Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): May I tell my hon. Friend about Belper? Under the reinvention programme, which seems to be more like a programme of mass destruction, of the five post offices that were opened in Belper, four were closed. We were

24 Mar 2004 : Column 898

assured that the one remaining post office would be able to cope, but last week there was absolute chaos in it. When the Government made a commitment to allow people to collect their benefits, they did not say that they would make it impossible for them to do so—but that is just what they have done.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend reflects the views of many constituents across the country who face practical problems that give the lie to some of the complacent assurances that we received from Ministers. The Trade and Industry Committee report "People, Pensions and Post Offices" contains powerful evidence about the scale of the problem that our post offices face and confirms why we are right to press for the right of people to choose how they receive their benefits. Paragraph 12 of the report states that the "old" system—the so-called old system—

The Opposition are committed to the order book system as an option not because we are retro or old-fashioned, but because we believe in choice. If there are millions of people in Britain, including many pensioners, whose choice it is to use such a system, why should the Government try to deprive them of the choice that they reasonably wish to exercise?

People are right to be wary of some of the options that are in front of them instead. I shall quote the experience of a constituent of mine—Mrs. Mortain, who lives in Havant—whose case I have heard about literally in the last few days; I have her permission to do so. She has been receiving her pension via her bank account, in exactly the way that Ministers are trying to encourage, but she has not received a bank payment for the past five weeks. They have suddenly ceased. She got on to the Pension Service and it told her that it is currently experiencing what it called

and that hundreds of others are affected.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry may not be able to respond to this, but I hope that in the winding-up speech of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), we will learn whether he is aware of problems in delivering pension payments into bank accounts, and whether my constituent is not alone and there is a glitch in the system affecting many others. It has reached the stage where the Pension Service is saying, "The only way we can get you the money is to issue you with a giro cheque that you can cash at your local post office." That will be the fallback when computerised payments to bank accounts have not worked. Is that not why so many pensioners do not trust the Government's assurances on payment in other ways?

24 Mar 2004 : Column 899

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): That news will be of great concern to old people in Reigate, where three post offices have been closed—in fact, the latest one is closing on Saturday—and they are left with the main post office in Reigate, which is hosted by Safeway. Morrisons, which is taking over Safeway, has been quite unable to provide me with any reassurance that the post office will stay open. Meanwhile, the Post Office is pressing ahead with closing the branch in Holmesdale road. It is a dreadful state of affairs if it cannot guarantee to pay people their money. The reinvention programme should be stopped immediately until the matter can be sorted out.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He rightly draws my attention to the fact that, given all the changes in the world of supermarkets at the moment—in my constituency, Tesco has just taken over our local one-stop shop—many of the established arrangements for post offices in such shops are in question. That is another source of uncertainty and instability. I hope again that we will hear from the Secretary of State about what steps she is taking given that significant communities—towns—face the uncertainty that my hon. Friend describes.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that a great deal of insult seems to be added to injury when post offices are closed in the circumstances that he has just articulated, because of the mechanistic and formulaic way in which the Post Office goes about closing them? In Bexhill, three post offices have closed, yet when I have tried to make representations, I have received only a computer-manufactured letter, and even when errors in the reply have been pointed out, I have merely received a further computer-generated letter.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is quite right. One problem with the so-called consultation is that it is not real. Instead, we have something of which the Government have made rather a speciality: bogus consultation during which one never gets the sense that one is receiving a genuine, individual letter or that any response will be properly assessed by an individual. The Opposition wish to respect the views of the people whom we represent—the pensioners and the many people claiming benefits. We are in favour of choice and in favour of the customer. That is the philosophy that underpins our approach to the Post Office.

There is further evidence in the direct-payment statistics produced by the Department for Work and Pensions about what people prefer. They show the responses that it has had when it has invited benefit claimants to convert to the new payment systems. We see from the latest statistics that it has so far approached approximately 2.5 million pensioners, of whom 1.9 million have responded. Of those 1.9 million responses, only about 750,000 have said, "Here are my bank account details; of course you can pay my money into my bank account." Some 1.2 million people have said that they want a Post Office card account. Similarly, with regard to Jobcentre Plus, 2.5 million letters have been sent out, eliciting 1.3 million responses. Of those,

24 Mar 2004 : Column 900

about 800,000 have said, "Here are my bank account details", and 600,000 have asked for a Post Office card account.

The Department's latest statistics show that we have already had 2.5 million requests for a Post Office card account. The Government's limit was to be 3 million, and they have already received 2.5 million, so does the Secretary of State accept that their statistics are, first, evidence of a widespread preference for a Post Office card account rather than bank account, and secondly, very different from the Government's forecast? In the light of that clear evidence about what real people in the real world prefer, what is her new forecast for the use of the Post Office card account?

The evidence about people's preferences is even more powerful in the light of the clear bias at every stage in the system against people having a Post Office card account. Those people have expressed their preferences for Post Office card accounts despite every attempt by the system to push them in a very different direction.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, even after the initial stages, the procedure for obtaining a card account is complex and difficult for many elderly people?

Mr. Willetts: The hon. Gentleman is quite correct, and that is a point to which I will turn in a moment.

The evidence of the bias in the system that I was about to cite is from a report in The Sunday Telegraph of 7 March, in which a member of the DWP staff quoted an instruction received from head office, which is devastating evidence that the Government have not stood by their assurances that there will be equity and fairness in the system. The instruction states:

That was the aim set for benefit claimants. I hope that either the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary will say whether that is an accurate record of instructions sent out by the Department.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): Is the hon. Gentleman being disingenuous? Does he understand that people who seek work need to be job-ready, and that the Post Office card account, although it has many favourable characteristics, does not allow the payment of wages into it? Does he not, therefore, understand that it would be quite irresponsible for Jobcentre Plus to advise people to take out a Post Office card account, which would not leave them job-ready? May I underline the fact that the 3 million figure is not a limit on the number of Post Office card accounts? We have never said that there is a limit. If people want the Post Office card account, they can have it.

Next Section

IndexHome Page