is the fact that a post office can operate as the eyes of the community, especially when identifying people who may be ill and do not turn up at the post office. Has your organisation met Belmont post office staff, and, if so, what was the outcome? What is the opinion of the local sub-postmaster? Some sub-postmasters have said that they want to leave and get out.

628. Mr Crosby: The sub-postmaster and sub-postmistress want to retain the post office and expand it. They applied, and were turned down, for additional services. They want to offer whatever range of services they can, such as applications for passports and motor tax. Their post office is unique in that it offers more services than any other post office in the area. They want to offer a service in which the customer can collect a parcel from the post office, rather than having to go to the main depot. Their post office offers many services, including 24-hour services, which some of the alternative post offices do not. It seems ludicrous that, of the three local post offices, the Belmont post office is the one that is earmarked for closure. However, I am not going down that path; sufficient profit is to be made at all three of them.

629. Please remind me of your first question.

630. Mr F McCann: Has your organisation met Post Office Ltd?

631. Mr Crosby: We invited Post Office Ltd to our public meeting. Sheila McCann, Barbara Roulston and Angus Magee turned up, and they got a roasting.

632. Ms Alison Smyth (Wandsworth Community Centre): They did not answer any questions.

633. Mr Crosby: They refused to answer questions. I am in business, among other things, and the Post Office gave an unprofessional defence with a total lack of transparency. I almost had to ask a gentleman to leave the meeting because of the passion that he showed. Robin, you were at the meeting.

634. The Chairperson: Yes I concur with that.

635. Mr Crosby: That is perhaps another angle.

636. Lord Browne of Belmont is a regular user of the post office. He will not even have a Belmont post office — his own post office.

637. At that meeting, five MLAs were present, including the potential First Minister, but perhaps I am jumping the gun. Lord Browne, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and the deputy leader of the Alliance Party were present, and all supported our post office.

638. Mr Beggs: I compliment you and your colleagues from the Wandsworth Community Centre on your campaign to date. For 200 people to attend any public meeting is significant, and to have gained that support is an achievement.

639. Mr Crosby: That was the same night as the Liverpool-Chelsea game.

640. Mr Beggs: I compliment you even more in that case.

641. Mr Crosby: We had two competing arguments that night.

642. Mr Beggs: In your submission you indicate that Belmont is a very busy post office, with between 1,000 and 1,500 regular users. You indicate that there is a higher than normal percentage of pensioners in the immediate catchment area; therefore, that branch — although important to anyone availing of the service — is especially important to pensioners.

643. I am amazed to hear of the number of parcels and packages that that post office collects — 130 of them — probably for businesses users of eBay, which shows a very busy post office.

644. You stated that it is difficult to travel from the Belmont post office to the suggested alternatives. Can you describe how someone would make that journey using public transport, and how much that return journey would cost?

645. Mr Crosby: It cannot be done.

646. Ms Smyth: There is no direct bus route.

647. Mr Crosby: It is a taxi journey. That is the problem — the public transport route is just not there.

648. Mr Beggs: Would that return journey cost £6? Would it cost £10?

649. Mr Crosby: There is no public transport system from the catchment areas to the alternative post offices.

650. Mr Beggs: Are you saying that they are not viable alternatives?

651. Mr Crosby: No, they are not viable, not at all. The only way that it could possibly be done is the ludicrous situation where someone has to get a bus into the centre of Belfast then get another bus out. That is not on.

652. Ms Smyth: The Belmont post office attracts people who live in the Stormont area, and they, too, cannot get a direct bus down the Belmont Road. Even if there is a bus, there is no wheelchair access at the alternative post office and they would have to go to the Ballyhackamore branch and cross a busy garage forecourt.

653. Mr Beggs: I can only hope that Post Office Ltd is listening to the valid points that you make.

654. Mr Crosby: Our fear is that they are not listening. They refuse to answer anything at all. We cannot even try to defend an individual post office, because the criteria on which closures are based are not in the public domain nor are they weighted. We cannot put forward a real case for this post office.

655. The Chairperson: On that point Stephen, there is a difference of opinion between the Assembly research officers’ figures and the figures produced by Post Office Ltd, stating the number of people living in proximity to that post office. That debate is ongoing.

656. Alison and Yvonne, is there anything that you would like to say in conclusion?

657. Ms Smyth: We are aware of the concerns about the elderly. However, at the public meeting it emerged that a sizeable number of small businesses — including small eBay businesses — regularly use Belmont post office to send 30 parcels a day each. One girl said that she fills her car with parcels, drives to Belmont post office, parks at the door, walks in and leaves her parcels without waiting — the postmistress knows her and posts the parcels when there is no queue. She returns in the afternoon to pay. However, she cannot do that at any of the alternative post offices, because she cannot get parked at the door. If she does get parked at the door, she has to carry the parcels through the garage or shop with her kids in tow, which is impossible. Most of the people who ran eBay businesses said that they would have to close if Belmont post office closed. Therefore, the closure will affect a lot of businesspeople.

658. Stephen mentioned the schools, but Belmont post office also serves a lot of local businesses. For example, the veterinary hospital, which is situated beside it, uses the post office four times a day to send off samples at regular intervals. The people who run the veterinary hospital say that the alternative post offices are not suitable because they are closed in the afternoon and at lunchtime, and the veterinary hospital will lose business.

659. Ms Yvonne Morrison (Wandsworth Community Centre): The post office is an integral part of the local community. As Alison and Stephen said, if Belmont post office closes, there will be repercussions for the community and the local businesses, such as the Mace shop, the bakery and the small café beside the primary school. Many people who visit the post office, including residents from the local care homes who come out to the post office once a week with their carers, will lose out on the social interaction that it provides. Community spirit is very important in society.

660. Parking provisions at Belmont post office are good, and that — as Stephen said — is not the case at other post offices. Also, the postbox is directly outside the post office, which is important to a lot of people. The post office keeps the local community together and gives people something to belong to, which is important in society. Post Office Ltd is not listening to the community and the Labour Government are definitely not listening. That leads to fragmentation in society. Therefore, I hope that the Committee listens and does what it can to help.

661. The Chairperson: Thank you. What you have said could be replicated in all Committee members’ constituencies. I thank you for placing much emphasis on the point that, although you support one post office, you do not oppose other post offices. It is important to record that. Thank you very much for the presentation and the wide range of information that you provided, from the minutes to your submission to Post Office Ltd.

15 May 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Robin Newton (Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Mr Thomas Burns
Mr Fra McCann
Ms Claire McGill
Mr George Savage

Witnesses:

Mr Mark Allen
Ms Karin Eyben 
Mr Michael Hughes

 

Rural Community Network

662. The Chairperson (Mr Newton): I thank the representatives of the Rural Community Network for their attendance. At our previous meeting, an urban community group made a presentation, and the Committee felt that it was important to try to understand the distinctions between the perspectives of city and rural people.

663. As has been the case with the other groups that have offered evidence to the Committee, has allocated 30 minutes to this session. Without wishing to detract from anything that you wish to say, I ask that you make a presentation for about 10 or 15 minutes. We shall then open the floor to members’ questions.

664. Mr Beggs: I recognise some of the faces of the witnesses. To err on the side of safety, I declare an interest as a member of the Glynn Community Development Association, which has received assistance from the Rural Community Network. I am not sure whether the association is still receiving that funding.

665. The Chairperson: I wish to point out to our witnesses that the Committee is meeting in public session, and Hansard is covering the meeting.

666. Mr Michael Hughes (Rural Community Network): On behalf on the Rural Community Network, and rural communities in general, I welcome the opportunity to present evidence to the Committee. I will explain the background to our organisation getting involved in the issue of post office closures. The closure of any rural service is of key importance to our organisation, which seeks to address inequality and disadvantage. The Rural Community Network is particularly concerned about the people who are most likely to be disadvantaged by the closure of services.

667. We first became involved with Postwatch and Post Office Ltd in October 2007. We met those bodies separately to try to find out the time frame for the consultation and how they planned to engage in that process. At that stage, we raised concerns about the six-week consultation period because we felt that that did not allow adequate time to do justice to a consultation process that would have such a major impact on rural communities — and on urban communities. We agreed to keep in touch with those bodies and to work together, when appropriate. We have done throughout the closure-announcement process.

668. Towards the end of March 2008, the Rural Community Network held a pre-consultation event. We called some rural sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, along with members of our network and the subregional networks, to a meeting at the Rural Community Network in Cookstown. That was a short meeting, which lasted about three hours. We were amazed by the lack of awareness among the ordinary members of communities on the ground and of postal staff due to the confidentiality arrangement that was in place during the consultation process. That confidentiality arrangement meant that we did not pick up on many issues until the end of the consultation process. Moreover, we are still unable to pick up on issues, other than by using the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

669. The process was certainly not clear, and we were concerned to work out how communities could engage with the Post Office to try to secure a sustainable postal service. When we met Postwatch and the Post Office, we agreed that a number of post offices are not sustainable — we did not state that all post offices should be kept open. However, we were concerned that any closures or changes should be made with the communities kept at the heart of the consultation and process of change. We have serious concerns about the way in which people have been engaged — or disengaged — with the process. Some information that is being used to back closure or to propose a rural outreach service is not entirely accurate.

670. After the closures announcement on 1 April 2008, we held one regional event in Cookstown, which was attended by Post Office Ltd, Postwatch and 40 members of rural communities across Northern Ireland. We tried to secure information on what was up for consultation as part of the process. We considered what we could change or challenge, and how we could get involved. We have supported a number of local groups by chairing their meetings or helping them to prepare for meetings. We asked Postwatch and Post Office Ltd to attend those meetings, and we have conducted a survey of our members.

671. The Rural Community Network’s consultation and the views of local groups led to concerns being expressed about the level of the information that was available to people to develop evidence to challenge decisions. In particular, people were concerned at the level of unwillingness to release information that they needed. We will elaborate on that later in the presentation.

672. Rather than a double act, we are here as a trio. I shall hand over to Karin to talk about the issues that are emerging as a result of our involvement.

673. Ms Karin Eyben (Rural Community Network): Michael has mapped out how we have engaged in the consultation process. The issues that I shall address about emerged from that work.

674. The first issue that I wish to mention concerns the Post Office’s definition of “rural” as a community with a population of 10,000 and below. That applies to 41% of the population. As Committee members know, there are various definitions of “rural”, so it is important to be clear about the Post Office definition, because all the proposed outreach services are in rural communities.

675. Rural Community Network’s specific concern is rural deprivation. There are access criteria for deprived urban people, but none for deprived rural people. We recognise that disadvantage in rural areas is different; it is more scattered, less visible and not geographically concentrated. However, Post Office Ltd should have thought about rural deprivation and collected data before considering the implications for those who are disadvantaged and excluded in rural areas. That was of concern to us.

676. Owing to the fact that Post Office Ltd is exempt from section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and disability discrimination legislation, we tried to think of the type of legislation that would offer protection for those who are deprived and excluded in rural areas. Post Office Ltd is not constrained by any equality legislation, and that is a concern.

677. Those issues highlight the lack of equivalence between rural and urban areas — those who are disadvantaged in rural areas experience a double whammy due to a lack of transport and other services. Therefore, it is often harder to be disadvantaged in rural areas. How did Post Office Ltd take that matter into account when it decided the changes?

678. There is also a public-service dimension — post offices are regarded as a lifeline in rural areas. That is evident in what one person told us during our consultation process:

“Without our Post Offices, our villages are dead, as they are not only a vital service, they are also a local lifeline with the outside world.”

679. Being on the periphery and lacking a voice are common issues for people in rural areas. That has an impact on communication with the outside world, which is a vital service and a main function of a post office. How is that public service protected, grown, made sustainable and given equal importance with economic viability?

680. The interdependence between rural post offices and other businesses and services in the area means there will be a domino effect. Because many post offices are situated in a local shop or chemist, what happens to them will impact on other businesses and services. There must be joined-up thinking on that issue — it is not enough to deny responsibility. We are responsible for considering the overall impact of changing the postal service on the community.

681. From research commissioned by Postwatch, and other organisations, we know that the main users of post office services are people under 34 and over 65, women, people on lower incomes, people with disabilities, and carers. Therefore, post offices are of vital importance to us at different stages of our life cycle, and are used by those who have the faintest voice in society.

682. That returns us to our concerns about the six-week consultation period. It takes time to support and give a voice to people who do not have one. It takes time to gather the views of people in a residential care home, a carer, or someone with a disability, on the proposed changes and on their ideas about sustainability. Six weeks did not allow that to happen — it only allowed those who have a voice to speak. The absence of community planning also feeds into that issue. Owing to the fact that there was a consultation of only six weeks, Post Office Ltd did not engage with local communities to hear about the services that people need, and consequently did not develop imaginative ideas on how to secure services in the long term.

683. That leads to a situation in which people have no sense of ownership over the final result. In rural areas where an outreach service has been set up, people do not feel a sense of ownership because they were not involved in its development. Instead, they feel that the service has been imposed on them. That has implications for the viability of outreach services; if people do not feel that they own the service, they may not use it. For postal services to survive in rural areas, people must use them.

684. As Michael Hughes mentioned, during one of our events it became clear that many people were unaware that the Post Office provided 108 services; many people were unable to list even 10. Do sub-postmistresses and sub-postmasters feel the need to market those services, and does the Post Office provide the necessary support for them to do that?

685. I talked to a sub-postmistress last week, and I asked her which services are popular and which are not. She said that stamps and bill payments were the most popular. However, she said that she was unsure about which financial services, such as bonds, the Post Office provided, and why people do not use them. I asked whether she had ever enquired as to why people do not access those financial services. She said she had not. That was an interesting insight. Why did she feel that she did not need to understand the services, and why people do not use them? That leads to a situation in which she does not have responsibility for marketing.

686. Michael Hughes mentioned the lack of relevant information. The Post Office carried out socio-economic profiles of communities, based on out-of-date census figures, to determine the levels of disadvantage and disability among people in those communities. We have been unable to access that information. Therefore, if a local group wanted to make the case that a post office closure would impact on particular groups of people in its community, it would be unable to find out how the Post Office calculated that. The Post Office has said that that information is unavailable.

687. On the subject of misleading information, the area plan proposed that outreach facilities would offer DVLA services. However, that was only a proposal, not a fact.

688. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is the only vehicle through which groups can access information that was previously unavailable. However, certain groups did not receive responses to their freedom-of-information requests before the end of the six-week consultation period.

689. Mr Mark Allen (Rural Community Network): I ask members to refer to our written submission; I have a number of interrelated points to make.

690. First, I wish to address the lack of clarity in the criteria that were used in the decision-making process. The Rural Community Network supports a number of communities. We attended a number of public meetings at which people wanted to know why their local post office appeared next on the list of closures or list earmarked for outreach services. Different messages were given at different points and, in some instances, no message was given at all. Therefore, people found it difficult to present a coherent and strong case against a decision because they were not told on what grounds it was made, which was particularly frustrating for them.

691. Secondly, we have major concerns about the rationale for, and cost of, outreach services. As Karin mentioned, outreach services have been developed in isolation from the communities where they would operate.

692. Equally, there are concerns about how financially viable either a hosted or partner service would be. From speaking to people in a number of communities, we know that the Post Office offered £3·50 an hour for a host service to be set up at an existing site — that was its opening gambit. Although there may be room for negotiation on that, there was no clarity on the issue. That sum would not cover the cost of heat, light, public-liability insurance and a staff member’s wage.

693. Furthermore, people in those communities expressed concern at the lack of opportunity to develop outreach services because of the limited hours during which those would operate. In reality, in rural communities, because people do not plan to go to the post office 48 hours in advance, they may have to travel to another post office. That may reduce the number of people who use outreach services. To that end, in our submission, we have questioned how legitimate some outreach services would be on account of how the decision was arrived at and how likely it would be to work.

694. The third point is one of our central issues, which Michael will address in a moment. However, in order to achieve a proper and robust process, we must secure and enhance the access criteria, particularly for rural post offices. The Rural Community Network’s concern relates to the level to which access criteria are set in stone and to the level to which they can be added, in order to ensure a postal service that provides a social service in the rural community, rather than merely an economic service. It is only the access criteria that are securing that service at the moment, and that is our primary concern, post 2011.

695. There is a lack of joined-up government with respect to certain decisions, such as the impact of transport links that were offered to alternative post offices. In some instances, there is only one bus a day, and people may have to walk about two miles on a B-class road with no footpath to catch that bus. There has been a lack of thinking about the impact of closures or changes to the post office service.

696. The big question is: what happens after 2011? Post Office officials have told us about their business plan and their proposals for the network. If — and it is a big “if” — their business plan is successful and they operate as planned, they will be able to sustain that network. However, we have questions about how likely that is to be the case. There is frustration about the fact that we are unable to get access to that business plan to find out how the Post Office intends to ensure a viable network by 2011. What type of projections have been made, and what type of increases are required to ensure that the network is sustainable beyond 2011. That information is accessible only if we pursue a freedom-of-information request.

697. Finally, and perhaps fittingly, the communities that we work with recognise the role that the Assembly could play with regard to rural post offices, such as maintaining and extending the range of services that are delivered from them. The potential business that the Assembly and local government could direct towards post offices would provide an opportunity to generate more income. As a result, that would sustain the other social services, which are crucial, but harder to tie down. Post offices should be aware that there is also a potential for subsidy. After 2011, it is envisaged that responsibility for postal services will pass to the Assembly. That has implications for the Assembly and the type of postal service that it envisages.

698. Mr Hughes: I shall be brief, because I am conscious of the time constraints. The evidence base must be built up, but there are hard facts in respect of what services post offices can provide. For example, they provide an informal service to the most disadvantaged. They still provide basic services such as posting letters and selling stamps, and people still save with the post office. People really value those types of services, which are of social value to people. That evidence base must include a social value with regard to how it contributes to ensuring that the most vulnerable in our communities do not suffer further. That is particularly important because, when the current subsidy runs out in 2011, if we are still pursuing an economic model for our post offices, more post offices and many of their services may come under threat. There must be some recognition that it may cost more to secure equivalent treatment for those who are disadvantaged in rural areas.

699. There is no joined-up thinking in the policies of the Executive and the outworkings of those policies with regard to post offices. The Government have a clear commitment to anti-poverty strategies, and the Lifetime Opportunities strategy is being revamped, but that seems to be at odds with the closure of such a vital service to rural people.

700. The announcement last week of the Executive’s commitment to explore the possibility of a rural White Paper, and what that would entail, is at odds with a lack of long-term commitment to sustaining such a vital service for many people in rural communities.

701. The access criteria must be enhanced and secured to ensure that the public service that is provided by the Post Office is fit for purpose. One such enhancement to the access criteria might simply be to include “rural deprivation” in the same way that “urban deprivation” is included.

702. Consideration should be given to developing a discrete set of criteria that take account of Northern Ireland’s distinct circumstances, focusing on community cohesion and well-being. That is particularly important when one considers the new powers of local councils to enhance well-being. Northern Ireland is a predominantly rural society, and there must be a stronger regional focus, rather than a UK-perspective being imposed with respect to the future of rural post offices.

703. The services that post offices provide must be retained and broadened, and we would like the Assembly, the Executive and local government to consider how they might support post offices in retaining some of those services. The main service is the Post Office card account, the contract for which is, apparently, due for renewal. That service must be retained, because if that goes, people will question the viability of post offices.

704. Bank accounts should be made accessible through post offices, and such a service should be widely advertised. How many people know that the Post Office provides 108 services? One might need to use one of them, but if one does not know that it is available, one will go elsewhere.

705. I turn to major Government and service-provider contracts. The TV licence fee payment facility has been lost, and most DVLA services are available only at larger post offices. Those services should be returned to local post offices. Local government, too, should consider which services it can redirect through a post office. This is a time of change, at a regional level with the Executive, and with the move towards an 11-council model. We should be asking what services local councils could deliver through a post office that would retain their viability.

706. Finally, and most importantly for the Rural Community Network, there is a commitment to review outreach services on a six-monthly basis, but we need clarity about the nature and duration of the review, and how the public can get involved with Post Office Ltd and Postwatch to make their views known. If that review is to be meaningful, it must have at its heart those people who will be most affected.

