Argus title : Argus title : Post Office politics
We are often told we need to ‘embrace change’ – which is fine so long as the change is worthwhile. Unfortunately it frequently isn’t. All too often change is introduced to build a career or make a quick buck. So when politicians warn that an institution or a system needs to be ‘modernised’ sensible workers watch their backs and customers their pockets.
When I was a teenager the UK had a comprehensive railway network which served rural areas; an NHS and a nursing system to be proud of; and schools and universities which were the envy of the world. Now, these once great institutions struggle from crisis to crisis.
Individualism and self interest, private profit and the ‘principles of competition’ – peddled by politicians of all 3 political parties – have undermined our great public services. A few people have made fortunes, but most of us have been left behind. The poor and the old have suffered most. And it is they who are most at risk from the latest attacks upon one of our greatest public institutions – the Post Office.
The Argus recently reported that between 1999 and 2004, 21% of Britain’s post offices closed – and that that was before planned closure of 3,000 branches. In 2003 the Government withdrew pension books and obliged pensioners to set up accounts. This was a terrible blow to post offices. Not only did staff have to deal with the distress and confusion of elderly customers who did not understand or want the new system, it led to a loss of 40% of their business.
As a concession, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) introduced Post Office account cards to replace benefit books for pensioners who did not want to open bank accounts. Now these too are to be brought to an end by 2010. Elderly people report that they are already being pressurised to open bank accounts they have said before they do not want. Many believe this is evidence of a government plan to kill off traditional community post offices.
I know the Preston Road post office well. I’ve stood in the queue there and listened while staff have dealt patiently and respectfully with inquiries from a range of different people, from young mothers to addicts desperate for money, confused elderly people, customers with disabilities and others with serious mental health problems.
I decided to visit the post office to ask the owners about their work and their concerns for the future. Usha and Prakash Patel run the post office while Anne Goatcher, their assistant, cares for the small shop. The easy stream of banter between the Patels and Anne is evidence of years of friendship.
From her vantage point buy the door Anne watches everything and misses little. She knows almost everyone. Not long ago, I observed 2 shocked school children come in for sanctuary, when one of them had been attacked by an adult outside. I watched Anne calmly care for him – and then walk to the door to make it clear to whoever might be lurking outside that the boy was under her protection. She’s a peaceable woman, but I wouldn’t fancy the chances of any street thug against her.
Not all customers are in difficulty. While I was there 2 young men burst in to the store, demanding sweets. It was comical and charming to see them, grown men in their twenties or early thirties who looked like nothing so much as a pair of local Del Boys, laughing and joking while they bought their daily sweet ration. Simon (or was it Kevin) told me “We work up the road. We come in every day for our sweets..and a bit of banter every day.”
The Patels and Anne – and several customers – describe the post office as being “like a community centre”. All express concern about the plight of elderly people.
Usha said: “Some old people don’t get out of their homes all week except to get their pensions. They get to know us and gradually they start to tell us their feelings, if they have news or if they’re scared. They like what is familiar. One old man, in his 80s, he has moved far away, but he gets the bus to come here to cash his pension.”
I was stunned by the range of time-consuming unofficial services and simple kindnesses which the staff provide unquestioningly to elderly people. “We are happy to do it” Usha said “you don’t need to write about it.” I didn’t agree.
Anne and Prakash told me about one elderly lady in her 80s who had received a large crossed cheque. She had no bank account, but had bills to pay and badly needed the money. She burst into tears when Prakash informed her that he could not cash it. On her behalf, they telephoned and wrote to the Pensions Service and persuaded staff there to send an uncrossed cheque – which they were able to cash.
Prakash added: “People bring their bills here to pay and we check them. For example, one very elderly woman wanted to pay £100 off a gas bill. She hadn’t realised she was actually in credit by that much. I had to sort it out.”
The Patels can’t understand why the government forced pensioners to give up their pension books, with such apparent indifference to the distress it would cause.
They described the hours of work they all had to do to help pensioners to use the new system. Usha said: “We would help them fill in the forms, but they would make mistakes. They’d have filled in the form in blue pen so I’d go over it again in black. Then they might have written outside the boxes. If they did that and sent the form off, the computer system would reject the claim. People used to come in here in tears. We ended up doing most of the applications.”
Many of the customers they helped to transfer their pensions now rarely see them. These were pensioners with existing bank accounts. They worry about them.
Those they still see regularly are those who chose to open PO card accounts. Many of these are very frail and struggled to get used to the new cards. Some can’t see well enough to tap in their pin numbers. Others can’t remember their Pin numbers and risk mugging by writing them down or reading them out.
Several have complained that the DWP has begun pressurising them to give up the post office card accounts they’re just beginning to get used to and open bank accounts. Prakash said “We advise everyone that if they don’t want their money to go into a bank they just send their letter back with a handwritten note across it saying they want to keep the account card.”
I asked Usha what happened when old people forgot their Pin numbers or lost cards. She said “There’s a telephone helpline to ring, but there’s always a long wait and the system is confusing. So we help them if they want us to. We help them get through on the phone and then leave them to it. Sometimes it takes a long time. It’s very worrying for them.”
I asked Usha who paid for these calls. “We do” she replied, looking rather embarrassed
I asked them what they would say to Tony Blair if he came into the PO. Ann said “I’d say come and live in the real world and see how real people live, and only then make changes.”
Usha said quietly: “I’d tell them to keep the small post offices.” Prakash added “They should support the community. In the old days everyone in a street knew everyone else. Old people had family near them and people they knew. Now they don’t, so all they’ve got is us.”
In the 1960s arrogant politicians decided that the Britain’s fine national railway network could be dismantled. Small railway lines and stations were closed and we were encouraged to use cars. Gridlock and environmental pollution resulted.
Now, another set of arrogant politicians is dismantling one more great institution. Small post offices are to close and we are commanded to use banks. The social consequences for many elderly and vulnerable people are likely to be catastrophic.
Tragically, there was no effective resistance to railway closure. Perhaps, 40 years on, we may find the wisdom and courage to defend our great Post Office system, and with it, some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
In so doing we would be privileged to stand alongside some of the finest and most committed workers in the land