Government slammed over post office closures

The government was last night accused of showing a lack of concern for rural communities in the aftermath of the closure of thousands of post offices.

The government was last night accused of showing a lack of concern for rural communities in the aftermath of the closure of thousands of post offices.

A report from a cross-party group of MPs will today reveal that ministers failed to fully assess the social and economic costs of the branch office cull by the Post Office Ltd last year.

The Commons public accounts committee found that only a small percentage of residents were aware of the 'window dressing' public consultations to shut their post offices and the concerns of local people were 'in effect ignored'.

A Norfolk MP yesterday said the closure programme, which saw the loss of 2,500 branches, including 58 in Norfolk and west Suffolk, appeared to have been 'worked out on the back of an envelope.'

The report also calls on the government and the Post Office to improve consultations over future service cuts to prevent the process being brought into 'disrepute'.

It also emerged that the assessment of the social and economic impact of the closures by the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills was 'inadequate' after officials based their research on information that was three years out of date.

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Richard Bacon, MP for South Norfolk, who is a member of the public accounts committee, last night said it seemed 'very odd' that the government had not properly reviewed the cost of axing the hub of many villages and towns.

'Communities now lamenting the loss of their local post office will be angered that the government's decision to swing the axe was not based on up-to-date research, but on old data that did not examine the damage that closures would do.

'Because the number of closures had already been fixed, the few people who knew about the consultation period saw it as little more than a way of giving the closure programme a thin veneer of legitimacy,' he said.

The Commons report comes after the government agreed to a �1.7bn strategy in 2007 to make the post office network financially stable, which will include a �150m annual subsidy until 2011.

The MPs also criticised the local consultation phase of the programme after it emerged that only 18pc of people were aware that their post offices were at risk during the initial proposals in 2007.

Andy Burrows, from postal watchdog Consumer Focus, yesterday called on the government to deliver a plan to help the post office network thrive.

'Clear lessons must be learned from the failings of the closure programme. Post Office Ltd's inability to communicate well with customers made a difficult situation much worse. After the pain of so many closures, the UK deserves a modern, viable post office network that meets the needs of the communities it serves,' he said.

Minister for Postal Affairs Lord Young, said the government would not support another round of cuts to the remaining 11,500 post offices, of which there are 338 in Norfolk.

'The post office closures which have taken place over the past year were difficult but necessary to reduce losses in a network that was losing half a million pounds a day and to ensure the viability of the rest of the network,' he said.

'Now that the closures have taken place and Post Office Ltd is on a more sound financial footing, the government has made it clear that it will not support another round of post office closures.'

A spokesman for the Post Office denied that there had been a lack of consultation and said there had been 30 public meetings in the Norfolk network area.

'We know that any post office closure is always very difficult for the customers and communities affected, but we have implemented the government's policy as sensitively as possible throughout the programme,' a statement said.