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Richard Burden: I want to clarify the Conservative policy. The hon. Gentleman says he wants to improve the Post Office card account system, but he has not said that he wants to return to an order book system.

Mr. Willetts: The Post Office card account does need to be improved, but I am also talking about the form that the exceptions service should take.

I intended to cite evidence from a range of charities about the problems involved in opening a Post Office card account, but so many of my hon. Friends have intervened with evidence of their own that I need not detain the House with it, save to quote Age Concern, which says in an appendix to the Select Committee report:


The Secretary of State must tackle that fundamental charge regarding the bias in the system.

Does the Secretary of State recognise the problems that particular groups face? We have all heard sad stories about the problems that many disabled people have experienced when using the new post office devices. It is a sad irony that the House is finally considering the draft Disability Discrimination Bill at the same time as the Government are introducing a measure that is the most hostile to disabled people, and in respect of which their interests and views have been least well considered, in many years of public policy. The Secretary of State knows about the problems, because the Government have already had to admit that the PIN machine will have to be changed. Some people find it difficult to reach the keypad and others—for example, blind and visually impaired people—find it difficult to manipulate. Will the Secretary of State tell the House where the redesign of the keypad stands and when we will see the user-friendly keypads in our post offices for which many disabled users are crying out?

The Secretary of State must deal with the problem of multiple users, which arises where, for example, claimants are housebound and receive support from carers and social services. In an ideal world, those people might have one carer or social services support worker who is with them all the time, but, sadly, it is not like that in the real world. Many of our housebound constituents face an ever-changing cast of support workers coming to their houses to assist them, which makes it very difficult for them to access the system that has been designed by Ministers and the Post Office. Citizens Advice says:


It believes that in order to resolve such practical problems, the DWP should allow housebound people and those who cannot cope with a PIN to choose the

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exceptions service as their normal method of payment and that it should be accessible for claimants who do not have a permanent collector.

I do not blame the DTI for failing to understand this, but I do blame the DWP—after all, it is responsible for delivering benefits and should understand claimants' needs—for failing to put up the Secretary of State to respond to the debate and for failing to ensure that such problems were tackled as the system was being designed. I am afraid that that has done much damage to the Department's reputation for understanding the needs of disabled or housebound people.

In response, the Government have proposed an exceptions service. I should be grateful if the Secretary of State could give us some reliable information about how that will work. So far, Ministers have failed to inspire confidence when offering us assurances about that. The Minister for Pensions sounded like Corporal Jones from "Dad's Army" when he told the Select Committee on Trade and Industry:


I am afraid that that is not good enough as a piece of serious ministerial advice on how the new exceptions service will work. The only response to, "'Do not panic', says Minister" is, "Panic!". He advised people to hold on to their pension books and not to worry. He also said that the exceptions service is not being offered as a "fourth option"—in other words, that it is not an option for anyone dissatisfied with the other three options. Will the Secretary of State tell us more about who will be able to access it, on what terms they will access it, and for how long they will have to wait?

The Select Committee's report is highly condemnatory on this point. It states:


There is widespread concern about this issue, and I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with it.

Standing back from this individual disaster, we see a wider picture of a catalogue of problems and failures going right back to the original decision in 1999 to abandon the Horizon project and go for this option instead. I think we all know what happened then. Ministers thought to themselves, "There is this hidden subsidy coming into the Post Office from the benefits system. We can save money by paying the benefits in a different way and we will remove the hidden subsidy for post offices." That is what they thought they were doing. Instead, they have ended up putting even more money into post offices than they would otherwise have had to, because they have taken away the footfall of benefits claimants, while finding that many benefits claimants are deeply distressed because they have been unable to continue with the reliable system for claiming their benefits. During those five years, the Government have not taken us forward—instead, they have managed to perform the extraordinary double trick of weakening our post offices and leaving many people who wish to claim benefits with a less adequate system than they had before.

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This is a classic example of a failure of public policy; yet another example of this Government's failure to deliver; and, even more significantly, a failure to understand the needs of millions of people, especially elderly people, who wish to carry on being paid in the same reliable way. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is giggling. I have to tell him that it is no accident that this policy was decided in 1999. If we date it from the geological fault lines of this Labour Government, it is a classic "cool Britannia, modernising Britain" policy, which says, "Let's get rid of the old order books: we're going to have spanking new systems and gleaming new technology." It is a classic example of a policy cooked up by people who had no understanding of the views of disabled people or of pensioners. It comes from the time when the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) said that what he really thought about pensioners was that there was "no mileage" to be had from them, and when the chairman of the Labour party denounced them as "racist", then, as a final insult, as "predominantly Conservative". That is why they took no account of the interests of the many people using the post office, and that is why it is Conservative Members who are pressing for their interests today.

1.48 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:


I am delighted to join the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) in a debate entitled "Post Office Services", and to respond to his opening speech. As Secretary of State, with the privilege of being shareholder on behalf of the public in the Royal Mail and in Post Office Ltd., I regard it as entirely appropriate that I should have this opportunity to respond to his increasingly absurd statements.

Let me first deal with the issue of benefit payments and the shift to direct payment that is taking place. The hon. Gentleman talks about choice. He appears to have ignored everything that has been happening about customers making their own choices over the past decade and more. For many years, well ahead of the

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decision by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to switch to making all payments by direct credit, more than half of benefit recipients were already having their benefits cash paid directly into their bank accounts.

Let me underline that point by saying that nearly two thirds of recipients of child benefit and nearly six out of 10 new pensioners already get their benefits paid directly into their bank accounts. Those claimants and customers are exercising choice, yet we heard nothing about them from the hon. Member for Havant.


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