John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD):
This has been a good and timely debate, and I hope it has served to make clear to the Government the strength of feeling on both sides of the House and how much all hon. Members value their post offices and the
part that the Post Office card account plays in maintaining their post offices and their footfall. Indeed, even the Secretary of State made that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) made an eloquent case in opening the debate. She was generous in taking interventions, which allowed many hon. Members who were not able to take part in the debate to make a point. She went straight to the heart of the matter: whether the Government should be allowed to kill the Post Office by slow stages or whether the Post Office should be helped to transform into a 21st century servicea point that the Secretary of State failed to address. Indeed, the highlight of his contribution appeared to be to tell us that a purely commercial post office network would consist of only 4,000 post offices. I wonder whether that is actually the DWPs target. However, I welcome the fact that he has promised us a statement, and I hope that it will be the statement that we would all like to hear. I also hope that he will take away from the debate the strength of feeling in the House.
The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) made the point in a customarily passionate and excellent intervention that we all want the card account. There is no hon. Member on either side of the House who does not want the card account and who does not want it to go to the Post Office. He made the valid, absolutely telling point that that is not because we particularly like the card account, but because our constituents tell us it is what they want and need. He and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) have produced an excellent reportsuccinct and to the point, with very good, albeit not bold, pointsthat goes to the heart of the matter.
I was glad that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire referred in his report to the work done by the Treasury Committee. Indeed, he quoted extensively from it. When I was serving on the Treasury Committee, we went into this in considerable depth. One of the interesting points was a question that I asked of an official on the comparison of cost between the Post Office card account and other services, and the answer was that it is an apples and pears comparison: the two costs are quite different. We should take that point on board.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), whom I like to think of as a friend if not a right hon. Friend, was his usual self. He made two charges of me. First, he accused me of sending him reams of Focuses, to which I plead not guilty. I think that he knows me well enough to know that that is not my style. Secondly, he accused me of being an opportunist, and I plead guilty. I take every opportunity I can to support my constituents. I took the opportunity before POCA was announced to ask the Government to change their mind about the evisceration of post offices. I took the opportunity to support POCA when the Government did not want to introduce it, and I take the opportunity now to ask the Government to give us POCA 2.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: I certainly regard the hon. Gentleman as a friend for giving way. I was accusing not him of distributing Focusesthey would get lost in his vast constituencybut the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), who remains absent from this debate, as he has from the entire debate, as we shall make clear in Manchester.
We heard two excellent Liberal Democrat Back-Bench contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) and for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). They made it clear why hon. Members on both sides of the House feel so passionately that Post Office card accounts should be allowed to continue for a second generation.
We want post offices not simply because we want post offices, but because they are economically valuable and provide a social good. As many Members have said, in rural parts of the world, post offices are the only place where many services are available. I will not bore the House with a recitation of the small villages in north-west Sutherland or the middle of Caithness that would have no opportunities if POCA 2 were not given to the Post Office.
There is an opportunity here for the Post Office. In all my discussions with representatives of the post officesthe sub-postmastersthey say that they want post offices to transform. They want to provide a 21st century post office that can be profitable. However, they need the breathing space to get from here to there. That is what is absolutely critical about the award of POCA 2. Indeed, sub-postmasters have very good plans to make the post office a post bankplans that I think many Members present would support.
There is another point that we should take on board. The Department for Work and Pensions has been closing offices left, right and centre, including in my constituency. People now have to travel for three hours, in places where there is no public transport, to attend a face-to-face interview. They have grave difficulties, and I could tell many stories about that. Post offices and sub-post offices are operated by literate, numerate, intelligent people. Why not use them as the front line for the delivery of services to the citizen? Why not give allow them to help fill in forms and explain matters? For a very modest cost to the Department, there would be a massive increase in the quality of service. People would not be forced to spend many hours on the telephone to Clydebank, and would not end up with the wrong answer at the end of it all.
At the heart of this debate are the needs and desires of some of the most vulnerable in our society, including pensioners, the unbankedfinancial inclusion is an important point that has been brought upthe disabled and all those on benefit. They trust their local post office to help them. Trust is a word that has come out in many contributions this evening. The Post Office, postmasters and postmistresses are trusted. It is that human contact that is missing, but that is so important to many people. Our constituents do not want to spend hours on a telephone, only to be given the wrong answer, or put on to another department when they finally get through.
Our constituents value and want to maintain their post offices. They do not trust banks, and they have proved to be absolutely right in that. However, they do trust the Post Office. The replacement card account contract is wanted by the customers, our constituents. It is vital to the future of the network and supported by the vast majority of Members on both sides of the House. The Government have been overseeing the systematic removal of business from the post offices,
and it is time to stop. It is time to support the Post Office and allow it to adapt to the 21st century. For that, Post Office card account 2 is needed, and needed by the Post Office.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Ms Rosie Winterton): This has been a passionate debate about an extremely important issue that affects all right hon. and hon. Members, wherever we are from and whatever party or constituency we represent.
