HL Deb 27 February 1980 vol 405 cc1331-6

2.50 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 plan to close down a large number of rural post offices throughout the country; and if so, how elderly people in rural villages will be able to draw their pensions.


My Lords, no. The Government made very clear in another place on 19th February that they are determined to preserve the sub-post office network.


My Lords, I must admit that I am very surprised by the definite Answer that the noble Viscount the Minister has given. Most people in the Post Office think that the rural post offices will be closed. Are the Government going forward with altering the payments of social security to the people in the villages and putting it on a fortnightly basis or a banking or Giro basis?


My Lords, this anxiety, which my right honourable friend fully understands, stems from one of the many inquiries carried out by the Government with the advice of Sir Derek Rayner to look for economies in every area of Government activity. In the report (which has not yet been published) my right honourable friend made it clear that Sir Derek and the staff who examined this situation looked at the economies that might arise from payments fortnightly rather than weekly, and also studied the effect of allowing those who wanted to use bank accounts—and the number of the bank accounts, as noble Lords will know, is rising—to do so. Quite big savings are potentially possible. The cost of the administration of social security as a whole is £750 million per annum, and of making the payments is £250 million per annum. But this in no way means that decisions have been taken; and, after publication, my right honourable friend will consult with all interested parties, including the sub-postmasters.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he would, in dealing with sub-post offices not in rural areas, give us some idea of how many people do draw their pensions, other than social security benefits, through sub-post offices? Could he also say whether the Giro system would be a help to any of them?


My Lords, I cannot answer my noble friend as regards the total number of payments made by different methods. The total of payments is £1,000 million in a year and that costs the £250 million. We are certainly looking at economies throughout the system, in the Crown offices as well as in sub-post offices. Also my right honourable friend made clear that one possible way of permitting a steady flow of business to go through the sub-post offices, including those in rural areas, would be the use of the Giro system, which could enable beneficiaries to draw what they wanted when they wanted it from the local post office, even, if necessary, more than once a week. This is one idea that is being studied.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that if he takes away from working-class people their weekly income of pensions or supplementary benefits there would be a terrible outcry in the country because working-class people live on their pensions by the weekly budget and any change from that would be disastrous?


My right honourable friend is fully aware of the situation, and the study has considered in great detail the reliance of different kinds of beneficiaries on the current system; but, in view of the size of the figures I have mentioned, I think it would be quite wrong to suggest that no changes should be studied and no economies looked at.


My Lords, I was delighted to hear my noble friend's original Answer and his reply to the supplementary. However, can he say whether the Government fully appreciate how much one village amenity such as a post office, or a school, or a shop, reinforces all the others? Do the Government understand that villages need a full set of amenities?


My Lords, I think the Government really do understand these things, not only because many of their members are very conversant with the enormous social and practical importance of the local post office, but because my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was actually the daughter of a sub-postmaster.


My Lords, the noble Viscount the Minister mentioned in his reply the retaining of "the network". Would he explain what he means by "network"?—because it is possible to maintain a network of post offices and at the same time to close a number of them.


My Lords, my right honourable friend, in deliberately using that phrase, wished at this stage of the inquiry, and before publication of the report and before consultation there-after, not to commit himself to no changes in the system. But he meant what he said in the other place: that substantially it is intended to maintain the existing network of sub-post offices.


My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that a party without vision perishes? Is he further aware that, after considering British village life, at another moment we talk about defence? In the last war the British villages were part of the defence of Britain, and any money spent on maintaining the amenities of British villages represents an expense that helps to increase the defence of Britain. This is a hidden factor in village life—that the City of London may live if some silly people get their way with a nuclear war.


My Lords, I think we are fully aware of all those points but there is a need, in the economic situation of this country at the moment, to look at every area of expenditure, because we have to economise.


My Lords, may I ask whether the noble Viscount is aware not only that the post offices which we have available are insufficient to cover the needs of aged people and people with children to bring with them to the post office, but that in cases where the post offices are situated so far from each other—less than a quarter of a mile but nevertheless so far from each other—people have to come down steep slopes in order to collect their pensions, and parents have to bring their children down those slopes because no other post office is available? Will he please inquire into that situation so that it may be remedied, even though at the present time there is an economic crisis?


My Lords, I think this kind of problem with the existing network is being constantly examined by the Post Office.


My Lords, the noble Viscount has referred in one reply to people who receive pensions having them paid through their bank. May I ask the noble Viscount whether he is aware that the four major banks will have made £1,500 million profit this year before tax? Many of the banks require their clients to pay bank charges unless their current account maintains a level of £100. If it is intended to encourage retired people to be paid through banks, perhaps the Government could ask the banks to look at that requirement.


My Lords, I think that the main part of the noble Lord's supplementary is really a separate question.


My Lords, may I ask the Government to consider one small social aspect of the weekly payment of pensions, particularly to elderly pensioners living alone, through village post offices? Most village postmasters and postmistresses are inveterate gossips, and if old Maggie Smith has not been in to collect her pension one week they will notice and will gossip about it to the neighbours. Somebody will then go to see whether old Maggie Smith is all right. This is a service, which is, of course, combined with the postman's knock and the milkman's delivery, which at present is being given at no extra cost to the Government. It seems to me that if any of these services were to be withdrawn, the Government would need to provide social workers to go and visit elderly people who are living alone, every day or very regularly, to make certain that they were all right. This would be very expensive and very unwelcome, because the elderly people would consider them to be Government busybodies nosing into their own affairs, and I hardly see that there would be very much saving.


My Lords, may I just say to the noble Lady that I have never known a village where the daily movements of every inhabitant are not known to every other inhabitant. I think that the risk of old people living on their own and not being discovered is far greater in the towns.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount the Minister—and I must declare an interest at the age of nearly 82—whether he can give us an assurance that nothing will be done to prevent people from drawing their pensions week by week?


My Lords, I cannot give that assurance in those terms. I have already drawn the attention of the House to the debate in the other place and my right honourable friend went over this ground many times. We are looking at the possibility of less frequent payments. We are also looking at the use of Giro which could allow more than weekly payments of the amounts required. What my right honourable friend has guaranteed is that when the study is published there will be full consultation.


My Lords, clearly this is a sensitive subject, but I wonder whether your Lordships might think that 12 minutes on one Question is sufficient. If so, we might pass on to the next.