Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.30 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The Minister should be aware that destroying the post office network and the services that people rely on is unlikely to prove a vote winner, either in this House or outside it. Indeed, he has been under attack from all sides. He needs to recognise that our network of dedicated, but extremely demoralised sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, as well as millions of customers, are confused and angry about what is happening in their local post office, which they thought was there to provide a service to them and which is a Government agency in their own community that is behaving inconsistently and incomprehensibly.

On a personal basis, I may have been an early victim of urban reinvention in my constituency when a member of the Post Office's national management sidled up to me and said, "I have just written a letter to you to designate Inverurie as an urban area", to which I replied, "How is it up to the Post Office to decide whether it is an urban area?". He said, "We have decided that it is an urban area because we have to close one of the post offices." I asked, "What is the purpose of all this?" He replied, "To close the post office." The phrase "urban reinvention" had not been touted around at that stage, but I can assure the Minister that no reinvention took place: I simply have one fewer post office.

People are worried that these products were developed not to meet the needs of customers and claimants, but to buy off the anger and confusion that they feel about not being able to carry on using the products that they want. I entirely accept that the move towards bank transfer has been carrying on and will continue to carry on, and that the Post Office would have to respond to that. However, the reality is that many people knowingly rejected that option for the purpose of their benefit, even if they wanted to make

11 Dec 2003 : Column 1282

other transactions through their banks, and others did not want it because they preferred, for good reasons, to do their business in cash. Not only is it difficult to get a card, but it is such a basic product that many people ask why they could not have kept using the book, because the only difference seems to be that the card is a plastic version, but one that involves a great deal of difficulty.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have received many phone calls from elderly people, some of whom are disabled or blind, and who are very frightened by the letters that they get from the DWP because they think that if they do not move to a bank, they will lose their pension. Their freedom of choice is vital, and the Government should make that clear.

Malcolm Bruce: That is right. It is particularly true in the case of elderly people who feel confused and uncertain about the future, but it even applies to people who collect child benefit, many of whom believed after the first round of letters that they had to transfer the payment to the bank, only to discover afterwards that that was not necessarily so. Moreover, they were not told—because sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were not allowed to intervene to explain it to them—that the probable consequence of their making that transfer was that the post office would close within the foreseeable future, particularly if it was in a rural area. Several people have told me that if they had appreciated that the consequences would be that severe, and that there was no real guarantee of a long-term future for those post offices, they would not have taken the decision that they did.

I turn to the consequences for the network. It has been stated that when the transfer programme is complete, it will result in a loss of about £435 million to £440 million a year in revenue to the Post Office, and that that gap has to be filled by people using the post office for bank transfers and bank transactions. I am not at all sure that the effect will be as major as the Post Office and the Government argue.

I make the next point not just because I represent a Scottish constituency, although that makes the position more acute. The Scottish banks' refusal to sign up is bad for the United Kingdom because they are UK banks and it diminishes the choice in every branch. However, in Scotland, it means that the option of using cash does not exist for the majority of customers because the banks on which they most depend have not been prepared to co-operate with the Post Office. Bank transactions and the new proposal for financial services, welcome as it may be, are unlikely even to approach making up sub-post offices' income deficit.

If there were a genuine programme of rural and urban reinvention, one would like to believe that one of its actions would be a review of the services that post offices can provide over and above benefit transactions. It is a constant source of frustration to many hon. Members, who are often asked why different branches cannot provide passport forms or issue vehicle excise duty licences. One is passed from pillar to post. First, one is told that one has to approach the appropriate vehicle licensing agency or the Passport and Records Agency. Those agencies say that they have contracted with the Post Office and it has told them that "x" number of

11 Dec 2003 : Column 1283

branches deal with licences and passports but that they do not know which ones; they simply pay them. We thus get passed backwards and forwards. However, we cannot get a single review of a post office that states that there is willingness to extend the service.

