HC Deb 11 June 2003 vol 406 cc758-800
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

We now come to the debate on Post Office card accounts. Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

5.1 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

I beg to move,

That this House believes that those Post Office customers who wish to continue receiving their benefits, pension payments and tax credits through the Post Office, following the introduction of ACT in April, should be allowed to do so through a post office card account opened at the counter of a post office or sub-post office; further believes that customers should be offered a genuine choice between the options available, including a post office card account; supports the National Federation of Subpostmasters' call that there should be no administrative obstacles to customers opening a post office card account; notes the importance of post office card accounts to the future financial viability of sub-post offices; and calls upon the Government to ensure that there is a level playing field in the marketing, promotion and advertising of the banking options from all Government departments and agencies, including the Department for Work and Pensions, the Inland Revenue and the Veterans Agency. Hon. Members will note that the text of the motion is identical to early-day motion 572 in the name of the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill). I pay tribute to him for his work and to other members of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry as they conduct their inquiry. Nearly 400 hon. Members from all parties, including more than 170 Labour Members, supported the early-day motion and I have high hopes that the House will agree to our motion today.

The support of nearly 400 Members highlights the seriousness of the issue for millions of our constituents throughout the country. It is right to record that those affected include many of the most vulnerable people in our society—the elderly and infirm and those who rely on what they receive each week at the post office to feed and clothe themselves and their families.

In the past few months, I have received hundreds of letters from people who are desperately worried about the changes. Many elderly constituents are simply not used to the sort of technology that the Government are forcing on them through the changes. Many are not familiar with the world of the PIN number or the plastic card and run their finances on a cash basis. Doubtless that is why so many have continued to collect their pensions at the post office.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

What is the hon. Gentleman's position on pension books? The sort of pensioner whom he describes likes the pension book system and does not understand why it should change. The motion understandably covers Post Office card accounts, but will he clarify whether Conservative Members believe that pensioners should retain the right to collect their pensions with a pension book?

Mr. Heald

We believe that pensioners should be able to collect their pensions by that method or through a simple Post Office card account. Pensioners and other vulnerable people should be able to continue to do as they have been doing—go to their post office, receive the cash and manage their finances in the way in which they wish. The answer to the question is therefore yes, but I stress that the Post Office card account could have been good, but it has been ruined by Government incompetence.

It is clear from evidence to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry that, to many elderly people, it appears as though the scheme is aimed at 86-year-olds but devised by 26-year-olds. It is not appropriate to the audience at which it is directed. Last week, at the Select Committee hearing, the Chairman asked the chief executive of Royal Mail whether it would be unreasonable to direct most of the blame at the Department for Work and Pensions for devising the most awkward and inconvenient way of setting up a Post Office card account. Mr. Mills, the chief executive, replied:

It is not too unreasonable, Chairman. And no wonder. If we look at the problems involved in opening an account, we see that the complex system put in place by the Government—not the Post Office—has led to difficulties and confusion for hundreds of thousands of people.

One pensioner wrote to me to describe what had happened when she tried to open a Post Office card account, saying: It was 25 times of trying before I got through to the number … As a worker in the Citizens Advice Bureau I am meeting many elderly pensioners who feel very threatened by the whole process … Why can't the government have application forms available in Post Offices? Why, indeed? The answer given to the Select Committee on this point by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), was: If we just had application forms hanging round the Post Office I can see problems in that this is an account system, the Post Office Card Account, designed just for our customers, the Department for Work and Pensions customers … It is not for the general citizenry". That shows just how out of touch the Minister is, because every person in the country who is over pension age is entitled to open one of these accounts, as are all those with children. Surely that is sufficient justification for having simple forms available in the post office. After all, driving licence application forms are only for customers of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, but they are available in post offices. Passport application forms are only for customers of the Passport Agency, but they too are available in post offices. Is the Minister seriously suggesting that the millions of customers of the Department for Work and Pensions who receive cash at the post office do not deserve the same consideration?

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

In my constituency, the last Crown posh office in south-east Northumberland has closed. I asked the Post Office to keep it open for two years while the Post Office card account got off the ground because, although a lot of people were signing up, there were not enough. Many people were finding it complicated, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, but, given time, there would have been enough of them. The Post Office denied me those two years, and closed the post office last week. Why should the people of Blyth be loyal to the Post Office, when the Post Office has not been loyal to them?

Mr. Heald

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. As a result of these changes, there will be a drop of something like 40 per cent. in business in post offices across the country, according to the sub-postmasters. The effect of that in loss of footfall will be that many post office products will not be purchased. Furthermore, in a small community, it will not just be the post office that suffers but all the other small shops that rely on people purchasing things after they have been to the post office to obtain their money.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I agree totally that pensioners should be able to use their pension books while they continue to draw their pension. That is basic justice. Does the hon. Gentleman share the concern of pensioners in my constituency about the security issues relating to the card account? Many of them walk to the post office and, I am afraid that, in constituencies such as mine, people are mugged for all sorts of things. They are worried that they will be mugged, that their card will be taken off them and that they will be forced to give the mugger their PIN number. Many elderly people are wary of the security problems involved in the scheme. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should now say that, whatever the situation, if someone wants to keep on using their pension book, they should be able to do so?

Mr. Heald

I agree with the hon. Lady. Many people who collect their money at the post office are elderly and are not going to be collecting their money for many more years, to be frank. Some of the people who have written to me are in their 90s, and even in these days of good public health, they will be using these services for only a short period. To them, however, it matters greatly that they are able to do so. To have a massive change inflicted upon them at that age really is wrong.

It is difficult to open a Post Office card account. One would have thought that the Government would have made a massive effort to explain the options and to help customers. In fact, many letters went out to customers that did not even refer to the option of a Post Office card account. The advertising started only after the scheme had been implemented.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

On Friday a sub-postmaster in my constituency told me of complaints that he had received from customers about obstacles that had been placed in the way of opening current accounts. It is hugely burdensome for pensioners to go to all the trouble of opening accounts simply to draw their pensions from the post office, and it is doubly burdensome when obstacles are deliberately placed in their way.

Mr. Heald

Indeed. A pensioner wrote to me saying that, having got through to the helpline, she was subjected to a tirade in favour of bank accounts but I stated that I wanted to keep getting paid in my local post office. The girl on the phone kept telling me it was much more convenient to have it at a bank". An 85-year old pensioner from Doncaster wrote to me at the end of last month to say: young friend … phoned to get more information regarding her child allowance … During her call, she was very heavily pressed to use the bank and not the Post Office.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying, but is it not even worse than that? In many areas, there is no bank branch to use, because the major banks have been implementing a branch closure programme for at least 10 years. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), the only way of obtaining money from a bank may be to use a "hole in the wall", and there are serious problems with a number of those machines.

Mr. Heald

That just goes to show that the system has not been thought through adequately.

The system is complex, and it was not advertised properly. Individuals are being pushed away from the Post Office card account. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head and says "No, no." Let us consider whether there might be a reason for what is happening. When he was questioned last week, the Minister admitted that Post Office card accounts cost the Department for Work and Pensions money, and that it had been funded for only 3 million of all the millions of customers. He said that if that was reduced any further, he would have to go cap in hand and open up discussions with our good friends in the Treasury". There we have it. The evidence on the ground and the money that is available point in the same direction: the Department is dissuading customers from using Post Office card accounts. Is it any wonder that 800,000 of the 2.5 million who have been written to so far have failed to respond?

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

In fact, a great many people want their pensions to be paid through bank accounts. We must accept that things move on. I acknowledge that there have been problems in the past for people who have wanted to have Post Office cards, but a lot of work has been done to resolve those problems. In the window of my constituency office is a massive poster from the Post Office telling people that they can still collect their pensions and have a Post Office card. I have leaflets, and I have tried phoning the hotline—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady cannot make a speech during an intervention.

Mr. Heald

Like me, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and many others, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) signed the early-day motion. We want a genuine choice, and we want it to be easy to open a Post Office card account. I hope that she will vote with us tonight, because the wording of the motion is exactly the same as that of the early-day motion that she signed.

Geraldine Smith

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heald

I had better make some progress. There is very little time.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

My hon. Friend said that this was cost-driven. Has he considered the social cost of the damage that will be done not just to post offices but to individuals? Those of us whose constituencies contain a large number of elderly people know that the post office is often where they meet their friends just once a week. This Government could not care less about that, and are trying to take it away.

Mr. Heald

That point has been made to me in letters from people all over the country. We are talking about a social loss. It is also wrong to impose on vulnerable people uncertainty about something that is so important to them. They rely on the money that they collect, week by week, and to impose on them a confusing system that they do not understand is just plain wrong.

Even those who can open a Post Office card account may not be able to use it all the time. Many of those who use order books get their carer to collect their pensions if they are not well. However, they may have to use more than one carer. That is fine under the current system but the Post Office card account will allow only one person to be nominated for that purpose. How will that affect the pensioner from Oldham who wrote to me? That pensioner stated: I have no relatives, and most of my friends have died. If I am ill … I may be allocated a home carer who can collect my retirement pension … Each time this has happened, it has been a different home carer … I have been told that unless I can nominate someone to act as agent for me, should I not be able to collect my pension … I shall simply get no money … No thought has been given to the plight of older people, or younger disabled people, who simply have no-one to appoint". Another pensioner from Kent wrote: I understand that the carer will also be given a separate PIN … In my local Post Office I see home carers collect for 3 to 4 pensioners at one time … If they have to use PINs this means memorising several at one time, and as they do this job five days a week, they will have to know and use something like 20 PINs. Some memory needed there! Has any thought been given to this situation? Surely, the Government should be able to explain how those difficulties are to be surmounted. What is the answer? I hope that the Minister will address those points.

The Government need to be clearer on what is happening with the key pads that have been installed. Are they to be ripped out or modified? What is to happen to all 38,000 of them and how is it that the Minister's Department allowed those problems to arise in the first place?

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness told the Select Committee last week that the Post Office was looking to develop new technology for secure alternatives to PIN pads. What is the timetable for its introduction? Is it separate from the exceptions service for those who are simply unable to open or use any of the direct payment options available, including Post Office card accounts? The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters has pointed out that no details of an exceptions service have been released and there is no mention of it in any of the publicity. The federation states that that causes concern and uncertainty for those claimants who cannot manage on the options available.

I have raised the exceptions service on a number of occasions in the House but the answers that I have received have not shed much light on the position. At questions on Monday, I asked the Secretary of State whether he would say what criteria would qualify a person for the exceptions service. He replied: we shall consult closely … with representative groups of older people, disabled people and others to ensure that those criteria are sensible and meet people's needs".—[Official Report, 9 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 390.] With the greatest possible respect ro him, that was a non-answer. Saying that the criteria will be "sensible" and that they will "meet people's needs" does not tell us what they are. Many customers simply do not know about the exceptions service because they have not been told. They do not know that they can keep their order books for up to two years while the service is being developed.

When the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North, was pressed to explain whether people are aware of that, what was his reply to the Select Committee? He said: I cannot, to be straight with you, guarantee that they are sufficiently aware. I think some are but I think there is still some confusion. One would think that it was a pretty big issue and should be dealt with urgently. The question arises, what were the Government going to do to let people know? The answer given by the Under-Secretary was: In every local radio interview, I do stress that. I say 'Look: the advice to people at the moment is, do not panic'". It is very Corporal Jones but we were looking for something a bit more Captain Mainwaring, not least because the Government intend to spend two years developing the exceptions service when they already know how it is going to work.

The Under-Secretary told the Select Committee last week that the exceptions service would "almost certainly" be a cheque through the post. It is hardly rocket science. It really is "Dad's Army" at the DWP. Although it knows what form the service will take, it has not even asked, consulted or told the Post Office about it yet, as the chief executive confirmed last week.

Of course, it is not even clear whom the exceptions service is going to be for. Last Tuesday, the Under-Secretary told me that it would be for those who genuinely are unable to manage an account". —[Official Report, 3 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 50W] However, a day later, at the Select Committee, he described the exceptions service as applying where people … feel that none of the existing accounts including the Post Office card account was suitable". So who decides and on what basis? Will the service be available to customers who feel that none of the account-based options is suitable, or do they need to be assessed by the DWP as medically unable? It is a vital question, because the people concerned are elderly customers and those suffering from blindness, Alzheimer's disease, severe arthritis, autism and other serious conditions. They deserve answers and should not be left in the dark.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Could we also address the question of how many the exception will apply to? We know that 40 per cent. of the people who have been asked by the Government to transfer to the new system have not yet done so. What will happen to them? Will the exception apply to 40 per cent. of the people?

