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Mr. Burns: Leicester is an interesting case. Despite the Minister's rosy words about the consideration given to the situation in Leicester, I bet my bottom dollar that the sub-post offices will either be saved on about 12 July, or closed on 16 Julycertainly not before that. I cannot predict which of those two scenarios will occur, but if they are to be closed, there will be no announcement until 16 July at the earliest.
There is great concern and growing cynicism in my constituency not only about the poor delivery of mail, for which people must pay more because of price increases, but about the elimination and closure of valuable, badly needed urban sub-post offices, especially those in the socially deprived area in the west of the townas far as that can be defined in Chelmsford.
I give a warning to the Under-Secretary. For reasons that will become apparent, especially to the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), we get a perverse consolation from the situation. Not even this Government can get everything right. They made the mistake of announcing the first two closures in the west of Chelmsford four months before the local elections in May last year. It might surprise the Under-Secretary to hear that Labour councillors are few and far between in Chelmsfordwe did not have any during the ten years up until 1995. We had five up until May last year. Three of them were in the ward in which the sub-post offices were located, but sadly for the Under-Secretary, they all unexpectedly lost their seats. When I spoke to Labour activists after the election, all that they could say was, "The war in Iraq, and those bloody post office closures that the Government inflicted on us." Let that be a warning, because people care about their sub-post offices and want a local service on their doorsteps. If the Government do not listen to public opinion, it is amazing what can happen to councillors and Members of Parliament.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab):
I apologise to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for missing his opening contribution because I was delayed before the start of the debate. From what my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) said, he made an excellent speechat least that was what I picked up.
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On the back of an extremely lengthy and difficult period, postal services and deliveries are beginning to bed down, to put it in the terms used by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil. I honestly believeI have spoken to colleagues who have witnessed it personallythat single delivery is beginning to show some positives, although we are not out of the woods by any manner of means. I agree with those who have said in this debate that the Post Office's quick financial fixes are not necessarily the answer to the significant difficulties faced by a public service that we all hold close to our hearts and in deep affection, but sentimentality cannot and will not win the day.
Like colleagues on both sides of the House, I have witnessed some closures of rural post offices in my constituency. It is very difficult when the business of a small shop, which has been the home for the village post office and which serves perhaps only four or five dozen houses, starts to declinenot because people do not want to use the facility, but because a greater choice has developed over many years, and they have access to the main town that is 5 or 6 miles away. We have all witnessed that. It is never easy to turn such decline around. Sentimentality for a local village post office will not sustain the service for many years to come; we must be honest with ourselves.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who has left the Chamber, passed comment on the Postwatch estimate of 250 post offices that need not and should not have closed. That is worrying. The situation should never have arisen, but it is unlikely to be reversed.
The hon. Gentleman also commented on supermarkets. I intervened on him and referred to the proposed closure of the post office in the Safeway supermarket in Dumfries. I want to be perfectly open and honest about this: I was serving on the planning committee of the council when Safeway applied to develop its site and talked of the potential for a post office in the supermarket. I objected to that at the time because I did not think that it was right. However, permission was granted and the post office came into being, and now Morrisons, which has taken over such sites, has decided to give up the franchise.
Some say that we should be manning the barricades and fighting for the retention of the post office in the supermarket, if not run by the company, then run by someone else. The last thing that we need is a knee-jerk reaction. That was the very point that I was making to the hon. Gentleman. Within three quarters of a mile to a mile of that supermarket site, there are three or four sub-post offices. We need to consider how those businesses are running and whether there is potential to divvy up among them some of the services currently offered by the supermarket post office, such as foreign currency exchange, the issuing of vehicle excise licences, the all-international parcel service and a lottery payout facility. There should be some sincere thought about that and some answers from the Post Office. I have written to the chief executive to ask him what the plans are and whether there can be some open consultation.
Debates on postal services and post offices always come round to the argument about the move to direct payments for pensions and benefits and the Post Office card account. It is argued that if all those with a pension book or a benefits bookwhether incapacity benefit or
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child benefitmoved to a Post Office card account, everything would be rosy. That is clearly not so. In many debates in the House and in Westminster Hall we have heard of the difficulties that people have had in securing a Post Office card account. I believe that the decision to move to direct payments was the correct one, if for no other reason than its potential for limiting fraud and other criminal activities, especially robbery and theft from pensioners. The system is far safer if used correctly.