Let me give a specific constituency example. Keith, a town of 4,000 people, has a post office that provides an excellent service and is run by the owner of another post office in a different part of the county that has a passport service. The person who runs the Keith post office is therefore fully trained and capable of providing a passport service. There are many demands for such a service in Keith. However, for the reasons that I have described, the sub-postmaster has been told that there is no possibility of that. The nearest post office with such a service is in Banff, 14 miles away. That is absurd and unrealistic. Reinvention should mean that if we change circumstances, we meet people's needs, give them the products that they want and recognise that they want services.

I should like the Under-Secretary to comment on the updated information from Postwatch about uptake and the gaps that appear. As of 14 November, the uptake of card accounts was 33.8 per cent. That constitutes just over half the people who were contacted. There may be 5 million or 6 million cardholders at the end of the process. However, in spite of all the frustrations, 2.5 million people have put up two fingers to the process and not responded. Perhaps that is wise, given the frustrations, and many more people should have done that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): Let me emphasise that, so far, 1.5 million people have taken up card accounts and the business target was 3 million.

Malcolm Bruce: If people do not respond, how will the process conclude? What will happen if millions of people say, "I haven't talked to you about a card account or a transfer. I'm still a benefit claimant and I've still got a book." I presume that at some point, they will be told that their book is not valid. We could have a huge crisis, whereby millions of people suddenly need to take up card accounts or opt for banked transfers. How will that be tackled?

If the result is that those people, for whatever reason, do not wish to opt for a banked transfer or a card account, what is the solution? Millions currently say that they cannot or will not go for that. Let us consider those who cannot—those who are blind or confused, those who cannot use PINs and those who do not find a new system appropriate—as opposed to those who will not. The Chairman of the Select Committee suggested that people might get something like a giro at the end of the process. Could it be a book of giros? Will it resemble the book that people currently get? If, at the end of the long drawn-out process people get a benefit book to enable them to claim, millions of people, who wanted to keep the book in the first place, will be furious because they had been denied that right and forced to accept a second-best option.

What is happening is the exact opposite of what a public service from a public agency should achieve in

11 Dec 2003 : Column 1284

recognising consumers' rights to deliver a service in a way that is appropriate to them. It has been echoed on all sides of this debate that nobody wants us to be where we are at the moment. There has been much valid criticism of the management of the Post Office, particularly on the closure issue, but on the issue of payments and of the survival of the post office network, the Post Office has been presented with a fait accompli by the Department for Work and Pensions and forced to come up with solutions, many of which are less than adequate to meet the needs of its customers.

5.40 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): There was considerable cross-party agreement in the debate on child care, and there seems to be agreement in this debate, too, on the question of choice. We debated choice in regard to child care, and we are now debating choice with regard to post offices. That involves choices about how benefits might be paid, and about which post office it is convenient to visit. As we have heard, those choices have been stripped away.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Trade and Industry Committee on its excellent report. The hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) said to me a few days ago that he suspected that I might agree with its conclusions, and he was right: I do agree with the conclusions of his very hard-working Select Committee. In the few minutes allotted to me, I want to talk about direct payment and the future of urban and rural post offices. Those issues have all been raised by hon. Members today, and they all affect people and pensioners.

The hon. Member for Ochil opened the debate, and quite rightly said that there had been no consensus or ministerial statement on how much would be saved by direct payment. Perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to outline to us what is being saved by this rather unpopular measure. The hon. Member for Ochil also rightly said—as did other hon. Members; this has been echoed on both sides of the Chamber—that people like going to the post office, and that it was an outing for them, a part of village life. That should not be taken away from them.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) spoke of the closure of four fifths of the post offices in Belper in his constituency, and pointed out quite rightly that the measure of one mile can be quite arbitrary. We hear time and again from our constituents—as we heard from my near-neighbour, the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) today—how one mile is an arbitrary figure, in that it might be measured as the crow flies, but people do not fly like crows. Indeed, they do not fly at all. If only they did, perhaps the Post Office's mysterious model might make sense. However, it does not, and it is of course a great secret as to what the model is, because the Post Office will not show it to us.

Next Section

IndexHome Page