Mr. Heald

We simply do not know. I have asked the question and been told that the number is very small. I have asked what will happen to the nearly 40 per cent. who have not responded to the letters of invitation when the order books are phased out. The answer comes back, "We will contact them again," but there is no clarity as to when the exceptions service will be introduced, whom it will apply to and what it is about. We do not even know whether it is the same thing as the technological changes that the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness talked about.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

Of course, there is another group who will be affected by this. Those who suffer from learning disabilities will certainly be unable to respond to the Government's letters and invitations, and they are probably not following the Under-Secretary very closely on local radio. They will also lose out.

Mr. Heald

Of course, the sad thing about the point that my hon. Friend makes so aptly is that many people—parents, many professionals and even the individuals concerned—have spent years encouraging a little independence and the ability to manage one's own affairs. Then the Government come along with their flashy new system and suddenly, people are supposed to say, "Oh well, a carer can do it for me." That is against the whole trend of our efforts to consider and help disabled people.

The Under-Secretary really must answer the pensioner in Kent, who says: I am used to going to the Post Office each week and getting cash with no problems and like many of our generation am not happy with PIN numbers and plastic cards, but it seems there will be no alternative. That pensioner feels that none of the options on offer is satisfactory. In those circumstances, if she feels—to paraphrase the Under-Secretary—that account-based systems are unsuitable, will she be able to use the exceptions service?

The effect of all this is likely to be fewer customers using local post offices to collect their money, or the other services that they provide.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

In such instances, what is wrong with people having a bank account and cashing cheques at a time and a post office of their choice?

Mr. Heald

Nothing at all. There is no argument between the hon. Gentleman and ourselves; indeed, he signed the early-day motion that relates to the motion that we are proposing today. All that we ask for is an easy system for applying for a post office card account and proper information—points that are in the motion, and with which he agrees. We are all for choice and for people being able to do exactly what they wish to do, and they should have the option of a Post Office card account and easy access to it.

In small communities, neighbouring shops will also suffer. This is a deliberate policy of the Government, which will damage communities throughout the country as post offices are forced to close. It is vital that we save our local post offices.

I have placed before the House practical examples from real people. I have included many quotations from letters that I have received, and I hope that the Government respond positively during this debate to the problems highlighted by evidence from some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Those people deserve better than they have got and better than they are getting, and it is time that the Government listened to their concerns.

I invite not only my right hon. and hon. Friends but the two independent Members, the three Social Democratic and Labour party Members, the four Democratic Unionist party Members, the four Ulster Unionist party Members, the four Plaid Cymru Members, the five Scottish National party Members, the 51 Liberal Democrat Members and the 175 Labour Members—all of whom have already supported this motion as an early-day motion—to demonstrate their continuing support in the Lobby this evening. I commend the motion to the House.

5.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

recognises that more people than ever are choosing to receive their benefits and pensions straight into accounts and welcomes the significant steps the Government has taken to modernise the payment of benefits and enable customers to choose the account that suits them best; welcomes the introduction of the Post Office Card Account as one important option; further recognises the major benefits the move to Direct Payment will have in cutting fraud and crime and the important role it will play in extending financial inclusion; recognises the importance of this programme, which alongside other initiatives such as Pension Credit, increases opportunities for elderly people; applauds the Post Office and the cross-departmental programme that ensured the new system was delivered on time at the start of April; and believes that the move to Direct Payment is central to the future of a successful modern Post Office. I am pleased to move the amendment standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and other ministerial colleagues. I welcome the opportunity afforded by the debate. Changes to the way in which we pay benefits and pensions will ensure a more modern, efficient and reliable service that will increase customer choice, provide better value for the taxpayer. cut fraud and boost financial inclusion.

May I say at the outset that I recognise that legitimate worries and concerns will always arise when changes of this sort are proposed and implemented? However, the whole House will agree that there is a difference between debating legitimate concerns and playing politics with the issues by going for inaccurate scaremongering. In view of the vulnerability of some of the people described by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), we all have duties to attend to in the House and in our constituencies on this matter.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

The Minister's claim that changes in payment will give rise to more choice and modernisation will ring very hollow indeed among to my constituents in Old Town in Bexhill. whose post office is closing. The branch closure letter expressly states as one of the reasons for closure: Benefits are paid with the introduction of Direct Payment into accounts. My constituents, many of whom are elderly and frail, will be left without a local post office and will have to pay to travel by taxi to collect their pension elsewhere, which is a poor deal for them.

Malcolm Wicks

I hope to address some of those concerns during my speech. However, the present Government, unlike the previous Conservative Government, have invested record levels in the post office network—[Interruption.] I have already said that I am not interested in playing politics with the issues, so I shall not compare the record number of post office closures under the previous Government with what is occurring now. We are going for record investment, including £450 million in the rural post office network. After the debate, I would be happy to compare records, if that is the game that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) wants to play.

Mr. Weir

The Minister refers to changing over the system, but the Government amendment ends by saying that the move to Direct Payment is central to the future of a successful modern Post Office". How can that be, if it is estimated that 40 per cent. of income from the Post Office will disappear? If it is true, why will the Minister not market the Post Office card account as the main means of moving towards such direct payment?

Malcolm Wicks

We added that sentence to our amendment mainly because we view the future of the Post Office, in part, as a modern banking system, through which people exercising choices can secure money for their pensions or benefits. However, I shall return to that later.

Geraldine Smith

The Minister refers to the previous Government. Is he aware that Morecambe nearly lost a Crown post office when the Conservative Government tried to privatise the Post Office? Only campaigns by the Labour party and residents saved our main Crown office.

Malcolm Wicks

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I hope that we can all unite on a programme that includes direct payment modernisation, which will ensure the future of the post office network. We all share that objective in common. I hope that I can now make some progress and take interventions as they arise.

It is important to understand what has been happening. People were already voting with their feet. The number of customers paid by direct payment into a bank or building society account increased by nearly 1 million last year. Six out of 10 of the new cohort of pensioners and people retiring asked for their pension to be paid into a bank or building society account, and six out of 10 new child benefit payments are made through direct payment. Those are important trends.

Mr. Heald

If everything is working out so swimmingly with people being paid their money directly to their bank and building society accounts, why force people who do not want to do that into the new system? Many of them have spent their whole lives managing with cash. What is the point?

Malcolm Wicks

We are not forcing anyone. The whole point—

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Yes, you are.

Malcolm Wicks

The whole point is about giving people choice. If we did not make this change, the post office network would be bled dry by people increasingly choosing to have their benefit or pension paid into a bank or building society. It is only by offering choice that we offer some safeguard to the future of the post office network. This is not rocket science.

Kate Hoey

I appreciate parts of what my hon. Friend is saying, but will he give me a clear statement—yes or no—on whether we will still allow payment by benefit book to that smallish number of people who, for particular reasons, want to continue with that system of payment? I thought that we wanted to give people a real choice.

Malcolm Wicks

The pension books, order books and giros that we have now will be phased out by 2005. That is why we need to offer other choices, including—where necessary—an exceptions service. I cannot give my hon. Friend the reassurance she seeks, because that is the logic of the scheme.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

It is important to repeat, for the record, something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) did as Secretary of State. As the Conservatives left office, we considered the question of choice, but we also considered the social impact on an elderly population. The old system does cost more money, but we thought that it was worth it for those people who—as the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) suggested—need to have the security of collecting the money personally through their books. We decided to continue that system until those people were deceased or moved away. There is an important social case to be made for that, but the Minister does not seem to value it.

Malcolm Wicks

We do agree on the absolute right, and need, for many current pensioners and other benefit customers to be able to go to the post office and access their money in cash, if that is their choice. We are finding ways to enable that to happen.

Most people—although perhaps not all—recognise that order books, which came in with ration books, have had their day. The world has changed enormously since then. Most people now have bank accounts, into which their wages are paid. People are also used to using plastic cards and cash machines. If anyone were designing a new payment system today, the last thing they would suggest would be order books. Indeed, a former Secretary of State has said that the process of distributing benefits by order books was one of the most costly, inefficient and fraud-prone ways of delivering money."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 12 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 62WH.] That was the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who was drawing on his experience.

We announced on 24 May 1999 that we were cancelling the benefit payment card. That project was initiated by the previous Administration and the House may recall that the project suffered from considerable delays and setbacks and that we were left with no option but to cancel it. Had it been successful, order books would already have been abolished and replaced by an electronic card-based system accessible at post offices.

We have put in place a new system that still allows people to access their cash at the post office and that provides the Post Office with new business opportunities. That is a major part of the strategy. What is more, we have done it on time. The Post Office and all those involved should be congratulated on having universal banking up and running on 1 April 2003.

I turn now to direct payments. Customers will have more choice about where they collect their money from, which will include the post office, if that is what they wish. In the spirit of consensus, I must say that there appears to be some genuine misunderstanding among Opposition Members about this matter. At the post office, customers will be able to use a current account, if their bank has a network banking arrangement with the Post Office, or a basic bank account, or a Post Office card account.

Customers will be contacted on the matter over the next two years, and that process is starting already. They do not need to do anything until they hear from the Government. In radio interviews, I have used the phrase "Don't panic!" to make that clear and, if that amuses Opposition Members on a hot afternoon, I am pleased that it does so. In fact, the real Dad's Army was a valued institution at a time of some difficulty and change for this country. I am therefore not too worried about that.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Minister has tried to do what Ministers always do when they want to defend the indefensible—he has said that he does not want to make a political point out of the matter, and that he is seeking consensus across the House. However, if he genuinely wants that consensus, will he say what the Government's objection to the Opposition motion is? It states that there should be no administrative obstacles to customers opening a post office card account; notes the importance of post office card accounts to the future viability of sub-post offices. What is the Government's objection to that?

Malcolm Wicks

I agree with much of the Opposition motion, but we are concerned with setting up a Post Office card account, and I shall come to that.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

One of the causes of social and financial exclusion is the fact that many people in this country do not have their own bank accounts. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's proposals are an important contribution to encouraging people to take up that facility and use it for their own benefit?

Malcolm Wicks

I agree absolutely. Many people have highlighted the problems associated with financial exclusion, not least in terms of our quest to get more jobless people into work. That quest is a feature of what the Government are about.

We are writing to our customers and setting out the options. Most importantly, only the way in which benefits and pensions are paid will be affected. Customers will still get their money as regularly as they do now, and it is important to note that that will include weekly payments for pensioners.

The Government's plans, and their funding for the post office network, have taken account of the move to direct payment. In order for the network to have a bright future, post offices need to become providers of high-quality banking services that people want to use. The Government have provided funding to enable them to do that, and to support the network.

I shall outline the Government's reasons for making the move. They include many of the factors that caused a previous Government to be interested in doing the same.

Direct payment has several advantages.

Bob Spink

Will the Minister give way?

Malcolm Wicks

I am a generous person—possibly too generous, as the House will tire of me if my speech lasts too long.

Hon. Members


Bob Spink

The Minister is indeed generous. He said that he would set out how the Post Office card accounts work, so how will he answer my constituent in Benfleet? She wrote to me this week to state: I work at the post office on the counter and the palaver we have in opening the P.O. card accounts is quite unbelievable. So far our office has only opened three accounts since March, which isn't a very good sign for our jobs. I received that letter on 6 June.

Malcolm Wicks

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman telling the House of that experience. I shall deal with some of the numbers involved in a moment, which should in part answer that point.

What are the advantages of direct payment? As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) noted, one such advantage is financial inclusion. Most of us take for granted the advantages of having a bank account, and 87 per cent. of benefit customers already have access to a suitable account. The figure for pensioners is slightly higher, at 90 per cent. Like all hon. Members, I am concerned about the important minorities, but we should not typecast all elderly people as people who are not in the financial mainstream, as nine out of 10 already have accounts with banks or building societies. However, that leaves about 3.5 million adults in the United Kingdom without access to a bank account and unable to take advantages such as savings to utility bills that come through making payments by direct debit. Some of those people are unemployed and will need a bank account when they get work. That is important to what we are doing at Jobcentre Plus to ready people for jobs.

