§ 11. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
What progress has been made in agreeing a memorandum of understanding with banks concerning the universal bank. 
§ 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. Blunt
I cannot say that I am particularly grateful to the Minister for that answer. In January, the Secretary of State said at DTI questions:I am confident that within a few weeks we will sign a memorandum of understanding with those banks".—[Official Report, 18 January 2001; Vol. 361, c. 496.]However, in March, in response to a written question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat—Amory), the Department gave precisely the same answer as the Minister has just given, and stated:Discussions with the banks are at an advanced stage."—[Official Report, 12 March 2001; Vol. 364, c. 456W.]It is about time we had some answers from the Government, not least in view of the report produced by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which states that the Committeecan appreciate concern expressed as to the source of funding. In evidence to us a recurring annual figure of around £150 million was mentioned by the Post Office. That is on the low side. The back office costs will indeed be substantial.Will he tell us just how much this will cost the taxpayer? The House has a right to know.
§ Mr. Johnson
We are in discussions with the 11 major financial institutions, 10 banks and a building society—
§ Mr. Johnson
Yes, still. We are doing so because we have something that is worth arguing for. They are all talking constructively with us about setting up universal banking services that will allow pensioners and benefit recipients not only to draw their money in cash, in full, every week at the post office, but to access network banking there. That is an important development for the 979 Post Office and in the war against financial exclusion. We will continue to work on this matter over the weekend—apart from Monday, of course, which is a universal bank holiday.
§ Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)
Will the Minister confirm the significance of the concession that he is reported to have made to the banks, and to Halifax in particular, on not allowing branded bank accounts to be opened in Post Office branches? Does not that mean that the very large number of financially excluded people in inner-city and remote rural areas who do not have access to a bank branch will be restricted to the limited facilities of the card account and will not have the bill-paying accounts that they had anticipated?
§ Mr. Johnson
No; the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The discussions are subject to commercial confidentiality. When they are concluded, they will be revealed. Our aim is that people will not have to go to banks to open their accounts. They can start the process at their post office without needing to visit a bank. A very important point that was made in the Cruickshank report is that many people feel inhibited by having to go the banks, whereas they trust the post office.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members that the universal banking services will be a major step forward, and that the very people whom he mentions—the socially and financially excluded—will be able to have the benefits of direct debit, which we assess at up to £200 usage a year, as a result of being able to access those services.