707. The Chairperson: What specific answers did you receive concerning the six-monthly review?

708. Mr Allen: None.

709. The Chairperson: Nothing, for example, about how the review will be structured or who would carry it out? Were you simply given the previous statement that there would be a review?

710. Mr Allen: Yes. Our concern is that the review will be very much the same as the initial consultation, whereby Post Office Ltd said that its people walked around a few places and had a look. The proposed rural outreach service for one of the groups that we helped was in a community centre which runs a playschool for five days a week, with all the relevant child-protection legislation requirements in place.

711. Two minutes into that public meeting, it became clear that nobody had asked the playschool whether that was a viable option. If that exercise is repeated in a six-month review, the issue could be considered to have been already covered, with everything seemingly OK, and no need for changes. We need something that is more substantial in respect of time and resources to ensure that the review is meaningful.

712. Mr Beggs: Are you referring to the confidentiality issues in respect of penalty clauses that may affect employees’ contracts or settlements? Has that contributed to a general lack of knowledge?

713. Mr Allen: At the meeting that we highlighted, we brought together a postmaster and a postmistress from neighbouring areas. It became apparent that they did not know what was happening with their own post offices, and that, even if they had known, they would have been unable to speak to each other about it. When one post office closes or its services are changed, that will always have a knock-on effect on neighbouring post offices.

714. Confidentiality, even from that early stage, effectively meant that postmasters could not talk among themselves or let their customers know that changes may be coming. In some instances, those changes were a bolt from the blue. A postmistress told me that when a poster went up on 1 April, announcing the change from post office to outreach service, she texted a member of her family with the news only to receive the reply, “Ha ha. April Fool!”

715. No indication was given that change was coming, and that impacted on the staff. It was a bolt from the blue for a staff member to find out that his or her job was potentially at risk on the very morning that the announcement was made. That was frustrating in itself but, furthermore, it was frustrating at a later stage to be denied access as to information on how those decisions were made.

716. Mr Beggs: I concur with the point about your inability to gain information through the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Has the Rural Community Network gained any independent knowledge of the pilot schemes or been made aware of any issues emerging from those pilot schemes that have been carried out in other parts of the United Kingdom? How successful or otherwise have those schemes been? I share your concern that switching to an alternative location or a mobile service may result in customers going elsewhere. Have you been able to garner any knowledge on that matter?

717. Ms Eyben: Post Office Ltd published a review of the pilot process. Pilot schemes took place across the UK, and there were three in Northern Ireland. As those pilot schemes ran for a short period of time, the Post Office was unable to draw any strong conclusions about the drop rate in customers.

718. The report does state that there was a 60% overall satisfaction rate with the outreach services. The concern is, who makes up that remaining 40%? More evidence is needed about those with the least voice, those who are the most vulnerable, and those who are disadvantaged.

719. The report recognises that it takes time and investment to work with people at a local-community level in order to think through what is needed and how to secure it. The report states that we probably do not have the resources to do that, but that if that time and investment was made possible, it might mean a more viable outreach service.

720. Mr Beggs: You indicated that bank accounts and other services should be made more accessible through the Post Office network. Currently, only the Northern Bank and the Bank of Ireland make services available through post offices.

721. Do you share the concern of the Consumer Council that all major banks should be required to offer their services through post offices so that the rural community can avail of those services? There is already a lack of banks in many rural communities, and some are withdrawing services altogether.

722. Mr Hughes: I absolutely agree.

723. Ms Eyben: There is an interesting anecdotal case from Portaferry. The Bank of Ireland held open days to advertise the services that it provides, and then located those services in post offices. People have switched accounts to the Bank of Ireland as a result of that.

724. That is an interesting case of how a post office might be used in place of something that has closed.

725. Mrs McGill: Thank you for your presentation. You have repeated much of what the Committee and I have already heard. I represent the rural constituency of West Tyrone, where one post office is scheduled for closure and other branches have host arrangements.

726. We have tried our best to articulate exactly what you have said, so I will not go back over it all. You mentioned the 108 services supplied by post offices. Is there anything that your network can do to help post offices?

727. We must look to the future. All Members — whether from urban or rural constituencies — are now aware of the issues. I have to admit that I only found out recently that a reprieve for one post office means closure for another. I had never heard anyone from the Post Office say that. Now that the Post Office has acknowledged that that is the case, post offices are being pitted against each other, which I consider very distasteful. What can you do?

728. Ms Eyben: A small thing that we are thinking of doing concerns the critical question of whether MLAs and the Executive need to be convinced about the public-service role of post offices. Do they need evidence — and if so, what type of evidence — to make the case that it is a vital service? Is it about who uses post offices, what services customers need, or is it about the consequences of withdrawing a branch?

729. A practical approach that we may adopt over the next few years is to work with various communities to identify the range of services — the hosted, the partnered, the mobile and the home service. We also plan to study communities where post offices have closed, to track the consequences of the changes, help local communities develop their own bank of evidence, and enable them, after 2011, to articulate what is viable and sustainable. In a sense, taking the long view is part of what we plan to do.

730. Mrs McGill: Transport services simply do not exist in rural areas. At its previous meeting, the Committee discovered that criteria are applied quite differently, such as the 10,000 population measure for dividing urban from rural, which you have mentioned.

731. Mr Buchanan: I thank the Rural Community Network for coming to the Committee. We believe that the 96 closures that are mooted constitute a done deal. What can we do to convince the Government that that decision is a step in the wrong direction?

732. Mr Hughes: What we have at this stage is probably that done deal. I suppose that it is very much like the Programme for Government — we are always planning for the next one.

733. 2011 will be a critical time. We worry that the 54 rural outreach services, whatever they are, may merely amount to a stay of execution for some communities until 2011. There is no indication that there is going to be any further funding after that. If we are serious about making cases for 2011, we must gather evidence now about why people are using post offices and establish what other facility might be relevant to a local area. We will then have a better evidence bank for 2011.

734. It is also important that we get involved in the six-month review. It will be a good base-indicator of how people initially react to the measures.

735. The Rural Community Network shares the concern that we cannot do anything. Postwatch maintains that, in working with Post Office Ltd, the area plan proposal has changed to the extent of 13∙5% from the initial plan. We cannot access the original plan to check what has changed. If the Rural Community Network were aware of what those changes were, perhaps we could examine why those changes were made.

736. A lot of information must be collected in order to build up a bank of evidence to contest the closures, contest the outreach services, but particularly to contest anything that might happen as a result of the review in 2011. If community groups and the Rural Community Network, as a regional group, cannot secure that information, then who, on behalf of the constituents, can? Someone must be able to access that information, because it is critical.

737. From examining some of the plans for the outreach services, the Rural Community Network knows they are wrong, but cannot find out what they are based on. There have been requests for information through the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which have been refused for reasons of confidentiality and because of private business clauses. We need to ensure that the review in 2011 is not draconian, and that it is relevant to rural people.

738. Mr Buchanan: The onus is now on communities and the post offices to ensure that they will be sustainable by 2011. The Government are looking at post office provision and are claiming that several post offices are not sustainable. That is the stick that they are using to beat them with. It may be more acceptable if some profitable post offices were being closed in order to try to prop up others, but the onus is now on the communities and relevant groups to try to ensure that the remaining post offices will be sustainable by 2011 in order for them to remain in place.

739. Mr Hughes: That is a fair point. The Rural Community Network believes that the provision of a service in a rural community is of equivalent value to one provided in an urban setting. It is probable that rural post office services cost more money, and if everything is reduced to bland economics, the rural post offices will have a job on their hands to prove that they are economically viable. There is also a social viability to a post office — it can be the lifeblood for some people, elderly or otherwise.

740. One of the post offices that we worked with contended to open on two days a week from 10.00 am to 1.00 pm, and from 10.00 am to 12.30 pm. If one visits our community at 7.30 am, it becomes obvious that a lot of people are already leaving for work. If post office and rural outreach services are to work, they need to be open when most people in our community are at home. Something different must be done. It will be interesting to see the results of the review in order to find out if that issue was taken on board.

741. The Chairperson: I ask Thomas Burns to ask his question, immediately followed by George Savage. If both questions could be answered together, the meeting can be wound up.

742. Mr Burns: I would contend that local post offices are a very important part of the rural community. When so many people leave rural communities to go to work, do they utilise post offices elsewhere? Taking into consideration the growth of technology and the Internet, for how much longer will it be necessary to physically buy and display a car-tax disc? A policeman is able to enter a car registration into a computer and know immediately whether the tax has been paid. How much of that old sort of paperwork is going to exist in future? I am aware that people are being forced into opening bank accounts, and that benefits are being paid into bank accounts. If there is an automated teller machine (ATM) anywhere close in the community, money can be withdrawn from it.

743. I fully support the tremendous need for local post offices, which provide a great service in communities, but there is an issue of parity to consider. The decision was not made by the Northern Ireland Assembly — it was made by the British Exchequer. The Chancellor says that he has only so much money for post office services, and we must take our slice of the cake and then slice it again. How do we provide for those rural post offices that have less and less business to sustain them?

744. Mr Savage: Michael, you mentioned the 54 proposed outreach services. As far as I can tell, those services, and the other services that face the threat of closure, will be monitored very closely. Therefore, it is up to communities in those areas to ensure that those services are used regularly in the next few weeks, because they will be monitored to see who uses them and how often.

745. Some of the papers that have been provided to the Committee refer to the post office contracts. Will Northern Ireland be treated in the same way as other areas? I do not think that we are being treated the same. Somebody mentioned parity of esteem, and we can throw in all those big words, but it is the day-to-day reality that counts. Post offices are closely linked to the rural community. If post offices are taken away from those areas, people there will be immediately disenfranchised. That is totally wrong. The Assembly must try to do all in its power to resolve the situation. I know that the Committee’s aim is to keep as many post offices open as possible, but we must work out what we can do to ensure that outcome, and how we can keep up the pressure.

746. Mr Hughes: The second question is a little easier to answer. We have clearly said that there is a case for the “use it or lose it” argument, and we all have a responsibility in that regard. The big issue, particularly with outreach services, is that if services are not available at times when people can access them, people will be forced to visit post offices in other areas. Any rural outreach service must be relevant to the way in which that local community works. Major efforts must be made to talk to the community to find out what makes it tick. That will not happen by simply standing around: Post Office Ltd said that it had walked the ground, but if it had done so, it would have come up with a different plan.

747. In one area, a mobile van was parked in front of a school on a particular day, which raised all sorts of issues. However, people from that area did not usually go to the village on that day. Therefore, it is essential to find out how a community ticks, because it may be that a different service is needed.

748. I want to come back to the public meeting that I chaired in Fermanagh and the rural outreach service that was discussed. That service was provided from 10.00 am to 1.00 pm or 10.00 am to 12.30 pm. Most of the people from that community return to the area from 4.00 pm onwards. Let us make any service relevant to the people, rather than expect the people to make the service relevant to the Post Office. That is a different way of looking at that matter.

749. If the only criterion that is used to decide on the future of services is the number of people who use them — for example, in one week, there were 100 customers, in the next week, 50, and in the following week, 25 — we are back to where we started and the argument that a particular service is not economically viable. It is fine to take account of the economic argument, but other criteria must be applied too. It is also important to take account of the contribution that post offices make to the sustainability of communities.

750. Ms Eyben: To answer the first question, we entirely agree that we must be realistic about the level of usage of particular services. When media attention was focused on the closures announcement, it was clear that there was a view that the people most concerned about the closure of post offices were not even using them.

751. The first people to consider are those who are immobile — who remain in the community during the day — or who do not have access to public transport or a car. They tend to be the people who need these services. How do we take care of that group of people?

752. Secondly, rising fuel costs will create more people who are, in a sense, immobile. If people are leaving their community to go to work, they will access those services at work, but people who are in the community during the day can avail of what is an important service. Thirdly, from a communications point of view, one of the post offices that we work with offers a letter service via the Internet, but it still has to be stamped. I have not tried that myself, but it seems that the technology still needs human input. Those are the two main issues.

753. Mr Allen: The Rural Community Network believes strongly in the promotion of sustainable and diverse rural communities. Those services must cater for the young and the old, and people with disabilities and their carers. It is not about people who can afford to commute. In order to secure diversity, we must have services that the community is able to access. Post offices are a key element of that, because they provide an essential service for those people who are, potentially, the most disadvantaged. It might not be for me, because I am able to travel to a post office on my way to work. However, if I do not have a car and I am living in fuel poverty, and have a caring responsibility, I cannot do that. That is the fundamental point.

754. The Chairperson: I thank the representatives of the Rural Community Network for attending this meeting, which has gone slightly beyond our time allocation. You have helped us to form a rounded picture. We have taken evidence from statutory bodies, the Post Office, Postwatch and urban community groups, and you have represented the rural situation. We will find that information useful when putting together our final report.

755. Mr Hughes: Thank you for giving us this opportunity.

Appendix 3

List of Witnesses Providing Oral Evidence to the Committee

Oral Evidence Session – Tuesday 6 May 2008
  • Glyn Roberts, Chief Executive, Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association.
  • Charles Henderson, Parkhall Post Office, Antrim.
  • Liam McGranaghan, Blacks Road Post Office, West Belfast.
  • Sean Gormley, Carlisle Circus Post Office, North Belfast.
Meeting – Thursday 8 May 2008
  • Mr Robin Newton, Mr Billy Armstrong, Mr Trevor Clarke and Mrs Claire McGill met with the following representatives:
  • Barbara Roulston, Head of External Relations, Post Office Ltd
  • Sheila McCann, Network Development Manager, Post Office Ltd
  • Nick Beale, Network Planning Manager, Post Office Ltd
  • Mark Neale, Head of Public Affairs, Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland
  • Richard Price, Head of Public Affairs, Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland
Oral Evidence Session – Monday 12 May 2008
  • Professor Maureen Edmondson, Chairperson, Postwatch NI
  • Kellin McCloskey, Postwatch Network Advisor
  • Julie-Anne McMaster, Postwatch Regional Manager
Oral Evidence Session – Tuesday 13 May 2008
  • Andrew Murie, Citizens Advice Bureau
  • Paul Herink, Head of Information and Policy, Citizens Advice Bureau
  • Ciara Convie, Head of Community and Development Services, Help the Aged
  • Duane Farrell, Head of Policy, Help the Aged.
  • Stephen Crosby, Community Member, Wandsworth Community Centre
  • Alison Smyth, Development Officer, Wandsworth Community Centre
  • Yvonne Morrison, Concerned Member of the Public.
Oral Evidence Session – Thursday 15 May 2008
  • Michael Hughes, Chief Executive, Rural Community Network
  • Mark Allan, Research Officer, Rural Community Network
  • Karin Eyben, Policy Officer, Rural Community Network

Appendix 4

Written Submissions and Other Correspondence Considered by the Committee

Belfast City Council Logo

BCC Letter

 

Belfast City Council – Response to the 
Post Office Limited’s consultation exercise 
on the Network Change Programme – 
Area Plan Proposal Northern Ireland

Belfast City Council is opposed to the closure of any post office branches in the Belfast area.

Whilst much of the media focus has been on rural communities and the associated impact of closures; the Post Office should be mindful of the fact that urban communities can be equally affected by access, particularly groups such as older people, those with mobility issues and residents in deprived areas. Post office branches are often an important social hub in the community, visiting the branch can make up a significant part of residents daily or weekly routine, particularly for older people. Changes to this may have detrimental consequences on their well-being.

With respect to the proposed closures in the Belfast area, the Council is concerned that a number of the closures are in electoral areas with a high concentration of areas of deprivation, adversely affecting the most vulnerable and socially excluded sections of the community.

While Post Office Ltd appears to have adhered to the minimum access criteria prescribed by the Government, this does not reflect the difficulties that this distance can place on older people or people in low income areas where there is limited car ownership. Three of the branches are in areas where over half of the households do not have access to a car or van, which is considerably more than the average for Belfast of 43.8%.

Furthermore, the public transport options to nearby branches are often restricted and this needs to be taken into consideration. Within Belfast, there is no direct bus service between 2 of the ten branches proposed for closure and either of the nearest alternative branches identified. Half of branches closing only have one suggested alternative branch available on a bus route. The proposed Post Office branch closures will therefore affect the independence of those most heavily reliant on them.

The requirement for 95% of urban populations to be within 1 mile of their post office branch could mean the difference between the elderly being independent or not; accordingly branches which fall within the minimum distance should not be closed for that reason alone.

Belfast City Council is disappointed to note that the proposals for the ‘Outreach Service’ do not extend to the Belfast area and would question why the outreach services are not being applied in the Belfast area. Could postal services not be combined with existing mobile libraries for example? Consideration should be given to providing outreach services in Belfast instead of closing post office branches.

In addition taking into account the divided nature of parts of the city, this can have amplified implications on the socially excluded groups already mentioned. The Council is concerned that two of the post office branches earmarked for closure are in interface locations currently shared by both sides of the local community. As a Council we are seeking to promote service areas where both communities can access facilities in safe and neutral environments and it is important to have shared space to promote interaction. Whilst it is recognised that it was not part of the criteria used to select Post Offices for closure, consideration should be given to the fact that some of the branches proposed for closure operate in and service a cross-community population, which in itself provide a benefit to the immediate locality.

The closure of any outlet will undoubtedly have a negative impact upon other retail outlets nearby and is likely to have a long term economic impact on the local area as clusters of retail outlets will often feed off each other and branch closures will create a gap and reduce footfall. Consideration should be given to the knock-on effect which closures would have on independent retailers located beside Post Offices.

Following the end of Post Office Ltd’s Urban Reinvention Programme, research for Manchester City Council undertaken by the New Economics Foundation in 2006 found that urban post offices make an important contribution to the economic and social fabric of the community. In real terms, analysis showed that for every £10 earned in income, the post office generates £16.20 for its local economy and each post office saves small business in their direct vicinity in the region of £270,000 each year. In disadvantaged communities, the post office is highly valued and trusted compared to other retailers, while the diversity and range of services sets them apart.

The 10 branches identified for closure represent a 16% reduction in branch services for the Belfast area and almost a quarter of the proposed closures for the whole of Northern Ireland. These closures are in addition to the 9 Belfast post office branches that were proposed under the Urban Closure Programme (UCP) in 2004. Only one of those branches currently remains open and it is now scheduled to close under this latest plan (Ormeau PO). For customers of six of the branches closed under UCP in 2004, there are now two post office branches within a 1 mile radius closing under the Network Change Programme. This means further displacement and forced migration of customers in order to obtain postal services.

Belfast City Council would seek assurances from Post Office Ltd that this will see the end of the compulsory rationalisation process and there will be no additional forced closures.

Belfast City Council would echo the concerns raised by Postwatch of the potential impact closures will have on customer services at remaining branches such as increased queuing time. Has consideration been given as to whether this will have a differential impact on people with disabilities and older customers?. There is no information on the level and pattern of usage, the volume of transactions or the ability of the suggested alternative branches to absorb the displaced customers.

Belfast City Council acknowledges the economic considerations behind the proposed closures to support and reshape the Network for the future and ensure the Network’s continued viability, Belfast City Council would urge Post Office Ltd to be more innovative and imaginative in seeking solutions. Opportunities may exist to combine post office services with other existing local services, for example local credit unions, in shopping centres or shared services locations. Post Office branches could use excess space to host other services or take advantage of the popularity of the internet, use of “Cyberpost” and offer internet services in the branch. Alternatively consideration should be given to enhancing the services currently available at existing post office branches, extending the business hours of branches beyond 9am-5pm or better advertising of services available, particularly those that would appeal out of hours i.e. Service Master. Then again, Post Office Ltd should be seeking means to operate in a sustainable manner, perhaps through the return of services which had been transferred by the Government to banks and through negotiation of transactions at a local level.

The detailed impact assessment undertaken by Post Office Ltd and copies of the analysis of Post Office branches from the Belfast area has been sent to individual party groups on the Council for them to review and respond with comments in line with their local knowledge and familiarity with the needs of local people.

The short time scale for feedback however, is inadequate in order to obtain a sufficiently detailed response. Belfast City Council would call on Post Office Ltd to meet with elected councillors to discuss branch closures.

Given the fragmentation of public service within Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK, the Council would request Post Office Ltd to provide assurances that all relevant parties have been consulted e.g. Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Translink, and Roads Service etc and particularly while forming the Area Proposal Plan.