Direct payment will help to spread financial inclusion by increasing the number of people who have bank accounts, giving them opportunities to benefit. The banks have introduced straightforward basic bank accounts over the past few years that are ideal for people who have never used an account before. Many can now be used at post office branches.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I notice that the Minister has not so far mentioned choice. Will he reply to the National Consumer Council, a statutory body, which commented on universal banking in its document, "Everyday Essentials": The object of addressing the financial exclusion of some low-income customers is submerged in a wider agenda to reduce government expenditure."?

Malcolm Wicks

As I make progress, my position on that will become clear. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning choice, to which I was about to turn. To be fair to myself—I like to do that sometimes—I should say that I have mentioned it already.

Some people think that customers should be persuaded to open a Post Office card account regardless of whether it is the best option for them. We believe in choice. At the end of the day, choice will be determined not by what any Minister or the Post Office or any other vested interest group says, but by what the customer says. Customers should choose the account that best meets their needs and circumstances. People using post offices in future will do so because they want to, not because they have to. In future, a pensioner may well access her money at the post office through the card account while, on either side of her in the queue, a doctor may be accessing money through his or her bank account and a young unemployed man is using a basic bank account. People will use different methods to get money, but will choose to do so at the post office if it suits them.

Mr. Luff

Why, then, is a pensioner in my constituency being forced—she has no choice—to open a bank account? She wanted to pay her Royal Mail pension—I stress Royal Mail—into the Post Office card account. Because the Government has limited the terms of the Post Office card account, she is not allowed to do so. At the age of 91, she is being obliged, forced and compelled to open a bank account for the first time in her life.

Malcolm Wicks

State benefits, including pensions, can be paid into a Post Office card account; private or occupational pensions cannot.

Kate Hoey


Malcolm Wicks

That is the nature of the product. It is not for me to advise the person in question, but another kind of account may be useful in her situation.

A second reason why we are moving towards payment modernisation and direct payments is the concern about fraud, which we all share. We lose about £80 million a year in giro and order book fraud. On average, more than 100 pensioners a week have their order books stolen. Cards can be stolen, and we understand that there are such risks in our society, but let us bear it in mind that too many people are mugged and have their cash and pension books stolen. A spokesperson for the Association of Chief Police Officers said:

Anything that reduces the opportunities for crime is a benefit. In particular this move will hopefully protect the more vulnerable members of society and enable them to feel safer. One advantage of the Post Office card account is that the pensioner or other benefit recipient no longer has to draw all their money. If a pensioner wants to take half of it, or whatever, the rest can remain in the account. Most people would concede that that is an advantage over the current system.

A second advantage is that there are administrative cost savings. I make no apology for that; it is right to cut unnecessary administrative expenditure. Each pension book foil costs 68p and every giro costs £1.47, while payment into a bank account costs only 1p. I am sure that the Opposition do not really want to spend more money on social security administration just for the sake of it.

Mr. Gibb

The hon. Gentleman refers to the administrative savings, but is he aware of the extra transport costs for pensioners in the Pagham area of my constituency? Pagham post office is going to be closed and they will have to make a two-mile round trip to collect their pensions. Can the Minister explain why the Post Office counter in Pagham is not being offered, as a matter of course, to other shops on the Pagham parade so that there will be a service for pensioners in the area?

Malcolm Wicks

I suspect that my hon. Friend the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness may deal with such issues in the wind-up. The Government cannot guarantee that every post office will stay open. The hon. Gentleman is a fair man and will accept that we have seen many, many closures over several decades. Obviously, in such situations, we are all sensitive to how people, whether in his constituency or mine, can access money. We have to think through the details of the individual cases.

What is the process for opening a Post Office card account? In effect, customers have to take only three steps. First, after hearing from us, they ring the customer conversion centre to discuss their options. It is important that those options are spelled out. Secondly, they await a personal invitation document from our Department to take to the Post Office branch to collect a Post Office card account application form to complete. Thirdly, as with all accounts, they then send the required account details back to the Department of Work and Pensions.

Mr. Heald

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Malcolm Wicks

Not just yet.

People have accused us of making the process of opening a card account difficult—I think that the hon. Gentleman might have done so—and have said that the customer conversion centre is trying to dissuade people from opening a card account.

Mr. Luff

It is.

Malcolm Wicks

That is simply not true.

Kate Hoey

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Malcolm Wicks

Not just yet.

At the risk of bringing evidence to bear on the debate, independent research by Postwatch, the consumer watchdog, has shown that 88 per cent. of pensioners said that they felt that advice from the customer conversion centre was given in a clear and unbiased manner".

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire)

So what?

Malcolm Wicks

Well, that is the Postwatch evidence.

Postwatch also found that 94 per cent. of those ringing the centre to open a card account felt that the information they were given was "clear and unbiased", and 91 per cent. of pensioners who rang the centre did not feel that staff were seeking to persuade them to choose one option over the others.

We are spending a good deal of money on communicating the direct payment message. It is right that we do so. When I told the Select Committee on Trade and Industry that I realised that there was still confusion, I was being honest. This is a major change and, understandably, many of our constituents have not yet fully understood the choices available to them.

We are spending £25 million over the next three years on advertising. Many hon. Members will have already seen the advertisements. All the material that we are sending customers mentions post office access and the Post Office card account. Government material is complemented by the Post Office's own leaflets and advertising. Postwatch research shows that 93 per cent. of pensioners described my Department's customer information material as "of good quality".

Mr. Gale

Why do our pensioner constituents have to jump through hoops, make phone calls and await a form when they could perfectly easily go to the post office, collect the form and fill it in, as they do for other services such as driving licences and passports?

Malcolm Wicks

Opening any bank account is more complicated than the hon. Gentleman suggests, and rightly so. We are concerned about fraud and impersonation—people pinching other people's identities. It is also important to note that the Post Office card account is only for customers of the Department of Work and Pensions—pensioners or benefit claimants. I said "only", but there are, of course, millions of them. Sending people the personal invitation document is verification from the Government that it is a bona fide application for the Post Office card account. In terms of security and fraud and identification, the document is a very important component. I hope that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Heald

Will the Minister give way?

Malcolm Wicks

Not just yet. I will of course give way in a moment, but I think that I have been relatively generous.

Mr. Heald

Very generous.

Malcolm Wicks

Thank you very much.

I shall now report on the progress that we are making, because colleagues are interested in what is happening. So far we have sent out 2.5 million letters inviting customers to convert to direct payments. We are doing that gradually, phased over two years. It is important that we do so, given the numbers involved. One and a half million customers have responded with bank details. There will of course be a lag, and people should not make too much of the fact that not everyone has yet replied. Some have only just heard.

More than 300,000 customers have requested a Post Office card account. However. the customers contacted so far are not representative of the whole benefit population, because we have gone for certain client groups early on, so simple arithmetic, such as division, of these statistics would not stand up to analysis. We need to take care in extrapolating from the figures. However, even though migration is still at a very early stage, a large number of customers are already requesting a Post Office card account. The latest figures that I have, for 30 May, show that the proportion of pensioners requesting a card account was around 50 per cent.—I say "around" because that figure will fluctuate. It is not a reflection of what it will eventually be, but it is around 50 per cent. Some 40 per cent. of Jobcentre Plus customers and 12 per cent. of child benefit customers have requested a card account.

Many of those opting for a current or basic bank account are also choosing to use them at post office branches. If, as some allege—I think unfairly—that is difficult, why is the Post Office card account proving a success, with many people opting for it? We shall provide regularly updated figures to the House by regularly placing a report in the Library.

Mr. Page

No sane organisation embarks on such a massive change without proper evaluation or surveys or pilot studies. What pilot studies and evaluations did the Government carry out before starting this exercise? For example, how many of those people will convert to Post Office card accounts? What percentage do the Government expect that figure to reach?

Malcolm Wicks

I have given percentages of what is happening—

Mr. Page

I know, but what are we going to get to?

Malcolm Wicks

They are the crucial percentages, yes, but I emphasise that they depend on what people choose to do. Of course we evaluated all aspects of this. There was research—the Post Office did its own work, and so on. We talked to all the obvious groups and they were very helpful. Our planning assumption has been that 3 million Post Office card accounts might be opened, and that under the terms of our contract with the Post Office between 2003 and 2010 that could be worth £1 billion to the Post Office. However, that is a planning assumption; it could be less, and it could well be more, depending on choice. I hope that the hon. Gentleman finds that helpful.

I move on to some of the issues about the more vulnerable groups that we are all concerned about. We have been sensitive to the needs of vulnerable customers. Third party access will continue to be available under direct payment. There are a number of tried and tested options for bank or building society accounts, including power of attorney arrangements, arranging a third party mandate, and having payments, where appropriate, paid into a joint account. People with a Post Office card account will be able to obtain a second card, with a separate PIN, to enable a nominated person to access their account. However, we have always recognised that there will be some people whom we cannot pay by direct payment. They could include those who cannot get any sort of account, although they are a tiny number, and some people who need casual agents—perhaps people with serious learning difficulties, or some who may be suffering from Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. I hesitate when I talk about those with serious learning difficulties because I know many people with learning difficulties who are perfectly able to access their accounts, and none of us wants to stereotype in that way, but of course there will be some of whom we need to take special care because of the nature of their disability—I mentioned Alzheimer's as an example. We also need a way to make urgent payments, such as those through crisis loans.

Order books will continue to be available for people who cannot manage the new arrangements until conversion to direct payment is completed in 2005, which means that we have time to get things right. People will be able to keep their order books during that period and the exceptions service will be in place before order books are phased out.

We want to design the exceptions service to meet people's needs properly. We need a better understanding of the problems that some people will face. Rather than guessing the circumstances with which the service will be required to deal, we will closely monitor the way in which the new arrangements for direct payment operate in practice and work with customer representative groups to design a secure and efficient service that meets people's needs. We are in regular contact with those groups; indeed, I have held a meeting with them. However, the service will not be an alternative to direct payment or a fourth option. It will be available only to those who really need it.

Mr. Heald

What will the criteria be? The Minister gave the Select Committee on Trade and Industry an example of people who consider that they are unable to use the options. Could such a person use the exceptions service, and will medical evidence be required for that? Will he give us more detail on how decisions will be made? If he cannot do that, will he explain why, having introduced a new measure that is bound to cause concern, the Government did not design an exceptions service in the first place, especially if people will just be sent a cheque in the post, as he told the Select Committee?

Malcolm Wicks


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the Minister resumes his speech, I tell the House that I hope that there will be an opportunity for Back Benchers to participate in the debate.

Malcolm Wicks

I apologise for my excessive generosity.

At the moment, we favour a cheque-based system to meet the needs of the exceptions service. It will have additional security features so that it will be less prone to fraud than the current giro system. My hon. Friend the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness may deal with issues relating to PIN pads and the Post Office's current plans.

We are making sensible changes and offering customers a genuine choice. We are listening to customers and their representatives so that we provide a system that meets their individual needs. We are also listening to hon. Members of all parties. All customers who want to continue to receive their pension, benefit or tax credit through the Post Office may do so—just as we promised. They may continue to receive payments at the same frequency as they do now—just as we promised. That can be achieved with a range of account options: basic bank accounts, several current accounts and, of course, the Post Office card account. Anyone who wants a card account may have one, and more than 300,000 people have already chosen that option.

We are proposing a more modern, efficient and secure system. We are increasing customer choice while providing better value for money for the taxpayer, tackling fraud and increasing financial inclusion. Those are the facts, and I hope that the House will welcome this long overdue social reform.

5.58 pm
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Opposition days usually present an opportunity for a bout of tribalism and sectarianism across the political divides. However, the motion is spot on and I have no problem with it whatsoever. It reflects faithfully the theme of many speeches that I have made about the Post Office and the spirit of the early-day motion that I signed along with many hon. Members of all parties, including the distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill). I would have hoped that almost all hon. Members would reach a consensus that the motion was agreeable, so I am surprised that it has created such division.

