Sinn Féin South Down MLA Willie Clarke, who was the Vice Chairperson on the Assembly Ad Hoc Committee looking at proposed Post Office closures has said that the consultation process was a sham.
The committee made a number of recommendations, including:
- The suspension of the programme of closures.
- An investigation of the potential of partnerships with local councils, health service providers, retailers, Citizens Advice Bureau, etc for the delivery of services.
- Giving local post offices the flexibility to have opening hours and services that reflect the individual needs of the community they serve.
Mr Clarke said:
"The consultation process was nothing less than a sham. Only six weeks were allocated when the accepted period for consultation is twelve weeks. We also have had the situation when many Post Offices have already been notified of their future. What we had was a bogus process with a pre-determined outcome.
"There was also no attempt at direct engagement by Post Office Ltd with local communities who use the services and would be directly affected by any changes.
"The Committee also wrote to Post Office Ltd and to the Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform expressing its grave concern at the limited consultation and requesting an extension to enable the Committee to consult on this issue further. This request was denied.
"Local communities were not involved in mapping need and shaping how this need might be met through an existing branch or outreach services. If local communities had been more involved in this process, there may have been more opportunity to develop creative and imaginative solutions.
"I also believe that the statistical analysis used by Post Office Ltd as applied to the population as a whole does not reflect any regional variations. The access criteria were applied as the crow flies which is totally unrealistic. The definition used for urban and rural was not the definition normally used here where we have some of the highest levels of social deprivation in urban settings.
"Insufficient consideration was given to the impact of the closures on vulnerable members of our society in terms of access to services, social inclusion, ability to travel to other post offices and the additional costs associated with this. The social importance of the post office network must not be underestimated.
"Sinn Féin are concerned at the loss of what is, for some, their only social network leading to further isolation, lack of involvement, the loss of independence. Working in conjunction with other service providers the post office could enhance the range of services available and tailor them to meet the needs of the local communities.
"Much of the focus has been on rural communities. However the closures in Belfast are in areas with high concentrations of deprivation and will adversely affect the most vulnerable and socially excluded sections of the community. While Post Office Ltd appears to have adhered to the minimum access criteria prescribed this does not reflect the difficulties that the distance can place on older people or people on low incomes who do not have access to a car.
"The committee has made a number of recommendations, including:
- The suspension of the closure programme in the North of Ireland;
- further and more wider consultation;
- A commitment to ensure that the needs of vulnerable members of society are met;
- An investigation of the potential of partnerships with local councils, health service providers, retailers, Citizens Advice Bureau, etc for the delivery of services;
- An examination of services and delivery mechanisms in other countries
• Giving local post offices the flexibility to have opening hours and services that reflect the individual needs of the community they serve;
- Engagement with government departments, service providers and voluntary organisations to develop innovative ways to use post offices to disseminate information and services.