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Thursday, March 20, 2008

On Post Offices

I am waiting to see the full list of MPs who voted to save the Post Office network last night so that I can ascertain whether any of the seven MPs in my region were among them. Only one of these now hold a government post so it will be interesting to see how the other six responded to the challenge. I will then be able to contrast their actions in the Commons with their reaction to proposals to close local Post Office branches in their constituency, due to be published for this area in June.

The challenge facing Post Offices are immense. The post office network lost more than £200 million in 2006/7, and there are four million fewer customer visits every week compared with 2 years ago. Rural and urban deprived post offices have been hit hard by the decline in Government business. Revenue from Government transactions fell by £168 million in 2005/6.

Yet any attempt to pretend that the present closure programme is led by commercial considerations was undermined recently by the Assembly Minister responsible for working with the UK Government on Post Offices. In Plenary on 6th February the Social Justice Minister, Brian Gibbons, tried to explain why Post Offices closures are being deferred until after May 1st. In doing so he clearly acknowledged that it is a Labour government directed closure programme:

Brian Gibbons: The decision in relation to the May election was not news to me. I have been aware of that for some time. The implication is that there is a purdah period, or the equivalent of it, around the local government elections. The judgment was that that could be a factor in the elections. However, I have been aware of that for some time.

The fact is that our local Post Offices are a social and community asset. Even in very urban areas they form an important lifeline for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. That is why they are being subsidised by national government and that is why the proper response of government should be to invest in them to make them more sustainable rather than cull them.

The Labour Government have directed the closure of 2,500 Post across the UK this year. This will involve hundreds being closed in Wales on top of the 150 closed in 2004. This will leave a UK post office network of approximately 11,700 post offices once the closure programme is finished.

A total of 4, 00 Post Office branches have been closed since Labour came to power in 1997. This is in addition to the 3,500 Post Office branches that were closed under the last Conservative Government.

The Government announced in March 2006 the phasing out of the Post Office Card Account (POCA) on which many pensioners rely to receive their state pension and on which thousands of branches depend to keep them in business. On 14 December, in the face of huge criticism of this decision, led by the Liberal Democrats, the Government backed down and announced a replacement for POCA.

The Government has directly or indirectly overseen the Post Office losing TV licences, vehicle excise duty and passport authentication work. In March 2006 the government policy of avoiding "unnecessary" branch closures was ended.

The Liberal Democrats, at Spring 2006 conference, agreed a policy to separate the Post Office from the Royal Mail Group and free the network from Royal Mail controls that limited the business of branches whilst raising £2 billion for investment in branches from the sale of shares in Royal Mail. We are the only party that has put forward costed proposals for retaining and investing in post offices. The Liberal Democrats launched a petition in 2006 calling for the Post Office Card Account to be retained and branches to be saved from closure.

This is a campaign that will not go away. It will be the focus for much of our work in the lead up to the May elections and the subsequent General Election. MPs who want to be on the right side of that fight will need to have shown some consistency in the way that they vote in the House of Commons compared with what they say locally. We will be watching to see how many of them can manage that.

Update: All seven South Wales West Labour MPs voted against the motion on Post Offices. It will be interesting now to see what their reaction will be when the Post Office announce closures in their constituencies in June. Full voting details are here.
In my humble opinion, Gordon Brown promotes the notion that he is interested in what it means to be British while destroying the very foundations that define Britain. His desire to shut down town and village Post Offices is just one part of his dastardly plan.
There's been some success in trying to find out the identity of the Assembly's sacked civil servant blogger.

Inside the concrete carbuncle, rumour has it that the former employee is going to an employment tribunal. I wonder if we'd find out any more under Freedom of Information, and will they tell all?
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