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Mr. Willetts: Was the 3 million figure a forecast then? The Government themselves put that figure into circulation, so if it is no longer accurate, what is their forecast? Not only the Opposition but many people working for the Post Office would wish to know where

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the Government think things now stand. Of course I accept the Minister's point about wishing people to be job-ready, but assurances have been given that the system will not be biased. Nevertheless, the evidence is that it is biased, and the Minister has just cited a reason why it should be so. That is a very different position from the one that they have taken so far.

Mr. Pond: The system is not biased. It is a matter of choice for the customer. Customers must know their full range of choices, and that is what we provide. It is not for the Government or the Opposition to tell people whether they should have a Post Office card account, a current account, a basic account or a building society account. It is for the customer to decide and it is our responsibility to ensure that they fully understand their options.

Mr. Willetts: It is, of course, for the customer to decide, and that is what we believe. Contrary to the claim made by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), that the Government allow the customer to decide, we all know that they are trying to push customers in one direction rather than the other. All we are asking him to do is to ensure that the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Work and Pensions stand by their assurances that all they are doing is extending choice. Conservative Members want to see fair and open choice, which is not available at the moment.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister is talking nonsense? I visited 28 post offices last summer, and I shall briefly quote three postmasters. The first said:

The second said:

The third said:

The Minister should apologise.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. His point is repeated by Labour Back Benchers in early-day motion 648, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty). Many hon. Members support early-day motion 648, which recognises the problem—we can all see the problem, our constituents experience it and people who run post offices are concerned about it. It is not good enough for the Minister to come to the House and say that the system is fair and even—it is not, and that is the nature of the problem.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): One of the things that most concerns pensioners in my constituency, where Ash Vale Station and Mytchett post offices have closed, is that if they even inquire about the system, as a result of Government instructions, their inquiry is treated as a request for automatic payment.

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That is part of the Government's dishonesty. Does my hon. Friend recognise that one of the problems is that the Government are not putting any pressure on the many banks and financial institutions that will not allow cheques to be cashed at post office counters? Only three of the banks currently allow their cheques to be cashed in that way. Does my hon. Friend agree that all banks should allow cheques to be cashed at all post office counters, which would reintroduce footfall into post offices and help sub-post offices to survive?

Mr. Willetts: Both my hon. Friend's points are absolutely right. First, we are all concerned about the insidious process whereby people are pushed towards the bank account option rather than the Post Office card account at every stage. Secondly, Conservative Members do not want to subsidise post offices; all we want is people to enter post offices because that is the service they want to use. We seek increased footfall, which is the best way to ensure that as many post offices as possible are viable in the future.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Work and Pensions Committee visited the telephone call centre for the Pension Service last year? We were shown the script that the call centre operators use when new pensioners request a pension. The script made it clear that the Post Office card account is the last option. Does my hon. Friend think that it would be useful if the Minister were to ensure that a copy of that script is placed in the Library?

Mr. Willetts: Yes. I recall that that important point came up in the Select Committee, where my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) does sterling work. Yet again, the evidence that the system is biased is building up. All we are asking for is fairness for the millions of people who want their benefit to continue to be paid at the post office, which is not too much to ask of the Minister.

Mr. Pond: The House will have noted the hon. Gentleman's statement that the Opposition do not want to subsidise post offices. Are the Opposition confirming their opposition to the Government's £2 billion investment in the post office network? I shall quote Postwatch research—the research was conducted on a small scale, but it was, nevertheless, conducted by Postwatch—to those hon. Members who suggest that the process is biased to encourage people in one way or another. The vast majority of pensioners said that advice from the customer conversion centre

Mr. Willetts: I began my speech by saying how much I regret the absence of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to answer on behalf of the benefits system, which is why we called the debate. The junior Work and Pensions Minister has intervened on me three times, but so far we have heard nothing from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry did not turn up when we debated the issue from the point of view of the post office network, and now she is silent when we discuss the subject from the point of view of the claimant—instead, it is a Minister who has intervened.

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My response to the Minister's challenge is to examine the seven-stage process to open a Post Office card account, which clearly shows the bias:

By stage four, one has obtained an application form.

That is not skilled mass marketing. The system has not been designed to be customer friendly in order to maximise people's opportunities to obtain Post Office card accounts. The process contains a set of bureaucratic hurdles that are designed to put off the millions of people who want to receive their payments at the post office.

Mr. Weir: The hon. Gentleman missed out a stage. After the form has been taken to the post office, one must obtain information from the post office to fill in on the original letter from the Pension Service, and return that letter to the Pension Service before the account is activated.

Mr. Willetts: I am happy to be corrected by the hon. Gentleman, and I apologise to the House for having made the system sound simpler than it really is.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is right that it is difficult to open those accounts. I draw his attention to the fact that if an elderly person writes outside the correct box when they fill in the form, the whole form is rejected. As he says, the system is biased against the Post Office card account.

Mr. Willetts: The problems with the computer recognition system form a whole subject, and there have been many such cases. One gentleman wrote his sevens in the continental style—Conservative Members do not object to the continental method of writing seven—and the computer could not recognise them, so his benefit claim could not be processed, which is not a good way to operate.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman may know that I am a member of the Select Committee that made some observations about the complexity surrounding the Post Office card account. Given what he said about order books, does he want to improve the Post Office card account or does he want to abolish it?

Mr. Willetts: I do not want to abolish the Post Office card account—we accept that we are too far down the

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track for that. We want a user-friendly system that allows people to choose a Post Office card account, which is a way to maximise footfall through the post office. In a moment, I shall turn to the important subject of the exception service, which is needed to supplement the Post Office card account.

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