The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), and I have been in correspondence about the card account. He has also been in correspondence with one of my constituents, a gentleman from Dumfries and Galloway elderly forum who believes that it is not the correct system. My constituent looks at the matter from the narrow perspective that there is every likelihood that, after full investigation, someone who reports the loss or theft of their payment book and counterfoils in adequate time would not be penalised financially. However, lying behind the new seemingly failsafe system that cannot be tampered or interfered with, and on the back of the banking code of practice, is a £50 penalty for someone who loses their card on which a transaction is subsequently made.
We might say that, if someone loses their card or it is stolen, there is little likelihood of someone having the pin number. On Friday evening, a sincere and genuine couple came to my surgery and, to all intents and purposes, pleaded with me to visit their sub-post office in Dumfries to see pension day in operation. Elderly people are handing over their card then going into their purse or diary and reading out their pin number. That is breaking the contract, but we are talking about elderly people whoI say this with the greatest respect; I sincerely hope to be elderly myself one daydo not on occasions understand what is going on around them, or realise who is standing behind them and listening. There is therefore great potential for an apparently failsafe system becoming open and vulnerable.
Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is raising a fascinating point, which I am following with great interest. He mentions the security of what is in effect chip and pin. Is he aware that only this week a major bank said that we should be using automated teller machines less frequently, not because people might see the pin number entered, but because the machines might have been tampered with and be making a record of the numbers punched in? He is absolutely right to say that nothing is infallibly safe.
Mr. Brown: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I shall not name the bank involved, because I am not sponsored by it and should not advertise for it, but I am aware of that point. The issue of ATMs immediately sprang to mind when considering the card account.
The couple whom I was talking about told me about the deep anxiety, distress and sleepless nights that the direct payment system is causing elderly people, many of whom are worried to the point of becoming ill. They even told me about one elderly lady who was having great difficulty in changing to a Post Office card account. She ended up unwell, and spoke to her son on the telephone about the problem. He came up to try to assist
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in submitting her name for a Post Office card account. We would all agree that that is a decent thing for any son or daughter to do, but he lives down south and made a 400 or 500-mile round trip to a constituency just over the border to carry out a simple transaction, even though his mother did her very best to speak to someone at a call centre to try to make them understand her difficulties.
The change also poses difficulties for the home carer service, although I have no figures to illustrate this. In my areaI know this is the case in other constituencieshome carers have taken their client's pension book to the post office and collected their pension for them. However, a clear policy has been established whereby home carers' employersin most cases, the local authorityare not prepared to allow their staff members to use a card and PIN number to access something which, to all intents and purposes, is a bank account. I am delighted that the Department has decided to introduce cheque payments in October for people who find it extremely difficult to use the direct payment system. Many people will be relieved by that concession, although I appreciate that it will apply only to people who have difficulties with direct payments. Last week, the local Pension Service in Motherwell told me that in the past couple of weeks a direct payment team has been set up to look at the difficulties that individuals are experiencing and consider whether there is a specific problem. I applaud my hon. Friend the Minister, his team and the Pension Service for taking that step.
The other evening, the sub-postmaster and his wife made it abundantly clear that we are where we are and that the decision is not going to be reversed. They were glad, however, that progress has been made in looking at the problems. While someone's age should never determine whether they are fit enough to cope with the change, they suggested that the Department should have introduced direct payments for everyone below, for example, 75. That does not mean, however, that everyone under 75 can cope with the new system. People over 75 with a pension or benefit book should be allowed to continue to use it until they are no longer in receipt of benefit because of what eventually overtakes us all.
I do not know whether the Minister will consider that a helpful change to the system, but the direct payment system is causing people more than just a little worry. It is causing them deep anxiety and, as I said, they are becoming physically ill. It was right to introduce a safer method of payment that should have benefited everyone. Regrettably, however, it has become a vulnerable system for some people in our society because of the way in which they conduct their business. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will address people's deep concerns about the Post Office card account when he sums up the debate.
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