Rather than use my question as an opportunity to talk up the union, communities who are being left without vital Post Office services would rather know what steps the Secretary is taking to protect and grow the Post Office network.
Post Office job losses show that it is at crisis point and that the UK Government is putting yet another valued public service on a pathway to privatisation via managed decline. The UK Government must commit to increasing the subsidy to the Post Office in the upcoming spending review.
So many communities and groups rely on the Post Office’s services – especially the elderly. As banks leave high street, Post Offices play a crucial role in the access to cash.
Post Offices have been especially essential during the Covid pandemic providing services and support locally. The UK Government cannot allow the Post Office network to decline further and deprive communities of these services.
SNP MP Marion Fellows has today called on the UK Government to “set a date in stone” for the review into the Post Office Horizon scandal after the Post Office Ltd CEO told sub-Postmasters that the review may be delayed.
In a written answer to Mrs Fellows on 14 July, Minister Paul Scully MP confirmed that the Chair of the review would be appointed so that they can start the inquiry by September at the latest.
However, in a recent message to sub-Postmasters, Post Office CEO Nick Read said that “the chair of the inquiry will be announced later in the autumn”.
Flaws in the Post Office’s IT system saw sub-Postmasters blamed for accounting errors which led to bankruptcies, jail sentences, and suicide.
On 26 February at PMQs, Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a public inquiry but later u-turned. He instead announced a review which will not be judge-led as called for by the SNP.
Commenting, SNP MP Marion Fellows, Chair of the Post Office All Party Parliamentary Group, said:
“Sub-Postmasters have been fighting long and hard for justice and for the public review into Horizon software. The UK Government cannot delay justice any longer. They must set a date in stone for the Chair to be appointed and the review to begin.
“This is yet more disappointment for sub-Postmasters. The Prime Minister u-turned on his commitment for a public inquiry opting instead for a review. Yet even these watered-down plans may be stalling.
“This has wrecked lives and damaged livelihoods for decades. Ministers cannot carry on waiting and hoping it becomes old news.”
“Sub-Postmasters have been providing essential, frontline services in communities in Scotland and across the UK prior to and during the Covid pandemic. But they are being treated with contempt.
“The Post Office network has reached crisis point due to a multitude of issues. If the UK Government is serious about supporting sub-Postmasters, the Post Office network, and the communities they serve, then they must take the Post Office crisis seriously.”
SNP MP, Marion Fellows, has today written to UK Business Secretary, Alok Sharma MP, to continue the public subsidy of Post Office Ltd to prevent branch closures and to provide clarity on ‘Project Neo’.
Correspondence from Post Office CEO, Nick Reade, says that Post Office Ltd’s Project Neo will aim at “delivering lower costs” and look at the “future size, shape and design” of the network.
The same letter also states that Post Office Ltd will struggle to break even in a year where it has been hit by the Covid crisis and may have to pay out more to sub-Postmasters affected by the Horizon scandal.
In response to a question in Parliament from Mrs Fellows on 16 June, Small Business Minister Paul Scully MP refused to provide assurances to sub-Postmasters and communities that the public subsidy would be extended in the 2020 Spending Review.
Mrs Fellows says the subsidy – worth £50m in 2020/21 – must continue and that Covid and Horizon cannot be allowed to damage the Post Office network, staff and access to community services.
Commenting, Mrs Fellows said:
“The UK Government must take the Post Office off the pathway to privatisation and provide assurances to staff and communities that the public subsidy will be extended.
“Covid-19, Horizon, and years of mismanagement and executive profiteering cannot be used as an excuse to close branches, cut jobs, and deprive communities of key services.
“Project Neo reads like a scheme intent on closing or franchising branches. As the special shareholder to Post Office Ltd, the UK Government must guarantee they will not allow this to happen and provide clarity on Project Neo. The Post Office Access Criteria must be upheld to protect already precarious access to branches.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, sub-Postmasters have proven just how essential they are to communities. They are providing a valued public service. But many are resigning creating a Postmaster crisis. The UK Government must support them.”
