HC Deb 22 March 2001 vol 365 cc473-5
7. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

What progress has been made in agreeing a memorandum of understanding with banks concerning the universal bank. [153637]

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson)

Discussions with the banks are at an advanced stage. I hope that they will be resolved shortly.

Mr. Swayne

Will the Minister comment on the reports in today's edition of The Independent, and confirm that Barclays and the Halifax are resisting proposals that post office employees should be able to open accounts at their banks, and that they are concerned about the prospect of money laundering? Will the Minister also say whether the Select Committee was accurate in its estimate that the running costs of the universal bank would be in the region of £150 million a year? What element of public subsidy will be involved in that?

Mr. Johnson

We are engaged in commercial negotiations at the moment, and I will not breach the confidentiality of those negotiations. I advise the hon. Gentleman to take as much notice of the report published this morning as of the report published in the same newspaper in November, which said that the universal bank was going to hit the dust. Shortly after that, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced that Barclays, Lloyds TSB, the Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, Abbey National and the Halifax had all agreed in principle to the universal bank. Since then, I visited the Alliance and Leicester Girobank in Merseyside, on 8 February. It announced that it too would join a universal bank. I had discussions with the Nationwide building society on 20 February, and it announced that it would sign up to the universal bank.

I advise Opposition Members to recognise that we have an opportunity hen to tackle financial exclusion. One hundred per cent. of the socially and financially excluded are among the 28 million people a week who visit post offices, and the universal bank will provide an exciting opportunity to move forward and, at the same time, to address the problems of branch closures and of people continuing to receive their benefits and pensions in cash across a post office counter. That is our aim. This is an exciting prospect and we aim to deliver on it.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

Will the universal bank not bring a new income stream to sub-post offices? Will it not also result in more people holding bank accounts? Are not those both highly desirable outcomes?

Mr. Johnson

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I would have expected Members on both sides of the House to recognise the opportunities that the proposal makes available. The universal bank concept—originally set out by the Cabinet Office performance and innovation unit, which said that the Post Office should set up a universal bank—has moved on a stage, to the point where every bank that offers a basic bank account, a so-called PAT 14 bank account, will now make those accounts available across a post office counter. That will open up the opportunity for far more work across post office counters. It will also attack the disgraceful situation in which up to 5 million people in this country do not have bank accounts or any of the advantages that they bring.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

How far have the negotiations been advanced by yesterday's report by the Competition Commission, on the first anniversary of the Cruickshank report? Specifically, does the Minister agree with the chair man of the commission that it would be appropriate and a useful source of revenue for the universal bank if there were a windfall tax on the excess profits of the banking system?

Mr. Johnson

I do not think that yesterday's report changes anything in respect of the discussions that we are having with the banks. Those are constructive, fruitful discussions. The banks have no legal obligation to sign up to universal banking services. Nevertheless, owing to the skill, wisdom and sagacity of the negotiators, they are willingly signing up to the universal banking services. We should ensure that we continue that process, finalise it shortly and be ready for 2003, when universal banking services will be launched.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire)

Is the Minister aware that owing to the clumsy way in which automated credit transfer was introduced, the Government have destroyed the confidence of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in their own offices? Those offices are now closing at then record rate of nearly two a day. Even if the Minister sorts out the muddle and confusion that surround the universal banking service, there will be precious little income for those in the post offices.

The Minister's answers have been muddled and confused over the months that we have been asking him questions about the universal banking service. Is he aware that when we sweep back to power after the next general election, we are going to cut through this confusion by introducing our own benefit card? That will enable beneficiaries to draw their money at the post offices, and enable the sub-post offices to get some income; most importantly of all, it will preserve the footfall in post offices. When the Minister goes back. to 1 Victoria street with his tail between his legs, will he put in hand our work, so that when we take over his office after the general election, we shall not have to waste any time putting in our benefit card scheme?

Mr. Johnson

Last July, the hon. Gentleman described the universal bank as flabby and unlikely; if I were a less kind person, I might say that that was a suitable description of him. He mentioned the benefit payment card, which I understand those on the Opposition Front Bench will be committed to reintroducing. The idea behind that card was well intentioned, but as I said at the time, it was a turkey of a PFI. Read the National Audit Office report: the project was three years overdue and vastly overspent. If Conservative Members would bother to look at the plans for universal balking services, they would see that the smart card—the so-called clear account—which is the post office's part of the system, does precisely what the benefit payment card would have done, except that it is a smart card rather than a swipe card, because it moves the technology forward.

I heard the leadership bid that the hon. Gentleman has just made, but I must tell Conservative Members that if we are to fight the election on the issues that he raised, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters will be on our side in implementing the PIU report; they will not support some adventurer who wants to go back and recreate the benefit payment card.

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