Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. It seems to me that you are not in touch with rural Wales at all and some of the cases that we want to discuss with you. Whatever you say about the Code of Practice and what is happening now, clearly that has not happened in the past. It makes us as politicians very angry.
  (Mr Sweetman) I can see that. I accept that.

  81. Would you like to tell me what you know about this case?
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes. The post office did close in July 2000.

  82. Can I stop you there and ask: for how long did you know that Mrs Sumbland wanted to retire, bearing in mind that she is a 72 year old lady? She is not retiring through ill health.
  (Mr Sweetman) It would have been for at least three months but I do not know the answer to that question. We did receive inquiries from a couple of people who expressed an early interest in the vacancy but no firm applications came in. They expressed an interest but we did not receive a formal application. We did produce a vacancy pack, which was made available to people who expressed an interest. That really is just to make sure that people who do apply know all about the facts and figures so that they can make their own decision.

  83. Can I stop you there? You said that a couple of people expressed an interest. Those are inquiries, in other words?
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes.

  84. If they do not come back to you, do you follow up with a second telephone call or a second letter or any contact? If you are desperate to keep that service open, in Penrhynside in this case, why do you not as an organisation go back to those people who have made inquiries, rather than expecting them to come to you, and make it attractive for them?
  (Mr Sweetman) I think that often happens.

  85. Not in this case.
  (Mr Sweetman) Not in this case.

  86. Why not?
  (Mr Sweetman) I cannot answer that. I think that should have been done. I will not put forward excuses because I think you might well be right.

  87. I interrupted you, and I apologise. Would you like to continue?
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes. Not making the retail offer available I think in these particular circumstances did complicate the case and made it more difficult to find a new sub-postmaster to come in.

  88. Why, because she says that she was making room available?
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes, but I think that without the gross profit income from a retail offer, a stand-alone post office would not be a viable business for an individual to run. That is why the ideal situation is to run a retail outlet alongside a sub-post office in the hands of one individual. I think splitting the two does not make it an easy proposition to sell.

  89. Do you not think the person making the inquiry or making himself or herself available would be the best person to decide that?
  (Mr Sweetman) That might have been the reason why, although I do not know this, they did not turn their expression of interest into an application.

  90. But it was not followed up?
  (Mr Sweetman) I do not know that it was not followed up. It would be a reasonable procedure for it to have been followed up, I agree. Our local manager did discuss the vacancy with the two people concerned but I am not sure how many times or how much they pushed. I believe that they did not push their early interest. Mrs Sumbland did actually extend her last day of service by seven weeks, for which we were very grateful. During that period no other interest was expressed. We kept Mrs Groom locally informed of the position as the local councillor, as she had quite a close interest because her family used the outlet. That is where we stand. We have not so far had any suitable candidate coming forward.

  91. The last time we asked you questions about this back in July we asked about the alternatives that you had. We discussed whether you had a list of people who could step in to run the service in the community so that they would not be deprived of this service. You told us that. I also asked at that time whether you had a roving programme. In your memorandum you say to us that an option of the provision of a roving service by a nearby sub-postmaster is currently being explored—currently being 12 March, the date of your letter I assume?
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes. I am informed that is the position locally.

  92. In July you answered questions previously.
  (Mr Sweetman) In these particular circumstances, because we hoped we would get applications coming forward—and Mike Granville took you through this a little earlier— that is now one of the things we look for if all our normal procedures have not been successful. We are now looking to see whether there is a sub-postmaster locally in a nearby community who could provide this service, albeit not on a full-time basis, in restricted hours, someone who would go there at particular fixed points in a week to provide the service.

  93. This has taken from July to March?
  (Mr Sweetman) I accept your point; it could perhaps have been looked at earlier.

  94. Do you agree that my area has not been well served by your organisation in this instance?
  (Mr Sweetman) I think, from the facts that we have shared, you are probably right.

  95. I would ask you to try and put that right.
  (Mr Sweetman) We will look into that and see if we can come up with a solution. I will write to you about it.

Mr Llwyd

  96. Mr Sweetman, can I give you an example of what I have found to be the closure procedure, or rather actions by Post Office Counters, when a closure is imminent? I may well be resonating with others here. The first thing that happens is that a small A4 advert is placed in the nearest available post office for about five or seven days saying that the post office down the road is closing down. Then, normally at the eleventh hour, if not indeed the twelfth, I as a Member of Parliament receive a letter from Post Office Counters in Bangor, albeit bilingually, asking if I know of anybody who would like to take over. That is a total waste of space and probably waste of a stamp because I do not actually have a briefcase full of names of people ready to move in. Do you not think that kind of procedure is a bit Gilbert and Sullivan?
  (Mr Sweetman) My response is that we look initially in the local community at whether there are any other retail outlets that would be suitable and at where there are people who might be interested in taking up a sub-postmastership. Where there are no obvious economic alternatives, then we approach the representatives of that community. These would be the parish council and yourselves, because that is the agreed procedure that we have with Postwatch. We said we would do that because many of you and your colleagues and people on parish councils do have a network of contacts who might well be useful in flushing out somebody who would be willing to take on the sub-postmaster role. We do the commercial side of things. We have a mailing list to potential sub-postmasters who have expressed an interest. We contact the agents, as we referred to earlier. We do the economic things and the community things and we do those together. I honestly thought that you and your colleagues had at various times expressed an interest in helping and that you might well have contacts.

  97. That is the procedure. Given that on 15 February the Government announced a new Code of Practice, how will the practice change and what improvements will be made?
  (Mr Sweetman) The Code of Practice is this document, which is something that we have agreed with now Postwatch, as of today, and we will continue to review that. We have got this version, which has been agreed after many months of consultation right around the country. We have agreed that we would examine it after a few months to see if the Code of Practice is working and, if it is not working, how we can change it.

  98. How different is that document from what you have just described and which I describe as being rather ineffective?
  (Mr Sweetman) It is in a lot of detail. I think it is good practice for organisations which provide services in communities up and down the country.

  99. How different is it from the normal practice you referred to earlier?
  (Mr Sweetman) I think it is much more comprehensive than our practices in the past because we have brought all the best practice together. This is now our internal standard and we will be measured by it from its publication. I think it is a more comprehensive Code of Practice than we have had in the past. It is a more demanding one for our local managers. Therefore, it is something that I would want to be measured against. It is certainly something that PostCom will be reporting annually against and in our regular meetings with Postwatch they have said that they are very interested in ensuring that it is up to the best practice.

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