As many right hon. and hon. Members said in the debate, the post office is a treasured and essential cornerstone of local communities throughout the United Kingdom, it is trusted and understood in ways that other services are not and it is not to be treated as a purely commercial service. I assure the House that decisions about the Post Office will be taken respecting that unique situation and focusing on the importance of our post offices to the lives of the many millions of our constituents who use them every day.
Many Members have spoken this evening, and I shall endeavour to respond to their contributions as time allows, but I begin by explaining why the Government disagree with the Liberal Democrats and why I urge the House to support the Governments amendment. First, the Liberal Democrats state that the Department for Work and Pensions has written to all Post Office card account holders informing them that the contract will end. That is not the case. We have not written to POCA holders saying that.
Secondly, the Liberals contend that we have instructed people to switch out of their Post Office card accounts. That is not the case. On the contrary, we are opening 12,500 accounts every month. We have written to customers who are paid by cheque and encouraged them to move to payment into an account, including those that can be used at a post office, for the simple reasons that it is more secure for the customer, it reduces fraud and it is more efficient. We will provide a successor to chequesa better and safer product that will be easier for people to operate; but, there will be no compulsion on people using cheques, and there are certainly no instructions as the Liberal Democrats have suggested. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear earlier, however, we have changed the leaflet referred to, listing the Post Office card account alongside other bank accounts that are available at Post Office branches.
Kate Hoey: The Minister says that that aspect of the Liberal Democrat motion is not true, but what is it about some staff who, whatever is said on paper, seem in telephone calls and in other ways to make it clear that they do not want people to have a Post Office card account?
The hon. Members for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) made several points setting out their case, many of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State addressed. However, I want to take this opportunity
to clarify that it was the BBC, not the Government, that decided that the contract for the licence fee should not go the Post Office.
Mr. Hoyle: I welcome that comment about the BBC. We all know that the BBC was wrong and that it has got to put the situation right, but is my right hon. Friend aware that we need training to ensure that people who answer the phone get across the message that the Post Office card account is open for business and that the Post Office wants to do business? We may need some extra training to ensure that people understand the message that they give out on the phone.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) asked what more could be done in terms of services provided. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State assured my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) that he will set up a task group of MPs to work with the Government to identify new business opportunities for the Post Office, and continue to work with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), in his usual thoughtful and witty way, set out his support for the Post Office card account and sent out a search party for one of Manchesters other Members. My right hon. Friend emphasised the accounts public service element, reminded us that a Labour Government established the account in the first place and pointed to the cynical opportunism of the Liberal Democrats.
In a speech that reflected the depth of his understanding of the issue, particularly following his Committees report, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) made intriguing comments about better ways of attacking the Conservative party. Frankly, we have enough to go on at the moment, but we certainly look forward to more advice from the hon. Gentleman in that regard. At least he said that it was necessary to subsidise the Post Office; his partys Front Benchers refuse to commit to that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) spoke of the work of the all-party group on sub-post offices and the role of sub-postmasters. The hon. Members for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson) spoke of their constituents concerns about access, and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) talked about the Welsh language.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley spoke powerfully about the opportunism of the Liberal Democrats. He referred to the task group that the Secretary of State has agreed to set up and thanked the Secretary of State for the assurance that we will do all we can to ensure that we advertise the Post Office card account effectively. I reiterate that assurance.
The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) said that Labour Members did not understand Liberal Democrat policy on the matter being discussedbut
who on earth does? The only thing that the Liberal Democrats have managed tonight is to make off with the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley, without even asking his permission.
The Post Office has been transformed since 1997 and offers far more than it ever did when the Conservatives were in power. As the Government amendment states, the Post Office is the largest provider of foreign exchange and one of the largest providers of travel insurance in the UK. It also provides car insurance, telephone services, driving licence processing and passport application services. The current Post Office card account has played a key role in helping people make the move from having their payments made by order book to using a simple electronic account. About a fifth of Department for Work and Pensions customers use the account. Every week, nearly 4 million people use the Post Office card to collect their pensions, benefits or tax credit in cash at post offices.
As the Secretary of State made clear at the start of the debate, we will make an announcement about the Post Office card account at the earliest opportunity. Our objective is clear: to maintain the Post Offices role while facing up to change. That is the responsible thing to do.
I come back to the fundamental point made clear by the Secretary of State. The Post Office is essential as far more than a purely commercial service; it touches the lives of millions across the UK. That is why we have subsidised the Post Office by more than £2 billion since 1997 and why we have announced that we will spend another £1.7 billion until 2011. We have made the investment because the Post Office plays a valuable role in our society. This Labour Government will ensure that the Post Office continues to pay its unique role in British