Thank you for keeping Belfast City Council informed of the current position regarding the Network Change Programme. We have made a number of comments on which we would like to receive further communication. We would be keen therefore to know how the Northern Ireland consultation has progressed and how you intend to incorporate these and comments from other interested parties who respond to your consultation into your final Area Plan Proposal.

Belmont Post Office Closure
Public Meeting
CIYMS Wednesday 30th April 2008

Present:

Public: (attached list of residents names and addresses to panel members only)

Panel: Kellin McCluskey & Fiona Boyle (Postwatch), Sheila McCann, Barbara Rolston & Angus Magee (Post Office Ltd Consultation Team), Peter Robinson MP MLA, Robin Newton MLA & Lord Browne of Belmont MLA (DUP), Naomi Long MLA & Mervyn Jones (Alliance), Sir Reg Empey MLA (UUP), Dr. John Kyle (PUP)

Facilitators: Chairperson Mr. Stephen Crosby & Secretary Mrs. Alison Smith (Wandsworth Community Centre)

Stephen Crosby chairing tonight’s meeting on behalf of Wandsworth Community Centre welcomed the extremely large turn out of residents and members of the panel to the meeting which was called in response to public demand to address the issues regarding the proposed closure of Belmont Post Office.

All panel members were then asked to introduce themselves and give a short presentation giving their own perspective on the proposed closure.

Barbara Rolston speaking on behalf of Post Office Ltd Consultation Team gave an overview of the proposal, citing the use of research carried out to determine which Post Offices should close.

Dr. John Kyle speaking on behalf of the Progressive Unionist Party(PUP) explained how local communities were being affected by decisions made, not by local councils, but by Westminster who own Post Office Ltd.

Naomi Long (Alliance) after telling of her work on the Stormont Assembly’s Ad hoc Committee answered a question from the floor asking her to explain what was meant by an Ad hoc Committee. It is a committee set up to deal with a single issue only and currently is tasked to look at the proposed Post Office closures.

Kellin McCluskey spoke on her role working with Postwatch, the postal services special unit set up to protect customers. She explained the body was independent from Post Office Ltd and Government but would feed back to them on customer complaints and concerns.

Lord Browne of Belmont received outstanding applause when he spoke of his personal use of Belmont Post Office and thanked the staff for their hard work and the pleasant atmosphere they created at Belmont. He said the 6 week consultation period was not long enough and as a member of the Adhoc committee he would be pushing for an extension of the consultation period to 12 weeks.

Robin Newton as Chair of the Adhoc committee agreed that he was putting pressure on Post Office Ltd for the extension to 12 weeks and said that it was a consultation process and he felt that Post Office Ltd were in listening mode.

Sir Reg Empey said that “people power” was evident tonight and that seeds sown by the government decisions to remove certain services from local post offices had brought about their downfall. Last year Knock and Knocknagoney Post Offices had been closed in the first round of closures and this is the second round of such closures with a possible 3rd imminent. “If Belmont is not viable, what Post Office will be?”.

Peter Robinson MP, delighted at the huge turnout, said that this “strengthens our hands in dealing with Post Office Ltd”. He said that all parties gathered round the table tonight would work together as there were no political issues involved and that with their collective views and the backing of the people all should go together to the Post Office and ask for a turnabout in their thinking of closing Belmont. He said further “the pressure is on - keep piling it on!” He received tremendous applause from the floor.

The floor was then opened up to residents/users of Belmont Post Office with Yvonne Morrison, one of the residents who initiated the campaign by contacting Wandsworth Community Centre and asking it to get involved, giving her own views and concerns if Belmont were to close. The following questions and responses then took place.

Question….Is Belmont Post Office making a loss?

Sheila McCann responded that other issues not just losses were taken into consideration when making a decision as to which post office should close. She said that other factors such as transport links, distance measurements, business conducted and customer footfall all came into focus when deciding.

With people responding heatedly saying she was not directly answering the question she further responded by saying that the Belmont closure satisfied criteria laid down by government and that “it would save us money to close Belmont”.

Question….If government policy is to reduce Post Offices where does it end? Does it end with all post offices closed? If we don’t go to Strandtown will it also close?

A resident gave their concerns re having to relocate to Strandtown with limited parking and no disabled access available.

Barbara Rolston gave a response saying that a survey had been carried out at all the post offices concerned and those carrying out the survey had spoken to customers and walked the routes between them.

Question….Does Belmont have less footfall?

Sheila McCann responded saying that although Belmont had more customers the decision was made not just using footfall as a measurement.

One resident at this point gave a personal account of her use of Belmont Post Office since childhood and does not see why the residents of Belmont or Wandsworth areas should have to suffer. She went on to say that although she could personally make the further trip to the other alternative offices she much preferred Belmont and wanted it to remain at the heart of her community. She uses Belmont almost every day even taking her snakes with her. Four generations of her family have used Belmont with no cause for complaint and she added “you are treated like a human being. Alright, you can go to shops and now purchase TV licences, stamps and pay bills but there there will be no public face…we want to be treated with respect and by those who show respect!”.

Another resident of Campbell Park Avenue spoke with regards to her mum who is 85 years of age and independent but not mobile. The doors of Belmont have been specially widened to allow wheelchair access and it also has a lowered desk to enable her mum to conduct her business independently. She also spoke with regards to the alternative offices on offer and what she seen as the potential hazards for her mum. At Ballyhackamore there is an extremely busy garage forecourt which she considers dangerous for her mum and other elderly residents never mind those with pushchairs and toddlers in tow. She further hinted at how Belmont’s closure would impact on other small businesses in the area especially the bakery and Mace which are thriving shops used by many post office customers. She asked that with 60% of the surrounding population being elderly had those conducting the survey, and who had subsequently decided to close Belmont, walked the distance down to Strandtown or Ballyhackamore whilst pushing a shopping trolley or using a wheelchair or travelator navigating the kerbs and steps never mind the uphill struggle homeward again. Of Belmont, she said “It is profitable and yet we are denied the extra services they have asked for (passports, driving licences, car tax renewal etc.) – please please please give them to our branch at Belmont and we will use them!”.

Response from Sheila McCann said that Belmont was NOT profitable to Post Office Ltd.

A comment was made by one MLA saying that the public must remember that this is a time of public consultation and no decision has definitely been made therefore they should write individually to Post Office Consultation Team giving their own personal concerns at the imminent closure of Belmont.

Question…..On a spectrum of 1 – 10 ensuring a post office is closed, where does Belmont stand?

Response….It came within the 2500 Post Offices put forward. 1 of 42 post offices in Northern Ireland earmarked for closure.

Question…How can you justify a post office within a busy petrol station?

Resident also highlighted how an elderly gentleman had recently been knocked down and killed on a Sunday evening outside Strandtown Post Office.

Barbara Rolston said it was not a decision made by Post Office Ltd as to where to site post offices but that postmasters individually applied for their businesses and often used public opinion as to where these should be sited.

Peter Robinson MP at this point took the floor and said Post Office Ltd tonight have made it clear it is a government directive and therefore they should not be hiding. Can we ask that politicians are given information, under the freedom of information act, from Post Office Ltd giving the particular criteria used. We would like to question this criteria and the subsequent survey carried out. We are entitled to total objectivity, total transparency and said it was a tribute to the people of Belmont that this meeting had attracted 4 ministers to tonight’s meeting.

A resident thanked all the public representatives for showing a rare united front tonight and said they hoped it was a sign of things to come.

Question….What social research did you do on age profiles, mobility etc of the area in question or is it just a figment of your imagination?

Response…Barbara Rolston said we cannot defend what we do as we have no choice but to reduce the number of post offices. This is government policy and we have to implement it.

Another resident then came forward and asked if Post Office Ltd had done research into those who use the post office who have invisible disabilities. Have you done the research on this and if so how have you taken the research into consideration? She spoke personally of her own invisible disability and how she had used Belmont Post Office and how staff knew of her inabilities and assisted where necessary.

Peter Robinson MP then asked Post Office Ltd’s consultation team if they would look seriously at their decision and reconsider. He asked them to look at that one issue.

Naomi Long again insisted that Post Office Ltd should extend the consultation period from 6 – 12 weeks. She understood the closures had to be finalised by November and if this is the case and reconsideration was given to the closure of Belmont then other post office closures would have to take place thus another consultation process commencing for that post office and extending this November deadline also.

Mervyn Jones then asked Post Office Ltd if it had a finite amount of money to save, was it committed to closing all the proposed 42 post offices. If rescued how would they decide to save money…would they then choose to close others instead.

Post Office Ltd Consultation team responded at this point by reaffirming “This is still only a proposal NOT a decision.”

A resident then responded by telling them they were poor servants of government and if asked to jump they will say “how high”?

Question….in areas proposed for change which have been saved what factors caused you to reconsider?

Response…. Regeneration, transport, high proportion of disadvantaged etc

A resident with a small internet business then praised the workers of Belmont Post Office for the handling of her 30 parcels per day and asked how she was supposed to manage taking these down to Strandtown with so little parking available or to Ballyhackamore with its busy forecourt, endless traffic and her small children in tow.

She said she would have to look at closing her business and this prompted calls from 2 other such small businesses in support of her claims.

In summarising….

Peter Robinson MP asked for proper figures and information to be made available.

Naomi said that bus routes do not service the area properly and this should not be used as a factor in determining closures.

Post Office Ltd asked that residents write letters addressing this issue.

Postwatch thanked everyone for coming and again stressed that all should write individual letters voicing their individual concerns and to also direct these to Postwatch as well as Post Office Ltd (Sheila McCann) as they only get a list of those who have responded but not giving them details of actual concerns.

Letters by email should be sent to www.postoffice.co.uk/networkchange

Robin Newton said that 23% will be outside the 1 mile radius of a local post office and that debate would be taken up by the Adhoc Committee which he chairs. He also voiced concerns for the elderly who would no longer make a regular daily trip to their local post office preferring instead to go on a weekly basis and lift larger sums of money leaving them vulnerable to attack.

John Kyle encouraged the residents to step up their campaign to halt the closure of Belmont.

It was noted that there was just over 200 people present tonight.

Another resident said he hadn’t left his house in 2 years since losing his wife and that the fact he had left it to come tonight showed how determined he was to keep his local office at Belmont.

Lord Browne of Belmont summarised his feelings by saying that we had had a lot of unanswered questions yet many problems identified and that we should seek answers to the questions put.

Naomi Long said it was unfair of Post Office Ltd to put community against community which is in reality what is happening with people voicing their objections to other post offices given as alternatives. She asked that when people put their concerns to Post Office Ltd that they focus on the positives for Belmont and trust that they listen.

In closing the Chairperson Stephen Crosby read a letter on behalf of Yvonne (Belmont Postmistress) thanking residents for their actions and public support for them.

Stephen then saying that the next step forward for us as a community was to meet with the politicians to make a concerted effort to lobby Post Office to reconsider, asked the public to give Wandsworth Community Centre a mandate to work on their behalf with those in local government. A show of hands was taken and with only one objection to the proposal the motion was carried and Wandsworth Community Centre would now take the challenge forward on behalf of residents and users of Belmont Post Office.

Citizens Advice NI
Evidence to Ad Hoc Committee
Local Postal Services

CAB letter

Introduction

1. Citizens Advice is the largest advice charity in Northern Ireland working against poverty, meeting the information and advice needs of some 260,000 people per year. Citizens Advice Northern Ireland has formal links to National Citizens Advice in England and Wales and close working relationships with Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS). Together the three associations constitute the largest advice network in Europe, with over 60 year’s experience of providing advice and information to the public.

2. Citizens Advice has funding relationships with 24 of Northern Ireland’s District Councils and in the 12 months to March 2008 had a turnover of some £4.5m, of which Citizens Advice Regional Office accounted for £1.6m.

3. The CAB service delivers advice from 28 bureaux across the country. In addition to the comprehensive network of CAB offices from urban city centres to isolated rural communities we also provide extensive outreach services in locations ranging from GP surgeries and hospitals, to community centres and mental health facilities.

4. Citizens Advice also counts on 278 volunteers and 165 staff across 28 bureaux.

Summary

5. The Post Office network plays a number of incredibly important roles for Citizens Advice Bureau clients, many of whom are amongst the most vulnerable members of society. This is particularly the case for those who live in rural or urban deprived areas where alternatives, such as access to basic financial services, may be limited or non-existent.

6. As the CAB network reaches into almost every corner of Northern Ireland our evidence is the result of the actual experiences gained by CAB Advisers based upon anonymous client case evidence. This is made possible by the CAB services social policy feedback mechanism by which bureaux highlight the problems in their area by sending in specific case examples that are indicative of wider issues.

7. In response to the invitation to give evidence at this committee we also undertook a specific survey of CAB Advisers across the bureaux network. The advisers were asked for their thoughts about the services and products that the Post Office network offers to CAB clients, the strengths of the network, it’s failings, and, perhaps most importantly of all, what the future of the Post Office network should be. A summary of the key points is given on page four.

8. Any reduction in the number of Post Offices will hit the most vulnerable groups hard – an overwhelming 95% of CAB advisers consider vulnerable people in their community would suffer if their local Post Office were to close. Closures would also have a profound impact on the wider community and the viability of other local businesses.

9. Unsurprisingly the Adviser Survey shows the principal reasons for Post Office usage as - 100% stating postal services, 95% for collecting benefits, 90% for paying bills and 86% to access official documents like passport application. A number of advisers highlighted that for many people it is a one stop shop for collecting benefit, paying a bill (gas, electricity) and sending a parcel at the same time.

Adviser – using the Post Office to pay various utility bills by payment card is essential for debt clients to keep on top of their utility payments – Money Adviser L’Derry

10. In terms of how people value Post Office service’s ‘the community role scored extremely highly at 95%, convenient location was particularly important 68%.

Adviser – Rural bus services are poor and there is limited access to banks as most branches are in towns. Clients on limited incomes i.e. benefits need free local access to their money. They are least able to absorb the extra travel costs. Magherafelt CAB

11. 68% of Advisers cited helpful staff as being one of the main selling points of the Post Office. Staff will often refer clients to CAB if they are having difficulty accessing cash or problems with payments.

12. The Post Office also plays a broader role in the community with many people using their local branch as a place to meet, chat and exchange information. This social cohesion role is hard to quantify and define, but it might include elements such as convenience, a neighbourly role and the sense of providing communities with an identity and a focal point. A recent Scottish Executive study into the role Post Offices play in rural Scottish communities highlighted three main social roles: promoting financial inclusion, acting as a hub of the community and providing advice/support via Post Office staff that goes beyond counter duties to fulfil a wider community role.[1]

Revitalising the Post Office network

13. CAB clients and advisers place significant value on their local Post Offices and any closures will have a detrimental effect on both individuals and communities.

14. Declining business is one of the key factors that has called the viability of the Post Office into question. However, if the future of the network is to be turned around emphasis needs to be placed not solely on ways of rationalising services and reducing the numbers, but also imaginative and innovative ways of extending and revitalising the network and placing it on a more long term sustainable footing.

15. The CAB adviser survey supports other well documented evidence on the social benefits of the Post office network particularly in rural areas. The survey shows that there are significant numbers of people across the country that currently use their Post Office for a variety of governmental services such as paying car tax, collecting official forms and finding information. This would indicate that there is great scope to extend Post Offices as convenient and accessible one-stop-shop point of entry to government services.

16. The trend seems however to be moving in the opposite direction, with various government agencies withdrawing services from Post offices and then delivering them by other means i.e. electronic based (transitional) services. The BBC for example awarded TV licensing to Paypoint and the UK passport service to a private organisation rather than award the contract to the Post Office.

17. We consider that government departments should be thinking more deeply and widely in terms of innovative uses that can be made of the extensive Post Office network. It seems clear to us that there is great potential benefit to be derived from both central and local government delivering services and disseminating information via Post Offices. It may be that voluntary organisations might have a role, for example a CAB kiosk in a Post Office might not only be used to disseminate information but could also be used for accessing electronic services not directly available through the post office. This may well have a beneficial impact in terms of footfall to Post Offices.

18. Citizens Advice proposes that central government departments actively seek to make their services, products and information available through the Post Office network in addition to other access channels. We also suggest that central government encourage local authorities to ensure that much more of the services that they provide are made available through the Post Office.

19. Options to allow local councils to take over the running of local post offices should be considered as this may well lead to combining postal services with those provided by councils. This has been recognised as a viable proposition by the Local Government Association in England and Wales.

20. The feasibility of allowing postal services to be delivered from local community centres should also be considered, particularly in remote rural areas. This is being evaluated within the Scottish Highlands where proposed closures would bring social hardship to many people.

21. Citizens Advice services the needs of some 260,000 people per year in Northern Ireland and in common with the Post Office commands trust within the community. Citizens Advice has an abundance of social capital at the heart of its service provision through a web of relationships and goodwill through its volunteer ethos and the Post Office also has recognised social capital as a focus for the local communities it serves - it is at the centre of a social structure, is a trusted agency and is not seen as being overtly commercial. Therefore, Citizens Advice would also promote a more radical approach of developing partnership agreements which could be brought about whereby local post office services and CAB advice and information could be accessed from a single location. This would considerably increase the footfall for both services and take advantage of economies of scale.

22. The Adviser survey showed that 81% of advisers considered that a partnership with community organisations was a good idea.

23. Currently, the Post Office hasn’t the freedom to operate commercially. Government needs to clearly opt for one of 3 options

1) Provide it with the freedom to operate commercially or

2) Apply cost benefit analysis and subsidise the service as an important part of the social infrastructure.

3) Allow the Post Office to operate as a Social Economy Enterprise as defined by DETI in its publication “Developing a Social Economy”” .[2]

Summary of CAB Adviser Survey
  • 95% percent of advisers felt that vulnerable people in the community would suffer if their local Post Office was to close.
  • Advisers most frequently cited the community role (95%), convenient location (68%) and helpful staff (68%) as positive features of the Post Office for CAB clients.
  • Of the problems that CAB clients experience with Post Offices 68% stated withdrawing cash and 59% citing long queues.
  • 100% of advisers stated that CAB clients use the Post Office for postal services, with 95% stating that CAB clients collect their benefit income, and 90% considered that clients used the Post Office to pay bills.
  • If the local Post Office was to close, 81% of advisers felt this would reduce custom for nearby business with 72% stating it might actually put the future of local businesses at risk.
  • When asked what they thought the Post Office’s core services and products should be 86% stated postal services, access to cash for benefits 87% and 87% paying bills should be a core service.
  • 86% of advisers felt that closure of a local Post Office branch is a bad idea.
  • Of the possible alternative means of providing Post Office services,
Summary of Proposed Options for Evaluation
  • Greater use by Government of Post Offices as access channel for services
  • Local Councils to take over running of Post Offices
  • Establishment of community run Post Offices
  • Partnerships between Citizens Advice and local Post Offices
  • Government needs to define commercial status of Post Office.

    [1] Three case studies of the role of the Post Office within Rural Communities in Scotland, Scottish Executive, July 2006

    [2] DETI –Three Year Strategic Plan: Developing a Successful Social Economy, September 2004

Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland

Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland Logo

Brief Summary of PSNI’s position:
  • Amongst the many services provided by Post Offices, the relationship of Post Offices in providing access to healthcare services is under-appreciated
  • Alongside high street pharmacies, Post Offices are anchors of service provision within local areas, especially in deprived or remote communities
  • The future maintenance of a rural and urban Post Office network could be supported by consideration of the opportunities to co-locate Post Offices within a community pharmacy. Several successful examples of this co-location exist in Northern Ireland. These opportunities should be explored before final decisions on closure are made.
  • The Network Change Programme should be more open and transparent in its intended closure programme, mapping out all post offices in Northern Ireland, highlighting those earmarked for closure and placing this information in the public domain. This might then further facilitate intervention from other parties to develop proposals to maintain a Post Office service by, for example, co-location of services within a local community pharmacy.
The role of Post Offices in providing access to healthcare

Post Offices provide a gateway for low income groups to receive their full entitlement to free health care. Post Offices supply, collect, and provide general information about the HC1, HC2, HC3 and PS7 forms.

