Mounting Parliamentary criticism of PO ‘franchising’ plan

Postal, Post Office (PO)

Post Office bosses came under pressure to explain their controversial decision to ‘franchise’ Crown offices out to high street retailer WH Smith, when they were questioned by a cross-party group of MPs and Peers at Westminster earlier this week, reports CWU political advisor Natasha Burgess.

Dozens of Parliamentarians packed a House of Commons Committee Room this week at the latest meeting of the All-Party Group on Post Offices and were left “looking unsatisfied with the answers” given to them by the company’s representative.

“MPs gave the Post Office people a grilling about everything,” says Natasha, “with questions about false promises made previously to protect remaining crown offices, the lack of any ideas and business model to grow the network, the lack of consultation with local communities on franchising decisions, and the pressing need for rural banking.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Post Offices was set up in September, and is chaired by the Shadow Minister for the Post Office Gill Furniss (MP for Sheffield Brightside & Hillsbrough), while the Secretary for the Group is former North East Hampshire MP James (Lord) Arbuthnot.

Peter (Lord) Hain, a prominent Parliamentarian and former Secretary of State, is another APPG member and at this week’s meeting, he asked why the franchise was being given to WH Smith, arguing that its record as a retailer – in terms of length of queues, quality of service and disability access – has been one of the poorest.

“There was no real answer from the business, other than that they were confident in WH Smith,” comments our CWU attendee, who added that she had been extremely surprised to hear the Post Office representative using the term “strong and stable” to describe WH Smith – given the political connotations of the phrase.

“Several of the MPs focussed on the shortcomings of the consultation processes, David Drew (Stroud) remarking: ‘There is no evidence that people are being listened to’, and York Central’s Rachael Maskell complaining that ‘the public are not being asked whether the franchising should go ahead’,” reported Natasha.

“Albert Owen (Ynys Mon) reminded the Post Office: ‘We were told Crown offices would be protected, but they’re not being’, and Motherwell & Wishaw Member Marion Fellows summed up the feelings of most of the people present when she said, straight out, regarding their business plan: ‘What you’re doing isn’t working’.”

Reflecting on the meeting, Ms Furniss remarked: “Evidently the Post Office is not listening to the public or politicians and I am worried about the lack of contingency planning. There is a clear question mark about the long-term viability of post office services due to them going into WH Smith.”

And in his comments, CWU assistant secretary Andy Furey said: “It certainly seems that there’s mounting opposition and growing criticism from Parliament of this controversial ‘franchising’ plan – and those criticisms that MPs are making reflect the complaints they’re getting from their constituents.

“And it was also good to hear MPs challenging the Post Office on issues within the wider network, in particular  the appalling remuneration paid to postmasters – many of whom are having to use the income from their retail to subsidise the Post Office – which has resulted in postmasters handing in their keys and the closure of their sub-post office simply because it is no longer financially viable.

“So, there couldn’t be a better time for the CWU’s Save Our Post Office campaign.”

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