|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
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
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:
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 problemwe 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 evenit 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.
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 researchthe research was conducted on a small scale, but it was, nevertheless, conducted by Postwatchto 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
2. call the helpline number on the letter and say you want a post office card account
3. the DWP then will send you a 'Personal Invitation Document' to open an account
4. This document must be taken to your local Post Office. They will give you an application form".
6. The Post Office will then post you two lettersone containing your PIN, the other called a Pick Up Notice
7. The Pick Up Notice must be taken to the local Post Office to collect your card. The account is then activated."
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. 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 styleConservative Members do not object to the continental method of writing sevenand 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?