  • The HC1 form must be completed and approved to qualify members of the public for exemption from prescription charges (e.g. those in receipt of income support).
  • Completing the requirements of the HC2 form entitles an individual to free dental treatment, eye tests and some glasses
  • The HC3 form is an application form for limited support with some health costs, but not prescription costs
  • HC5 is a claim form for a refund of NHS wigs or fabric supports
  • The PS7 form enables those who are entitled to free prescriptions to receive a refund if they have already made a prescription payment.

The Post Office also provides the useful HC11 information leaflet “Help with Health Costs” which explains to the public the myriad of different levels of support with healthcare costs available, and how to process a claim for entitlement.

Finally, in rural communities without a pharmacy, but with a post office, the Post Office can become a place where repeat prescriptions are collected. This is a valuable service to many elderly and immobile residents living within rural localities.

Post Offices and Pharmacies as anchors of local communities

Alongside a community pharmacy, Post Offices are often vital hubs of both small village, and suburban economies. Without either service, village high streets and suburban shopping parades can often die out due to a lack of essential footfall to support ancillary businesses.

Both community pharmacies and Post Offices require a level protection to preserve and enhance the existence of sustainable communities and service provision beyond simply the major urban retail centres.

Post-Office and Pharmacy co-location

As an example, Saintfield Post Office has successfully co-located with its neighbouring pharmacy, providing mutual benefit to both parties including increased footfall to the premises and reduced overheads in terms of rent and rates per business unit.

The potentials for Post Offices to co-locate with other businesses, including community pharmacies should be an essential part of any evaluation before earmarking a Post Office for closure.

Presentation of closure plans

The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland urges that the Post Office Network Change Programme makes strides to be more open and transparent in the progression of any post office closure plans for Northern Ireland. In particular, the Society is aware of plans in London to develop a map of all post offices in London, highlighting those which have been earmarked for closure. A similar map for Northern Ireland, placed in the public domain, may assist stakeholders, such as local community pharmacies, in considering the available options to save a local post office from closure by, for example, co-location with another existing business such as a community pharmacy.

Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland

rural community network logo

Response to
Post Office Network Change Programme
Area Plan Proposal
Northern Ireland
May 2008

38a Oldtown Street
Cookstown
BT80 8EF
Tel: 028 867 66670
Fax: 028 867 66066
Email: karin@ruralcommunitynetwork.org

1.0 Introduction

1.1 Rural Community Network [RCN] is a regional voluntary organisation established by community groups from rural areas in 1991 to articulate the voice of rural communities on issues relating to poverty, disadvantage and equality. We are part of a wider rural community development networking infrastructure with twelve Rural Support Networks covering the whole of rural Northern Ireland with over 800 members.

1.2 Rural Community Network is committed to a rural community development and networking approach to the planning and development of sustainable rural communities in order to address poverty, social exclusion and equality and to support work towards a shared future.

1.3 RCN very much welcomes this opportunity to comment on the Area Plan Proposal for Northern Ireland. This is an important consultation process and we met with Postwatch and the Post Office in October 2007 to both raise concerns with regards the 6- week consultation period and to clarify the parameters of the consultation towards supporting rural communities engage as effectively as possible. We subsequently produced an information leaflet with the Rural Support Networks for our members and organised two events:

  • The first event was hold prior to 1st April announcement – the purpose was to bring together rural community groups and sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to explore both the contributions rural post-offices currently make to local communities and future possibilities including the viability of outreach services;
  • The second event was held post 1st April announcement – this event was attended by Post Office and Postwatch to clarify the announcements made on 1st April towards enabling local communities respond as effectively as possible.

Since 1st April, we have also supported a few local communities prepare for public meetings and have surveyed our own members with regards the changes proposed. This consultation response is based on the work outlined above. Whilst we recognize that the focus of the consultation was seeking views from local communities with regards the changes to their local postal services, we feel that a regional reflection would also be of use.

1.4 We would greatly appreciate if Post Office Ltd could respond to the consultation by saying what it has heard, what it has taken on board and what it has not, for whatever reason. We would also expect that local groups will receive specific feedback on their own submissions and the reasons underlying final decisions.

1.5 RCN acknowledges the support from Postwatch and we would also appreciate feedback from Postwatch on what it has heard and how Postwatch challenged and engaged with the Post Office in their final deliberations.

2.0 Key Issues
Definition of ‘rural’ and rural deprivation

2.1 There is no single agreed definition of ‘rural’ in Northern Ireland with different perceptions and interpretations shaping the development of different policies, including the Post Office Network Change Programme. In February 2005, the Inter Departmental Urban-Rural Definition Group (Source: NISRA) recommended a ‘default urban-rural definition’.

“In the absence of a programme-specific definition, Bands A-E can be defined as urban and Bands F-H as rural. This reflects the broad consensus of past departmental usage that the divide between urban and rural lies among settlements whose populations are between 3,000 and 5,000. Under this definition, approximately 65 per cent of the Northern

Ireland population live in urban areas and 35 per cent in rural areas.”

However they added:

“It is stressed that this definition should not be used in a prescriptive way and policy-makers will need to consider the appropriateness of settlement and urban/rural classifications to individual policies.”

The Group recommended that:

”Government departments and other users should consider defining ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ areas in ways which are appropriate for different programmes and projects. Thus as an example, a settlement such as Castlederg or Keady may be eligible for certain rural programmes because such settlements provide services for rural hinterlands. However such settlements are likely to have housing or commercial areas that have urban characteristics, and therefore may also validly be eligible for certain urban programmes. It follows that different definitions of urban and rural are appropriate on different occasions.”

The Shaping our Future document in 2001 defined the geography of rural Northern Ireland as consisting of main towns [population of 10 000-30 000], small towns [population of 5000 – 10 000] and villages, and open countryside. The inclusion of main towns in this definition of rurality is significant and recognizes the strong degree of interdependence that exists across different types of settlements in Northern Ireland.

“Rural Northern Ireland comprises the main and small towns, and their rural catchment areas characterised by a dispersed settlement pattern.”

Finally, the Department of Social Development states:

‘The working definition of urban is greater than 4,500 residents.”

2.2 For the purposes of this Network Change Programme, ‘rural’ has been defined by Post Office Ltd as any community with a population less than 10,000 which equates to approximately 41% of the population.

Using this definition, in the current network there are:

Total branches = 534

  • Urban = 166
  • Rural = 368

In the proposed network as outlined in the Area Plan there will be:

Total branches = 492

  • Urban = 151
  • Rural 341

There are therefore 42 closures proposed, with 15 urban and 27 rural. Fifty-four outreach services are being proposed, all in rural communities.

2.3 If ‘rural’ covers 41% of the population, RCN would be extremely concerned that there are no access criteria for ‘deprived rural’. In effect there is a lack of equivalence between rural communities and urban deprived communities where there is an access criterion of “99% of the total population in deprived urban areas across the UK is to be within one mile of its nearest post office outlets.”

RCN acknowledges that deprivation manifests differently in rural communities in that it is more dispersed and therefore often less visible. However, it would still have been useful for Post Office Ltd to try and quantify this issue given the potential impact of changes to rural Post Offices on the most disadvantaged people living within rural communities, who are also most likely to see and use the Post Office as an essential service. By failing to consider this RCN have concerns that the needs of many of the most disadvantaged rural dwellers have not been taken into account through the proposed Network Change process.

2.4 Our understanding is the Post Office has measured deprivation in a de facto manner through their socio-economic profiling. However, despite repeated requests this information has not been made available. This has been a particular frustration for communities seeking to discover the accuracy of the information on which decisions around closures or outreach services were based. The fact that the socio-economic profiling seems to have been based upon the 2001 census figures is deeply worrying given the major demographic changes in many communities in the intervening seven years.

Furthermore the fact that the Post Office is exempt from Section 75 and the Disability Discrimination Action, and seemingly wider UK equality legislation, despite the government being the main shareholder, means that vulnerable groups and the impacts the changes might have upon them have been virtually impossible to assess and indeed appear to be less of a priority in comparison to economic factors. W

3.0 A Public Service

3.1 Post offices are seen by both those who use them and those who don’t as an essential service within the rural community linked to the wider question of rural sustainability. For example, they are often supporting the last shop in the village with fear that closure would trigger a domino effect leading to other withdrawals of key services.

To quote an elderly individual who contacted RCN on this issue:

“…without our Post Offices our villages are dead as they are not only a vital services, they are also our local life line with the outside world.”

3.2 There are also a whole set of unofficial services provided by rural post-offices in additional to the official 180 services which post-offices can provide. These can range from filling in benefit forms, writing birthday cards, keeping cash, keeping Bank of England notes for migrant workers, carrying out small jobs and overall providing a point of community contact and information. The problem is that these unofficial transactions are not and often cannot be recorded but are a valuable public resource.

3.3 RCN’s sister organisation located within the Republic of Ireland, Irish Rural link, in a recent article on changes to the postal service in the Republic, reflected that:

“While the preservation of our network of post offfices is partly dependent on our everyday actions and choices it is also dependent on how we as a society understand the term ‘public service”. If our understanding of public service includes promoting social inclusion then the logic of negotiations between the IPU and An Post changes and a role for imaginative government action emerges.”

RCN recognises the challenges for securing economic sustainability of a rural post office network, but would argue that the public service dimension should have equal billing to economic realities, recognizing that this requires a commitment from government to secure this status.

4.0 Key Users and Potential Impacts

4.1 Fieldwork undertaken by MORI on behalf of Postwatch and the Commission for Rural Communities in November 2005 revealed that “those customers affected more than the average by the closure of their local rural post office are most likely to be aged below 34 or over 65, female customers, those on lower incomes, people with disabilities and carers.”

Within rural communities, Age Concern states that “99% of older people in rural areas consider their local Post Office to be a ‘lifeline’.” (Age Concern 2006)

According to Nick Moore, Chair of Ballyhalbert and District Community Association in their submission to the Post Office:

“For residents of Ballyhalbert who may be forced to make the journey to either Portavogie or Ballywalter to collect a package they face an all day outing due to the infrequent bus service. For an elderly resident this is simply unacceptable and I would remind the Post Office that it is obligated to provide a ‘Public Service’ by virtue of which surely is the obligation not to actively disadvantage sections of society.

While the government did remove the Post Office from the list of organisations covered by the Disability Discrimination Act meaning concerns of catering for the disabled or frail elderly customers need not apply, I would hope Post Office Management would feel morally concerned enough to consider such factors. I still await clear descriptions of what factors came into play that have lead to the proposed closure of Ballyhalbert’s Post Office. If the distance to another branch with no thought of the impact on customers was the main decision, rather than fully investigating the number of customers a branch gets, the revenue generated, the potential of attracting more customers moving into new housing developments, or perhaps offering more services that Westlife and other celebrities advertise, it’s no wonder the Post Office is struggling as a business.”

Through its own work over the last six weeks RCN has uncovered the following concerns from both communityes and sub-postmasters and sub-postmistreses regarding the potential impacts of closures or changes to existing services. In summary these concerns could be categorised as follows:

  • If rural people want a local post office they need to use it more;
  • People need to be more aware of the range of services available from their local Post Office;
  • Sub postmasters/postmistresses need to be more aware of the range and the benefits of the services they could offer and need to be more effectively supported by Post Office Limited to do this.
  • Government and Local Government need to identify business that they could redirect towards Post Offices;
  • Those who do use Post Offices often have least voice whilst experiencing the greatest impact of change.

4.2 A number of examples have been given to RCN in terms of how Post Offices have been constrained in either growing or developing their businesses. For example the inability to advertise banking services and how these can be used in post-offices due to Post-Office contractual issues with particular banks. Another example was that unlike in Great Britain, post offices in Northern Ireland do not receive rates relief. One contributor also pointed out the lack of joined up thinking within the government. For example, the Social Security department might have saved £200 million in paying benefits directly into bank accounts but DTI had to find £250 million to subsidise the Post Office network to compensate for the loss of business.

4.3 Another issue raised through this consultation has been the pivotal role that the Post Office plays in many rural communities. Post offices are seen as essential services and there were real concerns conveyed to RCN that the closure or reduction of a postal service have an impact on other key services and would lead to the community being less sustainable in the long term.

Lack of relevant information being made available during the consultation process

5.1 Clarity and information during the consultation process regarding the criteria and the weighting, on which decisions were made on both closures and outreach services have been sadly lacking in this consultation process. This has posed particular problems for many rural communities seeking to understand and respond to potential changes to their local post office.

The House of Commons Select Committee on Business enterprise and regulatory reform in their third report stated:

“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. There may be some details that 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. We welcome the fact that Post Office Ltd has been prepared to share more information as the process has evolved, it should give such information at the outset of the consultation process.”

5.2 The frustration around the lack of information available has been compounded by the fact that a number of rural communities have had to pursue Freedom of Information [FOI] Requests in order to access additional information. This situation has also been further complicated by the short consultation period, to the extent that at least two groups RCN is aware of have yet to receive any information with regard to their FOI request and are unlikely to do so before the closing date for the consultation.

6.0 Misleading Information

6.1 Worryingly it has also been brought our attention that some of the information in the area plan and the individual branch access reports is factually incorrect. For example it sates in the area plan that DVLA facilities being offered as part of an outreach service is confirmed but in reality for at least one example RCN is aware of, this is merely a suggestion. With regards the branch access reports some of the information contained here has been proven to wide off the mark, which raises concerns, given Post Office Ltd’s assurances that this data was checked out by ‘walking the ground’.

7.0 Outreach Services

7.1 The 54 proposed outreach services for Northern Ireland are all in rural areas. Therefore it is vital that rural communities can have confidence that these outreach services have been adequately thought through and tested before their implementation. Sadly this does not appear to be the case. The only outreach service to have been piloted is the mobile van; this was piloted in 12 communities serviced by 3 core branches in Northern Ireland.

7.2 The costs of operating an outreach service have not been communicated to the rural communities affected and indeed concerns exist around how genuine the proposed services are in terms of their ability to be sustained in the long term.

7.3 A suspicion exists amongst many people who have contacted RCN that many of these proposed outreach services are not workable but are in effect a ‘death by a thousand cuts’. This perception may well be wrong but given the lack of information in terms of Post Office future Planning or business projections it is a hard one to effectively dispel.

7.4 Given the fact that local communities were not involved in mapping need and shaping how this need might be met through an existing branch or outreach service there is still a real gap in terms of selling these services to the communities effected. If local communities had been more involved in this process, in effect that Post Office Ltd had engaged in a community planning process, there may have been more opportunity to develop creative and imaginative solutions that were owned and shaped by users and the local community.

7.5 An added problem in relation to the Outreach proposals was that there was a lack of clarity with regards the Post Office’s budget for hosted and partner outreach services. One example was quoted to RCN of £3.50 per hour being offered to host a service which is clearly inadequate to cover insurance, heating, lighting and other costs. Furthermore, this may act as a disincentive to potential hosts. In instances where no one is willing to either partner or host a service, what is the outreach service alternative?

8.0 Conclusions

8.1 An evidence base needs built up with regards the formal and informal contribution of rural post offices to community life particularly for the most vulnerable sections of the community. This will be particularly important when the current government subsidy runs out after 2011. In addition government, both local and national, and the general public need to be challenged on whether they value the benefits that Post Offices bring in terms of addressing poverty and addressing social inclusion. If they do they also need to realise that this will have a cost.

8.2 The clash of policies and the lack of joined up thinking needs to be addressed. For example, the government’s commitment to anti-poverty through Lifetime Opportunities is at odds with closing a vital service for those who are in poverty and disadvantaged. The commitment to a Rural White Paper and rural sustainability is at odds with the lack of a long-term commitment to sustaining a vital service for many in rural areas.

8.3 Access criteria need to be enhanced and secured to ensure that the public service the Post Office provides to rural communities is fit for purpose and protected for the long term.

8.4 Given the distinct set of circumstances in Northern Ireland consideration should be given towards developing a discrete set of criteria focusing on community cohesion and well-being. As a predominantly rural society, there needs to be a stronger ‘regional’ thinking as opposed to UK wide perspective on the future of the rural postal services network.

8.5 UK Government departments, the local Assembly, the Executive and local government should consider ways in which they can, and should, support the Post Office Network while also that it provides a service that is needed by the consumer. For example:

  • The Post Office Card Account (POCA) needs to be retained to ensure the long term sustainability of the Post Office network.
  • All bank accounts should be made accessible through Post Offices with the services advertised;
  • Major Government and service provider contracts, including the television licence fee, should be directed through the Post Office;
  • Local government should consider which services it could re-direct through the Post Office network.

8.6 The 6-monthly process of reviewing the outreach services needs to be clearly outlined to local communities ensuring that local people have a voice particuarly those who are most vulnerable and often have least voice.

Committee for Enterprise, Trade & Investment Reponse to Post Office Ltd Consultation

Committee for Enterprise, Trade & Investment Reponse to Post Office Ltd Consultation

Committee for Enterprise, Trade & Investment Reponse to Post Office Ltd Consultation

Committee for Social Development’s Response to Post Office Ltd Consultation

 

Committee for Social Development’s Response to Post Office Ltd Consultation

Committee for Social Development’s Response to Post Office Ltd Consultation

Committee for Social Development’s Response to Post Office Ltd Consultation

Down District Council 
Consultation Response

Post Office Ltd Network Change Programme

Down District Council, at its meeting on 7th April 2008, considered the Post Office Area Plan Proposal, Northern Ireland which impacts on the services provided at Killough, Chapeltown, Ballykinlar and Loughinisland Post Offices.

Members agreed meetings should be held with the communities affected. Two meetings were organised. The first in Killough Community Hall, on 22 April 2008, to discuss Killough and Chapeltown post offices and the second, on 24 April 2008, in St Macartan’s Primary School, Loughinisland to discuss Ballykinlar and Loughinisland post offices.

Down District Council Views

The Council accepts the position it is good practice for businesses to review their practices and process on a regular basis to ensure they are efficient and cost effective. That said there are a number of major issues regarding the proposals for the four affected Post Offices in Down District.

Consultation

Concerning the consultation process there is a major concern only six weeks were allocated for the consultation period when the accepted period for consultation is twelve weeks.

Page 6 of the consultation document states “Each Area Plan Proposal is subject to local public consultation to ensure that the views of local people are taken into account before any final decisions are made by Post Office Ltd.” Discussions with the local people at the two meetings to review the proposals revealed there had been no direct contact by Post Office Ltd with people in the local communities who use the services and would be directly affected by any changes. In fact it was revealed that although discussions had been held with the Post Masters / Mistresses affected by the proposals they had been asked to sign confidentially documents.

Demographics

The consultation document gives no indication of the demographic statistics or any statistics that have been used to guide the proposals. In the case of Killough which has new housing developments and young families the suggestion to reduce the hours from the current forty to thirteen appears ill judged and not based on current up to date information. In this particular case a more realistic approach should be taken using:

  • Current level of customers and transactions
  • Ongoing expansion and development of the village

The current proposals for Killough do not take into account the needs for working families and local businesses that rely on the banking facilities currently offered.

Alternative Services at Other Post Offices

The proposals in the consultation document suggest people can travel to neighbouring post offices to obtain service has ignored the fact public transport in rural areas tends to be sporadic and expensive. It is apparent that very little work, if any, has been carried by the Post Office to align the proposed service hours to public transport schedules. To expect people to travel to other locations for post office services when there may be a three to four hour gap in return travel is both naive and unacceptable.

(4) Reduction of Services offered

People in the four communities where the service changes are proposed expressed a view that this was a continuing process of diminishing rural services. They believe the removal of allowing people to pay for TV licences at post offices was the start of this process and the continued lack of introducing new services has served to further this belief. The proposals have also chosen to ignore the increase of up to 25% of business which is experienced during the summer months.

Social Issues

The current proposals have chosen to ignore the social cohesion Post Offices provide to the rural communities and no attempt has been made to address the current level of stress the proposals have caused in particular to the elderly.

It is Council’s view that the current consultation has been rushed with no evidence the Post Office has attempted to fully engage with the communities affected by the proposed changes. The changes themselves fall well short of what is required from a customer point of view and appear to have been made by people who were lacking in knowledge of the local areas and have used outdated information. Council believe the Post Office should take a more proactive approach by reviewing the current proposals. This should be done by involving local people with the aim to reach agreed proposals for change which are in the interest of the Post Office and local communities.

In addition to the above, Council call on the Post Office to pay heed to the views, expressed by local people concerning the current proposals, as outlined in this report.

