New payment system hits POs hard

By Mark HeathPOST offices across East Anglia have been hit hard by the controversial overhaul in the way pensions and benefits are paid, it has been revealed.

By Mark Heath

POST offices across East Anglia have been hit hard by the controversial overhaul in the way pensions and benefits are paid, it has been revealed.

Since pension and benefit books were phased out in April, more than 10 post offices in the region have been forced to close.

But it is feared tens more could be under threat with post offices continuing to lose trade under the new system in which more payments are made directly into bank accounts.

Jon Richardson, regional secretary of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, said: “There's just too many post offices for the amount of work now because of the loss of the benefits work.

“To a certain extent it has been coming anyway and even if it wasn't for the pensions, there would probably have been some rationalisation - but the new system has certainly hastened it and made it vital that some branches are closed.

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“I think we are bound to see some more closures of urban branches in the area just through economic necessity from the Post Office point of view.”

He added: “Rurally, the Government has put some money in to try to keep them afloat, but not really enough.

“Robberies have also had an effect. People just think they are not going to put up with it for the amount of money they are getting and they pack it in.

“People are losing their livelihoods over this. It's very, very serious, and it's very sad to see it happen.”

When plans to scrap benefit and pensions books were first announced, the East Anglian Daily Times launched a Save Our Post Offices campaign, fearing the region's rural network could be decimated by losing vital trade.

The EADT collected a 102,000-signature petition, calling on the Government to safeguard the future of post offices, which was presented to the Trade and Industry Secretary.

Mr Richardson said he felt people thought they now had no option but to go to the bank for their payments, and he called for more to return to using the post office.

“The forms that went out about the changes were worded very strongly in favour of people going to the bank. A lot of people thought they didn't have a choice, but that is not the case,” he added.

“I really want to get the message across to people that they should stick with their local post office - it really is a case of if you don't use them, you will lose them.

“Go in and speak to your sub-postmaster about having pensions or benefits put through them. Even those people whose payments now go into the bank can still turn it round - it's not too late.”

A spokeswoman for the Post Office Ltd said their records showed 11 branches in the region had closed, were closing or were in negotiations to close since “rationalization” began at the end of 2002.

Of the closures, she added: “Basically, there are two many post offices serving too few customers and by having a strategic closure programme, it means we can safeguard the future of the network.

“We are having to make some tough decisions to maintain a viable future for the service. Even at the end of the programme, 95% of the population will still live within a mile of a post office.”

The spokeswoman also confirmed the overhaul in the way pensions and benefits were paid had had a huge effect on branches around the country.

“Obviously, Post Office Ltd is losing money. When the changes to payments were announced, we knew that we would lose money there as well,” she said.

“When the Government stopped paying benefits by a benefits book and started payments via a bank account, the average post office stood to lose 41% of its turnover, and that's what we've found.”

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