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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 Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (e-Commerce & Competitiveness) 3:38 pm, 15th May 2002

The hon. Gentleman anticipates the point that I was about to make. Simultaneously with the commercial negotiations that are being taken forward with the major banks, the Government are now developing a detailed migration and marketing strategy for the transition to ACT. The emphasis of the ACT migration and marketing strategy will be to ensure that each customer has the best account for his or her circumstances. Conventional and basic bank accounts offer more services and do not have the limitations of a post office card account, so they are likely to be the best option for certain people.

Our operational assumption as we progress universal banking services—the hon. Member for Twickenham alluded to this point—is that about 3 million benefit and tax credit recipients will open a post office card account, but I reiterate that there will be no cap on numbers or eligibility criteria for such an account. The choice of 3 million people as our operating assumption reflects the fact that that is broadly the number of current benefit claimants who are without a bank account that is capable of receiving payments by ACT. I know that a number of points have been made about that issue, but it is worth pointing out that, in accordance with our desire to advance social inclusion, we are keen for people to move from a sector that is unbanked and into the banking sector so that they can enjoy the other benefits that currently fall only to people in that sector.

I regret that the hon. Member for Twickenham talked down the urban post office network. In preparing for this debate, I noted that he was quoted on 17 December in The Birmingham Post as asserting without any apparent evidence that there was a serious threat to basic services such as house-to-house delivery, the uniform tariff throughout the UK and the network of sub-post offices. Those remarks strike a very clear contrast with the words of Colin Baker, general secretary of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, who dismissed as "rubbish" recent newspaper reports of mass post office closures. Regrettably, such newspaper reports appear to be precisely those on which the hon. Gentleman relied for his speech.