Synopsis of Public Views at the Two Consultation Meetings Held by Down District Council

Killough & Chapeltown Post Office’s
  • Post Office did consult with the Post mistress at Killough and Chapeltown Post Offices on a confidential basis but not directly with local people. Very little information concerning demographic statistics, public usage or explanation for reduced hours was provided to the Post mistress.
  • Currently in Killough 347 customers per week use the service with an average of 4 transactions per customer
  • Killough Village is currently growing with new housing development and young families staying and moving into the area.
  • Killough Post Office hours are currently 40, the proposed reduction is to 13 hours. If there is a business case for a reduction in hours, 25 would have been a more realistic number of hours due to:
  • The current level of customers and transactions
  • The expansion and development of the village
  • Proposed hours do not suit people who work full or part time
  • The new hours will cause problems for local people who are elderly or disabled if they live in the rural area surrounding the village due to poor public transport.
  • New hours are not aligned to current public transport timetables
  • Post Office currently provides banking facilities. The proposed reduced hours will cause difficulties for local businesses, local groups e.g. parent / teacher groups and the local community as there is no bank in the village.
  • The Post Office is a social focus point in these villages. This is vital for the well being of the elderly and people living on their own.
  • Negative impact on special deliveries
  • Belief that the government is supporting the closure of rural post offices by gradually removing services e.g. TV licensing
  • No apparent consideration given to rural proofing of the proposals
  • No direct consultation by the Post Office with local people on the proposals
  • Lack of knowledge of the local area and the changes that have taken place in the localities
  • 25% increase in business during the summer months – holiday trade
  • Chapeltown Post Office currently 40 customers per week high percentage are elderly
  • Chapeltown Post Office closure causing stress to current customers
  • Chapeltown open 20 hours per week
  • Stated 4.6 miles to Downpatrick. The real distance is 8 miles which demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the local area
  • Chapeltown Post Office was closed 13 years ago decision taken 10 years ago to reopen it
  • New housing development is taken place in the area
  • 25% increase in business during the summer months – holiday trade
  • No direct consultation by the Post Office with local people on the proposals
  • Will isolate the elderly and people living on their own in the area
  • Poor and expensive local public transport
Ballykinlar & Loughinisland Post Office’s
  • Post Office did consult with the Post mistress at Ballykinlar and Loughinisland Post Offices on a confidential basis
  • What security will be provided to the mobile service
  • No privacy for those using the mobile post office
  • Keep to the same hours every day to avoid confusion as to when service will be provided
  • Will there be a machine to draw benefits from
  • More services should be provided e.g. Rates, TV licences, registered mail, air mail
  • Will cause difficulties for those who are not knowledgeable in the use of IT
  • Poor bus service from Ballykinlar to Downpatrick which is 10 miles away
  • Clough post office only offers a morning service.
  • Different hours of service in different post offices causes confusion
  • Shared transport may not be available for shorter hours
  • The changes are an attack on the community. The post office is a vital part of the community
  • The use or mobile post offices will increase the carbon footprint of these services
  • Adequate transport needs to be provided for people to access the post offices who open on a full service basis
  • Restrictions to service need to be clarified
  • Security of services provided from a mobile e.g. mobile will be there at the same times could be a target for crime aimed at both the staff and customers
  • Demeaning to be seen getting benefits from a mobile van
  • Difficulties for disabled people using a mobile service

It was suggested the service at Loughinisland Post Office was to be machine based e.g. Paypoint machine. This was not detailed in the consultation document regarding the proposals for Loughinisland Post Office (page 58) and changes the context of the proposal.

Liam McLernon
Down District Council
Policy & Equality Officer
7 May 2008.

Wandsworth Community Centre

Wandsworth Community Centre Logo

Wandsworth Community Centre 
26a Belmont Church Road,
Belfast, BT4 3FF
Ph: 02890651668 / 07903674698

Sheila McCann,
Network Development Manager,
Post Office Limited,
C/O National Consultation Team,
FREEPOST CONSULTATION TEAM

Dear Mrs. McCann,

Re: Proposed closure of Belmont Post Office, 1 Campbell Park Avenue, BT4 3FH

On behalf of the Wandsworth Community Centre, located in close proximity to the above Post Office, we wish to present our objections to the proposed closure of Belmont Post Office.

Following requests from local residents and customers we decided to hold a public meeting on 30th April 2008 and invited local political representatives, Postwatch and Post Office Ltd. The meeting was attended by Sheila McCann, Barbara Rolston and Angus Magee from Post Office Ltd Consultation Team, Mr. Peter Robinson MP, MLA, Lord Browne of Belmont MLA, Robin Newton MLA, Sir Reg Empey MLA, Naomi Long MLA, local councillors and two representatives from Postwatch. Over 200 members of the public attended the meeting and we have enclosed a list of those who recorded their attendance and a copy of the minutes for your perusal which indicates their fears and concerns if the Post Office closes. The meeting concluded with overwhelming support that Wandsworth Community Centre represent their voice to Post Office Ltd and to an all party Ad Hoc Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.

May we commence our objections by pointing out that we regret the situation we find ourselves in, that if we are successful in retaining Belmont Post Office we realise that the axe will fall on another Post Office. It is placing community against community in their desire to maintain the services the local Post Offices provide. Northern Ireland has seen many years of conflict between communities and we were hoping that those days were gone. Sadly there will be aggrieved communities with the consequences of the Post Office decision to close 42 branches and limit services in a further 54 branches (this equates to 18% of the Post Office Network in Northern Ireland which is significantly higher than the national average in the UK).

Furthermore we do not believe that any of the Post Offices in close proximity to Belmont should be affected if there is a reversal in the decision on Belmont Post Office. According to your published Branch Access Report Belmont, Strandtown and Ballyhackamore branches all have between 1000 – 1500 customers per week. The Belmont branch certainly does not fall into the category of 20% in Northern Ireland which has fewer than 100 customers. It is situated in a densely populated area with a high percentage of people aged over 60 according to the latest census figures for the Belmont ward.

http://www.ninis.nisra.gov.uk/mapxtreme/pf_report.asp?sLevel=WARD&sID=95GG09&sName=Belmont

 

Population Density

Over 60’s

Belmont

33.71%

22.4%

Belfast (avg)

24.15%

19.7%

N.I. (avg)

1.19%

17.6%

Belmont has 15.4% who are lone pensioner households and 37.4% have one or more persons with a limited long-term illness. The proposed closures will affect 21.2% of the population, 1925 pensioners and 1770 people with physical disabilities (over 10% of the total population) in East Belfast. We would ask you to confirm if the government criteria used to select the Post Offices for closure is in accordance with Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which requires that due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between persons with a disability and persons without is maintained. This was an act created by Westminster MP’s specific to all citizens of Northern Ireland.

It should be noted that according to your Branch Access Report Belmont is unique in the Belmont/Strandtown/Ballyhackamore neighbourhood as it is the sole branch which has wheelchair access, in fact £12,500 was spent by Post Office Ltd less than two years ago adapting Belmont to provide this service. The Access Report also confirms that there is no direct bus service between Belmont and Ballyhackamore, the only alternative branch which does not have a step to enter the premises. With the closure of Knocknagoney branch last year many customers now use Belmont, however there is no bus route to the alternative Post Offices suggested.

The Mace convenience store will be adversely affected if Belmont Post Office closes and the Primary School within 50m will no longer be able to use the Post Office for their educational trips for children aged 4-7 years old in a child friendly environment. Surely the suggestions made by the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland (attached) could be considered, they would provide a valuable community and economically viable service.

The Belmont branch currently provides the following services: International Data Post, Ireland 24, Parcelforce by 9am, Parcelforce by 10am, Parcelforce by noon, Parcelforce 24 hour, US dollars on demand, US traveller’s cheques on demand, Euro Travellers cheques on demand, Sterling Travellers cheques on demand, Photocopying and Fax Services. It has numerous requests for passport and motor tax services and the current owners believe that an ATM machine installed at the premises would enhance their continued profitability (previous applications for passport, motor tax service and ATM installation were all turned down). The post local collect service available had 114 parcels and 16 Royal Mail packets collected between 1/4/08 and 30/4/08 illustrating the business usage conducted. It should also be noted that this branch is open continuously from Monday to Friday 9am – 5.30pm and Saturday 9am – 12.30pm.

Belmont P.O is deeply embedded within the community and contributes to the safeguarding of those with disabilities, those on low incomes, the vulnerable and the elderly within the local community.

The customer base covers a wide range of age groups and the location is particularly helpful to young mothers who have children at the adjacent playgroup and Primary School who also benefit from educational trips to Belmont Post Office. The pedestrian traffic lights on the Belmont Road and disability access from disability vehicles and wheelchairs and mobility scooters is safe in contrast to the congested Upper Newtownards and Belmont Roads, the location of the alternative P.O’s suggested by the Branch Access Report.

The Belmont Post Office provides a cash withdrawal system where the aged and vulnerable can pay their bills and put their surplus cash about their person in the privacy of the Post Office environment. The use of the ATM at alternative Post Offices in an exposed public place is not to be encouraged if the aged and vulnerable are to be given reasonable security. They may go less frequently to alternative Post Offices, lift higher sums of cash leaving them more vulnerable to attack.

We strongly urge you to reconsider your proposal to close Belmont Post Office. We have been encouraged to see the support of prominent local representatives, an MP, a member of the House of Lords, 5 MLA’s and over 200 members of the public who have voiced their support for the continued services of Belmont Post Office. The current owners wish to provide additional motor tax, passport and ATM services and have the facilities to accommodate the increased customer usage. The consequences for small business users, the adjacent convenience store and the prospect of providing pharmaceutical services in a densely populated area which has a high percentage of elderly, primary and secondary school children should be considered for the long term future of Belmont Post Office which has the potential to improve its profitability alongside neighbouring branches.

We look forward to your reply to our request that Belmont Post Office will continue to offer a valuable service to the Belmont, Knock, Knocknagoney and Stormont communities.

Yours faithfully,

Stephen Crosby Alison Smith
Voluntary Community Development Workers

The Consumer Council Logo

Response to:
Post Office Ltd
on
Network Change Programme – Area Plan Proposal Northern Ireland
by
The Consumer Council
May 2008

1. Introduction

1.1 The General Consumer Council (The Consumer Council) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the consultation on the Post Office Ltd’s Network Change Programme – Area Plan Proposal Northern Ireland.

1.2 The Consumer Council’s legislative role is to give consumers a voice - and to make sure that voice is heard by those who make decisions that affect consumers. Set up by statute in 1985 as a Non-Departmental Public Body, the Consumer Council’s role is to promote and safeguard the interests of all consumers in Northern Ireland.

1.3 The Consumer Council has specific legislative responsibilities for energy (including natural gas, electricity and coal), passenger transport and food, and it has been designated as the consumer representative body for water and sewerage services from April 2007.

1.4 A key feature of the Consumer Council’s work is the need to carry out research to determine consumer concerns and to campaign for the best possible standards of service and protection. The Consumer Council also has a major role to play in educating consumers so that they will have the skills and confidence to meet future challenges.

1.5 In responding to this document, the Consumer Council has applied the seven consumer principles of fairness, access, information, redress, representation, safety and choice. We have commented on the following areas:

  • Good practice consultation;
  • Changing market environment;
  • Local Post Office® in local communities;
  • Minimum Access Criteria;
  • Proposed Outreach Services;
  • Strategic Transport Policy;
  • Joined up Social Policy; and
  • Service innovation.
2. Good practice consultation
2.1 Recommended consultation period

In the interests of delivering best practice on recommended consultation periods the Consumer Council considers that the proposed six week local consultation time is too short to enable communities to make their voices heard. We believe that Post Office Ltd’s Local Area Plan Proposal should be open for public consultation for 12 weeks as per best practice and to allow for sufficient consideration by individuals and representative groups.

2.2 Consulting the NI Assembly

The Consumer Council recommends to Post Office Ltd that the Northern Ireland Assembly should be consulted formally as a key stakeholder, to take account of Members’ views on the local needs of citizens and constituents. The Consumer Council applauds the swift action taken to initiate an Northern Ireland Assembly ad hoc subcommittee on the proposed changes to the network.

3. Changing market environment

3.1 The Consumer Council recognises that the market environment in which Post Office Ltd operates is changing. Commercial decision making must take account of economic imperatives and deliver value for money for taxpayers. We understand that a first class stamp costs the taxpayer £17 if it is bought at a Post Office® branch with a weekly footfall of less than 100 people. This is one of the most concerning statistics we have seen. This does not represent value for money and it is clear that the status quo is not sustainable for the longer term. In some areas customer numbers are falling and it is necessary to deliver a cost effective service to the taxpayer. Customer habits are changing and many traditional services are available elsewhere. We believe however that Post Office Ltd must work to ensure that the Network Change Programme does not have unnecessary negative effects on the level of service for consumers currently and in the future.

3.2 Long term commitment on delivery

Post Office Ltd needs to assure consumers of its long-term commitment to deliver and maintain good quality services beyond 2011. This commitment is not evident from the consultation document.

Post Office Ltd must articulate its long term vision for the next 20 years in the service delivery model it determines. This will assure the Consumer Council of Post Office Ltd’s resolve to deliver a robust service to consumers.

3.3 It is not clear from the consultation document if closures have been voluntary, requested, consulted on or agreed with Post Masters in closure decisions. The Consumer Council believes that Post Office Ltd should make this information transparent.

4. Local Post Office® in local communities

4.1 The Consumer Council believes that Post Office® branches are perceived as a central hub within many local communities. They give people a sense of place and belonging. We believe that they remain an important resource for a variety of reasons including:

  • Sending letters and packages;
  • Foreign currency;
  • Delivering financial inclusion;
  • Paying of bills;
  • Budget payment electricity cards;
  • Accessing and withdrawing money;
  • Delivering universal banking, by improving access to Post Office®, bank and building society personal current accounts and financial products;
  • Saving and budgeting;
  • Providing the sole banking services for local residents in some areas;
  • Reducing social isolation; and
  • Shopping and business related services. Many post offices are also grocery shops.
5. Minimum Access Criteria

5.1 The Consumer Council believes that in order to maintain access for consumers the Minimum Access Criteria must be extended to take account of the following issues below. Each point is discussed in more detail in 5.2 – 5.5 below.

  • Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998
  • Consultation period and Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA)
  • Good Relations
  • Post Office® branch users
  • Vulnerability
  • Accessibility and disadvantage
5.2 Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998

It is not clear from the consultation document if Post Office Ltd gave consideration to equality screening or Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA). Although there is no specific obligation on Post Office Ltd to embrace Section 75, the principles of equality and good relations should not be viewed by Post Office Ltd as an afterthought. Geographical and other considerations peculiar to Northern Ireland must be taken into account.

Post Office Ltd should work with Postwatch, the Equality Commission, Disability Action, Rural Community Network and Rural Development Council to address these issues.

5.3 Good Relations

Post Office Ltd should honour its commitment to Good Relations and the Government’s Shared Future strategy when considering the closure of Post Office® branches or proposed delivery of services at community interfaces. Post Office® branches have been able to serve and bring communities together regardless of political, religious opinions or ethnic backgrounds in rural and urban areas.

5.4 Post Office® branch users

The Consumer Council believes that the following Section 75 groups are particularly vulnerable to Post Office® branch closures and should be included in the Minimum Access Criteria:

  • Age (Older people);
  • Persons with a disability and those without (People with disabilities);
  • Racial group (People from migrant communities);
  • Persons with dependents and those without (Carers); and
  • Marital Status (Parents with young children, particularly young parents and lone parents).

In our view Post Office Ltd’s analysis should pay particular attention to the access needs of people who are on low incomes (socio-economic groups DE), benefit recipients, POCA customers and people without bank accounts (the financially excluded).

5.5 Vulnerability

The Consumer Council welcomes the Minimum Access Criteria considerations that Post Office Ltd have set to tackle deprivation and the use of Social Output Areas in decision making. However, deprivation is not exclusive to geographically deprived areas in Northern Ireland. The Minimum Access Criteria fails to recognise that anyone can be vulnerable or suffer disadvantage at any point in their lives for many reasons like poor health, disability, literacy problems, relationship breakdown, debt or deprivation.

6 Proposed Outreach Services

6.1 The Consumer Council recognises the innovative proposals for outreach services and the work undertaken by Post Office Ltd in piloting outreach services in the UK. We understand that pilot schemes in Northern Ireland have delivered a measure of success and the use of Partner Services has addressed the needs of local communities. Piloting of outreach services can benefit all consumers in Northern Ireland and ensure that systems and services are robust. As the incumbent, Post Office Ltd has responsibility for the Network. When essential services are altered, Post Office Ltd should put a service in its place that meets local customers’ needs.

The Consumer Council asks Post Office Ltd to consider consumer needs in the areas listed below.

6.2 Transport accessibility and mobility

In our view, older people are particularly likely to have mobility difficulties. Others affected are those on low-incomes, parents with young children and those without private transport in rural areas. The Consumer Council believes that Post Office Ltd should consider creative options for people who do not have a car and need to travel a further distance to an alternative Post Office® branch where there are no direct bus routes or no bus routes at all.

6.3 Travel costs

The Consumer Council believes that Post Office Ltd needs to examine the extent of financial burden placed on consumers, where they have to travel extra distances to the nearest Post Office® branch. People in receipt of benefits may not have money to travel extra distances where it is too far to walk. The Consumer Council recommends that Post Office Ltd should consider working with transport providers to address cost, accessibility and fare concessions ahead of proposed network service changes.

6.4 Travel time and opening hours

The Consumer Council believes that Post Office Ltd plans need to take into account how they will help consumers facing problems such as the length of time it would take to travel extra distance to and from an alternative Post Office® branch and whether opening hours will suit local communities for example older people and people with mobility issues.

6.5 Ensuring Premises Accessibility

The Consumer Council believes that all of the proposed new services must be full accessible for customers who use wheelchairs, zimmer frames, mobility scooters and prams.

6.6 Appropriate opening hours

The Consumer Council considers that particular attention must be paid to customer needs by addressing appropriate opening hours during busy seasonal periods, eg Christmas, adverse weather conditions, busy periods and consider the need to provide rest areas, particularly for older people, people with disabilities or people with young children.

6.7 Accessible Buses

In our view, Post Office Ltd should work with public transport providers to ensure the availability of low floor/wheelchair access on bus routes travelling to alternative Post Office® branches or outreach centres.

6.8 Customer service

The Consumer Council recommends that appropriate arrangements are put in place so that Post Offices® branches under the new arrangements can cope with the pressure of additional custom, longer queues and transaction times.

6.9 Post Office® branches place in the local economies

The Consumer Council believes that proposed Post Office® branch closure should not have adverse impact on local economies where a branch is connected to a shop/village store or part of a larger shopping complex.

6.10 Service agreements

In our view, services must be accessible and safe for consumers to use. New proposed service arrangements should not compromise delivery of a quality service. Contractual arrangements for Partner Service delivery in community buildings or retail premises must be robust and transparent to ensure good customer service is not compromised.

7. Strategic transport policy
7.1 Joined up policy

The Consumer Council recommends that Post Office Ltd must work on strategic joined-up policies with Government departments, the private, the community and voluntary sectors (eg community transport providers) to address transport accessibility to alternative Post Office® branches or outreach centres.

Issues for consideration include:

  • Accessible Transport Strategy
  • Expand the Rural Community Transport Partnership; and
  • Transport networks.

Each point is discussed in more detail in 7.2 –7.4 below.

7.2 Accessible Transport Strategy

In our view the Post Office Ltd should work with DRD within the Accessible Transport Strategy framework to ensure that the needs of rural consumers along with older people and people with disabilities are considered in accessing Post Office® branches. DRD with Post Office Ltd should try to exploit opportunities for a better co-ordination of services and utilisation of an accessible transport resources that exist to meet the needs of consumers.

7.3 Expand the Rural Community Transport Partnerships

We have welcomed many of the recent strategies by the Department for Regional Development including proposals to expand the Rural Community Transport Partnerships to all rural areas in Northern Ireland.

7.4 Transport networks

Post Office Ltd, together with Postwatch, Government, retailers, community and voluntary sectors and transport providers must find innovative ways to develop appropriate transport networks and to tackle the barriers that prevent vulnerable people (eg older people, people with disabilities) from accessing financial services, transport links and shops.