Today, SNP MP Marion Fellows has called on the UK Government to continue providing public subsidy to Post Office Ltd after figures reveal Scotland is still being hit hardest by the Postmaster crisis.
Pre-Covid Post Office figures show that as of 31 March, Scotland had the highest number of temporarily closed Post Offices in the UK with 161.
This is a 17% increase since 2019 when Scotland also had the highest number of temporarily closed branches.
Speaking at Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions, Mrs Fellows called on the UK Government to maintain or increase the UK Government’s subsidy of Post Office Ltd to prevent Sub-Postmasters handing in their keys leaving more communities without vital Post Office services.
Post Office Ltd will receive a subsidy of £50m in 2020/21 to keep less profitable branches open. Ministers say that the continuation of the subsidy will be considered as part of the 2020 Spending Review.
Commenting, Mrs Fellows said:
“Communities across Scotland and the rest of the UK are losing access to Post Offices’ vital services as more Sub-Postmasters hand in their keys. The UK Government must take the Post Office off the pathway to privatisation and maintain or increase the public subsidy.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, Sub-Postmasters have proven just how essential they are to communities. But many are resigning creating a Postmaster crisis. They must be supported.
“Scotland is being hit hardest by the Postmaster crisis. This means communities in Scotland – which are some of the most rural – are finding it the hardest to access postal, banking and government services.
“As well as maintaining the subsidy, the UK Government needs to quickly develop a long term and sustainable strategy for the Post Office where branches can be banking and government service hubs.”
Campaigning SNP MP Marion Fellows has renewed calls on the UK government to launch an independent inquiry into its mismanagement of the Post Office Limited network and the Horizon system scandal.Ahead of a Westminster Hall debate today, the SNP MP also urged the UK government to ensure that costs of the Horizon case did not hit those who work in local post offices financially.
Last month, the SNP’s Shadow BEIS spokesperson wrote to the UK government’s BEIS Secretary Alok Sharma calling for an inquiry, and greater oversight into Post Office Limited to prevent a repeat of past mistakes.
The Horizon scandal saw the Post Office Limited pay £58m in an out of court settlement over a faulty accounting system that led to fines, sackings, prosecutions, bankruptcies and jail sentences over the last decade.
Commenting ahead of the debate, SNP MP Marion Fellows said:
“The UK government’s mismanagement of the Post Office network, and its handling of the Horizon scandal, has raised serious concerns. It must now launch an independent inquiry into the Post Office network to protect vital local services and to prevent a repeat of past mistakes.
“The Horizon scandal has spanned decades and it has hit countless postmasters who have been plunged into hardship and faced financial difficulties and imprisonment. The government must right this grievous wrong.
“Boris Johnson seemingly promised an independent inquiry into Post Office Ltd’s handling of the Horizon scandal and is now backtracking on these workers who have been so grievously wronged.
“The Post Office network is vital for local communities, small businesses and rural regions – however services are closing at an alarming rate, with recent figures revealing that Scotland has suffered a net loss of 45 post offices since 2011.
“SNP MPs will continue to challenge the Tory government to live up to its role and responsibilities as the special shareholder of Post Office Ltd, and to protect our public services.
“The UK government can no longer sit on its hands – it must launch an independent investigation and ensure such miscarriages of justice can never happen again.”
The Tories are driving the Post Office – yet another valued public service – into the ground through a privatisation regime of managed decline. Post Offices must remain in public hands.
It isn’t surprising that branches remain closed for so long. We are in the midst of a Postmaster crisis. They are getting such a poor deal that many of them are looking to hand in their keys.
While staff suffer and communities go without, Post Office Ltd has been celebrating increased profits. As the Special Shareholder, the UK Government cannot simply allow the market to dictate the future of a valued public service. They must intervene.
