HL Deb 14 July 2003 vol 651 cc620-1

2.41 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many benefit recipients have opted for Post Office card accounts since the introduction of the direct payment programme.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, as of 23rd June 2003, 430,000 customers have opted for a Post Office card account.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister. When the Government decided to change the system of payments for benefits, they said that those who wished to receive cash payments across Post Office counters could continue to do so. Is the Minister aware that many such customers are finding the system of opting for cash accounts to be extremely difficult, very bureaucratic and time consuming? Will the Minister examine ways of achieving a level playing Field, so that those who wish to have cash across the counter can do so?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the introduction of the Post Office card account has been extremely successful. Everybody who has one can get cash over the counter. I have also looked into the question of the forms that have to be filled in, and the form for the cash account is, for once, admirably clear and simple. I cannot see that it would prove difficult except in the very small minority of cases of people who have difficulty in using a PIN machine. We will take account of those people with a rule of exception later on.

Earl Russell

My Lords, did not the Minister gave an excellent impersonation of Dr Pangloss? I also draw his attention to a further declivity in the playing field, which is the growing programme of closure of urban post offices—most recently, that of Gladstone Park in Brent, in my constituency. As mobility is not the most conspicuous characteristic of the old, does he agree that that is further tilting the playing field against the use of post offices? Does the whole story cast any light on the question whether the commercial freedom of the Post Office is in fact compatible with its universal service obligation?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I was not trying to imitate Lord Pangloss. It is dangerous ever to assume that a computer system will not break down very shortly, but in this case, due to sensible procedures on the part of the Post Office of introducing the system carefully and slowly, it is working. What the Government always said, which is that people would be able to get cash over the counter, is exactly what they are able to do.

Urban post offices are a different issue, but even with the closure programme, the distance that people will have to travel is still in most cases perfectly reasonable.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, is it not the case that 45 per cent of pensioners are yet to respond to the Government's invitation? Is it not very important that benefit recipients—especially pensioners—should be fully aware of the Post Office option, because of the way in which credit rating agencies make it extremely difficult for anyone it has not had a bank account and has never borrowed to open a bank account?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, in fact, 57,000 people have already opened Post Office card accounts, which is running ahead of the operational figure projected by the Post Office. It was thought that about 3 million people would eventually use Post Office card accounts; it looks as if that figure will be considerably higher. That shows that there is no bias in the system, as Postwatch found when it analysed the system.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, I agree that we must move forward into the 21st century and believe that the majority of older people can, or can learn to, cope with IT and PINs, but I have some concerns. Precisely how will the new system cope with housebound older and disabled people, but who may have different people every week—casual appointees from their family, volunteers or care agency temporary staff—collecting their money? How quickly will the department be able to deal with forgotten PINs and lost payment cards?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, there is already a problem for people who are housebound—that of the appointment of agents, which is similar in both the current and new situations. That is a difficult problem, but one capable of solution.

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