I shall bring the debate to a ground-level reality by mentioning an event from the Whitsun recess. People at my local Age Concern centre organised, among the bingo and tea dances, an advisory session on how local pensioners could deal with the changes. They brought along all the Post Office leaflets and the pensioners gathered round to ask practical and non-political questions about how the new system would affect them. The group was quite large. The nature of the centre meant that all those present were agile younger pensioners who were physically fit And mentally active. Every one of them had a bank account and wanted to continue to use the post office. That simple choice should not cause any great difficulty and the system should easily be able to accommodate those people.

The main question the pensioners asked was whether there would be a problem with them using their current accounts in the post office. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) asked the same question. The answer was, "Yes, sort of. It depends which bank you are with." The problem, which was immediately identified, was that people can use their current accounts if they bank with Barclays, Lloyds TSB, the Alliance and Leicester or the Co-operative.

Just to complicate matters further, one of the brighter pensioners popped up from the back and waved one of the Post Office's newspapers with the headline "Great News. Granddad gets his money for free at the Post Office". However, the article refers to only two banks, the Alliance and Leicester and Barclays. So we needed an explanation of how those differed from the other two banks. It appears that they are willing to offer automated cash access at the post office. The other two offer cheque cashing facilities. Those are different and it is confusing for pensioners. None the less, the basic principle is right. As the hon. Member for Stafford said, people who bank at those banks can get cash from the post office. That pledge is honoured in a general way and there is no problem for those people.

However, the majority of people in the meeting did not bank at those banks. Like 55 per cent. of the British banking population, they banked at the NatWest, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Halifax Bank of Scotland, the Midland—now HSBC—and the Abbey National, which do not offer the same facility. So the pensioners asked, "How do we get cash from the post office?" The answer was, "Well, if you want to continue using your bank to get access to post office facilities, you have to open a basic bank account in addition to your current account." They had never heard of it and were told that it was a simple account, to which they replied, "We are not simple people. Why do we need a simple account?"

The people giving the advice explained that the account is different from other accounts and that its features are restricted. They went on to set out some of those restrictions. The Department for Work and Pensions also sets them out in its document. It is not, for example, possible to run an overdraft, as has been mentioned. The Department states: But you need to make sure you have enough money in your account or the payment will not be made and you may be charged for this. It does not say what the charges are and that information is not easy to access.

The audience then said, "If this is how the basic bank accounts operate, surely we'll need to find out from the post office that we go into what state our accounts are in so that we don't inadvertently become overdrawn." The Department helpfully says a little later on in its document: With some basic bank accounts, you will also be able to check your balance there. It does not say which accounts or banks. That is left unclear. So 60 per cent. of the audience—55 per cent. of the general public—will not be able to access the service in the post office. They will have to go through a basic bank account if they want to continue to use its banking services.

Mr. Weir

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation is worse in Scotland, where a greater number of people bank with the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale than with the banks that offer the post office service?

Dr. Cable

The hon. Gentleman is right. I tabled a question to the Secretary of State for Scotland a couple of weeks ago. We did not reach it, but it made precisely that point. I think that in Scotland about 90 per cent. of the public will not have access to the service. They will have access only through the basic bank account, with all its limitations. For those people and the people who do not have bank accounts at all, the Post Office card account is clearly the mechanism of choice if they have an unrestricted choice between the three mechanisms open to them.

Mr. Kidney

Before the hon. Gentleman goes on to discuss the Post Office card account, will he say whether he agrees that it is as important for the future of our post offices that those bank accounts work through the Post Office, as the Post Office card account does? They are both important—it is not a case of one or the other.

Dr. Cable

I completely agree. We can criticise the Post Office card account, but the Government are at fault for failing to pursue banks that are not operating the full service. They should be named and shamed, particularly in Scotland. The banks have got off lightly. They have not been regulated after the Cruickshank report, which pointed to overcharging. They have offered a minimal service, and they think that they can get away with it. The Government should be demanding that NatWest, Abbey National and the rest offer the same services as their competitors. On that basis, the hon. Member for Stafford is right.

Mr. Kidney

I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman has just said, and shall give another example of sub-postmasters' complaints. One sub-postmistress rang one of the banks to say that she had a customer who wanted a basic bank account, but the person at the bank said, "I don't know what that means."

Dr. Cable

I shall press on specifically with the Post Office card account. The Conservative spokesman made two criticisms of the way in which the Government have approached that account. First, there is the absence of a level playing field for the three options. Secondly, there is the problem of complexity. Opposition parties can make such points, but I want to refer to a neutral source. In his speech, the Minister referred admiringly to Postwatch, the regulator. However, he may not have noticed what Postwatch, in its evidence to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, said about those specific points. Ms Foster from Postwatch said: Post Office Limited had an agreement with the Department for Work and Pensions … that all three accounts have to be mentioned at the same time and the fact that the Post Office card account had to come third on that list … our main concern is that it is appearing to be much more difficult to open a card account at the post office than to open a basic bank account. Consumers have to go through eight steps, which have been outlined to you in this submission, and for a lot of people who are not familiar with these account systems and banking systems, these seem to us to present unreasonable barriers. My colleague, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) asked Ms Foster: Can you think of any reason why they have been put at a disadvantage? She replied: I am mystified as to why the DWP has made it quite so difficult. That is the impartial Postwatch, which the Minister prayed in aid a few moments ago. It is also worth reminding him that Postwatch offered to help the Department for Work and Pensions and the Post Office with the pilot studies, but the Government refused to accept that offer.

However, Postwatch may be too committed a source of evidence, so may I cite some remarks by the Deputy Prime Minister? The Minister may recall that a few weeks ago, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, having despaired of getting anything out of the Department for Work and Pensions, asked to seek the Prime Minister. However, he was busy with the war in Iraq, so he referred the federation to the Deputy Prime Minister, who had a look at the problem. In Deputy Prime Minister's questions I asked him specifically about the fact that the application had eight stages which, through his intervention, he had managed to reduce to seven. He replied: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He makes a fair point that the postmasters felt there was too much bureaucracy in the development of the new card system".—[Official Report, 2 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 905.] The problem was therefore acknowledged by the Deputy Prime Minister himself.

I have read carefully the Minister's testimony to the Select Committee, in which he gave a series of reasons why the process is complicated. There are issues of security and, in addition, all the problems involved in applying for a bank account, such as the problem of establishing identity. We acknowledge that those are genuine problems. However, given the people we are talking about, those obstacles should be reduced to the absolute minimum. I shall cite some more testimony given to the Select Committee—a particularly valuable exchange between the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) and Mr. Mills, the chief executive of Post Office Counters. It reads as follows:

Mr. Berry: So there is nothing that can be done to make the system easier than it currently is? Mr. Mills: I absolutely did not say that. Mr. Berry: Yes, but, with the greatest respect, I would like to be perfectly clear about what you are saying. You are saying, therefore, that it could be made easier? Mr. Mills: Yes. Mr. Berry: There would be no technical problems, in your view, to making it easier? Mr. Mills: No, absolutely. So the Post Office says categorically that the system could be made easier. Any obstructions are not coming from within the Post Office. They are not inherent in the process of ordering a Post Office account. They are being created in the Department. We have not just the views of Opposition parties or dissident Back Benchers; we have the testimony of Post Office management, the Post Office consumers body and everybody outside who has examined the issue.

Chris Grayling

There was printed evidence as well, in that all the material distributed by the Department for the launch of the child benefit alternative of withdrawing money from the post office placed the Post Office card account on the back page, at the bottom, in small print, and the other alternatives in the front, highlighted, with big flashing neon arrows pointing towards them, effectively.

Dr. Cable

That sounds like a fair summary of what took place, and I endorse it.

I turn not to my pensioners in Twickenham, who want to operate through the banking system, not to the people who, despite the obstacles, will eventually be able to get the Post Office card account, but to the people who will not be able to access the system at all and who will fall within the exemption system. What worries me—again, evidence of this came before the Select Committee—is the total lack of preparation. The Minister seemed to imply that there was a process going on. If it is going on, he has not told the Post Office. Mr. Mills, the chief executive, was taxed about the problem by Labour Back Benchers.

The exchange was initiated by the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), who asked: Can you think of any other alternative for people who obviously cannot use a bank account or the Post Office card account? Mr. Mills replied: I am sure we could. We have not been asked to yet. The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) asked: Have you been consulted about what it should be? to which Mr. Mills responded:

No, not yet. Nobody has asked the Post Office what the exemption service involves. I do not know whether the Minister sees that as the Post Office working independently, but surely the people at the sharp end, the people who run the post office network, should have some idea of what an exceptions service entails, and they say that they have not even been asked.

I return to the basic economics of the network. We all agree that if pensioners and others need access to the post office in order to draw their cash, the post offices must be there. One of the fundamental problems is that if post offices are closing, it becomes more difficult for that to happen. We see that in our constituencies. There is a programme—the ludicrously entitled urban reinvention programme—that is cutting a third of all branches. We have all seen it beginning, but we do not know where it will end because we are not told and we are not given a list of closures. So far I have two in my constituency. The immediate consequences are greater difficulty of access for those in the areas affected, and greater crowding at post offices and longer queues. Access is being reduced daily under the closure programme.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

I apologise to the House for not being present at the beginning of the debate, as I was attending a long-planned event on EU enlargement. There are post office closures in my constituency, and I know that consultations are part of the closure process. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether any consultations have resulted in a reversal of the proposal to close? If he cannot tell me that, perhaps he can ask my hon. Friend the Minister to tell us, when he replies, whether there are any such examples.

Dr. Cable

To be fair to the system, there are one or two cases in which the decision has been reversed. but it is clear from conversations with the people involved that Postwatch, the organisation charged with the inquiries, is overwhelmed by the volume. It does not have the resources to give detailed attention to every individual decision. Closures are happening even though a handful of decisions have been reversed.

If the closure programme is to be slowed down, the Post Office must find alternative sources of income. That has been the problem from the beginning, which was identified in the excellent Cabinet Office study a few years ago. Where can income come from? First, the easier Post Office card accounts are to access, the more people use them, and the more income comes to the Post Office, directly and from footfall. Secondly—this goes back to the exchange that I had with the hon. Member for Stafford—it does not matter whether people use the banks provided that they can use their bank account in the Post Office and cash cheques. If that system works efficiently and fairly, the Post Office receives income, the people still come to the Post Office and the problem is alleviated. Insufficient pressure is being put on the banks, which are effectively opting out of that system at present.

Thirdly, we have the question of new sources of income. The postmasters have already had the disappointment of the "Your Guide" system being pulled from under them. I have seen the finances of that scheme and it did not make commercial sense for the Post Office, so I can see why it did not go ahead with it. Other options are being explored. I understand that a good e-shopping system is now being developed in post offices in Cornwall. That development has been entirely spontaneous, it is profitable and may offer a future for substantial parts of the system. The Government really do need to give it the kind of support that it deserves.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the development of internet shopping provides an increasing opportunity for goods to be delivered and picked up at local post offices rather than people having to go through the experience of receiving a card that says that a delivery attempt has been made but that the parcel has been taken away again?

Dr. Cable

The hon. Gentleman is right. There are major potential synergies between the different parts of the Post Office that have only just begun to be explored.

We are faced with an unnecessary disaster here. If those different elements of additional income were brought on stream, if the Post Office card account were made accessible, if cheque cashing were made easily accessible through all the banks, the process of transition for Post Office Counters Ltd. would be easily manageable and not painful.

To set matters right, the Government have only to make Post Office card accounts easily accessible, on a par with the other streams of drawing cash from post offices, bring more pressure to bear on the banks and be much more proactive about helping new sources of income generation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is a very short time left for Back Benchers. I am sure that it will be appreciated across the House if speeches could be fairly brief so that we can try to improve the breadth of the debate as far as possible.

6.17 pm
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I shall do my best to be as brief as you have urged us to be, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I do not think that it is right to say that the Post Office card account might be the saviour of post offices. Just before Christmas in Stafford I faced a big audience of sub-postmasters and sub-post mistresses and local and parish councillors who were all concerned about the future of their post offices and wanted a great campaign to ensure that everybody signed up for a Post Office card account. I sympathised with them for their struggling businesses and the obstacles in the way of people opening Post Office card accounts, so I had meetings with Ministers, asked parliamentary questions and wrote to Ministers about the obstacles. I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said on that subject. But I had the feeling that people were clinging to a diminishing market that in the end would see them out of business, and I recognised that it was as important to ensure that there were other opportunities for post offices.

