HL Deb 03 April 1979 vol 399 cc1788-91

2.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will study the feasibility of a scheme whereby the stamps now separately available towards payment of television licences, water rates and telephone, gas and electricity bills could be replaced by stamps valid for any of these purposes, available wherever the separate stamps are now available.


My Lords, following the report received from the National Gas Consumers' Council, the Government are already examining the feasibility of a common energy stamp, which would be available at post offices and sub-post offices as well as the industry showrooms, for the payment of gas and electricity bills. My right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy has recently written to the British Gas Corporation and the Electricity Council asking the industries to re-examine this issue. The suggestion of an extended scheme with stamps which could also be used for the payment of telephone bills, television licences and water rates is an interesting one which merits further study.


My Lords, I am much obliged for that very encouraging reply. Might not this wider use of savings stamps create a very well worthwhile fund which could be invested at rates of interest which might well cover the administrative costs of the scheme?


My Lords, I do not want to mislead the House or the noble Lord, but I would point out that there are quite formidable problems to be faced. First of all, there is the administrative problem, and the more common the stamp the greater the administrative problem; but, having had many years' experience in the handling of stamps where one department sells stamps for the benefit of another, I can say from practical experience that, with good will on all sides, those difficulties can be overcome. Secondly, there is the question of costs, and, in my opinion, costs are generally grossly underestimated. The service wages are now fairly high compared with what they were a few years ago. One of the authorities concerned estimates that the cost of this system would be £3 per annum for each customer using stamps. How accurate that is I do not know, but it shows that a cost has to be borne by somebody. Against that, one has to set off the fact that the money is received in advance and is interest-free, there are less arrears, less bad debts, and fewer disconnections. All those factors have to be taken into account.

Then there is the third difficulty. If a scheme of this kind were embarked upon it would be necessary to amend the Post Office Act 1969. At the present time the Post Office can carry on agency counter business for only the national Government and local government. For it to be able to do so for nationalised industries would require an amendment of the Act.


My Lords, what is the objection to using money for these purposes?


My Lords, we prefer that money should be used, but we are thinking of those people who receive so little by way of income that they cannot afford to save up. We help them to save up by the use of stamps.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether, in introducing this scheme, he will hold a discussion or discussions with the postmasters' or sub-postmasters' association? I hope he will.


My Lords, I am sure that all the interested parties, including those mentioned by my noble friend, will be consulted.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the fact that, as a rule, electricity, gas and water bills are paid by the husband sending a cheque, and that if the system was switched to the use of stamps then those stamps would in most cases be bought by the housewife out of her housekeeping money; and would this not lead to domestic trouble in many cases?


My Lords, a large proportion of our working-class population do not have a bank account. It is those people whom we have in mind.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, if this scheme was introduced, it would be of enormous benefit to the elderly, to the disabled and to the people I think the Government probably have in mind at this time? Is he further aware that for the last five years, to my certain knowledge, the Gas Consumers' Council have been pressing for the sale of these stamps by the Post Office? Is he also aware that the only reason why such a scheme was not introduced at least four years ago was excessive charges by the Post Office?


My Lords, I will deal first with the last point, excessive charges. I have had practical experience in this matter and I would say that it is not necessarily a matter of excessive charges by the Post Office; it is that other people underestimate the costs. That is my experience. We have to bear in mind that somebody must pay the costs. As to the rest of the questions which the noble Baroness has put, I would say that experience in connection with television licences, where 15 per cent. of the whole licence money is paid by stamps, shows that there is a demand. Secondly, experience in Northern Ireland, where electricity bills can be paid by stamps, shows that the place of preference is the post office; 98 per cent. of all stamps sold for electricity purposes in Northern Ireland were bought at post offices, despite the fact that the stamps were also sold by the showrooms of the industry concerned.

Viscount ECCLES

My Lords, will the Minister not agree that what matters is how much we have to pay for these services? Can he tell us how soon after the election the rates for gas, electricity and water will go up?


My Lords, it depends on which Government is elected.