Protesters rally to save post offices

LORNA MARSH East Anglian post office managers and customers joined thousands of others from around the UK to call on the government to save the “lifeline” service.

LORNA MARSH

East Anglian post office managers and customers joined thousands of others from around the UK to call on the government to save the “lifeline” service.

Scores from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire descended by the coachload on London helping to deliver a record four million-signature petition to Downing Street to avert a crisis in the post office network.

The petition is supported by an Early Day Motion signed by 400 MPs, the biggest in recent history.

Prime minister Tony Blair spoke to the assembled subpostmasters and customers claiming sympathy but promising nothing concrete.

Under a sea of red umbrellas with the words “save our post offices” picked out in gold, the rally called for number 10 to prevent closures and post offices being stripped of key services.

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Campaigners say the National Federation of SubPostmasters (NFSP) call for urgent action to safeguard post offices is the largest petition ever presented to a British prime minister.

Supporters, including the original forces' sweetheart, Dame Vera Lynn claim that plans to the network threaten to rip the heart out of local communities as post offices lose much-needed income.

They want a U-turn on the decision to withdraw the Post Office Card Account (POCA), used by millions to access pensions and benefits.

And campaigners call for a workable plan for the future of rural post offices, including an urgent renewal of the subsidy.

Cley post office is just one of several recent closures which has hit an elderly rural community hard, with many having to be transported to nearby towns instead of being able to walk a matter of yards.

Declaring that “it's time the Government started listening to the people who use and depend on their post office,” Age Concern's director general Gordon Lishman said: “Thousands of older people across the country are worried about their local post office being forced to close down”.

Mr Lishman added: “Post offices play a vital role in local communities and provide much more than just a postal service.

“Our research shows that 99pc of older people in rural areas consider their local post office a lifeline with many being extremely concerned about the Post Office Card Account being withdrawn.”

John Smith, president of the Norwich branch of the NFSP, said: “The problem is the government keep taking away these services - they got us into this mess, it's up to them to sort it out.

“Everybody's glad we have made our stand on it but we're still awaiting some positive action from the government on it.”

Norwich North MP Ian Gibson, who met with members of the NFSP Norwich branch and signed the Early Day Motion, said: “I am absolutely on the side of post offices, they have been stitched up completely.”

The post office network is losing £200 million a year and the Government is widely expected to require some closures as part of a subsidy renewal agreement.

The government says the 800 smallest post offices are used by an average of 16 people a week and the rural network is currently supported by an annual subsidy of £150m.

The number of post offices has fallen from 18,393 in 1999 to 14,376 in 2005, according to Postwatch, the postal service's consumer body.

The internet revolution means that many people can complete transactions online but some customers want the choice of an over-the-counter service.

Chris Kaufman, the T and G union's national secretary for agriculture said: “We need the Government to clearly understand the balance sheet approach to rural services is not the right one. The social and economic cost of not having rural post offices should be the starting point.”

Mr Blair ruled out any increase in the state subsidy to support the Post Office network, which he said was currently running at £150m a year and had totalled £2bn since 1997.

Conservative leader David Cameron urged Mr Blair to reprieve Post Office card accounts, warning that scrapping them could deliver a “last and fatal blow” to the network.

Mr Blair told MPs: “I totally understand this is a concern to people. Of course it is.

“But the reason there is a problem is that more and more people are using bank accounts rather than the Post Office and it is important, therefore, to realise that there is a process of change that any government would have to handle in this situation.”