This year in Stafford, jointly with my Staffordshire Parish Councils Association, I held a working lunch for all the people whom we could think of who could help with post offices. They included the Post Office and Postwatch, for obvious reasons; the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, which has money from the Government's Phoenix fund to offer advice and assistance to its members; the Countryside Agency, because of the support that it can give in rural areas with its community services grants and so on; and Business Link, because of its help to small businesses, the chief executive of which said there and then that it could give free and subsidised help to any post office or small business that asked for it and subsequently agreed to make that clear to every post office in Staffordshire.

Also present was our regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, which is responsible for economic development. It provided a list of people who could offer venture capital funds, including an enterprising fund in north Staffordshire dispensing very small amounts to give people access at the bottom end of the market. BT was there because it sponsored the lunch and already has a significant working relationship with the Post Office, which it wants to continue. It is particularly interested in broadband connections in rural areas. The Learning and Skills Council was represented because of its responsibility for training and life-long learning.

That brings me to what happened next. This week, we had a meeting at Rodbaston college of further education, which we chose because it already has experience of such issues through offering courses on business diversification. Those are used mostly by farmers, but it occurred to me that many post offices might want advice and training on diversification. At the meeting, the college said that it could help in many ways—not only through that course, but by advising post offices about marketing, business management, book-keeping, and disseminating best practice between themselves, perhaps going on to form clusters of post offices that can support each other. We are hoping to put together a package to offer those options to every post office in Staffordshire.

I want to mention, as did the hon. Member for Twickenham, the follow-up to "Your Guide". The evaluation was not quite positive enough about increased footfall and sales, and the Government therefore decided not to pursue it at their own expense. Now, private enterprise is trying to make it successful, with the first opening, by E-Daily, taking place in Cornwall in May. E-Daily has an ambitious programme of making touch screens available in 15,000 places around the country by the end of next year, which would be an impressive achievement. Next week, I am due to go to its Bayswater office to look at the technology to see whether there is something in it. It has an e-shopping aspect. The touch screens also give access to information on local government and the goods and services that are available in the immediate locality. That represents an exciting possibility. I had hoped that BT could offer such a service, but E-Daily got in first.

Nationally, there are the TV advertising campaign, with the three choices that were mentioned; the Post Office's own campaign, "Carry on Collecting", with which it has now been allowed to proceed; and the campaign by the Communication Workers Union, "Do your banking at the Post Office".

Each one of us individually can play our part, just like the people I listed, in helping post offices in our areas to expand their business base and to increase their footfall. They should not keep looking back to the business that they used to get from the Government and try to cling to as much of it as possible for as long as possible, but try to develop modern successful businesses in which people can feel that they have a future. That is my ambition in my area, and I hope that it is every other Member's ambition in their area.

6.22 pm
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

Some extremely valuable points have been made on both sides of the House. In view of the pressure of time, I shall make only three points.My first point concerns the promotion of the card account. On Monday, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions: Why are sub-post offices not allowed to promote it to their customers? The Secretary of State replied: Many sub-postmasters and postmistresses have been energetic in promoting the Post Office card accounts. He continued: As I said … in my initial answer, around half of the pensioners who have responded requested the Post Office card account. That hardly points to failure to promote it."—[Official Report, 9 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 387.] I understood that to be a clear statement that sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses are allowed to promote the card account. I hope that that is true, and that if the Minister says that is wrong the Government will change their mind. The sub-postmasters in my constituency believe that they are under instruction not to promote the card account. They are angry about that, and I hope that any such instruction will be reversed.

My second point concerns the complexity of the card account. I believe that Ministers have been actively trying to discourage the card account. In April, a memo went out from head office saying that an instruction had been issued to the effect that when post offices applied for card accounts, two forms had to be attached to each other, and that if they were not, the application would thereby be rendered invalid. However, the memo also stated that everything would be changed and that the two forms were not to be attached to each other after all. Moreover, it stated that attached forms would render the application invalid.

That might sound like a funny bureaucratic muddle, but it is not funny; it is serious. It is not surprising that another memo went out from head office last week. It stated that the process of applying for card accounts was so complicated that 25 per cent. of applications had been rejected. Consequently, the applicants whose applications have been rejected must undergo the whole awful rigmarole again. The vulnerable in our society are being worn down to persuade them to accept the Government's options. It will not do.

Pensioners are being discouraged. In April, I visited seven sub-post offices in my constituency, and I spoke to some sub-postmasters again today. One told me that pensioners in my constituency understand that they will not be able to collect their benefits from post offices but will have do that through their bank accounts. Many who have bank accounts are being panicked into giving details of them, and to them, that means that they will not be able to collect benefits from a post office.

My third point is that this is a serious matter. In south Warnborough in my constituency, the sub-post office is also the village shop, the local coffee house, the meeting place and the informal social services centre. For many pensioners, the walk to the post oflice every week is the only time that they get out and meet anybody. It may be the only time that they get any company. Some pensioners stay in the post office for hours, doing nothing except enjoying the company of those who come in at the same time. In that way, they can be checked on. If they do not turn up, the post office sends out the local rural support group. It is informal but effective. The Government have not fully understood the effect of their proposals on rural areas.

After my recent tour of the sub-post offices in my constituency, Mr. Tony James, the sub-postmaster at Selborne, a lovely rural village, which, like so many, revolves around the village post office, said that he believed that it was too late. He said that, by actively encouraging the payment of benefits and pensions via bank accounts, the Government is taking the lifeblood away from the post office". We look to the Minister to prove him wrong.

6.27 pm
Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

I want to speak only briefly so that other hon. Members can contribute. Clearly, the Post Office card account is crucial to the future of the Post Office, but people who want such an account have experienced problems. We all have constituents who have told us that they are not being encouraged to take up the option. Labour Front-Bench Members should listen to some of the points that have been made in the debate if we are to give people a genuine choice.

The last line in the Government amendment states that the move to Direct Payment is central to the future of a successful modern Post Office. That is true to an extent, but I want to emphasise the points that have been made to me. Dispelling some of the ignorance about the services that are available at a post office is also central to the future of a modern Post Office. The Government should consider the way in which they will deal with that ignorance and make more of the public aware of what they can do at the post office. Part of that must surely involve looking at the kind of campaign we can have to encourage people. There was once a campaign for village shops and facilities—and, indeed, facilities in certain urban areas—which urged people to "use it or lose it". We need to say to people that post offices cannot live on emotional good will alone, and that they have to generate new business that will support them.

We can subsidise post offices. Indeed, we are considering doing that in rural areas and in some of the deprived urban communities. As well as that, however, we need to consider how we support post offices in terms of generating business and allowing them to have the business that will support them, so that they can remain available to people. This is of fundamental importance when we are talking about financial exclusion and about making the facilities that post offices offer available to everyone. In communities in which the bank has gone and many of the village shops have gone, the post office is often the last thing that is left. In terms of access, we need to regard the post office as a community bank—almost a people's bank.

The Post Office clearly has to modernise, and part of that modernisation will involve Post Office card accounts and the installation of the new computer equipment. It must also involve the Government supporting sub-postmasters in generating new business to help them to keep their post offices alive. The Government must support them in the advertising that they are producing to make clear the kinds of services that are available.

Joyce Quin

The situation that my hon. Friend describes is certainly familiar to me in my inner urban constituency. Having heard what has been said about rural post offices, I think that rural and urban areas have a lot in common in this sense, because in some urban areas, the post office is sometimes the main commercial outlet for an estate or a community. I would like to support what my hon. Friend said about diversification. Would he agree with me that it is important to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady seems to be inserting a speech into her intervention and we are very short of time. She has not been here for the whole of the debate.

Vernon Coaker

I agree with the points that my right hon. Friend has made so well. Diversification is crucial, and the Government need to do what they can to support the generation of that new business if we are to have an extensive post office network that offers the opportunities that we want to all our people.

6.32 pm
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

I think that we would all agree with the valid point made by the Minister earlier that it is important to reduce the administration costs of social security. However, when he was pressed on the question of retaining pension books by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), he effectively said that there was no choice. He gave a clear answer to her question on that. For existing pensioners, that is a great shame. They should be allowed to keep that choice.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) said that pensioners and others should be encouraged to have bank accounts. That sentiment will have widespread support in the House, but not giving people any choice is a funny way of encouraging them; it is more like forcing them. We should also be aware of the social costs to existing pensioners who want to keep their pension book and to go into the post office once a week because of the support that that gives them.

The National Federation of Post Office and British Telecom Pensioners, which has 100,000 members and is headquartered in my constituency, has told me that it is ridiculous that there should be seven steps involved in setting up a Post Office card account. The fact that someone can get a passport application form from a post office counter is really a killer argument, because what could be more important or secure than a passport?

I hope that the Minister will respond to the point about home helps having to memorise the PIN numbers of perhaps 20 different people. I mention that point in the hope that he will respond to it specifically when he winds up. I also hope that we shall get an answer to the question about what happens when a carer, who can hold a person's second Post Office card account, goes on holiday. From the information that I have seen, there is no answer to that, which must be a great worry to many people.

Post offices are losing 41 per cent. of their income through automated credit transfer, although, as we have heard, in some cases there are good reasons for that. Of course diversification is important—I agree with the hon. Member for Stafford (M r. Kidney) that we need to encourage future viable businesses—but if there is no post office in the first place, because the income is gone and it has closed, it will be too late. Studham, the village where I live in my constituency, has lost its post office, as has Totternhoe, and an urban post office in Downside has also gone in the last month or so—although I am pursuing that closure actively, and have not yet given up.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Andrew Selous

I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not. I have only one minute left, and another Member wishes to speak before the winding-up speeches.

I do not think ghat the vital importance of the Post Office card account has been stressed enough today. It is the only account that requires people to go into post offices. That is critical, because post offices cannot survive solely on the basis of transaction payments for the processing of benefits. They need people to go in and buy other goods.

6.36 pm
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

Every speaker today has talked about choice, but listening to the Minister talk about choice reminded me of Henry Ford's dictum on the model T: "Any colour so long as it's black". According to the picture that he painted, post offices will be used for all sorts of banking facilities; but that is not what will happen. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), many bank accounts cannot be used in post offices—and, as I said earlier in an intervention, the situation is even worse in Scotland.

The Minister said that choice was already being exercised, and that six out of 10 new applications for child benefit involved direct payment. That is hardly surprising, as those applying for child benefit are much younger than the many pensioners who are deeply concerned about the move to bank accounts. That move, however, will not just affect our constituents; it will affect the Post Office badly. Thirty-five per cent. of the network's overall annual revenue already comes from contracts with the Benefits Agency and its Northern Ireland equivalent. In many areas, more than 40 per cent. of small post offices' income comes from benefit payments.

The argument that claimants will be able to collect benefits at banks will not wash, as over the past 10 years, banks have been steadily cutting branches in rural areas and small towns. But those are not the only areas affected. A fast-expanding town in my constituency, Monifieth, has just lost the last of its bank agencies. As in many rural areas, a local solicitor had become the agency for the Halifax, which has recently closed. There are now no banking facilities in an expanding town where there are many new people and much new building. People in that town will not have the option of using banks if the post office cannot deal with their requirements.

I think we would all be happy if ordinary bank accounts could be used at the post office, but that is not the case. Many people who receive benefits will face a long journey, whose cost will eat into their already meagre incomes.

There are also serious problems for those who have no bank accounts or Post Office card accounts. That was discussed only this week during Trade and Industry questions. The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, the hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), said that 3.5 million people in the UK currently had neither a bank account nor a Post Office card account. Not all of them will be benefit claimants, but it is a fair guess that most of them are. What will happen to those people? Will they all be able to obtain bank accounts? What if they want Post Office card accounts? Will they be able to get them, given the complications of the system?

