The government has been accused of bulldozing through proposals to close post offices in Northern Ireland and running roughshod over residents’ concerns.
Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons’ powerful Public Accounts Committee, said the so-called consultation was a “sham” and a “feeble” attempt to communicate with people.
The damning indictment came in response to a report by government spending watchdog, the National Audit Office. It criticised the handling of closures which caused resentment among customers.
Mr Leigh said: “Given the crucial importance to many in the community of a local post office, I am amazed at the attempts to communicate with people.
“The consultation period lasted only a few weeks and research showed that just 18% of people knew they were being consulted. I regard the consultation as little more than a sham; the department ran roughshod over local residents' concerns and bulldozed the proposals through.”
The Post Office announced 42 branches in Northern Ireland had been earmarked to be completely shut down, with 54 set to operate through “a form of outreach service” as part of a slimming down of 2,500 branches across the country.
As of March, only 87% of the 500 outreach services across the UK were up and running and 2,383 post offices had been closed.
Mr Leigh said despite the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) being efficient in driving forward the closure programme it had been less successful in protecting customers as the government promised.
“What of the promises to protect customers? The outreach services are late, and the refurbishments to help remaining post offices cope with increased demand have not been carried out in almost 4 out of 10 cases,” he said.
The closure programme is part of a bigger initiative to change the post office service and aims to save £298m before 2011, then an annual saving of £293m. Mr Leigh fears annual savings will only reach £45m — 15% of the estimated cutback.
He concluded: “We still do not know, moreover, what the real cost to rural and urban communities will be of destroying a traditional social service.”
Yesterday’s report said BERR had largely met its targets but still had vital work to do over the late running of outreach services.
Government has promised funding of “up to £1.7bn until 2011 to continue to support the network” and to enable the Post Office “to modernise and rationalise”.