Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
TUESDAY 11 DECEMBER 2001
80. I have a current case which I will not bore
you with, but you may have guessed my interest in this was somewhat
detailed. I have had previous cases and in my constituency people
often do not believe the consultation process is genuine, firstly
because a deal is arranged already and, secondly, you consult
on one specific proposal. You present it to people with virtually
no choice. Now some would argueyou might like to comment
on thisthat is not proper consultation, it is about seeking
to retrospectively endorse the decision you have made already.
(Mr Roberts) I think we have to be clear what we are
consulting about. You are quite right, we are not consulting about
the decision. We are not consulting about moving a post office
from A to B, we are normally consulting about the implication
of that. We are not saying to people "Look, do you like this"
because I think if we did we would always get the answer no and
that is irrespective of the merits. It is the fact that people
normally have got used to a post office in a particular place.
All the experience we have hadand Mr Hoyle is looking slightly
dismissiveis that when you say to people in the abstract
"Can we move your post office from A to B" the answer
will be no. It is familiarity and other things. We would never
change the network at all if we do that. What we do is that we
do, as you say, get a proposal together. We consult about whether
people feel that we are worsening the service, whether there are
factors that we have not finally thought of in deciding if we
want to move it from place A to place B and into whatever the
company is, and we normally research it afterwards to get people's
reaction to it. Certainly my experience over a large number of
years, almost inevitably, is I do not think I can think of one
where people have started off by saying "Oh, we think this
is a good idea". I can think of many where the research has
shown afterwards that once people have got used to that change
they have said it is longer opening hours, it is more convenient
or whatever. I think we have always made the point in discussions
with the consumer body, and I think they have accepted, that we
are not consulting about the decision to move from A to B as long
as we are not worsening the service to people in that area. We
may be moving it from one spot to another but as long as we are
not worsening the service.
81. It is not really consultation.
(Mr Roberts) It is a consultation about the services
that you are getting, about the opening hours, about the position,
all those things, but not about the deal otherwise you would never
do anything. I do not think that we have ever, throughout the
whole of this processand we have probably franchised a
thousand Crown offices - said that the consultation process is
about whether we do it or not, it is about all the issues that
come out of that.
82. You will make a decision, perhaps, to close
down a Crown post office
(Mr Roberts) No, we will make a decision to move a
Crown post office.
83. You will make a decisionforgive meto
move a Crown post office, to move the service from an existing
Crown post office to, for example, the local Co-op.
(Mr Roberts) Yes.
84. There will be no statements in advance of
that, this is typically what happens, it is what happens at the
moment. No statement whatever from Consignia. You are then saying
to me that once you have made the decision to transfer the service
you then go out to consult. So you say to the general public who
have got an interest in access to their post office services "We
are not consulting about this decision, that decision has been
made. There is nothing whatever you can say which will influence
us on this decision. All we are prepared to talk about is a few
bits and pieces of detail about the manner in which we move your
Crown post office service from this building to the Co-op".
(Mr Roberts) No, you characterise it, I think
85. The record will demonstrate how you described
it earlier, Mr Roberts.
(Mr Roberts) Yes.
86. You are seriously saying the consultation
is not about the decision?
(Mr Roberts) Yes, I am seriously saying that. That
has been the case for as long as we have been doing this.
87. That is consistent with previous experience
of mine. I thought that was an extraordinary situation. What other
public service will not consult?
(Mr Roberts) This is the whole point, is it not, you
have got it in one. Are we a public service or are we a company
owned by one shareholder who is due to produce commercial returns?
If I was a bank I would not even consult you at all. The issue
for me, Chairman, and for this Committee and for the model under
which this organisation is going to work in the years that come,
is precisely what Mr Berry has just said. This organisation when
I joined it was seen as a social service and many people, I know,
would like to go back to those days.
88. No, I said public service, not social service.
(Mr Roberts) All right, public service. We are now
being asked to operate commercially and the PIU Study, which was
sponsored by the Government, made that very clear. They have made
a distinction between those elements of the network which in their
view, the Government's view, they wish to retain for social purposes,
and I use the word properly this time, and those which they believe
we should try and run commercially. In my view, this network would
only justify something like 9,000 post offices instead of the
17,600 that we have got if it were being run commercially and
making a profit. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, we are trying
to run one part of it commercially and there is another part,
which both Postwatch and Postcomm are involved in trying to define
more clearly, where the Government wishes it to remain open because
of the social value and the social service that it gives to the
rest of the country. That may be the wrong approach, it may be
an approach that the Committee is not happy with, but it is the
approach that we are being very clearly told that we should operate.
89. A final question on this. Can I assume that
whenever you have a proposal to transfer post office services
from a Crown post office that you will be making it perfectly
clear in the future to people that the consultation exercise that
you then embark upon is in no way, shape or form an exercise that
can influence the decision you have already made? I was involved
in one exercise not very long ago where that was not only not
made clear but the obfuscation had to be seen to be believed.