So many communities rely on Post Offices. Vulnerable groups and rural communities especially rely on them for financial inclusion. The closure of larger, public Crown branches has undermined the Post Office as a community hub for services. Post Offices need investment so they can become a central point for government services and banking services for people and small businesses.
I’m extremely proud to announce that I have been elected as a Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Post Offices.
Post Offices are a vital public service which deserves investment and respect – not managed decline as we are seeing from the UK Government.
I have fought for communities and staff since elected and I am proud that sustained pressure has forced the UK Government to commit to millions of pounds more funding, but so much more must be done to ensure Post Offices remain at the forefront of our high streets and communities.
The SNP has welcomed the news that the Post Office has agreed to pay hundreds of former staff £58m in settlement fees over a faulty accounting system which led to fines, sackings, prosecutions, bankruptcies and jail sentences over the last decade.
The SNP led the call for the UK government to step in and address the legal strategy, which saw over £18m of public funding pay the legal fees to defend the case.
This settlement was announced on 12 December – the day of the election – which the SNP MP Marion Fellows claims was an attempt by the UK government to “bury the story.”
Mrs Fellows warned that the cost of this settlement must not threaten the integrity of the post office network – which has been at risk owing to shockingly low pay levels. This year thousands of post offices have faced closure over cuts from the UK Government.
Commenting, Mrs Fellows said:
“I am glad that the UK Government heeded the SNP’s calls to review its legal strategy and reach a £58m settlement to compensate sub-postmasters for the hell they’ve been put through – they deserve justice.
“As the special shareholder of Post Office Ltd, the UK Government should have stepped in sooner. Workers have been hounded for over ten years due to a fault in Post Office Ltd’s own accounting system.
“It is disgraceful that they tried to bury this news on election day. This is yet another example of how the UK Government is failing our valued public services and the people who work in them.
“While sub-postmaster pay stagnates and thousands of branches have closed or will, tens of millions has been wasted in legal fees. Funds should have been used to re-open Crown branches, improve pay, and keep branches open so they can continue to serve communities.”
Former MP for the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency and the SNP’s candidate, Marion Fellows, will vow to keep fighting to protect Post Office branches in local communities if re-elected on the 12th of December.
Mrs Fellows spearheaded the campaign in Parliament to improve remuneration for Subpostmasters as thousands across Scotland and the rest of the UK threatened to hand in their keys as executive paypackets soared.
Mrs Fellows has previously met with Subpostmasters to hear firsthand how they feel about the new rates and if enough has been done to support them and protect the network from closures.
Mrs Fellows successfully pressured Post Office Ltd into a £37m package for Subpostmasters through improved subsidies and rates enabling them to stay in their posts.
She also pressured Barclay’s bank into a u-turn so customers can continue to make free cash withdrawals from Post Offices to protect financial inclusion; and ensured the UK Government continued Biometric Residence Permit collections in branches.
Last month at the SNP Conference, Mrs Fellows led calls for the Post Office to remain in public hands and for Royal Mail to be renationalised. She also called for branches to act as banking and government service hubs to ensure access to free cash withdrawals and vital services.
Commenting, Mrs Fellows said:
“Protecting our valued public services like the Post Office network from the managed decline and privatisation of profit driven Tories has been a key priority of mine and I have been succeeding for our Subpostmaster and communities. Our public services – like Royal Mail – must be in public hands so they can serve the public.
“If re-elected as the MP for Motherwell and Wishaw, I want to continue fighting to protect and improve our Post Office network so they can continue to provide the services communities rely on. This must include the re-opening of larger Crown branches like the one that closed in central Motherwell.
“The fight isn’t over. The Post Office network was at crisis point and it’s still in a precarious position. As banks leave our high streets and ATMs begin charging fees, people – especially vulnerable people – must have free access to cash. Post Offices can become banking and service hubs so that they can remain core to our communities.”