Post offices are vital for communities, says minister

Postal Affairs Minister Paul Scully with Deputy Postmaster Steve Bentley at Upton Waters Post Office

Postal Affairs Minister Paul Scully said the coronavirus pandemic has shown how important local branches of post offices are to people in rural communities in particular.

Mr Scully said the government is looking for new ways to ensure the continued viability of post offices in the Internet age.

He added that the government was fully committed to ensuring justice for postal workers who were wrongly jailed in the Horizon scandal, including three from the West Midlands.

Mr Scully was invited to the Waters Upton Post Office by Wrekin MP Mark Pritchard and chatted with Deputy Postmaster Steve Bentley before purchasing a copy of the Shropshire Star and a bottle of Wrekin gin.

Mr Pritchard said he wanted the minister to see firsthand the work being done by the post office to support people living in the community. He said the role of the village post office has grown significantly in recent years as many communities have lost their bank branches.

The number of post offices across the UK fell from 17,200 in 2003 to 11,600 last year, although the decline has slowed considerably since 2009 when the figure stood at around 12,000.

But a 2019 report from the National Federation of Deputy Postmasters found 76% said they were struggling to earn the minimum hourly wage and 22% were planning to either cut back their operations or shut down.

Mr Scully said the number of post offices was now the most stable in many years, and said providing a wider range of services – as was done at Waters Upton – was vital to ensuring their survival. Mr Bentley, who is also a parish councilor, runs the village post office and store with his partner Katrina Baker, and his daughter-in-law Katie also helps.

“Rural post offices are extremely important,” said Mr. Scully.

“The one here at Waters Upton is more than just a post office, it’s a real community center.

“There are 900 people at Waters Upton, many of whom are totally dependent on the services provided here.

“We saw it during the pandemic, where Steve and Katie would go to people’s homes, deliver their groceries, check them in and talk to them.

“For many of them, it was their only contact, and that’s what a rural post office can do, that’s why it’s so important.”

Postal Affairs Minister Paul Scully speaks with Deputy Postmaster Steve Bentley and his daughter-in-law Katie Baker
Post Office Secretary Paul Scully buys a Shropshire Star and a bottle of Wrekin gin while visiting the Waters Upton Post Office, where he was served by Katie Baker

He said the number of postal branches was a matter for the management of Post Office Ltd. But he added that the government, as the sole shareholder, had made it clear that it wanted the current number to be maintained.

“There are now around 11,500 post offices, this is the number we have agreed with Post Office Ltd, and it is the most stable in many years.”

Mr Scully said the government wanted to determine which services were in most demand.

“We are looking at where the demand is and what we can do to make it easier for deputy postmasters to provide the services that people will come to.

“We have to make them viable. We can make sure that we have the right mix of postal, banking and trade arrangements, and that seems to be working very well here.

“If you have the banking facilities, it will hopefully generate footfall to support the store, and vice versa.”

“There are now more post offices than all the banks and building societies put together, and we need to make use of them.”

Last year Mr Scully announced an envelope of £ 227million to support post office branches. But payments to postal workers who were wrongly accused of theft and false accounting helped to plunge Post Office Ltd into a loss of £ 307million.

The government investigation into the Horizon computer scandal, which saw three former West Midlands postal workers mistakenly sent to prison, is due to start on November 8, with forecasts that the eventual cost for the post could reach £ 1 billion.

Tracy Felstead, from Telford, Rubbina Shaheen from Shrewsbury and Carl Page who ran a branch in Rugeley, were all jailed because of a problem with the post office’s computer database.

Mr Scully said it was not possible to predict the cost of the scandal at this point.

“We want to make sure that the investigation spares no effort to ensure that justice is done,” he said.

“This is something that has been going on for 20 years, and we cannot look to the future until what happened in the past is resolved.

“It is important that we ensure fair compensation for those who have been affected, and that those who have had to fill deficits are also compensated.”

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