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Post Office Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:38 pm on 15th May 2002.

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Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 3:38 pm, 15th May 2002

I see that the Secretary of State is looking both mystified and negative. I hope that she will be able to reassure the House that the report to which I referred is completely wrong. However, the version given to me by people close to the project is that the Government propose to introduce a system called UK Online. I am not a computer buff—other Members may be more familiar with the significance of this—but UK Online is the Government portal for accessing Government information. It does not have the GP service, the advisory service or the transaction work. If the Secretary of State does not accept this version—judging by her body language, she does not—I hope that she will reassure us that it is completely wrong. As a result of talking to people close to the project, many post office employees and people in the network have been persuaded that it will happen. I sincerely hope that they are wrong and, from a sedentary position, Ministers seem to suggest that that is the case.

The other, very important, part of the package is the idea of the universal bank and the use of alternative facilities by which people could be paid cash at the post office—a combination of the post office card account, agency facilities for people who have bank accounts and the basic bank account. The importance of this has always been to honour the Government's promise that people should be paid in cash. Whether that would provide a large amount of replacement income was never clear, but perhaps we shall receive clarification on that point today.

Information is available about what the new system could mean for customers. A very good academic study has been carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions. Elaine Kempson and Claire Whyley have performed a detailed analysis of post office customers, what they can cope with and what they expect.

To summarise a complicated study, there are essentially three groups of people who use the network. About 40 per cent. will have no problem with automated credit transfer. They are fully familiar with banking—they use banks, they will not be greatly inconvenienced by the new system and the money will be paid into their normal bank account. These are mainly people who receive child benefit and who are mobile. ACT will not present them with a problem, but it will present the post office with a problem, because those people will, in all probability, stop using their post office branch. That figure of 40 per cent. represents a lot of people—about 8 million.

Another 30 per cent. of people have no problems coping with the ACT idea—they know about banking and have bank accounts—but are very attached to the post office. These are the younger pensioners who may be rather conservative in their habits. They find it convenient to use the post office and want to continue to do so. They want the choice of using the post office, even though they would be perfectly able to use a banking arrangement. If those people are to be accommodated within the new system, there needs to be an efficient arrangement whereby the agency banking, which I believe has been worked out, operates in full. Will the Minister explain how people who want to use the post office as a bank to cash their money will be able to do so?

The technology involved is complex: it means marrying the Horizon technology, which the Government inherited some years ago, with the new technology of the banks. How will that mesh? We are talking about 10 months, which is a short time away. We need reassurance that the system will work and that that 30 per cent. of customers will continue to be able to use the post office as a banking facility without being steered away from it.