Tuesday 6 November 2018

Closure of Post Offices - reasons and problems, and trials.

How many times have we seen headlines in the local press about yet another Post Office branch closure?  In city areas it is bad enough, but at least there is public transport, and POs are closer together.  In rural areas. villages and even market towns have been left without the only way to access postal and public services.  Why does this happen?

There was once a huge network of sub-post offices in the country.  All these offices were run by individuals or families within their own premises, usually a village shop but sometimes a private house.  The sub-postmaster was paid a fixed core tier payment or salary depending on how busy the office was.

1. Branch Closure programme.
But with changes in the way people used Post Offices the network was regarded as too large and costly, and steps were taken to reduce the number of branches, whilst ensuring that nobody was too far from their nearest office.  About 2,500 branches were closed in this programme.
[Where we live there were three branches within 2 miles, and another four offices in Dereham in addition to the Crown Office.]

Following that reduction, which saw many sub-postmasters paid off, Post Office Ltd embarked on the
Network Transformation programme, which was designed to eliminate most salaries by incorporating the post office into another shop.  The shop would benefit from increased (post office) footfall, and the post office would benefit because of people in the shop for other reasons.  The shop owner would receive payment based on a range of postal, financial, and government transactions.  Post Office Ltd would save money by only paying part of the commission received from other organisations (such as Royal Mail) to the sub-postmaster.   This wasn't entirely successful as often none of the shopkeepers, garage owners, or publicans wanted to take on the post office, often supporting their fellow small-businessman instead.  In other cases the sums didn't add up.  At one village near here the consultation meeting was told that the current postal footfall would require the equivalent of 1½ full-time employees.  The prospective postmaster concluded that the income forecast by Post Office Ltd wouldn't cover the cost of those people even on minimum wage.  Now there is a once-weekly outreach service.

2. Retirement
When the subpostmaster retires and closes his shop - whether it is the village general store or just a sub-post office - Post Office Ltd generally try to find a replacement.  But in rural areas this is often the only shop in the village, so there is no alternative.  Services will then sometimes be provided by a Mobile Post Office, or an Outreach service in the village hall, or pub.  The Mobile and Outreach service is provided from the branch in a nearby (or fairly close) village.  In Pembrokeshire there are two Mobiles covering a wide area of the county and Camarthenshire; in Norfolk at least one subpostmaster provides Outreach services using his own vehicle for between 4 and 6 adjacent villages.  This service is at least once a week, but sometimes twice.  But not when the provider is on holiday!

3.  Resignation, withdrawal of premises.
A nearby market town with a population of over 7,000 was left without a post office when the owner of the commercial premises it was located in decided he need the space to expand his own business.  From the end of May to the middle of June there was no service.  Then a temporary outreach service was provided one part day a week from an office 13 miles away.  The owner was required to give such a short notice, that PO Ltd had little opportunity to find a replacement premises, and the now identified replacement may not be open before Christmas.

All these problems reduce the availability of special - and indeed definitive - stamps for local collectors; but that is not really a priority for PO Ltd because they make very little in commission from Royal Mail for the sale of stamps, whether for collectors or for postal use.

And then there is dishonesty and false accounting.
4.  A shop-keeper who was alleged to have fraudulently cashed in a customer's lottery ticket that he claimed was a non-winner, was removed as a sub-postmaster - as well as being jailed after trial, of course.  That makes a lot of sense.

5.  False Accounting.  Sometimes through ineptitude and sometimes through greed or financial problems, subpostmasters have been known to steal from the post office and attempt to cover up the theft in the hope that they can make good the shortfall before anybody notices.  That rarely happens, the culprit owns up, and the outcome is inevitable.

But since the introduction of the Horizon system there have been many False Accounting allegations that have been flatly denied, with subpostmasters claiming faults in the system, and that on their own Post Office Helpline (not the one available to customers) they have been promised that a reversing correction would appear after the end of the cut-off, and that all would be well.  In some reported cases, the problem got worse instead of better.  UK readers may well have seen BBC reports on this, or read about it in the national press or Private Eye magazine.

This has culminated in a legal case which has come to court this week.  You can follow reporting by Nick Walls on this on the Post Office Trial website. (I'll put a link in the column on the right for when this post disappears, as this trial will run for a while.)  Nick is a freelance investigative journalist who has done pieces for and often appears on The One Show, Inside Out (BBC) and ITV News, and presents Caught on Camera (Channel 5). 

Nick has been following the PO Ltd Horizon story since it started, and has recently crowd-funded to ensure that he can faithfully cover and report on this story in a way that no other journalist will. The background to his involvement is here.  (The Horizon story timeline from 2007 is here.)

It's going to be a fascinating period for anybody interested in the postal network, and in justice. So far over £10 million has been spent on legal fees.  The result is impossible to predict, however much sympathy one has with the individuals concerned.

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