Are you going to stand up now and say henceforth these are consultation
exercises that could not in any way influence your decision?
(Mr Roberts) I am very happy to do everything we can
to make it absolutely clear how we are consulting, I think that
is a perfectly legitimate request to make, and if we are not laying
out clearly at the start what we are doing then we will take that
away and look at it. I think that is entirely a fair point to
90. In your previous incarnation as a public/social
service, when you conducted these consultations did you ever reverse
(Mr Roberts) I think we did.
91. Yes, you did.
(Mr Roberts) I think we did, but not very many.
92. So you are not really changing anything
by becoming a mean minded, hard nosed private company with a single
(Mr Roberts) No, as I was saying
93. Plus "a change.
(Mr Roberts) In terms of the 1,000 post offices that
we have franchised and converted, Chairman, you are absolutely
right, we have used the same approach through the whole of that
94. Maybe we ought to go into correspondence.
The process has not been the same precisely because, again, in
my constituency you did reverse a decision when the public made
a great hoo-ha about the fact that the building you were transferring
from was very accessible and the building to which you proposed
to transfer was totally inaccessible.
(Mr Roberts) That is exactly the kind of point that
we do consult on. You were saying before we consult on the peripherals
but the things like access, service hours and everything else
are the things that we consult on.
95. So you do a deal with the Co-op or Sainsbury's
or whatever and you say you are going to transfer, but you do
not look at access and so on at that stage, then you go out to
consultation and if the public points out that the new provision
may be totally inaccessible you say "Oh, crikey, perhaps
we should not have entered into this agreement, we will tear it
(Mr Roberts) No.
96. I genuinely do not understand, I am not
being difficult. On the one hand this afternoon I have been told
that the consultation is not about the original decision and then
when I give an example where a decision has been changed as a
result of consultation, I am told "Yes, we can change our
decision if customers point out issues like inappropriate access
and so on and so forth".
(Mr Roberts) Mr Berry, you are putting words into
97. I am genuinely confused.
(Mr Roberts) What I said in answer to the Chairman
when he asked do we reverse those decisions, I said very often
and you said we have one, and we may well have done, but it is
unusual. Off the top of my head I cannot, and I suppose you cannot
either, think of the details of that case but, again, in this
process normally we would not do that, we would have covered all
these things. But if something emerged that we had not for some
reason or other picked up then the consultation process may have
raised that and as a result of that we may have changed our minds,
but not very often because that is not the aim of the consultation
process. It is Catch-22, is it not? If I said you to that we never
change our minds then you would have said "what if you find
X, Y or Z, do you automatically not change your mind?" There
has got to be some element around the edge where you look at the
whole thing, but not very often because we do try to work it through
properly before we do the consultation.
Chairman: We are rather cynical about these
matters, not just with the Post Office but with all kinds of bodies.
If they actually behave reasonably at any time we use that as
a precedent to batter them over the heads and they very quickly
learn never to be reasonable. Maybe I am just being cynical but
20-odd years in this job has taught me that.
98. If I could just expand on the scope of Mr
Berry's last question in relation to services provided to rural
sub post offices. I have had four close in my own constituency
in as many months and I know the average over the last few years
has been about 350 closing, last year it expanded to about 450.
(Mr Roberts) 550, yes.
99. 550, excuse me. I actually wrote to Consignia
and asked for the pack that I would receive if I was a prospective
sub postmaster and the pack took six weeks to arrive. Is that
the sort of service that prospective sub postmasters get normally?
I also hear a lot of reports that the advertising for them is
done very poorly and all sorts of related complaints. Is it the
fact that this service, as many people are now saying, is facing
(Mr Roberts) The level of closures this year has slowed
down. In the first six months of the year there were about 150
net number. In other words, there were openings and closings but
net the number is about 150 down, which was slower than last year.
The biggest issue is confidence amongst sub postmasters. I think
the biggest issue facing them is ever since a decision was taken
to move away from the old form of benefit payments to automated
credit transfer, which is due to come in in 2003, there is no
doubt that not only the confidence of existing sub postmasters
but the market for sub post offices has declined very rapidly.
Not only is it difficult for people in some cases to get out of
running a sub post office if they want to but when they do get
out it is even more difficult to find people to take them on.
I do not think it is facing meltdown because it is slowing down
but some of the work that has been happening on banking services
and a lot of the work that is being done internally with the Federation
of Sub Postmasters to reassure sub postmasters that there is a
future is starting to have an impact. There is no doubt that the
uncertainty that that decision inevitably caused had a big impact
on particularly rural post offices where something like 30 per
cent of their income comes from benefit payments.