The Minister spoke of the number of card accounts that had been opened. I asked a parliamentary question about that, and I think that on 9 May there were about a quarter of a million. Now the Minister quotes a figure of about 300,000. That is still a very small amount of card accounts. Unless there is a way to ensure that all those who want one can get one easily, there is a serious problem. A total of 3.5 million do not have a bank account or card account.There is a substantial demand for benefits to be paid in the traditional way. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Like all other hon. Members, I have heard from a stream of people who are concerned about the matter. They have tried to get a Post Office card account and felt that they have been put off. At trade and industry questions, the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness said: I have seen a variety of quite bright and attractive literature from the Post Office about direct payment, in which the Post Office card account features clearly."—[Official Report, 5 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 291.] I do not know what he meant by "clearly". The literature that I have seen is far from clear. He did not comment on whether the Department for Work and Pensions, the Inland Revenue and the Veterans Agency have made it clear in their literature that the card account is available. The plain fact is that they have not, and many people have found it difficult to get the card accounts in the first place.

6.40 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

This is an unusual occasion. Every year there are literally thousands of early-day motions. Many of us feel that many of them are worthless but in each early-day motion many hon. Members call for a motion to be debated "at an early day". How pleased the nearly 400 hon. Members who signed the early-day motion on the Post Office card account must be today.

Mr. Kidney

If the hon. Gentleman would like to maintain the massive cross- party support for the early-day motion, will he announce that there will be no Division at the end of the debate?

Mr. Robathan

Of course not. We want hon. Members to put their money where their mouth is. It is a genuine cross-party motion and genuine cross-party points have been made on both sides of the Chamber. The motion has united the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour party, which the Belfast agreement has failed to do. It has the highest number of signatures of any early-day motion this Session—385. That is one of the highest ever. Only one other this Session has attracted more than half the signatures of hon. Members in the House of Commons: that congratulating the excellent Laurie Kaye of the Table Office on his retirement.

Vernon Coaker

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robathan

I am sorry. No.

We therefore know that the motion is bound to pass, with so much support.

The debate has revealed that Government policy on the Post Office is in complete tatters; it is in chaos. The Department of Trade and Industry wants to keep the post offices open, yet it is closing three out of eight urban post offices. There is no proper plan. The Select Committee heard that last week.

The Department was meant to close post offices that were not in retail hotspots. It was meant to identify retail hotspots and to close the rather less good post offices, but it is just closing post offices where the postmaster has volunteered to take the redundancy package, or where managers may obtain bonuses by meeting their targets. There is no logic there. There is no more logic in Labour Members voting on 15 October for the urban network reinvention programme to close three post offices out of eight in urban areas and then campaigning in their constituencies to keep them open. The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), my neighbour, whom I have warned of this, is campaigning to keep open Humberstone post office, as he campaigned to keep open Scraptoff Lane post office. In fact, his photograph appeared twice in the Leicester Mercury last week under the headline, "MP campaigns against post office closure". It should have said, "'I voted to close three out of eight post offices in my constituency', says MP".

There is £450 million over three years for rural post offices. That takes us to the beginning of 2006, when the general election will be well out of the way. What is the future after that subsidy? We hear no answer. There should be a good future for the Post Office but I do not intend to dwell on that now. The PIU report offered hope. For example, it offered e-government, "Your Guide", which was binned after some £20 million was spent on it, universal banking and the Post Office card account, but we discover that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury have to pay for that, that they do not want to—I understand why—and that they are not committed to keeping open many much loved post offices. The DWP has won out over the DTI.

The Minister talked about choice. Indeed, the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) mentioned Henry Ford's dictum. It is true. People can get their benefits paid in any way they like as long as it is by ACT. That is the choice that is being offered by the Government.

The reality of the situation is spelled out by Mr. Tony Kuczys—the Under-Secretary will know him—who is in the universal banking policy division at The Adelphi. He wrote to Ministers on 18 April last year about letters to benefits claimants, and discussions with the British Bankers Association and the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. He said: we should be clear that neither body will much like what they see in these letters. He continues: The emphasis of the letters is very much on encouraging people to use existing accounts where possible—in line with Ministers' decision to go for 'actively managed choice'.

Vernon Coaker

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robathan

I am sorry—I do not have the time. The letter continues: Both the banks and the subpostmasters would really like a completely free choice. We will have to make it clear that this is not on offer … In discussion with the BBA and the NFSP we might want to concede giving a bit more prominence to the Card Account at Post Offices, once it is available. The letter then states: the Card Account will not initially be included in the leaflet", as we know. So that was the plan: do not tell people about the card account.

We also have the "Customer Journey", which I am told is so simple. According to the document entitled "Post Office card account—Customer Journey", if a customer who wants to use his bank account supplies his bank account details, no further customer action is required. However, if he chooses not to do so, there are 20 further steps to be taken.

The Deputy Prime Minister made the concession that every leaflet would have on it the Post Office card account alternative. Of course, those who ask for that alternative are immediately referred back to the start of the customer journey, and they have to telephone the call centre. Somebody who should know described the call centre as "a horror story". Indeed, pensioners in their 80s are being harassed by call centres to go for automated credit transfer.

A sub-postmaster from the west country whom I was speaking to this morning said that he had never seen a Post Office card account being used. Last week, he finally managed for the first time to get an assurance that a completed, successful application for a Post Office card account would go in, but he has not yet seen it and the customer is still waiting for the card. I am told that other initial applications are being stockpiled, for whatever reason. Perhaps the Minister might like to tell us whether that is true.

I have in my hand such a card. I shall hold it up for the House's benefit, because I suspect that many Members will not have seen what they look like—just as many sub-postmasters have never seen them used in anger, some 10 weeks after the system started.

Universal banking will mean an average loss of perhaps 40 per cent. of a branch's income. How will that be replaced? When discussing payment to postmasters for benefit transactions, the Post Office threatened to impose a settlement. It has now agreed one: 14p per £100 of benefit paid out. Currently, postmasters get 13p for a benefit transaction. However, as we have heard, pensioners might easily choose to take out their benefit in slugs of, say, £20. So three, four or five time-consuming transactions could be involved in order to earn 14p. Of course, the real truth is that far fewer people will use Post Office card accounts, the footfall will fall and income for postmasters will crash. We do not want that to happen.

What is the Government's assessment of the impact on sub-postmaster income, and of the future income stream for the post offices? We heard about internet banking, which is very sensible. Let us hear more about what post offices can do, and be encouraged to do, in terms of receipt and collection of e-banking. How much do the Government expect to save through the policy of universal banking? Altogether, some £430 million is paid in terms of benefit transactions. How much do the Government expect to save by undermining the post office network?

On 15 October last year, I suggested that the Post Office was insolvent—or would have been if it were a private company. The Minister contradicted me, so perhaps he can tell me whether what the chairman, Allan Leighton, and the chief executive, David Mills, told the NFSP conference last autumn was right: that Allan Leighton has threatened the Government that he would declare the Post Office insolvent.

So what is the future for the post office network, which is so important for communities throughout the land, as we have heard? I do not wish to dwell on the speeches—heavily curtailed—that were made by Back Benchers, but I should point out that they were making cross-party points. We should appreciate that. The hon. Members for Angus, for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) all made cross-party points with which few hon. Members would disagree.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) raised the complaints of ordinary people: pensioners, the disabled and others who are being brow-beaten, harassed and intimidated into not having a Post Office card account. I briefly quoted the National Consumer Council earlier and I shall do so again. Recommendation 3 of the document, "Everyday Essentials", is that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Post Office should ensure that all benefit recipients, including those with current accounts, have easy access to the card account. We know that they do not, so what happened to joined-up government and the holistic approach to the financially excluded and the vulnerable?

All we want to see is the customers of the Post Office, the general public, getting a decent choice and a fair deal. We believe that the Government should suspend the universal banking roll-out until a genuine choice is on offer so that customers can get Post Office card accounts and post offices can be kept open.

We support the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) and the nearly 400 Members of Parliament who have signed the motion. We support the request of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters that there should be no administrative obstacles to opening a Post Office card account, and we call on the Government to ensure a level playing field in marketing, promotion and the advance of banking options.

Anyone who signs a motion should be prepared to vote for it. I wish to quote: For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all; all honourable men". However, Mark Antony was being ironic, and irony, I was taught, was the lowest form of wit. I am not being ironic. I know that the motion will pass and I look forward to seeing 175 Labour Members in the Lobby with us in support.

6.51 pm
The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Stephen Timms)

We have had a good debate with some thoughtful contributions. However, I do not know whether the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has seen the memorandum produced today by the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, expressing disappointment at the way in which the Conservative party has tried to pursue the issue in party political terms. That has indeed been a disappointing feature of the debate. Nevertheless, as I say, we have heard some thoughtful contributions and the successful launch—

Mr. Robathan


Mr. Timms

I have very little time, but I shall give way once.

Mr. Robathan

As it happens, more Labour Members' names are appended to that motion than Conservative Members' names.

Mr. Timms

The point is that the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters has today expressed disappointment at the fact that his party has sought to exploit the motion. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take that to heart.

Mr. Robathan


Mr. Timms

No, I will not give way again.

Mr. Heald

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that this will not be a point of order.

Mr. Heald

Is it right for the Minister to say that the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters is against us proposing the motion, given that when I spoke to its general secretary, Mr. Colin Baker, earlier today, he congratulated me?

Mr. Speaker

Let us return to the debate before the House.

Mr. Timms

The successful launch of universal banking services on 1 April fulfilled our commitment to ensuring that people can continue to collect their benefits in cash at the local post office if they choose to do so. Customers now have three account options under the direct payment arrangements for how to they want to be paid. The first is an existing account, bank or building society. The second is one of the new bank or building society basic accounts for those who are new to banking and simply want to pay money in and get cash out, and perhaps pay bills automatically. That includes direct debit: it was said earlier that that is not possible with a basic bank account, but it is. The third is a Post Office card account—a simple account for the receipt of benefits, pension and tax credit payments.

In opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made it clear that, of the responses received so far from pensioners—a particularly important group of customers for the Post Office—half requested a Post Office card account, and they will get one. They are making up their own minds and deciding on their choice. About 45 per cent. of Jobcentre Plus customers requested a Post Office card account as well. The proportion of child benefit customers is much lower, but that is no surprise. It demonstrates that people are successfully choosing the account that meets their circumstances best, precisely as we intended. It is also clear that many of those who are not choosing a Post Office card account will—as my hon. Friend said earlier—continue to use their local post office to obtain benefit cash from their bank account. There is also every prospect of those who have not used the post office before being able, for the first time, to access cash with a card at the post office.

The Post Office card account is an important element of the new framework. For many on benefits, it will be the best account for them. It is simple and problem-free and, on the evidence we have seen so far, it is particularly attractive to pensioners. It is, of course, essential that those who deliver the service do so professionally, efficiently and effectively. It is because of its importance that it features in line 3 of the leaflet that the DWP has issued to explain clearly how the new procedures will work.

Some people have said that supporters of the Post Office should be pushing people towards the Post Office card account, whether they want it or not. That would be a serious mistake. First, customers should be able to choose the best account for them. Secondly, the card account does not contribute much to increasing financial inclusion, in the way that having a bank account does. Thirdly—and this is the point that I wish to emphasise—the real opportunity for the Post Office going forward is offering access to bank services more widely. It could become, as my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) suggested in their thoughtful contributions, the people's bank. Banking is a service that everybody in the country will use and that will allow the Post Office to expand its base of customers, rather than locking it into the diminishing group who only ever want to draw weekly benefit cash. Being locked into that shrinking group is at the heart of the Post Office's problems. The Post Office has to break new ground and win customers who use bank accounts and, thanks to the £500 million investment that we have made in universal banking services, we have put it in a position to do so and to capture new and growing markets, instead of being trapped in declining ones.

The Post Office already provides banking services on behalf of several banks. It provides a paper-based service that enables customers to cash cheques at post offices free of charge. From 1 April, in a further development of network banking, Alliance and Leicester began providing electronic access to all their bank accounts at any post office. Barclays began doing the same on 23 April. That is a significant development because it means that 11 million current account holders, using their existing cards, can now draw out cash free of charge at every post office from Land's End to John O'Groats. That is 11 million people with a compelling reason, many of them for the first time, to use their local post offices regularly, thanks to the Government's investment in the technology to make it all work, which was—incidentally—delivered on time to every post office.