8. Joined up Social Policy

8.1 The Consumer Council welcomes Post Office Ltd’s consideration of regeneration plans; eg town centre renewal schemes, road and transport development plans.

8.2 In our view, it is essential that consumers have access to services such as financial services, transport links and retail. The Consumer Council has previously called for joined-up/complementary transport and retail planning policy development where public transport is improved to make it a realistic alternative to the car.

8.3 Retail planning policy should provide access, balance and choice via a modern retailing environment where town centres and edge-of-town retail developments complement each other.

9. Service Innovation

9.1 The Consumer Council recommends that Post Office Ltd should undertake research with post office users to address gaps in the market and find new business opportunities. For example, the Consumer Council recommended to Competition Commission Banking Inquiry that banks could make their current accounts more accessible through the Post Office® branches.

Post Office Ltd should consider:

  • Partnering with all financial institutions including credit unions to offer affordable credit and other financial services;
  • Extending long-term saving schemes, including a safe replacement for Farepak;
  • Developing alternative payment products such as pre-paid debit cards;
  • Providing pension products;
  • Promoting the free currency ordering services currently offered by Post Office® branches;
  • Free to use ATMs;
  • Offering Euro currency in all proposed outreach service plans, given that Northern Ireland shares land border with the Republic of Ireland; and
  • Delivering internet training to tackle social and financial exclusion. Providing internet banking facilities would allow consumers to pay bills and manage their money.
9.2 There is also an onus on local and national Government to work with

Post Office Ltd to demonstrate their commitment to high-level, joined up policy across all departments to address financial inclusion and other social policy areas. Government must continue to examine opportunities to bring Post Office® services to local community and retail facilities. Government should consider working with Post Office Ltd to deliver other services using proposed outreach services. Examples include examining procurement opportunities for Post Office Ltd to:

  • Provide internet facilities at proposed outreach services. This would address financial exclusion and improve financial capability;
  • Use the knowledge of Post Masters to promote benefit up-take programmes. This would allow Post Masters to develop their businesses;
  • Use new proposed outreach points to deliver health screening services; and
  • Use Post Office® mail delivery staff to pilot delivery of other services, for example door to door order currency. This would address transport and accessibility issues, particularly in rural areas. A creative approach may be to pilot a ‘dial service’ for Post Office® products.
10. Conclusion

10.1 The Consumer Council appreciates the opportunity to participate in this consultation. We hope that you will find our comments useful and that our views will be reflected in the final decision making process. In the meantime, if you wish any additional information please contact Nóra Quigley, Senior Consumer Affairs Officer (Social Needs) on: 028 9067 4803 or by e-mail: nquigley@consumercouncil.org.uk

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association’s Written Response to the 
Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services

Partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services 16 May 2008
Introduction

This is the Northern Ireland Local Government Association’s (NILGA) response to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s, Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services, request for written evidence. NILGA promotes the interests of all 26 local authorities in Northern Ireland who represent 1.7 million people and manage expenditure of £584 million a year on local services.

This response has been developed through consultation with councils across Northern Ireland and evidence compiled by the Local Government Association (LGA) in England , which highlights examples of innovative partnership approaches to the delivery of post office services. Finally this response outlines NILGA’s view on the way forward.

Summary

NILGA received 18 substantial responses from councils. This is an unprecedented response to a request for information given the time constraints (1 week response time) and indicates the high level of interest there is in relation to this subject.

In summary councils were opposed to closures within their local areas. Some of the key concerns raised were:

  • Consideration has not been given to demographic trends or proposed future development
  • Impact on the elderly and people with disabilities and the need for an Equality Impact Assessment
  • Negative impact on existing retail and neighbourhood facilities
  • Limited public transport services which are expensive in rural areas
  • Lack of statistics in the consultation document
  • Security concerns with outreach services and the possibility of people keeping more money in their homes

Suggestions from councils in Northern Ireland:

  • Outreach services
  • Combine with other mobile services e.g. libraries
  • Combine postal services with existing community services e.g. local credit unions and shopping centres
  • Post Offices could offer additional services to ensure future sustainability

Examples of Local Authorities and the Post Office working in partnership

  • The creation of multi-use centres that offer a range of community services
  • Councils and local businesses working in partnership to support and retain post office services e.g. to transfer the post office into the business’s premises
  • Using other community buildings, such as churches and village halls, to house post office services
  • Parish councils taking ownership of the post office, backed by funds from other sources
  • A local authority running the post office from the council premises

A general response has been that the consultation time scale was inadequate for sufficiently detailed responses and that there is a fear that there will be more closures.

Way forward

NILGA welcomes this opportunity to provide evidence to the Ad Hoc Committee and would like to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider what role local authorities might play, both in supporting the retention of local services where there is a clear need, and in influencing how postal services are best delivered in the future. In the short term NILGA would like the Assembly to carryout further research into the role that local authorities may be able to play in the delivery of postal services and how this role would be funded. It is important that a long-term solution that meets the needs of all our communities is found.

A Summary of Local Government Responses to the Consultation on the Northern Ireland Area Plan Proposal

Here are some of the key points from the council’s reports to Post Office Ltd. For more details see the full reports attached

Antrim Borough Council

Antrim Council would reiterate its call to Post Office Ltd to review its recommendation to nominate Parkhall Post Office for closure. This is based on a number of factors which must be re-considered:

  • basic demographic and footfall data is fundamentally flawed, as acknowledged by Post Office Ltd;
  • demonstrable levels of interdependence between existing neighbourhood facilities;
  • key, central community role played by the Post Office in a deprived area, as borne out by statistical evidence;
  • recent growth in the potential catchment area due to residential and commercial development;
  • contributory impact of relevant, adjacent developments;
  • as a recent national award winner, Post Office Ltd should seek to retain its assets, not dispose of them
Outreach service- Moneyglass

The Post Office Ltd’s recommendation to propose an Outreach service in Moneyglass at best seems to be a stop-gap, and whilst it appears to imply the retention of similar working hours, this will affect the income generating potential of the facility. It is feared that this will threaten the future viability of the facility.

Ards Borough Council

Asks that Ballyhalbert Post Office be retained on a full-time basis for the following reasons:-

  • Ballyhalbert is a village which is enjoying significant growth.
  • There continues to be much development in the area, hence its population continues to grow.
  • There has been recent investment in the village, including the provision of a new primary school
  • The number of transactions carried out weekly at the Post Office (in excess of 300) is increasing and the range of services and facilities provided are well used and much appreciated by local people
Armagh City and District Council

The following responses were made by a scrutiny panel from the Public Services Scrutiny Committee:

  • Inadequate consultation period
  • Opposes closures in outlined areas
  • Effects the vulnerable e.g. elderly, disabled and those on low incomes.
  • Loss of business to nearby towns, especially with closure of Battlehill Post Office, Eleven Lane Ends Post Office and Loughgall Post Office, which are located in a shop.
  • Should consider part time basis rather than outreach service.
  • Mobile services will be impractical for disabled users, and provide opportunity for burglary.
  • Would like clarification on continued use of existing post boxes, and arrangement for posting mail.
  • Suggests that an Equality Impact Assessment be carried out as feels the proposals may be in variance with Section 75 of the NI Act.
Ballymena Borough Council

Salisbury Square post office:-

  • closure would result in isolation for many especially elderly and disabled
  • One of busiest in the town and has good facilities for disabled e.g. parking, compared to alternative branches suggested, such as Ballee and Wellington Street. Access to alternatives is difficult and limited.
  • Reduction in number would result in heavier queues etc.
  • Will be an increase in demand due to development e.g. Harryville.

Closure of Crosskeys Post Office and Rathkenny Post Office:-

  • Increased travelling distance puts pressure on elderly and the immobile.
  • Effect collection of pensions, especially during poor weather conditions

Moorfields Post Office (outreach-hosted service):-

  • Residents fear isolation and reduction in services
  • Many residents felt the proposal had not been promoted properly
  • Concerns over short consultation period
  • Many residents fear the effect on other services
  • Increase of unclaimed pension
  • Should develop a flexi hour system rather than closure
Banbridge District Council

Concern was voiced at the closure of McAdams Cross Roads Post Office due to:

  • Effects the more vulnerable and less mobile in the community
  • Proposed development increasing numbers to the area e.g., Finnis
Belfast City Council

Response to the consultation document stated that:

  • The council is opposed to any closures in Belfast area
  • Groups effected by access e.g. elderly, immobile and residents in deprived areas (many closures located in deprived areas)
  • No direct bus service between two of the ten branches proposed for closure.
  • Concerns over why there are no outreach services applied in the Belfast area. Should consider outreach rather than closure, or combine post service with existing mobile libraries.
  • There is closure of post offices which operate in and service a cross-community population
  • Will have negative impact on nearby retail outlets
  • Especially in disadvantaged communities post offices contribute greatly economically and socially
  • Further displacement and forced migration of customers to obtain postal services, especially since the Urban Closure Programme 2004
  • Would like assurance that there will be no more closures
  • Concerns as to how branches will cope with increased customers, such as queues etc
  • Should consider combining post offices with existing local services e.g. local credit unions, shopping centres etc. Post Office branches could offer other services in excess space e.g. internet.
  • Should be considering extending services at existing Post Offices e.g. increasing opening hours, introducing out of hours services such as Service Master.
  • Feedback time scale was inadequate in order to obtain a sufficiently detailed response
  • Should provide assurance that all relevant parties have been consulted e.g. Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Translink, and Roads Service etc.
Craigavon Borough Council

Asks you to reconsider the closure of Post Offices in the area and would wish the consultation period be extended for further consideration.

Coleraine Borough Council

In response to the proposals for the two closures in Coleraine Borough, at Cloyfin and Millburn, the council have raised their concern at the loss of the facility that the closures will give rise to.

The council stresses the need for consideration of the proposed 450 dwellings development at Spittal Hill Quarry, a short distance out the Bushmills Road from Millburn; as such a development will increase the demand for PO facilities at Millburn and enhance its economic viability.

Down District Council

Main Issues:

  • Only six weeks for consultation when accepted period is twelve.
  • Lack of statistics e.g. demographic statistics, in consultation document. Suggests decisions are ill judged and not up to date with regards to reduction in hours at Killough
  • Suggestions to use alternative services at other post offices ignores the fact that public transport in rural area is expensive and sporadic
  • Reduction of services offered, when 25% increase in business over summer months.
  • Post offices seen as a location of social cohesion especially amongst the elderly
Ballykinlar and Loughisland
  • Security of mobile service, could be a target for crime
  • Difficult for those not confident using IT, especially the disabled
  • Need to provide more services e.g. rates, air mail, TV licencing
Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council
  • A key concern is that the current proposals may only be an interim solution and that further cuts will be proposed.
  • There is a concern over support for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled people who may not have alternative solutions.
  • No mention of ensuring that all post offices have access to a wide range of services to ensure future sustainability.
  • Consideration has not been given to demographic trends or proposed future development.
  • Needs to be a standardised approach in relation to services being provided.
Fermanagh District Council
  • Concerned over closure of Drumskinney and closure and outreach to Ballycassidy, Boho, Tullyhommom and Letterbreen as areas are well known for poor proximity to services already.
  • Closure results in social and economic degradation.
  • The council proposes Letterbreen to be partnered, Boho, Tullyhommom, and Drumskinney be hosted and Ballycassidy to be run as a home service.
  • Stresses the importance of meeting the needs of the vulnerable members of society, and that the service should be reviewed and evaluated.
Larne Borough Council
  • Lack of consultation period, ideally should be 12 weeks
  • Should establish a partner service with shop leaseholder at Ballygally branch instead of an Outreach Service at Spar Supermarket as tenancy agreement ends 31st May
  • A home service replacing Carnalbanagh reduces services and may not be cost effective. Mobile outreach service may be better.
  • Not appropriate for young, elderly and disabled to expect them to use services at Craigy Hill or West End Branch if close Millbrook branch
  • Large scale housing development in Millbrook area and possibly major retail and commercial centre, therefore demand for a post office will increase.
Limavady Borough Council

Main concerns over the closure of Bolea PO and Drumraighland:

  • Detrimental impact on customer service with increased queuing and waiting times at the alternative branches.
  • Poor access to other branches especially those with no car or the elderly.
  • Opening hours for outreach branches are too restrictive
  • Change of location at Feeny is inappropriate for those with mobility problems, plus a Partnership Service here means reduction of facilities with restriction of package weight.
  • Loss of a vital community asset.
Lisburn City Council
  • Opposes closure of Black’s Road, Drumlough, Hillsborough and Dromore.
  • Feels shared services are vital for future of country as a community resource.
  • Would like the proposed reduction in opening hours for Anahilt be revised to facilitate more people.
Newry and Mourne District Council
  • Reduction of rural populations already due planning policies, reduction in services may increase the problem
  • Not practical for disabled and elderly to use alternatives, plus loss of offices may tempt customers to keep money at home, therefore more vulnerable to theft.
  • A mobile service at Attical may not be able to reach elderly and vulnerable customers in extreme weather.
  • Outreach at Belleeks is not practical for the vulnerable and elderly due to poor public services.
  • Alternative Post Offices are outside the Government’s minimum access criteria.
  • Silverbridge has very poor bus service and the alternative Post Office is over 4 miles away
  • Closure would jeopardise the shop Silverbridge is located in.
  • Increased demand with new builds in the area.
North Down Borough Council
  • The council is currently working with Groomsport Village Association to campaign to keep Groomsport Post Office open.
  • Feels Post Office NI Ltd consultation process is inadequate and flawed.
Omagh District Council

Main issues:

  • Poor access ability of elderly, deprived and disabled to alternative Post offices suggested, especially with closure of Strathloy
  • Plans to increase services and social housing will increase the demand and throughput to Strathroy Post Office
  • Reduction of opening hours with regards to proposed Outreach service at Dunnaghmore would leave opening hours inadequate for the rural population of the area
  • Gorataclare PO - the diminutive costs allocated to run the service may not cover an increase in opening hours.
  • Mountfield PO- again concerns over whether present running costs will be able to manage an increase in hours. Would like clarification of extension of services after 3 year outreach contract is up rather than closure.
  • Need to consider the intentions of the post master/mistress in order to ensure the future of the service.
Strabane District Council

The following points were taken from the Draft Consultation Response:

  • Proposals may have a significant negative impact on those with greatest needs
  • Is opposed to the limited opening hours of Aughabrack Post Office and recommend that the existing opening hours remain whilst still operating as a ‘hosted’ form of outreach provision
  • Would have liked more clarity regarding the selection criterion used to determine partners
  • Has some concerns regarding the potential impact of the restricted range of post office products in partnering arrangements
  • Urges Post Office Ltd to ensure that the payment for hosting a partnering service is adequate and suitable.
  • Assert that the principles of customer care and confidentiality should be upheld in any outreach arrangement
  • Trust that Post Office Ltd. Need to address security concerns of post office staff following a number of robberies in this area
  • Question whether a written consultation is “meaningful engagement” and would have preferred face-to-face consultation meetings in the areas directly affected
  • Urge Post Office Ltd. to review the impact of these changes and report on same on an annual basis.
Examples of Local Authorities and the Post Office Working in Partnership

Local authorities control a range of capital assets and public services into which post office services in the future could be integrated. The opportunity is also available through the implementation of the Review of Public Administration for local authorities to redesign the way in which all local services are delivered.

The LGA recently consulted with local authorities in England and found that many were already involved in providing post office services, working in partnership with local businesses and community organisations. Examples include:

The creation of multi-use centres that offer a range of community services

Lincolnshire County Council has identified premises which may be suitable for such a service that already exists through the Multi Use Centre network. This network provides a community led ‘hub’ and ‘spoke’ approach to providing an increased range of services and information to people living in rural areas through community facilities. The centres offer a location where several organisations can provide or promote their services either face-to-face or through the provision of information and leaflets. Each ‘hub’ Multi Use Centre undertakes to supply regular information to other communities (‘spokes’) so that a wider audience is aware of the services available in their area.

North Shropshire District Council is looking at a number of practical measures that can be taken to safeguard post office services. A computer will be installed in the post office that provides a freeband connection to the council as well as a free telephone link to the council’s customer centre. Training will be provided to the sub postmaster to enable him/her to deal with basic customer queries on the council’s behalf and in return the council will pay a retainer and will consider a grant towards any internal works on the premises.

Councils and local businesses working in partnership to support and retain post office services e.g. to transfer the post office into the business’s premises

Kent County Council has worked closely with a business within which a post office was located to ensure that it was properly advertised for sale and successfully sold on as an operating concern with the post office. In Stockbury the post office has been integrated into a farm shop and there are other examples where post office services have now gone into private shops.

Facilitating and supporting community action

Cumbria County Council has pioneered alternative models of delivering post office services, such as combining the post office with a shop and a library ‘link’ in Melmerby. At the outset a committee was formed and over £70,000 was raised with more than

100 people buying shares in the shop. Further help from DEFRA and a £15,000 grant from the Community Regeneration Fund allowed the community to purchase premises and open the shop.

North Devon District Council has helped facilitate and support community action in Berrynarbor. An action group was set up by the community, and established

Berrynarbor Community Enterprise Ltd. They obtained the lease from the former post master who wished to sell the existing post office/shop for a five year period during which time they would apply for planning permission to relocate the business. They re-opened the post office the day after the former post master closed it, run by volunteers. The company received grants from the council, LEADER+ (a European initiative for assisting rural communities in improving the quality of life and economic prosperity in their local area) and Plunkett Enterprise. An alternative location has now been found and the council has agreed to provide a lease to the company to use part of the council’s car park for relocation of the post office. Berrynarbor Community Enterprise Ltd is applying for grants to build the new post office and shop. Plunkett Foundation has granted £20,000.

Using other community buildings, such as churches and village halls, to house post office services

One of the methods of delivering post office services is via a ‘partner service’. This method is designed to enable a limited range of post office services to be provided by a third party from a non post office premises, such as a village hall. It would enable customers to post mail, access cash, pay bills and get documents checked.

In order to preserve the valuable service provided to rural communities in Sheepy Magna, in the Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council area of Leicestershire, the post office has relocated to the parish church. The post office also sells a range of Fair Trade products in case isolated residents run out of supplies.

Parish councils taking ownership of the post office, backed by funds from other sources

Sheffield City Council wanted to sell a property that housed the local post office to the sitting tenant in Low Bradfield, five miles north west of Sheffield. They invoked a clause in the sales contract obliging the sitting tenant to continue with the post office services providing Post Office Ltd wished to continue with its franchise. The sitting tenant then backed out and moved elsewhere. The parish council then approached the city council to purchase the property, backed by funding via the Yorkshire Communities Councils based

in York. The end result is a parish council-owned post office-cum-general store-cum-tea parlour opposite the cricket and bowls ground.

A local authority running the post office from the council premises

Due to a post office closure, Reading Borough Council approached Post Office Ltd about opening a sub post office at their civic offices. All staff are employed by the council. A card shop has since been opened within the area of the post office to help subsidise its running costs. The venture has proved very successful and it is now classed as a ‘platinum’ post office. Its range of services include vehicle excise duty payment, passport checking, and a bureau de change.

The Way Forward

NILGA welcomes this opportunity to provide evidence to the Ad Hoc Committee and would like to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider what role local authorities might play both in supporting the retention of local services where there is a clear need and in influencing how postal services are best delivered in the future. In the short term NILGA would like the Assembly to carryout further research into the role that local authorities may be able to play in the delivery of postal services and how this role would be funded. It is important that a long-term solution that meets the needs of all our communities is found

FSB Submission
To the Ad Hoc Committee on Post Offices

FSB logo

The Federation of Small Businesses is Northern Ireland’s largest business organisation with 7000 members, from every sector of industry. The FSB works to promote and protect the interests of all who own and/or manage their own businesses, lobbying decision makers to create a better business environment.

Introduction

We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Ad Hoc Committee’s inquiry into Post Office closures.

Background Information

In Northern Ireland, 98% of all businesses are small businesses, and over 50% of all employees are employed in small businesses. Small businesses form the backbone of the economy and the hub of local communities. Post Offices lay a vital role in this as well as providing essential services for marginalised communities and small businesses outside major town centres.

