January 11, 2013 9:35 pm

Police in joint venture talks with Post Office

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The Post Office is in early talks with Scotland Yard and at least 10 other police forces on joint ventures which would see postal staff carry out basic police administration and mini police bureaus set up inside high street post branches.

The idea – spurred by 20 per cent cuts in central government funding to all UK forces – came to light earlier this week when the Metropolitan Police and City Hall announced a Post Office tie-up as part of its £500m savings plan.

But the Financial Times understands the Post Office is also in preliminary discussions with other forces around the country, amid a push by police to find alternative ways to interact with the public so that costly “front counters” in police stations can be closed.

Aides to Boris Johnson, mayor of London, have a crucial meeting next week with the Post Office commercial team on a planned pilot, due to begin in July, in a central London post office.

The trial is likely to involve postal staff being trained to do administrative work on behalf of police, such as taking down lost property reports and checking documents for driving offences. It could also include a prototype for a police presence within post offices, such as a dedicated booth run by civilian police staff.

One of the key issues will be whether the Post Office agrees to put police branding on its shop fronts, so that Scotland Yard has a visible presence on the High Street. The Home Office is understood to have shown an interest in the scheme and will be attending next week’s meeting.

According to the Post Office, which has recently embarked on a £1.34bn programme to modernise about 6,000 branches, the idea originated from the group’s drive to expand its collaboration with the public sector. Martin Moran, commercial director, says one of his priorities is to make the Post Office “the front office for government service”.

“We could conduct large numbers of transactions at a reduced cost for police, and expand our counter services for their use as well,” Mr Moran says.

While the current collaboration between post offices and police may have been forged in austerity, the history of postal forces’ involvement in criminal investigation goes back centuries.

The Post Office Investigations Department, set up to detect offences committed by clerks and letter carriers, such as skimming letters for bank notes, was founded in 1793, 30 years before the Metropolitan Police itself was set up by Sir Robert Peel, then home secretary.

Julian Stray, curator at the British Postal Museum and Archive, describes the current proposals as an “intriguing prospect” and points out that the postal service has constantly had to move with the times.

“The Post Office has had to manage countless new challenges which weren’t around, or addressed, 50 or 100 years ago,” Mr Stray adds, citing examples such as discreet facial screening arrangements for women customers wearing the hijab.

Andy Furey of the Communication Workers’ Union agreed that the proposals could bring potential benefits. “I see it as a way of encouraging more people to do financial business in the Post Office because it’s a secure environment,” he says. “It might discourage loan sharks and others if they know the police are so close to the vulnerable people they are preying on.”

However, Mr Furey said the idea needed “to be properly examined”.

“Our concern is about how the police operations would be integrated into the Post Office. For instance, will this mean longer working hours for staff?”

Among customers at Broadway Post Office, a branch directly opposite the hulking steel structure of New Scotland Yard, responses to the scheme were mixed.

David Donlan, a warden at Kensington Palace, believes it is “nonsense, nonsense”.

“What would happen if they then started closing down Post Offices in some areas? What worries me is, if there was trouble, who would you contact?”

But John Hemming, a local electrician, could not be more enthusiastic.

“I think it’s a blooming good idea, because police stations are so impersonal,” he says. “It would be ideal to come in here and report that your dog’s gone missing or your budgie’s flown off.”

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