Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001
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
(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
(Mr Sweetman) Yes, I think my first priority must
be to maintain the network and, if there are opportunitiesand
I am thinking the announcement recently made by Alan Johnson about
providing money for local communities perhaps to adapt village
hallswe 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
(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.
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
(Mr Sweetman) I last went to visit rural post offices
in Wales two years ago.
Chairman: That was when we still had some!
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
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
(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
(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
(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.
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
(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
(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
36. I think that reinforces the fact that what
we see on the ground is different from what we see in a broader
(Mr Sweetman) I think you have made that point very
37. I go back into a more general point: do
you assess the impact of the closure of the post office on small,
(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
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