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Gregory Barker: The Secretary of State makes great play of the issue of choice, but where is the choice for my constituents who want to use a post office in their village, but find it closed?

Ms Hewitt: I shall come to post office closures in a moment, but if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to start with the issue with which the hon. Member for Havant started—benefits payments and the introduction of the Post Office card account. Let us remember that the Government of whom he was a member introduced their own plan for a benefit payment card. It was supposed to use the latest technology of the time, and it was part of a public-private partnership. When we came into office in 1997, we discovered that their benefit payment card programme was a shambles. It was well overdue, the technology was not working—because the programme was so overdue, that technology was also out of date—and the costs were overrunning.

We spent a year and a half trying to make that programme work. In the end, however, we decided that there was no point in rescuing that absurd out-of-date Conservative proposition for a benefit payment card. Instead, we invested the best part of £500 million in the Horizon platform—on which I shall elaborate in a moment—which forms the basis for universal banking, which is extending the benefits of banking and financial inclusion to millions of people.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): If the right hon. Lady wants to extend universal banking to all people, why cannot the job-ready unemployed have their wages paid into one of those accounts?

Ms Hewitt: Because the card account was never designed to do the entire job of a bank account. Basic bank accounts and regular cheque accounts are available for people to have their wages paid into; the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) has already dealt with that point.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that I was not the only Member who went to see ICL to talk about the Horizon system, which came out of the ideas of the previous Conservative Government. When I did so, ICL made it clear to me that the system was full of capability but was being underused. It was also made clear that there was a need to invest in it because it was going to be the saviour of the Post Office. Will my right

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hon. Friend point out to all concerned that that was the clear message? The Opposition do not seem to be able to remember that.

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is right, and I am grateful to him for making that important point. Thanks to the investment and the decisions that we have made, the Horizon platform and the automation of the post offices have now modernised post offices to enable them to offer new banking services to millions of customers who did not previously use the post office. That is extremely important.

We are now phasing out the order book system. It is out of date, and it uses systems that, frankly, belong to the era of the ration book. It is inefficient, costly to administer, and open to fraud and abuse. That is why we were right to decide to phase it out and extend benefit claimants' choice, which includes maintaining and strengthening choice for claimants who wish to get their benefits in cash at a post office.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend said, the order book system is open to fraud and abuse. Will she confirm that 100 pensioners a week have their order books stolen?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is right—and that is a disaster for the individual pensioners who are robbed, with all the distress that that entails. It is also enormously costly to the taxpayer, who has to foot the bill for this kind of fraud. I would have expected the hon. Member for Havant, who is so against waste and inefficiency in the public sector, to support rather than oppose our efforts to get rid of a system that makes elderly people and taxpayers vulnerable.

Our commitment to financial inclusion, universal banking and the introduction of the Post Office card account has been welcomed by Citizens Advice, Mind and Help the Aged. Indeed, Citizens Advice's excellent recent study on financial inclusion stated:

I commend Citizens Advice on the way in which it has helped us to put universal banking in place.

Mr. Blunt: I am pretty certain that, having seen the post offices at St. John's, Lesbourne road and now Holmesdale road close, and with a threat hanging over the main post office in Reigate, Citizens Advice and Help the Aged would be less than impressed by the accessibility of post office services to the elderly in my constituency. Those closures are happening at exactly the same time as the Government are going through the automation process. The conjunction of those two things, plus the £50,000 incentive to sub-postmasters to take their businesses out of service—which places them in an impossible position—is causing a collapse in the availability of services in Reigate and elsewhere. It was the concern about all those issues that generated the petition that was presented to me by hundreds of my constituents this morning.

Ms Hewitt: I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman and his party want to go back to the days of

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the Conservative Government, when post offices were closing in their hundreds and thousands in an entirely unplanned and unmanaged way, partly because, with fewer customers cashing benefit cheques at post offices, it was simply not possible for sub-postmasters to make a decent living. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that people should be forced to carry on in businesses that are no longer viable.

I shall return to the issue of urban reinvention in a moment, but I want to deal first with the series of allegations made by the hon. Member for Havant about the alleged difficulties involved in opening a Post Office card account. He made great play of the difficulty of the process, the seventh and eighth steps and all that nonsense. Let us be clear: there are three steps that individual claimants need to take. First, they ring the customer conversion centre. I looked extremely carefully at the script to be used there before I approved its use, to ensure that it was neutral in its presentation of the options. Secondly, they discuss the options. Thirdly, if they want to open a Post Office card account, they wait for their personal invitation document to arrive and they take it to the post office branch, where they get and complete their application form. They then send those account details back to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Andrew Selous: It is my recollection—and that of the Chairman of the Select Committee—that, when the Committee visited the new pension call centre, we found that the script was not neutral on that matter, and that the Post Office card account was very much the last option. Would the right hon. Lady agree to place that script in the Library of the House?

Ms Hewitt: I do not agree with the criticisms of the script that have been made by members of the Select Committee, but I should be happy to place it in the Library. I shall do so in the knowledge that Postwatch, which conducted some small-scale research with actual customers, has reported that almost all the pensioners to whom it spoke felt that the advice given by the customer conversion centre

Most of them described the DWP customer information material as being of "good quality", and most of the people ringing the centre had their questions answered satisfactorily. Most of those who had rung the centre to open a card account felt that the information that they had been given was "clear and unbiased", and most did not feel that staff were seeking to persuade them to choose one option over any of the others.

Mr. Paterson: I am amazed. Has the Secretary of State talked directly to any postmasters? As I said in an earlier intervention, I have visited 28, and every one said how difficult it is for people to apply for cards. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) that the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters would say that he underestimates his case. It says that there are 22 steps in the process of getting a card. When I visited the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services, taking a delegation of postmasters along, it was explained clearly to him that those who manage to get through that thicket of measures do so only with the

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specific help of the postmaster himself. I urge the Secretary of State to come to North Shropshire to visit some postmasters.

Ms Hewitt: The position of Conservative Members becomes more and more absurd as they keep inflating the number of steps that supposedly need to be taken. Let me stress to the hon. Gentleman that about 2 million Post Office card accounts have already been opened. That scarcely bears out the absurd allegations being made about how we are biasing the system, driving people away from the Post Office card account and making it impossible for anyone to open one. That is complete nonsense.

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