Small businesses (SMEs) are heavy users of the Post Office network. When surveyed in October 2006, 47% of FSB members used their local post office more than once per week. 82% think that the closure of their local post office would have a significant impact on their business, in some cases leading to business closure, and 97% of small businesses think that the post office has a role to play in the local community.

The Northern Ireland Perspective

The FSB understands the commercial realities that exist in the current climate but there is a sense of disappointment that nearly 20% of the current NI Post Office network is either to be closed or to offer a reduced service. This is very likely to affect small businesses and independent retailers, as Post Office customers generate footfall for many other local shops and businesses. The House of Commons’ All Party Small Shops Group predicts the closure of 50,000 small shops by 2015, and the closure of post offices is yet another indication of the wider decline of independent retailing in Northern Ireland’s villages, towns and cities which was highlighted in the FSB’s ‘Reviving Retail’ policy document in 2007, which highlighted a number of proposals for regenerating existing commercial centres and how postal services play a central part in the wider prosperity of a centre.

Managing Closures To Lessen The Impact On Businesses

From an October 2007 survey of our members, it is clear that where closures do take place there should be ‘part time’ services as a replacement. The consensus was for a full postal services outlet open on certain days, with a minimum of three days per week. A template suggestion was 12am-5pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The FSB therefore welcomes the provision of the various ‘outreach’ services proposes, as these will go some way to reducing the impact of closures on business, including the time and money expended on driving to other Post Offices, thus also reducing unnecessary traffic and carbon emissions.

However, from our survey it was clear that members were concerned about exactly what service will be provided by ‘outreach’ schemes. In our survey, our members were opposed to the provision of “mobile services”, as a replacement to full post office services. While the FSB welcomes the provision of such services as a means of ensuring that more vulnerable sections of the community, such as older people, are not disadvantaged, we would be concerned that these are not necessarily appropriate for business needs as they were perceived to be spasmodic and infrequent.

For small businesses, Post Office services must be available late in the day, to process essential business correspondence, such as invoices, within the working day. Post is now delivered later in the day, and with further consultations to reduce services; the replacement service must be sensitive to this business need. Parcel services are also of high importance to small businesses, particularly where purchases are offered via the internet. In our survey, the most frequent reasons for small businesses using post offices was to send parcels (79%) and to purchase stamps (78%). It will be important to ensure that parcels processing services are not reduced. We are also concerned that the proposed 2 kg package weight restriction for some outreach measures will not meet the needs of businesses.

Keeping Post Offices Economically Viable

For those Post Offices that remain open the Government must ensure that sub-postmasters can invest in their business with confidence in its long term future. To achieve this goal, Government should look to invest in a programme of modernisation and updating of remaining Post Offices to bring them into the twenty-first century. Only in this way will the service survive. Such expanded services could include: a local collection and delivery service for parcels and packages for which a small charge could be levied; processing mail from other licensed operators and mail handlers as well as the Royal Mail; the provision of a wider range of services, such as those previously available from Post Offices eg. TV licences, benefits payments etc, which would increase choice for customers as well as increase through put in branches; the provision of a range of banking services that would benefit the local and businesses communities alike; and better advertising of the services and products available to encourage greater use.

The FSB has also welcomed the initiative introduced by Essex County Council, which has decided to take responsibility for the provision of post offices and locate them in council premises. While local government in Northern Ireland is organised differently, it may be worth considering how this initiative or elements of it could be transferred to Northern Ireland.

We are also of the view that a Small Business Rates Relief scheme, similar to that existing in Wales, should be introduced in Northern Ireland, which is the only region of the UK not to have such a scheme. The Welsh SBRR scheme includes 100% rates relief for post offices with a rateable value up to £9000 per annum, and 50% relief for those with a rateable valuation between £9000 and £12,000 per annum. It is designed to ensure that post offices remain viable and sustainable in vulnerable and deprived communities, as an essential part of the Assembly government’s social policy.

NIIRTA Letter
NIIRTA Letter

Submission to Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services.

Costs for all services – public and otherwise – are rising.

I would like to propose adoption of the ‘American’ postal collection facility whereby the customer comes to the ‘Post office facility’ to collect their mail which has been posted in a personal and lockable post / letter box.

I have only seen this system on TV / Films but it seems a very sensible, logical and economic approach. It can apply equally to both the rural and urban customer.

I live in Armagh City. A very large and empty ‘main’ post office now lies mostly vacant at English Street. Fit it out with 3000 personal letter boxes. I don’t think you will have any problem getting local businesses and private customers to drop in daily and collect their post – at their convenience – say after 9-00am and 3-00pm.

Rural customers from outside the town invariably will be in the city every few days and so they can collect their mail.

I truly believe there is substance in this idea if followed through.

Des McLaughlin
Tel: 02837526211

Groomsport Letters

The Committee wish to acknowledge receipt of the 29 letters correspondence from residents of Groomsport in respect of the closure of Groomsport Post Office, Co. Down.

Sample Letters from Groomsport Residents

“Dear Sirs,

I would draw your attention to the proposed closure of Groomsport Post Office.

This Post office provides an invaluable service to many people in Groomsport village. Its closure will have a huge impact on me, my family and my friends.

As a regular user of our Village Post Office I would urge you to reconsider your decision.

I would appreciate acknowledgement of this letter and look forward to hearing from you positively in due course”

Name and address supplied

“Dear Sirs,

I appeal to you to consider the decision to close Groomsport Post Office.

I am only one of many who will be unable to travel to another Post Office.

I can’t go out of the house and I depend on a neighbour who will pop in to the Post Office for me when he goes to the shop for his paper.

I can’t ask him to go to Ballyholme or any other Post Office. What do I do?”

Name and Address supplied

“Dear,

I refer to the proposed closure of our Post Office here in Groomsport and I feel that the following facts should be taken into consideration:

(a) Our Post Office has approx. 3000 customers, many of whom are elderly and who would experience difficulty in travelling to either of the two nearest alternative Post Offices.

(b) Owing to the recent building (and proposed building) of private dwelling houses in the immediate area there is a growing population in Groomsport and district.

(c) Many of the customers, like myself, walk to the Post Office and if it is closed, we shall have to drive or take a bus to Ballyholme Post Office where the parking facilities are non-existent. From a “green” point of view this should surely merit consideration.”

Name and Address supplied.

“My objections are as follows:

1. Groomsport Post Office is within easy walking distance of my home and the homes of all village residents including those who live in the new development at Cove Bay. It has level access and is conveniently situated beside the local store and restaurant. The elderly and less able bodied therefore have the facility to do their shopping and have something to eat as well as using the Post Office.

2. It provides all the services on expects and more and is much used. Service is friendly and personal. Most mornings you have a queue. It has been suggested nowadays people communicate by email. While it is true one can send messages by email one cannot send parcels. Also not everyone has a computer. Most of us have children or grandchildren living in various parts of UK and some even in Europe, Asia, Australia, N.Z, Canada, U.S.A., S. Africa. We rely on our local Post Office especially at Christmas, birthdays and other anniversaries.

3. There is a Post Office at Ballyholme, 1.6 miles away along varied terrain. You can get there by car – if you have one, or by bus – if you have time to wait on buses to and from Ballyholme travelling on buses with small children or with parcels is not easy. While there are parking facilities it is very difficult to get a space anywhere near the post office. Also this post office always has queues right through an areas crowded with cards, stationary and gifts. If Groomsport residents have to go there queues will be longer and service take longer. The elderly could have lengthy waits for a bus back to Groomsport with no shelter.

4. The main Bangor branch is almost 3 miles away. There is a car park nearby but parking fees are charged and spaces are not always available. The same parking problems also apply to the High Street branch. The Whitehill and Bryansburn branches are similar to Groomsport in that they serve the needs of the area in which they are situated but both these areas are suburbs of Bangor. Groomsport is not a suburb of Bangor but is a distinct village with its own identity and heritage still frequented by tourists and holiday makers.

5. Finally this post office is the centre of village life. The continued trend to take away such centres damages community life in an age when concepts of loyalty, caring and responsibility are fast disappearing and being replaced by anonymity, consumerism and selfishness.”

Name and Address supplied

“Groomsport Post Office

The above is a vital part of our village. I know we can go elsewhere, but to do so, one has to dress properly, check times of buses, wait around for another bus back.

As one gets older this is difficult to do, pleaes think of the person who does not drive.

Name and Address Supplied”

Chair’s letter to J Hutton re closures 
Ad Hoc Committee 
on Local Postal Services

Rt Hon John Hutton
Secretary of State Tel No 028 90520348
Department for Business Enterprise
and Regulatory Reform
1 Victoria Street 1 May 2008
London
SW1H 0ET

Dear Secretary of State

I am writing to you in my capacity as Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee which has been established by the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider local postal services.

At its first meeting on 29 April 2008 the Committee expressed its grave concern at the six week deadline for responses to the consultation on the implementation of the closures. While I appreciate that this is not a consultation on policy matters the implications of the closures are much greater for people in Northern Ireland than for those living elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

My Committee is due to report to the Assembly on 2 June. I believe that my Committee’s views must be considered as part of the consultation and, obviously, it is not possible for it to respond by the 12 May deadline.

I am therefore, on behalf of the Committee, formally asking you to extend the deadline for a further six weeks, or at least until after 2 June, to enable the Committee to respond on this important matter.

Yours sincerely

ROBIN NEWTON MLA
Chairperson
Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services

Chair’s letter to Post Office
Ad Hoc Committee 
on Local Postal Services

Mr Arthur Magee Tel No 028 90520348
External Relations Manager
Network Change
Level 6
Royal Mail House
20 Donegall Quay
BELFAST
BT1 1AA 30 April 2008

Dear Mr Magee

I am writing to you in my capacity as Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee which has been established by the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider local postal services.

At its first meeting on 29 April 2008 the Committee expressed its grave concern at the six week deadline for responses to your consultation on the implementation of the closures. While I appreciate that this is not a consultation on policy matters the implications of the closures are much greater for people in Northern Ireland than for those living elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

My Committee is due to report to the Assembly on 2 June. I believe that my Committee’s views must be considered as part of your consultation and, obviously, it is not possible for it to respond by your 12 May deadline.

I am therefore, on behalf of the Committee, formally asking you to extend the deadline for a further six weeks, or at least until after 2 June, to enable the Committee to respond on this important matter.

Yours sincerely

ROBIN NEWTON MLA
Chairperson
Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services

Post Office Letter

Post Office Letter

Post Office Letter

Post Office Letter

Post Office Letter

Post Office Letter

Post Office Letter

Post Office Letter

Post Office Letter

Appendix 5

Assembly Research Papers

Northern Ireland Assembly Research Services: Briefing Paper

Government Access Criteria for Post Office Closures

In May 2007, the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI), following consultation on its proposed strategy for the Post Office network, published its decisions on the way forward. These included the introduction of minimum access criteria to maintain a national network and protect vulnerable consumers in deprived urban, rural and remote areas, as follows:

  • 99% of the UK population to be within 3 miles and 90% of the population to be within 1 mile of their nearest post office outlet.
  • 99% of the total population in deprived urban areas across the UK to be within 1 mile of their nearest post office outlet.
  • 95% of the total urban population across the UK to be within 1 mile of their nearest post office outlet.
  • 95% of the total rural population across the UK to be within 3 miles of their nearest post office outlet.
  • 95% of the population of the postcode district to be within 6 miles of their nearest post office outlet.

The table below shows the distances travelled to the nearest post office by people in rural and urban areas in Northern Ireland before and after the proposed closure of 42 Post Offices (the analysis does not include the proposed 54 Post Offices to be replaced by Outreach services).

The key points are as follows:

  • 93% of the NI population are within 3 miles and 62% (61% after the proposed closures) are within 1 mile of their nearest post office.
  • 78% (77% after the proposed closures) of the total urban population in NI are within 1 mile of their nearest post office.
  • 81% (79% after the proposed closures) of the total rural population in NI are within 3 miles of their nearest post office.

These figures were discussed at a meeting between the NI Assembly Research & Library Services and representatives from the Post Office on 7 May 2008. It was agreed at that meeting that there were differences in the definitions used for rural and urban areas – the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) definition uses a population cut-off point of 4,500, whereas the Post Office uses the DTI recommended population cut-off point of 10,000 (i.e. small towns such as Ballyclare or Randalstown would be treated as urban in the Northern Ireland definition, but would be regarded by the Post Office as rural). The Post Office have not, as yet, produced these access figures for Northern Ireland, but they did agree to provide the necessary information to enable Research & Library Services to re-run the analysis using their urban/rural definition. They also agreed to provide information on their definition of deprived urban areas.

It is, however, unlikely that any re-run of the analysis will make a substantial difference to the overall picture, as can be seen from the figures for the overall NI population living within three miles (93% v the 99% UK minimum criterion) and one mile (62%, reducing to 61% v the 90% UK minimum criterion) from their nearest post office. With such a huge regional variation (assuming that the access criteria have been met by the Post Office at the UK level), it would appear that the Government’s access criteria offer absolutely no protection for “vulnerable consumers in deprived urban, rural and remote areas” in Northern Ireland.

Distances travelled to nearest Post Office before and after (42) proposed closures (produced by NI Assembly Research & Library Services with assistance from OSNI, 7 May 2008)
Before

Distance

Rural Pop.

%

Urban Pop.

%

Total Pop.

%

< 1 mile

196340

32.9

863965

78.2

1060305

62.3

1 - 2 miles

154435

25.9

228030

20.6

382465

22.5

2 - 3 miles

131035

21.9

11410

1.0

142445

8.4

3 - 4 miles

67855

11.4

1385

0.1

69240

4.1

4 - 5 miles

35170

5.9

.

 

35170

2.1

5+ miles

12410

2.1

.

 

12410

0.7

Totals

597245

100.0

1104790

100.0

1702035

100.0

After

Distance

Rural Pop.

%

Urban Pop.

%

Total Pop.

%

< 1 mile

189030

31.7

849430

76.9

1038460

61.0

1 - 2 miles

150190

25.1

240200

21.7

390390

22.9

2 - 3 miles

134215

22.5

13775

1.2

147990

8.7

3 - 4 miles

73820

12.4

1385

0.1

75205

4.4

4 - 5 miles

36315

6.1

.

 

36315

2.1

5+ miles

13675

2.3

.

 

13675

0.8

Totals

597245

100.0

1104790

100.0

1702035

100.0

Notes:

1. Above estimates are based on distances between Post Offices and Census Output Area centroids (using OSNI road network data)

2. Population estimates were obtained from NISRA (NINIS database) and relate to 2003 (latest available for Census Output Areas)

Table 2. Effect of Post Office proposed closures by Parliamentary Constituency.
 

Affected Population

% of Population Affected

No. of Affected Households

No. of Affected Pensioner Households

Average Distance to PO before (miles)

Average Distance to PO after (miles)

% of urban pop > 1 mile from PO (after closures)

% of rural pop > 3 miles from PO (after closures)

Belfast East

16525

21.2

6722

1925

0.60

0.89

10.6

0.0

Belfast North

11935

14.3

4844

988

0.50

0.83

6.2

0.0

Belfast South

10740

11.4

4822

726

0.27

0.49

20.7

0.0

Belfast West

9325

10.8

3487

638

0.39

0.71

10.6

0.0

East Antrim

1820

2.1

638

101

2.34

3.03

31.2

34.9

East Londonderry

4515

5.1

1678

356

0.95

1.78

22.0

28.7

Fermanagh 
& South Tyrone

2275

2.4

722

86

0.84

1.65

35.4

19.1

Foyle

4190

3.9

1428

247

1.55

2.36

22.9

33.4

Lagan Valley

4705

4.6

1365

177

1.19

2.35

23.4

24.6

Mid Ulster

2950

3.3

877

141

1.27

2.46

17.7

12.8

Newry and Armagh

2305

2.2

736

121

1.80

3.07

41.2

15.1

North Antrim

9160

8.8

3239

691

1.34

1.93

26.6

20.5

North Down

1755

2.0

769

237

0.84

1.85

27.9

18.0

South Antrim

8530

8.4

3384

405

0.97

1.49

32.2

26.0

South Down

5290

4.9

1519

208

2.28

3.36

34.5

28.4

Strangford

250

0.3

131

32

0.82

0.83

26.1

6.7

Upper Bann

4440

4.2

1913

481

0.40

0.68

27.6

6.9

West Tyrone

2705

3.1

740

61

0.54

1.28

28.0

27.9

Rural Areas

26475

4.4

8151

1309

2.03

3.22

 

20.7

Urban Areas

76940

7.0

30863

6312

0.50

0.84

23.1

 

Northern Ireland

103415

6.1

39014

7621

0.82

1.34

23.1

20.7

Notes:

1. Above estimates are based on distances between Post Offices and Census Output Area centroids (using OSNI data)

2. Population estimates were obtained from NINIS and relate to 2003 (latest available for Census Output Areas)

3. Household figures are from the 2001 Census

4. Average distances to Post Offices before and after proposed closures relates only to output areas affected

Please note that additional statistics produced by NI Assembly Research Services including maps and tables on travel distances to post office are available on request from:

Committee Office
Room 33
Parliament Buildings
Stormont
BT4 3XX
Tel: 028 90520348
Email: ahpostalservices@niassembly.gov.uk

Northern Ireland Assembly 
Research Services: Briefing Paper

Post Office Access Criteria – Further Analysis

Following a number of recent telephone conversations with Post Office Ltd and Postwatch, a number of issues have become clear in relation to the methodology used by Post Office Ltd to monitor compliance with the Government’s minimum access criteria:

  • Distance is measured ‘as the crow flies’ and is not based on road distances as we had originally assumed.
  • The urban/rural definition used by Post Office Ltd is based on a 10,000 population cut-off point, as used in GB. Our original analysis used the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency (NISRA) definition based on a cut-off point of 4,500.
  • Deprived urban areas are defined as the 30% most deprived urban Super Output Areas in Northern Ireland (the definition varies for each of the regions) – this information was provided by Postwatch.

While we do not agree with the ‘crow flies’ methodology, we have carried out some further analysis of the data based on this information, with the following results (see attached summary table, which includes some comparative figures for Scotland and the UK and some equality analysis):

1) 100% of the population in Northern Ireland is within 6 miles of their nearest Post Office.

2) Whatever methodology is used, Northern Ireland still does not meet four of the remaining five access criteria. The only access criterion that is met is that for the percentage of the rural population within 3 miles of their nearest Post Office (and that is only when the ‘crow flies’ methodology is used).

3) Even using the ‘crow flies’ methodology leaves Northern Ireland with only 75% of the total population living within 1 mile of a post office. This is still far short of the 90% Government recommended UK target.

4) Northern Ireland is worse off, in terms of access to Post Offices, than Scotland or the UK generally.

5) There do not appear to be any equality issues arising from the analysis.

Robert Barry
Research & Library Services
20 May 2008

Distances to Nearest Post Office Before and After Proposed Closures

 

DTI Criteria

NI (Crow flies)

NI (by road)

UK (Crow flies)

Scotland 
(Crow flies)

Scotland 
(by road)

Disabled

Catholics

Females

Pensioner
Households

Before 

% total population within 1 mile

90

75.6

62.3

95

93

87

68.5

63.1

64.2

71.6

% total population within 3 miles

99

98.6

93.1

100

99

98

94.1

92.3

93.7

95.1

% deprived urban within 1 mile

99

98.2

91.0

 

99

 

 

   

 

% urban population within 1 mile

95

92.7

78.7

99

99

93

84.2

80.9

79.7

86.1

% rural population within 3 miles

95

96.7

83.6

99

97

92

84.5

81.9

84.2

86.7

After (proposed 42 closures in NI)

% total population within 1 mile

90

74.7

61.0

 

 

 

67.4

61.7

62.9

70.4

% total population within 3 miles

99

98.4

92.6

 

 

 

93.7

91.7

93.2

94.8

% deprived urban within 1 mile

99

98.1

90.5

 

 

 

 

   

 

% urban population within 1 mile

95

92.2

77.3

 

 

 

82.9

79.4

78.3

84.9

% rural population within 3 miles

95

96.2

82.4

 

 

 

83.5

80.6

83.1

85.8

Northern Ireland Assembly 
Research Services: Briefing Paper

Comparative Analysis: Experiences in Dealing with Post Office Closures
1. Introduction

In May 2007, the UK Government announced the compulsory compensated closure of up to 2,500 Post Office branches. Currently at consultation stage, this proposal implies the closure of nearly 100 post offices across Northern Ireland[1]. This research paper outlines the specific experiences of the Republic of Ireland and Essex City Council in dealing with the threat of post office closures. It also details comparative characteristics of international post office networks. Finally, a number of general recommendations for dealing with the implementation of closures are presented.

