HC Deb 02 April 2003 vol 402 cc905-7
6. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

If he will make a statement on his recent meeting with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. [106164]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

On 10 March 2003 I chaired a meeting with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters on behalf of the Prime Minister, who was unable to attend due to urgent parliamentary business. I was accompanied by my hon. Friend the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness at the Department of Trade and Industry. We discussed a range of issues affecting the post office network, including the universal banking system.

Dr. Cable

I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on his successful intervention in the Department for Work and Pensions, which has reduced from eight to seven the number of bureaucratic obstacles facing pensioners opening a Post Office card account. Is he aware that that Department subsequently got its own back by requiring the Post Office to issue a banning order on leaflets from Age Concern, which offers advice to pensioners? Will the Deputy Prime Minister kindly intervene again?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He makes a fair point that the postmasters felt that there was too much bureaucracy in the development of the new card system, so we were pleased to be able to make changes to meet those criticisms. I note what the hon. Gentleman says and I will pass on his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend make a statement on Crown post offices, which are closing all over the country, including in Northumberland. In Blyth, in my constituency, the last one will close at the end of this month. Will my right hon. Friend clear this up matter and tell us why Crown post offices are closing all over the country?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will be aware that many thousands of post offices have closed. The Government have made available nearly £2 billion in subsidy to help make the sort of changes that he has described, both nationally and in rural areas. In the urban areas to which my hon. Friend referred, a fund of £210 million was announced, I think in December, to help areas deprived of post offices. We have laid out our criteria, and that should assist in preventing further closures.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

The National Consumer Council, the Association of Subpostmasters, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, and Help the Aged have all criticised the new Post Office system. They say that the scheme has not been thought through, that obstacles have been put in the way of benefit recipients who want a Post Office card account, and that the new scheme will not meet the needs of the poor, the elderly or the disabled, who depend on it. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that all those organisations are wrong?

The Deputy Prime Minister

No, I think that the sub-postmasters made genuine criticisms of the Government. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) noted, we addressed one of the criticisms. It was a step in the right direction. Other criticisms were made, and we are in active discussion with the sub-postmasters. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the universal banking system was launched only yesterday. We hope that services will continue to improve, and that will benefit the post offices.

David Davis

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that constructive response. However, as he knows, only one person in 20 wanted the changes, and fewer than one in 10 have taken up the Post Office card. Post offices face massive cuts in their income and are now being told that they will be paid less per transaction than in the past. That will cause even more serious income problems. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm or refute that members of Post Office management are being given incentives based on the number of post offices being closed?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am not aware of the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I shall bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who deals with these matters. However, I was powerfully impressed by the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. Its members want change and are grateful for the £2 billion that we have given to assist in that change. That compares with what happened under the previous Administration: they gave nothing, and just sat there and watched the decline of post offices.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

When my right hon. Friend was discussing the closure of urban post offices—four have closed in my constituency—did he discuss opportunities for councils to provide information points at post offices and sub-post offices? Should not the Government encourage a broader range of products, not just the lottery but connections for internet services and so on, so as to encourage more commercial opportunities for post offices and thereby ensure that they are viable in the future?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It was very clear to me from the meeting with the sub-postmasers that they very much welcome the general practitioners for Government role, and that offices could be accessed for a lot more information than at present. There is an awful lot of discussion going on about that. We tried two experiments under the "Your Guide" principle in Leicestershire and Rutland, for which we provided £25 million. So far, we have not been convinced that that is the proper way to go, but we are in continuing discussions with the Post Office.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister take any responsibility at all for the universal bank account? If so, will he take action to try to make the account more user friendly, so that users can at least set up standing orders and direct debits in order to take advantage of discounts on the utilities?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. The sub-postmasters made the point strongly that they wanted that. They feel that there are too many obstructions when it comes to transferring direct payments from the Department for Work and Pensions into people's accounts. We are doing all that we can to improve that.