Friday, February 29, 2008

we need post-offices

An air of apprehension lies over the draughty old fen like a fog in a horror-film as we wonder about the future of our Post Office.

The post office is a local hub, where people meet and chat. It has, true, been less and less frequented in recent years, as people claiming certain benefits (pension, child benefit, widowed mother's allowance etc), have them paid into their bank accounts. It's not that they choose to do thus - new claimants aren't presented with a choice.

My friend Barbacana wasn't presented with a choice. He was told he would have to have his pension delivered into his bank account.

"What bank account?" he asked.

"The bank account we're going to pay your pension into," the functionary answered.

"But I don't have a bank account."

"Then you'll have to get one."

"But why would I want a bank account?"

Barbacana could hear desperation starting to set in. "So we can pay your pension into it."

"But I collect my pension at the post office."

"We recommend that you have it paid into your bank account."

"What bank account?"

"The one you're going to open so we can pay your pension into it."

"I don't want to open a bank account. I enjoy going to the post office and chatting to the other customers and the staff."

After a strangulated pause and several more sessions of going through the above dialogue, which Barbacana thoroughly enjoyed, it was decided that he would be sent a cheque for his pension, and he took great joy in informing his much-reduced interlocutor that he would cash it at the post office. He didn't tell the poor boy that he'd then put the money into his bank account. Lesson for civil servants: when dealing with people twice your age, resistance is not only futile, it leads to humiliation, ulcers and piles. Bully them at your peril.

The original plan was to close 5000 post-offices, on top of previous closures, but resistance was massive. So now 2500 closures are planned - but these are only the rural ones, the total cull could be much larger.

Of the planned closures to rural post offices, the size of the village and the frequency with which the post office is used will not necessarily be criteria. What the government wants is for 95% of people in rural areas to be within 3 miles of a post office (and 95% of people in "remote" areas to be within 6 miles of one). These criteria can, however, be met by a "mobile" post-office service (a post-office in a van, like a mobile library). I have to wonder, if you can only access a post office within three miles (or six, if you're remote) by being in the right place at the right time once or twice a week, how far away will the next nearest post office be if the mobile times clash with your district nurse coming, or you can't make it out of the house at the required time because removal of another local facility has left you feeling even more lonely and/or depressed than you were in the first place?

There's been a lot of business taken from the Post Office - TV licences, for one thing; alternative outlets for car-tax and premium bonds, etc. Yet the government report refers to the possibility that "some might guiltily embrace the increased convenience of on-line services" - it's there, on p11 of the .pdf file linked to above.

Is this about cost? In one sense yes: during parliamentary questions in May 2007, Alistair Darling, shortly before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, was unable to deny Nigel Evan's assertion that the Post Office was losing £4m per week. But in the light of the cost of the war in Iraq to Britain, according to the New Statesman (so it must be true) hitting £5 billion, surely this could be covered?

In steps the European Union. According to Article 87(1) of the European Commission treaty on competition:

"Save as otherwise provided in this Treaty, any aid granted by a Member State or through State resources in any form whatsoever which distorts or threatens to distort competition by favouring certain undertakings or the production of certain goods shall, insofar as it affects trade between Member States, be incompatible with the common market."

In other words, the British Government is banned from providing financial aid to the Post Office by the EU on the grounds that the aid might be successful - and in the present context success means keeping rural community facilities open. I would have absolutely no objection to Article 87(1) if I thought there was the remotest possibility of FedEx taking over the running of the post office in the draughty old fen, or Parcelforce running the one in the sunny old fen ten miles down the road, or even Interflora providing a service in the muddy old fen, where if houses are two miles apart the occupants qualify as next-door-neighbours.

But I don't see this happening. I hope voters of all parties remember society's duty to those who aren't able to get around as well as the rest of us, and the damage to villages that subtraction of a post office could cause. And if the Government forces through this scheme, I hope voters of all parties remember that as well.

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