2. Background

Following a national public consultation, the Government has proposed a range of measures intended to modernise and reshape the network of Post Office branches (“the Network”). The Network Change Programme will involve the compulsory compensated closure of up to 2,500 Post Office branches, with the introduction of about 500 service points known as “Outreaches”[2].

In determining the Area Plan Proposal for Northern Ireland, Post Office Ltd analysed various factors including: proximity of branches proposed for closure to other branches, branch usage, size and ability of nearby branches to absorb extra customers, commercial implications, local demographics, and the impact on local economies. Accessibility issues were also considered[3]. The Area Plan Proposal is subject to local public consultation; this was launched on 1 April 2008 and will run for a six week period until 12 May 2008.

3. The Irish Experience:
3.1 The Revival of ‘An Post’

Having been on the brink of financial disaster, the Irish post office network, An Post, engineered a considerable reversal of its performance. Between 2001 and 2003, it accumulated losses of £67 million[4], and by the end of 2003 it was selling assets and had resorted to an overdraft to fund trading.

However, the latest figures, for 2006, showed an after tax profit of EUR 75.7 million (although part of this was attributable to exceptional profit on the sale of a site – the figure excluding this gain was EUR 14.7 million). It is anticipated that the figures for 2007 will reflect further profit growth[5].

The financial turnaround was largely derived from an increased focus on reducing overheads and boosting revenue. To tackle the company’s high cost base greater automation was introduced, non-core businesses were sold (including the loss making SDS delivery business), and work practices were revised[6].

Having addressed internal cost issues, An Post was granted four price increases in the last five years by the regulator Comreg. New revenue streams were also created; a joint venture with Belgian-Dutch bank Fortis has enabled An Post to secure 10,000 savings accounts, and preparations are being put in place to launch a current account. The company also recently secured a contract with eBay to deliver all eBay purchases in Ireland[7].

3.2 The Current Extent / Threat of Closures

A total of 344 post offices closed in the Republic of Ireland between 2001 and 2008[8]. In January 2008, the St Vincent de Paul agency expressed concerns over the number of closures, and argued that the economic assessment of the case for post offices in Ireland failed to take account of the ‘vital part’ they occupied in the social infrastructure of the local community. Mairead Bushnell, the national president of the charity St Vincent de Paul, stated[9]:

“The service goes well beyond the provision of postal services and helps to sustain a number of key social supports and services for many vulnerable people…the value of (this) human contact in the lives of many people far outweighs the cost measured on a balance sheet.”

Where closures are enforced, St Vincent de Paul has called for the introduction of the following counteractive measures:

  • The provision of a regular transport service to an accessible town or village post office, and personal access to telephone and alarms for all older people.
  • Affected areas should be serviced by an out-of-hours medical service, and postmen and women be trained to spot signs of social isolation and need.

An Post maintains that the majority of the closures were attributable to operators choosing to retire. However, a recent development has once again threatened the existence of the local post office in Ireland. An EU court ruling has required the social welfare contract (worth in excess of EUR 50 million annually to An Post) to go out to tender next year. Should An Post not secure the contract, the economic sustainability of many post offices might be seriously compromised[10].

4. The Essex County Council Rescue Scheme

Essex County Council developed a scheme to rescue some of their (32) post office branches earmarked for closure. Lord Hanningfield, the leader of Essex County Council, proposed that local authorities (or community groups) be permitted to step in and fund some continuing provision where post office branches are scheduled for closure and no Outreach service is being provided[11].

This intervention was welcomed by the local councils who had been proposing the same measure. It emerged that up to 50 councils were willing to participate, including Leeds, West Sussex, Northamptonshire, Darlington, Durham, Norwich and Lancashire[12]. Pat McFadden, the Post Office Minister supported the proposal, agreeing that branch closures would be delayed to assist councils in taking over post offices, provided that it did not add to the (£150 million) government subsidy of the network[13].

Essex County Council’s plan to generate a profit from existing post offices is based upon the potential to undertake the provision of additional services, examples of which include:

  • Combining postal services with council services;
  • Local / national government using post offices as centres of information;
  • In some European countries, postal workers collect parcels, as well as deliver them;
  • In France, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, postmen offer other services, including taking cash to people’s doors[14].

For Northern Ireland, the model used by Essex County Council might be a feasible consideration, however since this is not a devolved matter it is an issue for Westminster and Post Office Limited[15].

5. Post Office Networks Abroad

PostComm produced a report in December 2007 on post office networks abroad, which considered 24 countries including the UK (refer annex 2 for list of countries included). Some of the key findings of this report are highlighted below[16].

5.1 Network Strategy and number of post offices

The majority of post office networks are a mixture of company owned and franchise / agency arrangements. Where franchising is used, it is often intended to reduce operating costs. Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden and the UK have had franchise arrangements for some years; Australia and the Czech Republic have introduced them more recently.

One of the ways in which post offices have modernised and improved economic viability is the introduction of special business services. Belgium and France, for example, have post offices with dedicated areas for business customers. In the Netherlands, a network of Business Points has been developed to serve the needs of small and medium sized businesses. Norway and Sweden offer similar services via business centres.

5.2 Ownership and Profitability

Most national post office networks considered in the PostComm report are public limited companies, with the government being the only shareholder. An alternative ownership structure exists in Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Germany; shareholders comprise both government and other organisations and there are two private companies. In Belgium, one of the shareholders of the post office network is the Danish national postal operator Post Danmark. Japan Post started a privatisation process in October 2007 by forming a government-owned holding company. The Dutch Government also sold its last shares in TNT Post in 2006.

In terms of profitability, most networks are generating a profit, including those in Australia, Denmark and Switzerland. Non-profit making regions include (the UK), Canada, Finland and Portugal.

5.3 Financial Services

There has been a significant development in the provision of banking and other financial services in post offices. In some countries, the government use networks to provide universal access to cash through basic bank accounts. Another common feature is the provision of bill payment services. These are offered in all networks considered by PostComm, with the exception of Finland.

Post offices either have their own branded banks or operate in partnership with one or more banks / financial institutions. Examples of post office – bank partnerships include:

  • Belgian Post (De Post-La Poste) and Fortis Bank
  • Czech Post (Ceska Posta) and Ceskoslovensk obchodni banka a.s. Postal Savings Bank, Home Credit, Ceska pojistovna and Western Union
  • An Post (Ireland) and Fortis Bank
  • Norway Post (Posten) and DnB Nor/Postbanken
  • Slovenia Post (Posta Slovenije) and Nova Kreditna banka Maribor d.d.
  • Correos (Spain) and Deutsche Bank (owned by Germany’s Deutsche Post)

In France, La Banque Postale provides a basic bank account; post office staff includes financial advisors and property and asset advisors. In Germany, Deutsche Postbank AG provides financial services through post offices and employ financial advisors; financial services account for 39% of business. Japan and New Zealand operate similar banking services through post offices.

5.4 Government Services

Many countries’ postal networks have suffered as a result of social benefits being paid directly into bank accounts. As outlined above, An Post still has a contract with the Irish government to distribute social welfare payments[17]. Other examples of existing opportunities in the provision of government services include:

  • Passport applications (Australia, UK, USA)
  • Fishing licenses (Belgium, Finland, UK)
  • Hunting licenses (Canada)
  • Postal voting (Finland)
  • Social benefit payments–including pensions (Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, UK)
  • Vehicle licensing (the Netherlands, New Zealand, UK)
  • Payment services for local government (Japan, New Zealand)
  • TV licensing (Poland)
  • Proof of identity checks (Australia)
  • Photocopy authentication service (Portugal)
5.5 Other Services

Other non-postal services are available through many countries’ post offices. All offer stamps for collectors (in store / online), communication products and stationery. Some of the more unusual services offered include:

  • In France “Help at Home” services are offered; on purchase of the “genius” card (EUR 9.50) government registered providers can be contacted regarding:
  • Housekeeping
  • Gardening
  • Babysitting
  • Support for the elderly
  • In Japan, post office staff check on living conditions of elderly people and there is an ordering service for daily necessities
6. Implementing Closures

The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) provided advice to the Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Committee into the post office closure programme. The Commission made the following recommendations[18]:

1. There is a need to apply the access criteria sensitively. Whilst the distance criteria provide a useful starting point in helping to determine post office locations, the wide range of other issues (both social and economic) that are of significance to post office closures should be given adequate coverage

2. Patterns of usage following any post office closures should be monitored once the revised network has become established to ensure that queuing times are acceptable.

3. There should be a presumption against the closure of a post office which has an attached shop where this is the last remaining outlet in a community.

4. Post office closure proposals must take account of the business needs of home based workers and self employed people in rural areas

5. The CRC urges the Post Office to allow sufficient time for outreach solution in rural areas to be identified and to use the...consultation period as the commencement of this process, rather than expect the solutions to be finalised within this period

Annex 1

The Government has prescribed the following closure criteria:

  • 99% of the UK population to be within 3 miles and 90% of the population to be within 1 mile of their nearest Post Office branch;
  • 99% of the total population in deprived urban areas across the UK to be within 1 mile of their nearest Post Office branch;
  • 95% of the total urban population across the UK to be within 1 mile of their nearest Post Office branch;
  • 95% of the total rural population across the UK to be within 3 miles of their nearest Post Office branch.

Additionally, for each individual postcode district:

  • 95% of the population of the postcode district to be within 6 miles of their nearest Post Office branch.
Annex 2

1.

Australia

13.

Japan

2.

Austria

14.

Netherlands

3.

Belgium

15.

New Zealand

4.

Canada

16.

Norway

5.

Czech Republic

17.

Poland

6.

Denmark

18.

Portugal

7.

Finland

19.

Slovenia

8.

France

20.

Spain

9.

Germany

21.

Sweden

10.

Hungary

22.

Switzerland

11.

Republic of Ireland

23.

United Kingdom

12.

Italy

24.

USA

[1] The Post Office Backlash Begins, The Belfast Telegraph, 1 April 2008

[2] An example of an Outreach service is a subpostmaster travelling from village to village.

[3] Obstacles such as rivers, mountains, motorways, sea crossings, availability of public transport, etc. 
Network Change Programme: Area Plan for Northern Ireland, Post Office Limited

[4] Almost £43 million was attributable to the 2003 alone.
An Post gets stamp of approval and delivers profit, Irish Independent, 24 January 2008

[5] Posting a healthy profit, Sunday Business Post, 3 February 2008

[6] These were the latest figures as at February 2008
Posting a healthy profit, Sunday Business Post, 3 February 2008

[7] Posting a healthy profit, Sunday Business Post, 3 February 2008

[8] Figure as at January 2008
“V de P says post office closures leading to isolation”, The Irish Times, 18 January 2008

[9] “V de P says post office closures leading to isolation”, The Irish Times, 18 January 2008

[10] Post office system has a future as a public service, The Irish Times, 2 March 2007

[11] Ministers back rescue plan to cut number of post office closures, The Guardian, 20 March 2008

[12] Post offices could be run by county councils, The Guardian, 12 March 2008

[13] The £150 million subsidy is guaranteed until 2011. The Government will not allow the councils to dip into this, since if they did so even more post offices would have to shut. The Post Office has some flexibility to delay branch closures on the basis that subpostmasters are being offered 28 months’ compensation in return for agreeing to shut down.
Post offices could be run by county councils, The Guardian, 12 March 2008

[14] Concentrate on customer services, not post office numbers, The Postal Services Commission, Sept 2001

[15] Post Office Closures, Private Notice Questions, NI Assembly, Monday 7 April 2008

[16] Post Office Networks Abroad, Post Comm, December 2007

[17] Although, as explained above, this has been threatened by a recent EU ruling.

[18] Submission by the Commission for Rural Communities, Inquiry by the Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Committee into the Post Office Closure Programme

Northern Ireland Assembly Research Services
Follow up Research from 
Committee Meeting 12/05/08
Ad Hoc Committee – Local Postal Services

1. Further information on the characteristics of profitable networks:

(a) are they subsidised?

(b) do they charge more per unit?

Detailed information on the (source of) profitability of international post office networks is not widely available, (i.e. unit costs, etc). However, it has been possible to identify which networks are subsidized, and to provide the following additional financial information:[1]

Australia
  • Australia Post is owned 100% by the Australian Government;
  • It made a net profit of $400.7 million (£180m) in 2006/07;
  • Revenue and profits increased by 1.3% and 0.3% respectively in 2006/07;
  • Australia Post receives no government subsidy. It pays all relevant local, State and Commonwealth rates and taxes, and pays dividends to the Government.
Italy
  • Since 1998, Poste Italiane Group has been a public limited company;
  • The Group made a net profit of €675.7m in 2006, up by 94% from 2005 (€349m);
  • The shareholders received dividends amounting to €117.9 million;
  • The Group is made up of 9 companies; 3 provide services through post offices;
  • There are no specific government subsidies.
New Zealand
  • New Zealand Post (NZP) has been a limited liability company owned by the Government for 20 years;
  • The profit in 2006/07 was $70.2 million;
  • There is no government subsidy; since incorporation in 1987 more than $1 bn has been paid in dividends and taxes to the Government.
Denmark
  • The largest shareholders in Post Danmark (PD) A/S are the Danish State (75%) and CVC Capital Partners (22%)[2]
  • In the first half of 2007, PD achieved a net profit of DKK 355 million (£33.4m);
  • PD is not subsidized.
France
  • Groupe La Poste is a government owned company and made a net profit of €789 million in 2006;
  • The post office network is part of La Poste Retail Outlets division and contributed €31m towards the group’s revenue in 2006, which was down €2m (7.4%);[3]
  • Postal legislation provides for postal national subsidies funds. A part of the income of this fund is the 85% tax relief from direct local taxation of La Poste.
Switzerland
  • Die Post (Swiss Post) is state owned and is profitable;
  • There are no government subsidies for Swiss Post’s network of post offices, but there are internal cross subsidies.
2. Government services provided via post offices

The UK Government’s decision to pay pensions and benefits straight into accounts removed 40% of post office income.[4]

The Situation in Other Countries
  • An Post has a contract with the Irish government to distribute social welfare payments, (which will go out to tender in 2008). Government services are reported to form 70% of the throughput of post offices and are worth over €50m;
  • Belgian Post has a management contract with the government that covers the universal service provision and public interest activities. Services / tasks include:
  • Payment of pensions and disabled persons’ allowances;
  • Fishing licences;
  • Payment of attendance fees at elections;
  • Traffic penalty transactions;
  • Recovering receipts on behalf of third parties;
  • Receiving deposits of cash on current accounts, cheques, wire transfers;
  • Social role of the postal delivery staff;
  • Provision of information to public;
  • Printing and delivery of electronic mail.
  • In Hungary, family allowance, pensions and other social benefits are paid through post offices, although the use of this service has declined;
  • In Japan, post offices undertake payment of pension benefits and accept administrative work on behalf of local government authorities
  • In Australia, around 95% of passport applications are made through post offices on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade;
  • In Poland, letters for the judiciary are handled at post offices. Radio and TV subscriptions can also be paid;
  • In the USA, two thirds of all passport applications are submitted at post offices;
  • There are no government services offered through the postal networks in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany or Norway.

    [1] PostComm, Post Office Networks Abroad, December 2007

    [2] The remainder of the company is owned by employees

    [3] This division’s business corresponds to third-party products sold to the customers at La Poste counters and in its 2006 Annual Report, La Poste states that this contribution is not very significant and does not reflect the central role that this business plays in the distribution of Mail, Parcel and Financial Service Products.

    [4] http://www.nfsp.org.uk/past_pr.asp?PastNews=2004

Northern Ireland Assembly 
Research Services: Briefing Paper

Potential Funding Sources for Post Offices

1. Introduction

The Rural Development Programme was established to help rural communities meet the needs of a changing economic environment. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) received European Commission approval for the Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme (NIRDP) 2007-2013 on 24th July 2007.[1]

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development develops and co-ordinates rural development policy, manages the implementation of rural development strategies, programmes and projects, and acts as an interface between the Rural Development Programme and other public sector bodies.

There are three main priorities (known as Axes) in the current NIRDP programme

  • Axes1: Improving the competitiveness of agriculture and forestry by supporting restructuring, development and innovation
  • Axes2: Improving the environment and countryside by supporting land management
  • Axes3: Improving the quality of life in rural areas and encouraging diversification of economic activity
  • Axes4: Using a LEADER-type approach (A fourth Axis involves local implementation)
2. NIRDP Financing Tables[2]
  • 2007-2013 Total NIRDP Public Contribution (Euros)

Total Public

EAFRD Contribution rate (%)

EAFRD amount

322,898,005

50

170,824,060

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Total

24,015,363

25,345,955

24,496,960

24,690,812

24,375,877

24,114,248

23,784,845

170,824,060

  • NIRDP 2007-2013 Financial Plan by year (Euros)
3. The Summary of Measures within the NI Rural Development Programme2007-2013[3]

The Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme 2007-13 contains a number of measures under each axis. These measures are specific areas where support is to be targeted. Each measure was selected from a menu of options provided by the European Union in order to target the aspects of rural life that are most important to Northern Ireland.

Axis 1 &2 focus on Vocational Training and Information Actions, Adding Value to Agriculture and Forestry Products, Agri-Environment Programme and Forest Environments

Under Axis 3 Improving the quality of life in rural areas and encouraging diversification of economic activity, all of the schemes below are delivered at a local level by Local Action Groups.

3.1 Diversification into Non-agricultural Activities

This measure aims to assist farm households to diversify into non-agricultural activities and, as a consequence, maintain or increase the income of the farm households and create employment opportunities.

3.2 Support for Business Creation and Development

This measure aims to create employment opportunities through promoting entrepreneurship and developing the economic infrastructure in rural areas by providing support to existing micro enterprises or to persons wishing to set up a new micro-enterprise in a non-agricultural sector.

3.3 Encouragement of Tourism Activities

This measure aims to use the natural resources in Northern Ireland’s rural areas to attract visitors and create new employment opportunities through the sustainable development of the rural economy by providing support to existing rural tourism enterprises or to persons wishing to set up a new sustainable rural tourism enterprise.

3.4 Basic Services for the Economy and Rural Population

This measure aims to improve or maintain the living conditions and welfare of those living in rural areas and to increase the attractiveness of such areas through the provision of more and better basic services for the economy and the rural population. This will be achieved through supporting the improvement of basic services in rural areas, including cultural and leisure activities and related small-scale infrastructure. Support will be provided towards the costs of identifying needs and providing basic services for rural dwellers.

3.5 Village Renewal and Development

In order to support integrated village initiatives which promote community development and regeneration, this Measure will support animation and capacity building within and between villages and their surrounding rural areas in the formulation of integrated action plans to define the role of the village and fully develop the potential of villages and their surrounding areas.

3.6 Conservation and Upgrading the Rural Heritage

To use the natural resources in Northern Ireland’s rural areas to create new employment opportunities and develop the rural economy through supporting local village initiatives to preserve and upgrade their rural heritage.

The potential funding sources for the Post Office are Support for Business Creation and Development (3.2), Basic Services for the Economy and Rural Population (3.4) and Village renewal and development (3.5).

4. Post Office Development Fund in Wales

The Post Office Development Fund was established to help Post Offices in Wales’ most deprived areas and isolated communities to stay open and become more accessible. Subpostmasters in eligible areas were invited to apply for grants of up to £50,000 each to renovate their Post Offices and widen the range of services and products offered to their customers. The new funding programme will be start 1st January 2009.

[1] Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme 2007-2013. 
http://www.dardni.gov.uk/index/rural-development/nirdp2007-2013.htm

[2] Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme 2007-2013. 
http://www.dardni.gov.uk/index/rural-development/nirdp2007-2013.htm

[3] Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Summary of Measures within the NI Rural Development Programme 2007-2013. http://monitor.isa/548991052/549843800T0805121617012371579.txt.binXMysM0dapplication/mswordXsysM0dhttp://www.dardni.gov.uk/summary_of_ni_rural_development_programme_measures

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