|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
[Relevant documents: Eleventh Report from the Trade and Industry Committee, Session 200203, on People, Pensions and Post Offices, HC 718, and the Government's response thereto, HC 1102; and the Department for Trade and Industry Departmental Report 2003, Cm 5916.]
[This Vote on Account is to be considered in so far as it relates to the modernisation of the post office network, with particular reference to the impact on post offices of the direct payment of pensions (Resolution of 2 December).]
When preparing for our debate, I went through my files and discovered that the Trade and Industry Committee, which I have chaired for eight years, has been looking at this issue since the mid-1990s. On about seven occasions we have taken evidence and reports have been produced, and we shall doubtless revisit the issue in the coming weeks and months. Our 11th report for the Session 200203, HC 718, was published on 17 July and the response from the Secretary of State appeared on 23 September. That response identified our two main areas of concern. For the purposes of debate, it may be better to focus on the concerns that the Government identified rather than on those that we identified, but I am sure that other Members will seek to widen our discussion.
The Government identified two main areas of concernthe unnecessarily complicated procedure for opening a post office account, and the character of the customer information provided by the Department for Work and Pensions, which was considered insufficient for people who were applying for a card account.
I recognise that in some respects, therefore, the responsibility for answering these charges lies at the door of the Department for Work and Pensions, as much as with the Department of Trade and Industry. I entirely understand the reason for the absence abroad of my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services, and I welcome the Under-Secretary
There is a degree of consensus about offering the option of direct payment of welfare benefits. It is technically possible to pay salaries and private pensions into people's bank accounts, so why not extend that to state pensions and a range of social security benefits? Since the proposal was first mooted in the past decade, the practice has become more common as more recipients have come to recognise the advantages of automatic teller machines and the like.
The Government have long felt that the cost of providing benefit books is excessive, and as theft, forgery and general fraud have increased, the need to counter them has become ever more expensive. It has been suggested that that represents a cost to the taxpayer of some £80 million. It should be stressed, however, that there is no ministerial statement, and no consensus, on how much will be saved by the introduction of swipe cards, direct payments and so on.
A sizeable number of people find it convenient to take their books to the post office and receive their benefit in cash over the counter. They include mothers who receive child benefit and who, although they may have a bank account of their own or have joint arrangements with their spouse or partner, may prefer to have accessfor example, on a Saturday morningto money that they have earmarked for specific purposes, such as children's clothing.
The late Barbara Castle, as the Minister introducing the measure in the 1970s, stressed that the nature of the payment was important, as it would go exclusively to the mum, and would be spent independently of the rest of the family income. As I know from experience in my constituency, there are still men who do not tell their wives how much they earn, and who have a bank account of their own and hand out the money with a teaspoon at irregular intervals. Child benefit is important because it gives young mothers financial independence.
There are others who just like going to the post office. It is an outing. Pensioners meet their friends and contemporaries there, and they can buy post office goods, such as stamps for their TV licence, and make utility payments.
Mr. Waterson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a matter not just of wanting to go to the post office but of finding one that is still open? Five post offices have closed in my constituency. Does he agree that we should examine the consultation process involved in such closures, which in my experience has been wholly inadequate?
There is a more important group covering the entire range of benefit recipients, including pensioners and mothers, who are dependent on the post office as the source of their family or individual income. Anyone who passes a post office at 8.30 on a Monday morning will see those who need their benefits to buy the day's food, to heat their home, to pay their debt collectors or to get money to get to work. I have no problem with the Government's programmes to end child poverty, which we discussed in the previous debate, or to improve social inclusion. A number of people still live on the economic margins, however, and have no cushion of savings. Such people do not have money in an envelope behind the clock and do not have bank accounts or credit cards. For them, a hole in the wall is merely a hole in the wall, and they do not have access to ATMs and the like. I make that point because we contend that, for many people, the processes of securing alternative means of payment are at best daunting and at worst unhelpful. The agenda of the DWP-instructed call centre staff is unduly biased towards securing maximum take-up of direct payment.
Internal memos provided to me by the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and the Communication Workers Union make it clear that the attitude is hardening. In respect of a Jobcentre Plus pay modernisation project, I have a document from a Mr. Alan Linton dated 7 October in which he states:
The Post Office card account is probably the best compromise, and I think that the DTI and Post Office Counters have sought to introduce it with reasonably good intentions. The DWP, however, has made applying for the account more difficult and complicated and has been able to load the choice system with active discouragement. Postwatch, the postal consumer watchdog, put it succinctly, saying that
The DWP's response to those suggestions by the consumer watchdog for postal services has been somewhat slow, or tardythe vulgar among us might suggest other expressionsbut suffice to say that it was, simply, "Get lost." A proposal by the body that is charged with protecting consumers at post offices is dismissed because it would probably result in too many people taking it up and undermine the cost-effectiveness of the grand design.