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Tim Allen’s Postmaster Ponderings: Why the removal of government services from post offices harms people

Feb 22, 2024 |

This article is the individual ponderings of a postmaster and does not necessarily reflect the views of the NFSP but is the sort of communication we receive or hear that in turn is reflected in our future policies/actions.

When did the government scrap compassion?

I don’t remember any formal announcement about it, in fact quite the opposite. Politicians in both government and in opposition have always told us loudly that they care about the people in their constituencies. If this is true, or mostly true, then the scrapping of compassion and kindness must have come from objective driven government.

Whilst we look for the illusive date when compassion was scrapped some might point back to the idol of many politicians, who we also know as Margaret Thatcher, but I think it started to happen a lot more recently than that when, in 1999, the confluence of widespread internet adoption, Horizon and broader government digitisation programs all began to find a symbiosis.

The tool of mass market digitisation in post offices, that we all know so well has a name and we now know that the Department of Work and Pensions took a long, cold, hard look at Horizon and decided it wasn’t fit for the purpose of tracking and accounting for the distribution of millions of pension payments. They walked away from post offices in that moment and have never looked back.

In that moment the DWP were the first arm of government that dashed to the alter of “efficiency” and removed the right of pensioners to go to a post office and collect their pensions. Since then, there’s been a chip, chip, chip or drip, drip, drip as “efficiency” removed another and then another government service from us.

I think I’ve been late to a proper understanding of compassion and kindness; how important they are and what they actually feel and look like. Compassion is something that makes tears prick behind your eyes as you see, on the TV, or in real life, something that makes you feel deeply for the individual person before you who has a problem, they can’t solve either on their own or at all. Kindness is that which is in your power to give.

Watching the Mr Bates docudrama, I think one of the things that the programme maker did so well was to beautifully show the compassion that postmasters, in-particular Alan Bates and Jo Hamilton, had for their communities and the kindness they showed to their customers. It then showed the complete absence of these same qualities in Post Office Ltd (PO) in the treatment of their postmasters.

Becoming a postmaster quite late in my working life has revolutionised my understanding of the social importance of post offices and, more importantly, the needs of the real-life people who come through our door in, literally hundreds, each week.

Here is a simple and short statement, it is true, and every postmaster will have stories with which they can prove it. Here it is: “The removal of government services from post offices harms people.”

An 88-year-old former schoolteacher came into my post office earlier this month. She had been upset by a call she had just made to the DWP. Each year she has received a letter asking that she confirm there has been “no change in her circumstances” so that she can continue to receive 50% of her deceased husband’s pension and each year she has rung them to tell them she is still alive, and she hasn’t married someone else.

This year, she said the DWP phone call resulted in a different outcome where the person she spoke to told her they couldn’t talk to her anymore and she needed to go online to tell them she isn’t dead yet. When she had the audacity to be confused and ask a question the DWP lady reportedly told her she’d given her the answer to her question once and she wasn’t going to repeat herself. Where was the compassion? Where is the compassion in the system that harms an old lady by bringing confusion and stress unnecessarily upon her?

It is my firmly held belief that neither PO, the government or even the NFSP are treating the issue of services withdrawal seriously enough. “They are gone, they are not coming back” seems to be the thinking, but this is bad thinking.

Whether you believe it or not, Nick Reid and his team at PO tell us they are clearly focused on making us all profitable businesses which basically translates into parcels and banking. 

The announcement that International Driving Permits will be taken off us in April came just last month and has happened without pre-word or warning and furthermore will happen without vociferous protest. PO said that it represents more-or-less nothing to a postmaster’s remuneration so there we have it, it doesn’t matter. The same was being said for Road Tax, the most important element of DVLA’s service offer but that was a big one, not financially, but a big one for our customers to have to stomach and so many of us protested and we won. For how long? Maybe as little as a year and probably no more than three.

It's nowhere near good enough.

We all know there is a place for the ease and speed with which the internet allows us to check our entitlements and can pay our dues to the government but it’s not for everyone. The fact that the internet is just 30 years old should be clear enough evidence of that.

Here’s the list of government services that have been removed from us.

  • TV Licenses
  • Bus Passes
  • HMRC Personal Tax payments
  • Transcash Payments inc HMRC
  • DWP Pension & Benefits
  • NS&I services inc Premium Bonds
  • The Health Lottery
  • Fishing Licenses
  • International driving licenses (April 24)

And here’s two more:

  • Dog licenses
  • Family Allowance

These last two are easy to rationalise. The first arises from a government policy decision, a moment in time when government thought about a particular social issue and there was a resultant consequence, the latter also make sense as society does not want to see a family allowance being picked up in cash from a post office and taken to the pub or bookies. Furthermore, young parents are, on the whole, going to be more digitally enabled than the elder generation so a good decision made.

Our first, longer list of nine services is far harder to rationalise. 

The NFSP often returns to a theme about retention of postmaster’s investments in their business. My view is that no business owner has a right to see a return on the amount of money that he or she puts into it. Value and return on investment come from delivering a service that customers need. If you get this right, you don’t need to worry about “protection” of investment.

Unlike the Post Office’s decision to prosecute postmasters, this particular scandal is not one that can be laid at the door of PO. By accident or design the social value of a post office has been continually undermined by government as they force the entirety of society to bend to their digital strategy.

Did someone say we are the front door to government?

A huge government owned asset of 11,500 post offices and an umbrella organisation in the form of PO is squandered day after day. Each service that is taken away reduces the social value and relevance of post offices. 

It is a crime of the first order. 

We need government to look at the real life needs of the millions of people who do use post offices and the hundreds of thousands who, given the choice, would come back through our doors to access government. 

We need PO to be stronger and more forceful with its employer and challenge government to see the value in the unique capability of a branch network that still covers every city, town and many villages in this country and we also need the NFSP to redouble its efforts to think beyond postmasters and focus on what our customers need and lobby for that. 

Compassion and kindness are what we need to come back. Use the technology and IT brains to give us scannable barcodes that allow real life people to come into our post offices and access government through a face that will smile at people, talk to people and ask them how they are.

Tim Allen (Kington Post Office)

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