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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Michael Fabricant: I will not give way, because I have only a short time to speak.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) talked about how impractical it was that the consultation was being carried out over Christmas and

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the new year. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said that it was dishonest of the Post Office to maintain that the shortest route between two points was the distance that people actually had to travel, because that is not the case. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) made some interesting points about the woefully complex process required to get a card account. He pointed out that a card account is a very basic financial product, so why does it require seven steps to obtain one, when it is far simpler to obtain more complex products from a bank?

I could go through the long list of other hon. Members who have spoken, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who talked about the link between the village post office and the shop. He said that if the post office goes, the shop goes, and that if the shop goes, the village goes. He is absolutely right; the post office is an intrinsic part of village life and it needs to be protected.

The Trade and Industry Committee report on the impact of direct payment highlights the many concerns expressed by people who are in receipt of benefits. It referred to complicated bank accounts, complicated application forms for Post Office card accounts, and a lack of information on other ways to collect benefits. It also referred to closures in the post office network. The Government have justified the change to direct payment as necessary, maintaining that it is more modern, efficient and reliable. However, 83 per cent. of claimants who collect benefit from post offices already have bank accounts and 79 per cent. of them said they wanted to keep their benefits separate from those accounts. How can the Government say that by removing payment books they are increasing consumer choice? They are not. It appears to me, and to the Committee, that however modern direct payment is some customers simply do not want it. Their choice is being reduced rather than increased.

The performance and innovation unit supported the creation of a universal bank, and the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters has found little evidence that the claimants have an unmet need for a simple, trusted, secure means of gaining access to their benefit income. The Government have made it very difficult for a claimant to opt for a Post Office account, as we have already heard. Postwatch discovered that the DWP stopped the Post Office advertising the fact that cash would still be available after the introduction of direct payments. Again, how does that increase customer choice?

The hon. Member for Ochil cited much evidence provided by the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. I have here a memorandum issued by Jobcentre Plus, which makes it clear that paying into a Post Office current account costs even more than paying into a bank account, and that the system

Time and again, Jobcentre Plus tries to discourage people from opening Post Office accounts. That must be wrong.

Postwatch wanted to undertake a survey of public awareness of direct payment, but the Government

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objected, hiding behind customer confidentiality legislation. It is clear that they do not want to encourage any independent regulatory bodies. We have already seen the abolition of independent community health councils. We now have a Government quango for them, and if it were possible we would have one to control post offices.

If it were allowed to do so, Postwatch could regulate levels of awareness and produce a response free of any kind of party-political interference. Why are the Government so keen to obstruct that? Will the Minister tell us in his reply?

What of the difficult process of acquiring a Post Office card account? The Government say that they do not accept that it is a "particularly onerous process". The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters disagrees, along with—as we have heard today—many other bodies. There are seven steps involved in getting a card account running. Even the National Consumer Council thinks that far too much bureaucracy and complexity are involved in opening one.

Why should that be so? Could it be because the DWP originally anticipated that only 2 million card accounts would be needed? We now know that 5 million will eventually be needed. Where will the Government's much-heralded choice be then? Where will the money come from? Will it come from the prudent Chancellor? I think not. That is another question that the Minister must answer.

As we have heard, the Post Office is closing 3,000 of the 9,000 urban post offices. As we have heard, its decisions are arbitrary. Many people have described the closure programme as a complete sham. Let me give an example of that. The Post Office announced on 26 August that it proposed to close the City Way branch in Rochester, Kent: it was, it said, "considering closing this branch". When the branch was eventually closed, a leaflet entitled "Getting the most from the Post Office" was made available. It was dated March 2003, six or seven months before the sham consultation process had even begun.

What of rural post offices? They are supposed to be protected. There are some 9,000 of them, yet we do not know whether funds will be available after 2006 to protect them. I hope that the Minister can reveal today whether there will be a rural postal network after 2006. To be somewhat cynical for a moment, I should point out that the next general election might well occur before 2006. Perhaps that is why that date was chosen for the provision of such a service.

I have asked the Minister a whole series of questions about direct payment, the closure of urban post offices and the future of rural post offices. But in reality, these are questions about the future of our community and our nation's duty of care to the vulnerable. The question is: has the Minister got any answers? As my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire said, in respect of post offices choice is being diminished. It has now become clear that the urban reinvention programme is in fact a closure programme.

Today, we have had the big conversation that the Prime Minister boasted about. That conversation has given rise to a very clear message from both sides of this House. I hope that the Minister will listen.

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5.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I welcome the opportunity to respond to the issues raised today. An incredible level of interest has been shown in the Select Committee's report, and I congratulate the Committee's Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill). I will not be able to respond to all the issues raised in the nine minutes available to me, but I will try to respond to the common themes. I shall write to Members to ensure that the other issues raised are dealt with.

Mr. Andrew Turner: The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services told the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang):

the network reinvention programme

When the Minister writes to us, perhaps he could say who defines "exceptional circumstances".

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Sutcliffe: I shall try to respond to that point, but first I shall give to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), who was unable to speak in the debate.

Mr. Wright: Two of the post offices that closed in my constituency were in wards that number among the 50 most deprived wards. The consultation process certainly took into account many issues, but they were never dealt with. Will my hon. Friend assure us that he will look into the way in which the Post Office has consulted, and has acted on that consultation process?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I will respond in a manner in keeping with the genuine spirit of constituency involvement that Members on both sides of the House have shown. I am grateful to the House and to the Chairman for accepting the reasons why the Minister for Pensions has been unable to attend today; I am really pleased to be here in his place. [Laughter.]

Some serious issues have been raised, and I refer Members to the Government's response to the Select Committee report. It is in no way arrogant, and it genuinely addresses the question of direct payments. However, today's debate was about the urban reinvention programme, rather than direct payments, so I shall concentrate my remarks on that issue.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as I, too, was not called to speak. In the light of the document leaked by the Department for Work and Pensions, it is a pity that the relevant Minister cannot respond. Can the Minister confirm that that document actually reflects Government policy?

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