Wednesday, 11 June 2008

It's consultation, Jim,

…but not as we know it.

The post office closure programme has now reached Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, with a total of ten post offices across this constituency earmarked for closure or downgrading. It’s already rolled through Powys, as Glyn Davies has posted on more than one occasion. Closing the post offices is only part of the danger. Many post offices are operated as part of local shops; the post office salary often makes the difference between viability and failure; so it’s not just post offices that we could be losing.

What’s really staggering is how little real scope there is for local views to influence the process. All the key decisions have already been made, and they’ve been made not by the post office, but by the government. The government has decided how many post offices will close, the government has decided that the closures will be compulsory rather than by agreement, and the government has set the criteria for closure. (The government, of course, is the only shareholder in the Post Office.)

The Post Office have been left holding a consultation exercise in which the only real question is whether they’ve selected the right ones to close, and in which the grounds for challenging those decisions are very limited. It’s hardly a meaningful consultation exercise about an issue which will have a major impact on a large number of rural communities.

Listening to representatives of the Post Office explaining the process and their decisions to community councillors last night, I was reminded of the words of Aneurin Bevan – “There is no reason to attack the monkey when the organ-grinder is also present”. The problem is that on this occasion the organ grinder was very much absent, obviously happy to let the monkey take the flak (with no disrespect intended to the Post Office representatives).

Of course our post offices are facing some real problems as the number of people visiting them has fallen and the amount of business which they transact has reduced. Again, however, the hand of government lurks behind much of this. It isn't an accident that services such as TV licensing were removed from Post Offices; it’s a deliberate decision. Government, and its agencies, have chosen to use services such as PayPoint in preference to using post offices. And the threat of removing the Post Office Card Account from post offices is another potential blow.

It is claimed that the government are acting to reduce the £150 million subsidy which they pay to the Post Office. However, the value of services withdrawn from Post Offices by government decision was £168 million in 2006/7.

Closure isn’t an inevitable fact of life, but it is an inevitable result of government decisions, past and present. A truly meaningful consultation, and a truly meaningful commitment to protecting post offices would involve a review of those government decisions, not an assumption that they are inviolate. We need the organ grinder to listen as well.

PS I don’t know quite what to make of the Tories’ position on this issue. They are making a lot of the right noises, but how sincere are they? They did, after all, close 3,500 post offices themselves when they were in government, and they are still banging on about reducing government expenditure (such as the subsidy being paid to post offices?) and taxes. So how would they fund the network?

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