Lindsay Mackie is a consultant at nef. She is leading nef’s post office campaign and works on Clone Town and Ghost Town Britain.
The Post Office consultation announced today is a most baffling affair. It’s billed by Lord Mandelson and his department as containing “exciting proposals” on which he wants our views. He wants to see the Post Office at the forefront of mortgage provision and he says it is “ideally placed to bring banking services to the heart of people’s communities”.
The consultation will ask us if we want the Post Office to have its own current account, a children’s savings account, business accounts, the ability to manage our money on a weekly budgeting account, and links between the Post Office and credit unions.
The department for business, innovation and skills (BIS) also wants the banks that don’t allow their current accounts to be accessed at the Post Office – hang your heads RBS and HSBC – to do so. (They could just tell them to do it – why consult us?)
The thing is though, these proposals are good. The Post Office should adopt all of them, and has indeed in the past announced that it will, for instance, offer current accounts. The big criticism is they don’t go nearly far enough. A Post Bank – where all the profits go back into the Post Office and are not halved with the Bank of Ireland as at present – would be a really practical and visionary step. It would introduce diversity into the banking system too.
So why have a consultation? These are mainly business proposals that would extend the Post Office’s thriving and well-run financial services. It’s hard to see the populace rising up in indignation at the idea of Post Office children’s savings accounts. (“How outrageous. I am so against this!”). It’s not like that. Why are we having a three-month consultation on financial developments?
If BIS was serious about quickly expanding and strengthening the Post Office it would say to Alan Cook, its head, that he should just get on with providing these sensible and desirable new services. Whether people want them or not will show up in the market. At nef and in the Post Bank Coalition we think that people love and trust the Post Office and will use these new offers and thus make these extended financial services popular.
The consultation is really worrying on two counts. The main one is that these mouse-like developments – in fact any self-respecting mouse would have a bolder vision than this – don’t tackle the neglect and the lack of government support from which the Post Office has suffered for decades. A third of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have seen their revenues decline in the last year. This is just not sustainable. The government has recognised today that the Post Office is a great British institution but it needs to treat it like one.
That means that it doesn’t need this consultation (reporting cunningly just before the election, when the long grass will be even longer) but it does need to follow the excellent advice of the BIS select committee report last July – on, yes, the future of the Post Office. Having massively consulted, it concluded that financial services should be expanded and that, crucially, the government must put its business through post offices and recognise the Post Office’s potential as an unparalleled social, community and economic network.
Mandelson’s department needs to be more radical, more profoundly committed to strengthening the Post Office, more committed to helping small businesses have the financial advice and help they need, than is allowed for by these virtuous proposals. Consulting us on a Post Bank, on using Northern Rock, on making the Post Office the public alternative to our present dreadful banking system – now that would be worth consulting on.