HC Deb 26 April 2004 vol 420 cc628-9
9. Mr. James Graff (North Wiltshire) (Con)

How many people are still to be contacted about conversion to direct payment of benefits and pensions. [167685]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond)

The conversion of customers to direct payment is going well. More customers now have their benefits and pensions paid into an account than by order book and are benefiting from the greater choice about where and when they collect their money that direct payment gives them. Of the 10.2 million customers that we have contacted so far, more than 70 per cent. have responded positively, and among pensioners and child benefit customers the proportion is nearer 80 per cent. We shall contact the remaining 4 million over the next few months. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the measure is a major step forward in the Government's fight against financial and social exclusion.

Mr. Gray

I am grateful for the Minister's response, but it was not entirely clear. He spoke about pensioners responding positively. Does that mean that they said they want their pensions to be paid directly into bank accounts? Is he saying that a total of 80 or 90 per cent. of all benefit payments go directly into bank accounts? If that is the case and if, by his logic, that is a success, does he not have concerns about rural post offices such as the Kington St. Michael post office, which I opened in my constituency recently and which will have little hope for the future?

Mr. Pond

It is true that pensioners and others are voting with their feet about direct payment. Some 89 per cent. of new pensioners are opting to have their pensions paid into an account, as one might expect. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are committed to the post office network, especially in rural areas. That is why we are putting £2 billion into the network, including £450 million to protect rural post offices such as the one that he mentioned in his constituency. We are committed to that and we are doing something about it. What a shame that more post offices closed when the Conservative Government were in office.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP)

Is the Minister aware that later this week there is likely to be a further round of post office closures in Scotland, largely as a result of the transfer to direct payment of benefits? How many more post offices does he expect to close if he is successful in strong-arming the remaining 4 million recipients into direct transfer?

Mr. Pond

The future of post offices depends on their ability to provide a full range of facilities for the communities that they serve. That includes banking and financial services. In the past year alone, there have been 25 million banking transactions through post offices. It is through the expansion of such services that we will be able to maintain the network, which is so valuable to all of us, and to which we all want to pay tribute. But we cannot hope that the post office network will remain there when people are, as I said, voting with their feet, regardless of what the Government do in terms of promoting direct payment.