HC Deb 11 March 2003 vol 401 cc145-7
2. Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute)

What discussions she has had with Royal Mail concerning (a) postal services and (b) post offices in Scotland. [101096]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met Allan Leighton, the chairman of Royal Mail Group, in November to discuss postal services and post offices in Scotland.

Mr. Reid

There is widespread concern that many rural post offices will be forced to close when the Government introduce the new method of paying pensions and benefits in three weeks' time. Will the Minister assure the House that the rather sinisterly named customer conversion centres will give unbiased information to pensioners? Will she also ensure that automated credit transfer will not be introduced until the computer systems have been properly tested? Finally, will the Government run a high-profile campaign to promote the new Post Office card account before it is introduced?

Mrs. McGuire

May I reassure the House that the net figure for post office closures in Scotland in 2001–02 was 26, compared with 63 in the previous year? That is a 59 per cent. reduction. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the Government have invested a great many resources in trying to maintain the network. What we are trying to do with the new way of paying benefits is to institute a far more secure—and, in many ways, easier—system, particularly for pensioners. If anyone suggests that the Government are somehow hiding this new initiative under some kind of collective bushel, I would ask them to look at some of the information that is out there in the post offices in the communities, and to be more positive about the move. The single most important message is that pensioners will still be able to collect the same money from the same place at the same time, but they will have more choice when they do so.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Is not the truth that most post offices close because the postmasters or postmistresses retire, and it is then incumbent on the Post Office to find someone to take over? That involves a great responsibility for the local Member of Parliament. In Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, the local Member of Parliament liaises very closely with the Post Office, and tries to find someone to take over. If Opposition Members did that instead of coming along here and whingeing, there might be fewer post offices closing.

Mrs. McGuire

I could not have put it better myself.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

I know that, given the way things are going for the Government, the Minister will have given some thought to how, where and when her benefits will he paid in retirement. Does she appreciate, however, that Scots are increasingly finding it easier to open a bank cash card account than a Post Office card account? What exactly is the Scotland Office doing to preserve the future of these vital small businesses throughout Scotland, to which the right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) referred? Do she and the Secretary of State consider the key target of Government policy to be the maximisation or the minimisation of benefits being paid through post offices?

Mrs. McGuire

Speaking as someone who collected her family allowance through the post office every week on the button for many years, I have a strong commitment to the continuing service that the post offices provide. May I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, as recently as last week, I spoke to Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions to highlight some of these concerns, and sought the reassurances that he seeks. The reality is, however, that people are voting with their feet in terms of the collection of benefits. More and more people are moving towards bank transfers, and we are trying to ensure that those people who are outside the banking system are brought into it. I would have thought that he would have supported that.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

What would the Minister say to the pensioner in my constituency who received information from the Department for Work and Pensions regarding her pension, found the small part that referred to the Post Office card account, phoned the helpline and asked about opening such an account, and when it was discovered that she had a bank account, was pressed to have her pension paid into that account, rather than at the post office? Why do the Government seem so hell-bent on transferring business from post offices to banks?

Mrs. McGuire

One of the aims behind the move to the new banking system is to end financial exclusion. [Interruption.] Having asked a question, the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) ought at least to listen to the answer. The Department for Work and Pensions helpline is trying to guide people to the account that would be best for them. In some circumstances, the Post Office card account may not be the best option for a pensioner. I am sorry that hon. Members are seeking to pursue a panic agenda on the move to a far simpler system for paying benefits.