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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fighting for our rural Post Offices

The Sunday Telegraph reports that this week could be a crunch time for Britain's network of rural Post Offices, with the meeting of a Cabinet committee, under the chairmanship of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, to discuss the size of the rural operation.

Britain's smallest rural post offices are visited so infrequently that they lose money on every transaction. In a recent Westminster debate Jim -Fitzpatrick, the employment relations minister, told MPs: "Fewer than 16 people a week use the 800 smallest rural post offices, at a loss of £17 per visit."

Last week Mr Fitzpatrick refused to give any indication of the size of the potential cull. But he told the Commons trade and industry committee that the Government had to consider evidence given by Royal Mail showing that a commercially viable network would consist of 4,000 post offices.

"Sadly, I don't think it is sustainable to be able to continue with 14,500 sub-post offices across the country," he said. "People just are not using the post offices and the sub-post offices as they used to. There's a whole variety of ways for people to access services now."

Whether this is a sign that the Government is about to pull its subsidy of the rural network and signal the closure of 10,000 offices in villages all around the UK has to be seen. If it is then many people will be deprived not only of the services they currently enjoy but a visible and vibrant focal point for the community they live in.

What angers many people is that it is the Government that is directly responsible for bringing the Post Office network to the edge of this particular abyss:

Adam Crozier, the chief executive of Royal Mail, attributed the loss of revenue in part to the fall in government work, set to drop to less than 10 per cent of the Post Office's turnover in five years, compared with 60 per cent five years ago.

At present 4.3 million people receive their benefit payments through the Post Office card account system. The Department of Work and Pensions has decided not to renew the card account in 2010.

"Last year the Post Office lost £2 million per week; this year, through losing the pension benefit, we will lose £4 million per week. That is an immediate effect of the decision," said Mr Crozier.

There has been a deliberate Labour Government policy of running down Post Offices. Their actions has already led to the closure of thousands of branches. In 2003, 345 Post Offices in the UK closed, in 2004 another 1,278 went, whilst in 2005 a further 1,352 shut their door for the last time. Labour have forced the Post Office to bear the cost of a failed computer project that was initiated by Ministers, and they have effectively slashed the amount of business passing over Post Office counters by forcing people to accept the payment of pensions and benefits directly into their bank accounts and taking away transactions involving Passports and TV licences.

The abolition of the Post Office card account altogether in 2010 will be the final straw for many urban Post Offices. If the rural subsidy is cut or reduced then thousands of rural branches will join them in closing. A great institution and a major social service will have been brought to its knees by Labour ineptitude. That is the real legacy of Tony Blair.
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