by Andrew Fraser, CAS policy officer (Strong Communities team).
This column was first published in the Herald on 14 July 2021.
While our society becomes ever-more reliant on digital communication, the traditional postal system is still vitally important for many people.
If you can’t use the internet – for whatever reason – or if you are in some way vulnerable, then access to post is not just a convenience, it is essential.
So, over the last few months Citizens Advice Scotland has been examining whether certain vulnerable groups have adequate access to their post. We commissioned some polling and some research, looking at asylum seekers, survivors of domestic abuse, homeless people, and members of the Gypsy/Traveller community, as well as those who live in remote rural locations and how they access their letters and parcels.
Post is vital for these groups as it is their link with government agencies, health bodies, legal organisations and education services – as well as many of their social contacts. So, poor access can have serious repercussions, e.g. causing people to miss health appointments, build up debt and miss offers of jobs or housing.
Over the last eighteen months COVID - and its associated restrictions - have had a big impact on how people in Scotland access their post. Delayed deliveries, and limited access to Post Offices and Royal Mail depots were common as postal services scrambled to operate in a pandemic world.
In particular, COVID has affected the way that vulnerable people accessed their post. For survivors of domestic abuse, they had less opportunity to have their letters and parcels delivered to an alternative address away from their home, such as their work or another collection point. The pandemic has made this more difficult, which has resulted in the perpetrators of abuse having a greater opportunity to intercept their mail.
Meanwhile, the COVID crisis also saw many homeless people moved into shared accommodation such as hotels and B&Bs, with central mail collection points. And where Gyspy/Travellers were reliant on-site offices to collect mail, these offices often operated reduced hours during the restrictions.
But COVID is not the only factor that has hurt peoples’ ability to access their mail. Certainly, it has presented particular challenges, but our research has told us that there are endemic problems that existed long before COVID came along. Many of these are caused by the infrastructure, or the inflexible working practices, of some key organisations and services.
For instance, asylum seekers, new refugees and those without permanent housing are moved around so much that it can be difficult to track every address they’ve stayed at, meaning their mail can easily go missing.
Homeless people can move up to ten times a year. And yet, in order to find permanent housing, they need a permanent address to get important correspondence from housing providers and support agencies. This is a particularly cruel irony which has made it hard for many homeless people to get permanent accommodation.
Meanwhile, asylum seekers can be moved across the UK without much notice. In our research we heard of one man who was given an hour’s notice before being moved from Glasgow to Newcastle. Such disruption makes it difficult to effectively forward and keep track of your mail – which again will include important information e.g. from the Home Office or immigration services.
On some (though not all) Gypsy/ Traveller sites, mail is delivered to the site office for collection, rather than being delivered to individual pitches. However, where these offices are only open during working hours this can lead to delays in people receiving their mail, which is less than ideal for those awaiting important and/or time-sensitive correspondence.
We also heard further evidence that rural residents are receiving second-rate services compared to people in urban areas. The ever-present issue of parcel surcharging continues to hamper rural residents’ access to goods, with some delivery companies refusing to deliver to certain areas. CAS has worked on this issue for a number of years. It is complex and there are a number of players involved, including retailers and delivery operators. However, there is detriment being caused to rural consumers in Scotland and this needs to change.
So how do we solve all the problems with access to post? There isn’t one quick fix, but there are solutions to each of these individual problems. And in fact, the changes needed are within reaching distance.
One thing that would help in most of these situations is for redirection services to be more affordable. In the polling conducted by YouGov for CAS, 61% of people surveyed said that current redirection prices were too expensive. Yet redirection services are meant to be a key part of the solution to the problems we’ve outlined, so cost may be a barrier for some vulnerable people to access these services.
Making it easier to use ‘alternative’ addresses, including community centres, libraries, Pick-up and Drop-off points, etc would benefit several vulnerable groups, including those who move around regularly and those who are at risk of having their mail intercepted. CAS would like to see financial institutions, utility companies and government agencies take a more flexible approach to using alternative addresses, as this would make a huge difference to many people. At the moment there is a sense of stigma from Government agencies and utility companies around these addresses. This is unnecessary and must come to an end.
For the sake of some of our most vulnerable in society, we must make positive changes which allow them better access to their post. If we can come together to do this then it is a win for all of us.
Our full report, ‘Delivering for all: How vulnerable groups access post in Scotland,’ is available to read here.