Sub-post Offices

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 12th April 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Trade and Industry) 6:45 pm, 12th April 2000

This is the second debate on this issue today; the first was in Westminster Hall this morning, when I heard several constructive contributions. During this afternoon's debate, we were asked—at least twice—to read the Hansard report of the speech made this morning by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). I commended the work of the right hon. Gentleman. I also pointed out that he was a politician of ability and effectiveness—that is obviously why he no longer sits on the Opposition Front Bench.

Furthermore, I noted that the right hon. Gentleman understood the arguments on this matter because the NFSP had held two previous, well-attended rallies at the House. As a member of the Communication Workers Union, I worked shoulder to shoulder with the NFSP on the Post Office Users National Council, so I know that the federation is a very effective organisation.

Those rallies were held in the early 1980s and the early 1990s; both were about ACT—as was the rally today. As this is an Opposition day debate, and as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred to the history of the Conservative party on this matter, we shall make the same point this afternoon that we made throughout this morning's debate: the Conservatives introduced ACT, for the first time, in the early 1980s.

The NFSP held a rally at which its members made several demands. First, they said, "No ACT." Secondly, on the back of the Rayner report—commissioned by the then Conservative Government—they said that pensions should not be paid fortnightly. Thirdly, they said that child benefit should not be paid monthly, but should continue to be paid weekly. The rally was most effective. The Government rejected the federation's arguments on ACT and on monthly payment of child benefit and went ahead with ACT.

The next rally was held in the early 1990s—when the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden held office—over the extension of ACT. Not only did the previous Government introduce ACT—they extended it in the early 1990s to cover benefits such as those for unemployment and disability. The federation argued against extending ACT and the right hon. Gentleman advanced many arguments—recorded in Hansard—in its favour.

The right hon. Gentleman argued that ACT was an especially effective and secure form of payment. He argued: People are increasingly accustomed to receiving payment into their bank accounts: 70 per cent. of claimants have bank accounts, and many find payment into their accounts more convenient and safer.—[Official Report, 19 May 1993; Vol. 225, c. 259.] He advanced further arguments on the benefits of ACT.

As a result of that NFSP rally—in which I took part—the right hon. Gentleman introduced the well-intentioned benefit payment card. We can forget all the Conservative hype and all their poor attempts at political point-scoring. "Why did the benefit payment card scheme collapse? Why cannot we return to it?" was a question put by the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister's questions this afternoon.

We tried hard to continue that system. The most instructive information available on the matter is in a report from the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which pointed out that, since 1 May 1997, the Labour Government had probably tried too hard to rescue the system—to pull the fat out of the fire. However, the Committee was extremely critical of that disastrous PFI—it was a turkey of a PIF. The Trade and Industry Committee made four points, on which we are still awaiting a report by the National Audit Office to the Public Accounts Committee.

However, the essential facts are as follows. The benefit payment card collapsed. We had to rescue the computerisation of the Post Office, and we have taken that forward. As a result, 5,000 post offices are already computerised, and by spring 2001 the whole network will be online under the Horizon system.