The Post Office is talking to other banks to extend access to their current account holders, and several hon. Members have supported that move, too. The Post Office is uniquely placed to provide the banks with additional outlets and that is where its future success will lie. It means that every post office in the country can now say, "Do your banking at the post office." And the Post Office has the technology platform to offer a host of new services that can win a new generation of customers for the Post Office.

Several specific points have been raised in the debate but because of time constraints I cannot address all of them. However, I wish to deal with a concern raised several times in the debate, about carers with responsibility for several people. It has been suggested that those people might have to remember a different PIN number for every person whose money they collect through a Post Office card account. That is not the case. There is a facility on the Post Office card account so that people can change the PIN numbers and, if they wish, use the same PIN number to access each card account.

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes, 187, Noes 314.

Division No. 228] [6:59 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Allan, Richard
Amess, David Chope, Christopher
Arbuthnot, rh James Clappison, James
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Clarke, rh Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Baldry, Tony Collins, Tim
Barker, Gregory Cormack, Sir Patrick
Baron, John (Billericay) Cotter, Brian
Barrett, John Cran, James (Beverley)
Beggs, Roy (E Antrim) Curry, rh David
Beith, rh A. J. Davies, Quentin (Grantham & Stamford)
Bellingham, Henry
Beresford, Sir Paul Davis, rh Davld (Haltemprice & Howden)
Blunt, Crispin
Boswell, Tim Donrell, rh Stephen
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Doughty, Sue
Bottomley, rh Virginia (SW Surrey) Duncan, Alan (Rutland)
Duncan, Peter (Galloway)
Brady, Graham Evans, Nigel
Brake, Tom (Carshalton) Ewing, Annabelle
Brazier, Julian Fabricant, Michal
Browning, Mrs Angela Fallon, Michael
Bruce, Malcolm Field, Mark (Cities of London & Westminster)
Burnett, John
Burns, Simon Flook, Adrian
Burnside, David Forth, rh Eric
Burstow, Paul Foster, Don (Bath)
Butterfill, John Gale, Roger (N Thanet)
Cable, Dr. Vincent Gibb, Nick (Bognor Regis)
Calton, Mrs Patsy Gidley, Sandra
Cameron, David Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Campbell, Gregory (E Lond'y) Goodman, Paul
Campbell, rh Menzies (NE Fife) Grayling, Chris
Cash, William Green, Damian (Ashford)
Green, Matthew (Ludlow)
Greenway, John Price, Adam (E Carmarthen & Dinefwr)
Grieve, Dominic
Hague, rh William Prisk, Mark (Hertford)
Hammond, Philip Pugh, Dr. John
Hancock, Mike Randall, John
Harvey, Nick Redwood, rh John
Hawkins, Nick Rendel, David
Hayes, John (S Holland) Robathan, Andrew
Heald, Oliver Robertson, Angus (Moray)
Heath, David Robertson, Hugh (Faversham & M-Kent)
Heathcoat-Amory, rh David
Hendry, Charles Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Hermon Lady Robinson, Mrs Iris (Strangford)
Hoban, Mark (Fareham) Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Hogg, rh Douglas Roe, Mrs Marion
Holmes, Paul Ruffley, David
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Horam, John (Orpington)
Howard, rh Michael Sanders, Adrian
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Sayeed, Jonathan
Selous, Andrew
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Shephard, rh Mrs Gillian
Hunter, Andrew Shepherd, Richard
Jack, rh Michael
Jenkin, Bernard Simmonds, Mark
Simpson, Keith (M-Norfolk)
Johnson, Boris (Henley) Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns & Kincardine)
Keetch, Paul
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast S)
Kirkwood, Sir Archy Soames, Nicholas
Knight, rh Greg (E Yorkshire) Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Spicer, Sir Michael
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Spink, Bob (Castle Point)
Lansley, Andrew Spring, Richard
Laws, David (Yeovil) Stanley, rh Sir John
Leigh, Edward Streeter, Gary
Letwin, rh Oliver Stunell, Andrew
Syms, Robert
Lewis, Dr. Julian (New Forest E)
Lilley rh Peter Tapsell, Sir Peter
Llwyd Elfyn Taylor, John (Solihull)
Loughton, Tim Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Taylor, Sir Teddy
Luff Peter (M-Worcs) Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Mackay, rh Andrew Thurso, John
Maclean, rh David Tredinnick, David
McLoughlin, Patrick
Malins, Humfrey Turner Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Turner Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Maples, John Tyler, Paul (N Cornwall)
Tyrie, Andrew
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury & Atcham) Viggers, Peter
Waterson, Nigel
Mates, Michael Watkinson, Angela
Maude, rh Francis Webb, Steve (Northavon)
May, Mrs Theresa Weir, Michael
Mercer, Patrick Whittingdale, John
Mitchell, Andrew (Sutton Coldfield) Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Wiggin, Bill
Moore Michael Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon)
Moss, Malcolm Williams, Roger (Brecon)
Murrison, Dr. Andrew Willis, Phil
Winterton, Ann (Conlgleton)
Norman, Archie Winterton, Sir Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Oaten, Mark (Winchester)
Öpik, Lembit Wishart, Pete
Osborne, George (Tatton) Yeo, Tim (S Suffolk)
Ottaway, Richard Young, rh Sir George
Page, Richard
Paice, James Tellers for the Ayes:
Paterson, Owen Mr. Mark Francois and
Portillo, rh Michael Mr. David Wilshire
Abbott, Ms Diane Armstrong, rh Ms Hilary
Adams, Irene (Paisley N) Atherton, Ms Candy
Ainger, Nick Atkins, Charlotte
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE)
Alexander, Douglas Austin, John
Allen, Graham Bailey, Adrian
Anderson, rh Donald (Swansea E) Baird, Vera
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale & Darwen) Banks, Tony
Barron, rh Kevin
Battle, John Etherington, Bill
Begg, Miss Anne Farrelly, Paul
Benn, Hilary Field, rh Frank (Birkenhead)
Bennett, Andrew Fitzpatrick, Jim
Benton, Joe (Bootle) Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna
Berry, Roger Flynn, Paul (Newport W)
Best, Harold Follett, Barbara
Belts, Clive Foster, rh Derek
Blackman, Liz Foster, Michael (Worcester)
Blizzard, Bob Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings & Rye)
Blunkett, rh David
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Foulkes, rh George
Bradshaw, Ben Francis, Dr. Hywel
Brown, rh Gordon (Dunfermline E) Gapes, Mike (Ilford S)
Gardiner, Barry
Brown, rh Nicholas (Newcastle E Wallsend) George, rh Bruce (Walsall S)
Gerrard, Neil
Browne, Desmond Gibson, Dr. Ian
Bryant, Chris Gilroy, Linda
Buck, Ms Karen Goggins, Paul
Burden, Richard Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Burgon, Colin Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Burnham, Andy Grogan, John
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Caplin, Ivor Hamilton, David (Midlothian)
Casale, Roger Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Caton, Martin Hanson, David
Challen, Colin Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart)
Chaytor, David Havard, Dai (Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney)
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Mrs Helen (Peterborough) Healey, John
Clark, Dr. Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clarke, rh Charles (Norwich S) Hepburn, Stephen
Clarke, rh Tom (Coatbridge & Chrystion) Heppell, John
Hesford, Stephen
Clelland, David Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon V) Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Coaker, Vernon Hinchliffe, David
Coffey, Ms Ann Hodge, Margaret
Coleman, Iain Hope, Phil (Corby)
Colman, Tony Howarth, rh Alan (Newport E)
Cook, rh Robin (Livingston) Howarth, George (Knowsley N & Sefton E)
Cooper, Yvette
Corbyn, Jeremy Howells, Dr. Kim
Corston, Jean Hughes, Beverley (Stretford & Urmstion)
Cox, Tom (Tooting)
Cranston, Ross Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Crausby, David Humble, Mrs Joan
Cruddas, Jon Hurst, Alan (Braintree)
Cryer, Ann (Keighley) Hutton, rh John
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Iddon, Dr. Brian
Cunningham, Jim (Coventry S) Illsley, Eric
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) Ingram, rh Adam
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire Irranca-Davies, Huw
Dalyell, Tam Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead & Highgate)
Darling, rh Alistair
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
David, Wayne Jenkins, Brian
Davidson, Ian Johnson, Alan (Hull W)
Davies, rh Denzil (Llanelli) Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dawson, Hilton Jones, Kevan (N Durham)
Dean, Mrs Janet Jowell, rh Tessa
Denham, rh John Joyce, Eric (Falkirk W)
Dhanda, Parmjit Keeble, Ms Sally
Dismore, Andrew Keen, Ann (Brentford)
Donohoe, Brian H. Kemp, Fraser
Dowd, Jim (Lewisham W) Khabra, Piara S.
Drew, David (Stroud) Kidney, David
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Kilfoyle, Peter
Edwards, Huw King, Andy (Rugby)
Efford, Clive Knight, Jim (S Dorset)
Ellman, Mrs Louise Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen Quin, rh Joyce
Lammy, David Quinn, Lawrie
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Rammell, Bill
Lazarowicz, Mark Rapson, Syd (Portsmouth N)
Lepper, David Raynsford, rh Nick
Leslie, Christopher Reed, Andy (Loughborough)
Levitt, Tom (High Peak) Reid, rh Dr. John (Hamilton N & Bellshill)
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Linton, Martin Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Love, Andrew Roche, Mrs Barbara
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) Rooney, Terry
Luke, Iain (Dundee E) Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
McAvoy, Thomas Ruane, Chris
McCabe, Stephen Ruddock, Joan
McCafferty, Chris Russell, Ms Christine (City of Chester)
McDonagh, Siobhain
MacDonald, Calum Ryan, Joan (Enfield N)
McDonnell, John Savidge, Malcolm
McIsaac, Shona Sawford, Phil
McKechin, Ann Sedgemore, Brian
McKenna, Rosemary Shaw, Jonathan
Mackinlay, Andrew Sheerman, Barry
McNamara, Kevin Sheridan, Jim
McNulty, Tony Simon, Siôn (B'ham Erdington)
MacShane, Denis Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Mactaggart, Fiona Smith, rh Andrew (Oxford E)
McWalter, Tony Smith, Angela (Basildon)
McWilliam, John Smith, rh Chris (Islington S & Finsbury)
Mahmood, Khalid
Mallaber, Judy Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Mandelson, rh Peter
Mann, John (Bassetlaw) Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Soley, Clive
Marshall, David (Glasgow Shettlestion) Southworth, Helen
Spellar, rh John
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Squire, Rachel
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Martlew, Eric Steinberg, Gerry
Michael, rh Alun Stevenson, George
Miliband, David Stewart, David (Inverness E & Lochaber)
Miller, Andrew
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby) Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Moffatt, Laura Stinchcombe, Paul
Mole, Chris Stoate, Dr. Howard
Moonie, Dr. Lewis Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Moran, Margaret Tami, Mark (Alyn)
Morgan, Julie Taylor, rh Ann (Dewsbury)
Mountford, Kali Taylor, Dari (Stockton S)
Mullin, Chris Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Thomas, Gareth (Harrow W)
Murphy, rh Paul (Torfaen) Timms, Stephen
Naysmith, Dr. Doug Tipping, Paddy
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) Todd, Mark (S Derbyshire)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Touhig, Don (Islwyn)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Trickett, Jon
O'Hara, Edward Truswell, Paul
Olner, Bill Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Organ, Diana Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton Kemptiown)
Owen, Albert
Palmer, Dr. Nick Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Perham, Linda Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Picking, Anne Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Pike, Peter (Burnley) Vaz, Keith (Leicester E)
Pollard, Kerry Vis, Dr. Rudi
Pond, Chris (Gravesham) Walley, Ms Joan
Pope, Greg (Hyndburn) Ward, Claire
Pound, Stephen Wareing, Robert N.
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Watson, Tom (W Bromwich E)
Watts, David
Prescott, rh John White, Brian
Primarolo, rh Dawn Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Prosser, Gwyn Wicks, Malcolm
Purchase, Ken Williams, rh Alan (Swansea W)
Purnell, James Williams, Betty (Conwy)
Wills, Michael Wray, James (Glasgow Bailliestion)
Wilson, Brian
Winnick, David Wrignt, Anthony D. (Gt Yarmouth)
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C) Wright, David (Telford)
Wyatt, Derek
Wood, Mike (Batley)
Woodward, Shaun Tellers for the Noes:
Woolas, Phil Gillian Merron and
Worthington, Tony Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—

The House divided: Ayes 307, Noes 178.

