The post office network has been established for nearly 400 years. From the beginning, a combination of state service and private enterprise ensured that first mail services, and subsequently a wide range of government services, were available throughout the country, without the Government having to provide those services directly. At its height in 1964, the post office network contained 25,056 branches. However, the network has been reduced so that now there are no more than 12,000 post offices and outreach services. Nonetheless, the Government has set access criteria for the network to ensure that it covers the whole country.
We all want a thriving post office network. As it is, Post Office Ltd has made losses in the past, and has only made a profit in the current year because of government financial support. Accordingly, the Government asked us to look at what services could be provided by the network to ensure its future viability. In turn, we ourselves consulted widely to find out what people wanted from their post office network. This Report sets out what we have found. There are real problems. The network has been losing both public and private business to other delivery channels. Post Office Ltd delivers services through many partners. It must make sure that both sides benefit from these arrangements. Many of our witnesses criticised the standard of service in both Crown post offices and other branches. This must be improved. The use of technology must be improved. However, the Post Office is also trusted and even loved. People depend on it as a community hub. In many areas, the post office and the local shop are run by the same person, from the same premises, and if one fails, so will the other.
There is no shortage of demand for more services. The network can and should provide:
- Mail services;
- Financial services;
- Local authority services;
- Central government services; and
- Broader community services.
We should not underestimate the need for mail services. The internet may be reducing the number of letters sent, but technology has enabled people to set up businesses in remote areas, and increased the demand for packet and parcel services.
The post office network is far greater than that of any retail bank. For this and other reasons, we have no doubt that the post office network should be used to provide access to significantly enhanced banking services. However, there are different models available to achieve this outcome and we have insufficient information to choose between them at this stage. The Government must act urgently to resolve this issue. The Government should also act quickly to encourage negotiations between Post Office Ltd and individual banks to improve access to their services through the network; specifically, the Government should encourage those banks in which it has shares to make sure their accounts are widely available.
Local authorities offer a wide range of services through the post office network, and some are taking a lead in sustaining post offices directly. However, there is no consistency in what is offered; we believe that more could be done to benefit both sides, and urge Post Office Ltd to take the lead in developing services that can be easily accessed by local authorities.
Many of the problems facing the network are a consequence of the Government moving services online, and so reducing Post Office Ltd's income. But people see the post office network as a public service, and expect the Government to support it. We believe the Government has seriously underestimated the potential of the network to serve as a link between government and its citizens. Although some departments are seizing the opportunity a truly national network offers to allow easy access to their services, many government departments are woefully unimaginative about the needs of their customers, and show too little respect for members of the public's right to choose how to deal with the Government.
The Digital Britain report sets out ambitious proposals for a Digital Switchover of Public Services in which the internet would be the primary means of access to public services, rather than one of many. We wholeheartedly support e-delivery of public services; it can be more convenient for the user, and more cost-effective to the taxpayer. But however much the Government may want to encourage digital inclusion, it also needs to prevent social exclusion. The British public believes that post offices are essential to the fabric of our society. Those who contacted us were eloquent in their belief that the post office closure programmes may have saved Post Office Ltd costs, but had displaced those costs onto individuals, and onto society as a whole. They were also sceptical about the extent to which online services were desirable. We note that 40% of households do not have access to the internet. Members of the public can be encouraged online they should not be driven there. Social exclusion and isolation can often best be countered by encouraging face-to-face services.
It makes no sense for one arm of government to recognize the importance of the network, while another makes policy proposals which do not recognize people's right to access services in ways which suit them, not the state. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was clearly committed to the success of the post office network; however, the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Government as a whole need to share that commitment.
The Post Office has been used to provide public services and private services in partnership for nearly four centuries; we have no doubt that with will and imagination, and whole-hearted government support, it can continue to do so.