§ 9. Mr. Whittingdale
To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is his policy in respect of the automation of benefits payments at post offices.
§ Mr. Lilley
I intend to move as rapidly as possible to an automated system for paying benefit at post offices. That will reduce costs for taxpayers, be more secure for customers and guarantee the future of post offices.
§ Mr. Whittingdale
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the plans that he has announced represent a massive vote of confidence in the future of the sub-post office network and give the lie to suggestions that that network is under threat? Does he further agree that the increased opportunities available to sub-post offices as a result of those plans will allow them to win new business, thus ensuring their continued survival?
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend is right on both counts. When I announced the proposals to the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, it especially welcomed the fact that our decision to computerise post offices was the clearest possible commitment that we could give that we would continue to deliver benefits through post offices for the foreseeable future. Once that network is installed, it will open up to sub-post offices the opportunity to undertake other business through the computer system, such as the payment of electricity and gas bills, or any other business that they might be able to secure which is not possible at present. It opens up a rosy future for sub-post offices.
§ Mr. Hain
Does the Secretary of State accept that the majority of sub-postmasters, while welcoming the automation of benefit payments as I do, believe that post office privatisation will threaten rural sub-post offices and small post offices and that the social security claimants whom he is seeking to help by automation will find their local post offices being closed by the thousand? Why do not the Government abandon their crazy proposal for post office privatisation?
§ Mr. Lilley
No, they mostly realise that that sort of propaganda is the sheerest nonsense. Sub-post offices are private enterprises and sub-postmasters know the benefits of private enterprise. We want to reinforce their ability to provide excellent service to their customers. That is why we are considering the proposals laid out in the Green Paper. Whatever happens, the future of sub-post offices is secure as a result of the decisions that I announced.