Division No. 229] [7:15pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Clwyd, Ann (Cynon V)
Adams, Irene (Paisley N) Coaker, Vernon
Ainger, Nick Coffey, Ms Ann
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE) Colman, Tony
Alexander, Douglas Cook, rh Robin (Livingston)
Allen, Graham Cooper, Yvette
Anderson, rh Donald (Swansea E) Corbyn, Jeremy
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale & Darwen) Corston, Jean
Cox, Tom (Tooting)
Armstrong, rh Ms Hilary Cranston, Ross
Atherton, Ms Candy Crausby, David
Atkins, Charlotte Cruddas, Jon
Austin, John Cryer, Ann (Keighley)
Bailey, Adrian Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Baird, Vera Cunningham, Jim (Coventry S)
Banks, Tony Cunningham, Tony (Workington)
Barron, rh Kevin Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Battle, John Dalyell, Tam
Begg, Miss Anne Darling, rh Alistair
Benn, Hilary Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Bennett, Andrew David, Wayne
Benton, Joe (Bootle) Davidson, Ian
Berry, Roger Davies, rh Denzil (Llanelli)
Best, Harold Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Belts, Clive Dean, Mrs Janet
Blackman, Liz Denham, rh John
Blears, Ms Hazel Dhanda, Parmjit
Blizzard, Bob Dismore, Andrew
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Donohoe, Brian H.
Bradshaw, Ben Dowd, Jim (Lewisham W)
Brown, rh Gordon (Dunfermline E) Drew, David (Stroud)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Brown, rh Nicholas (Newcastle E Wallsend) Edwards, Huw
Efford, Clive
Browne, Desmond Ellman, Mrs Louise
Bryant, Chris Etherington, Bill
Burden, Richard Farrelly, Paul
Burgon, Colin Field, rh Frank (Birkenhead)
Burnham, Andy Fitzpatrick, Jim
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Flynn, Paul (Newport W)
Caplin, Ivor Follett, Barbara
Casale, Roger Foster, Michael (Worcester)
Caton, Martin Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings

& Rye)

Cawsey, Ian (Brigg)
Challen, Colin Foulkes, rh George
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Gapes, Mike (Ilford S)
Chaytor, David Gardiner, Barry
Clapham, Michael George, rh Bruce (Walsall S)
Clark, Mrs Helen (Peterborough) Gerrard, Neil
Clark, Dr. Lynda (Edinburgh


Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gilroy, Linda
Clarke, rh Charles (Norwich S) Goggins, Paul
Clarke, rh Tom (Coatbridge & Chrystion) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clelland, David Grogan, John
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Mactaggart, Fiona
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) McWalter, Tony
Hamilton, David (Midlothian) McWilliam, John
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Mahmood, Khalid
Hanson, David Mallaber, Judy
Harman, rh Ms Harriet Mandelson, rh Peter
Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart) Mann, John (Bassetlaw)
Havard, Dai (Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Marshall, David (Glasgow Shettlestion)
Healey, John
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Hepburn, Stephen Martlew, Eric
Heppell, John Michael, rh Alun
Hesford, Stephen Miliband, David
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia Miller, Andrew
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Hinchliffe, David Moffatt, Laura
Hodge, Margaret Mole, Chris
Hope, Phil (Corby) Moonie, Dr. Lewis
Howarth, rh Alan (Newport E) Moran, Margaret
Howarth, George (Knowsley N & Sefton E) Morgan, Julie
Mountford, Kali
Howells, Dr. Kim Mullin, Chris
Hughes, Beverley (Stretford & Urmston) Munn, Ms Meg
Urmston) Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Humble, Mrs Joan Murphy, rh Paul (Torfaen)
Hurst, Alan (Braintree) Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Hutton, rh John Norris, Dan (Wansdyke)
Iddon, Dr. Brian O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Illsley, Eric O'Hara, Edward
Ingram, rh Adam Olner, Bill
Irranca-Davies, Huw Organ, Diana
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Owen, Albert
Jenkins, Brian Palmer, Dr. Nick
Johnson, Alan (Hull W) Perham, Linda
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Picking, Anne
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Pike, Peter (Burnley)
Jones, Kevan (N Durham) Pollard, Kerry
Jowell, rh Tessa Pond, Chris (Gravesham)
Joyce, Eric (Falkirk W) Pope, Greg (Hyndburn)
Keeble, Ms Sally Pound, Stephen
Keen, Ann (Brentford) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham


Kemp, Fraser
Khabra, Piara S. Primarolo, rh Dawn
Kidney, David Prosser, Gwyn
Kilfoyle, Peter Purchase, Ken
King, Andy (Rugby) Purnell, James
Knight, Jim (S Dorset) Quin, rh Joyce
Kumar, Dr. Ashok Quinn, Lawrie
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen Rammell, Bill
Lammy, David Rapson, Syd (Portsmouth N)
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Raynsford, rh Nick
Lazarowicz, Mark Reed, Andy (Loughborough)
Lepper, David Reid, rh Dr. John (Hamilton N & Bellshill)
Leslie, Christopher
Levitt, Tom (High Peak) Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Linton, Martin Roche, Mrs Barbara
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Rooney, Terry
Love, Andrew Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) Ruane, Chris
Luke, Iain (Dundee E) Ruddock, Joan
McAvoy, Thomas Russell, Ms Christine (City of Chester)
McCabe, Stephen
McCafferty, Chris Ryan, Joan (Enfield N)
McDonagh, Siobhain Salter, Martin
MacDonald, Calum Savidge, Malcolm
McDonnell, John Sawford, Phil
McIsaac, Shona Sedgemore, Brian
McKechin, Ann Shaw, Jonathan
Mackinlay, Andrew Sheerman, Barry
McNamara, Kevin Sheridan, Jim
McNulty, Tony Simon, Siôn (B'ham Erdington)
MacShane, Denis Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Smith, rh Andrew (Oxford E) Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Smith, rh Chris (Islington S & Finsbury) Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Vaz, Keith (Leicester E)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale) Vis, Dr. Rudi
Walley, Ms Joan
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Ward, Claire
Soley, Clive Wareing, Robert N.
Southworth, Helen Watson, Tom (W Bromwich E)
Spellar, rh John Watts, David
Squire, Rachel White, Brian
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Steinberg, Gerry Wicks, Malcolm
Stevenson, George Williams, rh Alan (Swansea W)
Stewart, David (Inverness E & Lochaber) Williams, Betty (Conwy)
Wills, Michael
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Wilson, Brian
Stinchcombe, Paul Winnick, David
Stoate, Dr. Howard Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Tami, Mark (Alyn) Wood, Mike (Batley)
Taylor, rh Ann (Dewsbury) Woodward, Shaun
Taylor, Dari (Stockton S) Woolas, Phil
Taylor, David (NW Leics) Worthington, Tony
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W) Wray, James (Glasgow Baillieston)
Timms, Stephen
Tipping, Paddy Wright, Anthony D. (Gt Yarmouth)
Todd, Mark (S Derbyshire)
Touhig, Don (Islwyn) Wright, David (Telford)
Trickett, Jon Wyatt, Derek
Truswell, Paul
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE) Tellers for the Ayes:
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton Kemptown) Gillian Merron and
Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Curry, rh David
Allan, Richard Davies, Quentin (Grantham & Stamford)
Amess, David
Arbuthnot, rh James Davis, rh David (Haltemprice & Howden)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Dorrell, rh Stephen
Baldry, Tony Doughty, Sue
Barker, Gregory Duncan, Alan (Rutland)
Baron, John (Billericay) Duncan, Peter (Galloway)
Barrett, John Evans, Nigel
Beggs, Roy (E Antrim) Ewing, Annabelle
Berth, rh A. J. Fabricant, Michael
Bellingham, Henry Fallon, Michael
Blunt, Crispin Field, Mark (Cities of London & Westminster)
Boswell, Tim
Brady, Graham Flight, Howard
Brake, Tom (Carshalton) Flook, Adrian
Brazier, Julian Forth, rh Eric
Browning, Mrs Angela Foster, Don (Bath)
Bruce, Malcolm Fox, Dr. Liam
Burnett, John Gale, Roger (N Thanet)
Burns, Simon Gibb, Nick (Bognor Regis)
Burnside, David Gidley, Sandra
Burstow, Paul Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Butterfill, John Goodman, Paul
Cable, Dr. Vincent Grayling, Chris
Calton, Mrs Patsy Green, Damian (Ashford)
Cameron, David Green, Matthew (Ludlow)
Campbell, Gregory (E Lond'y) Greenway, John
Campbell, rh Menzies (NE Fife) Grieve, Dominic
Cash, William Hague, rh William
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Hancock, Mike
Hawkins, Nick
Chope, Christopher Hayes, John (S Holland)
Clappison, James Heald, Oliver
Clarke, rh Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Heath, David
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Hendry, Charles
Collins, Tim Hermon, Lady
Cormack, Sir Patrick Hoban, Mark (Fareham)
Cotter, Brian Hogg, rh Douglas
Holmes, Paul Robertson, Hugh (Faversham & M-Kent)
Horam, John (Orpington)
Howard, rh Michael Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Robinson, Mrs Iris (Strangford)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Jack, rh Michael Roe, Mrs Marion
Jenkin, Bernard Ruffley, David
Johnson, Boris (Henley) Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Keetch, Paul Sanders, Adrian
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Sayeed, Jonathan
Kirkwood, Sir Archy Selous, Andrew
Knight, rh Greg (E Yorkshire) Shephard, rh Mrs Gillian
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Shepherd, Richard
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Simmonds, Mark
Lanslev Andrew Simpson, Keith (M-Norfolk)
Laws, David (Yeovil) Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns & Kincardine)
Leigh, Edward
Lewis, Dr. Julian (New Forest E) Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast S)
Lilley, rh Peter Soames, Nicholas
Llwyd, Elfyn Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Loughton, Tim Spicer Sir Michgel
Luff, Peter (M- Worcs) Spink Bob (Castle Point)
Mackay, rh Andrew Spring Ricnard
Maclean, rh David Stanley, rh Sir John
McLoughlin, Patrick Streeter, Gary
Malins, Humfrey Stunell, Andrew
Maples, John Syms, Robert
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury & Atcham) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Mates, Michael Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
May, Mrs Theresa Taylor, Sir Teddy
Mercer, Patrick Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Mitchell, Andrew (Sutton Coldfield) Thurso, John
Tredinnick, David
Moore Michael Turner, Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Moss, Malcolm Tyler, Paul (N Cornwall)
Murrison, Dr. Andrew Tyrie, Andrew
Norman, Archie Viggers, Peter
Oaten, Mark (Winchester) Waterson, Nigel
Öpik, Lembit Watkinson, Angela
Osborne, George (Tatton) Weir, Michael
Ottaway, Richard Whittingdale, John
Page, Richard Wiggin, Bill
Paice, James Willetts, Davisd
Paterson, Owen Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon)
Portillo, rh Michael Williams, Roger (Brecon)
Price, Adam (E Carmarthen & dinefwr) Willis, Phil
Winterton, Ann (Congleton)
Prisk, Mark (Hertford) Winterton, Sir Nicholas


Pugh, Dr. John Wishart, Pete
Randall, John Young, rh Sir George
Redwood, rh John
Rendel, David Tellers for the Noes:
Robathan, Andrew Mr. David Wilshire and
Robertson, Angus (Moray) Mr. Mark Francois

Question accordingly agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House recognises that more people than ever are choosing to receive their benefits and pensions straight into accounts and welcomes the significant steps the Government has taken to modernise the payment of benefits and enable customers to choose the account that suits them best; welcomes the introduction of the Post Office Card Account as one important option; further recognises the major benefits the move to Direct Payment will have in cutting fraud and crime and the important role it will play in extending financial inclusion; recognises the importance of this programme, which alongside other initiatives such as Pension Credit, increases opportunities for elderly people; applauds the Post Office and the cross-departmental programme that ensured the new system was delivered on time at the start of April; and believes that the move to Direct Payment is central to the future of a successful modern Post Office.