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House of Commons

Monday 9 June 2003

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Benefits Payment

1. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): What steps he has taken to ensure that all pensioners have been fully informed about the changes in the methods of paying benefits. [117282]

10. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): What steps the Government have taken to inform pensioners of changes regarding direct payment of benefits. [117292]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): The Department is writing to all affected pensioners. That started in January and will continue for two years. The letters are backed up by a national advertising campaign, an information phone line and advice through the Pension Service so that people can choose the account that suits them best. No one needs to take any action until contacted. We are honouring the pledge to enable people who want to collect their money in cash at the post office to do that. So far, around half of the pensioners who have responded asked for the Post Office card account. All high street banks are offering basic bank accounts, which are, of course, accessible at the post office. Some main accounts will also be accessible.

Mr. Luff : The Post Office card account was to be the salvation of many sub-post offices. Why are sub-post offices not allowed to promote it to their customers? I am delighted that half of them have taken up the offer, but it is a pathetic shadow of what it should have been. I have in my constituency a 91-year-old Royal Mail pensioner who cannot pay her pension into a Post Office card account. Perhaps the Post Office is not allowed to promote it because it is so inadequate.

Mr. Smith: Many sub-postmasters and postmistresses have been energetic in promoting the Post Office card accounts. [Interruption.] As I said, if the hon. Gentleman will listen, in my initial answer, around half of the pensioners who have responded requested the Post Office card account. That hardly points to failure to promote it. All the material that we issue draws the

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account's availability to pensioners' attention. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that it is not our job to tell pensioners or other benefit claimants what form of account they should have. That is up to them. Instead of harking back to the days when people were forced to use the post office, I hope that Conservative Members will embrace modern options that offer more choice, convenience and flexibility, and less fraud.

Tim Loughton: My constituents are doubly interested in the matter. The headquarters of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters is based in my constituency, which also has many pensioners. For many years they have been forced to use post offices, but are happy with that system. They are greatly concerned by proposals to introduce key pads, which, as we warned for many months, are not suitable, especially for those with disabilities and those who rely on the help of sub-postmasters.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that key pads that are deemed not to be disabled-friendly are being ripped out? Will he also state when that will happen, the cost of doing it and the reason for the time it has taken to get around to it? Will he confirm that sub-postmasters and mistresses can continue to help people who need guidance to get the benefits that his ridiculous red tape and bureaucratic nonsense prevent them from obtaining?

Mr. Smith: I will not let the hon. Gentleman's rhetoric get in the way of a sensible answer, because I can reassure him about several points. Like other hon. Members, he knows that 68 per cent. of new pensioners have money paid in to their bank account and that 90 per cent. of pensioners have access to a bank account. That is why the choice that we are making available is so important.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the Post Office is reviewing the PIN pad's adequacy. It is developing a key guard, which will help to guide users who might otherwise have difficulty in using the PIN pad. I assure him that the Post Office will be able to help disabled customers. Moreover, it has put in place specific training programmes to ensure that staff can assist disabled customers.

I assure hon. Members that no one requires those who cannot use the PIN pad to give up their order books. The Post Office is developing alternative technology to ensure that all customers can access cash in the post office in a modern and secure way when the order book is no longer available. We should remember that every week, 100 pensioners have their pension payment books stolen. Modern methods of payment put that theft and fraud behind us.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Is it not the case that, on retiring, many people chose a bank account into which their pension would be paid before direct credit was introduced? Is not it important for the viability of small post offices that they capture the market in banking services?

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have already cited the statistic that 68 per cent. of new pensioners opt to have their pensions paid into bank

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accounts. My hon. Friend is right to say that there is an opportunity for the Post Office to build on the £2 billion that we are making available for investment, including £450 million to sustain rural networks. This is a major opportunity for the Post Office to expand its banking opportunities and to maximise its footfall, thereby guaranteeing a commercially viable future for a service that every hon. Member values enormously.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): This is a complex issue, and it requires a great deal of expenditure of time, effort and money to get across the complexity of the message. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in discussions that my colleagues on the Trade and Industry Committee and I had with Post Office Counters representatives, we were informed that, based on their experience in private banking, those representatives believed that a move of this radical character would need an expenditure of about £100 million on advertising? I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions has made available barely a third of that amount.

Mr. Smith: I greatly welcome the contribution that my hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Select Committee are making to the examination of this important issue. It is rare for a Minister at the Dispatch Box to be urged to spend more money on advertising than he is currently doing. However, before we compare our expenditure on the promotion of the Post Office card account and direct payment with what would be spent in the commercial world, we must remember that we are in a position to write to all our customers, as we shall be doing over the next couple of years. I am satisfied that the £25 million that we have allocated to publicity, including national advertising, is a reasonable allocation. Of course we shall be reviewing progress, and I am sure that my hon. Friend's Select Committee will be keeping the matter closely under review as well. Should it be necessary to vary the advertising budget, or the way in which that is organised in the future, I stand ready to do so.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): The Secretary of State will know that many people—some of whom are among the most vulnerable in our society—are concerned about this change to direct payment, not least because of the fiasco of the PIN pads. Many pensioners are simply unable or unwilling to make the change that the right hon. Gentleman is asking them to make. Ministers have claimed that those people's interests are to be safeguarded by an exceptions service, but I have asked numerous questions about this and Ministers have given no further details about either the timetable or the nature of the service. Will the Secretary of State now give the House an assurance from the Dispatch Box that the exceptions service will be fully up and running throughout the country by 2005? Will he also, at last, reveal what criteria will determine whether someone will qualify for the service? Will it be restricted to those who are medically unable to open or manage an account, or will those with other genuine concerns about direct payment also be included? The Government must now give answers to these questions. If they do not, they will be providing yet more confirmation that the only

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exceptional thing about this whole mess is the exceptional incompetence of the Department for Work and Pensions.

Mr. Smith: The exceptional thing is that such a huge undertaking as the introduction of a universal banking service has got up and running properly and on time. Whatever other criticisms the hon. Gentleman might have, he ought to be congratulating the Post Office and the staff at the Department for Work and Pensions on achieving that. In answer to his questions: yes, we shall have the exceptions service up and running by the time that it is needed, when order books are no longer available. On the criteria, we shall consult closely—as we have done already—with representative groups of older people, disabled people and others to ensure that those criteria are sensible and meet people's needs, so that all those who want to do so can access their cash at the post office, as well as using the other options available to them through bank accounts, building society pass books and cheques.

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