That is spot on, because there is a question of sustainability for postmasters. We know that a huge number of previous Crown post offices have been transitioned to franchise partners, and we are seeing evidence that those partners may no longer find the offering attractive. Interestingly, Martin Kearsley, the banking director of Post Office Ltd, gave evidence to the Treasury Committee. When questioned on whether the Post Office makes a profit by offering basic banking services on behalf of providers, he answered:
“It does not currently. We are in discussions with the banks to change that position…What we do is charge the banks for the provision of the network and the transactions their customers do with us. We then share that model with our postmasters.”
We know that profitability is an issue for postmasters, but it is not the only one. When questioned about the fairness of postmasters having to offer banking services, Mr Kearsley said:
“we have seen a huge increase in the amount of cash coming into our branches. That is challenging, we recognise that and we are working hard to address it. That means postmasters spend a lot of time counting cash. We have provided new equipment to try to help. We have modernised and streamlined the processes, so that that can be done more effectively and rapidly, but we recognise that that is a challenge for them right now and we continue to innovate to fix those problems.”
The question is how on earth we can reasonably expect the post office network to pick up the slack from banks that have abandoned their customers, when the current model is demonstrably not sustainable.
That leads on to the question of the level of service provided. Although many everyday banking transactions can be completed at post offices, there are restrictions on what can and cannot be done. There are limits on deposits and withdrawals, for example. Currently, only 5% of consumers withdraw cash, and 2% deposit cash, primarily at a post office, and there is anecdotal evidence from Citizens Advice to suggest that level of service may be a major factor in that.
The lack of regulation is also concerning. While banks are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, the Post Office is not. Banking customers are not necessarily Post Office customers, so the same duty of care simply does not exist. Let us face it: franchise holders are in this to make a living, and banking is not profitable for them. When staffing and training costs are factored in, banking can be loss-making for post offices. All things considered, while I am sure that some postmasters will go above and beyond, they are certainly not compelled or incentivised to do so.
When all is considered, it is little surprise, then, that post offices suddenly close. There are 35 fewer permanent post offices in Scotland today than there were in 2011. On top of that, communities continue to be plagued by temporary closures. In my own constituency, Tollcross post office closed in December 2017. Although the Post Office calls it a temporary closure, in reality it has still not found someone willing to take the service on, 14 months later. That is just one community suddenly left without service.
In the neighbouring constituency of Rutherglen and Hamilton West, I gather that the post office in Rutherglen closed suddenly without explanation last June, leaving thousands of people without service in what is a highly populated area with a busy high street. In the Glasgow North West constituency, the Dumbarton Road post office closed suddenly in November last year, with local residents left in the lurch ever since. When these offices shut, there is no replacement service. The Post Office does not offer a mobile service in the interim. There is no universal service obligation in place to ensure that an alternative service is offered on a temporary basis while the problem is fixed. In reality, communities are simply left without.