Sub-post Offices

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:29 pm on 12th April 2000.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 6:29 pm, 12th April 2000

This is the third time that I have spoken about this subject today, something that I have in common with other hon. Members present. I shall take just two or three minutes at most. I wish to make one practical point, which has become clearer and clearer during the day. It has not yet entered the official doctrine of the Minister and his colleagues.

It is now almost five years since the swipe card system was first proposed. I have no knowledge of what went wrong with the administration of that system in the later years of its implementation, but clearly something did. In those five years, there has been a technological revolution. The Minister will be as aware of it as any other hon. Member present. Among other things, the extension of asymmetric digital subscriber lines and the presence of internet technology and IT-based solutions make it almost inconceivable that there should not now be available a simple and cheap variant of the swipe card arrangement, with or without cards, which would enable sub-post offices, with or without direct connection to the Horizon project and perhaps personal computer-based instead, to deliver cheaply and effectively the benefits and pensions that the Department of Social Security wishes to deliver at about the same cost as was originally envisaged.

I suspect that the way in which the DSS has traditionally gone about business precludes an approach that would work. However, the Minister is not at the DSS but the Department of Trade and Industry. He has the chance, through the Post Office, to adopt a modern solution that uses the technological revolution. The costs of installing remote computer networks have fallen not by half or a quarter but by perhaps 90 per cent. in the past five years. Whatever it would have cost then, it must be vastly less now.

I apologise for repeating the cri de coeur, but if the Minister will just give himself a little more time, personally take charge through the Post Office and remove from the hands of the DSS the means of implementing the changes on a cheap, cost-effective basis, we can get over the problem. We can find a way through that will preserve our networks and a system that enables people who are vulnerable and not particularly sophisticated to collect their benefits over the counter in existing sub-post offices throughout our land. Everyone will then be very happy and I promise the Minister that I meant what I said this morning in Westminster Hall. I will be the first to construct a statue to his memory if he manages that.