Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. In your plan, do you have a strategic view of the total number of post offices needed in Wales?
  (Mr Sweetman) What I am trying to do is to preserve the 1400 which are there but, whilst there remains uncertainty in the minds of individual sub-postmasters and they decide that they do not want to continue, if there is uncertainty in the marketplace, we will find difficulty replacing them. The message I am trying to get across, and we can perhaps build on this when we talk about our commercial proposals, is about building up confidence amongst existing sub-postmasters and prospective sub-postmasters.

  21. Do you not have any sort of long-term idea about how many post offices there should be in Wales if you look at the population and the rural areas? Do you have that sort of planning?
  (Mr Sweetman) If you take the rural areas, our plan is to maintain the numbers we have at the moment. Where some are closed, we will look to reopen them. No, I do not have firm numbers, other than trying to preserve the network that we have.

  22. I had imagined that you would look at the population of Wales in any forward plan and work towards getting comprehensive coverage of the whole of Wales.
  (Mr Sweetman) We maintain those plans at a local level area by area. We have retail network managers who look after bits of geography. It is their responsibility to maintain the network of post offices there. What I am trying to do is to maintain nationally and actually grow nationally the amount of business that post offices as a whole, and therefore individual post offices, actually handle. The plans that I have produced show the business growing over the next five years. With the business growing and if we can keep the loyalty of the customers, then I think we can sustain the network that we have.

  23. So you are only talking about sustaining the network?
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes, I think my first priority must be to maintain the network and, if there are opportunities—and I am thinking the announcement recently made by Alan Johnson about providing money for local communities perhaps to adapt village halls—we have a fair chance of reopening some offices that have closed in the recent past. I understand that this week he has or is about to write to all parish councils telling them that there is some central money available for adaptation and capital work in village halls and we are hoping for a flood of responses from local communities. We can then provide the money to adapt village halls at least to open up a presence again. They will not be full-time post offices and they might be limited hours post offices, but I can see a number of communities getting back a post office presence.

  24. When you say "sustaining a presence", you are also including in that reopening ones that have been recently closed?
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes, I think there will always be a churn but our aim is to sustain the numbers at about the present levels. There are many factors which will show how successful this will be.

Mrs Williams

  25. I am pleased to hear about that development. As Group Managing Director, how often are you able to leave your office and visit rural communities in Wales, for instance? We are particulary concerned about the situation in Wales this morning and that is why we have asked you back. Can you tell me how often you have been able to visit Wales and see what the real problems are?
  (Mr Sweetman) I last went to visit rural post offices in Wales two years ago.

  Chairman: That was when we still had some!

Mr Llwyd

  26. The news about adapting village halls is welcome. Can I tell you that two or three of my constituents who still run post offices have made applications, modest ones I might add, for changes to their present premises to better the standard of services they offer and all three have been slapped back and been told that there is no money available. How does that square with your idea now of this money going into village halls? Might it not have been a good idea to give it to those who are actually trying to survive and expand as well?
  (Mr Sweetman) I can give you examples of where we had some adaptation costs over the last year.

  27. Can you give examples then, please, and how many are there?
  (Mr Sweetman) I can give you an example of an office in Llansilin, which was actually in somebody's home originally. The individual wanted to sell house. That is a good example of where we have somebody who wants to sell the business and the premises are no longer available. That is an example of where we seek to do what we can to try and look for alternative accommodation and so on. In this particular case, the alternative accommodation came via a Wesleyan chapel and some modifications were needed in order to create the space to operate a post office and the Post Office was able to put forward a small amount of money to help those modifications. That is an example. I think the money talked about by the Minister could take forward those kinds of examples. The scheme is currently being looked at and worked up between ourselves and the DTI at the present time to see how that would actually work and the criteria that would best apply to that. There is work in progress to determine the nature of that particular scheme.

  28. Going back to what Mr Sweetman said, you were entitled to assist these businesses previously; this is not a new thing. Mr Sweetman refers to examples. You have given us one. How many have there been in the last 12 months?
  (Mr Granville) I cannot give you an exact number. The approach that we do seek to take in terms of offices is that we do try to provide security equipment, video cameras, alarm equipment and so on. There can be a range of cases where offices, for example, may move or make changes. At a certain level it comes down to the availability of funding as an economic issue here. Clearly the moneys that have been announced here will help us, via the scheme that we are talking about, to address some of those economic issues.
  (Mr Sweetman) Over the last couple of years our biggest investment has been in our Horizon system. In Wales we have probably invested over the last 18 months £40 million in computerising 170 post offices in Wales. We are up to about 95 per cent penetration. That will have introduced 2,500 network PCs which will be able to handle our new generation of products and services. That is a £40 million investment.

  29. That is not quite the question I put to you.
  (Mr Sweetman) But I think it is a good response.

  30. I do not think it is a very good response at all. You are talking about Horizon. When an applicant comes to you and says, "I would like to knock part of a wall down and make my premises more salubrious for potential customers", you go on and on about Horizon. I am sorry, it is chalk and cheese. Tell me, how many examples, apart from the Llansilin example, in the past 12 months have there been of applicants who, having applied for modest capital grants, have been granted those in Wales?
  (Mr Sweetman) I cannot give you those figures.

  31. That is awful, is it not? It is one of the core subjects we are talking about and you have no idea. If you have not, who has?
  (Mr Sweetman) That information will be kept locally because it will be a local decision.

  Mr Llwyd: I can tell you of the local decisions that I know of and the answer is nil.

Ms Morgan

  32. On Horizon, we have an example we are going to raise with you where the postmistress involved wanted help with the Horizon equipment being put in but that help was not forthcoming.
  (Mr Sweetman) Which particular case was that?

  33. It is in a more detailed memorandum about one particular post office closure in Houghton near Milford Haven where the postmistress needed structural work done to accommodate the Horizon equipment. The lack of financial assistance forced the closure. That was to do with the Horizon equipment, as you have mentioned.
  (Mr Sweetman) I am not familiar with that particular example but certainly up and down the country we have had to survey every outlet and I thought we had picked up the cost of all office adaptations to get the equipment in. That is part of the £40 million I was talking about.

  Ms Morgan: We do have details and a memorandum saying that did not happen. So the Horizon equipment without the ability to install it is obviously not very appropriate.


  34. There may be some confusion. The memorandum was not from yourselves but from one of the Members of this House.
  (Mr Sweetman) This is Houghton?

  35. Yes. I think we did say we were going to question you about Houghton.
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes. In fact, our local senior manager in Wales has written to Mrs Lawrence about the issue and has suggested a meeting on site. He will be taking up those issues directly with her.

  36. I think that reinforces the fact that what we see on the ground is different from what we see in a broader brush picture.
  (Mr Sweetman) I think you have made that point very well.


  37. I go back into a more general point: do you assess the impact of the closure of the post office on small, remote communities?
  (Mr Sweetman) I think we have a very strong awareness of how important sub-post offices are to communities. They are often the centre of the community physically, economically and socially. Where an office unfortunately closes and we cannot find a replacement, then I think there is a sense of deprivation in that community. We recognise that. I cannot say that we have any measurement systems on it but there is a marked impact on our awareness.

  38. Do you then do anything to help those communities if you are unable to find a replacement?
  (Mr Sweetman) I think our main action is in looking for a replacement and looking for alternatives. One of the things which you will see more of is that, where we cannot find a replacement in one community, then we will look to a sub-postmaster in a nearby community to operate a special service, based in his own sub-post office but opening one or two mornings a week or whatever frequency he can manage.

  39. Is that a kind of satellite?
  (Mr Sweetman) It is a roving satellite or roving sub-postmaster solution.

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