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Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): The position is even worse than my hon. Friend describes. A constituent of mine had to fill in four application forms before receiving the card, and another, who completed all the procedures punctiliously, was then subjected to the usual catechism of hard sell about the alternatives.

Mr. Todd: My hon. Friend is right. That seems to be many people's experience.

The Select Committee report touches on another matter, although it does not bring out all the relevant aspects. The problem has to do with the collection by a nominated person of another person's pension. At the moment, people can obtain an extra card, which can be given to a trustee of some kind who can collect the benefit on their behalf.

The difficulty is that pension or benefits recipients cannot rely on only one person in those circumstances. For instance, the nominated person involved may not always be available to obtain the money when the recipient cannot do it personally. That is a real risk for any such arrangement.

I have already debated the development of an exceptions service in correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), who has left the Front-Bench firing line for a moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), the Chairman of the Select Committee, has given that service a hesitant commendation for the progress that has been made, but I think that the Government response on the matter has been poor. They have said that they did not want to design an exceptions service before seeing the whole system in operation, but that they would set something up based on that experience. Of course, I would expect some flexibility, based on experience, in any service, but I would not expect no design to be in place to deal with entirely predictable exceptions before the scheme was launched. That stems from an attempt to introduce the scheme without

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dealing with, as my hon. Friend put it, the cussed and those in genuine difficulty, of whom there are many. I am indebted to one of my constituents, Mrs. Smedley from Aston-on-Trent, who described the experience of someone who collects pensions on behalf of other people and the difficulties that might arise.

I also wish to comment on the change programme for the Post Office, and on that point I am indebted to Mrs. Mason, the sub-postmistress in Hilton. As an enterprising lady, she wishes to develop the service she provides further, but she was appalled by the standard of training offered to sub-postmasters and mistresses on the introduction of the programme. She wanted some training on how to offer the full range of financial services available through the alliances that the Post Office has with various banks, but that was not on offer in the training programme that her husband attended. That is appalling. If we are not training the key participants properly to take full advantage of the freedoms that will be available, we will be making a big mistake.

It is also unacceptable that sub-postmasters and mistresses are unable to take up the option of setting up a PayPoint in their post offices. It is obvious to most of us that paying bills through the post office has become harder and harder as organisations claim that it costs too much to accept that means of payment. PayPoint provides an alternative method, but the Post Office—by contract—says that no sub-post office may set one up. That restriction of business enterprise and opportunity is unacceptable. The Minister has many points to respond to, from my contribution and others, and I shall listen with interest when he winds up.

4.42 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP): I congratulate the Select Committee on an excellent report. As for the Government's response to it, I have rarely read such self-congratulatory, irrelevant nonsense. Like other hon. Members, I have spent an inordinate amount of time in post offices in the past few months in pursuit of my save the pension book campaign. In the process, I have spoken to many people who use post offices regularly and several sub-postmasters who run them. I have not found overwhelming support for the plans, as the Government's response suggests, but overwhelming hostility.

People do not like the plans. They do not like the fact that the pension book will no longer be an option for pensioners. They do not like the fact that pensioners have been corralled into opening bank accounts at the expense of the Post Office card account, which is what is happening—regardless of what the response says. The most compelling evidence was given by Postwatch, which told the Committee that

The Government's response contests the number of steps, but it concedes that customers have to go through three steps for a Post Office card account, as opposed to two steps for an ordinary bank account. That is a slight concession by the Government that it is more difficult to open a Post Office card account, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that when he winds up the debate.

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Direct payment suits many people; it may suit most people; it may even suit the vast majority of people; but it does not suit everybody. Even those who now receive their pension through direct payment acknowledge that, and agree that those who do not want a bank account should still have the option of receiving their pension through their pension book.

Mr. Hawkins: In the hon. Gentleman's experience of this issue, has he come across pensioners who believe that they have been conned by the system? Pensioners using post offices such as Mytchett in my constituency have discovered that the minute that they fill in a form that gives their bank details, it is treated as a request to have their pension paid into a bank account, even though the form did not say that that would be the result. Pensioners are asked to give their details and, when they do so, it is treated as a request. It is then impossible to return to using the traditional system that they prefer. That procedure, and the way in which the leaflets are written, is dishonest and is another aspect of what is making pensioners in my constituency—and, doubtless, in his—very angry.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; he makes the point very well and I agree with him on that issue.

After the debate, I shall, on behalf of my constituents, be presenting a petition of thousands of names. The petition insists that the pension book remain an option and asks the Government to think again about their plans.

Many of the pensioners who signed the petition probably have their pension paid directly to their bank, but they believe that pensioners without a bank account and who do not want a bank account should be left with the option of receiving their pension through a pension book as they have always done. Many pensioners simply do not understand why they can no longer use their pension book. For them, if it ain't broke, why bother trying to fix it? Many pensioners have an attachment to their pension book that the Government have either failed to understand or have chosen wilfully to ignore. That attachment goes back to post-war times when the old age pension was introduced.

Of course the Government will call their plans modernisation. They are determined to foist that modernisation on the group in our society who are the most resistant to it. Pensioners want to be left alone; they do not want to be modernised—if they want to be anything-ised, it is to be traditionalised.

For many pensioners, collecting their pension at the post office in the normal way is a social activity, as the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) mentioned. For many, it is an opportunity to meet friends and to organise social engagements, but it is more than that. The post office can act as an early warning system for some of the most frail and vulnerable members of our society. I have observed sub-postmasters acting in an almost pastoral way. They look out for their frail and vulnerable customers. If those pensioners fail to turn up at their usual time, the postmaster raises the alarm. A lot happens in the post office and it is central to much of the life of our communities.

I do not believe that the Government really know about the role that post offices play, especially in our rural communities where the post office is so often the

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centre of community life. We are witnessing the erosion and degradation of community infrastructure in rural villages and settings, and that threatens the viability of the Post Office card account.

I represent the fifth-largest constituency in the United Kingdom, an area of small towns and villages with no obvious urban centre. We are witnessing the disappearance of banks and post offices throughout the constituency. In Scotland, most people bank with one of the three big banks—the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland or the Clydesdale—none of which has an arrangement with the Post Office, so people in my constituency are denied access to the Post Office card account. That means that 90 per cent. of the people of Scotland will no longer have that option.

There are big problems in Scotland, not only in our rural areas but in our urban areas where there are also serious threats to post offices because of the Government's plans to have benefits paid directly into bank accounts. Sub-postmasters do not deserve that. I have spoken to many of them and find them a modest bunch. Sub-postmasters take their community responsibilities and social obligations very seriously. Most of them went into the business thinking it would be their own pension book—their little nest egg. However, the nest egg will not take care of their future; they have found a cuckoo in the nest and it is devouring their whole livelihood.

Postmasters are being encouraged to diversify and to take on "extras". Indeed, any hon. Member visiting a marginal post office in their constituency would hardly be able to move for greeting cards or ready-made meals, but if sub-postmasters lose their core trade from pensioners and benefit claimants they will lose that extra business, too.

Many post offices have been put up for sale recently. In my constituency, there are post offices that have been on the market for three years, and they can no longer be sold as a going concern. To buy a post office nowadays would be financial suicide.

Under the Government's plans, more closures are inevitable. This is no reinvention: we are witnessing a closure programme. I hope that the Government will think again about what they are doing and that perhaps they will put the interests of our post offices and those who operate them closer to the top of their agenda.

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