POST OFFICE: WESTMINSTER HALL DEBATE – EFFECT OF POST OFFICE CLOSURES ON LOCAL COMMUNITIES

POST OFFICE: WESTMINSTER HALL DEBATE – EFFECT OF POST OFFICE CLOSURES ON LOCAL COMMUNITIES

I wish to advise Branches that the House of Commons Library annual Post Office network report was published on 18th October:

https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7550/CBP-7550.pdf

We were pleased to note the reference to our moratorium on Crown Office franchising within the research document, along with a link to our associated web story from 16th July.  The relevant paragraph (on page 10) is:

“In an attempt to preserve Crown post offices, The Communication Workers Union (CWU) agreed a moratorium with the post office in July 2021 stopping any closures or franchises for the rest of 2021. However, they remain concerned that closures or further franchising will continue in 2022.”

Westminster Hall Debate – Effect of Post Office Closures on Local Communities

On Tuesday 19th October, Marion Fellows SNP MP for Motherwell and Wishaw and Chair of the APPG for Post Offices hosted a Westminster Hall debate on the “Effect of Post Office Closures on Local Communities”.  There were 13 contributors to the debate from across the major parties and some crucial issues were raised and serious questions put to the Minister, Paul Scully.

The focus was on the decline of the network through the franchising/closure of Crown Offices and the unplanned closure of sub offices as Postmasters simply can’t afford to run Post Office services with the current level of remuneration and are therefore left with no choice but to hand back the keys.  Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith asked the following question during the debate:

“Why is it impossible to find locations or postmasters for these places? I think the answer stares us in the face. It is that the terms and conditions that the Post Office is prepared to offer and the efforts it is prepared to put in are not sufficient to regenerate the network.”

In addition, Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central and Shadow Minister posed the following question:

“What recent discussions has the Minister had with Post Office Ltd on the incomes of sub-postmasters, and what steps he is taking to minimise the risk of further closures?”

We also welcomed Marion Fellows’ mention of the CWU in her opening statement and later in the debate when she broached the subject of our agreed moratorium for Crown Office franchising/closures which runs until 31st December.  Marion put the following question to the Minister:

“A moratorium on the closure of Crown post offices, which was negotiated by the Communication Workers Union, is due to end next year. Will the Minister please confirm that it will continue? Will he also speak to other Departments within Government to find out what other services they can put into post offices, with charges that will help sub-postmasters’ remuneration?”

The idea of the Post Office being run as a community hub, which the Union has been advocating for many years, was raised during an intervention by Rachael Maskall, Labour MP for York Central:

“…we have lost our Crown post office—it is now placed in a WH Smith, which is far more inaccessible than it was previously. Does she [Marion Fellows] agree that, before any post office closure, there should be a community consultation about how that estate could be repurposed as a community service?”

The issue of “temporary” closures and the fact these closures tend to be for a significant period, leading to the loss of vital services in the community, also featured highly in the debate, along with the importance of Post Office offering banking services to communities (and particularly customers who are digitally excluded) in the wake of the continuing demise of High Street Banks.

Concerns were again raised about the Post Office’s relationship with WH Smith, which Andy Slaughter described as a “rather unhappy liaison” and compared it to “a marriage of two failing enterprises trying to support each other, and not a very happy one”.

The Horizon scandal was also mentioned and Chi Onwurah highlighted the union’s view on this matter when she commented:

“Last year I welcomed the announcement of a £227 million investment, including a £50 million subsidy to support the rural post office network. However, the CWU rightly stated that it is unlikely that this investment will be sufficient given the amount the post office will have to raise to cover future legal claims associated with the Horizon scandal, which remains the greatest public scandal that our country has suffered, and the implications of which are still being felt by many current and former sub-postmasters who are struggling to gain the compensation the Minister seemed to promise.”

Chi Onwurah also asked the Minister:

“What steps is the Minister taking to maintain the financial viability of the Post Office, and will considerations be made for the continuation of the subsidy beyond 2022?”

 Whilst Paul Scully in his response to the debate did not answer all of the points raised directly, he did however provide some reassurances to those affected by the Horizon scandal when he said:

“I am really pleased to be back in my place after the recent reshuffle because it gives me the opportunity to continue the work to make sure that everybody affected by the Horizon scandal gets justice and gets fully compensated, and that we can work towards that. It will take time.”

In view of the above, perhaps the Minister can now deliver this commitment by making sure the 550 Postmasters who were part of the original Group litigation are properly compensated, which the Government has been resistant to thus far.

In regards to Postmaster remuneration, the Minister gave the usual stock answer which was this is “an operational matter for the Post Office”. He added “but we have to recognise the importance of supporting postmasters to give them the future we talked about. I was pleased to see that it [Post Office] listened carefully to the feedback it received on the proposed changes, and I welcome the recent improvements it announced last month”.  In our view, these “improvements” fall way short of what is required to help Postmasters continue to provide vital Post Office services to the communities which need them.

The Hansard transcript of the debate can be accessed via the following link:

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2021-10-19/debates/A78F36B3-46E9-4352-A8A2-3A3CAC55C389/PostOfficeClosures

A parliamentary Research paper was also published just prior to the debate entitled “Effect of post office closures on local Communities”.  The document can be accessed from the House of Commons Library via the following link:

https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CDP-2021-0156/CDP-2021-0156.pdf

In closing, we wish to thank Marion Fellows for instigating this debate.  We work closely with Marion as Chair of the APPG and have seen first-hand how committed Marion is in doing everything possible to ensure a long-term future for the Post Office and the communities it serves.

If you have any questions in relation to this LTB, please contact Lea Sheridan – lsheridan@cwu.org.

Yours sincerely

Andy Furey                             

Assistant Secretary     

LTB 446/21 – Post Office – Westminster Hall Debate – Effect of Post Office Closures on Local Communities           

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